Hearthstone interview with Alec Dawson and Ben Lee about Scholomance Academy

Hearthstone’s last expansion introduced us to the mighty Demon Hunter, the first class to be added to the game since launch. In Ashes of Outland, things are pretty stark. Outland is never really a wonderful place, but the Rusted Legion has made things even worse for the denizens trying to scrape by.

Now things are going back to something more cheerful, and we could all use something cheery right now. Meet Scholomance Academy, a magic school where Kel’Thuzad teaches people from all walks of life, bringing about some cool new keywords and for the first time ever, Dual-Class cards in Standard. We chat with game designer Alec Dawson and game director Ben Lee about the new set, mechanics and student life.

First off Alec explained the new mechanics of Spellburst and Dual-class. Spellburst is a once off effect on the board, giving you some extra kick once you play a spell, effectively burning the Spellburst effect away. Then there are Dual-Class cards, a selection of 40 cards that can be played in the decks of two classes. Get ready for some interesting card usage and seeing a mage that devolves cards, or a Druid suddenly using an Overload card. There is also a study cycle of cards which lets you discover a card that costs 1 less.

How did the pairings of classes come about?

Alec: We started off with the one we wanted to do most, which was Priest Warlock. So Priest Warlock is going to do lots of things with building up health and actually damaging yourself. Both of these classes play with health in different ways. Then we worked on building that out, looking at synergies and the like and it works in terms of flavour like Priest’s Shadow stuff. After that pairing we just built out a circle, working out which pairings we thought would make a lot of sense and which ones we liked the most and then worked from there.

What made you focus on Scholomance as a school instead of the dungeon from World of Warcraft?

Alec: We are always looking for a Hearthstone twist on things, right? We think it was a really fun opportunity here to get some of the iconic characters in Scholomance (and there a lot of legendary characters in the set) to get all those vibes, but also to go to a place where everything is possible in a school for all types of magic. What’s it like if Warriors are coming here? What’s it like if Shamans are coming here, and Demon Hunters? We had to expand what Scholomance is in World of Warcraft now as a school for necromancy. We wanted to expand that so that it was a place for all the classes to have all their training at.

This gave us a lot of opportunities to do new things. We concepted out classrooms; the head of the Dual-Class is a legendary professor and they all have individual classrooms. It is a lot more vibrant and expands out even more than what you see in WoW. It was really fun to make Scholomance in Hearthstone’s terms.

Ben: Ashes of Outland was a pretty dark and serious set for us and having a different flavour sometimes is a really good thing. Especially if you look at world events happening right now, there are some pretty depressing things going on. Scholomance Academy is bright, fun and it’s really different. We are really happy that by coincidence it worked out that way. Video games bring a lot of joy to people and a lot of fun and sometimes we want to tell a serious story and focus on things that are more traditional in the lore, and sometimes we want to take a break from that. We have millions of different players that like different things and in this case we really want to push the fun and joyful aspect. Scholomance Academy is incredibly colourful and really visually diverse and that’s something we really wanted to celebrate.

Please explain the Transfer Student card.

Alec: So when you include it in your deck, at the beginning of the match it is going to look at what game board you are playing on and which set that board corresponds to. We built out a number of different effects based on the game board you are playing. For example on the Saviours of Uldum board, it is going to be a 2/2 for 2 mana with Reborn. On the Scholomance board, it is going to discover a Dual-Class card. We went back and covered all the Wild boards as well. This card is what Hearthstone is about. It looks for design space in the digital only environment and works to make that special. Everyone is getting that card for free pretty soon we’re pretty excited to have that be our free card that comes out before the set.

Will the Dual-Class cards have strong synergies?

Alec: Our goal here, and how they are different from the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan cards, is that there are a ton of them. There are 40 of them in the set, so that’s a lot of cards. Our goals were two-fold here. Our first goal was to create cards that are interesting and that you read the card and know which classes it is for. Lightning Bloom is a great example of that, giving mana with an Overload effect or Devolving Missiles. You take the Arcane Missiles gameplay from Mage, but with Devolve aspects and they come together and it is really fun and engaging. On the other hand we wanted to create cards in the Dual-Classes themselves that synergise differently for the different classes. Take Warrior and Rogue, for example. Both of those classes really like weapons, so you will see cards that care about weapons, but they play differently with those two classes. One of our main goals coming into the expansion was to have synergies between the cards and their classes.

Ben: Card design has evolved a lot since Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. We approach things definitely differently these days. We want to make sure that every card is really playable and something that players are interested in. When reviewing this set, for me the Dual-Class are so interesting and so different that they overshadow the normal cards so we had a back and forth about that, trying to make sure that the normal cards still feel good and potent. I would be very surprised if players are not putting a great deal of Dual-Class cards in their decks. They are fun and interesting, have a lot of synergy built into them and I think the team has really pushed fun, different archetypes with them. We’re definitely going to see play.

It feels like control decks are lost in the meta, with the game getting faster with Demon Hunter. Will we see a comeback?

