We were lucky to be one of the few invited to Blizzard headquarters this week to hear more about today's new expansion reveal and talk directly with the developers and pro players, gathering their thoughts on what's to come for Hearthstone.
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Whispers of the Old God"I think it's important to set the mood, we're doing something a little different for this expansion," Lead Designer Ben Brode opens as he stands in front of a room full of press and professional Hearthstone players. "The Inn is normally a bright and happy place, where people [are] slapping each other on the back and sharing a drink. But things have been changing a bit recently, it's a little darker in the Inn," he trails off. Senior Producer Yong Woo interjects, "Recently there's more strangers in the Inn, hanging out by themselves in the corner, wearing a dark robe...Murmuring something perhaps." He continues, "Even the Innkeeper is just slightly creeped out by what's happening."
Soon afterwards we're greeted with the very same cinematic Blizzard revealed during their Twitch stream today. As expected, it's the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion that was leaked months ago, but only recently resurfaced when the community realized the source had been accurate with its first predictions. While we have to wait until late April/early May, the Hearthstone team is still visibly excited to start talking about specifics.
"The Old Gods are massive, tentacled, multi-eyeballed creatures that are chained beneath the Earth," Brode says with his booming voice. "[They] enslaved Ragnaros the Firelord, created the Nerubians and Faceless Manipulators, they turned Deathwing into Deathwing."
These are seriously bad creatures.
Even for those who haven't played World of Warcraft, there's a certain amount of appeal to these massive evil creatures that have been shaping Azeroth for its entire existence.
And it's reached a point where their influence is now being reflected in Hearthstone's minions. Some of your favorites like Loot Hoarder and Antique Healbot have turned away from the light and now exist as Polluted Hoarder - a four mana 4/2 that draws a card when it dies - and Corrupted Healbot - a five mana 6/6 that heals the enemy hero for eight health when it dies.
But not everyone has simply turned. Doomsayer's prophesy has finally come true! He was right! As such, Blizzard recreated him as Validated Doomsayer - a five mana 0/7 that sets its attack to seven at the start of your turn. This means it can't be hit by Big Game Hunter for its first turn on the board, and it eventually beats out things like Aldor Peacekeeper, but it's also entirely defenseless to start.
The set wouldn't be complete however, without the Old Gods themselves. With four in total, Blizzard chose to show us C'Thun - a 10 mana 6/6 that deals damage equal to its attack randomly split among all enemies. With only six attack that may seem pretty lame, but there are actually 16 cards (out of the 134) that directly synergize with him. Beckoner of Evil gives your C'Thun +2/+2 no matter where it is - in your deck or hand, on the board, dead, it doesn't matter, it still gets the buff. Another example is the very cool Twilight Elder - a 3 mana 3/4 that gives him +1/+1 at the end of your turn. It sounds as if it's Blizzards attempt at launching an entirely new archetype. C'Thun himself has an immediate impact, justifying the ten mana cost, but it remains to be seen as to whether or not the deck type can be good enough to stick around.
Seems great, right? But wouldn't it suck to open a cultist (a minion that buffs C'Thun) if you don't have the legendary card? Blizzard agrees and as such will be guaranteeing that the first pack you open will contain the usual five cards along with two copies of Beckoner of Evil and C'Thun for free. Those that play during launch will be given three packs for free as well. Those who are interested and prepurchase as soon as next week and will get the limited edition card back which features an unsettling Hearthstone logo eye.
We got to try out two decks built around C'Thun, albeit only with the cards revealed today and those you can already find in the client. The Mage list ran things like Flamestrike and Frost Nova, allowing you to stall as you grow your C'Thun. Druid on the other hand relied heavily on pesky Taunt minions to try to keep the Mage at bay. There wasn't a ton of content to discover, but we were able to play C'Thun repeatedly, never growing tired of his extended intro. If there's one thing we already know, Blizzard hasn't disappointed with the first of their Old Gods. They sound menacing, the intro drags on for a good while, and C'Thun's play effect is immediately impactful. We'd expect to see the rest of the Old Gods come in at ten mana cost as well.
"I think it's pretty cool. They're approaching the design of cards like a little bit differently," Complexity's Noxious tells us, "They're pushing to the extreme the idea of building a deck around a card, because the entire set is revolving around C'Thun."
He continues, "In the future, [in Wild] give it like two years, there will be such a thing as a C'Thun deck, it'll be an archetype. So the entire expansion creates at least one archetype and maybe more spinoffs.
"I think as it is right now, there's a way to actually make it work with Brann and the cultists we know of." Even with cards like BGH we ask? "You don't need BGH since the battlecry effect triggers," he says, "You're looking to play it right away and win."
