Inside Hearthstone’s New Game Changing Demon Hunter Class
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:27pm 18/03/20 | Comments
As Hearthstone heads into the Year of the Phoenix, and the arrival of the Ashes of Outlands expansion, it’s also introducing the first new class since the game launched in 2014. The aggressive and game-changing Demon Hunter.
Hearthstone launched in 2014, a time when the digital competitive card game wasn’t really a thing. But in typical Blizzard fashion the studio figured out a way, once again using Warcraft, to make an established genre or style of game easy to come to terms with, supremely fun to play, and an experience with depth to spare. It brought many newcomers into the fold, where they took a seat next to a hypothetical table in a welcoming tavern located somewhere in Azeroth. And from there, began strategising using four cornered bits of digital cardboard.
Like all of Blizzard’s properties Hearthstone’s vibrant cartoon aesthetic and playful not-at-all serious tone helped it strike a feel all its own. In a free-to-play package that for the first time saw a brand-new Blizzard game make its way to mobile devices. Since launch Hearthstone has only grown thanks to a steady stream of expansions, a thriving competitive scene, and a continuously changing and evolving meta. In recent times there’s been an almost predictable yearly groove, in terms of cadence that is - not overall surprise.
On that front 2019’s Year of the Dragon introduced a wonderful yearlong narrative tied to each expansion drop, all the new cards, and even mechanics. Plus, Hearthstone saw the introduction of a new mode inspired by the auto-battler genre called Battlegrounds.
Like all of Blizzard’s properties Hearthstone’s vibrant cartoon aesthetic and playful not-at-all serious tone helped it strike a feel all its own.
As we’re now well into 2020, Hearthstone is set to turn that six-year steady cruise through the broader Warcraft universe into a mad dash full of excitement and rebirth. There’s a lot happening, from expansions to overhauls to new story content and features designed to welcome newcomers or returning players. Towering above it all, wielding two claws, is the arrival of Illidan Stormrage and the menacing fel-fueled aggression of the Demon Hunter. The first new class since the game launched, a fact that speaks to the rarity of a competitive card game getting a new class this far into the digital journey. As well as Blizzard’s commitment to the all things Hearthstone in 2020.
“There are unanswered questions when thinking about a new class,” Hearthstone Lead Designer Dean Ayala tells me. “Wondering if we even have enough room to do 10 classes because there’s so much hard-coded into the current classes -- just engineering-wise. But above all, you need to answer the question-- why do you do need a new class?”
“It's something the team has looked at before or thought about but never felt like it was the right time or the right moment or the right combination of factors,” Game Director Ben Lee adds. “With the Demon Hunter it was really the perfect storm, the Ashes of Outland expansion, Illidan Stormrage, all these factors working together with the Demon Hunter ideal to make it feel awesome and complete. Also just timing wise, the game is six years old. We wanted something big, something new, something different for players to engage with.”
For a team working on an existing live game like Hearthstone, there are tight production schedules, roadmaps, and a general flow of how patches and other things pan out. The predictability mentioned above, well that’s the comfortable feeling you get knowing that each year there’ll be three new expansions. The Year of the Phoenix is no different, kicking off with Ashes of Outland – a jaunt into the stark remains of a destroyed and shattered world. By also taking the leap to add a new class in the form of the Demon Hunter, the usual 12 month or so development cycle surrounding a typical Hearthstone expansion has itself expanded and grown to around 18 months or more.
“If you're onstage at BlizzCon or an event and said there's going to be a new class - would people be excited about that?” Dean ponders. “I think the answer is definitely yes. It's one of the most exciting things that you can do. But what makes it a positive experience not only in the first three months, but the first four months, six months, and beyond? I think the answer to that is it has to feel meaningfully different than the rest of the classes.”
“With the Demon Hunter it was really the perfect storm, the Ashes of Outland expansion, Illidan Stormrage, all these factors working together with the Demon Hunter ideal to make it feel awesome and complete."
For those versed in Warcraft lore the choice was made early on to go with Demon Hunter and Illidan, with the team only briefly considering the Lich King and Arthas. The theory was that with the Demon Hunter there was something immediately there, something that could make the new class stand out among the existing nine. And so, the team began sketching out how the new class might fit in and work as a new Hearthstone hero.
“Even at that early point you're going to compare it to the existing classes, and we were like, ‘Oh this is a little bit like Warlock and a little bit like Rogue and Warrior because they're attacking with weapons’,” Dean continues, noting that giving the Demon Hunter a weapon was there from the get-go. “But Demon Hunters aren’t really centred around weapons, so the more we played with aggressive decks and cards, the more we felt like we had something different. That was the real starting point, where we felt that a new class might be the right thing to do.”
