This week we had a chance to interview Liv Breeden and Cora Georgiou from Hearthstone's Design team! We talked about Hearthstone's upcoming expansion Madness at the Darkmoon Faire, the brand new Duels game mode, and Hearthstone's revamped achievement and progression system.
Madness at the Darkmoon Faire
We've seen the Old Gods making a triumphant return in the new expansion. Will we get to see other characters that appeared in Whispers of the Old Gods return as well? Such as Fandral or The Ancient One?
Liv: I'm not sure how many old throwback cards we have. But for fans who know corruption and the Old Gods, we've got some stuff for them. During the initial pitch, John showed us Mukla and a Corrupted Mukla, and that led us to wonder what looking at characters getting influenced by the Old Gods would look like, and that was really exciting.
Speaking of Corrupted, tell us how you landed on what that new keyword does. What were the challenges associated with its implementation?
Liv: We tried a bunch of different things. We tried "What if these minions cost health instead of mana?" or "What if there was a deck building restriction like 'No 4-cost minions?'" But we really liked the clear transition in the Corrupt process. These cards tell a story. Getting the opportunity to tell the story with Day at the Faire with the Silver Hand Recruits enjoying their day, but then things get evil and you need more dudes to back up your party. That was a big driving factor.
As far as balance goes, I think we initially underestimated how hard it would be to corrupt something with a higher cost card. We started with buffs like "+2/+2" or "+3/+3," but we realized for something like a 9-mana card, that's very difficult to corrupt. You have to either play a 10-cost dragon or one of the Old Gods. So they can have huge effects.
Should we expect a 9-mana card with a crazy Corrupted effect?
Liv: Yeah, it's pretty cool.
How much do you take the different formats like Wild and Standard into account when designing cards?
Cora: Standard is certainly the first priority. It's the preeminent game mode for Hearthstone. We're always balancing quite far ahead of time. There's initial design and then final design. And then we go back right before the set before it releases and have "final final" design. There are still a lot of questions though of what the meta's going to look like. So for this set, we were doing that last stage right before Scholomance Academy released, and of course are wondering, "How exactly will this meta shape up?" There certainly were a few cards in that set that we said, "This could be problematic"--Potion of Illusion being the big one. It really is something that the community is going to find out all the different ways to utilize it best. So we take a stance of getting things addressed as soon as we can if things get out of line. We do find a lot of problems. We make a ton of changes in final design that would break things in Wild if we didn't fix them. We absolutely keep Wild in mind.
Liv: Yeah, Initial Design doesn't take that into consideration most of the time. We're just like, "This is fun! Let's do it!"
Cora: And then we end up saying stuff like, "Liv, you can't make that card. Raza's still in Wild!"
Were any of the Old Gods that were revealed go through any major changes in final design?
Cora: Y'Shaarj went through quite a few changes. He's always been a Corrupt buildaround, but the output changed from it several times. I think it was "Return them back to your hand. They cost (0) permanently." Then it was "Return the first one, and it costs (0)." Now it's, "They cost (0) this turn." They're all similar. But with cards that reduce cards to (0), that can always be dangerous. So that's why we went to a temporary cost reduction.
Liv: C'Thun went through a lot of changes, too, in initial design. We knew we wanted to deal damage because that's what he does. We thought we would build it around Corrupt minions. So maybe he would deal damage based on how many Corrupt minions you had played. But once we finally settled on this "broken apart" one and play these big 5-cost spells, it felt great to get a huge output. He started with 5 broken pieces at first. And they were just 5-cost spells that summoned a 5/5. But now, there's so much more interaction where you have all these different effects. It makes the deck way more interesting.
One of the most exciting things we learned today were the mini sets that are coming in-between expansions. Tell us about the decision there, and how do you expect that to shape the ladder?
Liv: Last year, we did Galakrond's Awakening which was a 35-card mini set. There were some things that we didn't like such as the slow release with a few cards each week. It didn't fare well for more casual players who were confused about when to come play with the set. So now, we'll be doing them all at once. You'll get them through the card packs. And with this year's duplicate protection, if you've already collected all the commons and rares, then your packs will only have commons and rares from that mini set. We want players to be engaged throughout the entire expansion. So if they've walked away, they've got a reason to come back. And if they're still playing it, they've got something new and exciting to try.
