When Ashes of Outland opens up shop April 7, Hearthstone will be celebrating more than just the arrival of a new expansion and Standard year — it will bring the first new class to Blizzard Entertainment’s digital card game since it launched out of a beta test in 2014.
The demon hunter is the marquee attraction for Ashes of Outland, which is Hearthstone’s 17th new card set. It riffs on The Burning Crusade, which was the first expansion of World of Warcraft’s long history. This new class takes a bit from some of the other Hearthstone heroes — the demons of the Warlock, the 1-damage ping attack of Rogue, and the token-style of Druid, Paladin, or Shaman. Throw in new mechanics like Outcast (which give bonuses to cards depending on if they’re on the left-most or right-most side of your hand) and Dormant, along with the previous refresh of Priest and the 2020 Hall of Fame class (I don’t miss ya, Mind Control Tech!), and Hearthstone looks so much more different than it did in 2019.
And that should be a good thing. Digital card games like Hearthstone depend on engaged players buying card packs, bundles, and other in-game goodies. By making these changes, adding modes like Battlegrounds while releasing frequent updates, and creating new classes, Blizzard is making a good case for players, be they lapsed, old regulars, or new, to keep playing (and spending). This is especially important for Blizzard as Magic: The Gathering — Arena continues to challenge Hearthstone for card-game supremacy.
During February’s Hearthstone Summit, Blizzard briefed me on the demon hunter and Ashes of Outland. I played a bunch of matches with the deck, and it took me some time to nail down the class’s rhythm. I enjoyed how active it feels, as you are often outright going to your opponent’s face or setting up big swings for the next turn. I interviewed Hearthstone FX artist Hadidjah Chamberlin and game designer Stephen Chang about the team’s approach to creating the demon hunter and its mechanics.
This is an edited transcript of my interview.
Demon hunter workshop
GamesBeat: It’s been six years of Hearthstone. Why add a class now? In Hearthstone’s first few years, people talked about having new classes, but that died down, and many players had given up on new classes.
Hadidjah Chamberlin: A lot of it does have to do with the fact that Hearthstone’s been around for six years now. We’ve had six years to learn about what players enjoy about the nine classes we had, to really refine what we want each of the identities for those classes to be. As part of that, we’ve gotten to see where there’s still room for another class identity, cool things we could do with that that wedge in nicely with all the rest of the classes. That’s led us to build a class that feels unique and exciting. It’s bringing something new to Hearthstone, but keeps all of the rest of them feeling special.
GamesBeat: When did work on demon hunter start?
Stephen Chang: About a year ago, a bit before a year ago, roughly? Our production for expansions runs about a year, and we had talked about it around that time. We wanted to see if there was excitement amongs the team, if we could do it typically. There’s a lot of things to think about when adding a new class. We had all those conversations. Everyone was super excited. We thought it would be something that was exciting that we could bring to Hearthstone.
GamesBeat: When you’re designing a new class, what do you look at first?
Chang: The first thing we looked at when we were approaching the design of the class was, we wanted to make sure we captured the fantasy of the class, what people think of when they think of demon hunter, how to capture that feeling of being a demon hunter: that fast, aggressive, agile style. From there we started iterating and experimenting with the types of archetypes that–how it would make sense in Hearthstone and the types of archetypes that class would have. From there we started iterating on mechanics for the class. We gave it a new keyword, Outcast, and a part of that was both from the thematic standpoint of, these are the outcasts of society. People aren’t exactly sure if they’re good or evil. They do their own thing. We wanted a mechanic to capture that. The word fit well with the mechanic of caring about the edges of your cards and how to manipulate the cards in your hand to take the most benefit from it. We also spent a ton of time iterating on the hero card. That dictates a lot of how the heroes will play out. We explored a vast variety of hero powers, constantly iterating on it, and then ultimately we landed on the one mana hero power, which is very unique to the demon hunter class. All the original classes have two mana powers. We wanted to capture that fast play style, the idea of demon hunters always being on the attack. We have a lot of cards that play around attacking for the turn and getting bonuses from that.
