Blizzard has big plans for Hearthstone in 2021. The Year of the Gryphon will introduce three new expansions, each with its own mini-expansion, formulating a year-long narrative starring an all-new cast of characters. The underlying structure of the game will undergo a massive shift too, with the introduction of the Core set and new spell schools. And sometime later this year, a new Mercenaries mode will turn the familiar card game into a roguelike RPG.
Fresh off the presentation at BlizzConline, we spoke with senior game designer Alec Dawson and associate game designer Cora Georgiou about the plans for the coming year and lessons learned from past expansions. For more on Hearthstone and the Year of the Gryphon, check out everything we know about Hearthstone’s 2021 plans.
The Core Set is a pretty significant change. So I want to start by asking for some background on how you reached the decision to make such a foundational-level change to the game.
Dawson: Yeah. It was one of the things that we’ve been talking about for quite some time. I’ve been on the team for about three and a half years now and ever since I joined, it’s been a topic of conversation where I’d say, «When can we do it? How can we do it? What’s it going to take?» And the team’s really grown a lot of over that time as well. So we’re just in a really good place in terms of our team size to be able to take on a big project like this.
So I think we’ve been talking about this for quite some time. We realized we just want to make the first time player experience, you come in and you unlock cards, just much easier. I think for us, one of the biggest things over the past few years is that new players are coming into Hearthstone [wondering], «Where do I start, how do I begin, and what am I up against?» What sort of experience, what sort of collection are we putting them up against? And we want them to be able to build these decks a lot more easily and have decks that are more competitive too. So those are two of the biggest things driving this is just, we want players to be on a much higher starting block than they were before.
In interviews I’ve done in recent years, the key phrase that I kept hearing was «class identity,» a lot of which was based on the Basic and Classic sets. How did you tackle the Core set idea without compromising class identity?
Georgiou: It was actually a really good opportunity for us to make sure that the Core set aligns with what Hearthstone’s class identities are today. And I do think there have been changes to class identities over time, with the usual rotations to Hall of Fame and things of that sort. For instance, Priest used to be able to draw a lot of cards and we’ve cut down on that a bit in recent times. Shaman used to be able to generate a lot of cards. We’ve cut down on that also. So it was just a really good opportunity for us to, again, strongly reaffirm that these are the individual identities of our classes. These are their strengths, these are their weaknesses, and to make sure that that is reflected in the core set.
Dawson: And not only in terms of what’s been taken away, but also what’s been added, right? If you get Rogue, you might see a Burgle piece as that’s something they’ve been doing over the past few years, or you might see a bit more self-sacrificing Warlock. So some of the archetypes now define those classes and players have been gravitating towards over the past few years—we’re going to see a little bit of that in their base identity as well.
And this way you don’t have to re-introduce a Burgle mechanic every two years to make sure it stays a part of the identity.
Georgiou: Yeah. I mean, we’ve gotten questions over the years, certainly about functional reprints, other card games do those from time to time. And it’s not something that we’ve done yet. But with the Core set, if we want to explore Mechs for a year, we have a bunch of Mech cases from the past—maybe we bring back Mechwarper. Who knows? If we want to do dragons again, maybe we have some of those staple pieces that we can bring into the Core set for that year. That opens up more design space for us within the expansions.
How much variation can we expect in those yearly Core rotations?
Dawson: I think we haven’t hit the number exactly yet—we want to see how players react to the Core set and see what they like and what the usage rate is, things like that. Going forward, we’re probably thinking around, ballpark, somewhere between 30 and 35 percent. I think from year to year that could change, but I would expect a good base of it to stay the same from year to year.
Another big addition that surprised me was Spell Schools—basically spells as a tribe-like designation. That seems like it has a lot of design versatility. Were you trying to tackle a particular design obstacle?
Georgiou: Not necessarily an obstacle, but it was something that we’d thought about for a while and it just seemed like it was a really good time to do it. And it certainly does open up a lot of design space for us. Being able to create holy archetypes for priests, being able to create frost and fire archetypes and arcane archetypes from Mage and Shaman, and nature archetypes for Druid. It’s just a design space that we hadn’t explored before. And now that we’ve got these Spell Schools, we have the opportunity to do that. So you’re certainly going to see some of that in Forged in the Barrens.
It seems like it also lets you limit things so that they don’t get out of hand. Like, you already have Bru’kan, who has Nature Spell Damage +3. If you printed a general card that said, «Spell damage +3,» you could see that combo getting wacky real fast. But this way, it seems like you have finer control.
Georgiou: Exactly. We get to decide which spells are nature spells. We get to decide the exact reach of those spells, but it’s still certainly a very powerful card. I think in the materials you saw, that Lightning Storm has been typed as a nature spell. So lightning storm was spell damage plus three for four extra mana. That’s pretty good.
The new Frenzy keyword reminds me of Spellburst. Frenzy seems a little harder to trigger, without Warrior-like Enrage effects.
Dawson: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s harder to trigger. I think there’s still going to be ways you can do that. If you really want to get your Frenzy out, you might use Animated Broomstick, a card like that. Warrior will have ways, much easier ways I think, than some other classes of trading their Frenzy minions and getting all of their effects.
We just wanted to bring some of the focus back to board combat. Now you have to really think about, «Am I evaluating this trade differently because of the Frenzy ability?» versus just going face or taking what could be seen as the most optimal trade. You’re definitely going to consider the Frenzy ability a lot more now in terms of those board’s interactions.
Each expansion is planning to get its own mini-expansion. How do you make the selection of which cards go into the main expansion and then which ones you bring out in the mini-expansion?
