Hearthstone is about to become a bit … creepier with the upcoming launch of The Witchwood, Blizzard Entertainment‘s eighth expansion for its market-leading card game. It hits just as the publisher is rotating several old sets out and Hearthstone is leaving the Year of the Mammoth behind for the Year of the Raven.
A new year of Standard and a new expansion mean new cards. Blizzard Entertainment and GamesBeat are revealing two today that work with the new even-odd mechanic coming with The Witchwood and legendaries such as Baku the Mooneater, which upgrades your hero power if you have just odd-cost cards in your deck.
The new cards are: Blackwald Pixie and Clockwork Automaton.
Blackwald Pixie, as Blizzard’s lore reads, “was turned dark and spooky by Hagatha the Witch of the Witchwood.” Hagatha is the new Shaman Legendary hero, and she figures prominently in the lore behind the expansion.
The Clockwork Automaton “is creepy, like one of those toys coming to life that you might hear about in a ghost story. The Toymaker in Gilneas is one of the ‘good guys’, but for some reason his toys are coming to life and walking the streets. Maybe because they are made using wood from the Witchwood.”
Blackwald Pixie’s Battlecry works with every hero power, but some aren’t as good as others. You could use the Druid’s twice, but you can only attack once, so you’d need to make sure you attack on the second use. You’d get two sets of Wicked Knife for Rogue, too, but again, you could only attack once. The automaton’s power works with Mage, Priest, and Warlock … but watch out with Gul’dan, because if you use it to draw a card, you’ll deal 4 damage to yourself.
Blackwald Pixie’s Battlecry also works well with the Death Knight hero powers. For Uther’s, you can summon two of the four Horsemen you need to win the game. Frost Lich Jaina, under the right circumstances, could end up with two Water Elementals from killing two 1-health minions with her power. And Thrall, Deathseer could evolve minions twice.
Blizzard offered a couple of examples of how the Clockwork Automaton would work with Baku.
- Priest: If you have Baku the Mooneater, the Priest hero power upgrades to healing for 4. If you then play the Clockwork Automaton, it heals for 8. If you also have Blackwald Pixie, you can heal for 8 twice (16 total in one turn!) Add Prophet Velen and it doubles again to 32.
- Hunter: The hero power when upgraded deals 3 damage to your opponent, so with these 2 cards and enough mana you could do 12 damage in one turn.
At the Game Developers Conference last week, I broke down the design behind the Blackwald Pixie and Clockwork Automaton with Dean “Iskar” Ayala, a game designer on Hearthstone’s final design team, and Dave Kosak, the lead mission designer (he even brought his furry hat from the Witchwood announcement video, and after talking with him, it’s clear the personality and enthusiasm he brings onstage at Hearthstone events and in videos is genuine).
And yes, one of the possible consequences of Baku, Clockwork Automaton, and Blackwald Pixie is the return of … Quest Warrior, which we discuss below.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Let’s start with these new cards: the pixie and the automaton. My first question, for Clockwork Automaton, it doesn’t work with Paladin or Warlock or Rogue or Druid or Warrior?
Dean Ayala: It does work with Warlock?
GamesBeat: It does?
Ayala: “Work” in quotes.
GamesBeat: It works with Gul’dan.
Ayala: Yeah, it works with him. But it also, if you play a normal Warlock, you’ll take 4 damage. So maybe don’t put it in that deck.
Dave Kosak: Maybe you want to take 4 damage!
Ayala: Sounds pretty sketchy, but it does function that way.
GamesBeat: I was thinking, does it draw two cards?
Kosak: No, no. You just take 2 damage.
GamesBeat: For the Wicked Knife for the Rogue, it doesn’t make a 2/2 knife?
GamesBeat: Were you worried about people abusing that with Boomerang, something like that?
