While we were visiting the Bahamas to cover the ShtanUdachi's victory in the Hearthstone Winter Championship, we also had a chance to sit down with Game Designer Dean "Iksar" Ayala. Dean is well known as one of the more vocal members of the Hearthstone team at Blizzard, frequently appearing on Reddit, Twitter, and more to engage the community, answer questions, and address concerns. He's also become synonymous with any and all Arena adjustments recently as the developer has committed to make more frequent changes in a game type that was long considered a bit stale among frequenters.
Our interview is nearly 4000 words long and it would have been had we not removed a single question regarding Adapt and posted it exclusively in our Un'Goro card reveal of The Last Kaleidosaur.
For those that don't want to read through the whole interview without knowing what it contains, we've created a few bullet points running down what you can expect.
- Designing Quests.
- The high number of new mechanics in Un'Goro.
- Is Un'Goro truly more expensive than other sets?
- Does Un'Goro have to be stronger as the first set of a new year?
- Does Blizzard communicate well enough that its designing new cards well in advance?
- Did you feel like you needed to make more Murlocs because of Anyfin Can Happen rotating out?
- Is there any kind of pressure to make sure certain archetypes stay somewhat viable? I.e. Tempo Mage.
- Why are all of the Quest rewards five mana?
- What is your reaction to the reception of the Arena changes?
- Do you think the Arena will ever settle down again?
- As a vocal member of the development team, how has this very different card reveal season been to you?
- Discussion about Renounce Darkness and cards like it.
When Blizzard was deciding what each Quest would do, how big of a factor was class strength? Some complained about how difficult Rogue's was compared to Priest's which seems pretty easy.
[Our goal was] mostly just doing different stuff with the quests.
The Priest one is definitely more straightforward and we wanted some that were [exactly that] and we wanted some that were not as [simple] because we wanted to not be super linear.
I think [the Priest quest] is going to play out to be...even though you can choose how many Deathrattles you want in [your deck] and when you want to actually trigger the quest, I have a feeling if there's a bunch of aggro cards in the meta and a lot of aggressive decks then you probably want to probably want to max Deathrattle so you can complete it as soon as possible and that's sort of like a Reno effect.
But anyways, back to your question.
We just wanted to create new decks. With all the individual cards we sort of try to address class balance and make sure that each class has some decks that are fairly powerful. But with quests specifically, 'Is this something new and fun?' was goal number one.
[We also considered] whether or not the quest was super powerful if we didn't feel like it was that powerful in a class that wasn't as powerful going into Un'Goro and [we also took] into account all the stuff that is removed from each class like Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem leaving from Shaman leaves that class in a pretty interesting spot.
Taking all of that into account, I think all the cards are more directed at balance between the classes whereas quests just give us a new deck and are pretty fun.
We were looking at Reddit the other day and the last few days have been really interesting because the number of new mechanics has been revealed. Everyone knew that Adapt, Elementals, and Quests were coming, but now we have permanents, Living Mana's effect, and "Guess the card," all this crazy stuff coming in. Was there a conscious effort to introduce more with this one specific set or did it just happen to come together?
I guess when we think about brand new mechanics having the one-off card is less of a huge deal to us, especially at the higher rarities.
I think one of the biggest challenges when introducing new mechanics is...I think it's a pretty poor experience, at least when you're starting out and trying to learn what's going on if everything has a keyword and everything is totally different. Everyone's playing Adapt, Quests, and Elementals, but in addition to that you stuff like Taunt and Divine Shield. These are all things you have to learn so I think when you have one-off cards, especially at higher rarities or the ones that are super synergistic - to play this card you need all of these other cards in your deck as well. Trying to make sure that newer players aren't getting exposed to that all at once.
We're trying to do a bunch of new things and new mechanics [which] is exciting for a lot of the players that have been playing Hearthstone for a really long time.
If the question is, "Did we on purpose, try to do more new and wacky stuff?" Yeah, I think we're going to try to do that more and more over time.
Another thing that I see a lot is people talking about how expensive this set is going to be because there are fewer filler legendaries due to Quests and class legendaries, rather than having a ton of Neutral cards that are or aren't fantastic. Do you think that's a fair assessment, that it will be more expensive?
I think there are two more legendaries overall... Our goal isn't to create a bunch of filler legendaries in any set so I don't think so.
In general, people find the decks that speak to them the most.
