For weeks, fans of Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds have wondered when Dragons would come to Blizzard Entertainment’s auto-battler, and what this tribe would do in the mode. Finally, we know.

Blizzard announced today that Dragons would be part of a number of changes coming to Battlegrounds today (Wednesday, February 26). The 16.4 patch adds seven new heroes along with 18 new minions (many of which are Dragons). The heroes include Reno Jackson, Galakrond the Awakened (as the star of the Descent of Dragons expansion, of course this wyrm is part of this), and the five original Dragon Aspects (Alexstrasza, Deathwing, Malygos, Nozdormu, Ysera). Eleven of the 18 new units are either Dragons or have synergies with the tribe, and with a host of uninspiring minions and heroes rotating out, along with some fatigue with existing archetypes, expect a lot of experimentation our of the gates.

Auto-battlers like Auto Chess, Dota Underlords, and Teamflight Tactics are a rising market niche for online games. They combine the draft of card games with the placement of turn-based strategy, and they’ve proven to be massive hits both as games and as entertainment on Twitch. Tens of millions play the games. According to StreamElements, Battlegrounds hasn’t cracked the top 3 on Twitch or YouTube yet. But changes like this help keep games exciting and bring in new players and viewers. And Battlegrounds is still in beta.

Here be Dragons

Blizzard set up a special Battlegrounds realm for visiting press and other personalities at a recent Hearthstone briefing in Irvine, California. I played two matches, so while I had some time to tinker with these new units and heroes, I by no means had enough of a chance to give anything but my rudimentary thoughts as a rank amateur auto-battler.

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First, let’s look at the new Heroes and their draconic powers:

  • Galakrond:Galakrond’s Greed [Cost 1]: Replace a minion in Bob’s Tavern with a random one from a higher Tavern Tier.
  • Deathwing: ALL Will Burn! [Passive]: All minions have +3 Attack.
  • Ysera: Dream Portal [Cost 1]: Refresh and add a Dragon to Bob’s Tavern.
  • Nozdormu: Clairvoyance [Passive]: Your first Refresh each turn costs (0).
  • Malygos: Arcane Alteration [Cost 0]: Replace a minion with a random one of the same Tavern Tier.
  • Alexstrasza: Queen of Dragons [Passive]: After you upgrade Bob’s Tavern to Tavern Tier 5, Discover two Dragons.
  • Reno Jackson: Gonna Be Rich! [Cost 4]: Make a friendly minion Golden (once per game).

In my two games, I only got offered one Dragon hero, Deathwing. The passive buff applies to all minions — yours, Bob’s, and your opponents. This was a surprise in the first round, as I had assumed it would buff your minions. Since I had limited time with it, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions, especially since I’m not sure how well this will work with the other new minions.

However, I could see this working well with builds that prize minions with high health. But right now, with Demon and buffed-up Murloc lineups being so prevalent (though I did encounter someone with a Mech build with a gold 104/104 and a gold 72/70 Pogo-Hoppers), I’m not sure how much impact Deathwing’s power will have later in a match, though I can see it helping you get ahead if you have big butt minions early on.

New Minions for the dirty work

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The 16.4 patch adds 18 minions to Bob’s Tavern. Here’s a rundown of what you’ll find when you play Battlegrounds later today or tomorrow. Some of these are new creations, and others are old favorites from previous expansions that have thrived either in Constructed or the Arena. You can check out each card in the gallery above as well.