Alec: With Scholomance Academy you are going to see a ton of new decks. Whether those are control, combo or aggressive decks, there’s going to be a variety of things to play and a bunch of synergies. Speaking on Demon Hunter, one of the goals of Ashes of Outland was to make them really aggressive. That’s where we put a lot of the focus. In Scholomance Academy we are going to build out Demon Hunter’s other archetypes. They have some token-based gameplay that there’s foundational pieces there for them and they also have some stuff around big demons. You are going to see Demon Hunter get pushed in different ways. There’s going to be a variety of decks to play in Scholomance Academy and there will be some control decks.

Let’s talk about game balance.

Alec: We are taking a much more proactive stance on balance this year. That is one of the new philosophies we are upholding ourselves to. When there are problems in the game we are going to come in and we’re gonna make those changes. We are going to be much more frequent when we have balance changes and we will always look at the health of the meta. If we see something out of line, we are going to come in and make changes. Expect us to maintain that throughout the year and in the future.

How do Dual-Class cards fit into class identity, which is an important part of Hearthstone? Do they dilute it?

Alec: Class identity is still very important in Hearthstone. Let’s make that very clear. With the Dual-Class we actually wanted to heighten some of that class identity. Let’s look again at Rogue Warrior. Both classes like weapons and it is something both classes really care about. So you look at those classes where they overlap and where their strengths are and bring that to the forefront and where we can add some synergies and create interesting cards.

One of the things we didn’t want to do is blur the lines of class identity. We didn’t want to include things that classes would never do. You won’t see Priest draw a ton of cards just because they are paired with Warlock. You will see cards that combine the classes in interesting ways and take advantage of what both classes do, directly related to their class identity. I think that’s really interesting. Both Priest and Warlock manipulate their health and you will see cards taking advantage of that in different ways, depending which class you play those cards in.

Ben: Class identity is really important to us and it is actually one of my main drivers for design and I think thematics are really important. If you are playing a Hunter you want to feel that, or at least Hearthstone’s version of that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t break conventions. Sometimes breaking conventions is going to be a deliberate choice on our part that we want to pursue because we feel like we want to insert something different. There are no absolute hard and fast rules that we have to follow. We want to make the game as fun as possible and if we need to introduce something that bends or breaks class identity a bit in some way, then we are going to do that and that is super okay. At the end of the day we still want you to feel like you are playing that class. If you are playing a Paladin you want to be playing Holy spells and having that kind of playstyle. It is very important to us but that doesn’t mean we can’t break it.

For example if you look at the class blog about card draw a while back. Card draw is fundamental for every class, at least at a base level and Scholomance embraces that by having some great Neutral cards to help classes out in terms of card draw. Card draw is very important: we are a card game. It sounds naive and silly but it is just the way it is and we want to make sure that we are addressing that.

We’ve seen a lot of classes identified by their affinity to certain minion tribes. Will we ever see tribes for Dual-Class?

Alec: It came up a lot while designing Dual-Class cards. “Is this the moment?” If we can make it and it feels like it has a nice effect, it will come into the game. There is definitely space for that and we are always looking at it and the effects it would have in constructed as well as Battlegrounds. We are going to keep exploring what minion types we want to bring to the game and there isn’t anything holding us back, it is more about when we want to focus on it and do it the right way.

Would you ever introduce a class in Hearthstone that is not a class in WoW?

Ben: I think it’s possible. We’re not at the point where we want to introduce a new class right now. We just introduced Demon Hunter, obviously, and they have shaken up the game in lots of ways and in terms of what we see from player activity, it has been great. A huge amount of players have come back to the game to check out Demon Hunter. That has been a really powerful message for us. In terms of what a Hearthstone class would be in the future? The team definitely has interesting ideas on that front, but I wouldn’t expect to see anything in this vein any time soon.

You mentioned some Dual-Class cards feeling different depending on the deck?

Alec: Look at Shan’do Wildclaw. The card is going to feel very different in Hunter than it will in Druid. Druids usually care more about big beasts and you can copy some of them, like Winged Guardian. Then in Hunter you are going to include a lot more Beasts inside of your deck so the +1/+1 will come in handy a bit more, but you will still have good things to copy, like Savannah Highmane and stuff like that later on. Cards like that are going to play different in the two classes and that is an interesting part of what makes them special in Scholomance Academy.

How long has the expansion been in development, and when did you first look at Dual-Class cards hitting constructed?

Alec: The expansion started development about a year ago but overall we have been playing around with Dual-Class since Witchwood. There were ideas we were playing around with in terms of. Dual-Class at that time was quite different, as you could include Mage cards in your deck if you were a different class. And then we revisited the idea in Rise of Shadows where if you were a Warlock you could include five Mage cards and what does that look like? We found that with that there were a lot of dangerous things you could do. What we have now is where is you get to borrow some things from different classes, but it still feels like I am playing my class. That is a very important part to Hearthstone and what the Dual-Class cards are bringing. You are still going to feel like you are playing a Shaman even with a card like Lightning Bloom where you ramp up some mana. Overall our gameplay is still going to feel like playing Shaman. Also the opposing playing isn’t going to ask “Hey where is that card coming from?” if I play a Druid card.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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