'Hearthstone' Lead Producer on 'Journey to Un'goro' and Competitive Changes

Blizzard takes a radical new approach to balancing 'Hearthstone' in advance of the new season

Blizzard aims to shake up 'Hearthstone' as it enters its third year. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard Entertainment just announced Journey to Un’goro, a new expansion for its ultra-popular digital card game Hearthstone. Named in honor of Un'goro Crater, a primeval forest full of dinosaurs and elemental beings – and one of the most beloved zones from World of Warcraft's earliest days – the expansion will include 135 new cards when it launches in early April.

Two major new mechanics are coming with the expansion: "Adapt," which will allow you to pick from three randomized traits when playing some minions, aimed at varying up the card’s abilities; and "Quests," which are one-mana cards that you get in your opening hand, and that ask you to perform an especially difficult task throughout the match's length. For instance, one asks that you play seven cards with deathrattle abilities, and rewards you with a super-powerful, legendary minion that costs five mana, has eight health and damage, has the "Taunt" ability, and upgrades your hero from 30 to 40 health. Yow.

But the real changes to the game are coming with the new "Year of the Mammoth" competitive play season, which kicks off at the same time that Journey to Un’goro launches. Blizzard's approach to iterating on Hearthstone is changing in some fundamental ways. For the first time ever, six cards from the original Classic set are being taken out of competitive Standard play, becoming part of an all-new “Hall of Fame” group.

Those Hall of Fame cards – as well as three previously-released sets – will become part of the Wild mode, which includes all cards since Hearthstone launched almost three years ago. Cards from the Blackrock Mountain, Grand Tournament and League of Explorers will also become Wild-only. (Here at Glixel, we’ll be saying a sad farewell to our Reno Jackson). The Year of the Mammoth will include three full expansions but no Adventures – the pay-to-play single-player missions that rewarded specific cards. Instead, free missions will become part of each expansion, starting this Summer.

We chatted with Hearthstone production director Jason Chayes about the upcoming changes, Hearthstone's evolution over the past three years, the role of randomness in the world’s most popular digital collectible card game, and more.

First off, why move some Classic cards into Wild mode?
Six Classic cards are going to be moving out of Standard into Wild. This is the first time we've ever done that, so this is a pretty big change for us in Hearthstone. When I jump into the game and queue into ranked play, it's really important that we have a very broad and varied meta, meaning that the decks I'm encountering are diverse, I'm seeing different cards, I'm seeing some different types of strategies.

If there are a lot of cards that are in Classic that are just too strong or leading to particular dominant types of decks, even if you're introducing new sets over time, it's overall creating a hit to the diversity. A good example of that is Ragnaros. Ragnaros is a very strong card, one of the dominant eight [mana]-drops in the game. He's shown up in many, many tournaments at this point, and he's one of the classic cards that always shows up in the Hearthstone championship tour. And because he's so strong, it definitely limits the viability of other cards in that eight-drop slot.

You could see cards like Sylvanas or the Azure Drake falling into that category – they're very strong in their mana slots. But are you removing other cards for other reasons?
The other three cards – Power Overwhelming, Ice Lance and Conceal – were added to the Hall of Fame list because they end up having a disproportional effect on our ability to do different types of card designs we'd like to do in the future.

How did cards like Power Overwhelming (which gives a Warlock minion +4 to its health and damage for a single turn, after which it dies) affect your ability to design decks?

Power Overwhelming can lead to a lot of immediate burst damage. It can lead to a very big buff to minions very quickly, so that was one of the things that we want to be careful about as we're thinking about sets down the road. That particular one is also linked to where we'd like to take Warlock in the future, and that's something that we're still kind of figuring out. That's one of the things that led to it being added to Hall of Fame as well.

Do Hearthstone designers now consider burst damage to be bad by definition?
It depends on how and when in the game you get there. You do have cards like Leeroy that can lead to certain amounts of burst damage. We have other cards like Fireball, with lots of burst damage, or Pyroblast, which is burst damage. It isn't so much that you can do a lot of damage in one turn. What we don't like is when there's no opportunity for interaction, when it just feels like you or your opponent is able to end the game instantly without any chance for a response.

Why not just nerf cards, as you have in the past? Why is now the right time for a Hall of Fame?
There are two answers to that. One is that we always want to be careful about the velocity in which we roll out changes to the game. I think that the notion of set rotation, and Standard versus Wild in general, was a major change to the way Hearthstone had ever been experienced when we rolled it out last year. So a lot of our time went to just making sure that was going well. We actually announced a number of nerfs to Classic cards at the time.

