What Is It Like Going Behind the Scenes With the Hearthstone Team? | IGN

It’s kind of absurd how far out the Hearthstone team works. When I first visited Blizzard in August 2019 to see what they were cooking up for a March 2020 announcement, they were already six months into designing Demon Hunter and Ashes of Outland.

At that point, the 16-odd weeks of initial design that are used to spin up a new set – and a new class, in this case – were very much in the rear vision mirror, and they were well into the 16-odd weeks of final design. Not only was I was able to log into a build of Hearthstone with a collection manager sporting a full collection of Demon Hunter cards and the Ashes of Outland set (many of which would, of course, change significantly or be replaced), but I was playing games with them – playtesting a meta that wouldn’t exist until April the following year. The Hearthstone team works so far ahead that it wasn’t just the Ashes of Outland cards that were new, but Descent of Dragons and Galakrond’s Awakening too!

The system works this way out of necessity – the logistics of production demand that several sets are being developed in parallel at all times. An expansion, after all, is more than just 135 card designs – it’s art for all those cards, golden animations, VFX and audio effects to give them punch when used, VO to be written and recorded, engineering hurdles to be overcome, a cinematic to be produced, localisation to be managed, single player content to be planned out, bugs to be quashed, marketing and PR plans to build out, launch events and other live services to be created, and so much more.

And what this long process – about 11 or 12 months for regular expansions, but closer to 14 months for Demon Hunter and Ashes of Outland – means is that the dev team is living in a world of multiple, ever-shifting future possibilities. Several sets all in various stages of development and at different levels of flux. It’s kind of mind-boggling, really.[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20dev%20team%20is%20living%20in%20a%20world%20of%20multiple%2C%20ever-shifting%20future%20possibilities.”]

And as a set’s release gets closer, it morphs from a web of interconnected possibilities into a stable structure; a defined plan that is largely locked in place. That also happens surprisingly early, but there’s still a fair amount of wiggle room.

In the case of Demon Hunter, for instance, the class’ identity was relatively set by the time of my first visit in August, but the implementation of those strengths and weaknesses continued to be refined until January. Initially, for instance, the team thought that Demon Hunter shouldn’t have any AOE, and would control the board through their ability to always be attacking and through single target removal, but that made having a Control archetype very difficult. Limited AOE had been implemented by the time I visited in August, but those cards – as well as the “big demon” package that comprised the spine of the Control archetype – were refined several times before the set was finalised.

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And when was that? The final balance pass was done in January, with the Descent of Dragons meta in mind and Galakrond’s Awakening kicking off. That pass is always done as late in the process as is possible.

Of course, the team had never added a new class to Hearthstone before, and there was one aspect of the whole development process that took a fair bit longer than they were hoping – and expecting. When it comes to a Hearthstone class, you see, its hero power is a foundational element – it’s a huge part of its identity and informs how the team will design for the class. And when it came to Demon Hunter, finding the right fit wasn’t easy. It changed again and again and again. And without a final hero power, none of the cards could really be finalised either.

For context, the goal was to have the hero power locked in by the end of initial design, but even by the time I visited in August 2019 – well into final design – the hero power I was testing had only been in the game for a few weeks… and didn’t survive for long after I left. The team continued to iterate and iterate, and only really locked the final hero power in by December – crazy late in the process.

From a selfish perspective, the fact that the team only landed on the final hero power in the eleventh hour made for a gripping development journey to follow. As I said, it’s so foundational, and so important to get right, that the stakes really were high. This is not the place to make a misstep. And to be honest, while the hero power I got to test in August was fine (+1 attack, usable twice) it was… underwhelming. It wasn’t the exciting new element for the exciting new class that I was expecting.[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20fact%20that%20the%20team%20only%20landed%20on%20the%20final%20hero%20power%20in%20the%20eleventh%20hour%20made%20for%20a%20gripping%20development%20journey%20to%20follow.”]

The ability to admit when something isn’t right is absolutely critical in game design, and while the constant hero power reworks made for a painful birthing process, it also ultimately led to innovation; to a smashing of the perceived notion that hero powers have to cost two mana. That one change alone helped Demon Hunter to feel really different and to really hit the class fantasy that the team were striving for. And in a broader sense, it was also reflective of a newly energised Hearthstone team.

