BlizzCon Interview with Dean Ayala and Melissa Corning

Tiago Taparelli and Andrew Brown from the team got a chance to interview Dean Ayala, Senior Game Designer, and Melissa Corning, Producer for Live Events, on the Hearthstone team last week during BlizzCon.

During this interview, they shared some thoughts on designing Descent of Dragons, the biggest dragon set in the history of Hearthstone as well as some of the thoughts behind Hearthstone's newest game mode, Battlegrounds!

Descent of Dragons Talk to us about the inspiration behind Galakrond and Invoke. What was the inspiration behind it and how do you see this mechanic influencing Standard?

Dean: For Galakrond, it’s a bit of a mashup of mechanics we’ve seen before. It’s kind of a cross of C’Thun (cards that buff something you’ll play later) and spellstones (upgrading over the course of the game). The fact that Invoke and Galakrond play differently in each class can lead to a lot of different and interesting strategies. We also knew we needed to make it so the game is interesting even if you don’t play Galakrond. That’s why the Invoke effect tends to do something for you immediately. We’ve already seen some of the dragon aspects reimagined like Deathwing, Nozdormu, and Ysera. Did you have any favorites while designing them?

Dean: I like Nozdormu and Deathwing for different reasons. One thing that’s fun is the reaction that you hear when people see a new card. Sometimes someone will look at a card and say, “I don’t think you should do this.” And that’s kind of the reaction that we’re looking for. You shouldn’t look at a set of cards and say, “Wow, this is the most well-balanced set of cards we’ve ever seen.” You want to feel like there’s cool stuff that’s going on that feels broken. Like Deathwing just swoops in and attacks everything. That’s what Deathwing does! That’s what his old design was and that’s what his new design is. Sathrovarr is the new legendary that everyone is getting before the expansion drops. Talk to us about the design process for that card.

Dean: Sathrovarr is definitely a very interesting effect. It can get you a ton of value when paired with the right minion. He works really well with Shirvallah, obviously. It gives you a lot of staying power. You don’t even really necessarily need Holy Wrath anymore. There’s just a lot of healing there. Anytime you have a card that reduces its cost like Shirvallah, you’re going to be thinking about Sathrovarr and if it could work for your favor.

It’s really fun to release cards like this early and have the meta change. They get this small window of time where it all focuses on them. We haven’t heard a lot about the single-player content for Descent of Dragons. Should we expect something similar to what we’ve seen in Dalaran Heist and Tombs of Terror?

Melissa: We did the Dungeon Run, roguelike style for the Dalaran Heist and Tombs of Terror single player because we thought those best captured the story that we told for those chapters. And we really want to keep using the best format to finish things off strong. And we felt like a linear adventure allowed us to do that better for this upcoming expansion. We’ll have more details as that gets closer.

Hearthstone Battlegrounds I think it’s safe to say that Battlegrounds took everyone by surprise. Talk to us about the development cycle for it.

Melissa: A lot of the team have been playing some of those games in the Autochess genre and really started wondering “What would this look like in Hearthstone?” So we have a guy on the team, Connor, who was working on a Tavern Brawl based on the autobattler games out there. It was just a quick 1v1 version. And people started picking it up and falling in love with it pretty quickly. So we started looking into what it would be like to have this as a bigger part of the game. It’s got to be tough enough balancing 9 classes at a time for the ranked ladder. What is it like having to balance 24 heroes? How do you plan on balancing the game for the future?

Dean: Battlegrounds is going to be managed more by the Live Content team that Melissa is on more than the card design team. But we’ve all played this game mode a lot. Chakki is just insane at video games. He has a knack for figuring them out very quickly. So he became the best player at Battlegrounds pretty quickly. It’ll be really interesting to see what people discover as super powerful and what works for most people. That’s why it’s great to have a website like that people go to and ask, “OK, what do I do in this mode?” when they’re getting started or want to get better.

As far as balancing, it’s going to happen. We’ll change some stuff. Not every unit or anything is necessarily consistently good. That makes how you draft during your buy phases really unique for each playthrough. Some cards are just a little bit less consistent by design. So there’ll be some variance there. And we’ll just have to figure out what the right course of action is there. When you open Battlegrounds in the client, your exact ranking shows up – a big departure from the ladder system. Why?

