Hearthstone Year of the Gryphon Interview: Joseph Killion & Liv Breeden

Hearthstone is set to launch into Year of the Gryphon with some of its most substantial changes yet. The upcoming year will include the introduction of Core Set – a free collection of 235 cards that will replace Basic and Classic cards in Standard and provide players with a way to compete even if they’ve been absent for some time – and the Classic format, a return to the 2014 roots of the game. Forged in the Barrens, the first set coming in Year of the Gryphon, revisits an iconic location in World of Warcraft lore, while a new game mode called Hearthstone Mercenaries is also debuting in 2021.

With so many changes coming to the game, fans have questions. Screen Rant was able to sit down and chat these upcoming changes and some of the broader design philosophies for the game with Hearthstone developers Joseph Killion and Liv Breeden during BlizzConline.

Forged in the Barrens is visiting an iconic location for anyone familiar with the Warcraft universe. What’s the best word to describe what this set’s supposed to feel like for Hearthstone players when they’re jumping into it?

Joseph Killion: I think, in a word, it’s Horde. But with the set, we really wanted to harken back to that classic Warcraft experience. It’s the feeling of going into this world as a newbie, not knowing anything and leveling up and becoming a big powerful hero, so we also wanted to tell that story. We thought Barrens is a great iconic starting zone, and it’s really iconic to the Horde, so we leaned into that a lot. But we tried to play with these themes of leveling up, so we have a cycle of ranked spells. Each class will have one of these, so an example is Chain Lightning for Shaman. It’s a two mana spell; it deals two damage to a minion and then a random adjacent one. And when you get five mana, it levels up and goes to three damage, and then at ten mana it levels up and goes to four damage. We’re trying to kind of hit that idea of ranking up your spells, like you did in classic WoW.

Liv Breeden: And the other major mechanic of Frenzy really is that we’re talking about the Horde, and they were forged much like these new characters are. The Barrens are a really tough place, and it’s not built in the most hospitable conditions. Frenzy is being able to survive damage and then come back stronger, either with Berserker Fury, or Troll Regeneration or the Forsaken being able to come back from the dead. The Horde is all about survival and improving upon yourself.

What are some of the challenges in designing a set that’s centered around one faction when players identify with both at different times?

Joseph Killion: I think some of the challenge is that players like both, so on the development team as we were iterating and playtesting, we got a lot of feedback that there’s not a lot of AIliance stuff. But as we were going through, Barrens has a lot of Alliance-themed areas. Northwatch Hold is one of those areas; this kind of Alliance outpost, and there’s also ruins and things like that. We really tried to hit on a lot of those themes and bring the Alliance in that way. And we’re also introducing 10 new characters to Hearthstone, and these are what we’re calling mercenaries. They’re our lens into this year long narrative, and we’ll see them start off as newbie heroes and level from zero to hero. We decided to tie these with the Hearthstone classes. We have actually five Horde classes and five Alliance classes, so Alliance players will have those characters to connect with as well.

Liv Breeden: And these are characters that you should identify with if you’ve played World of Warcraft, like the Orc Warrior, or the Human Paladin, or the Gnome Rogue, where you’ve got these iconic character-race matchups that you expect to see in Hearthstone. And maybe you can connect with these characters as like, “Yeah, I played an Orc Warrior, and this is my character in some way,” so you’re seeing what it’s like to be them.

Are there any mechanics that allow you to take those characters in a certain direction like you would when you’re leveling them up? Are they on a linear path, or do you have options as you’re growing them?

Joseph Killion: In the Forged in the Barrens set, they’re represented as legendary minions, and we tried to keep them at a low cost. So, it feels like they’re not this 10 mana, big powerful creature. But we have Bru’kan, who’s one of these mercenaries: he’s a four or five mana shaman legendary, but he gives nature spell damage +3. So, his character in this set is static in that point. But along with the ranked spells, in the art – and this is actually really fun, because it shows these characters off – Chain Lightning actually has Bru’kan in it. He’s shooting a lightning bolt, and then as you level it up, you’ll get a new art piece and it’s Bru’kan shooting two lightning bolts at quillboars. And then the final one is just lightning everywhere, and he’s blowing up all these quillboars. That’s a great way that I think we get to show off the progression of these characters.