Georgiou: That’s something that we internally have been trying to figure out. We know how to make a 135 card expansion, but making another 35 extra cards at the same time that are a slightly different theme is something that we haven’t done a ton of in the past. So we’ve experimented with a couple of different ways to do it, having one or two people break off to sort of tackle the mini-set while other designers are still working on the main expansion. We’ve considered doing both at the same time and we just have them separated in our spreadsheet that we keep track of our cards on. We’re just trying to figure out what works, what’s the best process for it. It’s still something that I think we’re looking to improve, but internally it’s been going really well and the reception for Darkmoon Races was really phenomenal. So we’re definitely excited to keep doing them.
Dawson: I think there’s something interesting about the mini sets in particular, where you get to introduce these mechanics in earlier expansions. Then in the mini expansion, you can make them a bit more complex than you would normally, because there’s a familiarity there. That’s something I think you may see going forward throughout the year.
How set are the cards when you release an expansion? Do you watch how the meta develops and tweak things to shake it up?
Dawson: We definitely do evaluate the meta for a little bit. After a few weeks, we’ll take a look at it; for example, saying, «Hey, so how’s Darkmoon Faire doing? What’s doing well?» Then we’ll take a look at the mini-expansion and say, «All right, are there any adjustments here that we want to make considering what’s live?» So we usually do that during our normal expansions as well. We’ll come back pretty late into the process and make little changes, push some levers up and others down a little bit. And yeah, we do that for the mini expansions as well.
The Tavern Pass got some pushback from fans. And the studio leadership said, «Hey, we messed up. We’ll do better.» What feedback did you take to heart from that and are we going to see anything different from the Tavern Pass going forward, aside from the general rebalancing that already happened?
Dawson: Yeah. Obviously, there was a lot of valuable feedback and we definitely took it to heart. I think from that starting point, it did need to get better. And that’s what you saw throughout the course of expansion. I think if we look at the entire expansion now, players can say, «Oh, wow, I really am gaining a lot of gold.» And I think going into Forged in the Barrens, you’ll see how much you did get during the Darkmoon Faire reward tracks. So I think that’s really great.
We’re also continuously trying to improve it as well. Right now, , we’ve been talking as a team about how we can add more things for you to have in Hearthstone. Our players talk about cosmetics of different sorts all the time. And we want to be able to add those too. So I think the reward structure should feel more varied and have just more for you to collect overall.
Georgiou: Yeah, we’ve got such talented artists on our team. Cosmetics are always something that we wanted to be able to pursue, but we just didn’t have a really great method to get them to our players before this. So this was always something that we had planned on continuing to develop and adding more worth for our players too. So we have some exciting stuff coming.
The disconnect from the fans seemed to be calculating the gold output without these planned special events, which were going to award extra experience. Did you wish people had stuck it out to see how that worked? Are you still planning to reintroduce special events?
Georgiou: We don’t know exactly what happened, but if we didn’t make it clear that this was going to be a better value for our players, then that’s on us. Our players shouldn’t have to do a bunch of complex math to realize that they’re not getting as much as they got before, especially when our intent with the rewards track was to noticeably give them more and was to make their quality of life easier. So absolutely, there was some miscommunication and some failures on our part there, for sure.
But we’ve learned from it and we’ve taken it to heart. And now going forward, clearly we have made improvements and we intend to continue to make improvements. Chinese New Year is going on right now and we’ve got some pack rewards there. And as we continue on throughout the year as well, yeah, we have plans for that.
Mercenaries seems like an exciting concept, but I’m having trouble picturing in my head what it actually looks like. Are you able to describe what happens in a Mercenaries match?
Dawson: We’re obviously going to be talking about it a bit later in the year, but you’ll be collecting a group of Hearthstone characters that you may know and love and leveling them up and taking them through different combats. I think they’d scroll through the map in the [trailer], so each time you go through one of those scenarios, it’s going to be different. So there are some roguelike elements there as well. It’s really focused on collecting and leveling up this team and then taking them through fights. That is your main core gameplay for that stretch. I think for us, when we look at Battlegrounds, look at Mercenaries, it’s still going to be pretty familiar to what Hearthstone gameplay is but there’s something almost in a different shell than you’ve seen before.
How deep do the RPG hooks go in Mercenaries?
Dawson: I think it’s a game mode that appeals to players that are going to find themselves diving into it in particular. It’s going to be something where you are going to see a ton of progression. It’s very progression-focused in that sense. Much more so than things in normal Hearthstone.
We showed the art pieces in the video, and they’ll be in ceremonies that are leveling up. So that scene sounds cool. It’s like, «Oh yeah, I can go from my level one Ragnaros, my little baby Ragnaros.» And then in the last stage, and then when you level that Ragnaros all the way up, it’s going to be giant and massive and have a lot more different abilities than it did when it started out. So stuff like that, I think is going to be really cool to see.
You’re introducing a year-long storyline with these Mercenaries characters, similar to Year of the Dragon. So what feedback did you take from Year of the Dragon? What prompted you to do the year-long story again?
Georgiou: Year-long narratives are something that we really like being able to tell because it can be somewhat difficult and somewhat limiting to tell stories within a card game. You only have so much space on a card to show an image and showing progression over time can thus be a little bit difficult. So with a year-long narrative, we have more ability to be able to follow that story over time and just show that progression. And that’s really what this year is entirely about. It’s about the progression of our Mercenaries. It’s about showing their growth and showing their stories. And so you will be following our five Horde Mercenaries and our five Alliance Mercenaries throughout the year across all three expansions.
And this is just sort of where they get their start, how they come together, what their backgrounds really are. And it was something that our players seemed to really enjoy with the Year of the Dragon. So we thought, «Hey, this would be a great opportunity to really stretch our narrative muscles and see what we can do with 10 entirely brand-new characters.»
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