Cora Georgiou and John McIntyre interview about Duels, Old Gods and a healthy Hearthstone meta

SA Gamer got to sit down and talk to two Hearthstone designers, Cora Georgiou and John McIntyre, about Madness at the Darkmoon Faire, Wizard Duels and how sets are designed and the steps involved in building cards and archetypes.

What inspired you to make Duels?

John: One thing we learnt through Battlegrounds is that our playerbase was happy to have more game modes and more ways to play Hearthstone, so we decided to keep experimenting and keep trying new things. Dungeon runs had been a blast and we had been iterating on it a bunch and this was the way we wanted to take this game mode, making another version of it, but have it be PVP.

Cora: We think the Arena format of three losses in a run and having some rewards associated with it is something that our player base really enjoys. Dungeon run was originally one and done and we wanted players to be able to advance their decks a little more and experience the really cool treasures that we have, whether they be treasures we made in the past or new treasures that we made specifically for duels and to be able to play against each other and really test their skills. It seemed like a natural progression from what dungeon run was originally into a brand new game mode.

The previous set with Old Gods had a lot of random chance built in, will this set follow on with that?

John: One thing we knew when we started was that we wanted certain Old Gods to serve different players. So C’Thun is a bit more for a combo deck, and we have N’Zoth which is a deck construction type piece. Yogg-Saron, as our players have come to expect, is unpredictability, so there definitely is that aspect built into the Yogg-Saron design, but much less so for the other three.

Could you talk about the lore of the set, how it connects to Whispers of the Old Gods?

John: This is an alternate take on World of Warcraft’s Darkmoon Faire, which has all these creepy eyes and people have always wondered if it is related to the Old Gods and while we aren’t saying if it is or isn’t, we are looking at what would happen if the Old Gods wreaked havoc at the faire and twisted it in their own image and how the organisers try to carry on and not have visitors notice what is happening, just like if there was bad workmanship on the site.

Cora: It is an awesome location and theme we have wanted to use for a long time, and the Old Gods having been some of the most popular cards and characters in Hearthstone history were something that we had wanted to bring back into Hearthstone standard mode for quite some time.

Tell us more about ancient magic.

Cora: With our four Old Gods for Madness at the Darkmoon Faire, they are completely new designs, they are different from when they originally released in Whispers of the Old Gods. e wanted to pay homage to our original Old God designs because they are iconic cards in Hearthstone so we created the Artifacts of the Old Gods which is a small cycle of cards, which unlike a mechanic, is just a couple of cards and they are related, lore-wise in this case. They all hearken back to the original effects of what our Old Gods did. So while Y’Sharrj now works with our Corrupt cards and that mechanic, our artifact of Y’Sharrj is going to be more similar in design to Y’Sharrj in Whispers of the Old Gods. it was a way for us to say ‘okay we have these new Old God cards, the have these awesome designs but we know where they came from and want to have the spirit of those cards in the set as well.’

Where do you see these new cards being used?

John: I definitely feel that Corrupt pushes Control decks. There is a lot of potential to build some of the greediest decks there can be in Hearthstone. If the meta slows down a little bit, they will be the primary Control archetype, but Corrupt cards in themselves don’t slow the meta down. If Control is viable, Corrupt is going to be very powerful tool. We have mid-range and cheaper Corrupt cards that could go in a tempo deck, but the greediest Y; Shaarj Corrupt decks, you are going to want a slow meta for that.

Cora: Just by having the four hallmark cards of the set be 10 mana cost cards, we are encouraging players to build decks that use 10 mana cards, and decks that do that are generally going to be slower. We have had very aggressive decks in recent months, like Ashes of Outland focusing on Demon Hunter, which was very aggressive. We had a lot of success with mid-range decks like Guardian Animals Druid in Scholomance Academy and with the Old Gods, we want people to put these iconic characters in their decks. They all cost 10 mana, maybe games are going to have to take longer for that and some of our most exciting Corrupt cards are more expensive cards that encourage you to play even more expensive cards. In some way, we are saying we are giving you all of these awesome high-cost cards that you want to play with, and to do that you are going to need to play with a slower deck and that might encourage the meta to slow down a little bit, with C’Thun encouraging a little bit of combo building.

