Hearthstone’s next expansion, Forged in the Barrens, mostly represents what fans have come to expect from the game’s thrice-yearly expansions: more than 100 new cards, new keywords, and a meta shakeup. But this one is coming alongside a much bigger change, thanks to the advent of the Core Set. The Basic and Classic sets are being retired, making way for a new curated set of cards that will serve as the foundation for Hearthstone.
And in this new Core Set, the six legendary dragons–Alexstraza, Deathwing, Malygos, Nozdormu, Onyxia, and Ysera–are being revamped for a new era. Some, like Onyxia, are remaining essentially intact with a welcome upgrade. Others, like Malygos, are being rethought entirely. I spoke with Hearthstone senior game designer Alec Dawson and VFX artist Dominic Camuglia about how they reimagined these iconic cards.
The Core Set may be the biggest foundational change to Hearthstone that we’ve seen in its history. As a starting point, did you want to redesign the dragons, and the Core Set launch was the right time to do it, or did the Core Set prompt the redesign?
Dawson: That’s a good question. I think the one that we always talked about for a few years whenever Hall of Fame discussions came up was Malygos. Malygos is always like, “How long can this stick around? How much does it limit design space?” So we knew Malygos’ time was coming eventually.
In the Core Set, there was an opportunity where we looked at the dragons, and we want them to be these big, marvelous things that you’re really excited to put in your deck. And I don’t think all of them hit on that. I don’t think Deathwing was hitting on that. I don’t think Onyxia was hitting on that. We had a few that we knew from the very beginning that we wanted to just make better, repurpose for what modern Hearthstone is. You look at Deathwing, and it’s like, this is just better than the old Deathwing. Now, this is a card you can play and not be as punished for it as you used to be. And same for Onyxia. You just get more whelps. Great. That’s really good for you.
So that’s where we started on a number of them, and I think some of the other ones fell into different buckets. Alexstrasza and Nozdormu are some that probably took a little bit more time to figure out what exactly was right, because those were designs that we were pretty comfortable with from the get-go.
You reimagined a lot of the classic dragons in Descent of Dragons. So what was it like thinking of new ideas for dragons–new ways to fit the same flavor–while also not stepping on the Descent of Dragon’s designs or the original designs?
Dawson: We really wanted, in this particular instance, to look at the original designs and what they embodied. So Malygos’ character is about spells, and we want to make sure that stays intact. I think, for a number of them, it was a bit easier to hit on those. You look at Ysera, and, okay, Dream Cards are still the main part of the flavor. The two that I think were the hardest for us were probably Alexstrasza and Nozdormu.
The original Alexstrasza is one of my favorite cards; I think it’s one of the favorite cards for a lot of people on the team. It’s just the versatility that it has. So we wanted to make sure that you still had that two-sided nature to it. One of our biggest questions: How do you necessarily balance that and make it really effective?
And then Nozdormu, for us, was one of those cards where it had given us a ton of trouble on the programming side and also in some client things with how it would interrupt games and make some turns end. And we were like, “If you do some stuff with time again, what’s it going to be?” We tried a few designs. We tried some stuff where you’d fast forward in time during your turn. We even talked about one design where you would go back in time to a different point in the game, and Nozdormu would be in play. And how does that work if the opponent plays Nozdormu? There were a lot of questions about that one. I think now that it’s a buy-in, that allows some of that more crazy stuff to happen because both players are saying, “We agree to play this wacky game of Hearthstone now.”
So those ones were probably the toughest to get, but I’m really happy with where stuff like Nozdormu ended up. Players seem to be super-excited about participating in that design.
The Descent of Dragons’ reimagined dragons will cycle out of Standard, while these new dragons are the new normal going forward, in perpetuity. What’s the different philosophy when you’re approaching these designs for those goals?
Dawson: One thing that we think about when it’s an expansion card versus a Core card, a lot of times it’s the specificity of the language. With the other Ysera, there are Dream Portals that you’re shuffling into your deck. With Malygos, you’re discovering an upgraded spell. You’re doing these things that are outside of what normal Hearthstone rules teach you at the beginning. They do things that we probably wouldn’t always have in the game. We probably want to try different variations of what that is. And even if you look at Alexstrasza, it calls back to a mechanic that’s specific to that year with being a Highlander card.
So [the new dragons] don’t necessarily drill down into the specificity of having a ton of tokens or a ton of rules behind that. You understand what they do, these big effects. Like, “Whoa, if I need something that’s going to draw eight spells in my hand, Malygos is the card that can get me there.” Or, “If I need some burn damage at the end of the game and deal 8 damage to face, Alexstraza is the card that’s going to be able to get you there.”