This is a team, after all, that’s now far more prepared to take risks and shake things up; that will deliver on a long-forsaken dream – a new class; that will prototype and build out a new mode when someone has a cool idea – Battlegrounds. And now, entering into the Year of the Phoenix, this is a team that’s actively making Hearthstone more accessible for new and returning players, that has overhauled the ranked ladder, that has added duplicate protection to cards of all rarities in packs, and which has actually given the player base a proper roadmap for the year ahead. Hearthstone – six years in – is in good shape and in good hands.

Year-of-the-Phoenix-Roadmap What Is It Like Going Behind the Scenes With the Hearthstone Team? | IGN
Players have been asking for something like this for years.

Getting the chance to follow the development process really was a dream project, and as you might expect, I’ve come away with a ton of material. You’ll find a bunch of the video content we produced spread throughout this feature (but if you’re interested in getting a real sense of how Hearthstone is developed, start with How Demon Hunter Was Brought to Life and then watch How the Hearthstone Team Designed Demon Hunter), but I figured I should also publish a few additional quotes and tidbits of information that will be of interest to the community. Enjoy!

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Initial Design Isn’t Actually the Beginning

A small group actually spends about a month before initial design begins, brainstorming the expansion (and class in this case) and what its key features and themes could be. This “pre pre phase” also includes tooling – i.e. setting up a dev environment for a new “branch” (expansion) so that when initial design begins the bigger group can start playtesting ideas immediately.

The Team Felt It Was Time to Lean Back Into WoW

2019 told a very Hearthstone-centric story, so it made sense coming into 2020 for Hearthstone to lean back into World of Warcraft.

Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, August 2019: “We wanted to try going back to a core Warcraft story… We explore different options each time we start a new expansion, but Outland and Black Temple in particular really resonated with us a lot and fit well with the idea of doing a new class, so we went in that direction. The flavour for Ashes of Outland has evolved over time. Initially it was focused much more on Black Temple. We expanded it over time to cover most of Outland. We really like hitting all the nostalgia points of Burning Crusade for those who played it and it explores a very fleshed out, interesting world that’s a core part of Warcraft lore and history in a Hearthstone way.”

Hearthstone is Whimsical, But Its Heroes Are Taken Seriously

Ben Thompson, Former Creative Director, August 2019: “…when you look at Jaina or you look at Malfurion, there is a seriousness with which they’re handled… we don’t get too dark… but the idea is that these are your heroes…”

Illidan-1000-wins-IGN What Is It Like Going Behind the Scenes With the Hearthstone Team? | IGN
He’s not mucking around.

How Did the Team Find the Right Approach for Hearthstone’s Illidan?

Principal Narrative Designer, Dave Kosak, January 2020: “We’ve taken very serious characters from Warcraft lore in the past and put them into Hearthstone. Kel’Thuzad was just, like, way over the top, and turned him almost into a comic character. We just had a lot of fun with Kel’Thuzad. When it came time to bring The Lich King into Hearthstone, that was a struggle because if he was just telling jokes, like Kel’Thuzad, it definitely would have lost what Arthas is. So Arthas is kind of the same character, but he breaks the fourth wall. He talks about how he’s going to destroy your deck and win the game. And he just delivered it as The Lich King would and maybe even dialed it up and a little more over the top. And that juxtaposition turned out to be really funny, and that worked.

“We didn’t want to do that for Illidan. It didn’t feel right for Illidan to break the fourth wall… We didn’t want him to be cracking jokes, like Kel’Thuzad, that wouldn’t work for us. So we had to find a way to get that Hearthstone charm in in other ways. And part of it is his own recollections. And then there are other times where we just present the story in different ways. In the single player we present much of the story in verse, and Illidan just sort of naturally takes to that. It just fits his character so well. And it gives it that Hearthstone charm, but you still feel like ‘this is the Illidan I know’.”

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Hearthstone Is in a Good Storytelling Place

Valerie Chu, Senior Narrative Designer, January 2020: “I do feel like we’ve reached a little bit of a turning point in showing all the different things that Hearthstone can do with story. Ever since Rise of Shadows introduced our ongoing narrative, we’ve shown we can do classic, silly Hearthstone moments, and then more serious, large-scale ones like unleashing Galakrond, and showing the story of Illidan’s youth with Malfurion, and the drastic consequences of a straightforward sibling rivalry! (Laughs) And it kind of let us stretch our wings a bit, along with the stuff that’s coming up with 17.2 [- the Ashes of Outland single player content] being in verse, and continuing to play with different formats to tell stories in a card game. It’s really exciting.”

