Hearthstone has added its own spate of original characters to the Warcraft universe, but none has stood out quite like Elise Starseeker. The character first appeared as the brains and de facto leader of the League of Explorers in the Adventure expansion of the same name. She was a sharp night elf adventurer in the style of old serials, and fans attached to her quickly. With the latest expasion, Journey to Un'Goro, Blizzard not only made her a prominent part of the marketing in its trailer, but she got her own new card as well.
Thanks to Blizzard, we can offer a detailed look at the creation of the new card, Elise the Trailblazer, with exclusive card concepts that didn't make the cut as the studio was planning out how Elise would next appear in the game.
"When we first got together to talk about what expansion we wanted to do next, Un’Goro appealed to all of us. Giant dinosaurs, treasure, rewards, and discovery were all great stories to tell," Dean Ayala told us. "What we needed was a character that helps tie in the story of why we go to Un’Goro in the first place. That’s where Elise came in. She was a character we created for League of Explorers that loves to map and discover new territory and we thought she was a perfect fit."
To hear Ayala tell it, the original Elise Starseeker card served as a prototype for the new Un'Goro mechanic, Quests. Though it wouldn't alert players with an icon in the Secrets slots like the new Quest spells, Elise would signal to both players that something big was coming.
"Having secondary objectives is something we always talked about," Ayala said. "You always want to play your cards and reduce your opponent's life total to zero, but outside of that, there has to be more that you're doing. It doesn't have to be exactly a quest. It might be, oh, you want to draw enough spells to use your Lock and Load. That's sort of a quest, there's not a lot of UI guiding you on that quest.
"With Elise, both players saw what was happening, both players would see the map. So while there wasn't a UI that was showing you all the time, both players sort of knew, hey, this player is on a quest to find the Golden Monkey. Eventually there's going to be a bunch of Legendaries and I'm going to have to deal with them. I think that was definitely a precursor to Quests."
In fact, those proto-quests informed the early development of Un'Goro quests. Ayala mentioned that associate game designer Ryan Masterson had thought up putting Quests on minions, with conditions like "summon two minions" to receive a big stat reward. But as he said, "minions in Hearthstone don't survive very long," so that idea was scrapped. Instead, the Hearthstone team turned its thoughts toward how to make Elise interact with the new ability Evolve, which would later be renamed "Adapt."
Similar to the Druid card Fandral Staghelm, this early version of Elise (affectionately nicknamed "the most Awesome") would take a mechanic that usually forced a choice, and let you enjoy multiple benefits instead. It was a strong concept that the team liked, and didn't raise alarms during the concepting phase when cards reside on a shared Excel spreadsheet.
"That wasn't one I was super worried about at all," Ayala said. "When you're going through the sheet, there's definitely ones that you think: this is probably too crazy. There's a lot of stuff in the sheet where it does worry me and I know we're going to have to redesign a lot. This [version of Elise] makes perfect sense, because we think we're going to do Evolve, and we're pretty sure we're going to do some Discover. That seems like a really cool reward, and it's on Elise, so we're done, right?"
When playtesting, though, Ayala said that the card was "taking away more fun than it was doling out." Discover and Adapt add strategic depth by forcing players to choose the best card or effect for a given situation. Simply giving players all of the choices presented just made it less interesting.
"What makes Discover and Adapt interesting is that you need to make the choice that makes the most sense for your given scenario. Sometimes that choice is an easy or a difficult one, but feeling like you have some agency in determining what path you want to go is what makes it fun. Elise was going to be a neutral Legendary, and it started to make less sense for us to have a card that takes away from two of the mechanics we were planning on utilizing in the set."
He also mentioned that it stood a good chance of being too "snowbally," especially since Discover just immediately became a draw-three. He said the team considered giving it very modest stats to offset that effect, but in the end, it was just scrapped.
While still experimenting with the first version of Elise, the team began testing ways to make her interact with the other big new mechanic in Un'Goro, Quests. In this mock-up version, Elise helped contribute to your Quest by offering a different effect for every class. The idea was to shuffle in "just a little assistance." The concept died fairly quickly, because it sacrificed some of the idea behind the Quest mechanic itself.
"Quests were important to Un’Goro and their rewards were more powerful than nearly any card we’ve ever created," Ayala said. "The journey to obtaining these epic rewards had to be achievable, but it also had to be difficult. We felt thematically this version of Elise was also great, but it cheapened the experience of completing quests while also making all the quest decks less unique. We wanted the design of Elise to fit in with her thematic kit, but decided we would try and stay away from linking her to Quests, Discover, or Adapt and making those mechanics less interesting. We didn't want to homogenize the decks. The Quests are supposed to be giving each class some identity and the ability to complete it in different ways."
There were also complexities that were never resolved, because the card didn't go far enough in testing to bother. The phrase "Quest assistance" was always a placeholder, and the team didn't plan for a better term. Offering nine different effects based on your class made it hard to communicate what exactly it would do, and if you played Elise after completing your Quest, it may have needed some other effect to trigger instead.
This mock-up version is almost the finalized one, and shares a lot in common with Elise's first appearance in League of Explorers. It's almost identical to the finished version, except it adds a middle step. As powerful as a pack of five cards is, though, it's not as powerful as the original Elise's effect, which swapped all of your remaining cards for Legendaries. Having the same type of multiple steps for a smaller reward made this version of Elise a worse card compared to her debut.
"It's a little less swingy and game-changing than the Golden Monkey," he said. "You know, the Golden Monkey ends the game quickly. Either you have no more spells to deal with their stuff, or they can't deal with your Legendary minions and the game is over. The original Elise just shuffled the Golden Monkey in. That created craziness, you know, showing up every game is probably too much. Whereas, if you get the Un'Goro pack in every game, that's okay. It doesn't exactly change the whole dynamic of the entire game. I think just in terms of how consistent do we want this to be, and is that consistency good or bad for the game, Golden Monkey had to be a little less consistent."
This version also told an engaging story, with Elise going on a hero's journey and coming back changed in some way. But that also led to strangeness in the story it was telling.
"Elise goes onto the board, and then goes into your deck, and she dies on the board, but then she's back! Sometimes the first Elise you played would still be battling on the board by the time the second Elise showed up. It was a little strange. That's okay in some circumstances. If it makes the design a lot better, some confusion isn't too big of a deal. This time I don't think we gained a lot by putting a new version of Elise into your deck."
But the designers were on the right track.
"We liked the idea of the end reward being an epic loot chest from all around Un’Goro visualized in the form of a Hearthstone pack. The next step was finding a good way to communicate that story."
The end result cut out the middle step and brought the extra pack a little quicker than its previous incarnation. To make the reward fitting of its Legendary minion, the designers tweaked the drop rates to make it more likely you'd pull rarer cards. All that was left was finding the right balance.
"[The pack] might've been higher mana to begin with. But it's a trigger, it goes into your deck, you had to put some work in," Ayala said. "You played basically a vanilla 5/5 so you should be rewarded in some respects.
"Sometimes when you open a normal pack you get, you know, four commons and a rare. We didn't think that was exciting enough so we cheated a little bit and made the pack give quite a bit more Epic and Legendary cards. Just recently I saw someone on Reddit posted a screenshot of a pack with five Legendaries in it. I don't think I've ever seen a pack anywhere with five Legendaries in it. Elise is an accomplished adventurer so she doesn't go around picking up every Common."