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Thursday was a big day for Hearthstone. Blizzard Entertainment’s digital card game behemoth announced a new expansion — Madness at the Darkmoon Faire — a new game mode called Duels, and a revamp to its progression system.
The Hearthstone team has been busy. The game may be aging, having debuted in 2014, but constant updates like these keep fans attached to the free-to-play experience (and more likely to spend money on digital card packs). That’s why Hearthstone is still king of the digital card game world, topping competitors like Magic: The Gathering Arena and Runeterra.
Hearthstone got a big boost around this same time last year thanks to the debut of Battlegrounds, an auto-battler competitive experience that gave fans a new way to play the game. Now we have Duels, which is available already via early access. It’s offering a player-vs.-player version of the popular Dungeon Runs mode. Like in Dungeon Runs, you pick special heroes and get a chance to grow your deck after each game by picking between different buckets of cards and by choosing one of three powerful treasures. Unlike with Dungeons Runs, you create your own starter deck based off of your card catalog.
Last week, I interviewed Hearthstone game designers Pat Nagle and John McIntyre and ask them about these recent developments.
GamesBeat: How long has the Duels mode been in development?
Nagle: Less than a year of actual making, but it was a twinkle in our eye for a while. It’s something that’s been asked for by fans, something that the team wanted to get out there. When it was time to make a mode, it was front-and-center. But as far as implementing and creating it, it’s been less than a year.
GamesBeat: One of the interesting things here, especially compared to Battlegrounds, is that players are using their own cards. Why make that decision?
Nagle: That’s one of the more exciting features for Duels. People who play Hearthstone, they have a lot of cards. We thought it would be awesome to make a new mode where you get to play your cards, just have another way to use those. That was kind of the driving force for it. What did you think?
GamesBeat: I’m somebody who never dusted all of my old cards from the past expansions. It was fun for me to suddenly go back and see my old Naxxramas cards, like Sludge Belcher, and be able to use them again.
Nagle: Yeah, or your Haunted Creeper. That’s something we like about it, too. The allowable sets in duels are a mix of new and old. We have the current one, Scholomance, and when Darkmoon Faire launches we’re going to add that as a set that you can use. But we like to use the older ones too. We have Curse of Naxxramas, One Night in Kharazan. Over time we’re going to evolve what sets you can use in the mode. Continue to not dust your cards, perhaps, is my suggestion.
GamesBeat: Going forward, are you going to have to ban specific cards, like Zephrys, from their sets?
Nagle: We certainly can. I don’t know if we want to be super-duper, ban-ban-ban everything. But if something is too toxic for the mode itself — well, toxic is a strong word. But if something just doesn’t work, great in Standard but maybe not in Duels, we can and will ban them. We do have one card banned, the Self-Sharpening Sword.
GamesBeat: How often do you think Duels will see updates?
Nagle: We plan to do it pretty regularly. We do know, with early access, the content that we have is each hero has a single hero power and signature treasure. And then we have the certain sets that we allow. But when Madness releases on November 17, that’s our first big update. It’s when the beta starts. We’re going to add another hero power per hero. These are unique to that hero. Or the ability to unlock a hero power, I should say. We’ll add the ability to unlock two signature treasures per hero as well. We’re adding Madness as a set. We’re actually adding Whispers of the Old Gods, too, as an allowable set. Then we’re going to continue doing that on a pretty regular frequency. We don’t have a set schedule yet, but we’re calling this season one of Duels. We’re calling it Wizard Duels, because it’s based on Scholomance. All the heroes are Scholomance instructors. Season one of Wizard Duels will continue through 2020, but then we plan to just keep updating it essentially forever.
GamesBeat: Is this the final evolution of the Dungeon Run idea? Are we going to see it explored in any more ways, like more single player versions?
Nagle: We certainly could. When it started with Kobolds and Catacombs all those years ago, we loved the mode. It’s super-fun. It’s super-replayable. It’s been a great single player mode. Since then we’ve done multiple versions of it. We’ve also brought in the Tavern Brawl. Last year we had a good handful of Tavern Brawls that were actual Dungeon Runs, and they helped tell the story of the League of Evil and League of Explorers. We could do that again as well. As far as single-player as well, we have the Book of Heroes, and we’ll continue supporting that, with roughly monthly updates. That’s our focus on single player right now. But I can see, in the future, I guess never say never as far as future Dungeon Runs. Again, it’s really fun. We think the PvP version gives it a different angle, but the single player is an amazing format.
GamesBeat: With Duels in the mix, do you think Hearthstone has enough modes now?
Nagle: Ah … well, I guess I should say we really like the fact that we’ve been adding them. When it started with Battlegrounds, and now with duels — we’re thinking that Hearthstone is becoming more of a platform for playing card games. As far as the platform, we want to continue supporting that. What we might do in the future, we don’t have any announcements ready.
Return of the Old Gods
GamesBeat: Switching over to the new expansion, how long have you thrown around this idea of the Darkmoon Faire as a theme?
McIntyre: This has been an idea — maybe three years now? I remember Scholomance being one that had been around for a long time. With Year of the Dragon, obviously we got to tell a year long narrative, which had a lot of positives to it, but it made us a little restricted in the sorts of themes and expansions we could explore. But now that we’re not doing a year long narrative, we got to go to all the places we’ve been throwing around and the team has been excited about for a long time.
GamesBeat: Why is this the time to bring back the Old Gods?
McIntyre: Whispers of the Old Gods was about four years ago now. People really loved those cards. One thing that made them so enjoyable is [the gods] were 10 mana. They were these big effects. They all drove different types of decks. They all served different types of players. We tried to re-create that with our new versions of the Old Gods. They’re all very clearly a different deck archetype, a different style. They should hopefully serve different types of players. The player that likes Yogg-Saron might not be a huge fan of playing C’Thun, but there should be at least one Old God for everyone.