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How is Flavour Text Written?

Valerie Chu, Senior Narrative Designer, December 2019: “Anyone can submit a joke, and often the end result is that we get everyone’s sense of humour in there – the whole Hearthstone team. You get to see how fun everyone is. And I think you get a little bit of a sense of maybe what it’s like in the break room or something, just hanging out with all of these whimsical, charming, sometimes very strange – like, loveably strange – people. We just want to share that with players and hopefully make them laugh. If you roll your eyes every now and then, that’s okay – we can take that criticism.”

Valerie Chu, Senior Narrative Designer, January 2020: “Once we get the greenlight to start, I’ll send out an email to the entire team twice a week with a set of cards, usually by class… all the way through [to] neutral. And then, at the end, Dave and I will get together – for this set, Chadd was assisting us as well – and we’ll read through everything, I added in a few of my own as well, and pick the ones that have people laughing so hard they fall out of their chairs… some people on the team will try and submit a joke for every card. They’re wonderful people.”

Principal Narrative Designer, Dave Kosak, January 2020: “They’re the real Heroes of Hearthstone.” (Laughs)

The Team Wasn’t Always Planning on Commissioning New Illidan Hero Art

It wasn’t until August 2019 that the team really broached the subject of whether they were going to commission new hero art for Illidan. “I think the assumption had always been, well, we have it – it’s in the tutorial,” former Creative Director Ben Thompson told me back in August. “That’s Illidan, that’s what people know, and I think that’s what people would expect. And that’s a fine answer – I think that’s probably true, and it would be fine, but I think the question got more volume when it was ‘but is that what’s right?’” They quickly decide that new art would be a cool way to further celebrate the fact that a whole new class was coming to the game. Creating that art is a story in itself. Check it out in IGN’s How Demon Hunter Was Brought to Life video.

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It Took a While to Find the Setting for the Cinematic

Check out this section of our January 2020 interview with Jeramiah Johnson, Associate Cinematic Director, and Principal Narrative Designer, Dave Kosak, about choosing the setting and narrator for the Demon Hunter teaser cinematic:

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And staying on Jeramiah and Dave, in December I asked them what they thought Hearthstone’s cinematic identity was. “I think that Hearthstone is a game that, at its core, is like a big warm ball of loveable joy,” Jeramiah replied. “And we really try to reflect that, and capture the feeling of whatever the game team is trying to put out there in the world. And since it’s the first thing that fans usually see, it’s the concentrated version of whatever the game is, so it’s like you get that full-flavoured experience from the beginning… and I think we always try to [determine], like – hey, where’s the line? And let’s just go leaping way over that. It’s always been the IP that allows us to push into ridiculous territory beyond which we’d normally be comfortable going.”

“The phrase we used at BlizzCon,” adds Dave, “was ‘raising the bar, lowering the brow.’”

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The First Hero Power Pitch Was OP

Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, August 2019: “Our very first hero power when we were pitching the class was ‘deal two damage, take two damage’. That was somewhat risky – we knew that, trying that, it was somewhat risky, because it doesn’t feel great to have your opponent have a strong hero power that can destroy most of your early game minions, such that you don’t even feel like you want to bother playing. If it’s turn two on an empty board and you’re like ‘oh, I could play this 3/2, but it’s just going to get hero powered down’ it makes me feel bad. [So] I just don’t do anything. It stalled out early games where players just didn’t want to play into it. So that was the risk. We thought maybe the ‘take two damage’ would offset that and you’d be like ‘okay sure, I’ll keep throwing my 3/2s and 1/2s in and let them get killed at the expense that they’re effectively dealing two damage to the opponent’. In practice it didn’t really feel that way, you still felt just as bad playing them, so we iterated from there.”

Fury Was a Key Part of an Early Hero Power

We give a good overview of Fury in IGN’s How the Hearthstone Team Designed Demon Hunter video, but here’s a little more info on it for additional context.

Dean Ayala, Lead Designer, August 2019: “There was a couple of different versions of Fury but the one that I remember the most, the one that we spent the most time with, was – your hero power was ‘give yourself one attack’ and by attacking you would generate something called a Fury, and there’s a special bar beneath the mana crystals… your deck would be filled with ways to generate Fury, which means weapons – which are giving you attack, and then cards that say ‘spend Fury to do X thing’ so it’s like – if you attacked four times over the course of the game you’d have this bar of four Fury and then you could use all your Fury or use some of it to do some powerful thing.

