We recently spoke to Hearthstone Lead Final Designer Dean Ayala about The Witchwood the latest expansion to one of the world’s biggest esports. In part two of this three part series, he discusses the new mechanics and keywords this set introduced to the game just over a week ago.
Yesterday, we spoke about how expansions are made and tomorrow, we’ll be learning about the origins of some of the set’s most talked about legendary cards.
The Roar: Let’s talk about the new mechanics we’ve seen in The Witchwood. We’ll start off with Rush, obviously, very similar to Charge. Tell us how and why that mechanic came about.
Dean Ayala: Sure, Rush is … well, I think one of the problems with Charge, I’ll say first, is that the idea that a minion can hop on the board and is able to immediately attack opens up a lot of interesting gameplay stats where you can … You’re sort of reacting to what your opponent does, otherwise they can just remove your minions forever.
But with Charge specifically, the idea that you could play a minion and then just attack face as soon as possible [is problematic] – and those cards combo really well with a lot of buff cards like Blessing of Kings and Windfury, and stuff like that.
So in order to make those cards at a power level that is reasonable, they can be balanced for going face, but they end up being really weak if you want to do any in-game trading, which is really unfortunate, because I think the cool and interesting part of Charge is that you can react to the stuff that your opponent is doing on board, even if you don’t have the spells available in your class to do so.
So, that’s the problem that we have with Charge and I think Rush sort of alleviates that and allows us to get the interesting part of Charge while still attributing enough power level to those cards that it makes it appealing to do that interesting thing where you’re trading and making favourable trades.
So that’s kind of how the mechanic came about, and then we playtested it a lot in gameplay and really liked it, so we decided to go with that.
The Roar: Fair enough. Is it fair to say that this is a mechanic that’s unlike Inspire or Adapt, so it’ll be around for the long haul?
Dean Ayala: I think it is more likely at this time that it’ll be around than something like Inspire was. There’s nothing really wrong, in our minds, with introducing a mechanic and then not having it continue. Because I think, we’re going to release a ton of new mechanics over time.
Over the next ten years, there’s going to be lots and lots of new keywords out of Hearthstone. And I think that if all of those keywords were to stick around, and then, five years from now, you have a situation where there’s 35 active keywords, and you have to know all of them in order to play standard, I think that’s not really ideal, right?
The Roar: No.
Dean Ayala: So, it’s good for us to keep a limited amount of keywords in standard at any given time. So, just because we don’t bring something back doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t good or we didn’t like it. It’s just a matter of keeping the game accessible and keeping the right amount of keywords out there and available. That’s something that we try to keep a close eye on.
I think for Rush in particular, there’s a good chance that it will return at some point, but if it doesn’t, I don’t think that speaks to it being a poor mechanic or anything like that.
The Roar: That’s fair enough. Echo is a mechanic we sort of had a glimpse of with Unstable Evolution. Can you remember where the idea of this mechanic came from, and also was it the particularly difficult mechanic to balance?
Dean Ayala: The mechanic originally came from, we were trying to think of, in The Witchwood, what are some of the things that would happen in a creepy forest, and some of the words associated with what you would think about. We thought words like “mystery” and “spooky” and “ghost” and that sort of vibe, and we were starting to think along the lines of ‘what would a ‘ghost’ card do?’ because those are sort of cool words to say.
So without even having any understanding of what the mechanic does, we sort of went into it like, “What does ‘ghost’ do?”
Dean Ayala: We had a mechanic called ‘ghostly’, which is essentially, cards that would be added to your hand. So maybe there was a card that said “Battlecry: Add two ghostly 1-mana cards to your hand.” And what ‘ghostly’ was before, was, you had these cards in your hand that looked sort of like the Echoed version of them, but unless you claimed them that turn, they would just go away. They were just this thing you could do that turn only, or else that they would vanish.
The reason that we didn’t end up liking that very much was because, a lot of times the right thing to do would be to just play your minion and have no mana left over, because you needed to play the minion. So it was just sort of a sad moment where you would have all these cards and they would do this thing, but you would never end up playing the ‘ghostly’ versions of those cards.
So, we ended up changing the mechanic so it was always just a copy of itself, which made it a little more understandable and it made you wanna wait a little bit longer. So if you had the [Phantom Militia, 3-mana] 2/4 Taunt, you would try to wait a little bit longer in order to make that work.
I think a lot of times with Unstable Evolution, it makes you never want to cast it when you only have one mana and you want to have a bunch of mana left over.
