Hearthstone interview: Building the Death Knight

Hearthstone Senior Game Designer Cora Georgiou and Executive Producer Nathan Lyons-Smith talk about the making of the new Death Knight class and what it means for the game going forward.

Blizzard Entertainment

On Tuesday, Blizzard's Team 5 unveiled the next big expansion for Hearthstone and it already promises to be one of the game's biggest in a long time. For only the second time in the game's almost ten-year history, Hearthstone is getting a new playable class. The Death Knight will help usher in the new March of the Lich King set, helping establish the stage for the Scourge's invasion. However, it also looks like it will change a lot about Hearthstone itself going forward.

To learn more about Hearthstone: March of the Lich King, the new Death Knight class, and everything else coming to Blizzard's card game, Shacknews recently took a trip to the publisher's Irvine campus. There, we spoke with Senior Game Designer Cora Georgiou and Executive Producer Nathan Lyons-Smith about what players can expect to see in Standard and Wild before the end of the year.

Shacknews: There's been speculation since Demon Hunter released a couple of years ago regarding what's the next class that's coming into Hearthstone? How did you ultimately decide on that?

Cora Georgiou, Senior Game Designer: I know we've got a lot of really wonderful Monk fans out there. And then, of course, with [World of Warcraft: Dragonflight] coming out soon, a lot of players were like, "Are they doing the Dracthyr?" Death Knights I think just made sense, especially in combination with Wrath of the Lich King Classic being able to unite the Warcraft franchise under the Lich King once again seemed like a really wonderful opportunity.

And, selfishly, it just seemed like there were a lot of really awesome design concepts and things that we could explore with the Death Knight class and the fact that there are different specializations for Death Knight in World of Warcraft. So I think with the combination of player excitement and designer excitement for the Death Knight, it seemed like the right direction to go.

Nathan Lyons-Smith, Executive Producer: Plus, the Lich King is just one the biggest characters in the Warcraft universe. Also, [he has] one of the most sobering stories. Playing Warcraft 3 and going through Arthas' transformation, it certainly left an imprint on me as a gamer. Just a few weeks ago, I was playtesting the [Death Knight] Prologue and taking players through that story, but using Hearthstone. It brought back a lot of nostalgia, a lot of fun, some sadness, but we're really excited to get the flavor of the Death Knight into Hearthstone.

Shacknews: There's so much to this class and with the introduction of Runes and the multitude of different Death Knight builds. Was there a concern that the class design might have been too broad?

Georgiou: Yes. Short answer: Yeah.

There was definitely a time when we weren't sure that we would do a Rune system. Death Knight just had so much that it could do in World of Warcraft and we wanted to capture as much of that as possible in Hearthstone. But with any class design, we need to keep in mind, "What are its strengths and what are its weaknesses?" In the beginning, it didn't seem like Death Knight would have many of them. So being able to break it down into the three Rune specializations and then really drive the fantasy for those specializations, alongside the strengths and the weaknesses, meant that while Dark Knight has maybe more that it can do as a class than other classes, it doesn't feel like any particular Death Knight deck has access to all of those things. They all still feel very unique in scope and unique in flavor from each other. So I think, yeah, the Death Knight class is bigger than anything that we've done, but it is within reason.

Lyons-Smith: The team has just an absolute stellar culture designing and playtesting, having fun, giving feedback on what's working, and what's not. I remember the first time I playtested Death Knight and you could build a deck with five different Runes, which meant you could have pretty powerful cards in one of the three Runes, then meaningfully powerful cards in one of the other ones. Then it got to be that you could do a whole lot of different things. I was really happy with what the team landed with. Yeah, you want to have the powerful and one Rune spec that you're going to dedicate just to that one. I love that just about any of the Death Knight classes can throw a Patchwerk in and have that disruption on the board, and hand, and deck, and having that be really fun.

Patchwerk stats in Hearthstone: March of the Lich King

Source: Blizzard

Shacknews: How did you determine the Death Knight's hero power? Were there any initial ideas for it that didn't make the cut?

Georgiou: It was a lengthy process. We definitely learned with Demon Hunter that making new Hero Powers for new classes that still fit within the power band that we had established for Hero Powers with the original nine classes was difficult to do. With Demon Hunter, we gave ourselves the right to break the rules if we wanted to. We made the 1-Mana Hero Power.