GamesBeat: One of the interesting things I saw in the reveal was a pretty big focus on neutral cards and neutral Legendaries. So many past expansions have focused on class identity. Is that intentional?
McIntyre: Really, it was that we know we have these four characters that we love, that were really cool. What we ended up doing is, the way that we support the Old Gods is through class cards, and that means certain classes will lean toward different Old Gods. They play out differently. For Y’Shaarj, this is a card that depends on your corrupted cards. You can imagine two very different types of effects in two different classes. If you took a random iconic card like Shield Block, you can get a bunch of armor, and that might feel very different from a class that’s throwing down stats. They should feel different in each class, and different classes lean toward different Old Gods.
GamesBeat: When you’re finding inspiration for cards in this set, are you taking your World of Warcraft characters into the Darkmoon Faire and just walking around? Saying, “That could be a card, that could be a card.”
McIntyre: Absolutely. Our first week, we have two things. One, we have a team brainstorm. This was back when we were still in the office. We put up post-it notes in our big conference room with things like characters or settings. Anyone who wants to come down to that conference room can write ideas and put them on notes. Or write plus next to the ideas they love. We get a lot of ideas from those and find the most popular ones. We also spent that week playing Darkmoon Faire, drawing inspiration and coming up with new mechanics and writing up things we want to make sure we see. One thing, when we were working on the set when it comes to the fantasy, we wanted to make sure it served the fans of Whispers of the Old Gods, the people who really loved the Old Gods, and that we also served the people who loved the Darkmoon Faire. There are plenty of things that you’ll recognize. All the iconic stuff in Darkmoon Faire.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about the design process for Corrupt, the new keyword?
McIntyre: We explored a lot of different keywords, trying to capture either things that felt very much like a fairground, or felt like the Old Gods. This one came from one individual idea: If the card that you played last cost more than this card, play this card twice. There was something interesting in the gameplay there, about the way you build your decks and the way you structured your card order. We ended up iterating on it. That one was temporary. It was only the last card you played. It wasn’t a permanent evolution, which made it a little bit clunkier. We changed it to that permanent evolution, and that made it feel more like a corruption. Once you’re corrupted, you don’t go back. We got to make those alternate arts to tell the story of these different characters and settings from the Faire, twisted into evil creatures.
We moved away from playing this card twice, because we just wanted more different types of outputs. One thing that’s cool about the corrupt mechanic is, as the card gets more expensive, it becomes really difficult to corrupt that. You have to run, let’s say, Fleethoof Pearltusk. That’s a 5 mana corrupt card. You’re running a good number of 6 mana-plus cards to corrupt it consistently. You need a really big output. As cards get more expensive, you’re going to have much more dramatic outputs than just doubling them.
GamesBeat: Is this also maybe an extra incentive to get people playing those 10 mana Old God cards?
McIntyre: One thing we were definitely talking about is making sure there’s a meta slow enough to support these slightly slower cards. Trying to balance that so that we don’t end up in a situation where games are going to fatigue constantly, taking too long. Games should wrap up. I think with Old Gods, you usually pushed the game to a conclusion.
GamesBeat: You also announced a new progression system. What are the big goals for reformatting this?
Nagle: Some really high level ones … we want to reward you no matter what game mode you’re playing. We also wanted to centralize the different rewards that we give you. If you’re winning games in Standard and you’re getting 10 gold for 3 wins, I don’t think you always really feel that progression. A lot of the time I think we have different ways of getting gold and stuff. It feels disconnected. This helped centralize it into one area. That feels better. We also wanted to introduce achievements, which is something players have been asking about for a long time. These things are great, because they push you to maybe do things that you wouldn’t normally do as you chase achievements. Build that deck that maybe you weren’t super excited to run, because it’s not what someone on Twitch is playing. But it makes you play the game differently, and that ultimately is more fun, because you’re trying new strategies.
GamesBeat: Standard is still popular. Battlegrounds is going strong. Now we have Duels. Is Arena starting to feel like the odd-person out in terms of modes?
Nagle: The thing about arena is we have a smaller but very dedicated following of that game mode. The people who play arena, they play a lot, and they’re really invested in that game mode. One thing we’re doing with 19.0, the community’s been asking for it. We’re reintroducing set rotation into Arena. That’s something we experimented with a little bit, and we took a step back from it. The community’s been asking for it. We’re going to reintroduce it starting in 19.0.
GamesBeat: You had so many announcements in one day. What was the buildup like for that internally at Blizzard? Was there a lot of excitement? Were you anxious?
McIntyre: I think just excited.
Nagle: Yeah, yeah. A lot of times we’re all working on our separate things. We’re excited about our product. They all kind of aligned to drop right at the same time. But at the same time, yeah, we’re looking around and seeing what everyone else is doing. A lot of excitement, especially–it was kind of a surprise, at least to me, that we were able to do all this from home. It was March when we all started sheltering in place. Not only as efficient as we’ve been able to stay, but just how we’ve been able to stay connected with each other, with each team working on its own projects. And then our live ops. Getting it all together, they’re running around right now. Not in the backyard. But there’s a lot going on right now.
McIntyre: For me it’s felt like Christmas. But that’s because I’ve been working on Hearthstone a while now. This was my first chance to lead an expansion, being able to do all the interviews. I’ve never gone through this process before. I’ve been looking forward to it all year. I remember last BlizzCon sitting there and thinking, I can’t wait for a year from now, when we get to show off the Carnival of the Old Gods.
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