Hearthstone Developer Ben Thompson, Steven Chang: "It can't be said that Cubelocks will stay strong."

The year of the Mammoth has gone and the third standard year, the year of the Raven is coming!

While the new expansion for Hearthstone, the Witchwood is waiting to be launched on 12th of April (PST), on the 10th of April (KST), “Year of the Raven Stone Festival” was held in Seoul, Korea. In this festival, the art director of Hearthstone, Ben Thompson and associate game designer, Steven Chang appeared to surprise the Hearthstone fans of Korea.

On the next day, we had a chance to talk more deeply about the new expansion and on the development with them. What do the developers think that will change in the new meta, and what stories they have to share? Let’s have a look into what they have in mind on the year of the Raven.


Related: Ben Brode on The Witchwood's most dangerous card: "It’s Shudderwock."

▲ Associate Game Designer Steven Chang (Left), and Art Director Ben Thompson (Right)

Q. Can you introduce yourselves?

Ben Thompson: I’m Ben Thompson, I’m the art director for Hearthstone. I’m largely responsible for initially, a lot of the 2D art that went into the game, but now for mostly managing the team of twelve super talented artists as we maintain a constant aesthetic and visual appeal of the game over the course of its life.

Steven Chang: My name is Steven Chang, I’m a game designer of Hearthstone. I work on the final design team and we do a lot of play testing and we make sure the cards are fun and that the card is balanced as well.

Q. You’ve come to Korea again after last year. How did you get to come to Korea and how is it decided which devs get to go where, do you pick straws or something like that? (Laughs)

Ben: (Laughs) I love traveling for the game and the company. Traveling to me is one of the best parts of this, because as much fun it is to stay at home and make the game, it’s even more fun to see and meet the people that enjoy that game, to talk with them in person, to get to share their excitement in the game. It’s a great opportunity to get to hear what people are excited about in the game and also hear their concerns or on places they have thoughts about how the game could be different. Those types of excitement, concerns and thoughts are different from country to country. I enjoy all aspects of it; there are no straws (Laughs). I’m happy to go about anywhere. As it turns out, Korea is always so welcoming, such a wonderful country and the people are so kind and easy to talk to and be with. It’s a pleasure for me.

Q. Did you have any specific artwork you did in this expansion?

Ben: I’m always excited and thrilled by the art that comes in from the global community as a whole. The global community is really responsible for a lot of the art we see on the cards. Getting to work with the team I work with, nowadays, my job is more building a team rather than creating a piece of art. Bringing on the right people to do the right jobs and everybody being excited together as a family is my main goal these days. As for art, my own contributions to it are the set logos. They’re a lot of fun to do and I enjoy the challenge they present.

Q. In the beginning, it was about the murder on the Gilneas Express, but you changed it to the Witchwood. Were there any difficulties due to the change?

Steven: One of the main reasons that we changed from Gilneas Express to the Witchwood was because Gilneas Express is like traveling in a train; it has the advantage of making it feel like traveling, looking into different backgrounds. However, at the same time, there was no specific background. So while we changed the main background, there were changes in the mechanics as well. I think overall the difficulties were mostly about trying to fit in all we want to do. In our previous version, ‘Echo’ was ‘Ghostly’ and we had a lot of different variations of it. Ultimately, as we were playtesting it, there was one version that was the most fun. That ended up being Echo. We decided that Echo was the best keyword to explain what the mechanic did on first read. After making that discovery, we made other cards off of that.

▲ "Ghostly" was changed to "Echo" (Source: playhearthstone Youtube Channel)

Q. Were there any cards that were difficult to balance or difficult to implement in terms of engineering and design?

Ben: Not much to balance, but one of the most exciting cards in the Witchwood is ‘Shudderwock’. Shudderwock was one of those cards that really relied on every part of the team to make it happen. Some cards are very designed specific, some cards are very art specific, this was a case where everybody had to dive in. Once we came up of this crazy idea for Shudderwock and the kinds of effect that would require, a meeting was called upon to figure out how to make all those effects go off, how to play multiple battlecries come off when he comes into play; as many as seven, eight even nine; more than we’ve ever played before. It immediately went from art to engineering on can we do this. We questioned if this is something the game can sustain or something we can make happen consistently, to bring everything to its needs.

