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Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, the latest expansion for Blizzard digital card game leader Hearthstone, has now been out over a month, and it has brought big changes to what had been a rather stale late 2016.
Many of the 132 new cards have helped create new, powerful decks (hello Pirate Warrior) in the most popular mode, Standard — the mode that bans cards from older expansions and adventures. But a few players are critical about of some of new cards, worried that they’re too powerful or have created a reliance on certain archetypes.
GamesBeat interviewed senior game designer Peter Whalen about how Blizzard created some of Gadgetzan’s new cards and concepts, changes that may be coming to the Arena deck-drafting mode, and what Blizzard thinks about some the sets most popular (and maybe too powerful) cards.
GamesBeat: We’re reaching the end of this first Standard cycle with Year of the Kraken. Do you think the Standard year — which will be the same length of an actual year if the next expansions comes in April — is too long?
Whalen: I don’t think so. This is where we were expecting Standard to be. This is the most sets we’ve ever had in the Standard environment. It’s been interesting to see a lot of new decks come together. There have been pieces throughout the Standard season. We had the dragons in Blackrock Mountain, and now Dragon Priest is a pretty big force on the ladder. It’s been cool to see that deck evolve over time. The Reno decks that were introduced with League of Explorers have been very powerful. With Mean Streets they got a bunch of new cards. It’s been cool to see how, with so many cards in the metagame right now, those decks can really thrive.
GamesBeat: Are you surprised by how popular Patches has become? Did you think that pirate decks would become this big?
Whalen: He’s in charge now. [Laughs] It’s cool to see Patches and pirates do well. They’ve been one of the tribes, the minion types, that people have been excited to see do things in Hearthstone as time’s gone on. They haven’t been as well-represented. Murlocs had their time to shine. Dragons had their time to shine. Now it’s a chance for pirates.
It’s been cool to see people using that package in different decks to drive archetypes that had gone a bit dormant. Miracle Rogue was a bit weaker in the previous metagame, and now it’s had more of a chance to do well with the Patches package. That said, it’s true that the Patches package is going in a lot of different decks, more than we had anticipated. We’re watching it, definitely, and we’re trying to make sure that the metagame going forward has a lot of different viable archetypes. The Patches and Small Time Buccaneer is something we’re watching.
GamesBeat: Talking about Small Time Buccaneer, Hearthstone has seen 1 mana minions grow in power since the original set. Do you think Small Time Buccaneer is too powerful?
Whalen: It’s definitely powerful. It’s a build-around in the sense that you change what cards are in your deck to support it. You play more cheap weapons in Shaman and Warrior. Rogue gets a cheap weapon for free, so [Small Time Buccaneer] doesn’t need to do much work. You put things like Patches in your deck, other pirate synergies, especially in the Warrior archetype.
But yeah, powerful 1-drops — we’re keeping a very close eye on. Our philosophy has been that having powerful 1 drops in the metagame allows us to drive decks and keep interesting things happening in the early game. It allows us to have powerful aggro archetypes, and it also to allow decks to combat powerful aggro archetypes. But it’s something that, going forward, we’ll pull back on a bit.
With the new Standard rotation, Tunnel Trogg, one of the most powerful 1 drops we’ve ever made, will move into Wild. In the near future we’re going to try and make fewer powerful 1 drops, especially ones that tend to snowball. If they sit on the board for a long time, they continue to become more powerful. In the classic set we had Mana Wyrm and Flame Imp, which are also very strong. But going forward we’ll try and look for more 1 drops like Zombie Chow or Swashburglar or Babbling Book that have powerful effects, but it’s OK if they sit on the board for three or four turns. They don’t immediately drive the game toward a conclusion.
GamesBeat: As more cards become available in Arena with every expansion, do you think there’s a point where there are too many in the draft pool?
Whalen: We’ve been talking about Arena a ton. We say that a lot … we want to find ways to make it better. One of the things we’re talking about is finding a way to limit the cards that can show up. Maybe one month it’s different from the next. Maybe we go for a Standard solution that matches the ranked play experience as well. Maybe the most recent set is 10 times as likely to show up as others. Maybe spells are more likely to show up. Maybe it’s something we change every month to keep Arena more fresh. All these things are on the table.
We just got some new technology to allow design to have more fine-tuned control over the Arena experience. We’re going to take advantage of that and figure out what are the best things we can do to make Arena a good experience for both newer players and the very experienced players who’ve played thousands of Arena games.
GamesBeat: What’s this new technology you’re talking about?
Whalen: Before, in order to make Arena changes, we had to do a lot of engineering and code base manipulation. An engineer had to spend a lot of time on it. We’ve gotten a tool that, going forward, will let designers make changes to specific arena environments. An individual card can show up less or more. If we wanted to make Flamestrike show up 10 times as often, because we really want to buff Mage in Arena, we could do that. Or on the flip side, we could make minions show up less or more. We can curate a very specific arena experience if that’s something we’re interested in. We just got that tool, so now we’re trying to figure out the best ways to make use of it.
GamesBeat: So a card’s rarity wouldn’t matter as much.
Whalen: Exactly. We can have mixed rarity picks. If we say, OK, Firelands Portal is a powerful card so we want it to show up as often as a rare or epic, that’s something we can do.
GamesBeat: So instead of rarity, there can be tiers of cards: really powerful, pretty powerful, weaker, and so on.
Whalen: Yeah, that’s definitely something we could do. Or if we wanted Murlocs to show up more often, we could do that. You get Murloc Warleader, and now your deck is more likely to come together. We have a lot of crazy ideas in that space. We don’t have anything to announce right now, but that’s an area we’re exploring. We’re excited about it.
GamesBeat: Is Blizzard surprised by that Arena is so popular?
Whalen: Not really. Arena is super-important, at least to me personally. If you look at the main login screen for Hearthstone, you come in and there’s the box that says ranked, casual, Arena, tavern brawl, solo adventures. These are our game modes. These are the ways you play Hearthstone. They’re all super-important.
GamesBeat: Why is there always that two-day break in Tavern Brawl? Why not just make the one available a bit longer, right up until the new one’s out?
Whalen: That’s a possibility. It’s one thing we talked about at the beginning, when we were putting in Tavern Brawl. One of the main reasons we wanted to have a break is to separate the Tavern Brawls a bit, to let you have a bit of a cleanser in your mind between — all right, there was this Tavern Brawl, and now it’s going to be the next one. It gives you a bit of time to go do the other game modes if you’re interested, to go play ranked or Arena. Having that break gives you a pause that lets the Tavern Brawls breathe a bit more, which I think is kind of nice.
GamesBeat: You recently had that Diablo-themed Tavern Brawl. Is that something we might see more of, these Tavern Brawls that are themed with other Blizzard properties?
Whalen: I think that’d be awesome. I love the other Blizzard games. We’ve gotten things like the Overwatch card back in Hearthstone and this Diablo-themed Tavern Brawl. That’s a lot of fun. Being able to draw inspiration from things that aren’t just Warcraft, being able to find a Hearthstone way to do them.
GamesBeat: So I can still hold out hope for something like a Lost Vikings Tavern Brawl someday?
Whalen: [Laughs] That’d be a pretty sweet Tavern Brawl.