Ayala: Not necessarily. It’s more about the card doing what the text says, without taking liberties and translating it into something different. This is a neutral card, so some classes will use it differently than others. We found one of the best and most fun ways to use this card was actually in Warrior, strangely. One of the coolest decks we’ve played in the Witchwood was odd quest Warrior with Baku the Mooneater, the card we revealed. Once you change your hero power, when you play the quest, you deal 8 damage. When you plop this guy down that turns into 16, which is a lot. If you manage to land one of these guys they work together in that deck to where you can do 16, refresh, and do 16 again. Which is a lot of damage.
GamesBeat: It’s a one-turn-kill.
Ayala: Kind of? There’s a lot of mana involved. That’s like 12.
Kosak: You’d have to spread it out over a couple of turns to take advantage of the pixie.
Ayala: Yeah, you’d have to stick one of them.
GamesBeat: Unless you’re playing Wild and you have Emperor Thaurissan.
Ayala: There’s always that. That was one of the ways we felt like this was one of the more fun ways to play with both of these cards.
GamesBeat: Would it double the damage for Garrosh’s death knight?
Ayala: Ah, yes. Basically anything that deals number damage or heals number damage.
GamesBeat: Would it do that also for the Malfurion Death Knight? He has an attack, so that’s not really dealing damage.
Ayala: Yeah, it wouldn’t double the attack, no.
Kosak: Shadow Reaper Anduin would double. That’s fun.
GamesBeat: Blackwald Pixie’s ability is a Battlecry. Would Warlock draw two cards if they used it?
Ayala: You’d have to use your hero power twice, but yes.
GamesBeat: So you could make two attacks with a Wicked Knife, or your druid?
Ayala: No, you can use your hero power twice. With Wicked Knife you would make a knife and make a knife. That wouldn’t be that great. You wouldn’t get a second attack. But for Malfurion, it would function because you’d hero power, get one attack, hero power, and get another attack. Or with the death knight, you’d get three attack and then three attack, and then you could attack once. Malfurion can’t attack twice. You get three attack, and then you refresh and get three attack again, and then you attack one time for six.
GamesBeat: So unless it’s a weapon, any ping would be something that wouldn’t happen twice. And Jaina would get a chance to use her power twice?
GamesBeat: The Grand Tournament tinkered with hero powers, but it didn’t have a huge effect on the meta. You’re trying again here with certain heroes, certain cards. Is this showing the lessons you learned from The Grand Tournament and how to apply interactions with hero powers in a way that you’re hoping more people will use?
Ayala: I don’t think necessarily. Inspire had its own set of use cases. I think for these in particular, a lot of the sexiness of using these is for a lot of the Death Knight hero cards. When you make your hero power much more powerful, using it twice is more appealing than with one of the base hero powers. With a lot of these, you are probably going to want to be playing one of the death knights in your deck and doubling those hero powers, or playing a Baku the Mooneater deck, where you have an upgraded hero power and you can use that twice in the same turn, or double it.
GamesBeat: Is it better to introduce tinkering with hero powers at the beginning of the year, so you can continue to build on it through the Standard rotation?
Ayala: I think with basically all mechanics — they might share that a bit. When you release something at the start, then you naturally have more time to build on it. With hero power stuff specifically, I think that — it is the first expansion of this year, but we’re still building on some of the stuff we did in Knights, two expansions ago now. Just because it’s the first expansion of the year, it doesn’t mean we’re not working with stuff we did last year. That’ll continue to be true forever. We put stuff in one set, and we keep building on it forever. Sometimes we’ll make fun interactions that we think are cool in Wild. We might make a card, and there might be a cool interaction with cards from Naxxramas. It’s not all about Standard.
Kosak: The two cards you have there, they work really well with Baku the Mooneater. They affect your hero power and they have odd costs. That’s a way of juicing those decks.
GamesBeat: Is Clockwork Automaton’s power persistent? Does it continue after he’s been removed?
Ayala: No, it does not. While it’s on the board specifically, then you can use that power. If it was for the rest of the game, that would be a huge balance problem for us. You’d be doing a lot of mean things to your opponent if that was true.
GamesBeat: Why play with hero powers in this set?
