After three months of wandering around the Barrens looking for Mankrik's wife—and frequently being ambushed by angry Mankrik—the next Hearthstone set is almost upon us. For United in Stormwind, which was announced earlier today, we'll be switching sides to visit one of WoW's most iconic cities. The setting will shift from a bleak desert to a bustling hub where players explore professions, trade (with themselves), and find sturdy mounts to accompany them on their next questline. There might even be some cards here to help Priest win games quickly rather than generating infinite value and waiting for the heat death of the universe.
But that wasn't all that was revealed today. Battlegrounds improvements are coming, including the first round of cosmetics and the planned large-scale minion rework to all of the current tribes. It's one of the largest changes the mode has gone through since its initial release and the first wave of updates is starting with the 20.8 patch today. By this time next week, Ragnaros will be our bartender, selling us Amalgadons with a side order of insults.
Earlier this week, we spoke to senior game designer on the Initial Design team Liv Breeden, and associate game designer Cora Georgiou, about what's coming on August 3 when United in Stormwind launches.
PC Gamer: Let's start with the Tradeable cards. When I first read that Hearthstone was doing "tradeable cards", my brain lit up with the idea that players would be able to swap cards with each other. But that's not how they work—instead, we swap cards with our own deck. What was the idea there and the balance considerations with that mechanic?
Liv Breeden: I think one of the things is how we're going from the Barrens, which is this harsh wasteland where characters are just fighting to survive, and we're going to Stormwind—which is the complete opposite. It's an Alliance-based city, full of people and teeming with life. It's really common in World of Warcraft to buy and sell or trade with other people and we wanted to capture that fantasy so we created these cards you could trade away. We wanted to have players trade with themselves during the game so we could design more situational cards.
Heavy Plate's a really good example; sometimes you're a Warrior and you really don't need armor if you're in a control matchup or something like that. You can take cards from your hand that are Tradeable, drag them to your deck, and for 1 Mana get a different card. As far as balance goes, we started these at 0 Mana for the trade effect but that's… really good. We bumped the cost to 1 Mana so there's more weight to the decision. Players can decide if they want to spend the 1 Mana now or save the card in case they need the 8 Armor later.
How would you say it changes the feel of games to have access to this cycling effect?
Cora Georgiou: It definitely adds that little bit of extra consistency. If you're playing a deck with situational cards, you can afford to include them or tech pieces since if you're in a circumstance where they aren't super relevant you can just toss them back. And it gave us cool opportunities to make cards that interact with Tradeable cards or improve upon the mechanic as we go forward. It's nice extra reliability in deckbuilding.
LB: It's also comparable to [Druid's] Choose One keyword. Choose One cards are cool because they're versatile and this is a different way to do versatile without impeding upon what Druids do. It's a great way to expand that flexibility to other classes.
It feels like there's been an increasing willingness to print more card draw and let players see more of their decks each game across multiple classes. Is there a philosophical change here from when some classes were really constrained by a lack of draw?
LB: It's a mix of things. On one side of it, there was a point in time where we said "Priest doesn't draw cards as part of their class identity" and Priest just disappeared. Nobody wanted to play the class and it was hard to win with it since you weren't drawing at all. We're adding more of that back into different classes—card games are fun because you get to play the cards in your deck. It's cool that we can restrict resources so you have to play smarter, but it's not as cut and dried as we had it before.
Nobody wanting to play priest, or as I call it, the good old days. Are you at all worried about any player confusion from the mechanic's name and people wondering if Hearthstone is now a trading card game?
LB: It's something that we considered, but I think over time you just get used to it. We think players will realize quickly that it isn't about swapping Tradeable cards with each other—but we still wanted to have this fantasy of being in the city and having cards that are goods or services or shopkeeps.
Can you trade multiple times on a turn?
LB: As long as you have multiple Tradeable cards, yes.
Let's talk about the Questline cards as well. Just to confirm, they start in your hand like the old quests, they have three smaller parts with smaller rewards, and then the final step gets you the new Mercenary card in your hand?
LB: That's correct. You play them like normal quests but they're broken up into three parts—after you complete the first step, it transforms into the second step so you don't need to play it again and you just continue on the journey. Once you've completed all three steps you get a really powerful Legendary minion in your hand that provides big benefits. Some of them are long-term and some of them are one-offs but they're all definitely worth it.
The Warlock reward is a 5-Mana 7/7 with Battlecry: "For the rest of the game, damage you take on your turn damages your opponent instead." You're gonna end games pretty fast!
