Hearthstone interview: Rise of Shadows, Arena, and Brawliseum

While attending the Hearthstone World Championship in Taiwan, Shacknews had a chance to speak to Creative Director Ben Thompson and Lead Balance Designer Dean Ayala about the Rise of Shadows expansion, the new-look Arena, and the Brawliseum.


Throughout the past several days, Hearthstone has been moving ahead to crown a new world champion. The HCT World Championship continues to unfold from Taipei, an event that will officially bring the Hearthstone Championship Tour to a close. However, Hearthstone itself will continue on, both on the competitive scene and along the casual scene, where millions of players continue to enjoy the digital card game on a daily basis.

It's been less than a month since Blizzard released the Rise of Shadows expansion, which officially launched the Year of the Dragon. But this is just the beginning for what the publisher has in store for its five-year-old card game, with more expansions and a big focus on PvE content still forthcoming. In the meantime, Hearthstone Creative Director Ben Thompson and Lead Balance Designer Dean Ayala have come to Taipei to catch some of the World Championship action. But in-between some of the incredible matchups between players like David "JustSaiyan" Shan, Raphael "Bunnyhoppor" Peltzer, and Casper "Hunterace" Notto, Thompson and Ayala had some time to speak to Shacknews.

Following Friday's unforgettable match between JustSaiyan and Kacper "A83650" Kwiecinski, Shacknews reached out to Thompson and Ayala to ask about Rise of Shadows, the Lackey mechanic, balance changes, Arena, and a certain kind of Tavern Brawl.

Hearthstone: Rise of Shadows

Shacknews: What's been the feedback to Rise of Shadows so far?

Ben Thompson, Hearthstone Creative Director: I think it's been good on a number of fronts. There's been a lot of positive feedback to the vibe and the setting for all of this, the idea of bringing together some of the greatest villains in Hearthstone's Azeroth, has been super cool for not only the team, but for players as a whole. I think people followed a lot of the early teasers and cinematics, just trying to guess who the next villain was that was going to get added.

Now that the set has come out, we've been hearing a lot of positive response to not just the season rotation, but also the decks that we're starting to see get built in the two weeks since release.

Shacknews: Are there any decks that you've seen from pro streamers or from any of the players here at the HCT World Championship that have surprised you?

Thompson: Chef Nomi Priest. (laughs)

It's one of those things where we got the deck lists while we were traveling. And Dean read it out to us in the car on the way to the airport and we all shook our heads, like "Whaaaat? That sounds crazy!" And in the days that have followed, starting to figure out, "Wow, maybe this is a thing. This is kind of cool." We were just laughing the whole time thinking, how awesome is this? To know that something exists, but not see it something at a level of play like Worlds is awesome and a great indicator of this decision to hold this one week or two weeks after the release of a set allows these sorts of things to happen.

Shacknews: What's been the player base's reception to the Lackey system?

Dean Ayala, Hearthstone Lead Balance Designer: Really positive. It was one of the things we were most confident in from a design standpoint going into Rise of Shadows. It was like, "Are playing Lackeys fun?" It led us to make some of the Lackey cards fairly powerful, like the EVIL Genius in Warlock, EVIL Miscreant in Rogue, we targeted them to be very powerful, because after a lot of playtesting we decided, "This is actually really fun." Figuring out how to play Lackeys, especially in a class like Rogue, which is really oriented around comboing a lot of cards together in the same turn. Lackeys made a lot of sense for Rogue. It helps them with cards like Eviscerate and Raiding Party and a lot of tools that they already have in ways that aren't entirely obvious.

I think Lackeys have been really postiive. There's always the question of whether something is too powerful. That's a different question and one we're evaluating everyday. But in terms of are Lackeys fun, I think the answer has been yes.

Shacknews: You've hinted at more Lackeys for the next two expansions. Are there any hints as to what players can expect to see?

Thompson: In many ways, we're still trying to figure out the exact number that is likely to follow. We want to keep an eye on the Lackeys that are seeing a lot of play and the number of decks they're starting to show up in and things like that. But at this time, there's no real hints to follow as to what we can expect, unless Dean knows something I don't.

