Hearthstone is getting ready to release its third and last expansion of the year, Descent of Dragons. And for a year that the digital card game has called the Year of the Dragons, it’s nice to see the winged beasts finally become the stars of a set for the first time since Blackrock Mountain came out back in 2015.

Descent of Dragons releases on December 10, but I played a bit of the expansion at this year’s BlizzCon, which took place on November 1 and November 2 in Anaheim California. I also interviewed a couple of members of the Hearthstone development team, effects artist Hadija Chamberlain and game designer Alec Dawson.

I asked them about the fun and challenge that comes with making an expansion centered around that greatest of fantasy creatures, the dragon. I was also able talk about some of the other new mechanics in the set, like the Invoke keyword and the new sidequest cards.

Back to dragons

GamesBeat: Is it fun to do another dragon expansion?

Alec Dawson: Definitely. We’re in the year of the dragon, right? It’s been exciting to finally pump out all of these dragons that we have in Descent of Dragons and a bunch of legendary dragons coming back, being able to do those aspects again. Cards like Ysera and Malygos. Deathwing we already revealed too. That’s been something that’s been pretty fun to design around. And then Galakrond, bringing back one of the most powerful dragons of all time in Azeroth’s history in Hearthstone as a hero card for five classes is pretty exciting.

Above: Galakrond is coming for you.

Image Credit: Blizard

GamesBeat: People expect dragons to be strong. Does that make creating dragon cards difficult?

Dawson: If anything, dragons, we want them to feel like dragons. We want them to be beefy, big and powerful when they come down, and make sure those feelings are happening inside the game. When you look at coming back to create some of the most iconic dragons of all time and what they could be like with a new iteration, that was more fun than anything. Deathwing, as an example, is one of those cards — the new one, with a Battlecry to attack all other minions, that’s definitely going to create so much rage. It’s going to knock everything. If you have friendly minions on the board, it’s going to be pretty sad for them. But coming back to this was something we wanted to do. We want to explore different ways to do Malygos, do Ysera, and have their stories be told again in Hearthstone.

Hadija Chamberlain: I think you guys hit a good range of dragons, too. The legendary dragons are so cool. They feel really epic and different. They do all this awesome stuff. But there’s this whole range of dragons in there, too. The League of Explorers has their little explorer dragons that play a lot more to helping you with consistency in the dragon decks, having these little extra bonuses. Like with Azure Explorer, it has the standard discover a dragon Battlecry that all of the Explorers share, so you have something in play and in your hand, but you also have spell damage. Primordial Explorer has poisonous to help out hunters. Those ones were, I think, some really cool smaller dragons. And also as far as even more synergies, the dragon breaths are all these really cool spells that synergize well with any of the dragons. It’s another way to play into the dragon fantasy without it just having to be giant hulking minions. I feel like you guys did a good job of spreading that across a ton of different ideas.

Dawson: We wanted to keep that spread, yeah. But at the same time, dragons should be big, hulking minions too, you know? Come down, wreak some havoc on the board.

Game designer Alec Dawson and effects artist

Above: Game designer Alec Dawson (left) and effects artist Hadija Chamberlain.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: In the past dragons have been mostly tied to specific classes, like Priest or Warrior. Is it a hard to make dragons for everyone?

Dawson: We wanted to give the opportunity that every class in Descent of Dragons can play a dragon deck. One of the ones we already saw, Breath of Dreams in Druid, their breath spell is draw a card, and if you’re holding a dragon, gain an empty mana crystal for two mana. Possibly a very powerful card if you’re playing the Druid dragon deck. That’s something we haven’t seen a bunch of in the past, Druid and dragons.

Then we even give some love for Shaman. Shaman dragons, they get some cool stuff with their breath. It’s 2 mana, deals 3 damage, and then it gets to spread out to other minions if you’re holding a dragon. There’s some powerful stuff there. I think you might see some classes you haven’t seen before play dragon decks. At the same time, you’ll still see possibly priest playing a dragon deck. There’s some powerful stuff they get as well. I think it’s a lot of fun to see new classes play dragon decks that you haven’t necessarily seen before.

