Thursday morning at PAX East in Boston, a chilly morning compared to the sunny dwellings of Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine, California, Game Director for Hearthstone, Ben Brode, walks into the media room where he will be stationed for the next few days. There, Brode will be meeting with the press and talking about Hearthstone’s new expansion, The Witchwood, launching on Thursday, April 12.
With a cup of Starbucks in hand and a winter coat that he admits he uses only a few times a year, Brode walks over to a table filled with food and beverages as he begins his day. Gesturing to a pitcher of water with orange slices and what appears to be basil floating on top, he lets out a giggle and says, “Boy, are we supposed to drink that? It looks way too pretty.”
I joke that you get some water and breakfast in one if you decide to eat the salad-like garnish.
Brode throws his head back and lets out his signature howling laugh as if we were long-time friends talking about a hilarious memory.
Soon after, Brode and I sit down to discuss the card he is going to miss most that is rotating out of the Standard format, a card crazier than Yogg-Saron, the earliest inception of the new worgen “mechanic” and much more.
In order to talk about the upcoming expansion, we first have to go backward. Is there a card you’re going to miss that is rotating out of Standard once the Year of the Raven begins?
I don’t generally get sad about cards leaving Standard because I play a good amount of Wild so they are all still available there. Generally, the ones that I feel the saddest about are the ones that help deck archetypes in a way that makes it easier to design cards in the future. We were talking about Doomguard the other day, which is not rotating, obviously, but is a card that is very powerful and we want a certain number of cards that are powerful in Standard but it is responsible for some OTK-style decks which are generally the kind of decks that worried us in the past. Charge is a mechanic that is troubling to deal with too.
But Doomguard is still in Standard and part of the reason it is is that it does a lot of work for us as far as supporting a lot of deck archetypes. Demon decks, decks that Recruit, for example, to avoid the Battlecry. Discard decks are held together a lot by Doomguard, so it’s doing a lot of work. Cards that are doing a lot of work in the environment are the kind of cards that are most useful for us to have.
The first one that comes to mind is Malchezaar’s Imp.
One of the mechanics that is being introduced to The Witchwood is the ability for a card to swap it’s Attack and Health as long as it is in your hand. As that is a little lengthy text wise, did you consider having a keyword associated with it to simplify?
Generally, this is our philosophy: Keywords are very useful for setting flavor of cards. For example, Inspire. It tells you something about what is happening as far as the flavor and fantasy of what the cards are doing. They also make the text easier to read the second time you encounter that card. The first time, it’s less clear because you can’t just read the card and see what it does. The second time, it’s a shortcut in your memory to what’s going on.
In this case, we felt like there weren’t enough cards and we weren’t going to keep reusing the keyword in other sets necessarily, so it felt like doing it on the flavor side of the names and art was going to be better than keywording the effect. Also, there is no way to interact with these cards. For example, Taunt. You can say, “Give a Taunt minion +2/+2.” It wouldn’t say, “Give a ‘shifter’ +2/+2.” We’re not using the part that lets you key onto that thing and, so, we felt like, for all those reasons, it was better to just write that text out.
How do you decide which mechanics or keywords are replicated set after set after set and which stay fixtures of one expansion or adventure? Inspire was strictly used in The Grand Tournament while Rush may become a thing going forward.
One of the things that we are doing is making sure that new sets feel unique and awesome. If we kept every keyword from every new set, because we do want new keywords a lot of the time, the number of keywords in the game becomes unwieldy.
You can imagine a world in which every card just has a bunch of keywords to where Mind Control Tech has “Mind Control Tech-ing” as its keyword. There is a number of keywords that make the game unparseable and unreadable. It’s better to have an edited list of keywords and have those lists rotating to where new sets are exciting and we’re introducing new things.
“Some people like to beat you with a bad deck, it’s sometimes more exciting when your opponent feels like they got beat and it was to bad cards. Some of that stuff is intentional.”
I do think there is a base number, especially combat keywords like Poisonous and Lifesteal, that are very useful for the game and make combat more interesting. We’ve been adding things (Rush, Lifesteal, Poisonous) are all more evergreen style keywords but, otherwise, I’d like to rotate things out.
I don’t mind bringing things back. Someday we might see Inspire or Echo come back again in more a more interesting iteration of the original version but I don’t think that’s the default.
Something that is not set specific is Hero cards as you decided to introduce Hagatha but will we see things such as Quests return?
Hero cards do something really important for us which is that they highlight a character that we want to feel impactful. For example, who is the most iconic character in GvG (Goblins versus Gnomes)? A lot of people say Dr. Boom.
The intention was for it to be Mekingeer Thermaplugg and he was supposed to the most iconic character but he was bad. He wasn’t a good card and Dr. Boom turned out to be much, much better than anyone expected.
He was the main character of GvG but we didn’t have the opportunity to focus this character that we really wanted to focus on. For us, having a hero card in Thermaplugg would have been super useful.