So the replacement cards, the Core cards, are broader so that they’re more flexible going forward.
Dawson: Yes, totally.
So visually, Hearthstone card effects have gotten more complex since the game launched seven years ago. What does the increased freedom allow you to play with? And is the baseline hardware you can expect people to have more advanced now?
Camuglia: A lot of it is the result of the size of our effects team expanding a lot since the game launched. It went from maybe one or two people to, right now, I think we have probably five to seven, counting our lead. So we have a lot more bandwidth to just spend more time on each individual effect. And especially for things like the Core rework, it’s nice to go back and see what card effects are the most difficult to communicate without visuals and then add visuals to those specifically.
And like Alec was talking about, Nozdormu and Alexstrasza were the hardest to design on their end; they had the most distinct abilities for the classic dragons when they were reworked. So I think it was really nice to go back and really boil down what differentiates damage versus healing effects and make it feel distinct when you see it during gameplay and get that quick read. And similar with Nozdormu, you really want to see an indication at the very beginning of the game that this card is triggered, and it was cool to explore this really, really unique effect that we’ve never really done before. Nozdormu’s magical and bright sand ribbons mimic the unfurling of the rope timer, and so their design uses that as a key visual.
When Hearthstone first launched, the dragons stood out–the Deathwing visual effect was obviously much more splashy than the average card effect. But nowadays, it seems a lot of cards get unique visual flourishes. So how do you make them stand out, and how much more work is it to do something that’s that big and showy?
Camuglia: It definitely varies depending on the scale of the effect. Something like C’Thun the Shattered from the Madness at the Darkmoon Faire expansion is a good example. You want it to steal the show for a bit because it’s something that’s changing the nature of the game when it starts. Compare that to a much more minor card, like Shadowjeweler Hanar, with an initially light trigger that then triggers multiple times. So you can take less time with that. Just make it feel really quick and elegant; do not have it detract from the game for as much time. It varies.
Can you talk about the challenges the old dragons have presented over the years as you’ve been designing expansions and why that necessitated this change?
Dawson: With Malygos, in particular, it’s a lot simpler if they can go face when we’re making new spell cards. Because they can target wherever. I think that just opens up a lot of possibilities when we want to make a deck like Shaman, and make them a bit more aggressive, and also deal spell damage. It’s like, “Okay, wait a second, we’re doing zero Mana spells, keep Malygos in mind.”
And so every time you die to Malygos, you’re going to remember that moment. I think we’ve gotten to a point where, seven years in, you’ve seen that play pattern happen quite a few times.
Yeah, like “This Druid is drawing a lot–I wonder what’s going to happen?”
Dawson: Exactly. So it’s really about switching that up a little bit. I imagine we’ll make some spell damage cards in neutral that will have similar effects, but just have a different take on it. I think that’s one of our pretty broad philosophies too. And looking at Core, we want these things in building blocks and expansions because you’re going to see new versions of these cards–in some fashion, they are going to feel slightly different from what they used to feel like. That’s the thing we’re thinking about when we think about these endgame finishers, and Malygos was one of those cards. So we want to be able to vary what those options are for you over time.
It seems like the Hearthstone team is not entirely opposed to OTK combo decks, but it’s not something that you want to be too easy or too heavy in the meta. So it seems like the Malygos change, along with spell schools, are aiming to impact that a little bit.
Dawson: For OTK combos, one thing we’re always thinking about is that there’s a player subset that loves playing that way. At the same time, we look at the health of that deck type in the meta. We usually look for those decks to not be the overwhelming force in the meta. You get up to 20% of the meta and above 50% win rate. We have a little bit of caution there.
OTK is usually the answer to control decks, in the rock-paper-scissors sense. But now it seems like you’re approaching more of a disruption mechanic. So is that a conscious choice that you’re looking for disruptive effects more than OTK effects to serve as the answer to control?
Dawson: In general, if you look at just all of our inclusions, not just anti-control cards or anti-combo cards or anti-aggro cards–we just want you to have options for all of those things in neutral. I think one thing we’ve been a bit shy about in the past is providing some of those neutral healing cards because too many and too strong can really lead to a point in the game where, I think, every class starts to look the same. So this is still something that we’re careful about, but at the same time, you’ll be seeing anti-aggro cards in neutral that will represent that option for you if that’s something you’re seeing a lot of–same thing with some control or combo disruption pieces. We’ll see those in neutral. If that’s the deck you’re going up against and you want to somehow improve your win rate against it, or you want to somehow, like, “Here’s my trump card against you,” that’s what you’re going to be able to find in neutral. We want to just provide those options for you.
