April 12th will be the most wonderful time of the year for Hearthstone fans.
The next Hearthstone expansion, The Witchwood, is set to launch that day, bringing with it 135 new cards and several new mechanics for players to exploit. It also marks the start of the Year of the Raven, which will see two additional expansions released over the course of the year, as well as the removal of cards from Whispers of the Old Gods, One Night in Karazhan, and Mean Streets of Gadgetzan from Standard.
During PAX East 2018, I got the chance to catch up with Hearthstone‘s Game Director Ben Brode to talk about The Witchwood’s aesthetic, the creation of the Echo and Rush keywords, and a card that quickly became the most difficult card to implement in the entire game.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CGMagazine: What made you guys decide to set The Witchwood in Gilneas?
Ben Brode: It really came from the desire to try and mechanically explore the fantasy of worgen. and are awesome in a world where Warcraft is kind of archaic rule. Worgen are awesome in World of Warcraft, they’re kind of our take on werewolves, they’re Victorian who were sequestered for a long time in the subcontinent of Gilneas. The spooky Victorian vibe is really what captivated us We really wanted to figure out what it would mean to transform into a worgen and back.
So early on that was all of our initial exploration, which was in that case how do we do the worgen thing. The first idea was maybe they transform back in your hand until you wanted to play them. And we had a ton of other directions, and we ended up shipping the first idea that we had. It was one of the simpler ideas and it was pretty strategically deep as far as figuring out what turns they’ll be worged. Maybe they’ll be some risk as far as, like, will the next turn be better, but now I have the opportunity to use my mana efficiently, so it was a fun mechanic. But we tried a lot of different things there and that was really the initial thing that brought us there.
Funnily enough, we ended up moving away from Gilneas and more towards the woods in World of Warcraft called the Blackwald, which twisted and grew around this city and has a witch called Hagatha at the centre of it. It changed the tone of this expansion from werewolves to ghosts and monsters in the woods.
CGMagazine: When you announced Witchwood, you also released a small found footage short film to accompany the trailer. Why did you decide to do found footage for that?
Ben Brode: This was our most ambitious one ever. We had multiple scenes, we had a crazier narrative going throughout it. There were a couple things that excited us about it. The way we came up with it was we were just having lunch, me and Dave Kosac and a couple of other designers on the team, and over time we started joking about how we might announce the set. I got kind of excited about the joke and I kept pitching it to people and no one said no.
One of the things I was excited about was the physical gag of printing out cards and using those as our reveal as opposed to digital things. And one thing I didn’t expect was that because we are acting as if we are seeing them for the first time, we get to be excited about the cards and our excitement over the cards carries through in a way that none of our other videos ever did.
CGMagazine: Were you pretty happy with the end result?
Ben Brode: I was very nervous, and it turned out way better than I imagined.
CGMagazine: What was the first card you designed for the new expansion?
Ben Brode: Oh man, I knew this. I can’t remember the very first card that I designed, but the first week I designed… well, there’s a bunch of us who get in a room, and we’re all designing cards, and a lot of those ended up in the final product. So I can’t remember what everybody else was working on, but I started working on what it would eventually become… It was something I had been excited about that we were talking about doing in Knights of the Frozen Throne. I really like cards that give you a lot of flexibility, so you might want to play now but later on, it’s better. So if you play it now when you need to because otherwise you’re gonna get rolled over by your opponent or you hold it and play it later in the game. So I wanted cards that when you played them they would add a card to your hand but you had to play the card this turn, so you can play early and you can’t use that card to wait and play it and later.
There’s a lot of versions of that that could have been fun. One of them was, like, we had a guy who would add two ghostly bananas to your hand. Bananas, you play and they’ll give you +1/+1 for one mana. So you could play for 3 for 3, or 4 for 4, or 5 for 5, or spread the mana around. And then I made a bunch of cards that had that ghostly mechanic armed where cards would disappear at the end of the turn. One of them was what eventually became Phantom Militia. It was a three mana +2/+4 taunt that said Battlecry at a ghost. You can play it again and play it again. And those were the most fun designs in that space, that we felt. And so we cut all of the other weird stuff made that a keyword.
CGMagazine: Let’s talk about the new keywords. Where was the idea behind Rush?
Ben Brode: Rush was something we had been talking about for a long time. And we kept saying “Should we do Rush? Is this the set where we do Rush?” And we put it into this set and it never fell out. It’s a tool we really want in Hearthstone, which is to feel powerful on your turn, the ability to have an immediate impact on the board when you need it, but not exploitable in ways some of the Charge cards are. It’s been a struggle for us for a long time, the feeling of un-interactivity that comes with it. We love almost all of the gameplay of Charge except for that one thing. And so Rush minions are the thing for us that gives us all the fun of Charge without the issues.
CGMagazine: Why didn’t you implement Rush in an earlier set?
Ben Brode: We really wanted to. We were discussing it like we knew what the mechanic was and how it would work. We’ve obviously been wanting to include it and we knew we wanted to dedicate a space to it. We wanted to dedicate a certain amount of space to it. We didn’t want two rush minions you know, we wanted enough to make it a keyword and have it interact with different minions in different ways. And so we wanted to make the 30 cards feel like a significant part of the game For our other sets we felt like we already had big new mechanics taking up a lot of space. And so what
often happens is we design too much. We design seven or eight mechanics and then we start getting rid of the ones that we have the lowest amount of confidence in.