CG: Yup! We designed these questlines to be built around and they take the vast majority of the game to complete—so we wanted the final piece to be something that one way or another is likely to end the game. If you've played The Demon Seed, you've already taken quite a bit of damage on your own turn to advance it, and you need a lot of healing in your deck to make sure that you simply don't die when you play Blightborn Tamsin. It was important to us that these felt like really powerful pieces that you want to work for. For her, if you're playing a Warlock deck that's [life] tapping, playing Flame Imps, playing Raise Deads… you can certainly end the game with her pretty quickly.
LB: From the designer perspective, it's also really interesting since on old quests if you didn't complete them it's a completely lost resource. With these we can give you a little bit of power along the way to help you complete the Questline— and if not you at least get something out of it and it's less all or nothing. The gameplay is a little more variable that way.
Is there anything else you've learned about this kind of design with a built-in narrative and payoff?
CG: Yeah, absolutely! One of the things is that it's really fun to complete quests. Naturally, if you're completing quests incrementally a little more often, you're getting that moment of excitement, of "oh I did the thing! Now I get paid out for the thing!", and that's naturally going to feel good if it happens more frequently. And of course, you get the big bonus similar to the power level of the previous quests. Like you mentioned, it's also a great opportunity for us to tell a story.
In The Demon Seed, we're telling the story of Tamsin raising the demon Anetheron and bringing him into Stormwind. We get those little bits of lore as we go, and we get to tell the story of our mercenaries—which is really what the whole year is about. It's great to combine narrative and gameplay into a mechanic like that.
LB: We actually started with the concept of Questlines ending with a passive effect so things like [Varden's] permanent Spell Damage +3 for the rest of the game, but there wasn't enough impact to them. You wanted to play those cards and feel like you did the thing, rather than just have the quest turn over and go "yup, we did it". Going from Uldum where quest completion made your hero power change… that's a cool moment, but there's something really special about the original quests where I played the [reward] card and now we're in the second half of the game. The stakes are different now.
Moving onto the mount spells, they bring to mind Spikeridged Steed and I guess Dragonmaw Sky Stalker also has a mount vibe. Why did you think that warranted a keyword and do you have any concern over the mechanic being a bit one-note?
CG: Yeah, they all operate the same way whereby you give a buff and a slight bonus to a minion. The mount that drops off has the exact same stats and same effect. Like you said, it's something that we haven't really done since Spikeridged Steed. If we did it more frequently and it was across every class, it could end up feeling samey, so for that reason we chose to go with fewer classes. The gameplay of Spikeridged Steed was really great and it's one of the most powerful cards in Arena—exploring that across different costs and classes was pretty cool and thematically appropriate.
LB: And there are a lot of spicy cards out there. One thing about World of Warcraft is that everyone remembers getting their mount. It's a big story moment for the mercenaries—this is their mount and this is what makes their mount special. We'll see Warlock and Paladin get their special mounts as well. If you look at Hunter as an example, Immune while attacking is super different from the Taunt from Spikeridged Steed or the Elekk mount.
We're able to diversify a little bit more now that people are familiar with it. We still have simple cards like Elekk that are obvious and people say "oh yeah I get it" right away, but then you look at Ramming Mount and say "this is where it gets interesting".
Can you tell us more about how Flightmaster Dungar works?
CG: Yes, so Flightmaster Dungar is the card that everyone is getting for free in the 20.8 patch that's going out on July 1st. This is really just trying to hard echo a flight master from WoW in Hearthstone. When you play him he'll pop up three different locations for you to choose—Westfall, Ironforge, or the Plaguelands. Depending on the flight path you choose, he'll go dormant for either one turn, three turns, or five turns and the effect of each is different. Again, just one of those really flexible pieces that I think could find use in a lot of different decks.
I like that the giveaway card in each set is kind of a head-scratcher where players can do some weird but cool stuff.
LB: Yeah, and what I like about Dungar is that it really benefits people who know their matchups. Do I need something now, do I want something in five turns… what is my game plan and how does it work against my opponent's class? It really benefits those sorts of players and it's cool!
Tell me a little bit about the philosophy behind the Profession Tools. Do they all interact with the cards in your hand and why was that design space interesting?
LB: So we tried Profession Tools a couple different ways and how we ended up with them is pretty awesome—it's simple enough to understand but still fulfills the fantasy. These are weapons that don't have an attack but have an effect that goes off. For example, Runed Mythril Rod is the enchanting tool. The idea is that you're 'rolling need' on everything and then breaking it all down so you can enchant your other gear. We wanted to get the fantasy of what it was like to do the professions without having to do something like shuffle in crafting materials to your deck or something like that. They're not all hand-based—there's one that's board-based, there's one that's cost-based, and there are other things out there as well.
Next page: The problem with Priest, improving Battlegrounds without breaking it, and who was to blame for Paladin's Sword of the Fallen.
