BlizzCon 2018 is over. While fans of other Blizzard titles might have been a bit disappointed, Hearthstone’s announcement went exactly as expected, or even better. Rastakhan’s Rumble is the next expansion, over 15 cards were showcased, the new mechanics were discussed, we also got to hear a bunch about the new PvE content. But it doesn’t mean that we didn’t have more questions. Dillon Skiffington had a chance to sit down with Initial Designer Liv Breeden and Senior Designer Peter Whalen (the awesome duo that hosted “What’s Next?” panel) to ask some more questions about the upcoming set.
Things have shifted in the last year or so whereas each set has Legendaries that are all in line with each other. At first, they seemed pretty random but now we have expansions where every class has a Death Knight, a Legendary weapon, etc. And this time around all classes will have both a Loa and a legendary champion. Can you talk about how that helps you design wise?
Liv: We try and do different things in different sets. Whatever fits the set, right? Whatever makes the most sense. When we’re doing teams and team spirit it kind of makes sense that everyone has the top level, the champion, the person to look up to, but there’s also the Loa that you center your entire visual, mechanical look around it. It’s easy for us to have one thing to look at and be like this is the guiding light for this team. All of our designs can circle around that.
Peter: At a high level we started doing the two Legendaries per expansion in Un’Goro. Everyone had a quest and also another thing. In Knights, everyone had a hero card and another thing. [In Kobolds,] a Legendary weapon and another thing. And then Witchwood kind of broke that mold. The Witchwood just had two Legendary minions. There wasn’t a particular theme for any of them.
There are good things and bad things to each of them. We can tell a particular story. Legendary inventor plus Legendary science fair project or whatever. In Witchwood there’s a bunch of creatures out in the woods. It’s this ghost story that you’re telling in a tavern so it doesn’t make sense for there to be this lineup of monster, monster, monster, worgen, worgen, worgen, worgen.
So we kind of do what’s right for the expansion. For this one that team vibe is so important that we really wanted all of the teams to line up so that you could look at them and say, I love this team. Who is my champion? Who is my spirit? So that was really important to get this expansion across. That’s why we did it here.
One of the things I’m most interested in is how Hearthstone continues to bring back players that have left. How is this expansion going to bring people back?
Peter: There’s lots of awesome stuff going on. This is Rastakhan’s Rumble! If you’re a World of Warcraft player and you love trolls, we’ve got your trolls! There are a ton of trolls and characters that you’ll remember from World of Warcraft. If you’re not a WoW player, maybe you love team based events like gladiatorial combat, you’ve got a bunch of people beating on each other. Maybe you like voodoo or mysticism or magic so you can go with that. Maybe you just like setting things on fire, don’t tell us, but the Dragonhawks are there for you. Maybe you like sacrificing innocents? Then you’ve got Warlocks and Hir’eek’s Bats.
All of the different teams have these different parts that appeal to different people. So if you’re a player that’s lapsed and you look at this, the hope is there’s a team that appeals to you or there’s somebody that speaks to you. Maybe you’re big and strong and you want to ram your head into your problems. The Rhinos are there for you. Maybe you see yourself as a good guy. You’re a goody-two-shoes, a paragon of virtue, and a champion of the light. Then Shirvallah’s Tigers are for you. You get Shirvallah, the Tiger Loa which is this 25-mana 7/5 Lifesteal, Divine Shield, Rush… it’s a huge beast if you’ll pardon the pun, and she’s fantastic. All of these different teams appeal to different people.
The thing that you described where people play some Hearthstone and then they leave and they come back, and then they leave and come back, that’s totally healthy. That’s a great way to engage with the game and we’re excited to see lots of new players come back for Rastakhan’s Rumble.
The Hearthstone developers always talk about how careful the team is about negative feelings like opponents discarding their hands…
Peter: Or destroying half their deck, for example.
Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at. The Warlock Legendary that destroys your opponent’s deck (Rin, the First Disciple), that takes forever to get to so it’s kind of understandable. It’s not too awful. But this one is actually readily available at 8-mana. Can you just talk about that card and how it doesn’t cause issues with you?
Liv: It appeals to a very specific type of player. Not everyone is going to put Void Contract in their deck because not only do you have to get to Turn 8, but you have to spend Turn 8 playing Void Contract. The people who do that are the ones who really want to do that. I think people who are playing Zoo and being aggressive aren’t going to play that just to play it. It’s for a specific type of player.
Peter: There’s something healthy about having those kinds of negative feelings. If you’re the type of player who really wants to play Gnomeferatu just to burn your opponent’s cards, that’s really satisfying for a group of players just like Liv mentioned.
