An awful lot of change is coming Hearthstone's way over the next month or so. Not only are we readying ourselves for a massive new influx of cards with the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion, there's also the new Standard and Wild formats to contend with.
At a media event at Blizzard's headquarters last week, Chris Higgins had the chance to sit down with Ben Brode to talk about all of these changes, as well as the design philosophy for all of the new cards that are about to hit the metagame.
(Incidentally, if you're wondering how we're going to manage these changes at MetaBomb, we'll be running a separate version of our round-up of the best Hearthstone decks for both Standard and Wild formats. We'll add a PSA to the site nearer the time with how exactly we're tackling things - it's going to be messy for a while, but we'll get there!)
Can you first of all give us a quick run through of how the design team begins putting together an expansion like Whispers of the Old Gods?
It starts out basically on a whiteboard, or someone's brewing some idea they've been thinking about for a while. Then we come into a room with most of the design team plus Jason [Chayes, production director] and we say "OK, everyone throw out your ideas - what should the next expansion be?"
We write down on the whiteboard every flavour idea, and also the mechanical ideas we have. Sometimes it's a mechanical hook that we love - The Grand Tournament started that way. We just wanted to do a set about Hero Powers and then we ended up with Inspire - and all the other cards that affect Hero Powers - from there.
With Whispers of the Old Gods [WOTOG], it started with Old Gods. We were so excited to explore that space because it's such an epic meta-experience that Hearthstone can explore easily. We put a bunch of Old God stuff on a bunch of cards and you get that very high up, top-down view of the theme.
When were The Old Gods invoked as an idea for Hearthstone?
It was originally pitched probably two years ago, but it's the kind of thing that we keep revisiting. Every time we meet up to think about what's next for Hearthstone, somebody throws out "Hey, what if we do Old Gods finally?" But it was a little dark for right after Naxxramas, and we wanted to explore some different spaces and surprise people.
It's also a pretty epic space, and we wanted to space it a little farther out from the launch of Hearthstone. We were waiting for when the time was right to do this specific expansion, because so many of the team were excited about it from years ago.
This felt like the right time, it felt like it was a good contrast from what had just come before it - League of Explorers - and there was a lot of latent excitement about it. When we did those kinds of exercises on the board, this was by far the leader and we were really excited to jump in.
After you have the general setting, how do you translate that into cards?
From a concept, we then start designing individual cards and gameplay mechanics. What is WOTOG, what are the themes? Sometimes it's very easy, like when we talked Goblins Vs Gnomes, it was just "mechanical minions". It was one of the things that was very obvious straight away.
With WOTOG, we tried a lot of different things actually, and with many of them we ended up feeling like "This is cool, but let's go in another direction and save this thing for another set that we have an idea for later on - it's even better for that." Or, "Here's a cycle of cards that we think will be fun, but in play-testing it turns out it's not as fun as we thought it was going to be."
Or we have an idea that riffs off that idea, and that's even better and then there's a lot of iteration. We build out the entire set and then we go into what we call final design. From there it's a lot of play-testing, a lot of balancing, and a last-minute gut check if this is really fun - are we doing it right and do we need to change anything at that point?
We’ve seen a bit about how C’thun’s mechanic works. Do all the Old Gods have a similar set of cards that empower them?
All four of the Old Gods are in this expansion, and they're designed so that you are incentivised to build a deck around them. But C'thun has got the most support from other cards in the set, which is why we're giving you C'thun straight away, so that when you open cards that empower him you don't feel like you have to go and find that card - you've already got it. I don't want to say too much about the other Gods we've not shown yet for fear of spoiling them, so I guess we'll have to see.
The current turnover of top decks is low. Will Standard reduce the length of time some decks reign supreme for?
It's possible there will be more frequent churn. A lot of the cards we've seen in the Druid decks at the top of those meta reports have been at the top for years. That can be cool, but I'm excited about a metagame that shifts more frequently than that. I'm excited about seeing more new cards, more often.
I'm glad that we have both options, but this Standard mode will ensure that if Piloted Shredder is at the top of the meta for three years, it's gone after that, and we're going to see something different. There will be ways in which the Standard meta will be forced to evolve because of this rotating format.
Non-rotational cards like Force of Nature must be candidates for a re-do. How are you approaching that?
We have a goal of what Standard should be, and if we don't do something, we won't reach that goal because there are cards in Classic and Basic that are going to be in every deck forever. I don't think it's a problem for classes to have some go-tos. Fiery War Axe being a thing you can expect from a Warrior helps define that class - it's fine. But in the case of Druid, they have a lot of cards that are go-tos and that you are very unlikely to not play.
It means that most of the Druid deck is the same from year to year to year. I think that's counter to the goal of Standard, which is the reason why we're going to see probably the most significant number of nerfs that have happened in Hearthstone at any one time. That should happen near simultaneously with the release of WOTOG and the Standard format.
What is this goal that you have for Standard?
We have a format that you can play any card in [but] Standard should be a format that changes more frequently with new set releases. When we release new cards, they have to change the meta somehow, and as there's more cards to compete with those cards, these new cards either have to be better. Otherwise you're not going to play them, and nothing changes.
Standard should be a place where we can release new cards without power-creep in those cards making everything else obsolete. We can just release new cards with less to compete against and they are much more likely to change the meta. So if you want an environment that looks different every time a set comes out, I think Standard will be very appealing to you.
That's not necessarily what everyone wants. Some people have a deck they're very comfortable with and they want to keep using it, and Wild is great for that type of player. But for people who are seeing things over and over again and want something new, Standard will be good for that.
Classic cards will remain a part of Standard. Did you think of other ways to counter their popularity other than through nerfs?