The important point in creation of this character and his effects was that we couldn’t lose focus of the fact that ultimately everything that happened had to communicate to the player on both sides of the board on what’s happening. For instance, Deathwing’s battlecry is normally a much longer battlecry. We had to cut it down to a shorter version so that it can slip in with the other battlecries in a shorter amount of time. The most difficult part of that was making each battlecry into a shorter concise version while having the players know which battlecry is being animated.

So every time Shudderwock comes into play, it’s bound to be exciting. There’s always going to be new surprises to how he comes to play and what he brings with him. It’s should be exciting every time he hits the board.

Steven: I think one of the biggest challenges for the players is how to build a deck for Shudderwock. It’s very different than how ‘Yogg-Saron’ works because with Yogg-Saron you wanted to build a deck that had a lot of spells. But with Shudderwock, you need to pick specifically which battlecry cards you want to execute. It was really exciting to experiment with tons of different decks that go well with Shudderwock, so the players will have fun from just building the deck. (Q. How will it go with cards like ‘Grumble, Worldshaker’?) Grumble’s battlecry says ‘other’ minions so it probably shouldn’t just bounce itself back to the player’s hand. There might be other ways that can make it possible, because our players are really creative.


▲ Shudderwock, which the developers claim to have put tons of effort in.

Q. In most expansions, there were neutral cards that were considered OP, like ‘Doctor Boom’ or ‘Patches the Pirate’. Do you think there are any cards in the Witchwood that might be like that?

Steven: There are definitely some very strong cards; hopefully not to the level where it’ll be a card that we would want to nerf, not like when a deck was consisted of 29 cards plus Doctor Boom (Laughs), but there are very powerful cards. There are neutral cards like ‘Baku the Mooneater’ and ‘Genn Greymane’ which would be interesting and powerful to build even/odd decks. Otherwise, ‘Countess Ashmore’ has a strong draw effect and I think there are many cards that players would like to experiment with.

There’s also several interesting non-legendaries like ‘Phantom Militia’. It’s a very good card for an odd number quest warrior deck. There are a lot of tools to find in neutral to work with other decks for all the classes.

Q. There are good legendaries, and there are also “bad” legendaries. (Ben: Well, not bad, less good (Laughs). “Fun” legendaries.) One of them is ‘Blackhowl Gunspire’. Many say compared to cards like ‘Ragnaros the Firelord’, it’s not very promising.

Steven: I definitely think players will be experimenting with that card. If you can combo it properly, that card (Blackhowl Gunspire) can do a lot of damage. There are a lot of cards that benefit from it like ‘Scourgelord Garrosh’ and ‘Warpath’. I believe the players will enjoy experimenting with different cards.

Whether or not that card is in the meta, it was a very fun card to make. It’s still only the first expansion of the year of the raven so the meta is bound to change. I don’t know how much this card will be used, but it’s the ‘building’ card in Hearthstone, that’s why it can’t attack but can shoot from the turrets. When we saw the artwork, it was amazing so we were like “We have to make this” (Laughs). I think players will have a lot of fun with it.


▲ Is it time to have Shadow Word: Pain again in the decks?

Q. Many vivid animations or effects like ‘Crushing Walls’ were added in the previous expansion. Is there anything like that in the new expansion that has very vivid animations?

Ben: We have more people on the effects team than we ever had. As a result we got to put more time and passion into these effects. Crushing Walls was a really good one, and ‘Glass Knight’ is good too. The golden animations on the card will continue to be really strong. Shudderwock is a card that took a lot of effort.

We always look for the opportunity whenever we can to put unique effects on the cards but really at the end of the day, we want to be careful with how many crazy ones we want to put in as well. We need to make sure the effect is clear as in class or what the card does. For example, if it’s a Paladin spell, it should feel like a Paladin spell with the golden light and such like that.