It’s great to have that kind of card in moderation. We have to be very, very careful about how we make the kind of griefing type cards. Warlock is a good place for it. Warlocks are pretty evil, they’re all about sacrifice, and they’re about being mean in some sense. So that kind of griefing card is a good fit for them.
Can you speak to the design cycle for this expansion? How long did it take you to flesh it out and get to this point?
Liv: For the initial design team, we spend about 16 weeks before we pass it off to final design. During that process, we decide who the Loa are, who their champions are – and that took us like a month to figure out matches each class. Then there’s a mixture of what the teams look like, what their voice lines are… It takes about 16 weeks to nail down all of the mechanics, the art, the VO, and all of that stuff before passing it off to final design.
Peter: Then final design takes the set and they refine a lot of the stuff that we’ve handed off. We’ll give them 135 cards, which is the number that we’ll end up shipping, and it had Spirits, Loa, Overkill, and some cool designs, I think. But then they’ll take that and they’ll refine a lot of the mechanics. They’ll tweak the Loa so they’re cooler. They’ll make it so that the Spirits work better with the Loa. The Spirits are these 0/3 minions, they have Stealth for one turn, and they work really well with the Loa in their class. They kind of go in the same deck. We wanted to encourage people to get this rare Spirit and then try to build a cool deck around it. And then if you want you can also add on the cool legendary Loa as a sort of cherry on top.
Final design will take all that stuff and they’ll work on it. They’ll iterate and make an awesome set that’s fair and fun, has cool themes, and all that stuff.
At the same time, we’ve got outside artists that are working on the card art. We’ve got people working on the golden animations for all that stuff.
And now final design is starting to finish up. We’ll go and record all of the voice over lines as you play minions. Our sound guys will work on all of the cool sound effects that happen when you do a thing. Effects artists will do all of their stuff like the toad summoning on Rain of Toads and the cannon balls on Cannon Barrage. Void Contract blowing up half of the deck, I don’t think we’ve shown that animation yet, but I think it’s pretty cool. The Loa all have insane animations. Shirvallah, the Tiger jumps on the board as this ethereal ghostly Loa thing. They’re awesome. I really like all of the Loa animations. I feel like they’re some of the best we’ve ever done.
Final design is done. Animation is working on it. Engineering is cleaning up some of the horrible things that we’ve done. Oftentimes design just gets the card working and then engineering makes it actually works all of the time and it doesn’t crash the server or the client or whatever horrible things we’ve done in design.
Liv: There’s been a lot of times where it’s like don’t play this card it’ll crash!
Peter: Yeah, we do some bad stuff when we’re implementing cards for the first time. Just to try and get a feel for how it works.
At this point, engineering is going to clean it up and then we get towards the very end of our cycle. Our PR team starts working on it. How are we going to reveal all of these cards? What’s our BlizzCon plan? How are we going to do all of that stuff?
Now we’re here and then in a month it’s going to be live and we’ll see what awesome things our players can do with it.
Basically, it’s a full year cycle with different people working on it for about 16 weeks per team.
Can you talk about designing 0 Attack cards that are hopefully going to be great?
Liv: Yeah! Like we talked about in the panel, we went through a lot of iterations on that. Things like high health came into consideration. The current Spirits are pretty cool because you can guarantee that your combo will be there for a turn unless your opponent really doesn’t want it to be there. You can almost count on it for being there for one to two turns and that feels really good. It feels like all your combos work. You don’t have to worry about playing it out and making sure you have all of the pieces all at once to play them all in one turn. You can throw it out and take the chance and maybe you can play a bunch of cards the next turn and it feels really awesome.
Peter: Imagine you had Brann Bronzebeard, but he always lived! How insane is that!
We wanted to do some cards that were build around, that you could build your deck in this direction. In large part, because people really like that stuff. Quests are some of our most popular cards ever because they tell you to do this thing, look at your collection differently, and try it out. Spirits are kind of one of the evolution of Quests or Spellstones. This is less about building something powerful in my hand and more about signaling that the next turn is awesome. If they don’t give you the opportunity and they’re scared of you killing all of their minions. Maybe they’re scared of SI:7 Agent. Maybe they’re scared about you generating giant Pogo-Hoppers. Whatever it is that you’re doing, they can set up for that because you’re telegraphing your awesome play. But in exchange, you get to make your awesome play! Which you sometimes don’t get to do with your build around cards.
Liv: Or maybe you bluff with it. You just throw out the spirit and see what they do. Maybe you pull out a Hellfire.
Liv: Spirits are awesome because they also help you build the deck. I know a lot of people struggle with building decks. On launch day we’re giving you a random Legendary and the two spirits that match. You’re able to put those three cards in a deck and add all the cool things that match those things and it makes it a lot easier to get there.
