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Blizzard Entertainment revealed Hearthstone‘s next expansion, Forged in the Barrens, during BlizzCon Online’s opening ceremonies on February 19. This new set looks to bring new life to card game by taking inspiration from one of World of Warcraft’s oldest and most iconic areas.

The Barrens is a huge zone that new Horde characters adventure in. The sheer size of the place means that newbie Horde characters can spend days in the Barrens, making the zone a shared experience familiar with many World of Warcraft of fans.

But how do you translate that feeling into a card set? And not just any card set. Forged in the Barrens isn’t just the first expansion of the new Year of the Gryphon, meaning that older sets are getting rotated out of the game’s standard mode, but it’ll also debut along with a new core set. This replaces the old classic and basic sets with a new collection of starter cards.

It’s a big change. During BlizzCon Online, I interviewed Alec Dawson, a senior game designer, and Cora Georgiou, an associate game designer, about this nostalgic and landmark expansion for Hearthstone.

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This is an edited transcript of our interview.

An old zone for a new expansion

GamesBeat: How long have you been thinking about setting an expansion in the Barrens?

Georgiou: Well, as far as the Barrens being a part of this year, it’s been, gosh, I guess over a year in development, easily. But it really came as part of the larger story of the year. It felt like this was a great starting point for us to kick off this Year of the Gryphon and start the journey of these 10 characters that are basically following our player experience in classic WoW. You have the Barrens as that starting leveling zone for Horde characters. Of course we have our five Alliance characters as well that we’ll be seeing in this expansion and being able to follow their story a bit more in the future. But it really was, we felt, a great launch point for the year and this narrative we want to tell.

GamesBeat: There’s usually a meaning behind the creature you pick to represent the new Hearthstone year. With the Gryphon, is it about calling back to that classic WoW experience, or is there more to it?

Dawson: That’s mainly what it was chosen for, calling back to the classic WoW experience. It’s one of those iconic images that you link to classic WoW and some of the places we might be exploring this year. Going back and saying, we’re looking at what that early experience was like, what are things you might remember? The Gryphon represents a pretty good part of that.

GamesBeat: There was a time where it seemed like the focus in Hearthstone was a lot more on original characters and settings. The last few expansions have leaned more into the Warcraft world. Is that an intentional decision?

Dawson: I wouldn’t say that Darkmoon Faire and Scholomance were necessarily super-heavy compared to this one. I think Barrens is a very intentional return to that, though. We’re doing a bunch of Warcraft themes in stuff this year. We’re looking at locations and characters we can return to. We see Mankrik already being revealed. At the same time, we’re still doing new characters in those locales that you might recognize. We have 10 original characters this year that we’ll follow through standard gameplay, with expansions coming out, to see what their story is like. We’ll also see them in Battlegrounds and Mercenaries. We’ll see them have their own single-player content. There’s a lot going on with those 10 characters. Our narrative team has done a fantastic job on them. We can’t wait to show you more of them, so players can really bond with them throughout the year.

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Above: Back to the Barrens!

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: You were pretty quick to point out that there’s going to be an Alliance-focused set at some point. Was that a concern, that the Alliance side would feel left out by a Barrens expansion?

Georgiou: Now now, we didn’t say that exactly. You’re not going to put words in my mouth. [Laughs] It’s very important to us that our players don’t feel like there’s any bias here. Alliance versus Horde, everyone has their allegiances, and we certainly have Alliance members on our team. But yeah, we didn’t want anybody to feel excluded. It was just a little hope we’re giving them, I guess, a reminder that they’ve not been forgotten.

GamersBeat: Barrens is notorious for its chat. Is that something we can expect to see represented in a card, or is that a little too high concept?

Dawson: It’s definitely something we talked about in the early development. What would that be? What would that look like? We’re not doing any Barrens chat mechanics, but you might see some flavor text here and there to represent that. On the team ourselves, there’s a lot of fond memories, strong memories of Barrens chat, for sure.

Georgiou: It seems like when you bring up the Barrens, the first things anybody wants to see are Barrens chat and Mankrik. And Mankrik’s wife. We did already reveal that Mankrik and his wife will make an appearance. But yeah, Barrens chat is something that we got in through some flavor text, I believe. But we didn’t do a larger mechanic on it.

Above: Mankrik misses the missus.

Image Credit: Blizzard

Barrens basics

GamesBeat: How is the new keyword, Frenzy, different from Enraged? Is Enraged its inspiration?

Georgiou: It is similar in some ways, different in other ones. We liked the one-time trigger of Spellburst. The effects that it lets us do are single use, so they can be a bit more powerful in certain cases. Whereas effects that trigger or effects that trigger and stay on can be a little bit harder to design to, because they have that staying power. We liked that aspect of Spellburst, but for the Horde set in particular, we wanted something that was very combat-focused, as the Horde are fierce fighters, all about that Horde pride. When you knock them down and they take damage, they’re going to come right back swinging. That was the thematic tie we wanted to get to it. We think it represents them pretty well.