Chamberlin: One of the coolest things for me about demon hunter, that I was having so much fun with in playtests, is that it gives you tons of these interesting tiny decisions, constantly. [The new mechanic] Outcast is a great example of it, because sometimes when you draw an Outcast card, maybe you want to play it right then, but maybe you want to hold on to it. Clearing the rest of your hand out of the way starts to matter. They also have a kit that’s very focused on soul magic, where it’s — some of your cards will get benefits from how many of your own minions have died during that turn. That’s another thing where play order starts to matter. How you trade your minions, whether you want to go wide with a small board so that you can chip away at a lot of things and have a lot of minions die in one turn to get a powerful version of that card in your hand, there’s a lot of cool choices like that. You get to constantly feel pretty clever for those sorts of things. It’s really fun to play.
GamesBeat: And also the order of how you attack matters, too.
GamesBeat: At what point did having your hero attack first and and then having cards play off effects from that attack crystallize as part of demon hunter kit?
Chang: A lot of it was just that we wanted to live out the fantasy of the demon hunter leading the charge of the armies following it. We wanted to ensure that the class was very active. By attacking and getting a lot of bonuses from that, it encourages a very proactive playstyle. That was one of the things we definitely wanted to capture with demon hunter. They do a lot of front line attacking, but they also jump into the back line to attack. We wanted to capture all of that mechanically in Hearthstone. But we also want — there’s also the soul magic archetype, but there’s also a big demon archetype as well. Demon hunters care a lot about having power. There are demons out there that also really respect power. The demon hunters have recruited some of these big demons to help fight alongside them, and one of the play styles as demon hunter, you can play a very control play style with very large demons that you can summon.
GamesBeat: Like the Imprisoned Antaen, which goes dormant for two turns and then does 10 damage.
Chang: Yeah, and also the Pit Commander that will recruit another demon. You have all these giant demons that you can activate that have that more control style, if you’re not the type of player that enjoys an aggressive style. There’s also that play style that demon hunters have, and it still fits into the fantasy of controlling these large, powerful armies.
GamesBeat: Why did you decide to give a hero power that’s only 1 mana?
Chang: We iterated a ton initially. The hero power was 2 mana, and we tried a lot of different varieties at 2 mana. But we knew we wanted a hero power that granted an attack, because of all the attack triggers that matter for all the cards we were making. We tried plus 1 attack, immune to plus+1 attack, ignore taunt. We tried activating twice. They all didn’t quite fit exactly what we wanted for demon hunter, which was to have a very reliable, fast way to activate and attack and provide that for demon hunter. After all the iteration, someone suggested, what if we just make it 1 mana? Can we do that? That’s kind of scary, but we gave it a shot.
We started playtesting with it. We tried out the variety of cards that worked with it, and it just felt right. It felt fast, and it felt like you had ease of access to activate the things you had. You had a lot of interesting choices. There were a lot of decision points where you might have a card that you want to play on curve, or you might play a card that’s a little off curve, but you get a hero power. There were all these tiny decisions that you get to make, a lot of interesting choices. Everything felt right when we started exploring that hero power. We adjusted all the cards to account for a 1 mana hero power, so they were at the right level, and then everything just flowed from there. It was a ton of iteration. We worked a lot on the hero power. But once we got to that point and playtested it, it felt right and felt fun.
Chamberlin: It’s one of the things that’s really fascinating to me, seeing all the iterations in the hero power. When the 1 mana version came in, suddenly it felt right. You felt like a demon hunter, because … you feel fast. You feel like you can weave it in anywhere. It really contributes to this whole flurry of attacks feeling you have. It’s aggressive. It’s a bit chaotic. That’s something that we were trying to support on all sides, on design, art, everywhere. That was one of the things where it went in and, yeah, now you feel like a demon hunter. It was really cool.