The animation of ‘Lord Godfrey’ is really good too. He’s a character from World of Warcraft, so some people might be already really familiar with him, and when he comes into play, it’s like he pulls two pistols, spinning around and shooting in all directions. So you get this burst of flame coming out in all directions hitting everything in its path.

Steven: It’s very reminiscent from Reaper’s ultimate in Overwatch.

▲ "Die, Die, Die!!!" Godfrey's bullets don't care whether you're friendly or not.

Q. There were no additional tribes after Elementals from Un’Goro. Are there any plans to add more tribes like Kobolds, Worgens or maybe Undeads?

Ben: Typically when we add tribes, it has a lot to do with what we need in that expansion. In Un’Goro, adding Elementals felt like it made a lot of sense, because you’re discovering these new fantastical creatures and elementals being a big part of it. It’s a case-by-case basis; what’s the important thing behind that set, what we want to celebrate and add to that but keep in mind of that complexity that’s going to bring with it.

As for Worgens, being a specific mechanic within the card rather than being a tribe of Worgen made more sense and it doesn’t add or stack complexity on anything that deals with the tribes. So we chose to do that to be a mechanic than creating a new tribe. We always have that discussion of the pros and cons of such decision and decide what is best for that specific set.

Q. As the cards from the year of the Kraken went to the wild, some decks have lost their power, but Warlocks haven’t really lost anything very critical. Especially Cubelocks (Warlocks that use Carnivorous Cube) will be untouched or even stronger. What are your thoughts on this?

Steven: We definitely playtested a lot on original decks like Cubelocks against new decks. Whenever a new year starts, the meta changes a lot and we try to provide the players with a lot of different options and tools so that the players can explore the expansion with all sorts of new decks. The odd/even decks alone can make 18 different types of decks.

Our players are very innovative in terms of trying to figure out the meta. If they perceive Cubelock to be the strongest deck, then they’ll find decks to counter Cubelocks and hopefully we’ve put enough tools to do so. And then, when counter Cubelocks become the meta, the players will find other decks to counter that. That’s how the meta evolves. We’re really excited to see what happens in the first two weeks of the expansion.

Q. You’re planning to add in-game tournament features. How is it coming up and what do you think it’ll change the user interface?

Ben: We’re super excited about in-game tournaments. It’s the first step in bringing that kind of playstyle to everybody. It really allows anyone person to be an organizer of a tournament in the game itself. This is going to be awesome for friends and family forming their own tournaments in the smaller groups. Or even in fireside gatherings, you can get innkeepers form this kind of tournaments in the game for their fireside gatherings.

It does cost some interface changes. It requires very specific types of layouts for how the tournament gets organized and how the ladder gets progressed and things like that, like how you end up picking things like how many participants. We’re putting in a lot of effort into it and everybody in every front, from engineering to art to design is involved.

We enjoy seeing streams and seeing professional players play in tournaments, but this will become a content that can give a taste of that to everybody. We look forward to getting this out in mid to the end of summer in open beta so the players can try it and give us feedback on it. This is something we want to really spend time on it to make it right and it’s the first step in that and there will be more to come to follow.

▲ Aiming to be tested in the summer.

Q. You said that there will be different settings for in-game tournaments. There are many users who enjoy the Arena. Will you add game modes like Arena or Tavern Brawl for friendly play or tournaments?

Ben: That certainly sounds like an exciting mode. I’m sure a lot of us will enjoy playing in that way. At this time we’re focused primarily on the in-game tournaments. Who knows where it can go next, and we’ll be listening to feedback like that to decide where to go next. Ultimately it comes down to what’s right for the game and what’s important to keep people excited and engaged in this new kind of format. If you think that kind of mode is fun, you can give us feedback on it and we’ll look into it, but for now our main focus is on creating the in-game tournaments.

Q. Hearthstone is trying to make the user interface more convenient for the users, are you planning to implement functions like deck trackers so that it can help all users keep track of their cards?

Ben: There’s no discussion on that at this point.