For quests specifically, there is the quest legendary that is going to be new. But it's not like you need all new cards to complete these quests. Specifically for the Priest one, for example, you might need the quest, but there are a lot of cards you can fill in there that are not from Un'Goro.
[That's unlike] GvG with Mech decks. If Mech is the thing, you have to put all the Mechs which are all from GvG. Whereas with a lot of the quests it's just the quest and then a whole bunch of cards from Classic and Basic if you really want to do that.
I don't think it's different from most expansions. It's just more weighted on the legendaries versus a lot of cards in your deck.
Obviously, this is the first expansion for Year of the Mammoth. How big of a factor is that when it comes to designing that? Do you have to make things a bit stronger overall? It's the first set and there won't be two other sets to help fill it out?
The biggest challenge with the rotation is that there's not a lot to go off of in terms of doing final design or balance. A lot of the time when we're making Karazhan or Mean Streets we have the previous meta to go off of.
We had a problem with Midrange Shaman in Karazhan which we tried to correct, but we try [to be like], 'Hey, this is the best deck. Let's not give them more for their best deck.'
Whereas with the rotation that example doesn't really exist. There's not a concrete example of what the best deck is post-rotation because it's basically a totally new format.
We don't try to make any of our sets much more powerful than the last because that creates a lot of problems because we just have to keep doing that if we want to make any of your card exciting.
I think with Un'Goro specifically, we are trying to keep cards that are exciting but still relatively on the same power level with the Classic and Basic set. Moreso the Classic set and some of the older expansions, because if you make everything way to powerful it completely devalues some of the cards you already have and then it creates problems for the next set after that.
We try to just keep everything on the same power level.
We remember talking to Lead Game Producer Yong Woo last year and he mentioned that the Midrange Shaman thing kind of snuck up on you guys because you are developing so far in advance. And we've heard that Game Director Ben Brode thinks people have an understanding that the team is developing a year in advance, essentially. Do you think that's something that is communicated well enough?
It's certainly not the community's responsibility to give us slack because X, Y, or Z reason.
They just want a really good set and they want things to be balanced and they want to be able to play their favorite classes and have those be viable.
That's respectable. That's what the community should want.
We certainly don't expect [to be able to make excuses]. We need to do as good of a job as we can do.
Specifically for Midrange Shaman there were a lot of factors involved, specifically with Spirit Claws.
At the time Shaman was very much...very, very, very aggressive. They didn't have Drakes and they didn't have Thalnos because those are slow cards.
The thought process was, if you're putting in these slow cards then maybe the Shaman deck turns into something different and that's great for us because Shaman is really, really fast right now and maybe that'll turn them into a Midrange [or] Control Shaman.
And it did a little bit, but as it turns out when you're playing Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem on the first two turns those games still sort of feel pretty similar. So the deck was slightly different but it didn't feel much different.
I think that was something that was the biggest misconception on our part.
If we could go back in time - clearly because we ended up changing Spirit Claws - maybe we would have done something different then. But that was part of the thought process. If you make Spirit Claws then Shaman slows down a little bit and it'll be a different deck. But it ended up feeling pretty much the same.
And in terms of doing things really far ahead, we do, but we give ourselves room. We're not locked in.
If we're a year ahead - and we're definitely not a year ahead exactly - but if Pirates are really strong we can give ourselves some room to make some cards that are good against that. Or in general [we can be] changing stuff in the last month or two [before release].
We have to be able to react.
One of the Hearthside Chats talked specifically about Murlocs. Did you feel any kind of pressure to bolster Murlocs a bit since Anyfin is rotating out? Finja and the Water package will still be here, but outside of that...
I don't think so specifically about Murlocs.
It's just all about what new decks we can create.
A lot of these classes have [an] identity. Warlocks damage themselves or Druids summon giant minions and that's sort of what Druid does. One of the things that Shaman does is have access to Murlocs.
So when we're looking at what each of these classes does, we explore each of those and figure out what's the most fun version of this that doesn't resemble something that was just played.
I think Murlocs was a good place for us to go for Shaman just because they haven't been doing that for a very long time or really ever at that high of a rate. It was never really that popular, so doing something with Shaman and Murlocs just felt different so that's why went to it.
Kind of on that note, how sensitive is the team towards supporting specific archetypes like Tempo Mage? Everyone is pretty much saying it's basically dead after the next rotation. Obviously for the more powerful things, Handlock, Freeze Mage, that's not something you want around forever. But for ones that aren't ridiculously powerful and aren't top tier all the time, how active of an effort does Blizzard take towards making sure they're somewhat viable?