So we went into Death Knight, not as limited in our minds of the potential of things that we could do. And it just so happened that we settled on the 2-Mana Hero Power that works really, uniquely well with the flavor of Undead and Death Knight and with the Corpse mechanic, as well. There was quite a while in there where the ghoul from the Ghoul Charge Hero Power only had Rush. I suppose it would have been called Ghoul Rush, but we decided that one of the wider, fully class-wide weaknesses of Death Knight would be that they don't do a whole lot of single target buffing. They do some AOE buffing with things like Anti-Magic Shell, but not a significant amount of single target. And when we decided that, we said, "Oh, well, we can give it Charge then, can't we?" That happened in, I believe, final design. So it just so happens it's got a little bit of spice and it plays very well with our other mechanics.

Lyons-Smith: I remember with Demon Hunter hearing the design team say "1-Mana Hero Power, just one time," and I was like, "What? You're gonna break it." And now, it's a bunch of fun. And then they told me, "1/1 Charge," and I was like, "Oh no!"

Charge is one of those really hard things to balance around and make sure it doesn't feel overpowered. I really like the commitment they're doing, getting the wide buffs, not the single target buffs, just to make sure that it's not feeling as penalizing. But, you know, my favorite card of all time in Hearthstone is Leeroy Jenkins.

Georgiou: It's a good card.

Lyons-Smith: Then we Hall of Fame'd Leeroy. Part of that was everybody having 6-Mana Charge from hand. Too "same-y" all the time. Excited to see how this works. Fingers crossed we don't have Ghoul Rush in the future.

Scourge Rager stats in Hearthstone: March of the Lich King

Source: Blizzard

Shacknews: Similarly, how did you decide on Reborn as the main Death Knight keyword? Were there any other ideas that you were floating around?

Georgiou: This is something that also just felt really natural for Death Knight. Reborn is a mechanic that we really liked with Saviors of Uldum. It's something that we had considered bringing back for a while. We just opened ourselves up to considering evergreen keywords and moving forward with things. Like, we just made Dormant cards now and we're just okay with that.

With Reborn, we had thought about bringing it back for a while, and with the Undead minion type, we wanted a hook for them, similar to Dragons and Elementals. Like, "If you're holding a Dragon" or "If you played an Elemental last turn." For the Undead minion type, Reborn seemed like a natural fit. It's really thematic with them. And, again, it works really well with the Corpse mechanic, to be able to make cards like the Scourge Rager that says "Reborn. Battlecry: Die." It is really thematic and I think it fits the minion type very well.

Lyons-Smith: I lost it when I saw that card, Cora. I was looking at the card and like, "Oh, cool, we made a new Rager. A 3-Mana 5/1... wait, a 3-Mana 5/4? What's going on? Oh..."

Georgiou: That is some of [Game Designer Leo Robles'] finest work.

Lyons-Smith: The upside to that one is super interesting because there's a number of cards that will just summon 3-Mana minions. It's a neutral 3-Mana minion. That's going to be a really powerful 3-Mana minion if you happen to draw that. That's going to be really fun. It's going to allow players to tell a bunch of stories about this really cool thing happened and that's part of the magic of Hearthstone that I want to keep perpetuating.

Shacknews: You mentioned the new Undead minion type. What does this open up for you design-wise, both for future expansions and also making sure it fits in with Wild?

Georgiou: Yeah, I actually think a large bulk of the work with the Undead minion type is retroactive. Looking back to just combing through the collection of past sets and all of the minions that we've made in Hearthstone and going to the team, and being like, "Hey, this is a spirit. Is that an Undead? Hey, all of these cards in Castle Nathria are in the Shadowlands, which is technically the afterlife. So are they all Undead?" And just trying to figure out, you know, going to the lore masters like [Hearthstone Features Lead] Chadd Nervig, like [Associate Game Designer] Alex Smith, and trying to get this right.

It's a large task, but it opens up some really interesting doors in that, because there are so many Undead and because there are so many Undead in the history of Hearthstone that have existing minion types, like Pirates or Beasts, we then translated that into, "Well, maybe now is the right time to do dual minion typing." Then, of course, that opened doors with synergies that weren't possible before. I think it was a multifaceted effort, but potentially some cool synergies in the future.