So we had ‘ghostly’ for a long time which was a word that we really liked for The Witchwood, but I think ironically the whole reason we started that mechanic was because we wanted to call it ‘ghostly’, and then we ended up changing it to Echo because another one of our core tenets of creating keywords is that you should be able to read the keyword and have an idea of what it might do.
The Roar: That makes a lot of sense.
Dean Ayala: And so, Ghostly didn’t really do that. It’s like, you read Ghostly, I don’t think that you would assume what exactly that card does, and we thought Echo was a better word for that. Echo is sort of cool and creepy and has a similar vibe, I think, maybe not as cool, but it’s much more understandable.
So that was the whole path to us getting to where we ended up on making Echo as a keyword. And it was just really fun to do. It was a lot of tension on, “Do I play this two-mana Echo card on turn two because I need it, or do I wait until turn four, or can I wait until turn ten and get a lot of value out of it?”
We really enjoyed that tension and ended up going with it because of that.
The Roar: Fair enough. You’ve added a fewer cards to the expansion that have their attack and health swapped while they’re in your hand. Was this a mechanic you designed around a Human-Worgen sort of theme, or was it a mechanic that existed and then the Witchwood’s theme proved a good landing spot for it?
Dean Ayala: It was definitely [the former]. We wanted to do the Gilneas Worgen set, and it would be sort of silly, to us at least, to be like … well, we needed to have something that encapsulated the Humans that transform into Worgens.
So I think it’s an interesting mechanic that could have existed on something that wasn’t Worgen, but Worgen is a great fit for it. But we definitely ended up coming to that conclusion because we thought we absolutely had to have something that had the flavour of that Worgen-Human transformation. So it was definitely coming from that angle rather than the mechanics angle.
The Roar: Cool. Let’s talk about the odd only and even only decks, which are one of the hallmarks of this expansion. You’ve given players similar requirements in the past like ‘no duplicates’ or ‘no two-cost cards’ but this time it plays quite differently. What inspired you to give players tasks like this again, and what lessons did you learn from those other tasks that made you change it this time?
Dean Ayala: Well, I mean, it’s basically exactly what you said. We liked cards like Reno Jackson, Kazakus, like, the idea that you would go to your collection and think about how you build a deck differently. It’s not just you include the best cards, but, you see this huge payoff that you can have, but you need to figure out how to best do that without hampering your strategy too much.
So the idea of building a ‘no-duplicates’ deck was really cool so we tried to think like, what kind of ways can we do that. There was a bunch of different ideas that we had and odd and even was the one the we landed on, just because we thought that the idea of having a 1-cost hero power and the idea of having an upgraded hero power meshed really well with your deck being odd or even.
Just because, if you don’t have any 2-drops, what better things [are there] to do on turn two than use an upgraded hero power?
Something that I think that we learned from cards like Reno Jackson and Kazakus is that the core power behind doing the Reno Jackson thing is so you can play Reno Jackson and heal to full. I think something that we learned is that it can be pretty frustrating to go through all of that, jump through all those hoops to build that deck and then some games you draw this card and some games you don’t.
It can feel frustrating for both players, right? Because a lot of the time when you’re playing against a Reno deck, like a an aggro deck, it can feel like, “Well, they draw this card of they don’t.” It doesn’t feel like a lot of the decisions that you made matter as much as we would like them to.
So that’s why we decided to, with the upgraded hero powers, just trigger the effect at the start of the game and then balance everything else around that.
So it’s more about, this is the strategy that you’re go to at the start of the game, rather than, “Am I going to draw this card that pays me off for the big sacrifice that I made?” And I think that it worked out pretty well.
The Roar: I think some fans expressed concern with this mechanic coming in at a time when the card pool has thinned significantly. was this something you actually timed so people would have less going on and be able to give this mechanic some proper attention?
Dean Ayala: I don’t think so. It was a pretty cool concept and it played out really well. I think that we could’ve just as easily done it next set or the set after. I think it’s pretty easy to, well not easy, but easier for us to, say, if there’s balance issues – there aren’t right now – but if there was any balance issues with like, Odd Mage, or something like that, it’s pretty easy for us to not add a very powerful Odd Mage card.
We could probably figure out a way to make that same card with an even cost and adjust the power level at some point.
So I think if any balance problems do arise, we have that decision we can make. It’s probably a good idea that, if Odd Paladin is really good, that we don’t make the odd version of Call to Arms or something, which is a really effective card.
The Roar: Dear God no.
Dean Ayala: I think it would have worked in any expansion, but it’s something that we have to keep any eye on every time.