The popular digital card game Hearthstone’s upcoming expansion, Forged in the Barrens, will launch the game’s three-expansion Year of the Gryphon; update everything from Battlegrounds to the new player experience; and launch Mercenaries, a new game mode.
The release date for the new expansion hasn’t been set yet. Traditionally the first Hearthstone expansion of each year is in April, but the team had barely begun development on Barrens before being sent home for the COVID pandemic.
We caught up with Hearthstone game designers Liv Breeden and Joe Killion to chat about how Blizzard Entertainment came up with the ideas for the expansion, its mechanics and its cards. And, as always, we talk about what was just too awful to make the cut and was mercifully removed.
Heather Newman: What led you to the core theme of this expansion?
Joe Killion: When we first started working on this set, we started discussing the concept of another year-long narrative, kind of like we did with Descent of Dragons. Something that everyone was excited about was going back to that classic Warcraft experience of experiencing the world as a newbie, who knows nothing about it and is super low level, and then becoming this great hero.
The Barrens was a super iconic starting zone, especially for Horde players. So it was something that we could tap into for a lot of that nostalgia that players, and us on the development team, had.
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Liv Breeden: So whose story are we going to tell, right? We have these 10 characters, there’s one legendary in each class, these 10 mercenaries. These are the iconic characters that you’ve probably like played, or at least seen played, in World of Warcraft.
So there’s the Orc warrior, there’s the Troll and there’s the Tauren druid; there’s the Human paladin and the Forsaken warlock. We’ve got such a huge cast of characters, but they’re ones you probably identify with. For me one of the big things is getting excited about telling this year long narrative of these 10 characters as they level up from zero to hero.
Newman: How much does that theme drive the original mechanics of the new expansion?
Breeden: Early on in exploration, when we said we wanted to do a year-long narrative, we asked do we also want to do a year-long a mechanic as well? In the Year of the Dragon we had Lackeys. Every expansion we added a new Lackey, so the interactions that you dealt with were a little bit different every time.
We explored a couple of different directions, but we didn’t find any that resonated with us, that really felt like we could build upon over the course of the whole year. So we focused more on the narrative side.
Newman: How did that play out in the mechanic you chose for the Barrens expansion?
Breeden: If you look at the characters themselves, they’ll be seen throughout all of the expansions. But what their mechanics are will change as the year goes on. There’s also the, “Hey, I’m a new shaman hanging out in the Barrens. I just went from Chain Lightening I to Chain Lightning II. I just ranked that spell up.” We wanted to make sure we captured those things.
So there’s Chain Lightning, rank one. When you reach five mana, it goes to rank two, and it deals one more damage. When you reach 10 mana, it deals four damage at rank three. It’s kind of a, a cool, fun story for people who have played World of Warcraft.
Newman: What didn’t make the cut?
Breeden: We tried something, we’ll call it “champion.” There’s a second hero next to you, and your opponent would choose to attack you or attack the hero. They had a hero power. It was kind of cool — there’s a lot of like interesting decisions there. But it was really complex, and suddenly, I didn’t know how to play Hearthstone anymore.
I’m sure we’ll revisit some iteration of that. But it was a lot of extra complexity and the gameplay that came out of it was pretty bad-feeling, because if you’re behind, you fall further behind, because now they have this thing that you can’t destroy.
Killion: Another thing we explored was introducing a new minion type. But with our minion types, like elementals or Murlocs, we really want them to have a distinct feeling in the game.
As we iterated on that, spell schools was something that we landed on. We’re tagging a lot of spells throughout the game with seven iconic spell schools in Warcraft.
Newman: How does that spell school tag play out in game?
Killion: One of the best examples is Bru’kan, the Legendary shaman mercenary. His power is Nature spell damage +3. It works really well with Chain Lightning, because that’s a Nature smell.
Newman: How did you decide which spells got which tags? What those spells were like in WoW? Other factors?
Breeden: I think it’s about leaning into the class fantasy, what they do best.
Killion: We spent a lot of time talking about the different schools that we wanted and what we would name them. We had a few extra schools that we didn’t put in just because they didn’t really fit with the theme.
Once we landed on these seven, we started looking at the cards. We spent a lot of time looking at the art. Does it have like lots of fire in it, or does it make sense visually, and also in the name? Sometimes it is exactly what the mechanics are doing.
Breeden: There are some that are like, well, it was a Shadow spell [in Warcraft], but in our game it looks like a Fel spell. There are some that are on the fence, that we decided to go with what’s best for Hearthstone. It’s harder going backward and typing stuff in the past than going forward.
Newman: So what were some of the spell types that didn’t make it through?
Killion: The big one that we didn’t add in was a Physical spell type. Rogue and Warrior don’t tend to do a lot of stuff with spells that are in like a specific school. So we had explored a Physical spell school that could focus more on weapons and armor. But as we played with it, we found that it wasn’t the most exciting; and it also added an extra layer of complexity to those classes that we didn’t feel was necessary.
It makes their game play a little bit more diverse than the other classes, which I think is a good thing.
Newman: Are there any card interactions you feel are especially exciting to play?
Breeden: I think Blademaster Samuro is a really interesting one because some classes don’t have access to a lot of like board clears. [Blademaster is a 1/6 neutral card with Rush and Frenzy, which does his attack power in damage to all enemy minions if he takes damage and survives.]
But those classes do have access to Samuro, and then they also have buffs. He works pretty well if you buff him up and then run him in.
Killion: A card that’s pretty interesting to me is Druid of the Plains. It’s a Druid card with Rush. It’s a 7/6 that has a Frenzy transform into a 6/7 with Taunt. So you have this card that gets on the board, maybe you have some ways to buff it up, but then when it gets that Frenzy, it flips over to a taunt minion.
You get this really good benefit of lots of damage and then a pretty big protective minion for you.
Newman: How has development changed on Hearthstone over the years?
Breeden: Hearthstone is unique for game development because we put out three expansions every year. We ship 135 [cards in an expansion], but we probably make closer to 500 that don’t make it. A lot of those might be really bad, a lot of them are pretty decent, and some are really good, and we keep those. People gain a lot of skills very quickly.
By having a lot of different projects that they can work on, they don’t feel quite as restricted. If they’re excited about something, we have a lot of room to move around. Maybe an initial designer goes to the final design team for a little bit. Maybe they go to the Tavern Brawl team. We have a lot of outlets.