Exclusive ⁠— How Blizzard is building for “next seven years” of Hearthstone

Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone is currently in a huge era of change ⁠— in perhaps the biggest overhaul since the super-popular Warcraft card game was first unveiled in 2014, Blizzard has pulled the trigger on a number of game-changing tweaks as they prepare for “the next seven years.”

There were three big announcements at BlizzConline last week.

The first was very expected; the card game’s new expansion ⁠— “Forged in the Barrens” ⁠— promises to take Hearthstone fans to the Horde-controlled Kalimdor region, made famous in classical World of Warcraft back in 2004.

The second was another long-teased reveal, which players have been “eager” to get their hands on. The new Hearthstone mode, “Mercenaries,” brings a rogue-like flavor to Warcraft’s card game, offering “tactical battles” and a new way to play with the same colorful cast of heroes heading into the future.

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And finally, perhaps the biggest change ⁠— in a bid to prepare for “the next seven years” of Hearthstone, the Blizzard devs have overhauled the Core Set.

Amid all the BlizzCon Online hype, I got the chance to sit down with Alec Dawson, one of Hearthstone’s senior game designers, and Cora Georgiou, associate game designer, about all the exciting things that had been unveiled.

This is an edited transcript of our interview.

Hearthstone adds Forged in the Barrens expansion in Year of the Gryphon.Blizzard Entertainment
Hearthstone’s new Year of the Gryphon begins with the “Forged in the Barrens” expansion.

McIntyre: Hello guys… I imagine you’ve had a pretty busy day so far!

Dawson: Pretty fun so far, yeah.

Georgiou: It’s a good kind of busy, definitely!

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McIntyre: Okay, let’s talk about the new expansion, “Forged in the Barrens”. What are you guys looking forward to from this expansion… anything you’re really excited to be adding to the game?

Georgiou: We’ve got a couple of very big things coming with “Forged in the Barons”. The one that first comes to mind, of course, is our mechanic; there’s always a new keyword with every expansion, and this time we’ve got ‘Frenzy.’ It’s very thematically Horde, you know, they get knocked down, but they get back up again. And this time, they’re madder than ever, because now they’re injured. It just sort of shows off the ferocity that the Horde has. So that was a really fun one to explore. And also, you know, we discovered we really like one-time triggers with ‘Spell Burst’ and “Scholomance,” it lets us do effects that maybe wouldn’t be possible if there were multiple triggers that have the same effect. But with one-time triggers, we can do some really fun stuff. So that was a really cool one to explore.

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Dawson: Another fun thing is Spell Schools. We really wanted to go back and put the right spell types on our previous spells, and going forward we’ll be doing a bunch of stuff with Spell Schools, the same way you see us play around with minion types and stuff like that. So I think that’s been really fun even developing on future expansions, like, what can we do? How do we have another thing we can hook into here and create decks that are around and thematic with spell school being the focus there? 

McIntyre: Was that a focus for you guys this time around, “squaring things up” as you head into another year of Hearthstone and ironing out spells, one-time effects, and more… taking Hearthstone into that next step?

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Dawson: It’s definitely part of it. Looking at the Core Set, being one of the biggest things about that. There’s a number of things where we’ve been trying to re-evaluate, figure out what we think is best. I’ve mentioned it before, but you know, we’re gonna nerf a bunch of cards in an upcoming patch, right? It’s that same feeling here now, with “Forged in the Barrens” and with Spell Schools, we thought “this can be interesting,” let’s do it. We just wanted to find the right place for it ⁠— as simple as it may look! We found just the right solution for it, here now, and that means we can finally hit on those things we’ve talked about for so long.

The Horde "noob" area the Barrens is Hearthstone's newest locale.Blizzard Entertainment
The Horde “noob” area, the Barrens, is Hearthstone’s newest locale.

McIntyre: You mention the Core Set specifically. Was it freeing ⁠— design-wise, balance-wise ⁠— to be able to go back to these cards that have followed players through since 2014, and bring them in line with modern plans?

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Georgiou: It’s given us a lot of design freedom, for sure. Because we can, if we have plans for a year, say they want to bring back Mechs, but we don’t have any basics in Standard. Now we can hook in “Mech Warper,” maybe “Annoy-o-Module,” and we don’t have to waste design space in the expansions on building blocks. In that way, it’s been really freeing already so far.

Dawson: I think it’s also just going to be really exciting to “refresh” that from year to year, see different things there. And, you know, bringing back cards from Wild, bringing them back into Standard in a new light, it brings change. I think this is really fun for us, as designers, and as players, to change it up from year to year to keep it all fresh.

McIntyre: Sounds like we could see some pretty spicy stuff in the Core Set and new expansions now that you don’t have to spend space on the building blocks.

Dawson: There’s some spicy stuff this year, yeah!

