The year 2020 has been a rough one for all gamers around the world, but you can’t deny that one thing: Hearthstone has been good to us in these trying times. Multiple game modes, a full-on game economy revamp, and much, much more made 2020 one, if not the most game-changing year for Blizzard’s card game. The only thing 2020 was missing: Blizzcon, the game company’s yearly convention to celebrate their games and their communities.
However, Blizzard, amidst pandemic restrictions, managed to create an all-online convention experience called BlizzConline, which happened just last weekend – and Team 5 shared a whole lot of great news, including plans for the upcoming Standard year. We dissect all the facts, hints, and possibilities around the expansion teaser images shared during Hearthstone’s Deep Dive panel to predict what Hearthstone could have in store for us in the Year of the Gryphon!
Expansion 1: Forged in the Barrens
The first expansion of the Standard year has been already revealed during Blizzcon:
With Forged in the Barrens, Hearthstone players return to the roots of the underlying Warcraft universe. The Barrens, a leveling zone for Horde characters in World of Warcraft, evolved into one of the most iconic areas of the whole franchise. Its rugged and sparse landscape lies in the heart of the continent Kalimdor, home of the Horde today.
However, more than ten thousand years ago the land – a lush forest full of nature and life – belonged to the night elves. It was the Great Sundering that followed after the destruction of the Well of Eternity which turned a majority of Kalimdor into the unlivable continent that it is today.
Centuries later, the orcs and tauren of the Horde took over the Barrens and brought some life back to one of Kalimdor’s most hostile landscapes. However, another species occupied the region after the Great Sundering and the end of the War of the Ancients: The quilboar.
These humanoid boar creatures followed the prophecy of the Wild God Agamaggan, a giant boar demi-god that helped the citizens of Azeroth and fought the Burning Legion during the War of the Ancients. The mystical creature fell in combat fighting thousands of demons in the Barrens, however, and from this day on, the quilboar, seeing themselves as direct descendants of Agamaggan, saw the landscape of the Barrens as the burial ground of their beloved god. Thorny vines rose where his blood was spilled, and the Razorfen, a giant cluster of those vines, located in the Southern Barrens, was where Agamaggan’s gargantuan body was suspected.
The Horde and the quilboar have been in conflict ever since, and players in World of Warcraft have to try and solve that conflict one way or the other. Besides that, numerous other species such as centaurs, murlocs, and harpies inhabit the Barrens, a zone that has been present in Warcraft games since Warcraft III.
Back to Forged in the Barrens: During the Hearthstone Deep Dive at BlizzConline we found out that the Year of the Gryphon will include two expansions that both feature one of Warcraft’s two main factions, while the third expansion tells a story of conflict between the two.
We don’t know much about the timeline the Barrens expansions will play in – however, the existence of characters like Blademaster Samuro and Shadow Hunter Vol’jin gives away that we’re possibly set in the times of the Third War during Warcraft III.
Expansion 2: The Alliance Will Prevail – Ashenvale or Lordaeron?
And that finally brings us to the speculation part of this article!
As already said, Expansion 2 should provide us with a heavy Alliance-themed setting. The “Alliance blue” color of the jewel inlay faces the deep-glowing Horde red of the first expansion teaser. But instead of spearheads and makeshift weaponry we can see a golden ornament around the jewel, possibly a sign of prestigious craftsmanship. The deep indigo background banner supports the generally dark but noble color scheme and expands on the gold theme with its symmetrical golden decorations.
The sharp shape of these decorations certainly isn’t a dead giveaway to Warcraft vexillologists. However, there is one particular race that is widely known for sharp decorations in their banners, flags, and crests: The night elves.
Now let us take a closer look at traditional night elven art and architecture – and what better place would there be than the updated Warcraft III: Reforged building models!
In the picture on the upper left, you can see the Altar of Elders, the “hero building” of the night elf race in Warcraft III, and one of the most culturally significant structures of every playable faction. Take a peek at the octagonal shape behind the statue – it looks just like the shape in our expansion teaser!
Besides the color scheme and the shapes used in this image, one thing stands out: Pink petals are flying all over the banner and its decorations. In combination with the blue-golden color vibe, these petals brought my lore brain to a very certain place: Ashenvale.
The forest called Ashenvale is the cradle of night elven civilization and is arguably one of the most beautiful landmarks of Warcraft. Just slightly hit by the Great Sundering and thus mostly inhabitable, Ashenvale serves as a leveling zone in World of Warcraft. Just recently, the Horde established two footholds in the southeastern and far-western parts of the region. The most interesting part about Ashenvale, though? It shares a border with the Barrens!
For many of WoW’s Horde players – orcs and trolls in particular -, Ashenvale was the first region where they were able to experience enemy contact with Alliance players. For Hearthstone’s Year of the Gryphon, this expansion could as well lead the Horde characters of the Barrens into the mysterious woods of Ashenvale, home of the night elves.