Can you go into the details of making a new set and how you decide on the tools you will be giving players. Do previous sets get taken into account?

John: There are a lot of different states of where we pitch an expansion and come up with themes and where we push deck archetypes and at different points, we have different levels of information. When we first started on this set, over a year ago, we didn’t know what is going to be the best in Scholomance a year ago. But we knew once we decided what theme we wanted to go with that Scholomance was a little light-hearted and we wanted something darker. Which is how we ended up going with the Old Gods. Then a couple of months later when we started to design deck archetypes we still don’t really know what the meta looks like for Scholomance because Ashes of Outland is just about to launch. One thing that we look at is cards from the previous year, Year of the Dragon, because we want a lot of our cards to synergise with cards from the previous year so that when it rotates, we get a power reset and new decks can emerge and the meta can feel fresher every rotation. When we go into the final design stage, at which point Scholomance has released and we have information about what the meta looks like, we’re definitely tuning cards and tuning archetypes and pushing different ones with the idea in mind of wanting the game to feel different once this comes out.

Cora: When it comes to specific class design when we go in with a blank sheet and say I want to design Druid for Madness of the Darkmoon Faire, we look at the broad archetypes that we have done for Druid in the last year and say okay we did Treants, we did Mid-range Ramp, what can we do that is different? Okay, we haven’t done Taunt in a while, we haven’t done Life gain in a while or Armour, all of these different things that we can do. And then we think what is something new that we can do? We try to keep it fresh, to make sure every new expansion brings new experiences and new deckbuilding opportunities for each of our classes. Then at the same time, trying to support previous archetypes that maybe didn’t get there all the way, or maybe we seeded some really cool cards for and just needed to give them a couple more pieces. That is the thought process going into it. It just so happened that with Madness at the Darkmoon Faire is very character-driven and those four characters are the Old Gods and they happen to be 10 mana and we wanted to keep that going through. Usually, it is not that we go and say ‘this is going to be an aggressive set’ or ‘this is going to be a control set’, but with this one, it just so happened that we had a lot of high-cost cards.

John: A have a one-off story to give an example. So we had a card that was going to be a bomb card in Warrior. The idea was hey we had Bomb Warrior in Rise of Shadows and it was powerful then, but when we designed this card, and we say that bomb hadn’t seen a lot of play, but maybe this will give one more push for that archetype and make you revisit that archetype and enjoy it again. Then time passes and we find that bomb cards are being used and that is not something we want to push, so a month or two ago when we revisited that set, we redesigned that card so it no longer shuffles bombs into your opponent’s deck. We went a different route because players have been seeing that and it no longer fulfilss the design goal of “have people visit archetypes of the past”.

There are cards that interfere with your opponent’s deck. Will you be able to purify a corrupted card either in your hand or your opponents?

Cora: We have a card that we are going to reveal in a video that does some more of that. Messing with your opponent’s hand or your opponent’s deck is, I think, something that we need to be very careful about because it can just be really frustrating. I think there are good examples of ways we have done it in the past, for instance, Gnomeferatu, which removes the top card of an opponent’s deck. It was a good way to try to disrupt your opponent’s combos without it being too frustrating. Hecklebot could be seen as maybe another one or Deathlord. But it is something we don’t want to do too much of because it can be quite frustrating. When your opponent is building up to this big moment with this awesome deck that they have built, we do want them to be able to accomplish that goal a lot of the time. But yes, we have one card and it is really cool.

John: We didn’t go for a card that purifies Corrupt cards because not every deck is going to be running Corrupt cards. And Corrupt as a mechanic is not like Deathrattle or Reborn where you just want to throw a bunch of these in. You only want a handful of Corrupt cards because you want to have cards that can Corrupt them. I don’t think players will be running a ton of Corrupt cards in their decks, so it isn’t a tech tool that would be useful in defeating Corrupt decks.

What is the difference between making a powerful legendary for Neutral versus a specific class?

