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Hearthstone kicks off the Year of the Dragon with the Rise of Shadows on April 9. This is the first expansion of this Standard year rotation, and it’s bringing together a bunch of bumbling baddies in what’s a Blizzard Entertainment first — a year-long storyline for Hearthstone, and it’s own take on DC’s Legion of Doom or the Sinister Six of Spider-Man infamy.

Though it’s clear that this gathering — Rafaam, Madame Lazul, Hagatha, Togwaggle, and Dr. Boom — are more like Dastardly and and Muttley and Their Flying Machines than, say, the Fearsome Five that devils DC’s Legion of Superheroes.

Hearthstone is the top dog in the market, which research firm Newzoo estimated would be worth $2 billion by 2020, and it made more on mobile in 2018 than it did in 2017. It’s entering its fifth year. In addition to new set of 135 new cards (Blizzard calls them dastardly, but I’ve played them, and some are downright funny or cute), the Rise of Shadows is bringing in a few tools for Boom and Co. to help pull off their malevolent mayhem … or for you to use to stop them.

  • Callback: These are cards that will remind players of old cards from previous expansions. The Priest Spell Forbidden Words spends all of a player’s mana to kill a minion with that much attack, and it’s a reference to the Forbidden Spells from 2016’s Whispers of the Old Gods. If you spend 4 mana, you can kill a 4-attack minion with it.
  • Lackeys: These are minions that serve Rafaam, Lazul, Hagatha, Togwaggle, and Dr. Boom. They are 1/1 minions with Battlecrys that are helpful. Togwaggle’s Kobold Lackey deals 2 damage when it hits the board. Rafaam’s EVIL Miscreant is a 3 mana 1/5 Rogue minion that adds two random Lackeys when played as a Combo. The Goblin Lackey (one of the summons) is a 1/1 minion that gives another minion a +1 attack and Rush when it hits the board. The Faceless Minion is a 1/1 creature that summons a random 2-cost minion.
  • Schemes: The power of these spell cards grow each turns. For Hagatha’s Scheme (a 5 mana Shaman spell), it deals 1 damage to all minions. If you hold it for 3 turns, it’ll deal 3 damage.
  • Twinspell: These add a copy of the spell to your hand after you cast it. Druid’s The Forest’s Aid costs 8 mana and summons five 2/2 Treants … and then adds a copy to your hand. It’s like Echo from The Witchwood, but you can only cast it once more.

The Not-So-Fearsome Five

Above: The League of E.V.I.L. sure isn’t the Sinister Six.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Rafaam, Madame Lazul, Hagatha, Togwaggle, and Dr. Boom are the villains for this year’s storyline. Each represents one of Hearthstone’s eight class:


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  • Rafaam: Warlock
  • Madame Lazul: Priest
  • Hagatha: Shaman
  • Togwaggle: Rogue
  • Dr. Boom: Warrior

Arch-Villain Rafaam is a Warlock card. A Legendary, Rafaam is a 7/8 minion for 7 mana that replaces your hand and deck with Legendary minions. It’s a callback to The Golden Monkey from League of Explorers.

We also learned about some of the other new cards:

  • Chef Nomi: A 6/6 Legendary neutral minion for 7 mana. If your deck is empty, you summon six 6/6 Greasefire Elementals as a Battlecry. This Pandaren hits the board with a polka-like trumpet-and-tuba flourish, so I already love this card.
  • Kalecgos: A 4/12 Legendary Dragon for Mage for 10 mana. It makes spells cheaper, and the first you cast each turn it’s on the board costs 0 mana. This one also has a Battlecry: Discover a spell (which if it’s the first you cast that turn costs 0 mana).
  • Spellward Jeweler: A 3/4 neutral minion for 3 mana. Its Battlecry makes your hero immune to spells or hero powers for one turn.

I talked with Hearthstone creative director Ben Thompson about Rise of Shadows, these bumbling baddies, and how long these ideas have been in the cooker. Here’s an edited transcript of part of our interview. The rest will run next month, as it’s under a Blizzard Entertainment news embargo.