Ayala: Well, I think we would not do — Inspire was something that was basically over the course of the entire set. That was showing up everywhere. The hero powers are such a core part of Hearthstone. Every hero has a hero power. A lot of the Death Knight hero cards play with hero powers. We have Baku and Genn. We’re not only building on stuff from Knights [of the Frozen Throne]. We’re building on these two cards we’re showcasing as one of the coolest things about the expansion.
But even not including any of that, I think it would still be fine to have two of these cards that either build on something for the future, or we always just do one-off deck building challenges. What would happen if you could double the damage of your hero power? We get people thinking about that. Maybe I’d play that in whatever the new version of my Raza Priest is. Maybe I play that in my quest Warrior deck. But specifically for these, not only would they be cool as one-offs, but we have so many things we’re building on that it felt like a good idea to do these two cards.
GamesBeat: Will these appear in Arena?
Ayala: Yes, they will.
GamesBeat: But Baku will not.
Ayala: He will not, no.
GamesBeat: The reason they will appear in Arena is because they’re not tied to the odd-even mechanic?
Ayala: Yes. It’s not a coincidence, really, that these are odd cost cards, because it’s cool that they work with Baku. I think Baku itself, having a 9-mana 7/8 isn’t necessarily terrible for Arena. It’s just that the idea of drafting a deck that’s only odd cost cards — even if this was your first pick, it feels sort of unrealistic. Even the C’Thun cards, back when we did Old Gods, weren’t necessarily bad. A 4-mana 4/2 divine shield was one of the C’Thun cards. But we didn’t include it in Arena because it feels strange to have this text that says, build around in this way, but in a format where that’s not possible. Not having Baku in the format felt right because it looks strange to draft, whereas these cards, you don’t need the context of having an odd cost deck. They can still work.
GamesBeat: What’s your inspiration for building decks around odd or even cards? How long have you been trying to crack this?
Ayala: Wow. Of the most challenging things in Witchwood for us, from initial and final design — I can only speak to final design, but — Reno Jackson and Kazakus. Those cards are really awesome. They require you to — the gameplay challenges and the way you’re thinking about it, they start even before the game, in the deck building phase. You’re thinking about how to make this work. They create some different decks than you’re used to seeing. We wanted to replicate that challenge. You go into your collection and have a deck building challenge. You want to build a slightly different deck than you would build otherwise.
GamesBeat: And more than just building around a tribe.
Ayala: Right. Something that feels more like having all unique cards. We eventually ended up stumbling on even and odd costs and trying to figure out what those decks would mean to different classes. Was it too powerful in one class or the other? We would have to put it — we would have do odd in Mage or even in some other class. We ended up doing it in neutral because we felt like — even though in some of the more powerful ones, like Paladin, odd and even are both quite good, we felt like it was to the point where we could still ship it and it would be sort of okay on the balance side of things.
But really the inspiration was Reno and Kazakus, but having something that triggers at the start of the game does something special. If I say, hey, if you have this card you get a huge reward, but there’s a huge deck-building restriction, that card has to be very powerful in order to make up for that restriction. That creates a problem for us in gameplay, where if I draw this card or I don’t draw this card that I built my deck around, there’s a huge difference between whether I felt like I could win that game or not. We ended up coming up with a plan that they would be start of game triggers. We could balance around the fact that you just had this all the time as a benefit, rather than the — oh, I drew this card and I feel like I can win, or I never drew it and I feel like I lost. That can be frustrating.
GamesBeat: Isn’t that part of what card games are about, though? Sometimes you draw, and sometimes you don’t?
Ayala: Yeah, but it gets to an extreme. We would never make a 10-mana card that says, draw this and you win. Your decisions have to matter. There’s always going to be some amount of randomness in the order in which you draw your card or the kind of deck you queue into. But there’s a big difference between, I feel like the decisions I made over the course of the game mattered, versus a situation where it’s like, I need to draw this card or I don’t win.