“The problem, to me at least, was – even if attacking was a core part of Demon Hunter fantasy, this is a class that’s going to be in Hearthstone forever… so is every single deck going to be based around attacking? The answer to that question is just going to be no… maybe on launch most of the decks and maybe at the first expansion and second expansion most of the decks are based around attacking, but at some point we’re going to want to do something slightly different. Like, the Warlock hero power is great, you probably want to use it, [but] there are some decks that don’t utilise the Warlock hero power.

“So at some point when we’re playing a deck that’s not attacking very often, it’s weird to have this permanent bar that’s down there and you’re generating Fury, but you don’t have any cards in your deck that spend Fury because you don’t attack that much and the Fury spenders aren’t really worth putting in your deck. So you just have this permanent fixture that’s not really interacting with the way you play, which is – it was too big of a cost for us just to have this thing there…”

Fury-WIP-Demon-Hunter-IGN What Is It Like Going Behind the Scenes With the Hearthstone Team? | IGN
Work in progress examples of Fury UI options, the hero power and a card design.

Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, August 2019: “It also put a lot of the excitement in Fury. It really was fun in those decks that used it, but it made it one dimensional. That was the thing that they did and Fury was the exciting thing, not so much the individual cards. And Hearthstone’s a card game. Hearthstone’s at its best when the cards are exciting you. We can have a much wider variety of experiences and more things excite you when the cards are the focus, the cards are the excitement. So those are a variety of reasons why we ultimately steered away from Fury, but it was a pretty heavy part of our design process for a while.”[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22Fury%20was%20the%20exciting%20thing%2C%20not%20so%20much%20the%20individual%20cards.%20And%20Hearthstone%E2%80%99s%20a%20card%20game.%20Hearthstone%E2%80%99s%20at%20its%20best%20when%20the%20cards%20are%20exciting%20you.%22%20-%20Chadd%20Nervig”]

Dean Ayala, Lead Designer, August 2019: “Yeah, it was probably the one we playtested the most… initial design is approximately 16 weeks and final design is approximately 16 weeks, and I’d say from week one to eight or nine or ten or eleven or something like that, we were playtesting with this new Fury generation thing. There was a bunch of other stuff going on in decks so just because we ended up cutting it doesn’t mean we lost a ton of time. We ended up having to cut all the Fury spenders because there was no more Fury, but… in initial design there’s generally more cards than we need and then we cut back – so we ended up replacing it with some stuff that we’d already [designed].”

Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, August 2019: “…a lot of the Fury-related stuff turned into Outcast. Not all of it, but a lot of that happened to fit.”

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Fury Would Have Made Demon Hunter Shallower

Ben Lee, Game Director, August 2019: “Fury… was super exciting, it would have been very different, it would have been very impactful and made a big bang when we launched it, but it would have made the long-term strategy of what the class actually is and how its cards evolve much more difficult, and honestly, probably more shallow.

“[With] Demon Hunter we’ve found, and one of the main reasons we moved away from that, is because it would basically always come back to ‘how does Fury work with this?’ And… we wanted the designers to have a huge amount of freedom in terms of what they can pursue in the future, because in two to three years from now we don’t want to be making exactly the same cards that function in a very similar way, we want to be trying different things, and I think, if you look at the classes, over the last five years, there’s definitely been some huge, big swings in how some of the classes play, just to give people variety, and we need the ability to do that with Demon Hunter in the future as well.”

The Hero Power Took a Long Time to Get Right

Dean Ayala, Lead Designer, January 2020: “In development we have schedules and rules where it’s like – we have this amount of time to finish this thing then we’re cut off. We have to be happy at this point because we have to move on, because we’ve got to make the rest of the stuff. You can noodle on something forever and the whole rest of the set suffers for that, and with the hero power… we had that date and then the date passed. And then we became unhappy with it and picked a new date. And then we picked something new and then that date passed. And a long time passed after that and we’re like ‘you know what? We need to pick a new date’ but you can’t do that for everything. If you do that for everything you don’t really have a schedule.