Dr. Boom wants you for E.V.I.L.

Above: Dr. Boom wants you for E.V.I.L.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

GamesBeat: What does E.V.I.L. in the League of E.V.I.L. stand for? On some of the cards it wasn’t abbreviated, so I didn’t know.

Ben Thompson: Not bring abbreviated, on the cards, purely comes down to space. We want to make sure we get the room to show the name of the villain attached to it. It is E.V.I.L. What does it stand for? Well, I’m sure the rest of the E.V.I.L. League would like to figure it out.

In my own mind, at least, I picture this being the most important thing for four of the five to be figuring out, and Rafaam really wishes they would focus on the task at hand here and get past that, so we can go do more evil things than name ourselves. I also like, a bit, in the back of my head, the fact that it’s League of Explorers and League of E.V.I.L. — LOE. They’re so unimaginative and not super-creative as evil folk go that they couldn’t even find a different acronym. But they’re bound and determined to make their way in the world. For me, I’m curious to see what Reddit comes up with as far as what that could stand for.

GamesBeat: How long have you been working on the Rise of Shadows storyline?

Thompson: This is something that’s been attractive to us, honestly, all the way back to League of Explorers [an adventure that launched in November 2015]. As soon as that came out and we saw the reaction of players to this inherent league of good guys, if you will, making their way in the archaeological side of things and trying to protect all of these magical ancient items — at the time, Jason Chayes and myself and even Eric Dodds [who are no longer on the Hearthstone team] and others started talking about, for every good there’s always a bad, right? What’s the anti-hero group? What is a group of villains like in Hearthstone? We’d never really talked about that before.

As you’ve seen, there’s always a singular when we talk about the villains. There’s just Rafaam or just Dr. Boom. As we asked ourselves that question, time and again, over the intervening years that came after League of Explorers, more and more we realized this cast is really building itself. We started with Rafaam, but immediately after that you have things like Togwaggle showing up, Dr. Boom showing up, and not just once but twice or more.

Suddenly, it became very clear, this group, if they ever got together, might be incredibly dangerous. Maybe to themselves initially, but if they ever got their act together it would be bad news for the denizens of Azeroth.

GamesBeat: Did you get together as a small group, to put them all together, or did one of you just say, let’s do this? And then everyone said, that’s great, let’s do it.

Thompson: There was a small set of us. Peter Whalen, for sure. Myself, for sure. Others who’d been around since League of Explorers. Every time we came up with a new expansion or a new set, we’d look at each other and be like, is it time? Can we do it? No, you know what, you’re right — trolls are really cool. Let’s do Rastakhan’s Rumble instead. How about now? I dunno. Kobolds, there’s a fun narrative there in the idea of dungeon-delving and all this stuff.

It’s one of those that showed up on the whiteboard multiple times before we finally looked at it and said, you know, if we had any guts, we would not just do this, but we would do a whole year of it. We would really dedicate the resources and the time and creativity to doing this right, doing it in a way that we get to make the most out of the fact that there’s not one, not two, but five of these evil villain characters. What’s a plot, or some kind of evil undertaking, that’s worthy of 365 days of storytelling? It happened to line right up with things like wanting to revamp what single-player really is, or this idea of telling the story in a way that heralds or has that record-scratch moment for players, where they realize, OK, this is going to be new and different this year. Something else is going on.

GamesBeat: When you were doing this, the story and the revamp in single-player, did these two things come together nicely, or did you say, wait a second, our best chance to introduce a year-long storyline is to do it when we revamp how we do single-player?

Thompson: The two were goals — they started separately. Certainly it was, I love this cross-year narrative idea, I love the idea of the evil league, this is something I’ve been talking about personally for a long time. And it happened to coincide a lot with how we’re reaching the fifth year of Hearthstone. We really want to talk about what we can do that evolves it to the next stage and really continues to be a game for everyone, or that you can play your way. This want to revisit single-player with all of the learnings from previous single-players was happening in parallel. As design and creative and everyone started talking on the team, this felt like a really cool opportunity to link the two in a way that helps us tell an awesome cohesive story, even more so, and also gives a good set of reasoning behind a single-player narrative that feels thematic and thought through.

