The Roar
The Roar

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The next Hearthstone expansion won't need a bunch of new keywords to still mix things up

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5th November, 2018
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BlizzCon 2018 has come and gone and, while a number of the biggest esports events of the year reached their conclusion at convention, it was also an opportunity for the next updates for many top titles to be unveiled.

One such update we got was Rastakhan’s Rumble, the newest expansion for immensely popular esports title Hearthstone – which is due out on December 5 (Australian time).

We had the opportunity to speak with lead final designer, Dean Ayala, about what to expect from the new card set.

In part one of this two-part interview, we discuss the set’s origins and new mechanics – including why having just one new keyword doesn’t mean there aren’t more innovations.

The Roar: How long has this set been in development for and what was it like to work on?

Dean Ayala: Well, I think most sets are generally, from the time of inception to where we’re writing names on whiteboards and we’re trying to figure out what the expansion should be, from that point to the time we ship is usually around a year.

It’s probably been a little over a year now since we’ve been really talking about doing this specific expansion, but the idea of trolls and going back to playing stuff Zul’Gurub stuff like that and World of Warcraft having trolls as just like a core piece of Warcraft fantasy – it’s something that we wanted to do for a long time.

It’s been in development for about a year now, trying to figure out what is the actual theme. [We thought] ‘is it more traditional tribal fighting, war sort of thing?’ but we opted to go for more of a gladiatorial combat, like arena sports style environment with fans and cheering and that side of things. It feels more Hearthstone to us.

The Roar: Definitely.

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Dean: It’s more the light-hearted side of troll combat.

The Roar: Yeah, for sure. With The Witchwood and The Boomsday Project, I guess when I saw those sets and saw, whether it was Echo or Magnetic, I thought you’d had mechanics in your mind for a while and then found a theme that fit, but it really seems like you guys actually think of the theme first and then the mechanics come to fit.

Was that the case with this expansion as well?

Dean: Yeah, I think usually for expansions the theme generally comes first.

Sometimes when we’re trying to design individual cards, we will have an idea for a card and then try to find a character that fits that mechanic. But when we’re talking about what set do we want to do, it almost always comes from the place of what kind of stuff is exciting for the art team and everyone on the entire team to work on.

Individual card mechanics is something that designers sort of fiddle with more than most other people on the team. We try to get a good gauge of ‘what is the engineering group and the production group and the sign group and our group and what are we all excited to work on?’ and generally, when we are talking about that it comes from more of ‘what is the story and the theme and the characters?’ and that sort of thing.

The Roar: Sure. Obviously this is a very troll-heavy expansion, and it’s almost like, if The Boomsday Project was a Goblins vs Gnomes revisit, this is almost like a Grand Tournament revisit – just from a thmetic point of view.

Why trolls now? What was the thought process behind bringing that back to Hearthstone at this time?

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Dean: I wish there was a more exciting answer than it’s just trolls, the general characters.

I don’t know if you’re playing World of Warcraft at all right now, but the Horde side of World of Warcraft is very similar – you will see a lot of crossover in characters from World of Warcraft that are going to be cards characters in Hearthstone. It’s really cool to us.

I think probably the same thing for the World of Warcraft team. It’s going to be the idea of trolls and all their kingdoms and history that they have in Warcraft. The idea to do an expansion around that has always been exciting.

It’s just been a matter of ‘when is the right time?’ and, I think you’re right, we probably wouldn’t have done it very soon, at least this version of trolls very soon after Grand Tournament because there’s obviously some crossover there.

It’s just something that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time. There’s not really a deeper explanation for it other than that.

The Roar: Cool. Obviously I’ll have no luck trying to get you to talk about what’s not been revealed yet so let’s just delve into what we do have.

Obviously, Overkill is a new keyword that’s been unveiled – and it’s the only keyword we’ve seen so far, is it the only new keyword in this expansion?

Dean: We have some mechanics in the expansion and Overkill is one of the ones that we’ve talked about the most. I think that, [while] it’s not really a new mechanic, the idea of all the Spirits having stealth for one turn is [also] something different.