“That was the one thing that we picked that was really important, it’s like – look, we have to find something. We have to do something better than what we have because the hero power is the thing that lasts forever. We can change the Basic cards, we can change the expansion cards, we can change the archetypes, but changing the hero power is, like – of course we can always change it, but when we’re building all kinds of different cards and archetypes into what this hero power is, just changing the hero power alone is this huge piece that maybe the rest of the stuff that we make just doesn’t work after we do that. So it was important for us to get the right thing there…”

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Demon Hunter Initially Had Little Card Draw and No AOE

As I mentioned in the introduction, Demon Hunter’s class identity evolved steadily over the course of development. Here’s what Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, had to say in August 2019: “It’s actually those limitations of what they can’t do that are often the most interesting and the most compelling to create interesting gameplay between them [- the classes]. In Demon Hunter’s case, some things like attacking furiously with their hero, came over great. We considered card draw versus card generation as something to be a limitation for them possibly, but we found quickly that in order to feel fast-paced they definitely needed a lot of card draw, so we ended up going with that as a strength for them. We also first started out trying to limit their AOE to basically no AOE. That in particular was a challenge, bridging the fantasy from WoW because in WoW a whole lot of their abilities are AOE-focused.

“And so we’ve been pulling back on that limitation a bit and exploring giving them a bit of AOE, in part because we’re trying to explore different archetypes of decks, different play styles, and having at least some little bit of AOE. Either AOE or healing tends to be required for control decks, not always, but that’s the general guiding idea, and we also knew we really didn’t want to go heavy on healing for them, that was pretty far off their kit, so we’ve been dabbling with little bits of AOE.

“Healing’s a good one – in WoW they do leech or lifesteal so that fit well in Hearthstone, and it also fit well with their ‘attacking furiously with their hero’ weapons and hero attack, but we also simultaneously don’t want to go heavy on healing, so we’ve been towing this line between having a little bit of healing – basically entirely through lifesteal – of small chunks, because we don’t want them to feel like ‘oh you get them down to five health and they – BAM – heal up to 30.’ That’s not the Demon Hunter style. But [if] they use lifesteal to heal for three or four over a few turns, that’s pretty reasonable for them, that offsets the fact that they’re actively taking a lot of damage to clear minions with their face using weapons and hero attack.”

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Outcast Was Originally Called Inner Demon

Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, August 2019: “Outcast… was originally called Inner Demon. It was themed as your inner demon telling you what to do and was only on the rightmost card, kind of like [Stargazer] Luna was… but that actually was whole set wide – all the classes had Inner Demon cards, neutral did too. At some point we also had ‘Bloodthirst’ as a potential keyword, or ‘Frenzy’ – we didn’t really come up with a great name for that, but that was ‘trigger the first time a minion saw the enemy hero take damage’ – basically a one-time trigger. And at one point that was a Demon Hunter-specific keyword, at one point that was expansion-wide. You’ll often find we explore mechanics for potentially the whole set or potentially for individual classes. So we tried it both ways, then Fury became the focus of Demon Hunter during that point in development so most of those mechanic explorations became set-wide themes.”

A Number of Key Demon Hunter Legendaries Were Heavily Redesigned

Here are a couple of examples of legendary Demon Hunter minions that changed drastically over the course of development.

Altruis-evolution-IGN What Is It Like Going Behind the Scenes With the Hearthstone Team? | IGN
The evolution of Altruis the Outcast.
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The evolution of Kayn Sunfury.

The Thinking Behind the Prime Designs

Dean Ayala, Lead Designer, August 2019: “…what we don’t want is, say you have a one mana 1/3 lifesteal and it shuffles… a two mana 4/4 lifesteal [into your deck], because [of] the part of it where it dies and then you topdeck it and it feels really random. We wanted to find a space where you shuffle something really powerful into your deck but it was something that you really wanted to use in the late game – it wasn’t something that was going to blow your opponent out of the game on turn four or something. So we’ve been trying to find designs where that works, where the back end of it is somewhat situational in some way or it just happens at a point in the game where really powerful stuff is happening – turn eight, turn nine, turn ten.

“I always look back at a card like N’Zoth, and N’Zoth feels like a fair card, I think, to most people… but N’Zoth, you play it, and it summons, like, 30/30 of creatures and they all have deathrattle, and people are like ‘yeah, it’s pretty fair’ so you can do some crazy stuff really late in the game it just gets frustrating when it’s turn four and you’ve filled your board with stuff and it’s like ‘well, my class literally doesn’t have access to anything that can deal with this thing’ so that feels really unfair. We try to do less of those cards nowadays.”