Q. Hearthstone is maintaining its popularity for quite a while now. It’s been the third standard year already. What new interests can the players expect from the Year of the Raven?

Ben: In-game tournaments would be a start of what we’re really excited about. In addition to that, there’s a lot of new stuff. We looked at the way of handling quests; we changed subtly how the quests work. There are a number of quests that have become easier to achieve and we’ve increased the gold as well for the players so there’s a higher opportunity to get more gold and the players can have a faster pace and feel more rewarded from it.

New skin ‘Lunara’ is coming so now all the classes have another skin to play in. We have lots of heroes that can come in that is commonly known by the World of Warcraft fans and Heroes of the Storm fans.

In-game events continue to be a really fun part; we have a whole team that’s focused mainly on game events so like fire/frost festivals or celebration of the year of the raven. All these things allow the players to spend a lot of time with the game that they enjoy in a totally different way. It makes a more engaging way to enjoy with our fans and audience.

In addition to this expansion itself, which is important because we’re adding 135 cards and all sorts of new mechanics and other things, the single player experience will continue to be something very good. We’re really excited about each and every set and we’ll continue to be committed to implement a single player experience with each and every expansion going forward. It helps explain the story and set for each expansion and we have a dedicated team that focuses on that as well.

Q. Frankly, spells on Shamans aren’t that good, and with Hagatha, random spells will be added to their hands. They’re not that preferred, but do you think it will be used a lot in the new meta?

Steven: Surprisingly enough, if the spells are free, they’re a lot better than you expect. There’s a lot of ways to make good use of those spells. I definitely think there’s a place for that type of value in the meta. It can be very effective. That type of deck is really fun to play.

You get a lot of neat situations; sometimes you get cards that you don’t necessarily put in your deck, but if you get that card, you can think of a way to put that card to good use. You can use those cards to turn over the situation to win and get satisfied by thinking “Wow, I won with this card!” In the Witchwood, there will be additional spells like “Earthen Might” so we believe it will be different from expected.

▲ Shaman's new hero card, Hagatha the Witch. (Source: playhearthstone Twitch)

Q. Which type of decks do you, the devs, plan to play in the Witchwood?

Ben: I want to try the Worgen deck. You have to think constantly on when to play the Worgen and it can be used to play more aggressive or more protective. So that suits me well.

Steven: One of my favorite decks I’ve played in the past was burglar Rogue. I think with ‘Tess Greymane’, this concept deck will be strengthened. She creates a lot of different situations. Some of the most fun games I’ve had were with Tess. When you steal other classes’ hero cards, and use Tess after changing your hero, the class is changed and all my real cards get replayed, so it’s really fun.

I’m also excited to play Battlecry Shaman with Shudderwock. You can do a lot of crazy combinations with Shudderwock. Trying to make it work in your deck is super fun. Sometimes your combinations don’t work and sometimes it all falls apart, but when you get everything to line up perfectly, then it’s super crazy and fun.

I don’t know much about the other developers, but Ben Brode seemed to be excited to play the odd/even decks. We usually open up card packs and play around what we get.

We won’t be at the office when the expansion is launched, but what we see at the office is really fun. Everybody just starts opening card packs and when someone opens a really good legend, they start screaming. (Laughs) You hear Ben laughing and Mike cackling because he got the legendary he wanted. The message pops up constantly that someone got a legendary card. It’s a really fun experience.

Ben: It’s going to be the same for us, just not at the office, but somewhere in Japan, there’s going to be a very awkward coffee shop. We’ll just be opening up card packs. (Bursts in laughter)

Q. Lastly, a comment to the fans who are looking forward to the Witchwood?

Ben: We’re super excited for the launch. We hope you have fun with the new cards in the new expansion. It was a very meaningful time for us developers communicating with the fans and users. We’ll make sure to give feedback and share the concerns with the team to make a better game.

Steven: I’d just like to thank everyone for the hospitality. We talked to many fans and just seeing their excitement of everyone surrounding Hearthstone and the Witchwood was heartwarming as a developer. We think that this kind of experience listening to feedback is priceless, and I’ll look forward to such events in the future.

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