I feel like I'm going to give you this answer a lot, but our only goal with making new expansions is to make sure that things are changing.
We don't want to totally take away what people's fun is.
If you're comfortable playing decks like Miracle Rogue, something like that might exist. You're not going to have Conceal anymore but you can still play something that resembles that deck. If you want to play a Mage deck that has a bunch of spells and takes advantage of Mana Wyrm and Sorcerer's Apprentice - there's no Flamewaker which is one of the core power cards - but you can still something that relatively resembles that.
Especially with something like Reno Jackson rotating out, I think that's one of the biggest examples. I get questions a lot, 'Oh, Reno is rotating so you guys are going to make another no duplicates card, right? Because Reno is out so we need something new.' Well, that's not the goal.
I think if we made another no duplicates card we would get the same decks people are playing now plus that card and Kazakus rather than what we have now.
That's not what we want and I think that's not what other people want either. They want to see transition and more change. They don't want to play against Reno, Kazakus or whatever the new Reno Jackson is and Kazakus for the next year. They'd rather see something new and it makes things more exciting.
Why are all the Quest rewards five mana? Galvadon is five, Queen Carnassa, all the ones we've seen so far are five.
I'm trying to think they're all actually five. I'm actually not sure. I know we talked about it. Honestly, the reason I'm not sure is because we changed so much at the very end.
Having consistency is nice, but it's really about the power level of these things. If a quest reward needs to be ten it's going to be ten because the gameplay is what really matters. It might be pretty to have them all at five but I mean if that's not what works, that's not what works.
I honestly can't remember if they're all five, but there's not a specific crazy reason for that. If they felt that was the power level they should be, that's what we did.
These cards are so powerful and you do complete a condition that's so hard to complete [that] if they're a little bit varied on power level that's okay.
Galvadon is going to be super strong, the Mage quest is going to be super strong when you see that, the Druid stuff is going to be super strong when people see that. People are talking a lot about the Hunter one right now, it's super strong. I actually really like Deathrattle Priest. I thought that was a really fun deck to play, but you could play it for a little while when they were playing N'Zoth Paladin as well, but it never really gained popularity. I really liked that deck. Amara is a bit different because it's not actually a win condition - I mean it might be a win condition versus aggro decks - but you still need more stuff to win the game. It has to be a quest plus...I mean maybe that thing can be N'Zoth, the Corruptor because that would obviously fit in that deck pretty well, but maybe it'll be something else because you just can't have Amara because you're going to lose to a lot of Control decks.
What do you think benefits the most from Ragnaros, Sylvanas, and Azure Drake rotating out? I was having a discussion yesterday and they were saying there's not exactly any standout eight drops or six drops that will just take those places.
One of the examples that we used for a while, there's probably a better example, but a card like Arch-Thief Rafaam was kind of cool and interesting but didn't see a ton of play.
When you're building a deck you have to build it for everything too. You can't just build a deck with ten bombs, you have to pick your spots. I need a couple of big cards that win in the late game and basically every deck was choosing Ragnaros the Firelord and Sylvanas Windrunner. Every deck that was a huge control deck had two or three huge minions, maybe if you're a Paladin you have Tirion Fordring with Ragnaros and Sylvanas or if you're a Warrior you have Grommash Hellscream. Even with Handlock almost always [put in] Rag.
Basically every single time we make an expansion we have a really fun card like Kel'Thuzad and Arch-Thief Rafaam that are these huge pieces that do a super unique thing and they don't see as much play as they would because that slot is occupied by Ragnaros.
The other option was to keep making things that are as powerful or slightly more powerful than those cards or nerfing Ragnaros. Again, it was definitely a worse choice to say Ragnaros is a 6/6 that does six.
That would just pain my soul.
People having access to that in Wild forever is a better decision. But the most important thing to us is people are doing new stuff and running new stuff.
Ragnaros and Sylvanas, Azure Drake were all contributors to making games feel the same.
What's been your knee-jerk reaction to the Arena changes?
We definitely went on the hard side of the maximum amount of changes we wanted to do in terms of rarity distribution and stuff. We wanted to actually make a change, make things different, and get feedback.
We thought arena was going to be a pretty fun experience and I think that it is, but we wanted to actually change things and have it feel different.
