Hearthstone is once again set to get a major shake-up as the Year of the Dragon rolls in alongside the arrival of the latest expansion Rise of Shadows. Where alongside a new set of 135 cards for players to build new sets and strategies around, we also see the lore shift into the realm of evil. Well, a collection of supervillains from past sets under the banner of the E.V.I.L. League with their sights set on the city of Dalaran. This new setting and theme in turn paves the way for new mechanics and ways to play. From Lackeys that are minions whose sole purpose is to do a big-bad’s bidding to new spell cards called Schemes that grow in power as each turn ticks over.
Ahead of Rise of Shadows release we had the chance to sit down with members of the Hearthstone team to talk about the design process, and what goes into keeping things fresh and exciting in the world of competitive Warcraft card gaming. “The first couple of weeks are pretty crazy,” Liv Breeden, Initial Designer on the Hearthstone development team recalls. “Because we just pitch three to eight keywords or new mechanics and we just figure out which ones stick. Which are the exciting ones, what can we iterate on more? What's the one that we want to play in every playtest, you know?”
Hearthstone launched in March of 2014, which as per most non-Azeroth based calendars was roughly five years ago. Since that time Blizzard’s entry into the competitive card scene has been met with worldwide success, a string of major updates including overhauls, balance changes, expansions, and a shift towards annual seasons. Plus, a vibrant and popular esports scene. Throughout this time though it has been the expansions that have kept Hearthstone feeling fresh. The wide variety of themes, characters, and iconic Warcraft locations that makes up each new set. A change in scenery that also helps the team when it comes to experimentation and bringing new ideas to the table.
“A new setting helps reset everything,” Liv confirms. “Whenever you go to a new expansion, the scenery is different, so that helps create different ideas. And we never really sit in one spot too long, so we never really drain any well. That's why our keywords usually only go for one set.” For Rise of Shadows one of these keywords is Twinspells, cards that create copies of themselves in player’s hands once cast. The new expansion and setting also brings two new mechanics, as mentioned earlier, with Lackeys and Schemes. “Lackeys are, I think, one of my favourite mechanics coming out of the new set,” Liv continues. “Every good villain needs a henchman, right? So, each of the E.V.I.L. League members has brought a henchman to do their bidding. And they're these small 1/1 Minions, that cost one Mana and they do some cool effect for you.”
In designing Lackeys, this end-result and focus on Minions was a clear departure from the team’s initial thinking. The very first version was a form of currency called Evil Marks. Where after earning a certain amount, players could cash those in for some sort of bonus. “We ended up liking the payout so much that we just wanted to make the spells, instead of having to build up a currency. So, you just got the cool thing,” Liv recalls.
"Whenever you go to a new expansion, the scenery is different, so that helps create different ideas. And we never really sit in one spot too long, so we never really drain any well."
“It's a good lesson of fitting in a mechanic that has a specific theme that helps reinforce the overall theme for the set,” Stephen Chang, Final Designer for Hearthstone tells me. For the team at Blizzard, hitting this balance whilst retaining the fun and engaging gameplay of Hearthstone is paramount. That, and ensuring that the team isn’t simply repeating itself. “When we went through the early playtesting of the Evil Marks and then spells, that was when we discovered that they felt a little too similar to Spare Parts,” Stephen explains, in reference to the uncollectible spell cards generated by certain cards found in the Goblins vs Gnomes set. “Then we were trying to think of a completely different way of approaching it, and the idea of making them the disposable henchmen for the E.V.I.L. League made sense. It's difficult to find mechanics that hit all marks, but Lackeys definitely did that for us.”
This top down approach isn’t a strict mandate, sometimes mechanics come first and it’s a case of trying to find the right fit. “We have a lot of ideas of types of cards that we can do, but it needs to fit the set that we're making,” Stephen responds. “We draw on a lot of influences and inspiration as we're designing, and there are ideas that we have in the back-burner that just haven't fit into particular sets. And for those, when the right set comes around, we'll dip into our backlog.”