Primes and the Philosophy of End-Game Threats

Ben Lee, Game Director, December 2019: “We’ve really been trying to push what I term ‘end-game threats’ and those aren’t necessarily things that – BANG – end the game, it’s more they’re something that brings the game to a conclusion. In 16.0 [- Descent of Dragons] Ysera Unleashed is an example of that. We want cards like that to – not end the game instantly, but start the process of ending the game. Playing 30 minute fatigue games or even longer sometimes… isn’t really what we think Hearthstone as an experience should be.

“So there’s this cycle of cards called the Primes – they were also called Mark 2s at one point – where you have this powerful legendary and when it dies it goes back into your deck and becomes this second version of that. Those things are an end-game threat. So that’s one of the philosophical things I’ve been talking to the team about.”

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There Were a Few Iterations of Dormant

Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, August 2019: “The development of Dormant had a couple of different previous iterations. We tried – what if they’re Dormant and then some trigger wakes them up? Like, once you play three minions they wake up. Or once you destroy a minion of your opponent’s or once you heal or something. We tried a bunch of triggers for it. We found that all just complicated things and really the pay-off – the feel we were going for – was ‘pay a little now, get nothing in the meantime, and then a lot later’ and the simple version of that, of just being like ‘okay, just wait two turns’ you understand that, you don’t need a whole lot of tracking. It’s either awake or it was played last turn or it was played this turn… so it just flowed well, and we could have the exciting parts be when they woke up.”

Yes, Mok’Nathal Lion is a Tribute to Hearthstone’s Current World Champion

Jeremy Cranford, Senior Outsource Manager, January 2020: “Whenever we can celebrate the Hearthstone champions, I think it’s really great. I was there at the first Hearthstone Championship at BlizzCon and watched Firebat win, and that was such an emotional moment. And then the idea of the Firebat card was really fun, so when [the] design [team] said ‘hey, we want to celebrate Lion’s win’ I think that was another really touching moment, when we saw her win, and being the first female champion, I said ‘oh yeah, let’s do it!’

“It was interesting, as one of our artists had just got back from Africa, so he’d been posting all these lion paintings, so I emailed him and said ‘hey Darren, would you like to do another lion painting?’ and he was like ‘do I!?’, so I told him the story about the Hearthstone champion and how her name is Lion, and he got really excited. So we painted it into the setting, with Blade’s Edge Mountains behind, and so I think people will be excited when they see that, and hopefully she is too.”

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Multiple Demon Hunter Archetypes Were Key

Dean Ayala, Lead Designer, August 2019: “One of the biggest challenges is – when Demon Hunter launches, they need to launch with more than one thing. Other classes have the advantage of – we can push one archetype, then give some tools for future stuff, give some tools that hook into past things, but you have, for Warlock, say – they have a deck from two expansions ago that’s maybe Control Warlock, from the last expansion they have Zoo, then this expansion maybe we’re doing some discard stuff, and they have this whole package of things, so if you want to play Warlock, there’s some avenues for you to explore.

“With Demon Hunter they don’t have a bunch of past stuff. We’re launching on day one with more cards, but not as much as all the other classes have access to. Eventually we’re going to get to a point where they do have that, but we want to launch with multiple archetypes so if you are excited about playing Demon Hunter there’s at least a couple of ways for you to play, and that’s pretty challenging to hit on day one, but that’s the goal.”

On the Philosophy of the Big Demons Deck

Dean Ayala, Lead Designer, January 2020: “A lot of the ways to make a ‘big’ deck, whether it’s big demons or big beasts or something – the way to play nine and ten mana cards is usually to cheat them out for some smaller amount of mana cost because getting to that stage of the game’s really difficult. It can also be pretty dangerous – if you only have two cards or so that are mana cheaty then there’s an extra emphasis on drawing those particular cards, [all] so you can play this ten mana thing on turn seven, and if… that’s the only way to play it and we have to balance around that, then playing it on turn ten is not something you want to do at all, so you only put it in decks where you’re cheating a bunch of mana.