Chang: Other iterations, something just felt off. We couldn’t explain it. I don’t think this is right. All right, back to the drawing board and let’s try another one. Eventually we tried that one and it just worked. You know it works when everyone’s eyes light up. This feels right. This is how this hero should feel like when you’re playing it. It really fit that fantasy of being a demon hunter.
GamesBeat: How long did it take to get the demon hunter’s hero power to this point?
Chang: At least three or four months of just working on the hero power.
Chamberlin: It came in hot.
Chang: It came in pretty late. We had a variety of hero powers. We got it into final design and we were still iterating on it. We tried three different versions in final design. Then we finally got to that one. It just took persistence, us trying — it wasn’t like we were only working on the hero power. We were still working on cards and everything else in the set. We had versions that we thought were good, that were OK, but it just didn’t feel right. Sometimes when things don’t feel right, we just keep trying. It comes back to that epiphany point. It just feels right, and you know that you’ve found the thing.
Being a new class, the hero power is so iconic and important for the class. We had to make sure it was right. We spent a lot of time on it. We went through so many different versions of it. It ended up coming in a little late, but once we got it, everyone was super excited. We were super happy. From there, everything just fell into place. Once we had that, that core piece, everything else just flowed from that super naturally. Everything else was a lot easier to work on once we had that core thing that we knew was right.
Power to the hero
GamesBeat: The demon hunter is coming into a game that’s six years old. How does it fit into the Wild set for people who’ll play it in Wild?
Chang: Players in wild will have access to it along with all the other cards, and then eventually — we have a set of the starter cards that are part of the initial set — they’re part of Year of the Dragon, and they’ll rotate after a year. From that point on, they’ll be unique to wild. Some of them may eventually stay in if we decide to keep them in standard, but it’ll be something that, over time, players will be able to continue to explore. For the expansion, the expansion for this year, demon hunter will be getting 15 cards instead of the normal 10 we give to other classes, to catch them up so that by the time this year is over, they’ll have about the same number of cards as the rest of the classes in standard.
GamesBeat: What will the demon hunter’s upgraded hero power be when you play it with Sir Finley Mrrgglton?
Chang: Plus-2 attack.
GamesBeat: Are you concerned about people possibly finding new uses for some of the Grand Tournament cards that are based off the hero power with Inspire?
Chamberlin: We’re excited!
Chang: I wouldn’t say concerned. It’s more exciting to see that exploration. People will have a lot of fun with it. It’s working with Inspire, working with the upgraded hero powers. It’s another angle people can explore and experiment with.
GamesBeat: Did you feel confident with Outcast after how the idea worked with Soul Infusion, which was a left-based card, and Stargazer Luna, a right-based card?
Chang: We had explored those, caring about the position in your hand, with those cards. They were received pretty well. As we thought about demon hunter and that keyword coming into play — we had tried other versions of Outcast, but once we landed on this version, it felt fun to play. It’s interesting that we can explore a mechanic like this in the digital space. It’s not something you could do in a traditional card game, because people constantly shuffle their hands as they play. In something like Hearthstone, your hand positions are predetermined. It’s an interesting choice, how you get the Outcast cards from the middle to the edge. It can influence how you deck build. You may want to build a very fast deck with a lot of cheap cards where it’s easy to get cards out of your hand, but if you’re playing a more control style, then you’ll have to think hard about the types of Outcast cards you want in there. The bigger cards might muck up your hand and make it harder to move around. It’s been interesting. It’s a very critical point of decision when you draw an Outcast card from your beginning turn draw, because you might get an Outcast card and you may have a plan in the back of your mind, but once you see the Outcast card, well, I kinda want to play this now, because it’s activated. There’s a lot of interesting decisions as you play with that new keyword.
Chamberlin: Stargazer Luna was definitely a very reasonable comparison. It’s a fun one, because Stargazer Luna gets you half of Outcast, and that’s already pretty cool. With Outcast, if it clearly isn’t the right moment for that card, you can get a second chance at it later by figuring it out. Having both of those options makes them really fun to play with.