Was Alexstrasza also considered problematic? Best case scenario, it could knock out 15 health.
Dawson: I don’t think we considered Alexstrasza a problem. It’s like, “Okay, I’m going to set this up, and now you have a turn. What can you do here? Now you can play some of your healing cards. Now you can play some of your things that may prevent me from killing you next turn.” That’s the type of design that we love because it’s very telegraphed to what the opponent’s going to do next turn. And then you actually get your full turn to then calculate, “Okay, I’m now in this puzzle that’s a little dangerous. What do I use here?”
It was one of those things where it was probably the last design still in the sheet, like, “Are we going to change this one?” And we’d already gone through all the dragons, and they were all getting their changes. And we were like, “We can take some time away from the old design and find something new that’s going to still talk about the old design but just in a breath of fresh air.”
Nozdormu has caused a lot of bugs, and the community noticed as well. What was it like on the developer end as those things came up?
Dawson: It was something we were always talking about on the team. We’re like, “We can’t just let this exist as long as it has and let it keep creating problems.” It’s one of those things, though, where it breaks that mold of what you thought about when it comes to card games. I think the new design does that in a great way too, it talks a lot about that in the same fashion, but now it creates this contract between both players that’s really interesting.
I heard it proposed that if you’re just friends with somebody and you guys just want to play “Nozdormu Mode,” or speed Hearthstone, you can do that now.
Dawson: Yeah. For us, it was about retaining that magic. What are the cards that really tell you that you’re playing something that’s different from any other card game that you’ve experienced before? And that’s what Nozdormu still does.
Onyxia and Ysera were both really big value cards that have just fallen out of use as they’ve gotten out-valued. So can you talk about those, as a pair or separately?
Dawson: At the beginning of Hearthstone, you would see them more frequently, and then over time, less and less. With Ysera in particular, we still wanted to have that feel. When you think about the old Ysera, what decks could you include it in? Control Priest or some other deck was looking for that. You out-value your opponent and how they’re going to win the game. Now it still does that. You don’t have a lot of card draw in your class, perhaps, so you just need some at the end of games. “Okay, I’m going to win this game through attrition, somehow.” Ysera’s going to be able to help you get there and accomplish that.
And Onyxia, if your deck is positioned to win through minions and minion combat and buffs, perhaps that’s your late-game option. Perhaps that’s the thing you’re looking for. “I want to make sure that I can fill the board and then perhaps buff all my minions and kill my opponent that way.” That’s the end-game piece, and Onyxia fills that role.
Back in the days of really heavy late-game, deep fatigue games, you could get theoretically infinite cards off Ysera, or you could get one. Now you always get five, so it’s a guaranteed effect.
Dawson: And the opponent gets to play around it. They understand what’s going to be in your hand so that they can play around those cards as well.
Deathwing is, I think, the biggest one that went unused in recent years. There weren’t as many ways to deal with big minions back in the day, and now there are. So you put down your Deathwing, and then they just kill it. It does feel like this one is much more useful and situational.
Dawson: Deathwing’s effect is one of the coolest things in all of Hearthstone. We want to make sure that we’re celebrating those moments and make those cards more playable because we want you to see those cool effects. We want you to see the big flashy things that we put a lot of our own time and love into. And I think, with Deathwing, it was really about, “Okay, this is one of the most iconic characters in WoW. How can we just make this better, more usable, and something that you still look at as a force in the late game.” But it’s, as you said, not going to dump your entire hand away and then lose you the game.
Speaking of being able to witness those cool effects, have you reused the old effects?
Camuglia: Alexstrasza and Nozdormu were the biggest changes. The rest of them had effects that were similar enough that we could keep the classic version. Like Ysera, for example, still putting cards in your hand, so we could use the same effect for that. For Malygos, the effect is a bit different. So we put like an arcane burst of smoke on your deck to show like all the spells coming out. But other than that, we were able to keep a lot of them pretty similar to the original.
And in Wild, you’ll be able to play three versions of Deathwing if you really want to.
Dawson: Well, it’s four, right? I think it’s four.
Oh yeah, four! I don’t know why you would want to do that, but I suppose you could. But they’ll all be playable side-by-side if you wanted to do that. You could play old Ysera and new Ysera and Descent of Dragons Ysera. The one isn’t replacing the other.
Dawson: Yes, that’s correct. The old versions will be playable in Wild. They have different art and different mechanics. We want to make sure that you could play those old versions if you still were really attached to them. Those were some of our most iconic cards. We want to make those available for players.
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