Liv Breeden: And we’ll even see them grow throughout the year. They start in the Barrens at level 16, but at the end of the year, there’ll be level 60. So, it’ll be seeing their progression over the course of an entire year, and how different mechanics interact with these mercenary characters.

Does that tie into the Hearthstone Mercenaries game mode at all?

Joseph Killion: It will a little bit. The characters will show up in that Mercenaries game mode, so along with seeing them in the collectible set and single player content, they’ll also be heroes that you can collect for that mode and play with.

What’s the goal of Hearthstone Mercenaries as a game mode? What’s it providing to players that they aren’t already getting across all these varied formats?

Joseph Killion: I think it’s similar to what we did with Battlegrounds, which was such a departure from what classic Hearthstone is. While it kept some of those core themes of playing cards and things like that, it created an entirely new way for players to jump in and experience the game.We’re really trying to do that with Mercenaries; create something that we haven’t done in Hearthstone before and create this strategy RPG where you’re collecting heroes and making a team out of them, and then taking them on these rogue-like adventures and going through these single player experiences. There’ll also be some PvP elements, so I think that really creates this new way to play Hearthstone that we haven’t seen before that I think is really exciting for players.

Liv Breeden: And I think it’s also just that the people working on it are like, “Yeah, I want to see this kind of game mode in Hearthstone. What does that even look like?” Battlegrounds is not exactly Hearthstone, but it feels kind of like Hearthstone. Mercenaries, while it is drastically different, it still feels like Hearthstone in some ways. I think that’s really awesome that we’re able to capture the flavor, and the whimsy and those sorts of things in Hearthstone, and then take it to a brand new game mode. It’s cool to see the different context.

Are there any lessons you might have learned while developing Battlegrounds that you can apply to this? Such as keeping the identity of the game, but also making it such a radically different gameplay experience.

Liv Breeden: Yeah, that’s a good question. Battlegrounds is still in beta, so we’re still changing things and testing them out as we’re playing. But I think giving players things that they want is really hard in Battlegrounds, because everything is laid open, where you get to just start, and it’s so fully contained within itself that it’s hard to provide content that players would like outside of gameplay. Things like skins are interesting; I don’t know if that’s something players want, but we can try it. I think going into Mercenaries, it’s much more that we have to have a plan. We can’t just make a cool game mode, so let’s try and figure out what ways can we interact with the players that is more than just the core gameplay loop.

We look at Battlegrounds as Hearthstone being mixed with auto-battlers as its inspiration. If we’re looking at Mercenaries, what is Hearthstone being mixed with this time? What inspirations are we looking towards to blend it together?

Joseph Killion: We’re looking at a lot of different games; a lot of turn-based strategy RPGs and things like that. Also, with the rogue-like mechanics, there’s tons of us that are huge fans of all kinds of rogue-like games on the team. We’re really looking to those games to find cool and interesting ways to do things. I think we’re inspired by a lot of those types of genres.

Hearthstone Core Set is something that a lot of players, both old and new, have been looking towards in some shape or form for quite a long time now. It seems tailor-made to help address concerns over the game’s accessibility now that it’s been around for so many years. What’s the primary philosophy or purpose – is it in line with accessibility goals?

Liv Breeden: Definitely, yeah. There’s a lot of different reasons to do the Core Set, but I think that is one of the big ones. Certainly, as a player of the game, it’s like, “Here’s 230-something cards that are just free and everyone gets these.” You just have to reach level 10, which doesn’t take very long, and you get introduced them very quickly as you play your classes. Most everyone just starts with a full Core Collection, which is exciting. But it allows players to jump into Hearthstone and have this really stable foundation that they can just build competitive decks with. And then the expansions give them more ways to hook into these core cards and use them in different contexts. But I think accessibility, like you said, is actually super big, where new players and old players just get 230 cards for free. It’s pretty awesome; I think there’s no downside to that.And then as designers, we really like it as well, because there’s cards like Malygos, which gives spell damage +5. It’s one of those cards where final design is like, “How do we break all these cards in the expansion using Malygos? Can we cheat Malygos out? Can we even print one mana burn spells?” That question is always there. So, it allows us to move cards in and out of Core as we need them, and then allows room for other new and exciting cards in the expansions to grow and flourish.