Melissa: Mike Donais really wanted people to feel like playing mattered in this mode. So he was very vocal right from the beginning that we needed ranking for this mode. So we really planned it to have that from very early on. Mostly, we asked, “How do we present this information in a quick, clear manner?” And showing that number really helps to do that.

Dean: This game mode really has some long-term fun. People are going to be playing this a ton. Which isn’t necessarily true for a lot of Tavern Brawls. And that’s by design. It’s there for a short amount of time, and you play a couple games. And if you want to play more, great, but if you don’t, that’s fine. So when you have a mode now where you know people are going to play hundreds of games, you know that rankings is a part of what you have to do. We’ve seen and played with a lot of new cards in this game mode already. Are there any favorites that you have?

Dean: The answer for me is Mama Bear because it’s hilarious.
Melissa: Yeah, me too!
Dean: You get a Rat Pack, and it dies, and then all those 1/1’s become 6/6’s. It can get pretty insane. What are the plans for in-game rewards for playing in Battlegrounds?

Dean: There’s a bunch of features that I think we’d eventually like to get in. The version we got into the game we probably could’ve waited another 6 months to get in and have more in it. But this game mode was so fun, we just wanted to get the version that was playable out as soon as possible. And we use the term “Beta” to really just say that. We’ll add to it and change it as we go.

Year of the Dragon The Doom in the Tomb and Rise of the Mechs events were very unique boosts to ranked ladder play. What have you learned from these events and do you see the team embracing them for the future?

Melissa: We really, really enjoy doing regular events that kind of shake things up. With the most recent Doom in the Tomb event, we brought Wild cards into Standard play for the first time. And those Wild cards are actually “Special Event” cards, which is a brand new system for us. So that really opens up the possibilities for what we could do. We could bring back any cards, we could make entirely new cards… It really is an exciting new system that allows us to do more different variations of this kind of stuff.

Dean: In the future, we might look towards doing the events slightly shorter. Wild in Standard stuff has been cool, but I think we’d do it for a little shorter amount of time next time. Did you expect Zephrys the Great to be as impactful to diversifying the meta as it was? Are there design lessons you’ve learned from creating this card?

Dean: It really was pretty expected. We put more time and effort into Zephrys than most other cards. We had to spend a lot of time even just figuring out the way we wanted to go about it in the first place. There were so many different ways we went through to finally get to what it is today. And then when we decided, “OK, it’s a Discover mechanic that gets you 3 options determined by what you need in the moment,” we had to build that, and it took a lot of time and resources. But we knew it would resonate with players and be something super unique for Hearthstone to have. We think it’s great to have some neutral legendaries that are fun to play and pretty flexible like Zephrys. We’ve seen some really great dialogue you’ve jumped into on Twitter around defining what makes a meta “fun.” Can you share some of the philosophy behind that for you and your team? Does the team look at any specific metric/hard data to help determine that?

Dean: “Fun” is hard to nail down. Sometimes if you play a deck and just snowball a win, it can be like you got to have fun and the other person didn’t. And the tough thing is actual winrate doesn’t always tell you exactly whether people are having fun or not. I spend a ton of time going through data, and I think the most useful thing that I get out of it is that it tells me how likely something is to continue. If you have a deck that’s really doing well, people are going to take interest and play it more. If a deck really isn’t working, it’s likely going to fade out.

Another important thing is player preference and allowing space for a lot of different strategies and archetypes. Like if I really prefer aggressive decks, is there something that could work for me that just lets me be really aggressive? Or if I’m a newer player, is there something I can play that is understandable enough for me to pick up and play it and be able to do OK? Or if I’m a high-level player, is there something like Patron Warrior or something complex enough that helps me show off my mastery of the game? Or if I just really like Mage decks is there something for me? We really want there to be something that can appeal to players no matter what their preference is.

You can find more information about Descent of Dragons here or about the new Battlegrounds mode here. Subscribe to Premium to have access to the full breadth of stats from, including advanced filters, mulligan guides and much more. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for unique Hearthstone stats and news.