“We’ve tried to position a lot of the [Demon Hunter] cards to where you can play them a little bit earlier sometimes, but it’s not this enormously huge swing. We have a card you can play on six mana now that will summon something from your hand [- Fel Summoner] and we have a couple of other cards that… reduce cost by two, but it’s nothing super extreme. We don’t really want to be in a space where there’s cards like Void Caller or Barnes – cards that allow you to do very very late game things pretty early on in the game – turn four, turn five – we tried to stay away from that as much as we could.”[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CWe%20don%E2%80%99t%20really%20want%20to%20be%20in%20a%20space%20where%20there%E2%80%99s%20cards%20like%20Void%20Caller%20or%20Barnes%20%E2%80%93%20cards%20that%20allow%20you%20to%20do%20very%20very%20late%20game%20things%20pretty%20early%20on%20in%20the%20game%E2%80%A6%E2%80%9D%20%E2%80%93%20Dean%20Ayala”]

The Team Will Rework Demon Hunter If Need Be

Dean Ayala, Lead Designer, January 2020: “If there are some archetypes that we really thought were important that needed to get there, [but] that didn’t get there, we’re not really going to hesitate to buff some cards. If there’s some that are a little bit too crazy and we pushed a little bit too far, we’re going to pull back on [them]. I think even the hero power’s something that we’re crazy happy with, but if it turns out – there’s some unforeseen circumstance that we didn’t really think of or it wasn’t working out the way we thought, I think we have bandwidth to even change something like that. So I think Demon Hunter is – Outcast and everything that goes along with that – is subject to change over time.”

Demon Hunter’s Classic Set Will Come… When the Time Is Right

Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, August 2019: “We do want to have a Classic set for Demon Hunter… the solution we came up with was – during this year, the first year of Demon Hunters, they’re getting 15 cards per expansion, five extra per set. We’re going to take five cards from each set over this year and move them into Classic and make a Classic set, so if you are an active player this year, you end up with the Classic set for Demon Hunters just like you have ended up with the Classic set for all the other classes.”

Dean Ayala, Lead Designer, August 2019: “Basic and Classic are around forever, so we want to have designs that are healthy to be in the game forever. Stuff that promotes the style of gameplay that Demon Hunter should be playing, but having cards that are core win conditions are generally not the kind of card we want, because if you have a core win condition card that’s pointed in a very specific direction then it’s back the next set. Oh, you wanted this [new] package of cards to be fun? Well too bad because this [other] card exists and it’s always the one played and it’s always in forever…

“Something like Backstab’s okay. When you’re looking back on a Rogue game you’re not thinking ‘damn he Backstabbed me again so everything felt the same’ it’s like there’s a package of cards where you look back and you remember a game, like it’s a Burgle deck or a Tempo Rogue deck, whereas Backstab is a role-player in there. And I think we bring back cards like that for Demon Hunter, but they have to exist – if they don’t exist then we’re not going to force it, we’ll just make new cards.

“Hopefully these 15 cards, they exist, and we find the ones that make the most sense and we bring them into Classic and everything just works out great. It doesn’t always work that way… I’m a little bit sceptical that we’ll find all 15 cards that we need. Hopefully we do, and if not, then we’ll just create the cards that make the most sense.”

Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer, August 2019: “…I think another important aspect of this current plan is… the existing knowledge about the other classes – we know how Backstab and SI:7 and such work, but we don’t have that proven expectation for how Demon Hunter’s going to play. Choosing which cards are going to be permanent evergreen cards now is much more difficult, more risky, would require more changes, so offsetting that choice of what stays there permanently until we’ve gotten more experience with it is much more attractive.”

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Hearthstone’s New UI is Dynamic

When we first spoke to Max Ma, Lead UX/UI Designer in August 2019, the team had already settled on the new UI incorporating ten heroes. (See How Demon Hunter Was Brought to Life.) Implementing it, however, spurred a critical behind the scenes change.

Max Ma, Lead UX/UI Designer, January 2020: “Last time I showed you the ten heroes design, the 3-4-3 layout. We started talking about how to implement that with engineering. And engineering always has the best insight about what’s the most efficient way… Hearthstone is a game that we want to last for many years to come, and any decision we make will affect us for the long run, and we want to do what is right, in terms of engineering, in terms of design – what is more future proof.

“So engineering gave us the feedback of – hey, if we’re completely changing the layout from the 3 by 3 hero layout into a 3-4-3 layout, we have to maintain two systems, so ongoing the engineering complexity will be doubled, because we have to maintain the old system, while we’re supporting the new system going forward, and then sometimes we might have to re-use the old one if we want to go back to nine heroes for whatever reason, so that’s really painful.