Georgiou: For sure. We’ve got an awesome pool of cards to pull from Wild. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. But, I mean, how can we do a Core Set without stuff like “Annoy-o-Tron”? You know, he’s everybody’s favorite.

McIntyre: He’s iconic at this point! Can’t skip him… still on the new Core Set too, how important was it for you guys to work on this huge set of 230ish cards for newer players, and do you think this will help with any kind of ‘barrier of entry’ in the game?

Dawson: That was the most important thing for the Core Set. And, actually, probably the main reason we wanted to do something like this… we want players to have better starting blocks than they’ve ever had previously. I think the new player experience in Hearthstone at the moment is pretty difficult, you play with “Water Elemental” and “Fireball” and then you jump on the ladder and it’s really competitive and hard. We’ve heard players say for a long time it’s pretty hard to get your decks going, and we want to make that as easy as possible for new players. That was the biggest thing that we wanted to do, you see a bunch of stuff in Hearthstone, where over the years, we’ve been doing little things that have helped along the way. It’s like, okay, duplicate protection here. But the Core Set is the thing that’s really going to help you out, this is the big jump that we think was necessary. 

Georgiou: We never want to take anything away from our players… our players who have been playing for many years now have spent time building up their Classic collections and have cracked a lot of Classic packs. So for us, it was really, really important to make it for them feel like their efforts and their time that they spent was worthwhile, while also giving new players and returning players, who maybe don’t have as big of a collection or who have no collection, that really good starting point that they can build these viable decks from and, you know, learn to play.

Iconic cards like "Annoy-o-tron" can return in the new Core Set.Blizzard Entertainment
Iconic cards like “Annoy-o-tron” can return in the new Core Set.

McIntyre: So was the idea for the Core Set to add these 230ish cards with the plan that they’d slot into a lot of the competitive decks, and give players something like 10-15 cards right off the bat?

Dawson: Yeah, we’re not nerfing cards across the board or doing anything to lower them. Actually, a bunch of cards are gonna get buffed, because we want those cards to be more competitive and more viable. An example is “Assassinate,” a card that really hasn’t really seen play for a very, very long time, since like week two of Hearthstone, right? And it goes down to four mana, it’s like, okay, now this is a pretty strong tool for me if I’m a Rogue player. I think that feels really good. And it’s not something where we’re not scared of that. We want players to get in, latch onto decks, and be able to compete at a much higher level than they were before.

McIntyre: And you mentioned before, things like slinging “Water Elemental” and “Fireball.” That iconic feel obviously played into your “WoW Classic” release, the old Hearthstone 2014 format. Was this something you’ve been keen to bring back for some time now?

Georgiou: We’ve had requests for a classic Hearthstone format for quite some time now. And it’s something that, internally, we as players who’ve been playing this game now for seven years, we also wanted to be able to feel that… Hearthstone, the way it was before even “Naxxramus”. But there’s also a lot of players now that just weren’t around when Hearthstone was released and didn’t get to experience that. Hearthstone has changed a lot over time, but ultimately, it’s still Hearthstone and at its core, the game loop is still the same as it was back in 2014. So for new players to be able to see what Hearthstone came from and see what decks were like and what cards were like that they’re familiar with now in different variations, what those cards look like back in 2014 it was really important for us. It’s gonna be very nostalgic for a lot of people, myself included.

McIntyre: I know I’m super excited to see it… I’ll own up, I grinded a lot of Classic back in the day, and then Mech Mage as well in “Goblins and Gnomes” [laughs]. Now, though, you’re looking into the future too with stuff like “Mercenaries.” It looks like your take on the rogue-like games… what was the design process in taking Hearthstone in a new direction seven years into the game?

Dawson: I think since Battlegrounds we’ve been looking at… well actually, probably even before that with Dungeon Runs and things, we’ve wanted other modes in Hearthstone. It was like, “let’s see what we can do here.” Mercenaries has different elements that may not be present in Battlegrounds or may not be present in normal Hearthstone. There’s gonna be much more tactical, RPG focus, rogue-like focus, progression focus, those sorts of things. We’ve seen little pieces of that in different Hearthstone modes, but this is gonna be somewhere that’s more of a bigger focus. The focal point here is “I’m going to sit back and be the commander, and look at how attacks go this way or that way”. Pretty big focus on turn-based tactical combat.

McIntyre: And will we see crossovers between classic Hearthstone, as well as Battlegrounds and Mercenaries?

Dawson: Definitely. One thing we’ve been doing recently is to align everything. We’re doing 10 new characters this year with Mercenaries and in “Forged in the Barons,” five in the Horde, five in Alliance. You’re probably going to see them in Battlegrounds, you’ll probably see them in single-player content too. So yes, we want to see a bunch of cross-pollination of all our content, so you’re seeing it in a bunch of different places. These are the characters we love and we want to show them off in different places. We’ll definitely continue to do that with Mercenaries as well. 