Another answer I'd give is that, to be honest, we didn't know we were going to need Hall of Fame until more recently. Because [before we created the Hall of Fame], nerfs were the only option we had. So a lot of those Classic cards that we've nerfed in the past, maybe today those nerfs might not necessarily be handled the same way because the Hall of Fame exists.

Will any cards you changed earlier come back in the Hall of Fame?
That's something we're still trying to figure out. Do we go back and change those cards that we had nerfed in the past? It's something we're still thinking about.

You’re introducing competitions in Wild mode for the first time. Why?
We did not formally support Wild in this past year as a competitive format. And I think our feeling at this point is something we could have done a better job with. Looking back on it, I think there's more we could have done to make Wild an exciting, separate way to play Hearthstone. That's one of the reasons why we're investing more effort this year to do a Wild Heroic Brawl, and potentially some Wild major tournaments in our esports scene. I don't think Wild will ever become the lead, dominant way to play Hearthstone in the competitive scene. We want Standard to continue to be the center for our Hearthstone Championship Tour. But there are some cool standalone tournaments for Wild, some other events that are Wild-based, I think that's great for the game.

Why aren’t you releasing a Hearthstone adventure this year?
We've always done three releases per year. The main difference is that we're changing out one of those, which was formerly an Adventure, into another expansion. It is the first year where we've done three expansions. We've been trying to get the best aspects of adventures and expansions and fuse them together into a new release model. The idea is that when we release not the next expansion, but the expansion after that at mid-year, you'll have single-player mission content as you're used to seeing in adventures. Only at this point, it'll all be free.

How will it be different from paid Adventures?
You'll fight your way against these bosses, in a similar wing structure you've seen before. At the end of it, instead of having individual cards that are gated by the bosses, what we're looking at now is having a card pack of that expansion type as the reward.

Why make these missions free?
First off, we've had to do things in the past where we made the missions easier than we would have liked, because if somebody puts in their $7 or their 700 gold, we really didn't want to get into a situation where they couldn't get these cards that they needed to be competitive. We had to adjust the difficulty to compensate for that. Now we feel like we can make those more-interesting, slightly more difficult missions than what we've done in the past.

Another big benefit here is that if you think about the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan [expansion] which we released last December, that was a lot of new IP that our Hearthstone players had never seen before. Who is the Grimy Goons, and who is the Jade Lotus and what's their background? There's only so far you can go in telling the stories behind these individuals and their locations and their agendas [in cards]. We think it would be really cool if there were an expansion that came out where, instead of having to get all that information from the cards themselves, what if there's missions that familiarize you. It helps really get that storytelling aspect, that tone and lore that we're really excited about, to supplement the expansions.

So what’s in it for Blizzard? What offsets the lost revenue?
We think we can use the missions as ongoing engagement. After the expansion comes out, it's kind of one big drop, everyone gets all the cards on day one. But here's a way to have some new things to see, some new surprises through the missions coming out after the expansion drops as well. We're going to be paying attention to it and experimenting with it to see how it goes. If the missions are free and people love playing through that content and that gets them excited about the new cards that are available in the set, then we'd consider that a success.

Have the changes meant shifts on the Hearthstone team?
We're still in ramp-up mode. We've made some changes on the team to adjust the way our design department is structured, so we actually have now a dedicated missions team, which is something we've never had before. We'd like to get to a world where we could release missions possibly between expansions as additional content to keep the game fresh and exciting. We think that would be a really exciting thing down the road.

What changes to in-person Hearthstone gatherings are planned for the Year of the Mammoth?
Fireside Gatherings is going to be a big theme for us this year. You're going to see more discussion coming up about that in the weeks to come. We're looking for ways to tie the experience of going to a Fireside Gathering more directly with the in-game experience of playing Hearthstone, and maybe have some different things you can [only] see when you're playing from a Gathering. That's a thing we're rolling out in the next few months.

What changes have esports brought to the game?
Randomness is very important in Hearthstone because it leads to new game experiences, a different outcome that what you might have seen previously in a match, and the chance to have some really amazing stories. I think what we've learned is, what is the best type of randomness? Where does randomness belong? You'll see fewer and fewer cards that seem very "swingy" in randomness on turn one, turn two, than what we released when we started. That becomes more important because of the esports aspect as we make sure that it's the most skilled player that's consistently coming out in Hearthstone. It's definitely going into our card design philosophy.

What are your goals for Hearthstone?
We're a couple months from our third-year anniversary. In the world of mobile games, that can feel like a very long time. But we want people playing Hearthstone 15, 20 years from now. That's really how we think about a lot of our features: What's the right thing to make sure this is an enduring game that people love and come back to, [that] has the legs to be something you're playing on your iPhone 15.