  • Dragonspawn Lieutenant [Dragon, Tier 1] 2 Attack, 3 Health: Taunt.
  • Red Whelp [Dragon, Tier 1] 1 Attack, 2 Health: Start of Combat, deal 1 damage per friendly Dragon to one random enemy minion.
  • Glyph Guardian [Dragon, Tier 2] 2 Attack, 4 Health: When this minion attacks, double its attack.
  • Steward of Time [Dragon, Tier 2] 2 Attack, 4 Health: When you sell this minion, give all minions in Bob’s Tavern +1/+1.
  • Waxrider Togwaggle [Tier 2] 1 Attack, 2 Health: Whenever a friendly Dragon kills an enemy, gain +2/+2.
  • Unstable Ghoul [Tier 2] 1 Attack, 3 Health: Taunt, Deathrattle: Deal 1 damage to all minions.
  • Bronze Warden [Dragon, Tier 3] 2 Attack, 1 Health: Divine Shield, Reborn.
  • Hangry Dragon [Dragon, Tier 3] 4 Attack, 4 Health: At the start of your turn, if you won the last combat get +2/+2.
  • Drakonid Enforcer [Dragon, Tier 4] 3 Attack, 6 Health: After a friendly minion loses Divine Shield, gain +2/+2.
  • Murozond [Dragon, Tier 5]: Battlecry: Add a minion to your hand from your last opponent’s warband.
  • Herald of Flame [Dragon, Tier 4] 5 Attack, 4 Health: Overkill: Deal 3 damage to the left-most enemy minion.
  • Cobalt Scalebane [Dragon, Tier 4] 5 Attack, 5 Health: At the end of your turn, give another random friendly minion +3 Attack.
  • Murozond [Dragon, Tier 5] 5 Attack, 5 Health: Battlecry: Add a minion to your hand from your last opponent’s warband.
  • Twilight Emissary [Dragon, Tier 5] 6 Attack, 8 Health: Taunt, Battlecry: Give a friendly Dragon +3/+3.
  • Razorgore, the Untamed [Dragon, Tier 5] 2 Attack, 4 Health: At the end of your turn, gain +1/+1 for each Dragon you have.
  • Holy Mackerel [Murloc, Tier 6] 8 Attack, 4 Health: After another friendly minion loses Divine Shield, gain Divine Shield.
  • Imp Mama [Demon, Tier 6] 6 Attack, 8 Health: Whenever this minion takes damage, summon a random Demon and give it Taunt.
  • Kalecgos, Arcane Aspect [Dragon, Tier 6] 2 Attack, 8 Health: After you play a minion with Battlecry, give your Dragons +1/+1.
  • Nadina the Red [Tier 6] 7 Attack, 4 Health: Deathrattle: Give your Dragons Divine Shield.

The Dragon Whelp felt powerful, even if it only does 1 damage as opposed to the 3 damage from the Soul Juggler. It’s enough to ping away Divine Shields and weak minions early on, but in my limited time with the 16.4 patch, it didn’t feel strong enough later on to make much of a difference, especially with a number of Divine Shield minions leaving the format.

A few others proved interesting:

  • Steward of Time gives you an immediate impact when you sell it. But is a reselling strategy that useful outside of heroes like Dancin’ Deryl or Edwin VanCleef?
  • Bronze Warden is the first minion with Reborn in Battlegrounds (The Lich King can apply Reborn, but no minion has it as a property). This could prove to be a resilient member of Bob’s Tavern.
  • Hangry Dragon has a fun name, but it has snowball potential, especially if you build a strong lineup before hitting Tier 3.
  • Drakonid Enforcer is interesting because it brings more interaction with Divine Shield. Bronze Warden will have them, but three other Divine Shield minions are leaving the tavern with this update (Shielded Minibot, Annoy-o-Tron, and Psych-o-Tron). The question here is if it has enough gas between those remaining Divine Shield minions and other Dragons to make some hay.
  • Razorgore gives you a fantastic payoff for having a Dragon-heavy lineup, but is it too late and too expensive at Tier 5 to make a difference?
  • Twilight Emissary: Razorgore, Part Deux.
  • Kalecgos gives all your Dragons a +1/+1 whenever you play a Battlecry minion. I’m salivating at playing this with Brann Bronzebeard. This combo, albeit a late-game strategy, looks fun.

Also: I had to ask a question about the best-named minion in the Tavern: Holy Mackerel, the new Murloc that gains a Divine Shield whenever a minion loses theirs. I wondered how long the design team has wanted to give a card the name “Holy Mackerel.”