Cora: With this Scholomance meta, which has been objectively balanced, there's been a lot of decks that are comparable to each other. Even with that and a lot of different decks you can play, it's easy to get antsy quickly. And we realize that more content more spread out is just healthier overall.
Liv: There's another benefit to it, too. If we have a keyword that we really like and want to explore more complex iterations of it, we can now do that. We want for a set's few cards with that new keyword to feel streamlined and make sense, but now with mini sets, we have a little more room for creativity and exploration.
Will the mini sets rotate along with their related expansion?
Liv: Yeah, they're all part of the same set overall.
It's been a year since Battlegrounds was released as the first new game mode in quite some time. Can you tell us about what the team learned from releasing Battlegrounds and what of those learnings were implemented in Duels?
Cora: It really is anyone's guess when you release something big like Battlegrounds which was so different from anything we had done yet. We were blown away by the response from the community, and that was really the boon we needed to iterate on other ideas and keep creating different ways to play Hearthstone.
Liv: We're also experimenting with different sizes of game modes. So the goal for Duels is to be about the same size and scope as Arena. We kind of know where the boundaries are and a general sense of what it looks like. People have been asking for Dungeon Run PvP for forever. Whereas with Battlegrounds, it was something completely fresh, so we really didn't know what to expect.
One of the things that was highlighted with Duels was that the players' collection matters. But there are also Hero Powers, Treasures, and other cards to unlock during the run. Is this mode more about user choice and control with your collection or will it be mostly just using what you find on your run?
Liv: It's definitely both. So you do get the full scope of the rotation sets in your collection to use when building your deck. But then we're experimenting with different things like, "Maybe you need certain cards to unlock this hero power." It's not like you won't see something in your run because you don't have a card. But when you build your deck, you'll see the options there. And that's what we're thinking for unlocking certain things from the beginning.
The team has been very proactive in the past year for approaching balance changes for Standard, Wild, and Battlegrounds. How are you planning to approaching balance for Duels?
Liv: It's a lot of seeing the data, seeing what players' feedback is, and making decisions from there. There are a lot of knobs we can turn. Do we remove certain Treasures? Do we make them appear less often? There's a lot of different ways we can go.
One of the main concerns when a survey was put out a while back was around the gold and packs earned during an expansion cycle and how that would be affected by any changes like this. Is this something you all have addressed with this new system?
Liv: Our goal is always to ensure that players never lose something. We wanted to make Hearthstone better, so the rewards have to be better. So right now, you get 10 gold for 3 wins. It's really easy to forget about that. But if you compare that to this new rewards track, we can get you way better stuff that helps you understand the value that you're getting along the way. Over the course of an expansion how many "10 golds" do you get? I don't know. But now, you can actually see how may packs, how much gold, et cetera that you end up getting.
Cora: If you're a player right now who saves up a ton of gold for an expansion and then buys all your new packs with that gold, that's not going to change. You can play throughout an entire expansion, get all your progression and rewards, and then use all your gold to buy packs. You're not losing anything. In fact, you should be getting more gold, more packs, and more cosmetics by the end of the season. That was our goal for it. And it gives us the opportunity to make these awesome cosmetics. Now we can do these hero skins that have different unlockable versions and cosmetic versions of The Coin. There's lots of creativity that can be unleashed now.
In your opinion, what's the way you can tell if the new achievement track really works for players in the end?
Liv: I don't know if there's any objective data point there. But for me, I'm excited about the achievement system. I want to go in there and find the "Kill your opponent with 30 blasts from C'Thun." I just want to get that achievement. And I want to get all the wheel wedges with Yogg-Saron. It just gives me more things to do throughout an expansion, and that's what I'm most excited about. It's kind of like daily quests but better. They're super specific for the expansion and help you get the full experience of what that expansion has to offer.
Cora: As someone who used to play entirely Standard and Wild and now plays a lot of Battlegrounds instead, I'm not getting much out of my 10 gold every few wins as someone just playing the ladder. So for players like me who want the gold to buy packs but wants to play Battlegrounds instead, you'll get rewarded better for playing the game mode you want to play. That for me is a win.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Liv and Cora!
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