We've been getting a lot of feedback on that and it's certainly mixed because it is a lot different. There's a lot more removal now and there's a lot more back and forth gameplay, which is good but also doesn't feel the best the third time you get Dragonfire Potioned or something like that. Having the early game actually matter is really, really important and it matters a little bit less now. You can never overcommit because you know your opponent has some sort of board wipe at some point.
So we went from a situation where decks were just snowballing where it was super high minion quality and removal was extremely premium so people would just get ahead and they would stay ahead. There was no reason to play around removal because it was so rare. Whereas now we're sort of the opposite of that and I think that is honestly better. I'm just not going to play everything, I'll play one thing or two things and not overcommit. It's definitely very heavy on that side.
We're still reading a bunch of feedback [and] we're definitely going to change things in Arena. It's an experiment over time trying to find the best way to do it.
Is Standard correct? Should we experiment with some of the older sets? Should we do something a little bit crazier? We've talked about doing stuff like if you take a Dragon maybe you see more Dragons.
It's also really important that the experience in Arena feel more organic to Arena. Having decks feel more and more Constructed would be bad. Arena is a different mode than Constructed, it should feel much different than Constructed.
We're experimenting for sure, reading a bunch of feedback. It's certainly not something we're sure is the correct way.
Do you think there will ever be a time when Arena settles back down and doesn't change?
It's hard to say. Certainly, if we make some changes and everyone is like, 'Never change Arena again, it's the most amazing experience ever.' And then we get tons of more people who are playing Arena, maybe at that point, we don't make any more changes. I'm not sure that I ever see that happening. People in general like change over time, especially some of the hardcore audience.
In Arena you can get a little bit more of the...in Constructed you have people jumping in and playing 20 minutes a day and other people that are playing eight hours a day, so the variance in Constructed feels extremely varied. Whereas in Arena there are slightly fewer people that are just playing one Arena every two weeks.
There's just a lot of players playing a lot of games in Arena. So I think changing more often hurts less.
Plus the distribution changes, you can make changes like that and change the sets, and the hardcore players really know and understand, but the people that don't play Arena all that often maybe it doesn't even affect them, maybe they don't even really notice. Being able to make a little bit more granular changes that effect different player bases in different ways is a tool...
You're obviously one of the more vocal developers when it comes to Reddit, Twitter, and all that stuff. This card reveal season has been really abbreviated and there's been a lot more communication. How has this experience been different for you? Usually here's one card and you'd have to explain it and talk about it whereas now it's here's seven, here's eight and it's all out the door in three weeks from beginning to end.
I think it's better that way just because people are more excited for a shorter amount of time and then they can actually play the set. When you hear about a set and when you see one or two cards at a time there's an excitement window and that might go away.
One of the reasons I think it's super good is like you were saying when there's one card at a time a lot of the focus is on that individual card. And not every card in Hearthstone is going to be the super top-level Constructed card. Even in classes that might not feel strong at a particular time, that doesn't mean all of their class cards are going to be number one, they're going to go into every single deck.
I think when you have a super long reveal period and there's focus on one individual card a day that's a whole conversation. When there are cards that aren't targeted at a super competitive deck - which is something we do all the time - like Explore Un'Goro is not something that is targeted at very high-level competitive play. But if no one was playing Warrior and Explore Un'Goro was the only card talked about that day, that might lead to some negative reception even though I think that it's still a good design, it's something that people are going to have fun with.
So when you have a lot of cards it's just easier...you have more things that appeal to more people. It's a lot better reaction, I think, that way.
For the record, we're all for more cards like Renounce Darkness and Explore Un'Goro.
I think they're so fun.
Honestly, when we're making a set we're going through and it's like, 'Oh, let's address this problem and let's address this problem. This is the new deck card and these are the spells. This class needs a little bit more removal,' and we're doing some discard stuff, so these are the discard cards.
Something that comes up constantly is, 'Where is Renounce Darkness? Where is the crazy fun card?' Because there are a lot of people that enjoy that. Having at least one of those cards in each class or trying to do it in six of nine classes and having some of those in Neutral is so important. To just have a crazy, wacky, fun card. So that's something that we try to do with every class.
Even if we don't play Renounce Darkness in Constructed, there's a Tavern Brawl where we always break it out.
Having cards like that is super important. Even for someone like me. I was playing super competitive stuff all the time and sometimes I just like to play Miracle Rogue all the time because it's super fun. I like Aviana, C'Thun as a super fun deck for me to play, even though I don't play it at the highest level.
Just having decks like that, even the highest tier competitive streamers are playing a bunch of wacky fun stuff as well.