Peter: We’re updating Whizbang the Wonderful too!
Liv: Oh, yeah!
Peter: If you love Whizbang from Boomsday Project, he’s getting all-new… well, I’m not going to say all-new decks, but he gets a bunch of new decks that use the Rastakhan’s Rumble cards. As we update the deck recipes then Whizbang updates.
Paladin got a card called Rebuke in the past. Combo pieces like Shudderwock or Malygos which are pretty prevalent in the competitive space. Is there any reason why the disruption of those combo pieces isn’t more common?
Peter: It’s kind of a mix of things. It’s one of those things that’s really healthy to have sometimes. Dirty Rat is a great example. Dirty Rat was a pretty cool way to interact with combo pieces. There was a fair amount of randomness. Sometimes your Dirty Rat would hit something, other times it would miss. It’s definitely something that we’re always exploring. How can we do different things?
Rebuke is a good example of how we can do things that make classes feel differently. Ice Block was an example of a Mage card that if you were scared of a damage combo it could often save you. Then you play something like Reno Jackson afterward and you’re at full health again.
We’re exploring different ways for different classes to interact with combo cards.
It’s also the kind of thing that… there’s going to be more or less of it as time goes on. Sometimes you’re going to see lots of cards that disrupt combos, sometimes you’re not going to see very many. We’re at a point right now where there’s not a ton of ways to interact with powerful combo cards.
There have only been 16 cards revealed so far, so any kind of pattern sticks out like a sore thumb, but there’s actually 3 or 4 cards that feel hand buff-y. There’s the Priest one that buffs everything in your deck (Surrender to Madness), there’s the Paladin one that goes into your deck (Immortal Prelate). They’re different takes on the hand buffs. It’s neat to see mechanics that were an essential focus of previous sets kind of drift back in slowly over time. Can you just talk about pulling from previous sets and inspirations?
Peter: Hand buff is a fun mechanic. It’s a cool way to interact with the cards that you haven’t played yet without giving you enormous tempo on the board and setting you up for cool plays later. It slows the game down a little bit because instead of giving you giant minions on the board it gives you giant minions that you’re going to play in the future.
Immortal Prelate is a pretty slow card. Surrender to Madness too is reasonably slow. It’s going to buff the cards you’re going to draw in the future rather than just the hand buff stuff. Spirit of the Bat is a little different. That gives you some immediate tempo as soon as you play those cards. So it’s a little less slow.
Honestly, it’s mostly just a coincidence. If you pick however many cards we’ve revealed from Rastakhan’s Rumble and there’s going to be some amount of pattern. I don’t think there’s a ton of hand buffing across the board in the expansion. It just happens to be in these ones.
Liv: But there are mechanics that are favorites for the designers. Like oh, I really liked hand buffing which we did in Boomsday so let’s try that again. So we revisited it. It seems pretty cool.
Peter: Yeah, I think there’s at least one more hand buffing card in the set.
Liv: It helps reinforce class themes that didn’t quite get there in previous sets. That way we can revisit them, give them a little more juice and maybe people will revisit those old decks with the new cards. That’s pretty exciting.
Is there any reason Zul’Jin is a hero card? Is that in direct response to the popularity of Deathstalker Rexxar?
Liv: No, I think it’s just that we think Zul’Jin is really awesome. He’s one of the most prolific trolls that people will just recognize. Whether it goes back to Warcraft II to Heroes of the Storm players, he’s just known across a lot of different areas.
Peter: When we made the list of who should be the hero card for this expansion, Zul’Jin was basically at the top. What class is Zul’Jin? I think Hunter is a pretty good fit. He’s a natural. He threw a lot of axes in his day so it fits pretty well for Hunter.
He’s cool mechanically. We haven’t seen his design yet but he fits into an interesting way to play Hunter.
What kind of balance issues have you all run into during playtesting?
Shirvallah, the Tiger is the 25-Mana 7/5 Lifesteal, Rush, Divine Shield and whenever you cast spells it reduces its cost by the amount of mana you spent. Once upon a time, Shirvallah was a 30-mana 9/7 that reduced its cost by that much. And then somebody played Holy Wrath and then Shirvallah became a 25-mana 7/5 instead. Because Holy Wrath deals damage equal to its cost so that did 30 damage and killed someone.
That’s an example of a balance issue. It wasn’t even a very good deck, but man did it feel bad when it happened! Pretty funny though.
I was amused. It didn’t happen to me so that made it a lot more amusing.
There are a lot of cards that go through tuning steps…
Liv: Hex Lord Malacrass.
Peter: Oh yeah…
Liv: Malacrass used to give you The Coin and himself. So you just Malacrass forever. It’s degenerating gameplay I guess.