Kosak: Something we liked about this, not only does it create a cool deck building challenge — that part of the gameplay is really fun — but it also changes the tempo of the game. You’re trying to figure out what to do on your odd cost turns, but your hero power only costs one. It changes how you play the game in the game, as well. It led to a lot of variety for us.
GamesBeat: I have some decks where I know that if I don’t draw a card, I lose. My Hobgoblin decks in Wild, if I don’t draw Hobgoblin, there’s a good chance I’m going to lose. But it’s fun regardless. Or an OTK Hunter deck where you’re trying to use Abominable Bowman to spawn multiple Charged Devilsaur or King Krush cards. If you don’t draw those beasts, you’re dead. What’s the problem with having a condition where you don’t draw a card and you’re dead?
Ayala: Again, I think the answer is the extremes there. It’s not as black and white as — I think with a lot of those decks, especially the OTK decks, they circumvent the problem of “I never drew this” with — like, OTK quest Mage, that deck needs Antonidas and Sorcerer’s Apprentice and stuff like that. But they build that deck in such a way where they have 10 draw cards and they’re trying to draw their entire deck every game. That OTK, that version of, I need to draw Antonidas — for us that doesn’t feel very random. They’re drawing their entire deck every game. When you get into a situation like, I have a card like Barnes, a lot of the interactions with Barnes are fine.
If you build a big Priest and you Barnes into Obsidian Statue and then resurrect Obsidian Statue, that’s a powerful interaction, but you made a huge sacrifice to make that happen. Situations like Barnes into Y’Shaarj, that can be a lot more frustrating. Any time you go into your collection and you think back to a particular moment in the game — like, is there anything I could have done? If I knew this was going to happen could I have gone into my collection and done something about it? If the answer to that is no, I think that’s an issue, something we don’t want to do in the future if we have a choice. That’s the long-winded answer. But there are a lot of extremes. These definitely feel like they have to matter.
GamesBeat: With Baku and these hero power cards playing off the odd mana mechanic, is that so players couldn’t reap the benefits of a Shadowreaper Anduin deck, right?
Ayala: There’s a ton of — across all nine classes, there’s a lot of restriction. One of the most powerful — the biggest one that I think ended up being a bonus for us was odd Paladin is one of the more powerful ones, because the upgraded hero power is extremely good, whereas Call to Arms is one of the more powerful cards in Hearthstone right now, and probably will continue to be until it rotates out of Standard. The fact that those two didn’t align was good, because otherwise there might have been an issue there. There are a ton of interactions like that. Sure, Shadowreaper Anduin. But the deck building restriction on all of these things is huge.
GamesBeat: What are the dangers of creating this odd-even deck design, from a designer’s standpoint?
Ayala: One of the biggest dangers, I think anyway, is — this is kind of designer-ey. But at the start of the game, this thing happens. Hey, your hero power changes. We have a video so you can see, just to elaborate on this point. Anyway, at the start of the game, this trigger happens. That’s something that, as designers — we try hard to protect the idea that there’s not a lot of really strange weird things happening that you don’t know what’s going on. If you’re coming back to the game — if 40 percent of decks were odd and even decks, then it would feel like every game you go into, this weird thing happens at the start. What is that? Is that what Hearthstone is? Every time I play there’s this weird interaction? It’s a cool one-off thing, and if you run into it every once in a while — especially at the launch of Witchwood, because it’ll probably happen at a higher rate than at any other time in the future.
I think that’s a danger, in that there’s this weird thing happening at the very start of the game, which is a sort of sacred time we don’t want to mess with too much. We’ll never make it, so there are 10 different start of game triggers where you don’t know what’s going on. Also, like any other expansion, when you make something new and interesting and powerful, one of the dangers is that it’s so new and interesting and powerful that it becomes — people are playing it too much, which means the diversity of decks goes down. When the diversity of decks goes down, then you run into the same thing over and over again, and that’s less fun.
GamesBeat: Do you feel this will be like quests, where everyone played them at first because they’re new, and then we don’t like these new toys so much and we’ll go back to other things?