For Witchwood, we wanted people to understand that Hagatha is the main villain here. She is the badass witch of The Witchwood, so, making her a hero card gave us a lot of tools to focus attention on that character.
Quests don’t have that particular value for us. They were cool and I think they were a really interesting experiment with Journey to Un’Goro but they’re not helping us do that kind of thing.
You mentioned Dr. Boom and with the release of Toki, Time-Tinker you can now go back in time and play him along with other Wild cards in Standard which is a first. Talk a little bit about the design process and the wackiness that could ensue.
Toki we’re really excited about, she’s one of the monster hunters in The Witchwood in our single-player content. Traditionally, when people mess with time they are part of the bronze dragonflight. She does it in a different way. She’s a mage and an engineer so she tinkers with different gadgets that mess with time in interesting ways. She is going through the Monster Hunt encounter and at the end of the Monster Hunt, each of our four monster hunters encounters a nemesis. For Toki, it’s herself from the future who is like, “You’ve been messing with the timeline too much, I’m coming back to stop you from making it worse.” There’s an interesting encounter there.
This whole storyline with Toki we really love and we really love the character and we wanted to make sure she was one of the legendary cards in the set. We wanted to make sure her effect really highlighted her time traveling capabilities so, when we imagined what types of things she might do, going back in time and using legendaries in past sets was one of the designs.
She was actually one of the harder cards to design in this set. We have a list of people who like to talk card ideas and we sent an email out to that list saying, “Hey, we need a design for Toki and it needs to be time themed, hit us with what you got.”
We got probably 100 submissions from people across the company for designing cool ideas for that card and this is what we decided on.
Is there a favorite card within this set for you that resonates with you personally or was really fun to create or be apart of?
One card that I designed the first iteration of and it changed over time was Tanglefur Mystic. It really changes the way you think about your next turn and what your opponent’s going to do. It was a really fun card to play for me.
The craziest one is probably that one with there (*points to screen*), Shudderwock.
That card is nutso so you want to play a deck with interesting Battlecries. Things like Saronite Chain Gang are quite good with Shudderwock. Corpsetaker, another good card with Shudderwock.
Why did you decide to make a card you say may be wackier than Yogg-Saron class specific instead of Neutral where it can be used more?
This is significantly less random than Yogg and it’s much more build-around. It rewards you for putting the right kind of Battlecries in your deck. You can still play Shudderwock and have 20 Battlecries go off so it has that craziness that Yogg can bring sometimes but it’s a pretty nutso payoff for going all-in on these Battlecries. We definitely want some of our class cards to push the class in interesting and different directions so this is one of the Shaman cards pushing the “Battlecry Shaman” deck.
Speaking of taking a class in an interesting direction, talk about Freeze Shaman. A deck that came out of nowhere and never really saw play. What maybe went wrong and will this be supported in the future?
Some of the cards aren’t even that bad. I think the Hyldnir Frostrider is pretty significant and Moorabi can be quite powerful in the right situation. This is always how it goes though. We print some cards that might be interesting and we also don’t target every card at Tier 1 play. Some people like to beat you with a bad deck, it’s sometimes more exciting when your opponent feels like they got beat and it was to bad cards. Some of that stuff is intentional.
I wasn’t part of the balancing process for that set so I’m not sure where they were targeting Freeze Shaman, but who knows? You never know what could end up happening in the future. Maybe there will be more support for that in the future. Maybe it could end up being good in Wild someday as the number of synergies increases but I can’t speak to the far future.
We spoke before this interview about how this Witchwood expansion was special to you for a few different reasons due to your role changing within the company. Mind talking about that again for the readers?
My role has changed on the Hearthstone team over the 10-ish years I’ve been working on it. My role has shifted from design to some engineering work then back to design and now more leadership/management-type stuff. This set I actually got to spend a week with the initial design team and Mike Donais doing the actual card and mechanics design that kick-started the set.
There was some foundational stuff that we all did together and it was really helpful in setting the tone and vibe and mechanics. I got to work on the worgen shifting mechanic and the precursor to the Echo mechanic, it was fun. I don’t get to do much design anymore so it was fun getting to sit with those folks and help start the setoff.
When talking about The Witchwood, the cards are great but let's touch on the single-player experience. What was so successful about Dungeon Run in Kobolds & Catacombs that made you want to replicate it with this set?
Two things: One, it was highly replayable. You can play it again and again and again and again. A lot of players played a ton of Dungeon Runs. And two, it’s different every time. The variance of your power level. Sometimes you go in and it’s a bum run and you get destroyed but sometimes you just feel like the most powerful Hearthstone player ever and it’s really, really fun to see, “How am I going to take what I get here and make use of what I got.” It’s the classic roguelike formula and it works really well with Hearthstone. Players loved it, we loved it and we’re really excited to do our next take on it with Monster Hunt.