Joseph Killion: It also helps us build this baseline to design these sets off of. Baron Rivendare comes back, and it opens up the opportunity for us to do death rattle build-arounds. And then as things progress, if we want to change things up, maybe we rotate that out and find a new card to rotate in. Maybe it’s something with quests or more weapons, but it opens up these ways that we can really find interesting archetypes and play into that more than we could in the past.

Liv Breeden: And I think for Basic and Classic, you have things like Murloc Tidehunter, where it’s this really simple minion, and it doesn’t really do a lot. You probably don’t really put it in many decks unless you are really scraping the bottom of the barrel for needing Murlocs. But I think we look at those old cards, and they have to be a little bit lower power level because they have to compete with expansions forever. I think Frostbolt and Fireball are pretty interesting, but also they choke out any burn that mages have in that space. We just can’t make a card that can compete, because they’re just premium; they’re just really good. Before, that was kind of a problem, because we have to worry about Hearthstone forever. So, it’s hard to justify buffing those cards. But now that we have the option to change them, to move them in and out of standard, it gives us more knobs that we can turn. As designers, we can make cards that you’re interested in putting into decks, even in the Core Set.

Is the goal of Core Set, and its ability to rotate, to monitor those archetypes and introduce them more at will? Rather than having to worry about Classic always influencing the ones that you’re designing towards.

Liv Breeden: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s definitely something to think about. Like Genn and Baku – they’re not Core, I just want to throw that out there – are interesting, especially for a year worth of time. But maybe after that year, they rotate out and they’re gone. We don’t have to design around them for the rest of eternity. But we can put power pieces in Core that maybe are kind of interesting.

Is this a way that you can lay the foundations for archetypes that are going to appear later in the year, and just have those Core cards waiting for players to build around?

Joseph Killion: Yeah, definitely. We can put things in that will interact with things in the set down the line, and we can plan for those things in the future. Whereas in the past, a lot of times we would come up with a really fun archetype for a set, but just not have the three or four extra minions that we really needed to push that forward. This definitely allows us to sprinkle those things in. You might see something in the Core Set that you’re like, “I don’t know exactly how this is gonna work. It doesn’t seem like it works great with all the cards in the set,” but later on down the line, you might find somewhere it really works.

Liv Breeden: It also means that we can put more of those basic building pieces, where you just want a two mana mech with Divine Shield and Taunt, but we don’t have to spend a card in the expansion using that. We can just use Annoy-o-Tron in the core set. It’s an exciting card throughout the year, but maybe there’s some build-arounds for it down the line.

This is purely as a fan, but is Annoy-o-Tron in the Core Set by any chance?

Liv Breeden: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Annoy-o-Tron is there. I’m pretty sure there’s also an achievement for it.

I was interested in how you approach redesigns of cards like Deathwing, Ysera and Malygos. How do you keep a card relevant, but tweak it so that you’re not building around it in quite the same way?

Liv Breeden: I think Malygos is an interesting one, because it is the most – not extreme, but – the most drastic change. This is a spell damage, specifically, minion, whereas the current one is like a spell refill. It’s incredibly powerful, where it’s like you draw eight spells, like whoa, and you get a body out of it – which is crazy. But they are definitely different, for sure. Malygos is one that we’ve wanted to move into Wild for some time, but Warcraft and Hearthstone feel like they need the Dragon Aspects, or else it doesn’t feel like we’re doing justice to World of Warcraft. We need to have the five Dragon Aspects, but how do we have those if we just rotate them out? So, we introduced the five new versions of them. Some of them are more different, like Malygos, while some are more similar, like Deathwing. Deathwing is awesome, but he’s not like the best card, right? It’s asking a lot to disrupt your entire hand and just be like, “I’m all in on Deathwing.” Especially nowadays. In Classic, it’s a little bit more understandable, but there’s so much removal and stuff nowadays for certain decks that it’s just like, “Yep, you’re just done.” So, tweaking them slightly but still allowing those crazy combos in Wild. Like, you’re playing the Warlock Quest deck, and you’re waiting on that Deathwing, but you can still do those sorts of things.

What do you think Classic is going to feel like for people who have been around since beta? Do you think they’re the primary audience, or do you think this format has legs to appeal to newer players as well?