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The spirits initially always had stealth and that turned out to be a huge balance problem, because we could have balanced those cards but they would have all had to be like seven, eight, nine mana and when they are like that, then dying to things like Stampeding Kodo – the game play was really off.

Then we also tried versions without stealth, but they just had really high health. There was no stealth on them, but they were difficult to get rid of because they had 10, 12 health – but then they just become targets to buff.

Then you’re just kind of beating the crap out of people with spirits, which kind of is like not exactly matches the fantasy of what we were looking for there.

The solution that we came up with was stealth for one turn. The idea of doing stealth for one turn, it’s different than stealth in a way that I think is kind of confusing.

Every class will get one of these Spirit cards – and they’ll have great deckbuilding potential.

It’s like, ‘what does that mean exactly? Does that mean as soon as my turn ends or?’

A lot of times when we’re trying to do even something very close to an existing mechanic, we still tend to key word that sort of thing.

We felt like in this instance that using stealth for one turn was understandable enough and it fit all of our goals gameplay-wise that we decided to work with it.

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Overkill is really interesting for a lot of other different reasons. Generally in Hearthstone, when something has four health, you want to deal four damage to it because you want to be efficient with the way that you’re playing.

Overkill asks you to think in a different way. You want to be actually be sort of inefficient because you want that bonus.

The Roar: I was going to ask you next, how did Overkill come about and what was the thought process behind that key word?

Dean: Overkill was one that was pretty thematically fun. The idea that you know you’re in the arena, there’s a bunch of combat going on and it’s not good enough just to win, you’re also trying to win for the fans. The idea is that you’re going in and you can defeat this person or you can really, really defeat them.

Do way too much overkill, the fans cheer and when we got that idea in our head, we had a bunch of different iterations of overkill.

Sometimes it would just be when you Overkill do you just see more damage. Sometimes, we had Overkill on a bunch of spells and weapons and minions.

I think for the most part, Overkill is on minions now, but we splash a little bit of it on weapons and spell as well.

The Roar: Actually when I first read it, I thought Overkill, by definition, was ‘you may attack again’. But actually Overkill can give you a whole bunch of different bonuses?

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Dean: Yeah, yeah.

The Roar: That’s cool.

Dean: Overkill is just a whole bunch of different things. You can imagine like Sul’Thraze is the weapon that was revealed – it’s just Overkill you can attack again.

It’s interesting, with a lot of different cards, like anything that says ‘when you attack do something’ and that’s pretty good in that scenario and then also you might have Overkill cards that say, ‘Overkill: Draw a card’ or ‘Overkill: Do a bunch of damage to the enemy hero,” or something like that. There’s a lot of different possibilities.

The Roar: There was some incorrect information floating around about Sul’Thraze being a neutral weapon – it’s actually a Warrior one. Would giving every class a weapon just give certain classes too much utility?

Dean: Yeah. The first thing the pops into my mind is Druids have Twig of the World Tree, so if you were to give Druids another weapon then it would be taken and then they would break it, which would be kind of crazy.

Outside of that, it’s just a theme thing. When we are designing a bunch of cards for all the different classes, one of the things that we talk a lot about is how do we make the classes feel different than one another.

Sul’Thraze is, as the maroon tint suggests, a Warrior-only weapon.

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It’s like when you play against Rogue, it should be a different experience than playing against Warrior. There should be some differences there.

Maybe Warrior is about tanking up and being really defensive and Rogue doesn’t have all these options, but they can do all these really weird combos.

It’s like when you queue into a game and you see an opponent, you have general expectation for ‘okay, this is what this class is good at and bad at’ and weapons is one of the things that makes some classes feel unique.

Only a few classes get weapons so like in Kobolds & Catacombs, I think it was okay to break that rule because, thematically Aluneth and Skull of the Man’ari, they don’t really function like weapons in that normal sense.

They have effects, but you’re not attacking a bunch of minions with them. I think that you don’t lose a lot of the uniqueness that Warriors and Rogues and the classes that actually are weapon classes have.