GamesBeat: I was playing with the Hunter deck, and it has all this synergy based around the Hero Power. What was the inspiration for making that formula?

Dawson: The Hunter is one of those classes where there’s a lot of focus on the Hero Power, because you’re using it to close out games. You’re pressing as much as you can, weaving it in throughout the game. We wanted to reward our players with, okay, if that is going to be the focus of your deck, you get to do some cool stuff. The new side quest, Toxic Reinforcements, you hero power three times, you summon some Leper Gnomes for more face damage. I think it’s a deck that, when we give players those very directed things, it’s fun to play. The Hunter Hero Power deck, with the side quests and also with Phase Stalker, two mana 2/3 that, after you use your Hero Power, you can play a seeker from your deck into the battlefield — those cards, you start to get some synergies. It’s a really fun deck, and yes, you do get to go face.

Above: Toxic Reinforcements.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Galakrond is a new Hero card that seems pretty strong, and multiple classes can use him. Some Hero cards, like Dr. Boom Mad Genius, have been so strong that you had to nerf them. Are these kinds of cards especially challenging to create?

Dawson: The thing with Galakrond, we wanted to do — it didn’t necessarily start as a hero card. At one point it was a minion. You would do this ritual, it would start on the board, and you’d have these bones of Galakrond.

Chamberlain: You gave up a minion slot for the whole game.

Dawson: You had these bones and you were doing this ritual. At one point it was just a 15/15 that had rush. It was giant. At one point you did immediately become Galakrond. It wasn’t a card you included in your deck. You became it. We found that to be a bit too consistent. We ended up moving to the hero card version, where we got to do this cool Battlecry. One thing — we’ve been trying to put more value into that Battlecry moment with your hero cards. That’s where most of your value is going to come from. You still get a pretty good hero power, invoking along the way, but I think with Galakrond in particular, when you make hero cards that are build-arounds, it allows us to have a lot more control over what those decks are going to look like, making sure the value is appropriate for the deck-building process.

I need a hero

GamesBeat: How do you approach the animations for Hero Cards?

Chamberlain: Definitely a big part of it is just — it’s usually even a bit bigger of a moment than a standard legendary. A lot of it’s very similar to–we’re trying to capture the story and the excitement of that particular character. We usually try to go a little bit more epic than a legendary, just because it is going to stick around for the rest of the game. It’s a big, pivotal gameplay moment. The Galakrond in particular is a fun one, because on the animation side, we wanted to capture a lot of the same things that we were going for mechanically. It’s always Galakrond, but we want it to feel very unique to each of the classes.

Trying to capture that fantasy of, this is a very big dragon, becoming that dragon, but then tailoring it to — well, this one is completely overtaken with fell fire. This one is all about the old gods’ corruption. And then the poisonous, smoky, sneaky rogue one. Just trying to capture all of those different things for each one was a lot of fun. Another thing we did with Galakrond, for each of his tiers as he’s upgrading from invokes, just trying to make the ritual completion and becoming Galakrond a little bit bigger, a little bit more epic each time. They’re really fun, and because it’s a little bit rarer — there are relatively few hero cards — just trying to celebrate that moment and that character.

Above: Shield of Galakrond.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Is the Invoke keyword inspired by the old C’thun card, a legendary minion that was buffed by other cards?

Dawson: There are always some things that we took from C’thun here. I think with Galakrond, the story was, hey, we have these bones of this ginormous dragon. How do we want to raise it? What are we doing here? That was one of the places we started. We knew we wanted to do some sort of ritual. Then, as we started playing, we wanted to make it a bit different for each class. OK, one of the things with C’thun, you’re going all in on this giant moment at the end. With Galakrond we wanted to smooth out that process. When you do invoke, you make your Galakrond stronger, but you also get a bonus along the way.

For Rogues, you get a lackey in your hand. That feels nice, to get these small things along the way. It also helps you get to the final moment, and it helps you deck-build a certain way. If you’re a Warlock playing Galakrond, you’re going to summon imps. You’re going to play more of a token style deck in general. Warlock Galakrond is actually kind of playing a zoo game for a bit. You’re buffing your minions that start a bit smaller. You’re trying to get some face damage in. You sacrifice them when you can. The invoke mechanic allowed us to explore different decks within the Galakrond space.