Lyons-Smith: I'm really excited about that. It's a shake-up not just with the new cards, but also a bunch of existing cards, changing the dual minion types, being a new vector by which the millions of Hearthstone players out there will find combos that we didn't think of and have a bunch of fun with. I actually look forward to seeing those clips and laughing with the team about things that community was able to find and pull off. Again, just a huge part of the fun of Hearthstone.

Death Knight cards with high Rune requirements in Hearthstone

Source: Blizzard

Shacknews: The typical approach to an expansion is to give each class "X" amount of cards. But with the Death Knight having its three different Rune specializations, is that approach going to change or is the Death Knight basically just going to get maybe 3 to 4 cards per Rune each expansion?

Georgiou: Yeah, this is one we discussed quite a bit. You know, when we released Demon Hunter, we had to give them additional cards to sort of set them on a level playing field with the other classes and the three sets that existed that they weren't a part of. With Death Knight, we have started them out with a robust sweep of cards to make sure that each of the Rune specializations is amply supported.

But, going forward, we are just going to be doing ten Death Knight cards per expansion, same as all of the other classes. And, we decided that in a full year of Hearthstone expansions, we want to give each of the Rune specializations some new toys, something new to do, some interesting deck that they didn't have access to before. But, because we don't want each expansion to feel only minimally impactful for each of the Rune specializations, we feel it's probably going to be the best approach to focus in one area for each expansion and then just make sure that we hit all of them over the course of the year.

But, it is definitely something that we considered because, as with any Hearthstone player, a lot of them are very committed to their favorite class and, you know, Mage gets a new deck every expansion. So are there Frost DK stans that aren't going to get new Frost cards? There will be new Frost Rune cards, but there might not be a Frost Rune deck. So yeah, it's definitely one of the things that we discussed a lot internally.

Lyons-Smith: I'm excited that there's so many new cards coming to Core at the launch: 50 percent more Death Knight cards than we had with Demon Hunter, make sure that class has a robust kit. We're gonna learn a whole lot in that first month and a half and that's going to really inform some of the decisions that you'll see in the next year.

Shacknews: Okay, so this is probably looking way, way, way ahead, but have you thought about what a Death Knight Hero Card would look like, design-wise?

Georgiou: With the release of Death Knight, we looked at the other classes and we're like, "Okay, what fun toys do these classes have available to them right now? You know, they have colossal creatures. They have Hero Cards." And we were like, "Well, should we catch up Death Knight right now?"

It's something we sort of went back and forth on. I'm not going to spoil everything, but there is no Hero Card in this set. That's not to say that we wouldn't make Hero Cards going forward for Death Knight if we ever choose to revisit Hero Cards. But yeah, absolutely! We want to make sure that Death Knight doesn't feel like it's lacking in any area, but I do think that with so many deck-building combinations and ways to play the class, I think they should feel like they have enough wonderful tools at their disposal.

Shacknews: Last question for me, aside from the obvious answer of "We're releasing a new Death Knight class," what made this the right time to revisit the Lich King? And do you have a concern that there might be a bit of a tonal whiplash coming off of a more lighthearted Murder at Castle Nathria expansion.

Georgiou: I think something that Nathan touched on really being the different tones of the Lich King's story and the fact that... it is quite sad at times. It's quite a tragic tale of Arthas. But, I honestly think Hearthstone is at its best when... I mean, isn't it wonderful that through the medium of a card game that we can make people feel? In a lot of cases, that's joy, excitement, laughter, and fun. But I think stories are also very poignant and impactful when maybe they're a little bit bittersweet, when they're a little melancholy. And I think you're certainly going to get your silly cards in this set, like "Scourge Rager! Battlecry: Die." But yeah, it's definitely maybe tonally a little bit of a heavier set than we've done.

Lyons-Smith: Yeah, I think having a good mix is important and this one isn't just, "Oh, Hearthstone is being dark." It's just a Warcraft character we're just bringing into Hearthstone. And yeah, we're going to tell the story of Arthas and expose that story to people who have actually never heard it or experienced it and do that through Hearthstone. It's a new exciting thing for us, but having it be different, you know, sometimes having the big bad guy as a thing is exciting for a section of players and we're so happy to serve them with this set. There's plenty of lighthearted things in this set and there's plenty of lighthearted Hearthstone things to come. But, this one? Yeah, definitely a bit of a darker side with this story.

Hearthstone: March of the Lich King is set to release on Tuesday, December 6. For more on the Death Knight, check out our recent hands-on preview.

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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