Cora: That’s a good question. In general Class cards and more powerful than Neutral cards because they are limited to one class instead of all 10 being able to take advantage of them. We went into the design of the Old Gods knowing that we wanted a couple of classes to be able to make really, really good use of them. Generally when we are building legendary cards that we want players to build entire decks around, they need to be powerful to an extent, they need to have a win condition, which all of our Old Gods are. We wanted them all to be powerful, we wanted them to be powerful in different ways to serve different playstyles for players who want to build different decks. C’Thun is more combo, N’Zoth is maybe a little more control, a little more board-centric and Y’Shaarj is going to interact with our Corrupt mechanic. We started with our Old Gods and said which classed do we want to be able to use these Old Gods and how do we build out their class cards to take advantage of the Old Gods that we picture them using. In the case of N’Zoth, for instance, we wanted Warrior to be able to utilise N’Zoth and that meant maybe we need to build a couple of strong different minion type pieces in Warrior. Maybe they need a really cool mech. Maybe they need a dragon that is a little bit better than the Neutral dragon offerings they have right now. It was more so that we started with the Old Gods and then had to go class by class and decide what powerful pieces do we want to put in this class that will help our players connect the dots between the awesome minion types in Warrior and hey maybe I am going to put them in a deck with N’Zoth and see what happens.

John: We know that not every Old God is amazing in every single class, but every single class has a few Old Gods that they are good with. Or maybe that isn’t true – Every Old God has a few classes that they are good at. I don’t know if Hunter is going to be amazing running different 10-drop minions.

Cora: I mean, we have been surprised in the past!

John: One quick developer story is for C’Thun, we wanted different Old Gods to serve different players as Cora said and C’Thun early on that was going to look like something like Mogu Cultist which say if your board is full of Mogu Cultists you summon Highkeeper Ra. So it is this really hard puzzle for you to solve and it does this really flashy effect. So when designing C’Thun there was an older version that was 10 mana Battlecry: If you and your opponent have the same Health total, Destroy all enemy minions, wherever they are. It would shoot out eyeballs and destroy the battlefield, destroy their hand, destroy their deck. But when we actually played it, it was pretty much just Priest that could take advantage of this. Priest would just heal both Heroes to 30 health and keep both players at 30 health. We really wanted something like Warlock where you are damaging them but you are Lifetapping to get lower and match them and we just found that the gameplay was so weighted towards one class, that the design didn’t meet our goals of Old Gods having multiple decks that they can be viable in. So we scrapped that design and landed on something that is much more versatile. It is great in Control Warrior and Mage has some spell tutors and Rogue might be the best C’Thun deck.

Cora: It is a lot more like Mecha’thun than original C’Thun, but it has been really fun to play with.

Do you think Duels will be more popular than Battlegrounds?

Cora: I think it will be popular with a different playerbase. I think Battlegrounds in playstyle is very different from traditional Hearthstone. It is a completely separate game mode, whereas Duels is traditional Hearthstone at its core. You are just playing a game of Hearthstone in a different way with a different deck with tools that you acquire in a different way, whereas Battlegrounds has Hearthstone characters in it, it has Hearthstone minions but it has a lot of its own unique minions and obviously it is an autobattler. Its very different. I think Duels is going to be certainly something that some of our Battlegrounds players will really enjoy, as many of our Battlegrounds players were traditional Hearthstone players at the start and a lot of them still are and Duels is just very different.

John: We are often looking at different game modes and popularity to figure out what to support and we have found that whatever is newest, is most popular. If we release a new expansion, most of our players are in Standard or Wild, If we release Solo Adventures, that’s going to be popular for a bit. When there’s a Battlegrounds update, that’s the most popular thing. So I expect when it launches it is going to be the most popular thing. We are going to continue supporting it but we will also be reacting to feedback and seeing just how much development resources we want to put into it. Is it the same extent as Battlegrounds? We will find out. I expect it to be very popular, at least at the start. And popular whenever we update it.

Cora: I think we are very lucky that Hearthstone, as a game and as a brand that we can develop different game modes that interest different players and that gives all our players a way to have a unique experience in different areas when maybe they want to take a break from Standard, they go to Wild and play with their old cards. If they don’t want to play Arena, they can go and play Duels which has a similar reward structure to Arena but the playstyle is a little different. And that is really great, because it means players have more options and that is what we want to give them.