“We haven’t had too many rotations yet but one of the things that I think we have been talking about is that we don’t need as much mechanical complexity in the first set of the year.”
What’s new about this Monster Hunt experience to where players won’t feel like they’re playing a re-skinned Dungeon Run and get bored of it quickly?
We basically created four brand new heroes. They are based on four Hearthstone classes in that they’re going to use either Warrior cards, Hunter cards, Rogue cards or whatever but they have completely new Hero Powers and new treasures that you get to pick that can relate to their Hero Powers that will make the run feel significantly different.
Also, there’s a whole new slew of encounters and bosses and stuff to fight throughout the run. Each hero has their own nemesis that they will be fighting as their eighth boss of the run. Once you beat it with all four heroes there’s a final fight where you get to play as all four heroes against Hagatha herself. It’s got the feel of an epic conclusion to it.
Is there a card that you’re a little worried about that is going live? No one knows how the meta will shape out after your playtesting so does any card scare you?
It’s Shudderwock. I was watching somebody playtest on Friday of last week and he played Shudderwock and Saronite Chain Gang triggered then Grumble, World Shaker triggered so he put two Shudderwocks to his hand that cost one mana and his turn lasted four minutes with all the animations. It was like, “What have we done?” Is it too late to change this?”
I’m definitely nervous about that card. It’s definitely one of the craziest things we’ve ever done.
You guys went from expansion to adventure to expansion to adventure and now you’re strictly expansions only. Which was more time consuming considering the different types of work required for each?
The interesting thing about that is they were about the same in terms of time but it took different parts of the team so our pipeline was bumpy. It was very difficult to execute expansion, adventure, expansion, adventure because some people were like, “I have to work on this but we don’t have this this time. What do I do?.”
An example is golden animations. Way more golden animations are required for expansions than an adventure so the people doing golden animations would be super slammed for expansions then really light for adventures.
That was one of the motivating factors for moving to this model where we basically are doing all the work for the expansion and all of the work for an adventure together because our pipeline is smooth now. We can get the right number of people working on golden animations and the number of golden animations will be the same for each set going forward and we can correctly anticipate how that’s going to work.
"We also tried a mechanic which was kind of a “building your worgen” V-07-TR-0N style"
Obviously, the biggest reason was the meta change. We wanted the fun of an expansion coming out but it’s been really helpful for our pipeline. We had to hire a bunch more people to support that since we’re doing way more content than before with all the single player and more cards but I think it’s the right thing to do.
Is there a different design philosophy that comes with making the first expansion of the new Hearthstone year?
I think there is, yeah. It’s something we are still figuring out a little bit. We haven’t had too many rotations yet but one of the things that I think we have been talking about is that we don’t need as much mechanical complexity in the first set of the year. Journey to Un’Goro was on the high-side for mechanical complexity and it didn’t need to be given that it was the first set of the new rotation.
The meta is going to change dramatically because of the fact that so many cards are moving to Wild so I think we need to be careful with that one thing. This set has enough mechanical complexities that it feels exciting and we put some new stuff into it but it still has a significant amount less than Un’Goro.
Yogg-Saron went through numerous different iterations before you arrived at the final design. Can you talk a little about a card in this set that went through something similar to where you finally landed at where it is now?
I’ll talk about the worgen mechanic because it was the first pitch that shipped but we went through a bunch of other tests to see if we could do better.
Right now it’s, “Every turn this is in your hand, it swaps,” but we tried one that was swapping on a trigger moment so you had more control over when it swapped. Maybe, whenever you cast a spell the attack and health swapped in your hand.
We tried a lot with the full moon, right? With worgens we had a “Once upon a time in the Shadowfang Keep” and it was about daytime and nighttime so the class-A world fantasy is the full moon stuff but that’s not going to work anymore because of how worgens are in World of Warcraft. We had an effect called “Full Moon” which was a keyword on a bunch of cards. You had to play a certain number of cards in the game then, snap, it’s full moon and all your werewolves trigger and they turn into werewolves and your cards get better.
We also tried a mechanic which was kind of a “building your worgen” V-07-TR-0N style so every human that could turn into a worgen had a Battlecry effect that gave all future worgen something. “Give all your worgens RUSH,” “Give all your worgens +1/+1,” “Give all your worgens Lifesteal.” Once you played three humans, all of your worgens turned into the worgen you built. It turned out the rest of the game was very same-y at that point but it was this cool fantasy of, “This game I want my worgens to have Lifesteal because it’s more important in this matchup.” So, there was a ton of iteration but it was the first thing we ended up proposing.
Last question for you. A lot of artists in the music industry have different phases in their music careers, you’ve put out your first two hit singles, are we going to get another rap for The Witchwood?
No, man. There was a cinematic song here so I feel like I’m off the hook for a rap on this one.
Tim Rizzo is the editor and a reporter for Inven Global. He joined the company back in 2017.