Hearthstone: The Witchwood - The GDC 2018 Interview

Prior to Monday's card reveal stream, Shacknews had a chance to speak to Hearthstone Lead Mission Designer Dave Kosak and Game Designer Dean Ayala about the upcoming Witchwood expansion, Monster Hunt, in-game tournaments, and Lord Jaraxxus.

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The card reveals for Hearthstone's next expansion, The Witchwood, are officially underway. Members of Blizzard's Team 5 went to Twitch earlier on Monday to kick off the card reveals in earnest, which Shacknews will be following throughout the coming weeks.

But before continuing our card analyses, Shacknews recently went to this year's Game Developers Conference. That's where we found Hearthstone Lead Mission Designer Dave Kosak (fresh off his time lost in the woods) and Game Designer Dean Ayala, who were happy to discuss the upcoming Witchwood expansion. We made sure to ask about some of its new mechanics, the odd/even deck synergy, and tried to gather some more information about the mysterious Hagatha.

Shacknews: How did you decide on The Witchwood for Hearthstone's next expansion?

Dave Kosak, Lead Mission Designer: It's a very collaborative process. We actually have full team brainstorming. "What are we going to do next?" There was like a zillion ideas. The Warcraft franchise is wide and deep, there's so much to do.

But the important thing to do is mix it up and create a lot of different feelings and vibes. We had a very dark expansion with Knights of the Frozen Throne, where everybody turns into Death Knights. And then we had a romp, what I like to call a dungeon romp with Kobolds & Catacombs. The bad guys were kobolds and there was something very, very different than the Lich King. So we wanted to mix it up a little. What's going to feel really different? So we wanted to do something scary. This is kind of our scary, spooky expansion about a twisted forest and ghosts haunting things.

That's the feeling we wanted to create. By setting it in Gilneas, we get to create a monster versus monster vibe by having the Gilneans there. The Gilneans have a curse. They turn into Worgen, which is basically the WoW equivalent of werewolves, which is great! Because it's not like this helpless town being attacked by monsters. They are, in fact, themselves monsters and that creates a really fun vibe for us.

Shacknews: One of the bolder new ideas for the new expansion is pushing forward the idea of odd and even decks. How did the team come up with this idea and are there some examples of decks that players can utilize?

Dean Ayala, Game Designer: We had a bunch of inspirations for different types of cards, but one of the biggest ones were Kazakus and Reno. The cards that have you construct a deck with no duplicates. It presents a really interesting challenge, where even in the Collection Manager, you're really thinking about not only what kind of decks can utilize these cards the best, but also what kinds of decks are restricted the least by this restriction.

So being able to do that in the Collection Manager is a really interesting challenge, so we're just trying to figure out how to build these interesting deck-building challenges. But also with the slight twist that these upgrades are so powerful, having a 1-Cost Hero Power or upgraded Hero Power is really such a powerful thing to have. The payoff has to be really big for such a huge downside, so having them trigger at the start of the game can sort of alleviate the pressure of feeling that if you don't draw these cards, you're at a disadvantage. Having these triggers at the start of the game is really important for that, so we can balance around the idea that you have these upgrades the entire game.

In terms of decks, we talked about Face Hunter and Quest Warrior. I think both versions of Paladin are quite powerful. Surprisingly, I think odd-Cost Paladin is one of the more powerful ones, which is strange, because cards like Call to Arms, Sunkeeper Tarim, and Tirion are all cards that you can't include in your deck. But being able to make two Silver Hand Recruits every time you use your Hero Power and you still get to keep your own cards like Level Up, Lost in the Jungle, Righteous Protector, and a variety of one-Cost cards. I think that deck is still very powerful, especially with Vinecleaver.

Shacknews: Given that the team is really pushing forward this idea of experimenting with odd and even decks, is it safe to assume that Baku the Mooneater and/or Genn Greymane will be easy to acquire or even possibly offered for free as part of the new expansion?

Kosak: You get a free Legendary as part of logging into the expansion, but I think it's a class Legendary, so it wouldn't be one of these guys.

Ayala: The cost of Hearthstone is always on the front of our minds in terms of delivering a fair experience to the players. Doing things like getting a free legendary when you log in, getting three free packs when you log in, a lot of our quests are going to be 50 Gold and going to be easier to complete. Just the idea that we're continuing to monitor the amount of content that we deliver you per expansion and doing stuff like the pre-order, where it's 50 packs with a bonus 20 packs, is a big help. So we're just continuing to see what are the things that we can do to give away a bunch of fun stuff. When you have a bunch of fun stuff, you can decide for yourself what you want to play.