Another card I really like the look of is Darkbishop Benedictus. It's one of those unusual Start of Game effects that you don't tend to do very often, and this one puts Priest into Shadowform from the get-go. Is that part of the desire to find an alternative direction for Priest that may be quicker to end games?
CG: I think that's definitely part of it. Anyone familiar with Priest in World of Warcraft knows that they are two sides of the coin with Shadow and Holy. With the introduction of spell schools in Forged in the Barrens, Priest was always going to have access to both types of spells. Holy Priest has been the way we've explored Priest in the past by nature of their base hero power. Shadow Priest was really something we wanted to dig deeper into.
Baku and Genn in the past… everyone's got their opinions on them, but I think there is inherent excitement for Start of Game effects. Legendaries that change the course of how an entire game will go are really cool and they're something that we've explored internally a bunch of times. In this case, the requirement is quite high—you can't play any Holy spells or any untyped spells in your deck. Everything has to be Shadow. It really says that you're committing to the Shadow Priest deck, but now you get to deal damage right off the bat.
How does that change your gameplay, what do the Shadow spells look like, and what do we have to make as designers to accompany Darkbishop Benedictus to make it a deck that not only our players want to play because it's exciting but also can play because it's a valid archetype? It's just really cool to have that completely different design space.
What have these decks been looking like in testing? Are they more tempo-based and board-centric?
LB: Well there's removal like Shadow Word: Death and there's some Lifesteal as well… I think if you look at Shadow spells in the past, it's going to feel kind of similar to those sorts of things but fleshing it out and giving them a little bit more to work with. And of course, going face a little bit more than we're used to doing with Priest.
Staying with Priest, I've seen commentary that there are a surprising number of players conceding on the spot rather than sit through a marathon game. How do you feel about where the class is sitting at the moment?
LB: It's interesting for sure. If we look back at Rez Priest, that deck is really fun… for the person playing it. It's important that we have decks that are for those sorts of players, but we want to make sure that the people playing against them aren't tearing their hair out. If we look at the previous year, there's the "generation priest" where you're creating a huge amount of spells. I think that's something we're moving away from and will probably tone down going forward—or at least putting a number on the upper limit of spells they're going to be able to generate over the course of a game. But Shadow Priest is super different—there are cards like Insight for Shadow, but generally they're pretty forward moving, looking to directly do stuff to the opponent, and that's the goal in this expansion for Priest.
There is actual empirical evidence that Wailing Caverns Control Priest is the strongest counter in Hearthstone’s history to your willingness to play the game. I’m talking about early concessions. Turn 1 -> bottom rights. Priest produces those like no other.June 23, 2021
CG: Priest decks have often dealt in extremes. You either have a ton of resurrection and healing or you deal a bunch of damage really quickly…
Or you're dead on turn 4.
CG: Yeah [laughs]. It can be somewhat difficult to find that sweet spot. We've found it in the past and we're maybe slightly over right now, but I think the gameplay at the core of Priest—and I'm gonna get called a sadist for this—is fun! I don't hate Priest!
I can hear a lot of Grandmasters taking to their keyboards.
CG: "This is why she doesn't cast any more!" Nah, we're gonna find that sweet spot for Priest.
Let's switch gears and flip to Battlegrounds. The mode is finally getting cosmetics. What will it take for BGs to actually come out of beta? What's the next step?
CG: Honestly there's a lot that we'd love to do with Battlegrounds. Cosmetics are just the tip of the iceberg for the art potential that we see and some of the ways that we think players would love to personalize their own games. For it to come out of beta… that's an internal conversation and something that we've been discussing what exactly constitutes taking the tag off. We feel that BGs currently is very enjoyable and something that our players really, really love. There's a lot that we would love to be able to do with it. We're looking at hiring people for the BGs team, we're doing these cosmetics, and we have plans to do more… It'll happen some day!
LB: Yeah, one of the challenges for Battlegrounds is that we found this core thing that's super fun and different every game, and there's so much randomness going on. We don't really want to mess with the core gameplay, and making it more similar to constructed Hearthstone feels wrong so we definitely don't want to do that—leaning into the cosmetics is really important. These are ways that people can interact with Battlegrounds if they're really big into the mode and can get packs that really let them show their own personality. It allows us to keep the core gameplay the same while being able to put more resources towards battlegrounds so we can keep doing these content drops.
There's also a big minion shakeup coming to BGs. Can you give us any clues about what direction you might go in?
LB: So we're changing up which minions are in the pool. You'll see gameplay styles change from minion types, you'll see heroes come and go — well, I don't know if they're going so much as being adjusted, but we'll have some that are coming back that may have new effects. The idea is "what would a Standard rotation look like for Battlegrounds?" and what are we going to do to change the way the game plays.