My favorite is the Rogue one, because you’re playing a combo deck. You’re playing cards like Questing Adventurer and Edwin and stuff like that, and then you have the big Galakrond moment to upgrade it twice to the final form, Galakrond, Azeroth’s End. You draw four cards and reduce their cost to 0, which is pretty insane. If you hit Leeroy, hit some other things, you have a lot of damage coming in. Invoke allowed us to create very different and unique Galakrond decks all through this hero card.

Act Three

GamesBeat: You were having fun this year doing this overarching story for the three expansions. Now that we’re getting to the end of that, how do you think that experiment has worked out?

Chamberlain: I feel like it was definitely a lot of fun for us. We had a blast with it. It seems like it’s been fun for players, too, which has been cool to see. It’s been fun getting to bring back all of these old characters. Especially on the design side, they’ve been figuring this out for years now. It’s not something that we’ll do every year, I don’t think, because we want to keep trying out a bunch of different stuff. There’s a lot of things that a year-long narrative is good for, like stories, like these overarching mechanics, lackeys and all of that. And there’s some stuff that works better in stand-alone sets. I think we’ll keep doing what feels right for the set and the year. But it’s been super fun. We’ll come back to it at some point.

Descent of Dragons.

Above: Here comes Reno!

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Is it different when you’re designing the last set of the Standard year?

Dawson: I don’t think we necessarily intentionally put power into the last set of the year. We do take in mind that there are things that we – -we’re doing a bunch of hero cards, right? Something like that is maybe more fitting for the end of year expansion. But never power. One thing with Descent of Dragons — the thing that we wanted to make sure we got into the last set of the year was dragons. [Laughs] We did the Year of the Dragon, but I think there were three dragons so far? Now there’s a lot! Now you’re all going to be able to play all those dragon decks. You’ll be able to play dragon Paladin and all these things. That was the main thing, going into this, that we wanted to promise. Mechanically and functionally and on the ladder, you’re going to see those dragon decks, because it’s the year of the dragon.

GamesBeat: Was it frustrating when people were complaining about the lack of dragons in the Year of the Dragon and you guys knew the last expansion was full of dragons?

Chamberlain: [Laughs] Usually — I instinctively just want to make people feel better. So I’m like, uhhhh. But it means that they’re probably going to be really happy when the set gets announced, so I just try to look forward to that.

GamesBeat: What was the process like coming up with the name for Descent of Dragons?

Dawson: I think Descent of Dragons was one we got on pretty early. There’s a process. We whiteboard it. We’re all huddling up and trying to figure out the best name. But Descent of Dragons was one that stuck on pretty early. We knew “dragons” was going to be in the name somehow. Get the point across.

Chamberlain: I like those brainstorming sessions. There’s a whiteboard sitting in the back of the design pit where people just write stuff down. Some of it’s completely ridiculous.

Dawson: There’s some ridiculous ones. Dave definitely provides a lot of hilarious names. Dave Kosak. He’s good at that.

GamesBeat: Do you each have a favorite card from Descent of Dragons?

Dawson: One of my favorite cards, I love playing the Druid deck, but my favorite card is probably Waxadred. Mainly because it’s an original character to Hearthstone. It’s one of those things where we were sitting around and thinking, okay, we have all these dragon aspects coming back, what’s Togwaggle going to do? What makes sense here? A dragon made out of wax! He just summoned this wax dragon. It’s also a card that’s fun to play in Rogue. When it dies it shuffles a candle into your deck and when you draw that it summons him back up. Rogue in particular is one of those classes where it’s hard to play some minions once you start getting a bit beefier. This is a card that does fit, and it also fits in rogue’s fantasy of how they play, drawing a bunch of cards. On a fantasy level and from a mechanical standpoint, Waxadred is one of my favorite cards.

Chamberlain: For me, I love Ysera. I think she’s — Ysera Unleashed is such a cool card. Again, fantasy-wise, I feel like she just nails it. Just bringing all these dragons from the Emerald Dream along with her. She’s a really fun game card. You get to feel really powerful as you’re getting all of these dragons for free for the rest of the game.