Shacknews: At the end of the expansion reveal, you all ran away screaming from 'Hagatha.' Is there any hint as to what 'Hagatha' could be?

Kosak: Let's see... Hagatha is going to be our centerpiece villain of the expansion. She is who has corrupted these woods and warped and twisted the trees, beasts, and elements to her will. She is the witch of the Witchwood. It's hard to tell in the video, but most players squinted their eyes and saw that it was a Shaman Hero Card. We'll reveal her in time, but she is definitely one of our marquis villains and the only Hero Card of the set.

(Editor's Note: Hagatha the Witch was officially revealed during the Monday morning card reveal stream, roughly a week after this interview was originally conducted. Let's look at her in action!)

Shacknews: Is there a reason why she was picked for Shaman over the other classes?

Ayala: Flavor-wise, if you're a witch, Shamans have that elemental and, not exactly "wizard" vibe, but magic-using, witch doctor...

Kosak: Elementals, evolves, and devolves...

Ayala: It just fits with her character.

Shacknews: And for Monster Hunt, why opt to use new Heroes as opposed to the established nine classes?

Kosak: We love the Dungeon Run and it turned out the Dungeon Run was very successful. We were looking for ways to change it up, but also keep the format, because the format worked really well. We actually experimented with a lot of ways of changing it up and gradually scaled back to what we thought was the most fun, but didn't add tons of complexity. So it'll function almost the same way, you'll be fighting eight bosses with escalating difficulty, you'll still be finding treasures, building your deck as you go, but now you have the four special heroes.

The four special heroes play with the same class cards, they are an existing class, but with a unique Hero Power and that gave you some really different gameplay. They also have some unique treasures for that hero. So as you're finding treasures, you might find something just for them to use specifically. That let us do some really cool stuff to sort of change up the gameplay. Even though mechanically it's very much like the Dungeon Run, thematically and in the way that these heroes play, it feels really new. We thought it felt great as it was. We call the Monster Hunt, because instead of delving into a dungeon, you are wading out into the forest and hunting these monsters that everyone else is afraid of.

It also gave us some new storytelling opportunities, because we can really have these four heroes from Gilneas or the parts around Gilneas and their own interactions and reactions with the monsters and their own story that plays out. That turned out to be super fun for us. So I think players will have a lot of fun exploring the Witchwood with these characters.

Shacknews: Should players expect to see Monster Hunt as part of their daily quests, just like Dungeon Run?

Kosak: The current plan is that there will be a similar quest to delve back into the woods.

Shacknews: Feature-wise, I wanted to ask about in-game tournaments and what the current plan for that is.

Kosak: This is a feature that we've wanted for a long time and our players have wanted for a long time. If you ask players if they want tournaments in the game, they're like, "Yes!" And if you ask specifically what they would like to see, everyone has a different answer.

So this is a feature that we're going to be working on for a long time. The first beta will come out this year. It'll allow you to set up a tournament, invite your friends, and play through the tournament and have a winner. And it'll just sort of be the start of a feature that we're going to continue to iterate it, because it's a much-requested feature and there's lots of different elements that people want in this feature. That'll be in beta later this year and we'll have more information as we get a little closer.

Shacknews: Is this something you hope to see catch on at Fireside Gatherings? And will Twitch streamers be able to use it to throw their own tournaments with their viewers?

Kosak: It'll definitely work at Fireside Gatherings. I don't see any reason why a Twitch streamer couldn't use it. It may not be the perfect tool...

Ayala: We've used it at Fireside Gatherings. It seems like that would be the more reasonable place to use it.

Shacknews: Lastly, I want to go off on a bit of a tangent. I started thinking about this when I put together the Hagatha question. I wanted to ask about Lord Jaraxxus, because I wondered if the team has ever thought about making him into a Hero Card, given how well the Hero Card mechanic has gone over?

Kosak: It would change his mechanic some, because as a minion, he does certain things, minion-y things. He can be Recruited... which is generally an "Oh no!" kind of moment. He plays a certain way now and if we made him a Hero Card, we'd change a lot of what makes Jaraxxus very Jaraxx-y.

Ayala: Jaraxxus is one of the most iconic cards in all of Hearthstone, too.

Kosak: We'd be really reluctant to change it just because we have a new thing that he could be.

Ayala: I could see Jaraxxus coming back in a different form someday, but the original form of Jaraxxus... I think he's safe.


Look for more on Hearthstone's Witchwood expansion in the comings weeks. Now that the card reveals have begun, Shacknews will be getting to work on the next round of card analyses. And be sure to come back on April 3, because Shacknews will have an exclusive Witchwood reveal of our own.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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