Ayala: From a design perspective, the number of Lackeys... there's a wrong number somewhere in there. When you have a pool that's pretty small, you can learn what they are, then you can have some expectation of what to get. And when you get to a number that's massively large, like the Discover pool, you don't feel obligated to know every possible thing your opponent can get from a Discover. So we'd like to be in the space where there's few enough to where it feels like you can learn all of them and have some expectation of what's going to happen or so many that you don't really feel obligated to know every possible outcome, because they're all individually such a low chance.

It's probably more likely we'll go on the side of the pool is still small enough to where you can figure out what's going on, but it's something we'll have to figure out what makes sense for the next couple of sets.

Shacknews: I was surprised to see this expansion come and go without a new Hero Card. We got Hagatha in The Witchwood, Dr. Boom in The Boomsday Project, and Zul'jin in Rastakhan's Rumble. But we didn't get anything for Rise of Shadows. Especially when considering that the Death Knights have rotated out, what made you decide against a Hero Card for this expansion?

Thompson: Hero Cards are awesome and initially when we introduced them, it was with Knights of the Frozen Throne to solve a "Death Knight not as class, but as a presence" in Hearthstone. And they were awesome for that. They really did a great job in Frozen Throne of achieving just that. After that, we did introduce a handful of Hero Cards that had their own purposes behind them.

Ultimately, we don't ever want to set the expectation that each and every set needs a Hero Card. And when they do show up, it's not because we felt that set was better for having included it, but rather we wanted to celebrate a certain character, in the case of Dr. Boom, or we expected a certain deck type to possibly become prevalent if we added this thing in it and made some fun choices for players when building them.

They are cool, for sure, but I don't think we ever want to get into a space where every set ships and there's what we would call a "chase" card that everyone has to get, because that's just not the way Hearthstone plays. That's not the way it's built, that's not the way it plays, where there's just one or two cards you have to have otherwise you're not playing the same game as everybody else. I think Hero Cards could find their way into that space of becoming the "Of course, gotta have it" thing and crafting it or outright opening it in a deck when I'm unlikely to build a deck around it if I don't play that class and that's okay.

Ayala: We have to have a character that we're really passionate about and a design that we're really passionate about. For example, in Rise of Shadows, we could have ended up in a space where there was a Hero Card. When we were pitching designs, for example, Rafaam in Warlock. That might have been a cool place to do a Hero Card for this set. If we were pitching designs and there was something we were really psyched about for Rafaam that was a Hero Card design, we would have just made a Hero Card. But we really like the design for Rafaam that we have now and it doesn't lend itself to being a Hero Card, so we didn't make one.

The best way to go into it is, you pitch a bunch of designs and if you find something that lends itself to that, then we'll make one. Otherwise, we won't.

Shacknews: I was surprised by how early into Rastakhan's Rumble that we got balance adjustments. Are there any cards right now in Rise of Shadows that are current candidates for adjustment?

Ayala: It's really [a matter of] just evaluating. For the last round, for Rastakhan's Rumble, we had some cards that we were thinking about targeting for a long time, like Nourish and Wild Growth. We had enough data going back to original Hearthstone to make a decision. Basically, when we're thinking about making a balance change, we do it when we feel like things are going to stabilize in the current way and the current way is negative.

For example, Rogue is 35 percent population and we think it's going to stabilize there and nothing's going to change. We have enough perception for what players are thinking and enough data to indicate that nothing's really going to change, then we'll come to a decision and push it out as soon as possible. The reason we wait isn't because we know exactly what we're going to do and we're just waiting to release it. We want to collect enough data to make the right call, so we're not just changing things all the time.

One of the points that I like to bring up a lot is, Hearthstone should be a game about "This thing is really powerful, so I'm going to build a deck that's good against this really powerful thing." And whenever the narrative starts to become, "There's this really powerful thing, I'm going to wait for Blizzard to fix it or to make a balance adjustment," then that takes away what makes card games really fun. You should be able to identify what this thing is and try to build something that's good against it.

