Here’s a secret from a longtime Hearthstone fan: the best time to be a Hearthstone player is when the first expansion of a new rotation is released.
In case you missed our previous coverage, Hearthstone‘s Year of the Mammoth has ended and the Year of the Raven has begun. What that means is that the cards featured in the Whispers of the Old Gods, One Night in Kharazan, and Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansions will no longer be available in Standard play. Instead, only classic/basic cards alongside the cards introduced last year and those featured in upcoming The Witchwood expansion will be available to Standard mode players.
Don’t quite follow? Well, the key point is that this is the time of year when even top Hearthstone pros don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. Over the next several weeks, we’re going to see a lot of experimentation within the game. New cards will certainly see play but so will overlooked and overshadowed cards that now have room to shine since so many powerful cards are rotating out. This is the glorious time of year when Hearthstone is at its most unpredictable and when players are at their most creative.
Despite the trend of experimentation that accompanies the release of the first expansion of the rotation, Hearthstone game director Ben Brode insists that the incredible number of new mechanics and keywords introduced in The Witchwood weren’t implemented solely to cater to Hearthstone‘s most creative deck builders. In fact, they actually helped the team complete the creation of the full set.
“I actually think mechanics, keywords, in some ways can make sets simpler than the other way around, ’cause otherwise you have to have unique different 135 cards,” said Brode during our recent interview with him. “I think it’s more interesting to see it play out in a bunch of cards in a bunch of different ways, but the biggest goal was just to make a set that has an identity, it’s super fun, and has a lot of opportunity for players to experiment and I don’t know that mechanics are more or less playing into that opportunity.”
Nevertheless, Hearthstone‘s most dedicated deck builders have already begun designing their dream decks for the new expansion. Among them is the ever-mythical idea of a “control hunter.” Since the beginning of Hearthstone, players have tried to build a viable slower deck for the traditionally aggressive Hunter class. At one point, the Hearthstone team even mentioned that they intended for Hunter to be a slower class that used its aggressive hero power to chip away at an opponents health over the long game. Now that some new cards theoretically make that hero power stronger and cheaper, Brode thinks that idea might actually come to fruition.
“Once upon a time, we had a Hunter combo deck that would charge in for some damage right at the end of the game,” said Brode. “I think … there is room for that, I think that you’re right that a one-mana Hero Power makes that dream a little more viable.”
Speaking of hero powers, I asked Brode whether or not the fact that the Shaman class now has two cards that replace its starting hero power (Thrall, Deathseer and Hagatha the Witch) is Blizzard’s attempt to address fan complaints regarding the randomness and general ineffectiveness of the class’s starting ability. However, he says that’s not really the case.
“The new Shaman hero power, that’s eight mana, so that’s….if we were (addressing the Shaman hero power) we’d do something at the start of the game replaces your Hero Power or costs much less,” said Brode. “In Goblins Vs. Gnomes we had a minion, Thermaplugg, who was the last boss of [World of Warcraft‘s] Gnomeregan, he’s probably the baddest ass guy, so we wanted to put him in the set, he was kind of our big bad Goblins Vs. Gnomes, but as it turned out, he was forgettable. He’s not very powerful…for Witchwood we wanted to make sure people understood that Hagatha is the main villain. She’s the bad guy, she’s the witch in the Witchwood, and we wanted a way to kind of elevate her in people’s minds as clearly the main character and so we made her a Hero Card just for that reason.”
As for the other new Shaman legendary card, Shudderwock – a card designed to cause absolute chaos whenever it is played – Brode admits that it’s the card he’s “most afraid of” and says that it was the most difficult card for the team to implement. However, some Hearthstone fans on the internet have identified a different card, the cheap enemy removal option known as Voodoo Doll, as one of the game’s potentially most powerful new tools. So far as that goes, Brode feels…mostly confident that card isn’t too powerful.
“Yeah, that card is super, super fun,” said Brode of Voodoo Doll. “We have a fantastic team of balance designers, and we tried very hard to make cards that are going to change the meta and be exciting so that we have the experiences to have online and hopefully to not break it if we do like we had before, we don’t mind stepping in and changing cards and rebalancing them. I feel pretty good about Voodoo Doll.”
Despite the possible power of cards like Voodoo Doll and Shudderwock, Brode’s biggest worry regarding the expansion isn’t a card at all. Instead, he and the rest of the Hearthstone team have been looking at ways to bring some Hearthstone fans who may have walked away from the game back into the fold.
“The biggest challenge, I think, is getting people to take a second and look at a game that’s now actually one of the older games on the market,” said Brode. “I think it’s even better than when we launched but it’s hard to compete against people who are looking for the new, sexy, hotness…Players, once they do make the decision to pick up Hearthstone, have a ton of fun with it.”
While The Witchwood figures to be a lot of fun for Hearthstone players old and new, Brode admits that the development team also had a great time designing the expansion’s horror theme.
“It’s interesting because, when we started working on the setting it didn’t start in that (horror) direction,” said Brode. “We knew we wanted to do Worgen, they have a Victorian kind of feel to them…at first we were pitching around the name Murder on Gilding Express and thought maybe it’s like a Clue kind of vibe and it’s all about a murder mystery, Jack the Ripper kind of thing, and then got more into the spooky fairy tales, ghost-stories, there’s a woods surrounding this place, it’s full of twisted trees and monsters and that’s the vibe.”
The Witchwood launches on April 12th for PC and compatible mobile devices.