We're told there won't be any new Inspire minions, there are new dragons, but the set doesn't contain new keywords or races. Brode was understandably tight lipped about talking too many specifics, the developers mostly wanted to focus on they had made playable for us.
We also had the chance to use Validated Doomsayer, Beckoner of Evil, and Twilight Elder, though the former of which felt all too slow for today's meta. Our prebuilt decks were incredibly slow and lacked large removal, so it wasn't uncommon to see the Doomsayer grow into a 7/7, but with more tools at your disposal once the set releases, it doesn't look to be all that strong.
Noxious shares his thoughts, "I think reversed Loot Hoarder is actually pretty playable in very specific subsets of combo decks. [In] Control decks it can get the board and just need the card draw. It's a Gnomish Inventor that doesn't give you the ability to use it right away, but in certain circumstances it makes your advantage even better." Switching to the questionable card, Noxious says, "Validated Doomsayer looks cool on paper but is the type of card that reminds of something like Bolvar that yes, can be good, but if Silence is still ubiquitous the way that it is now, you can't really justify it."
Upcoming ChangesIt's very much an exciting time for Hearthstone as some of the updates will be rolling out as soon as next week.
"We're starting to set the groundworks for releasing the Standard format and the new expansion," Woo tell us. "Sometime next week we're going to be releasing a patch. . .you'll be able to use your nine additional decks lots. We'll also have a preview of the new UI that will allow you to choose between the Standard and Wild formats, so you can see how that's going to start working. Also. . .this patch will include the new feature Deck Recipe so that's going to help you make fun decks for each of your nine classes."
What about the cards getting nerfed? We wouldn't hold our breath, all Woo would tell us is that they "will be around the same time as the expansion."
That said, he and Brode took some time to discuss the rationale behind the decision making.
"In general it is frustrating to lose to cards you know will be nerfed," Brode says as the continues to talk about Warsong Commander. "We are going to announce the specific changes closer to the release of the patch that contains those changes. But we're also still discussing exactly what those changes should be. I will tell you philosophically we are looking at cards that are very meta game defining - if they don't change [they] will keep Standard from reaching it's goal - which is being a dynamic format that changes yearly. We're also looking at a greater percentage of Druid cards because so many of the cards that they are using are from the Basic or Classic sets [which is out of line with most classes]."
As to what form those will take, he wouldn't rule out redesigns as opposed to simple nerfs, "We're open to changing things in ways that make them better, but sometimes that's easy to do with a number change."
And despite what some may think, they aren't simply looking to replace the cards that have cycled out.
Brode continues, "We didn't focus on replacing all of the mechs [for example]. We really want Standard to be different every year, so I don't think it's right to just duplicate the things that have rotated out in the new sets...We mostly looked for opportunities for minions that we really loved and had great ideas for how we could corrupt them and turn them into different versions of themselves."
"Hopefully we start a new metagame with every set and every rotation of Standard."
To The ArenaBut that doesn't mean Arena won't be getting any attention. Brode mentions that they've done a ton of testing with Whispers of the Old Gods, and not just because they want to improve class balance, but because there are a lot of synergistic cards.
"We're giving everyone C'thun because we want everyone to be excited when you open a cultist," Brode begins, "When we were testing we were having that problem in the Arena a lot because cultists are often common or lower rarities and C'thun is legendary, you just don't see him in the Arena often. So C'thun and all the cards related to him actually aren't in the Arena."
This is great news for those that play the game mode, it marks the first time Blizzard has excluded cards on the basis of being too bad, and all but promises they'll continue to do so in the future. Though it doesn't mean we won't have cards like Sea Reaver and Magnataur Alpha, it does show they're willing to bend for the benefit of the players.
Looking Towards the FutureWhat's next for Hearthstone? Well a lot. Hopefully we'll continue to see more improvements as time goes on. We heard talk of an improved collection filter allowing you to sort by things like golden, mana cost, attack, etc.
Blizzard has made clear its plan to release two expansions and one adventure each year starting in 2016, and some wonder if that's enough.
"I could see us continuing this and I could see us doing something different," Brode clarifies. He continues to explain how players like different periods in the cycle of releases. Some prefer the madness that occurs right after a new set comes out, but he's quick to remind us that others are very much into the tuning phase that happens a month or two after release.
"I think the gap between League of Explorers and Whispers of the Old Gods is longer than maybe we would have liked," but more than anything Brode maintains that they developers don't want to be predictable. Continuing to surprise their playerbase is one of their main priorities.