At the end the day we end up with enough mechanics that feel like the set of an identity, there are exciting things about the set. At the end of the day, there are always going to be 135 cards in the set. Whether it’s 135 mechanics or four mechanics, you’re going to end up with the same amount of stuff to play with. But we think it’s more fun if there’s an identity there. What had happened in the past as we’d put stuff in and we’d start cropping it down and we’d say “This set needs more hero cards, but that’s enough. We don’t need Rush in this set.” It was really important to release it in The Witchwood because we felt like we had been delaying it too long. It was in our top list of mechanics.
CGMagazine: Then there’s the third keyword, Start of Game. How did you implement that?
Ben Brode: It’s a little bit similar to Prince Malchezaar from One Night in Karazhan, it had had a similar trigger to this. We felt like, when we tried to write out these cards, they were more complex. For Prince Malchezaar, the trigger is, at the start of the game, do something. And these are, at the start of the game, if this is true, do something. And so we took the trigger point and moved it into a keyword, and I think it makes the rest of the card much easier to parse. You have to read quickly at the start of the game. You have to read very fast to parse, so it makes it easier.
CGMagazine: Do you have any personal favourite cards in this set?
Ben Brode: The Shudderwock is one of them. The idea is you can play cards like Saronite Chain Gang, which has Battlecry: Summon an exact copy of this minion. And you can play Shudderwock afterwards and it copies that Battlecry. Or you can play Corpsetaker and you can give this guy Divine Shield, Taunt and Lifesteal. There’s a lot of insane Battlecries that when you consider from the perspective of Shudderwock…
CGMagazine: You can get some pretty insane combos off with that.
Ben Brode: Yeah, he’s pretty crazy. He was also our most challenging card to implement of all time.
CGMagazine: Really? Why?
Ben Brode: A lot of Battlecries were written, implemented, coded or just conceived of with the perspective of the card that they were on. The effects as well, like Deathwing’s card leaps up and glides over and lands. When you’re executing all the Battlecries in order that visual effect doesn’t actually work. So we had to make a new visual effect for when Shudderwock executes Deathwing’s Battlecry. I mean, there’s just a ton of edge cases and decisions we made and implemented a long time ago that doesn’t work when you imagine them. It was a heroic effort from our engineers to make Shudderwock work.
CGMagazine: Any other cards that you like?
Ben Brode: I actually really like Vilebrood Skitterer. The heart of Hearthstone, I think, is that there are simple components that combine in very interesting ways. Like Acolyte of Pain is a simple card. Whirlwind is a simple card. But together, they’re interesting. For Vilebrood Skitterer, Poisonous is interesting, Rush is interesting, and together you have an easy removal or you can go after a minion who has less than three attacks or you can set up a two kill scenario. I just like how keywords interact.
The Warlock is getting some stuff in the theme of self-damage. I really like the Deathweb Spider because you can play them on a curve. Or you can wait for two more turns, tap, and then play them for a bonus effect cause that hurts your hero when you Lifetap. And so it’s that thing I talked about where waiting, do I place now or do I wait, what can I afford to do here. I think it’s pretty skill testing.
I really like the Quartz Elemental. Can’t attack while damaged, which means that you’re opponent has to decide if they want to spend the resources to damage that guy or just leave him damaged long enough that you can take over the board again. But as a Priest player, you can play that guy and leave him there damaged and then play the Nightscale Matriarch, because when you heal something you summon a 3/3 whelp.
CGMagazine: What would you say to a returning veteran looking to come back in The Witchwood.
Ben Brode: I think now is the best time to come back. Like, the standard rotation resets a lot of things. There are three sets that, if you didn’t play during them, you don’t need them anymore for Standard. You need less cards at any point in Hearthstone to get into the Standard meta. Also, the Dungeon Runs we launched with the last set required no cards and were hyper fun. You just don’t need any cards to play a replayable roguelike. It’s one of the most popular features of all time. We’re bringing that back in The Witchwood.
CGMagazine: With Monster Hunt.
Ben Brode: With Monster Hunt, yeah. It’s, again, super fun. It’s even crazier because we reinvented some of the classes as monster hunters for the expansion. For example, the Cannoneer uses Warrior spells and minions but his hero power is completely different. He starts with a cannon on the battlefield, his hero power is he fires the cannon and based on where it’s positioned it will shoot at the minions across from it or directly into the enemy hero.
CGMagazine: What are you most nervous about in this expansion?
Ben Brode: The Shudderwock. I saw someone playing a Shudderwock deck on Friday that was using a Saronite Chain Gang to make copies and then Grumble Worldshaker, which returns your other minions to their hand and they cost one mana. It’s a card that didn’t get a lot of play, but that means that you summon a copy and you put a one cost Shudderwock back in your hand, and then you play Shudderwock. Of course, it has the same Battlecries, cause it just repeats them all. So you summon a copy, bring it back to your hand, and this guy was just playing a ton of Shudderwock’s in one turn. And it was one turn, and there were four minutes of Battlecries flying off and I said “Oh no guys. Whatever cards you made to make this happen, reconsider them.” “All these cards are shipping with Witchwood.” And I was like “Nooooooo!” So that’s the card I’m most worried about. And it was by far the most difficult card to implement.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more by Preston Dosza like his reviews of Total War: Warhammer II – Rise of the Tomb Kings, Dynasty Warriors 9 and why Monster Hunter World will succeed in the west!
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