During PAX East 2018, Hearthstone's Ben Brode was on hand to talk about the upcoming expansion, The Witchwood. Garrett Fuller caught up to Ben to check out what's new in The Witchwood and much more.
MMORPG: Witchwood is coming April 12th! How does the new expansion change the meta from Kobolds and Catacombs?
Ben Brode: Witchwood is the new expansion for Hearthstone, it kicks off the new standard year for Hearthstone which is the year of the Raven. It’s a big event for us so we are giving away a lot of packs for completing quests getting ready for this rotation. The Witchwood is all about the Gilneans who are cursed by the Worgen curse, they are like werewolves. Recently, the woods around Gilneas have been growing out of control. They have become twisted; a witch there has been twisting the forest to her own whims. It has become scary and unsafe, so it really is this monster vs. monster fight! It is the Worgen versus the creatures of the forest.
MMORPG: Kobolds was very single player friendly and brought a lot of people back to the game. What does Witchwood now bring to players?
Ben Brode: The dungeon runs were awesome, they were totally free They did not require any cards, there was no reason not to come in and try it out! We are trying a similar thing with Witchwood where it is a monster hunt. It works similar to the dungeon runs, but we have new takes on the classic Hearthstone classes. For example, we’ve got Darius Crowley, who is a warrior, he is essentially a warrior class, but, he starts with a cannon on the battlefield. His hero power is to fire the cannon. It shoots directly across from it whatever is there. So, you have to position the cannon in the right spot. A lot of the treasures you get in the dungeon run upgrade your cannon or upgrade your hero power. It is a really unique experience over what our dungeon runs were like in Kobolds & Catacombs.
MMORPG: So, it is almost a line of sight thing?
Ben Brode: Ya positioning is critical in this fight. We did some experiments in the past with the chess mission in Karazhan. It was a little bit in that space, but it was a very constrained environment. You had chess pieces vs. chess pieces and that is it. Here you get a cannon, it is on the board against your enemies.
MMORPG: Hearthstone has such a rich history now. You have been building the game for a few years now, what is it that drives you to iterate the game forward?
Ben Brode: We have got a ton of ideas. There is a never-ending list of things that we want to explore. One of the mechanics in this set is Echo, which means you can cast the card as many times as you want if you have the mana. We had originally been talking about that idea in Knights of the Frozen Throne, we were kicking around ideas. We had too many ideas, so we ended up moving that off. We started working with it in Witchwood and found a version that we really liked to introduce here. There is a lot of mechanics like that, a lot of themes like that. We have been talking about doing a Worgen pack for like three years (laughs). The world of Warcraft has such a rich IP. It is super deep. It has been going on for many years through so many games. There are a lot of pieces that are exciting for us. There are still lands and pieces to explore. There is really no end in sight for us. We are very excited to bring things to life both mechanically and theme wise.
MMORPG: You have so many tools to choose from, what drives you on a new idea is it theme or card mechanics?
Ben Brode: Sometimes it is the blending of mechanics and theme. With Witchwood, the Worgen have a great mechanic in their identity, they switch forms, right? That was one of the things which was exciting to us was to see how that worked out in Hearthstone. The Worgen are an archetype for us in the new set and they swap attack and health each turn that they are in your hand. One turn they are a 2/4 next turn they are a 4/2. If they have a 4/4 on the field you really want the 4/2 so you can have an effective trade. If they have two 2/2s on the field, you want the 2/4. So, holding that card when it is the right stats for you is interesting. It also delivers on some of that Worgen fantasy of shape shifting. That brings in a ton of different designs and that inspired us to kick off the journey on a Worgen set. It was that transformation fantasy. We knew that was a ripe area for exploration in mechanics as well. Those are some of the more satisfying sets to work on.
MMORPG: With all these updates, how do you manage the competitive nature of Hearthstone? Do you look the change the competitive scene with each expansion?
Ben Brode: We do want to have the meta game change when a new set comes out. It is why we release new expansions because the game is more fun when it evolves and changes. There are new challenges for deck builders and figuring out how to play certain match ups. We want to make sure we are releasing powerful cards. It is why we do these Standard rotations, so the Standard environment is changing all the time. We make sure there are new problems for players to solve. Sometimes we get it wrong (laughs) we have a lot of testing. We have top Hearthstone players in the studio to try to test the boundary of things. Like how to build the fastest rush decks or the greediest control decks. How to make the different combo decks in the game. Sometimes stuff slips through, anyway right? (laughs) Then we come back and have to nerf stuff. That is the best part about being a digital game is we can do that if we have to.
MMORPG: If something does slip through, what is your plan to fix that?
Ben Brode: The first thing is what do we want to nerf? There are a couple feedback avenues there. The first is player feedback which weighs heavily. One of them is also back end data. We look and see what the play rates are etc. It is interesting because sometimes we look at what the player feedback is for something and the data does not support it. A good example recently was the Rogue Quest. We nerfed it and made it require more minions to trigger. That deck was not significantly powerful. It was like our seventeenth most powerful deck. If you are going to nerf something, maybe it should be one of the top sixteen most powerful decks (laughs). We decided to nerf that because of significant player feedback that the deck was not fun to play against. So, even though there are multiple sources of input, probably the most important one is player feedback. Even though sometimes we get feedback and the meta shifts and players can adapt. I think Mechwarper from Goblins vs. Gnomes was a good example of a card that we received feedback on that it should be nerfed, and players ended up going in a different direction. We did not nerf it. It is tough to see where things will be self-correcting when new sets come out, or where we have to step in. That is where we rely on feedback.
MMORPG: How is the future for you guys? Do you have a stockpile of ideas in vault or do you have a ton of R&D going into the next expansion?
Ben Brode: It comes in a variety of ways, we sit in front of a room in front of a board and we say, what about this expansion? What about a Worgen expansion? (Laughs) For years someone put Old Gods on the board. Eventually it is time and we say yes let’s do Old Gods. We have a lot of things on the list of places we want to explore. There is definitely a backlog of stuff we are excited about too.
MMORPG: What are your favorite series of cards in the game? What gets you to snicker on the other side of the screen?
Ben Brode: I think it is two questions right. Which cards provoke in me the “Ah gotcha!” response or what are the cards that make me feel smarter when I play them. Right now, I play a lot of Deathrattle Hunter. The Play Dead card is great to trigger Deathrattle. There is the Terrorscale Stalker who is a 3/3 that will also trigger a minion’s Deathrattle. I like Meat Wagon and Devilsaur Egg. I play Validated Doomsayer to offset the Meat Wagon. That deck is super fun for me, I really enjoy playing it. The card I most like trolling people with is Spellbender. When I play against Paladins and they play Spikeridged Steed and my Spellbender gets it, that is very satisfying (laughs).
MMORPG: Hero cards have been a fun game impact. What are you doing with Witchwood?
Ben Brode: With Frozen Throne we put out some hero cards that changed your hero in the game. They gave you a more powerful hero power and maybe some additional armor or cool battlecry effect. We are bringing that mechanic back. There is one hero card in the set who is Hagatha the Witch. She is a Shaman hero. The focus of the set is a shaman hero. It has been great for us because sometimes there is a story character that we want to draw attention too. We had a bunch of legendary minions in the set, so making sure Hagatha was more significant in this set was difficult. So, this new concept of Hero Cards really helps put the focal identity on the set which is very useful for us.