GamesBeat: You’re making an interesting change with putting all the spells in the schools/categories now. How is that going to change the game?

Dawson: It’s just another thing for us to hook into. It’s the same when we play around with minion types all the time, where it’s like, oh, we want to do Murloc Paladin this expansion. We might do Holy Paladin in an expansion. What does that play like? It’s another great place for us as designers to look at, OK, how can I make this class distinct in the way they use spells and give them an archetype that can be more focused? You’ll see a bunch of that throughout the year, a bunch of archetypes that are based around casting spells from different schools. It brings a lot of thematics to the game. When you look at a Fireball, you know it’s a fire spell. OK, awesome. But now when we start to introduce cards that take advantage of what that means, it adds another layer for us to play with.

GamesBeat: Is it going to get to a point where there are cards that have resistances to certain spell schools?

Georgiou: We’ve thought about it, and it’s something we continue to think about. It kind of makes sense. Fire spells would probably have resistance to frost, because it’s hard to freeze fire, that sort of thing. But we’ve figured out that it’s probably pretty limiting in scope. There are a number of spell schools, and not every class has access to every spell school. Not every class even has access to a spell school at this point. It would be very tightly constrained, and for those reasons we’ve decided not to do that at this point.

Dawson: Something we think about is what it looks like visually on the board. If we do protection from X, and there’s a bunch of different spell schools, we do all of that, it would need different visuals, because we want you to be able to glance at a minion and understand what’s going on if it has effects. Is that going to be a new visual? Is it an aura? Adding more noise is something we take seriously. That’s part of the reason currently that we don’t have any immediate plans to do that.

Above: Mercenaries will be a new mode for Hearthstone.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: You talked about this new mode, Mercenaries. How is this going to be different from some of the other roguelike-inspired modes we’ve seen in Hearthstone?

Dawson: A lot of the focus for Mercenaries is on the progression. It has some roguelike elements, but the progression is key to the game as well. Collecting, progressing, forming up this group of heroes that you take into each battle. The combat itself is a bit different than normal Hearthstone or what Battlegrounds may offer. If you like something that’s a bit more strategic, you line up your Mercenaries, select their attacks, and they all happen at once. We’ve had a lot of fun with it. It offers something different than what Hearthstone currently does.

GamesBeat: The Barrens is associated closely with classic World of Warcraft. Is it difficult to come up with Demon Hunter cards that thematically make sense with the Barrens?

Georgiou: Not necessarily to come up with cards, but we did have to take some liberties within the world of Hearthstone for Demon Hunters to exist in classic WoW. Obviously, they did not. For there to be a Demon Hunter character at all is a little bit straying away from the core WoW fantasy. But it was important to us that Demon Hunters not just be left out for the sake of staying as close to WoW classic as could be. We did make some exceptions there for Demon Hunters. In that case, we’ve just been able to expand upon the narrative that we’ve built for that character. Once we said, yes, Demon Hunters is going to exist, it’s actually been pretty cool to find the place for them. What do Demon Hunters look like at low level? Because that also didn’t exist. A level 10 Demon Hunter wasn’t a thing. For our art team that was fun to explore.

GamesBeat: That’s another interesting point about the Barrens. Compared to some of the end zone inspirations from Un’goro or Uldum, this is a pretty early leveling zone. Does that change the way you’re designing this expansion? 

Dawson: It’s something we went into the Barrens thinking about. How can we convey that experience? Something that came out of that is the rank spells. You start with a rank 1 spell, and at 5 mana, it goes to rank 2, and at 10 mana it goes to rank 3. These spells get stronger throughout the game. That’s because you’re leveling it up, you know? Chain Lightning, the one we showed, the damage increases over time. That’s a good example of some of the themes we’ve been playing around with, how you can level up throughout the game since you’re in the Barrens.

Above: Chain Lighting.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: I can’t believe there hadn’t been a Chain Lightning card yet.

Dawson: We tried so many times! We finally had a version that we liked. [Laughs] But we played with so many different versions of Chain Lightning.

GamesBeat: What are some other ways this hearkens back to classic WoW?

Dawson: For the Barrens in particular we’ll see a lot of Horde focused characters. We showed the peon in the initial reveal there. You’ll see a lot of those themes coming through. Hearthstone has always had Horde characters, but we could look at this as being the sort of Horde expansion. You’ll see Horde flags everywhere, a bunch of those structures. That stuff is important to us, making sure it gets into portions of the Barrens in particular.

Georgiou: We wanted everything to be as recognizable as possible. If you played through classic WoW, played a Horde character, and you played through the Barrens, you should recognize a lot of the artwork and a lot of the pieces that we were able to get into this set. It was very important to us that it be as representative of that experience as it could be.

A new core

GamesBeat: This is going to be the first expansion that comes out with the new core set. Does that change the way you go about designing cards, designing around the classes?