“So the idea came up… what if we make a dynamic layout, and have a hero selection screen that can accommodate any number between one to ten heroes? So we start sketching it [out] – maybe we don’t bake in the hero frames, so the background’s just a flat piece of colour, and then we can slot the heroes into any layout we want. So we were kind of going back to the drawing board. The outcome didn’t really change, but behind the scenes everything changed…

“Another benefit of the dynamic hero layout [is] if you recall what we did in the Witchwood adventure, where we have only four heroes, and you see four of them [on the selection screen]… and then the rest are empty. So some players are like ‘can I unlock those?’ but no, there’s nothing there. It’s a weird layout. Why would you do that? It’s because we were locked into that 3 by 3 design. But with the new dynamic layout we can have four heroes in the middle, in a perfect square. It looks a lot more aesthetically pleasing. So it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Witchwood-UI-IGN What Is It Like Going Behind the Scenes With the Hearthstone Team? | IGN
The new-look Witchwood character select screen.

The Priest Rework is Just the Beginning

Ben Lee, Game Director, January 2020: “Some of the classes are much tighter on vision and on class mechanics and class identity. Personally I’ve felt that way always as a player, and the team felt pretty passionately that Priest was maybe in the worst spot of all the classes on this front…

“Generally as a team we do think there’s more work to do on Basic and Classic… for now, for this rotation, we’re doing the things that we think we absolutely have to do to get it in a space where we can take some more time to really look at and potentially do a bigger re-factor if that’s the way we choose to go. But basically we want this package to come off as positive for players. We really are trying to make Priest’s core set more synergistic, more powerful and also, just more useful.

“We’re also thinking about the Divine Spirit/Inner Fire combo – that’s something that’s been around for a long time, and it honestly just doesn’t feel super healthy… Hopefully Priest players will be trying out some new things – some different things.”

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The “No Duplicates” Rule Reduces Variance

Ben Lee, Game Director, January 2020: “When you open a card pack we want it to feel exciting, we want it to feel different, we don’t want you to be just like ‘oh, I just got a bunch of duplicates’. Statistical variance is a really important part of this as well. We have a lot of players playing the game, so there’s some guy out there, who does the pre-order for the expansion, opens his cards and gets every single copy of the same epic, and that’s really bad for him – he loses so much dust economy from all the different potential things that he could play, and that’s just not a good experience. We don’t want that to happen and there is obviously varying degrees of that – some lucky person is getting every single unique card and everything in between, so we’re kind of shaving off all those rough edges to make it just a better experience – at least, we hope a better experience for everybody.”

Hearthstone Should Be a Tool Kit

Ben Lee, Game Director, December 2019: “…my vision of Hearthstone – what the team’s vision of Hearthstone is as well now, is – …your cards are like a traditional deck of cards. You can play a bunch of different games with it. It’s not just one game. With a deck of cards you want to play Solitaire, you want to play Poker, you want to play many different kinds of games, and to us, Hearthstone is a tool kit to play games in different ways and it’s done that a little bit over the past, but it’s something I think that over the last year we’ve really come to embrace a lot, and Battlegrounds is our first big foray into that, and we definitely want to do more things on that scope and scale. These things take time, so it’s not something that’s going to release tomorrow, but we definitely want to make more cool, different types of game modes.”

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The Hearthstone Team’s Current Approach

Last year the Hearthstone team experimented with a bunch of ways to shake up the meta between expansions, and while not everything landed – Luna’s Pocket Galaxy was reverted back to its original stats after becoming problematic after its buff, for instance – the sentiment was absolutely appreciated.

Game Director Ben Lee admits they made some mistakes, but told me in January: “I would always rather that the team take risks and try new things than play it safe and not do anything. And I think that’s the space we live in and we’ll see how it goes. We’re in a bit of a different world now, because we have things like Battlegrounds and some other big things we’re working on that are going to serve to shake up the game for players as well. We want Hearthstone to be somewhere you can come and play, and play whatever you want and have fun, and hopefully there’ll generally always be something new going on.”

Huge thanks to the Hearthstone team and Blizzard for not only greenlighting this project, but for being extremely generous with their time.

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Cam Shea is Editor in Chief for IGN’s Australian content team and has been playing Hearthstone since beta. He’s on Twitter.
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