CG: We have a couple of heroes that haven't been in the game for quite some time now. I know everyone wants their Galakrond achievement that they may not have gotten before we took him out—he'll be coming back along with Trade Prince Gallywix and Maiev, who we'd recently taken out. We made some adjustments to her and I believe those are all coming in 20.8. We've got a bigger shakeup coming after 21.0 is released.
Is Tirion ever coming back?
CG: I've been asking that for so long!
I loved Tirion!
CG: When we put out the neutral Taunt package, I said "You know who would really love this? My buddy Tirion!" Conor Kou at the time said no… I'll keep trying, but right now, we have no plans.
Can you talk at all about how the resource split between BGs and core Hearthstone works? You mentioned you were hiring at the moment—can you give me a feel for what the Battlegrounds group looks like?
LB: We're a little under where we want to be at the moment. We want it to be about the same size as Initial and Final Design, so between 4 and 6 people.
And we have to mention that there's a new bartender in town.
CG: There are a couple of new bartenders in town! In the beach party bundle, we've got Ragnaros, Tiki Lord coming. It's important to note that the bartenders are fully voiced the same way Bob is. If he wants to take a couple days off, that's fine and Rag can come in and tell you that you're doing great, insects! He's probably not going quite so positive, actually. He'll be purchasable with the Beach Party bundle and then with the Shadowlands bundle we're going to have Ve'nari, who's a prominent character in Shadowlands. She'll also be purchasable on her own while Rag will only come with the bundle.
Ve'nari is the only member of a race called the Ve'nari. She's the one and only and is very unique, which is one of the reasons we had to get her up there as a bartender. She's a cool character.
LB: Yeah, she's like the arbiter for lost souls in the Shadowlands and she kind of sends them where they need to go.
I kind of want a bartender to be more harsh than Bob. "You suck, pick it up!"
CG: You might like Ragnaros, Tiki Lord, then. That's the tough love, hot-tempered bartender that you're looking for.
Cora, you're one of the newer members of the team. What's something you thought about how cards were made that ended up being completely untrue?
CG: I have an interesting story in that I genuinely didn't know how card design worked. Of course I had my ideas but coming into the team… I guess the whole process of everything and that the creative work and the balance work is separate even though there is still creative work within the balance work. It just wasn't a world that I had been exposed to. It's been a wild almost two years since I joined the team. How long it takes for a single card to go from inception to actually reaching our audience has been the biggest surprise.
LB: And Cora's gone from Final Design to Battlegrounds to Initial Design so I think she's probably seen most of the entire card design process. I'm really glad she's back on the Initial Design team—the cool team!
CG: They are cool! I like them very much.
I envision the teams snapping their fingers at each other like West Side Story.
LB: And then we pass off our card design ideas and they cut them all down. There's the tradeoff.
Can either of you give me an example of what you thought was a great card that you brought to the team and they said "no, that won't work at all"?
LB: So I came on in Knights of the Frozen Throne and one of the cards I had was this 10 Mana mage spell. The dream was to make it silly and fun—it filled the board with random minions on both sides. It sounds really cool, but in practice, your opponent gets initiative before you and it's just not good. I think we ended up shipping a similar version on Yogg where your minions gain Rush.
There's kind of a meme among some of the pro players where they like to blame BoarControl [once a Grandmaster pro, now also an associate designer on the Hearthstone team] whenever there's a card they think is broken. What can we actually blame him for legitimately?
CG: I mean, I made Sword of the Fallen…
Look, I made it as a 1/3 but I didn't think Final Design would ever keep it as a 1/3, so technically you can blame Boar for that. Though actually I don't think he was on the team yet…
The Paladin players were delighted with that card.
CG: I was delighted by it! Look, Secret Paladin hasn't been a thing for a very long time, it needed quite a good package of cards to become a thing… and it was a thing!
What's the sleeper class with this set?
LB: I really like Mage this set. Mage is super cool, Rogue's got some new decks that we haven't seen so I'd look out for those too.
CG: I think internally I've been playing a lot of Warrior when we're testing future sets and I've been including the Questline in that quite a bit. That's probably my favorite Questline of the bunch. It's very fun.
How's Demon Hunter looking? People were initially skeptical of the Deathrattle Demon Hunter that's ended up being pretty good. Have you tried anything new here?
LB: Yeah, it's tricky! We launched DH with two pretty good decks but we didn't really have a great stable of cards so when we wanted to build up a new archetype we had to give it a whole bunch of new stuff like when Deathrattle came around. Even Final Design was skeptical and said that Deathrattle DH wasn't a thing… but we needed to make it a thing. It's building from the ground up a lot unless you're leaning on one of the older designs—which isn't a bad thing, but I think we could do a better job of that going forward in the future.
United in Stormwind is out on August 3.