Dawson: For sure. With the core set in particular, when we know what pieces are coming in, what pieces from Wild are coming in, what pieces are getting buffed, it changes how we think about archetypes and what will be available for that year in particular. When we were looking at the Barrens and going through the final design of it, we were playing around with, OK, what’s the card pool like? The card pool changes so significantly pretty soon here. That was something that took a lot of effort to get to a place we were happy with. We’ve been working alongside the expansion. That’s one of the biggest things.

Thematically, though, spell schools probably had an even bigger effect on what the classes were doing. It added another layer of their own flavor. We wanted to make sure those, even within themselves, felt distinct enough to make sure there was separation between the classes.

Georgiou: It can be fairly difficult at times to design in a Hearthstone environment where the card pool is so dramatically different from what it is on live, especially for the first set of the year after a rotation to Wild. The landscape just looks so different. It was important to be designing the core set alongside Forged in the Barrens, so that they could play off each other, and so that the core set could reflect the design intention of Forged in the Barrens and what we were looking to do with the rest of the year.

Dawson: Remembering playtesting, you would be making a deck and you’d think, right, I’m making a mage deck, I’ll put in Frostbolt. Whoops, Frostbolt’s not in the core set this year. Also, it changes some of those natural things that you normally would do, but there’s also new additions for your class to play around with this year.

Georgiou: How do you design for druid when Swipe isn’t there, or when Wrath isn’t there? These are big things, huge pieces of the standard set that are no longer existing. There are naturally going to be some holes in the meta, and maybe you need to try to fill those within the expansion. But that also gives us room to design for pieces that maybe weren’t necessary before. That’s pretty cool.

GamesBeat: Which of the announced card is your favorite so far?

Dawson: My favorite from a gameplay standpoint has been Blademaster Samuro. Rush, with the new Frenzy keyword, and you can wipe out boards. But if you play in Priest you can maybe use Apotheosis. Paladin can do some other buffs, too. There’s a lot of cool stuff you can do with him, a very versatile neutral board clear that a lot of classes are going to play. It adds a nice layer of depth, and also uses the keyword in a way that I think is well done.

Georgiou: I personally love Bru’kan. He’s the first of our 10 mercenaries that we’ve revealed. Spell damage +3 on a four mana body would be absurd. Nature spell damage +3, however, gives us more room to decide, okay, what is the scope of what’s allowed to be done here? How much damage can you throw at face with nature spell damage +3? It’s a fairly simple design, but one of the best ways we hook into our spell schools. That’s one I’m excited for.

Above: Bru’kan.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Hearthstone usually has such a cozy, nice area at BlizzCon. I know that I’m missing it. I was wondering what you were missing most from the traditional in-person BlizzCon experience this year.

Georgiou: I could give you a very long list, I’m sure. Last BlizzCon was actually my first. I casted for Hearthstone for several years before that, but I was never fortunate enough to be able to go. I was really looking forward to a BlizzCon where I had been working at the company for more than a month, where I had some larger idea of what was going on. The community is going to be the answer that most people give you. It’s awesome getting to talk to fans of the game and getting to hang out with people who are passionate about the same things you are, who are so excited, and seeing the content for the first time with fresh eyes when you’ve been working on it for so long and it’s so familiar to you, it’s just the coolest thing.

Dawson: The energy is pretty incredible, honestly. For me, some of the things that stand out are just the people and friends that you meet digitally, and then you finally get to come to this place where you can meet in person and have a great time, have a great weekend together. And also just seeing what your friends on other dev teams got to do. I’m still excited later tonight to go back and watch some of the deep dives from the other teams. Hey, cool, that looks neat, I want to play that map in Overwatch! Stuff like that. It’s cool to see what the other dev teams have been up to and live some of that fan experience.

Georgiou: This is the first time for a lot of us on different game teams to see the reveal trailers and find out exactly what the other teams have been up to. Getting to see that live and experience that with other members of the community is awesome. But to be honest, I think if you asked a lot of us, in August of last year, would we be able to even do this right now? I think a lot of us wouldn’t have thought this would be possible. To even have some form of gathering and be able to have this level of community has been great.

GamesBeat: I imagine that even more so than some of the other expansions that have come out during the pandemic, this one was probably designed entirely by working at home. Has that made it an especially challenging expansion to create?

Dawson: Yeah, I think we only had two-to-three weeks of it, the initial design, before we transitioned to work-from-home. It was very early. But basically the whole thing was done at home, yeah.

Georgiou: I think I had just moved my desk from the final design pit to the initial design pit when we got the call that we weren’t coming in on Monday. There’s absolutely some challenges that come with working from home. Communication, you need to take that extra initiative, because you can’t just look to your left and see [colleagues]. It’s just more difficult to have that natural conversation. But we’re also very fortunate that we work in an industry that is able to make this work, is able to make this happen. We signed on for a very ambitious year, and for the most part we’ve been able to deliver on that. That’s pretty cool.

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