“Well, Mike [Donais, who was the Hearthstone team’s lead game designer] has probably waited his entire life to name a card ‘Holy Mackerel,'” joked Battlegrounds designer Conor Kou. “He’s the king of Murloc puns. But actually, he wasn’t the one who came up with it. It was an engineer [Josiah Jordon] on our team … and as soon as he told Mike, of course. … He’s one of our game engineers and most avid players.”

Juggling a Whelp

Randomness can be a touchy subject in Hearthstone. With Red Whelp being another minion coming in with a random ping, I asked just what randomness means to the design team these days. Soul Juggler, like its cousin Knife Juggler, deals random damage that can feel bad for the one who takes it as well as the one who dishes it out. Are these Juggler cards no longer appropriate?

“One of our goals for Battlegrounds is really exciting combat that’s fun to watch. And we want to create opportunities for really good stories, and sometimes that [happens] as a result of that story. So Soul Juggler has got a bunch of really exciting story elements to it where you get to make this plan where you can sort of see how it’s going to play out and try to position around that. And then watch it play out. And sometimes it doesn’t play out exactly as you plan, you shoot something that actually does something really negative for you as well,” Kou said.

“Battlegrounds is all about embracing [stories]. And, of course, we have to keep an eye on, like, is it becoming too unfun. [It’s] like, ‘I’ve played 200 game with Soul Juggler, and it’s not that interesting anymore.’ We definitely cut a lot of designs while we’re iterating that have crazy randomness as well. So it’s about finding the balance between those in Battlegrounds.”

Game director Ben Lee added his thoughts as well:

“I think with Battlegrounds as well we have a lot more freedom with is that it doesn’t impact the players’ economy [you’re not buying cards]. We need to respect how much the players invest in our game, and when it comes to Standard, we have to take that more seriously than we do with Battlegrounds. If we want to change a card in Battlegrounds, or we just think it’s time for Soul Juggler to rotate out of Battlegrounds and bring something new in, that’s something we can do, and it’s much easier to do. We’ve done it with a bunch of cards.”

Including 10 with the 16.4 patch.

A change is going to come

The 16.4 patch is also bringing about some adjustments to Heroes and Minions. These include:

  • George the Fallen: Boon of Light Hero Power cost reduced from 4 to 3.
  • Sneed’s Old Shredder: Moved to from Tier 6 to Tier 5.
    Mama Bear: Old: 4/4 Beast, Whenever you summon a Beast, give it +4/+4. New: 5/5 Beast, Whenever you summon a Beast, give it +5/+5. This reverts a previous change.
  • Tavern Tier 6: Starting cost of Tavern Tier 6 has been reduced to 10 Gold (down from 11).

In a statement, the design team said, “Tavern Tier 6 has a lot of exciting minions and we’d like players to have a more of an opportunity to reach it than they have. We’re also trying to make Tavern Tier 6 more interesting by adding some of these powerful new minions.”

Hey, hey-ey, goodbye

The Heroes minions leaving Bob’s Tavern aren’t impressive. Some of them give you a hand reaching one tier or another, providing a stopgap until you fish out those minions you need. It’s time to put the following on the bench:

  • Hero: Professor Putricide
  • Shielded Minibot
  • Annoy-o-Tron
  • Mounted Raptor
  • Phalanx Commander
  • Psych-o-Tron
  • Tortollan Shellraiser
  • Piloted Sky Golem
  • Festeroot Hulk
  • Boogeymonster
  • Sated Threshadon

In a statement, the design team said that, “We’d like to go back to the drawing board with Professor Putricide. We’re going to disable him for now to make way for our new Heroes, but you’ll likely see him return in the future with some changes.”

Correction, 10:13 a.m. Pacific: Battlegrounds’ boss is Conor Kou, not Chou. I corrected the error.

Update, 10:20 a.m. Thursday: Updated context of Kou’s comment on Soul Juggler.

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