For me personally, Ashenvale would be the perfect fit as the second expansion. However, there is always that one curve-ball in my expansion predictions – and it was this particular picture that instantly popped up when I saw the petals flying around the teaser image:
This image shows a still of the Warcraft III cinematic scene “Arthas’ Betrayal”. In one of the most important 169 seconds of Warcraft history, Arthas not only kills his father Terenas Menethil, but also betrays his people, the citizens of Lordaeron, the Alliance, and Azeroth as a whole. Arthas Menethil eventually became the Lich King, the Leader of the Scourge, and starred in the most horrendous yet fascinating character storyline of the franchise.
And while I couldn’t get rid of that particular image in my mind, I highly doubt that Blizzard’s artists use those petals as a stylistic device to transport hints regarding an upcoming Hearthstone expansion. Yes, the story behind the fallen Alliance realm of Lordaeron and its former capital city, which is now called Undercity, home to the undead Forsaken, could easily serve as an expansion theme. But looking at the other hints that we’ve already talked about, I just can’t see it – however, I also didn’t see Prince Arthas eventually turning into the most hated villains of the Warcraft universe, so I’ll gladly eat my own words!
Expansion 3: War is Coming – Alterac Valley of Winterspring?
We know that WAR will be the name of the game in the Year of the Gryphon’s third expansion. Sadly, that hint alone won’t carry us a long way in a universe called WARcraft – so let us take a closer look at the third part of this year’s expansion teaser triptych.
For the first time in the existence of the visual expansion teaser, we see a heavy alteration of the center jewel piece: It is shown in the process of being shattered, and the colors of both factions are glowing through the splinters flying towards the viewer. The background shows a circular formation emitting light beams.
Long-time World of Warcraft players will see a particular structure with lighting inside – and that structure looks exactly like a bunker of Alterac Valley as seen in the upper left of the picture above.
Alterac Valley is the setting of World of Warcraft’s first battlegrounds. Battlegrounds in Blizzard’s MMO are instances where players of both factions play a competitive “mini-game” to gain honor points and reputation, and – most importantly – to have fun doing player-versus-player content! In a sense, battlegrounds in WoW are little “wars within the war” between Alliance and Horde, so coming from a game design direction, Alterac Valley makes a perfect setting for Hearthstone’s final conflict between Warcraft’s two main factions.
What plays into this theory is the fact that Alterac Valley – or AV, as WoW players like to abbreviate it – is vastly different compared to other classic battlegrounds such as Warsong Gulch or Arathi Basin. First off, the instance could hold up to forty players per faction, so a total of 80 players could smash their heads at the same time, something that rarely happened in open-world battles.
But what makes AV really special is its story. The battleground features two prominent Warcraft factions: On the Horde side, the Frostwolf Clan under Drek’thar tries to protect its homeland which they have populated under their former leader Thrall; the Alliance, represented through the Stormpike Guard led by General Vanndar Stormpike, also tries to enforce their territorial claim due to the valley’s proximity to Ironforge, capital of the dwarves.
The conflict turns the once peaceful winter landscape into a blood-soaked battlefield. The local bunkers are highly contested as they provide excellent defense in the tug of war for the valley, and both factions use their everything to claim victory, even using mighty magic to summon their most powerful living war machines – the ancient of war Ivus the Forest Lord for the Alliance and the ice elemental Lokholar the Icelord for the Horde – to gain even the slightest of advantages. Even resources like meat and cloth dropped by the enemy players are used to fuel the war of attrition between the Frostwolf and Stormpike.
But back to the expansion teaser: While Alterac Valley certainly seems like a great contender for the theme of Hearthstone’s third 2021 expansion, there surely are more settings to analyze.
The fir branches on the upper and lower side of the picture don’t really add anything to the bigger picture – however, there’s one zone full of trees and snow that, besides Alterac Valley, has also witnessed the war between Horde and Alliance: Winterspring.
As one of the few endgame leveling zones in Classic World of Warcraft, Winterspring and its capital city Everlook (which is shown below the Alterac Valley bunker on the picture above), serves not only as a region to gain player experience. Rare herbs and other materials can be found in the northern-most part of Kalimdor as well as mystical elemental creatures or demon outposts by the Burning Legion.
Another hint towards Winterspring could be the structure shown in the teaser. Yes, it could be a bunker of Alterac Valley, but maybe it’s just a building in Everlook? Warcraft fans may remember that the goblins reside in Everlook, and they use it as one of their main trading hubs, so having a building look like some sort of shiny gearwheel is not unheard of and has been seen in goblin or gnomish architecture before.
I personally see much more substance in the Alterac Valley theory, though. The battleground setting leaves so much room for activities outside of regular Standard and Wild play – maybe we’ll see a new game mode based on the conflict in Alterac Valley? Some sort of tower defense game between Alliance and Horde? Who knows!
No matter what expansions we’ll see released in 2021: Hearthstone’s story-telling in the Year of the Gryphon tries to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, expansions will be independent story-wise and much more engaging; on the other hand, the bigger picture of a war between Alliance and Horde holds together the expansion themes without turning them into a continuous yet commital story experience like in the Year of the Dragon. A win-win situation for Hearthstone players of all kind, and a treat for every Warcraft lore fans!