GamesBeat: Going to the token-style of play for demon hunter, one thing I liked was that it wasn’t just an iteration of token druid or token paladin or token shaman, where you’re buffing the tokens. At what point did that crystallize, that demon hunter didn’t care about buffing minions?
Chang: It was part of — as we were talking about the class idea of demon hunter and the type of things we wanted to allow it to do, how to differentiate it from other classes, we wanted to identify the archetypes that it would play. The soul magic style was more about sacrificing your minions, but it felt more like a combo style of deck to play. You had the aggressive archetype, and then the control archetype with the big demons, but we also wanted to have a combo style of play with the soul magic deck. We made cards that cared about that, where you can feel smart about how you sacrifice. You can still have power spikes, but they happen in a different way than other classes had. You do the up front sacrifice and it’s sort of a payment to get that big powerful effect from Nethrandamus, for example, one of the legendary cards. It was interesting to develop that different archetype and make it feel different than playing other decks that care about going wide.
GamesBeat: How does the Dormant mechanic apply to the actions of Outland? How does it work with Outland thematically?
Chamberlin: Thematically the big thing with Dormant is, if you’re familiar with WoW lore and Illidan, there are some entities, especially in Outland, where they’re just — they’re powerful enough that you don’t even try to destroy them. You just imprison them, lock them away. It happened to Illidan for 10,000 years. He’s very salty about it. The imprisoned demons are a reference to that fact, that sometimes what you do with power is you just lock it away if you can’t completely defeat it. The imprisoned demon cycle are these cards that, when you play them on the board, they’re immediately Dormant for two turns. Then when they wake up they’ll have some really powerful effect. You have things like Imprisoned Observer that you can play pretty early on, and then once it wakes up, it deals two damage to all enemy minions. Thematically it’s a nod to Illidan’s imprisonment, but mechanically it’s been fun, because you both get to see it coming. Your opponent, in the case of the Observer, knows that two damage is coming to any minions that they still have on the board at that point. They have time to react to that, time to prepare. That’s true across all of the imprisoned demons in different ways. With Imprisoned Satyr, if you play it without having the right minion in your hand, then you have two turns to try to draw it, or you have two turns to dump a bunch of minions on the board so you can make sure it buffs exactly the right thing in your hand.
GamesBeat: Would Doomsayer or another one of those big board wipes get rid of it?
Chamberlin: No. When minions are dormant, they’re untouchable.
GamesBeat: Even the Shifting Sands Priest spell, which silences everything?
Chamberlin: Yep, it’ll survive that. It’ll survive Twisting Nether. They’re very stubborn. [Laughs]
Chang: If Doomsayer activates the turn it wakes up, it will still have that effect and destroy it.
GamesBeat: Whereas Doomsayer is like a time out, the Dormant cards are puzzles, correct?
Chamberlin: Yes, very much so.
Van Cleef’s reprieve
GamesBeat: Why not Hall of Fame Edwin Van Cleef?
Chang: We definitely talked about Edwin. It’s a little trickier with him, because he’s one of the class legendaries. It’s something that talked about and will continue to talk about. It’s a tough thing, where we wonder — when we decide to Hall of Fame cards, we wonder if it’s better to Hall of Fame or better to nerf. That’s one of the discussions we’ve constantly been having about Edwin. At this time we decided those were the cards we wanted in Hall of Fame, and in the future we could change.
GamesBeat: He’s a class legendary and that creates a problem, but you’re getting rid of Velen, who’s a class legendary.
Chang: A part of it is that we had a cool design for Velen … and we would have to probably replace Van Cleef with a different legendary as well. It’s something that we’ve talked about. It just isn’t the time for us to do it yet.
GamesBeat: If people are getting tired of facing that same tactic over and over again for the life of the game, does that tell you as designers that it’s time to change that?
Chang: It’s definitely something we’re aware of. We’ve had a lot of conversations about Edwin, and we’ll continue to do so. If we come up with a solution that we’re happy with, we’ll act on it then.