Shacknews: The throwback mechanics have been really fun, both for Standard and for Wild. Is this an idea that you'll look to institute in future expansions?

Thompson: I think this was the perfect set to institute that. The fact that we were pulling these five villains from previous sets, there was a fun want to include these callbacks as a sense of historic place. The fact that Rafaam is a Golden Monkey from League of Explorers, to people who played League of Explorers, there's a moment of "A-ha! I know where that came from!" That's pretty cool, that makes people smile. At the same time, if you didn't play League of Explorers, then that's not less for you, it's still a very interesting mechanic when it goes off and if you ever end up going back and playing that content, it'll become familiar from a different direction and it'll also make you smile then, too.

It's something that worked here and now. Does that mean we'll do it again going forward? Hard to say. If it's right for the set, sure, I would say that anything's on the table if it's right for the set and it makes the game better. But right now, there's nothing that calls to that.

Shacknews: What are your impressions of the new-look Arena? Is this something that you feel is working compared to the original Arena?

Ayala: I think so, but like a lot of things, it's really early to tell. People are still investigating what it's like playing games in this Arena, what's fun about it, what feels different. We're seeing feeback trickle in, but the feedback that we got before we released it was, "Oh cool, something new! Something different! I like playing with old cards!"

It's got the dual benefit. We always wanted to have Wild cards in Arena, because going back and looking back at old cards is not only cool for players who have been engaged for a really long time, but it makes the mode feel very different from Standard. You can go from Standard to Arena and it feels functionally different, because the available cards are different. But we also didn't want to make it so there were so many cards available that it became really hard to understand what you're opponent could possibly do. It takes away a lot of the strategy of Arena, not being able to understand what your opponent could possibly play.

So for our really engaged audience, they're able to have the benefit of using these old cards, which is really fun because you get to look back, but also the pool of cards is small enough that you can reasonably play around a lot of things. I think it's working out. We're going to make another adjustment about halfway through this expansion and choose some new sets, maybe stuff that's thematically appropriate, just using some of the stuff that we haven't used before.

Shacknews: Lastly, I wanted to ask about Tavern Brawl, but specifically, I wanted to ask about the Brawliseum. Not too long ago, you debuted a Brawliseum with unique Tavern Brawl rules: The Miniature Brawliseum. Is that the kind of idea that you're going to bring back anytime soon? Should players expect to see more Brawliseums with unique rule sets?

Thompson: That is the exact kind of thing that Tavern Brawl excels at, taking the established and understood, even if it's understood to be a Tavern Brawl-exclusive rule set, and turning it on its head. Trying something new, being a little bit tongue-in-cheek, and not in any way overarchingly changing how people perceive or play Hearhtstone other than in that mode for that given week. As with all Tavern Brawls, if there's a Brawl that shows up that players really, really gravitate to and obviously like, you can fully expect to see it again. We've seen that before with previous ones, like "At the Crossroads" and other Tavern Brawls that players have shown a lot of adoration for. And likewise, in the Fireside Gathering scenario, there are certain Tavern Brawls that are surfaced for the Innkeepers to be able to put in rotation that they can pick from. And often those are pulled from popular Brawls that people really like.

If you liked it and a lot of people agree, then I would fully expect to see something like that again, maybe even with another twist that the team makes it even more fun or interesting.

Ayala: We're trying to target the ones that have more depth for Brawliseum. Sometimes, there's rule sets like Miniature Warfare that actually have their own mini-meta and they're fun for a couple of games, but they're also fun after that, where you can iterate, find decks that are good against these decks, then more decks become popular, different decks become popular. Anytime we have a mode that's really fun and has a lot of depth, we start thinking maybe this will work for Brawliseum, which is what worked for Miniature Warfare. If we have other stuff like that, then I think it's possible that it'll show up there.

Hearthstone: Rise of Shadows is available now. For those looking to catch the remainder of the HCT World Championship, here's everything you need to know. Shacknews is live in attendance in Taipei, so stay tuned for more news and interviews.

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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