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Inside Hearthstone - Darkmoon Faire, Old Gods, Duels, and Closing Out an Epic Year of the Phoenix
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:12pm 23/10/20 | Comments
We sit down with Blizzard to discuss the return of the Old Gods in Hearthstone, the fascinating new PvP mode Duels, and the spooky carnival that is Warcraft’s Darkmoon Faire.

Hearthstone is on the cusp of closing out a stellar year, from the arrival of a new playable class in the form of the Demon Hunter to the recent jaunt through scholastic studies within the Warcraft universe - as seen in Scholomance Academy. With the third and final expansion set for the Year of the Phoenix out soon, Madness at the Darkmoon Faire, it will arrive alongside a brand-new PvP mode called Duels which blends traditional competitive Hearthstone with the sort of single-player Dungeon Runs players have been enjoying for years.

Plus, there’s the long-awaited and impressive revamp to the progression system.

“We tend to be a little more adventurous with the last set of the year,” Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer tells me. “Because the sets are going to last a total of 16 months instead of 24 [before rotating out]. Okay, so maybe that’s not a huge margin but we tend to be a little bolder and do things that have a stronger effect on the game.”

In terms of bigger and bolder, no doubt a brand new game mode is exactly that. But Madness at Darkmoon Faire also sees the return of the Old Gods - C'thun, N'Zoth, Yogg-Saron, and Y'Shaarj. And before your brain implodes trying to wrap your head around those names, Blizzard jokingly adds that only around 30% of the team can pronounce them without blurting out a confusing mess of mouth-sounds.

Powerful entities and Legendary Cards, the Old Gods are also the source of the corruption found at Hearthstone’s version of Darkmoon Faire - alongside carnival games like Guess the Weight and Dunk Tank. Being Hearthstone those carnival activities are physically represented in the new expansion via quintessential Hearthstone cards and mechanics. The new Corrupt keyword, also has thematic ties to the tentacled beings of mysterious origin.

The Return of the Old Gods

Drawing on Warcraft lore, locations, and characters, and then reimagining them in a vibrant and whimsical style - yeah, that’s Hearthstone to a t.

“We tend to be a little more adventurous with the last set of the year.”

“Scholomance Academy was one of these themes that had been kicking around for a long time, where the idea of a magic school sounded like a fun setting,” John McIntyre, Game Designer recalls. “Even Ashes of Outland, we'd been talking about doing a sort of biker post-apocalyptic expansion for a while. With Year the Dragon last year, we did a yearlong narrative and by the time it was over, we had a lot of ideas kicking around. Being able to tell three different types of stories [this year] allowed us to dive into settings and places we really wanted to go.”

As much fun as the concept of a school for magic sounds within the context of Hearthstone and Warcraft, the same can be said of a carnival. A place of rickety rides, questionable games of skill, and deep fried foods. Within World of Warcraft this style of carnival exists, the iconic Darkmoon Faire. From that alone one can’t help but think that it was always destined to become, well, a destination in Hearthstone.

“It's definitely been on our whiteboard of potential card set designs for a long time,” Chadd Nervig adds. “It's just been a matter of when the right time would be, and that’s now.” Tying the Old Gods and corruption to Darkmoon Faire, for those well versed in their Warcraft lore, is another one of those puzzle pieces that fits firmly into place. Even with Whispers of the Old Gods, one of the game’s early expansions from 2016, the decision to dust off a few ancient tentacles was never in doubt.

“We're excited to bring the Old Gods back for sure,” Chadd says. “People loved the Old Gods and we've heard requests for Old Gods 2 many times – and in a way this is that. But there’s also that classic story of haunted or spooky carnival, and there's a lot of inspiration for us to draw on just there. Of course there’s Darkmoon Faire in WoW – our main source of inspiration. That said, in WoW it’s not overtly Old God's corrupted. We went big and grand with that side of it, we’ve got more tentacles and the Old Gods corrupting everything everywhere.”

“The goal from the very start was to make sure the four Old Gods served different types of players and different decks,” John McIntyre tells me. “And that was also a goal of the original Old Gods expansion, which is why there’s some similarity. Yogg-Saron we knew had to be the unpredictable card, and that's going to serve a type of player. Compared to the original Yogg-Saron they both have that style and that specific type of crazy fun.”

A Carnival Corrupted

Which brings us to the new keyword for the Madness at the Darkmoon Faire expansion set - Corrupt. In typical Hearthstone fashion it ties in nicely with the theme and the return of the Old Gods. In addition to being easy to understand, where cards with the Corrupt keyword become more powerful corrupted versions after you play a higher cost card, in typical Blizzard fashion it falls neatly into the ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ realm too.

“In WoW [Darkmoon Faire] is not overtly Old God's corrupted. We went big and grand with that side of it, we’ve got more tentacles and the Old Gods corrupting everything everywhere.”

“Corrupt is one of those skill-test keywords,” John explains. “We wanted to make sure that there was that tension, do you play it on curve or do you wait and Corrupt it? The corrupted side is obviously the flashier thing, but sometimes it might be right to play it early. A big part of the complexity comes from deck building, it's a huge deck building challenge to make sure that you build your deck so you can corrupt these cards.”

“I think it was important that you might not put them in your deck just for the uncorrupted version, that you're always hoping to get the corrupted version out there,” Chadd Nervig adds. “That said the baseline version should be a reasonable power level too, so you don't feel bad about playing it early.”