Georgiou: Especially because Mercenaries is so different from Battlegrounds is so different from standard Hearthstone, or Duels or Arena, whatever it may be, it’s really important that everything still feels like Hearthstone, and characters and narrative are a way for us to keep that vibe and keep that theming and still make you feel like, regardless of how you’re playing, you’re still playing Hearthstone, you’re just playing it a little bit different.

Hearthstone is trying out a rogue-like game mode with "Mercenaries" this year.Blizzard Entertainment
Hearthstone is trying out a rogue-like game mode with “Mercenaries” this year.

McIntyreOkay, so looping back to all the exciting stuff that’s been announced, overall, is there one thing that you were sitting on the edge of your seat for, waiting for the public and Hearthstone fans to see for the first time?

Dawson: For me, definitely the Core Set. We had talked about a little bit before Blizzcon, right, we did say expect to see some changes here, but I think just finally seeing, okay, what’s staying, what’s going, what cards are getting buffed or are changed and I think all of that to me is just like, yeah, this is changing what Hearthstone has kind of been for a long time. It’s a really big moment in Hearthstone history. I think it’s gonna be very special for us so I’m excited to see all the reveals come out. That’s the biggest thing for me, year to year, we now have this tool to refresh Hearthstone and engage our players in different ways. We can bring back cards they’re fond of and have a way to do it easily now.

Georgiou: Yeah, I agree, I think the Core Set is going to be so impactful on Hearthstone, the meta, and the life of Hearthstone in general. That very, very exciting for us. And personally, “Forged in the Barrens” is the first expansion I’ve worked on, so seeing cards I contributed to in a storyline that I contributed to being put in our players’ hands is just like the coolest feeling. It’s really awesome. I’m excited for our players to find out more about it as time goes on.

McIntyre: I know I’m definitely looking forward to that Core Set, for sure. It feels like a “big refresh” after so long. What’s that been like for you guys, after seven years, to partially be hitting the ‘reset’ button and starting a new era of Hearthstone?

Dawson: Looking at the game just over the last three years, it definitely excites us, right? It excites us. When I first joined the team is like, “Oh, yeah, we’re making expansions,” and Dungeon Runs had just been introduced. Now there’s so much stuff going on. You look at Hearthstone now, and it’s like, “wow, there’s so much going on,” all the time, no matter what type of player you are. As a member of the team, to see everything that we’re going for, we’re really, really striving for Battlegrounds, with Mercenaries. With the Core Set. There’s definitely a tonne in there. But I think it’s something we all rallied around, and we’re all stoked to find be able to talk about and finally be able to share with the players.

Georgiou: As a newer member of the team, I’ve been on the team for a little over a year now. I was thrown into the fire. When I started, I came in and immediately found out about Demon Hunter and Battlegrounds, and “Ashes of Outland”, and everything. And it was so, so exciting. And I think, overwhelmingly, we just feel very fortunate to be able to make these game modes for people and to have an excuse to design really awesome content for our players. We have players who have played the game for so many years now. And we have a really healthy player base that wants us to continue to make content and game modes and new cards every four months. To be able to do that is a dream come true. We love every second of it.

Blizzard want to keep Hearthstone ticking over for "the next seven years" and into the future.Blizzard Entertainment
Blizzard want to keep Hearthstone ticking over for “the next seven years” and into the future.

McIntyre: It’s exciting Hearthstone has been around for seven years now, and still feels so fresh from the player’s perspective. And finally, it’s seven years now. Without… I’m not going to ask you to spoil new expansions or anything, but the next seven years of Hearthstone and beyond, is there anything you guys are looking to continue to grow the game with?

Georgiou: It’s tough to think, seven years time… my life looked a lot different seven years ago. The world looked different a year ago from now. Yeah, I think seven years from now, we’re absolutely still making Hearthstone expansions. There’s so much content for us to explore with the World of Warcraft. I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to expect we’ve got seven years’ worth of content, at least, that absolutely will be the case. But, more modes, more classes, maybe? We’ve done so much in the first seven. I think the next seven can only be better.

Dawson: It’s a good question… I think the past few years we’ve been focusing on the ways to play Hearthstone. That’s something we’re always talking about as a team, we want to do better. I think the big thing on the wall, it’s on a whiteboard somewhere, is making Hearthstone feel really social, you know… make Hearthstone feel like you are in the Tavern, interacting with other players on a deep level. Hearthstone, to me, has such an amazing community. It’s so special, it has unique characteristics about it, where it’s home, it’s cozy. Our game needs more of that — so definitely we want to get Hearthstone more social. I think that’s the next thing, that’s the big next step in the future.

McIntyre: Yeah, it definitely already has that feel with the Tavern, and the “welcome home” from the Innkeeper. Here’s to seven more years, and more!

Dawson: Yeah, that’d be great.

Georgiou: That would be pretty darn cool!