Ayala: A new thing comes out, everyone wants to experiment with it and try to understand the thing that’s new that you haven’t done before, that’s going to be the thing that you enjoy for your next — either way, sure. I guess I do expect it to be like that, in that people are going to experiment with all kinds of new even and odd decks. They’ll find the one they really enjoy, or they’ll find a deck that’s not even or odd, either one that exists currently in Hearthstone now or something else — maybe they’ll be playing Azalina Soulthief, or whatever, and they’ll really enjoy taking their enemy’s hand. Everyone is going to find the thing that they want, but I think a lot of people are going to experiment with even and odd stuff initially.
Kosak: It’s the beginning of a new season. Even and odd will come back around. It’s kind of a new challenge in design. We have to keep an eye on what cards are even and odd to see what kind of combos people can do. For Wild it’ll always be — but Wild is no holds barred. It’s one of the reasons Molten Giant is going back to its old pre-nerf state.
GamesBeat: Will you have two people on the design team whose jobs break down as: One is the odd overlord, and one is the even overlord? From here on out, would they watch for those interactions?
Ayala: [Laughs] Hopefully, we’re all keeping an eye out. We all play an enormous amount of Hearthstone, and then we also look at enormous pools of data. We have all the tools at our disposal in terms of looking to see if something is going to become a problem. Also, with even and odd, it seems like one of the easier ones to account for. If even Paladin turns out to be very powerful, we can still make good Paladin cards, but we’ll just have to make them odd. That’ll be easy to account for going forward, unless both versions of Paladin are powerful. Maybe that could be a problem.
GamesBeat: For Clockwork Automaton, why attach that specific power to a mech, and not some other type of card?
Ayala: In general, we try to have a wide variety of different characters. When we have this design and we have this art and someone puts a name on it, we try to match a lot of the characters we have with what their mechanic might do. This particular piece we got back matched the design. Mechs are something we like. We’ll probably continue to do one or two going forward in sets that aren’t dedicated to mech-like things. It’s just a matter of finding a character that fits the design.
GamesBeat: At 5 mana, are you worried that it’s still going to be overpowered? It seems like there will be instances where this card is stellar.
Ayala: Yeah, this is one of the more extreme cards in terms of what it can do. Returning your Ragnaros hero power is quite extreme. That was one of the reasons why it was put at a higher mana cost. I don’t expect to see it in use cases where you’re just playing it, where this card is so good that it shows up in every deck. It’ll show up in very specialized decks. But the specialized decks tend to be the ones that are the most powerful. I’m curious how people are going to use this. Either trying to get repeat uses out of Shadowreaper Anduin or trying to do quest Warrior stuff.
GamesBeat: Did you test it at 7 mana?
Ayala: No, we actually tested it at 3 and 4 mana, and then it went to 5. We usually start on the more powerful side of things, rather than the less powerful side, and then we change the cost of stuff upward over time if we need to — just so we can see what the extremes are. A lot of times, when something — you think something should be a 5, but you’re not sure, so you start it at 4 to see how powerful that thing is. Sometimes it’s more powerful than you expected, or maybe it’s as powerful as you expected, but you thought that would be too powerful, and it turns out to be really fun. So we end up just keeping it around. Maybe it’s a tier one deck, but it’s so fun that it’s the kind of deck we’re happy having in the metagame. We tend to start on the lower end of things. This was 3, 4, and then 5.
GamesBeat: Say there’s a plague of quest Warriors and people are queueing into two or three quest Warriors every five or six games. Would you be open to looking at that card and seeing if it’s being abused at 5 mana?
Ayala: Sure. That’s a generic answer with any card. If we find any particular card to be a problem, then we’ll go in and make adjustments to that. But we try to do that as sparingly as possible, so players still feel like they’re the ones figuring things out and changing their decks. The metagame shifting naturally over time, rather than Blizzard saying, the metagame will change to this now. We don’t like to do that as much, but with any card, if it’s a problem then we’ll do something about it.