When designing new mechanics and introducing them within each new set the Hearthstone team refers to the underlying design as ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’. Where top-down is based on the fantasy and the theme of a particular expansion and bottom-up being purely driven by mechanics and new ways to play. For Corrupt, although it’s a keyword that ties in nicely with the Old Gods, the design falls mostly into the latter category.

“I remember it being if your last card cost more than this, play this again,” John recalls an earlier iteration of the mechanic. “It was always a copy of itself, but we wanted a little more room in terms of the possible outcomes. That original idea was also always dependent on the last card you played and that wasn’t flexible enough. Or fun when the last card you play at the end of a turn is always the most expensive. With this version we got to lean into the theme as we re-discovered the Old Gods, Darkmoon Faire, getting corrupted and becoming evil.”

“It was important from the start that we had a significant mechanic that emphasised the power of the Old Gods and we got to see that influence in some way,” Chadd Nervig adds, noting that even for new mechanics the team is excited to bring into Hearthstone, matching them up with an expansion’s theme is paramount. “We tried a lot of different things, but this particular mechanic lined up the best.”

I Challenge Thee to a Duel

Released a year ago, Hearthstone’s auto-chess inspired Battlegrounds mode became a hit in terms of bringing something new and fresh to the game. A different way of playing in a game that outside of the unpredictable Tavern Brawls had not seen the arrival of a new mode for some time. It proved to be such a hit that when Blizzard showcased its Year of the Phoenix roadmap earlier this year, one of the highlights was the simple addition of ‘New Game Mode’.

“Battlegrounds was successful, and we knew that players have been asking for new game modes for a while, so we said, ‘Hey, let's commit to trying to find another game mode’.”

“Battlegrounds was successful, and we knew that players have been asking for new game modes for a while, so we said, ‘Hey, let's commit to trying to find another game mode’," John McIntyre explains. “With Battlegrounds it was more that we stumbled on something great. Duels was a commitment from us to try and serve our players and get different types of game modes into Hearthstone.”

“We chose to put that on the roadmap because we were confident enough in Duels to commit to doing it,” Chadd Nervig adds. “That Roadmap at the beginning of the year was more than we had done before in terms of details about what was coming. Duels was in development at that point, but there was still a lot to figure out.”

The concept though, was simple to comprehend. Take the PvP tournament format of Arena where players build a deck and then put those cards and their own skills against others to try and get to 12 wins without losing three battles, and then blend that with single-player Dungeon Runs. That is, defined heroes, game-changing treasures to unlock, and progressively facing off against tougher opponents.

“The devil is always in the details,” Chadd tells me of the evolution of Duels. “It's all about finding it. The concept of an Arena Run mixed with the concept of a Dungeon Run, sure, let’s do that. But how exactly? Do you start with building your own deck, is it randomly generated, or are they premade decks? Are there templates to pull from, and if so, how many cards are? How many treasures do you start with? What's the exact format? It’s all these little details to work through and it took a while to narrow it all down to the best version.”

The end result, available in Early Access for those that pre-order Madness at the Darkmoon Faire, has all of the above detail and nuance. Enough for Duels to stand alone as an exciting new game mode. The initial deck building is limited to 15 cards, you choose a hero from a pool of Scholomance Wizards (seasonal changes will allow for new heroes and sets to come and go), and then do battle against other players.

Whether you win or lose a duel you earn new treasures that augment your deck, which increase the overall complexity, and add a distinct flavour to each subsequent encounter. Much like with an Arena Run, if you lose three times you’ll need to start again.

“The devil is always in the details, it's all about finding it. The concept of an Arena Run mixed with the concept of a Dungeon Run, sure, let’s do that. But how exactly?”

“At its core the combat in Duels is traditional Hearthstone,” Chadd continues. “The difference with Duels is what happens outside of that, building your deck as you go, the hybrid Arena, Dungeon Run concept. The mix of treasures, but in PVP. Finding the right way to marry all these different concepts together was the fun part. The core combat itself is classic Hearthstone.”

“AI doesn't mind when you do something,” Chad responds when asked about balancing treasures in single-player versus PvP. “That was one of the big challenges, finding the right level. How wacky can you go before it's not fun for both players. The treasures that you'll find in Duels are curated and not the insane power level that you might find in Dungeon Run treasures. That said, there's still a lot of exciting things, some absolutely crazy things, but they're done in ways that we think are healthy within that PvP context.”

As with the arrival of the Demon Hunter and Battlegrounds before it, alongside the new set of cards that will arrive with Madness at the Darkmoon Faire - special attention will also be placed on Duels. “One thing that we learned from Battlegrounds is that it was a game mode where we had to make frequent changes,” John McIntyre tells me. “In designing Duels we wanted to make sure that we had some flexibility and time to learn. The Early Access period allows us to do that and we’ll continue to develop and update it in a way that serves it best.”

“When you're doing something significantly new, that first initial release of it out into the wild is definitely going to give you the most interesting feedback and data,” Chadd Nervig concludes. “Looking back at Ashes of Outland, when we launched the new Demon Hunter class. We knew that it was going to be hard to predict exactly how everything was going to go, so we were ready to make changes rapidly based on it being new. The same is true with Duels, we are ready to adjust things if need be.”

Madness at the Darkmoon Faire will launch worldwide on November 17 alongside Duels.