How do you feel about the game’s meta right now?

Cora: We’re actually in a very good place in the meta. An article just came out recently with Dean Ayala, the lead game designer for Hearthstone that was about how did the Hearthstone meta get so healthy, something along those lines? And that really is a dream come true for us from a balance design standpoint. It is great to have all these different types of awesome decks that different types of player can enjoy playing and different classes that are all viable at the same time at the highest levels of competitive play. Certainly when we are releasing 135 new cards, the meta is going to change, new decks are going to be playable, new archetypes are going to emerge. That’s what our goal is when we are creating a new expansion. There are certainly some archetypes that exist right now that aren’t as popular that we are trying to fortify a little bit, we are trying to give them some tools that make them more viable. But there is going to be lots of brand-new stuff with the four Old Gods that just hasn’t existed before that is going to shake things up. Ultimately our goal is to have tons and tons of different decks and all the classes have different ways to play for our different players that are all competitively viable. We’re in a good place right now and hopefully we can shake that up and still get back to a very good place.

John: We want the meta to change, that is our goal. We aren’t just going to push our best cards to beat things that already fit in tier 1 decks. One reason that we got to this state was the change in philosophy of how we do nerfs. Let’s say an expansion releases and we completely misjudged everything and nothings changed, it still feels like the Scholomance meta, we are going to do buffs and nerfs to make sure the game changes and feels fresh and fun. But the goal is usually to create change, but you also have to be aware and realistic that there are existing decks that are good and you can’t ust try and make something stronger than that cause that just leads to powercreeping. Finding options for players to go in a different route and making sure that when rotation happens, most of the most powerful decks lose a lot of power so that there is room for new decks to emerge.

Who decided to bring in the Darkmoon Rabbit?

John: So this is a joke that came to us from World of Warcraft. When Darkmoon Island was made, someone took one of those tiny little rabbit critters in World of Warcraft that die in one hit and don’t fight back and they gave it the stats of a raid boss and hid it in a cave on the island as a gag. Teams of adventurers have to group up to kill this Darkmoon Rabbit. So this was obviously a Monty Python reference and people were really passionate about this. When we have a new expansion we have a team meeting with everyone at Hearthstone and we put up post-it notes and we write things like characters and locations and it is a brainstorming session where people can run around and jot down ideas for characters and they put it on the board and at the end the design team collects these all and under the character section, there were so many requests for Darkmoon Rabbit that we knew we had to get it in the game. I knew I wanted it as a 10 mana card and I’m really glad we got it as a 10-mana 1/1 to sort of match that design of a tiny harmless little rabbit, except its going to kill three minions.

Cora: I think it is the funniest card in the set. The flavour on it is so good. It is just absolutely hilarious. WoW has so many clever pop-culture references, whether they are quest names or characters and being able to draw on that is very fun for us.

John: One of the funny things is that all of our Corrupt cards are 9 mana or less so that every single Old Gods is so powerful that they will Corrupt all cards in your hand. And then we have little rabbit and it is so powerful, it is a force of corruption. Is that an Old God?

Did you consider the Darkmoon Tickets as a mechanic?

John: Early on we explored a lot of things. We explored a Ride mechanic, we explored mounts as well, we explored tickets. We landed on Corrupt as our keyword mechanic and we tried to capture some of the feeling of minigames in some individual cards. So if you look at Guess the Weight, that’s that best example of that where it feels like a minigame. There is an overarching mechanic for rides, tickets and games that are shared by individual cards. We have one or two cards that call up tickets and a couple that are the various rides from the faire and a few that are the games.

When you design cards, how many do you build for that big Stream play or big Tournament cards?

John: We definitely try to build cards that serve different players. So the Old Gods, especially Yogg-Saron is going to be a big streamer moment where chat will be spamming Yogg take the wheel and Praise Yogg and stuff. We try to do something that feels like it breaks the rules of the game in at least every single expansion. Like in Scholomance, dual-class cards were a bit of that, but specifically Lorekeeper Polkelt is something where you are like ‘whoa that is crazy, they can’t do that in Hearthstone!’ So we try and make sure there are cards that serve different rules in the set and there needs to be a range of those.

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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