“Overkill from the previous expansion is a good example of this bottom up approach,” Liv adds. “We liked the Overkill mechanic so much we just needed to figure out how it fit into the Troll set.” With Rise of Shadows marking the beginning of the Year of the Dragon, it also marks the commencement of a three-expansion storyline. Where characters, cards, events, and modes will lead towards a much larger narrative conclusion than those seen in past standalone sets. For the design of the new Rise of Shadows cards, this inevitably led to a more top-down approach organically – where the team was looking to the characters and story to inform ideas for new mechanics. To inspire them.
Some of which, were born from stepping into the shoes of a villain. Metaphorically speaking.
“We started with Schemes pretty early on because the idea of sitting and plotting, the best villain waits until the perfect moment before they unveil what they’ve been planning the entire time,” Liv tells me. “That's such a cool idea that we wanted to play that up. And we got into it early.” In Rise of Shadows, Scheme spell cards grow in power over-time which leads to the potential for a perfect play – where the planets align, and everything goes to plan. Hagatha's Scheme starts as one point of damage to all minions costing five mana, but if it’s held for three more turns that becomes four points of damage for the same cost. And it only grows from there.
"We draw on a lot of influences and inspiration as we're designing, and there are ideas that we have in the back-burner that just haven't fit into particular sets. And for those, when the right set comes around, we'll dip into our backlog."
For Hearthstone players these are dream scenarios that subtly wink at you as you put together a new deck. In Rise of Shadows this is but one example, with Schemes for the various playable classes and roles acting in drastically different ways. Which adds pressure to ensure that balancing is right. “We try to create a wide variety of different types of cards and different cards serve different purposes,” Stephen explains. “There are cards that are more of the support cards, the cards that you use in a variety of decks. And there are other cards that have that dream scenario, they're kind of niche but they're open ended. They allow players to be very creative with the types of things that they can do.”
“Still, we try to find all these broken interactions and these crazy scenarios and make sure that they fit within the game and don't get too out of hand,” Stephen admits. “But while still being dreamy enough and exciting enough that players can experiment.” “There's something to just imagine the dream, even if even if you never actually make it,” Liv adds. “The fact that you could.” As with Lackey’s this led to several changes made to several Schemes whilst looking at setting the ground rules, so-to-speak, across the board. Like, say, having each of the Schemes start at one and then grow from there. A baseline that helped communicate how they work, even though one Scheme might be completely different to another.
With Hearthstone’s vibrant community and the ever-changing meta that comes from a game that continuously evolves, changes, and shifts and turns – like with many other Blizzard titles, this plays a key role in designing future content. “A lot of times we're taking a look at the feedback and the response from our community and seeing the types of decks that excite them or the types of decks that don't necessarily have all the tools that they need yet, to be a more viable deck,” Liv tells me whilst noting that being reactionary is only one part of the story. “A lot of it is anticipation and predicting what the future holds. And we can see a lot further into the future than our players can, so we can sort of gauge how we can shape what will happen. Ultimately the players are the ones that create the meta. They always surprise us with like new types of decks or iterations, which is very exciting.”
When looking at a new Hearthstone set, specifically Rise of Shadows 135 new cards, no doubt certain cards are then viewed as riskier than others by the team. “We obviously want to make very exciting cards, so we will try to push the limits and push cards to the very edge of whatever we think we're comfortable with it,” Stephen tells me. “When expansions are released, we keep an eye on those cards, but sometimes there are cards that surprise us, and players will use them in a way that perhaps we didn't think of. And in those cases, we're still responsive in terms of seeing how those cards get impacted and potentially making a change. That's one of the great parts of being a digital card game - we can go in and make those changes and respond to what happens once these cards are out and playable in the public.”
With the release of Rise of Shadows, players will no doubt begin to experiment and build new decks around Lackeys, Schemes, and Twinspells. Three new card mechanics and keywords that continue to push Hearthstone into new and exciting territory. Where perhaps a few mysteries lie in wait too. “Surprises aren't' inherently bad either,” Liv concludes. “We loved it when the community finds something that we didn't think of and it creates this new thing that we're not really sure of. Being unsure is kind of fun.”
Hearthstone: Rise of Shadows is available now.