We talked through a lot of different options, and this is the one that we felt had the most upside right now. For both brand-new players and returning players who have some foundation, they can hop into the new format with some amount of it being understandable and familiar to them. But I don't know if it will be the right thing to do next year or the year after that, or after that.
We're trying this out and I think we'll learn a lot. It's a pretty new thing and we'll see how it goes. I'm planning on learning a bunch and we'll see how we adapt going forward.
Can a new card ever make the reverse journey, and achieve Classic status so that it is not rotated out of Standard?
I think that's interesting to think about. We don't have plans for that right now, but I think it's important that we're constantly analysing how Standard and Wild feel and whether or not they're succeeding at the goals we set for them. And if they're not, what are the things we can be doing to make them hit those goals?
What we learn from seeing them in the wild - in the live environment I mean - will help us make the right decisions going forward. This is definitely the type of thing that is so new for us that I would not be surprised to see us try something else in the future. This is a big change and we're excited to see how it works.
Let's talk about one of the new cards: Corrupted Healbot, What's the utility of a card like that, given its high Mana cost?
There are cards that we intentionally push high on the Mana curve. We really want fun, narrow cards to be the most powerful. I think that in some ways it's unfortunate that Dr Boom is as powerful as he is, because he's able to be played in so many different types of decks that you see him too often.
If he was a Warrior Legendary, you would see him a ninth of the time that you see him now and that would be fine. Power-level-wise, he's not so far above the curve that it's awful, it's just that he's far enough above that you see him too much. That's my biggest beef with Dr Boom.
We'd like class cards to be powerful, we'd like narrow cards like Reno Jackson to be powerful. Corrupted Healbot is narrow in that he's not good in aggressive decks at all, because healing your opponent for eight is something you don't want to do. He is better in defensive decks, in the same way that Zombie Chow is better in those types of decks as well.
He isn't a class card - usually those are slightly more powerful - but if you can get off a combo with Auchenai Soulpriest he can be really devastating, so I expect players to experiment in that direction as well. He's the type of card that I think is fun to experiment with, so he may not seem obviously powerful at first glance, but I'm curious to see if players can figure out exactly how powerful he is in the right deck.
Is that the overall theme of this corruption mechanic - creating bizarro reverse versions of cards that are already useful, and then challenging players to find a use for them?
We've only seen six cards so far - so it's hard to draw conclusions from just that - but I don't think so. I think it's fun to do drawbacks, because I think it's fun to try and avoid those drawbacks or turn them into bonuses. I think that's a fun deck-building challenge.
But it's not fun for every type of player, it's fun for a certain type of player who likes that sort of thing, and we make cards for all different types of players. I think there will be fun things for everybody in WOTOG.
There's the Cultists, and cults worshipping the Old Gods - we're exploring all of that as well. There's tons of spells, and weapons and some other cards there that are going to do a lot of crazy different things in WOTOG. This twisted versions of old minions thing is just super-charming, it's really fun to think about what it means to be a corrupted version of something. Does it mean a couple of tentacles and more eyeballs? Or does it mean the Corrupted Healbot where he has healing syringe machine guns - that's a fun twist on a character that we remember.
Designing these twisted versions has been super fun for us, and we've also put in some baseline minions in the neutral card pool to explore new vanilla designs. Chillwind Yeti is an interesting card to choose between that and other cards because he gets a little more stats for his mana cost. So we have some simple minions that just have a keyword or two, and we really had fun going nuts on the flavour for those cards.
A lot of the corrupted minions are that sort of thing and also there are original minions of the Old Gods. There's a lot of stuff in there and I think people will find something to appeal to them once they've seen more than seven cards.
What are the proportions of the Class/Neutral split?
It will be very similar to the Grand Tournament. I'm very excited to see what players do with all the class cards. Often they're very unpredictable, so we'll see how it goes!
You've said that there is no mechanic that will turn minions into corrupted versions of themselves. Is that an avenue you'll never go down?
The theme of corrupting minions is a theme we're exploring a little bit in WOTOG, but the idea of turning a card into a specific other card is something we've done in the past with Polymorph: Boar. But when we start referencing cards that players don't know and that we can't fit the text on the card - that's the kind of thing we want to do sparingly and maybe only on Legendaries.
If we wanted to build a bunch of cards that specifically turned this card into a corrupted Healbot, we'd need to write out the text, because it's unlikely that you'll have memorised Corrupted Healbot by the time you see this other card that turns Healbot into Corrupted Healbot.
It's the kind of thing where Light of the Naaru is on the edge of what's acceptable, because Lightwarden wasn't a popular enough card that players knew before exactly what the text of that card was.
So that is maybe pushing past the edge of what we want to be doing, but we explored that area with that card and I think we're learning about what's right and how to reference another specific card and say "Summon it" or "Turn it into this". But I think as a mechanic it might be a bit much to introduce a bunch of new cards and then have these other cards turning into them.
So no cards with a Battlecry like "Turn all minions on the board into their corrupted versions"?
There's a lot of burden of knowledge there, knowing first every card on the board and whether or not it has a corrupted version, and also what happens when that corrupting effect takes place.
I don't think that's the right mechanic for us, no. I think you could do it in a more fun way, and we have some cool stuff in the set that we've not shown off yet. I like the idea of corrupting minions and turning them into something else - that's cool. We have a lot of fun stuff to explore on the theme of corruption. What does that mean, not just with corrupting minions but throughout the whole set? That's what the big theme of The Old Gods is.
What is the main thing you are hoping players will get out of WOTOG?
I hope that players enjoy this look into some deeper WarCraft lore, but through a Hearthstone lens that's pretty light-hearted and fun. It's an interesting blend of themes, because there's really dark eldritch horror but also "Pull up a chair by the hearth!"
So it was really fun trying to walk that tightrope between the two themes and I think we did an awesome job, and I'm just excited to see players experience that and see how it comes across.