“Even though there is some blending between classes, through art, through sound, through effects, through mechanics, it’s possible to make something feel thematic and different,” Ben tells me. “A lot of class identity comes through specific cards. When you think about the Demon Hunter where things like metamorphosis exist, these things are tied very much to Warcraft lore. Even though Demon Hunter might have some elements of different class playstyles in there, it can still feel unique and different.”
When we think about classes in Warcraft or other rich fantasy universes there are traditional roles that translate across the board, and into an experience like Hearthstone. The Warrior, the Mage, the Rogue. From there class-specific cards flesh out identity in much the same way a skill tree might in an RPG. In the case of the Demon Hunter the class-specific Outcast mechanic not only follows this road, but it presents a game-changer in terms of how a typical round of Hearthstone might play out. How it works is simple, if an Outcast card is played when it’s situated on the left-most or right-most position in your deck it will trigger a special bonus.
"The more we played with aggressive decks and cards, the more we felt like we had something different."
The menacing Skull of Gul’dan is a Demon Hunter card that allows you to draw three cards. But situated next to the bold Outcast lettering lies the text “Reduce their Cost by (3)”. Right away you begin thinking about Hearthstone in a different way. Playing this card when it’s sitting there in the middle of your hand feels like a waste. So why not change strategies and burn a card to move it to the left?
“Mechanically it's really interesting,” Dean explains. “It makes you play games of Hearthstone a little bit differently. Maybe there's this card over here on the left-hand side that you wouldn't normally play -- but if you do Outcast is going to activate so you might end up playing your cards in a different order. It’s a deep enough mechanic that we could have put it in multiple classes, but it goes back to that idea of making the Demon Hunter feel different to other classes.”
After spending several games playing as the iconic Demon Hunter, the feel is most certainly different. Thanks to a suite of new cards, dual-claw weaponry, life-steal, and the Outcast mechanic – the aggression comes through. It also paves the way for variations on a theme, archetypes within the Demon Hunter framework – different builds. And by that same token different reactions from players sticking with their favourite classes and decks.
“It's hard to quantify and explain why Outcast feels like a Demon Hunter mechanic,” Ben adds. “It just felt really natural when we were play it testing with Illidan. By that time, we ironed out some of the key mechanics for the Ashes of Outland set too. Primes were there. Imprisoned demons were also settled on. And all that came from lore. Illidan himself, he's imprisoned -- so it felt right.”
After spending several games playing as the iconic Demon Hunter, the feel is most certainly different. Thanks to a suite of new cards, dual-claw weaponry, life-steal, and the Outcast mechanic – the aggression comes through.
If you squint hard enough there’s a way to use Wacraft lore to explain why the Outcast mechanic works the way it does, with the team at Blizzard jokingly stating that Illidan is an outcast so he’s used to being on the outs, on his own. As in literally on the left-most side of a hand of cards. “That’s a cool story,” Dean laughs. “And kind of works as an explanation, but that wasn't how we were thinking about it. It was mostly just a really cool mechanic.”
It’s sentiments like this that bring the notion of “the right combination of factors” to the fore. Lore-wise Illidan is actually an outcast within the greater Warcraft universe, part-Night Elf part-Demon and full of semi-controlled rage. Outland, as seen in World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, presents the perfect thematic backdrop for Illidan and the Demon Hunters to show up. For Prime units, for imprisoned demons. For an entire expansion of 135 new cards to go through and new ways to play.
“Even though it's alongside an expansion with a bunch of stuff with the other classes, a lot of people are going to be playing Demon Hunter,” Dean concludes. Especially when you factor in that the new class and complete set of Demon Hunter cards will be made free to all players. After months of internal testing and a positive showing at the recent preview event – where naturally there was a lot of Demon Hunter versus Demon Hunter action – the fun and excitement surrounding this update will no doubt mess-up some of the stats for a time. “We’ve been a little concerned, but in a good way. The ability to jump in and check out the Demon Hunter is cool, but class diversity will get weird in those first couple of weeks. The good thing when there's big content that drops there's usually something there for everyone – even if you don’t enjoy the Demon Hunter.”
The Demon Hunter arrives in Hearthstone on April 8 as part of the new Year of the Phoenix and Ashes of Outland expansion. A special Prologue Campaign showcasing Illidan’s origin story and the new mechanics will be available on April 3.