Joseph Killion: I think it definitely has appeal to all kinds of people. I played some Classic but fell off, and it’s cool for people like me who played the original and have been around since beta to go back and experience what it was like, and have that nostalgia. But we have tons of new players coming into the game all the time. There’s people who have never had that experience, so I think it’s really cool to be able to go back, almost like a book of history, and actually see what it was like and experience that. I think it’s definitely for all players, not just the people who had that experience in the past.

Do you see that as one of the big selling points of Classic, that deep dive into Hearthstone history?

Joseph Killion: Yeah, I definitely think it’s a nostalgia thing, trying to feel what it was like back then. There’s also just a lot of people who really enjoy that time, so they want to continue having those experiences. We have Wild, where you can do some of that. But as everything comes in, it gets more bloated and you might not be having the same experience that you originally had.

Liv Breeden: It’s interesting, too, because a lot of people look at World of Warcraft, and they’re doing the Burning Crusade now. So, they’re going beyond Classic. Does that mean Hearthstone is going to do the same thing? I think that’s like a really interesting idea. Really, we’re just waiting for feedback on this sort of thing. That sounds really exciting to me. We have a format where this was the Naxxramas time period, you shift forward a couple years, and this is Boomsday. And it’s really different, because you can’t experience that meta anymore. It’s something I’d be excited to try, but we’re just waiting on player feedback. If people are interested in that, that’s great. But if people just want to play Classic, I think that’s also awesome.

I imagine there’s some people who do genuinely want to play with Grim Patron again. Not a huge audience, but I’m sure there’s some of them.

Liv Breeden: I mean, in one of our earlier interviews, people were like, “We want Grim Patron with Warsong Commander. We want that.”

Has there been any playtesting internally before you launched this format? Do you think there’s gonna be possibilities of people applying new philosophies to Hearthstone that they learned over the game’s long history at this point? Do you anticipate reinvigorating those metas, or is it gonna be mostly the greatest hits?

Joseph Killion: I think we’ll definitely see a little bit of both. We did tons of playtesting internally on it, but like you mentioned, players have had years of experience with the game now. Going back and thinking about those things, I definitely hope that we see crazy new things coming out of it.

Liv Breeden: I think, first and foremost with our playtesting, it’s: does this feel right? Does it feel like Classic? It’s surprising how many people are like, “This was 4 mana? Are you serious?” It’s really just like, let’s make sure that it’s true to how it was, first and foremost. That was the goal of the playtesting: let’s make sure everything feels like it should. But I imagine, given how large our player base is now, I’m sure there’s gonna be something new.

For Classic specifically, are there any concerns that it will grow stale over time because of card imbalances? If the players do give feedback on that, is there any chance at all that those cards do get tweaked slightly as it’s progressing to try and keep Classic going?

Liv Breeden: I kind of view this the same way that I would be Wild where this is the place where people do crazy stuff. There’s a lot of people who are asking for balance changes in Wild, but there’s also the people who just want to play these weird decks that you never got to, that are insane. Which is the point of Wild, you can’t play these anywhere else. And I think Classic is a pretty similar space, where it’s like, “I just want to play old Hearthstone, regardless of how strong or weak things are.” Personally, I think the better way to do that is having that rotating format. Something like that sounds like a much better way to service those people, where instead of changing the thing that they remember, it’s just giving them a different slice of time.

Back to Hearthstone Core Set, it’s 235 cards. How long has this been in the works? Because that’s a lot of card interactions to be internally testing and designing.

Joseph Killion: Yeah, we actually started working on it back when we first started Forged in the Barrens. So, we’ve had a bunch of time to work on it. It was actually really cool being able to start that project along with starting Forged in the Barrens, because we could work in tandem and say, “Oh, hey, this card isn’t really working great for this set. Let’s move it out for another one.” I think it really worked out, during that process.

Liv Breeden: I think it even started before we jumped on Forged in the Barrens because they knew that’s something we wanted to do. The handful of designers that were working on Core wanted to make sure that the initial designers had a good jumping off point. It’s different to be like, “We’re not sure what cards, but we want to do this.” And then we’re like, “What do we make a set out of? What should we rely on?” We had a pretty good base from there, and then like Joe said, we adjusted it as the year went on as well. In the second set, we’re like, “We could really use something like this,” and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, let’s just swap this out.” And that works really well for us.

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