GamesBeat: Why have the callbacks to Forbidden cards and other mechanics?

Thompson: Some of that is thematic. Some of that is the sense of, well, if these evil villains are coming back, they’re coming back stronger. They’ve learned. The fact that Madame Lazul gets to bring back the idea of the Forbidden cycle from Whispers of the Old Gods, the fact that, in the case of Rafaam specifically, he himself is a callback to the Golden Monkey from League of Explorers. And even when you get down to Hagatha, there’s this reminiscent effect of Echo present in one of her cards. One of the important things to call out there, though, is that rather than just pick directly from and re-appropriate the keywords or the direct mechanic in a way that might confuse new players, because they might not have been with us for Echo as a keyword, or some of these previous — certainly the Golden Monkey — it’s enough to allude to them, so that if players recognize them it breeds a sense of familiarity into these characters. Oh, they’re still up to their old tricks.

There’s that familiarity to that effect. But the fact that it doesn’t bear the echo name, or forbidden as an absolute mechanic, means that new players get to come along for the ride and have fun too. It’s a way we got to continue the story of these characters that felt very tied to this, up to their old tricks, using villainy that we’re very familiar with, while adding in some of these new things in the form of lackeys and schemes.

Above: Togwaggle want gold. He doesn’t care if it’s yours.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

GamesBeat: This group of villains, to you, is it more like Spider-Man’s Sinister Six? Or the Legion of Doom?

Thompson: There was a lot of those metaphors as we were talking about it. What are some of the examples of these ultimate evil anti-hero groups that we’ve seen in the past lore of different things, be it movies, books, whatever? We talked a lot about what makes a compelling group of villains. Certainly the fact that you’ve had interactions with each of these, and then you get the mysterious Madame Lazul, who you don’t know a lot about, but you might want to know more, hopefully — it’s all a part of what makes for a — call it bumbling, but still inherently dangerous under the surface, if they ever actually get their act together. That’s where the compelling storytelling comes in, and that’s where [Hearthstone lead mission designer Dave] Kosak starts steepling his fingers and grinning. He knows what we can do with that.

GamesBeat: As you’re doing this, did you find dividing lines on the design team: We’re Marvel folks, and we like the Sinister Six. No, we’re DC folks, and we like the Legion of Doom!

Thompson: I think some groups or some people had kind of pet metaphors for it. But really it was never about one of these being more successful than another and more about, how do we do this in a way that feels like the Hearthstone take on a villainous league of five? For instance, some of the stories that came up internally, or at least some of the stories I was talking about with Dave — there was the idea that, of course there’s five of them, because the only thing they have to compare to is the League of Explorers, which is four. They have one more, so it’s obviously more powerful. And the idea that Rafaam gets to make the cool little metaphor of, aha, it’s five, like a fist! And that would confuse Togwaggle, because he looks at his own fingers and thinks, there’s only three, I don’t understand.

All the silly conversations that would end up happening. It’s obviously what led to the cinematic, where Rafaam is trying to sell the idea to this group, and they kind of get it — but not quite. They like the idea. They hear what he’s saying. But they’re going to need some convincing, because some of them aren’t that bright. Maybe others, while they’re bright enough, don’t see the inherent strength in numbers thing winning the day. It made for some fun conversations, which led their way back into the game.

GamesBeat: I never realized Togwaggle was a villain.

Thompson: I think Togwaggle has been convinced that maybe he should side with the villains. Maybe they’re even using language around him of, we’re not villains, we’re just getting back what was rightfully yours. It was stolen from you. You can’t steal what’s yours. I can see Rafaam engaging in some conversations like that.

GamesBeat: Or a case where the good guys turned him bad because of what they did to him, as we took his gold in Kobolds & Catacombs.

Thompson: Possibly? I think everyone has different motivations. That’s what makes for interesting characters. As soon as characters can define a set of motivations that inspire them, and that there are always shades of gray with these characters, and an outright black or white in terms of values here and there where needed, that’s where engaging and interesting stories happen.

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