Want to know about the upcoming Hearthstone expansion's release date and pre-order bonuses? Check out our guide to everything we know about Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne so far!
Blizzard has their work cut out for them as they work on Knights of the Frozen Throne—Hearthstone's 10th expansion since its initial release in 2014.
While the card game currently enjoys some 70 million registered players, there have been rumblings of discontent of late. Criticism has been leveled at everything from the legendary distribution to the decision to make Journey to Un'Goro's Quest cards legendary. Some high profile players have even quit entirely.
I caught up Hearthstone senior designer Matt Place to discuss some of these issues, as well as what fans can expect from the upcoming expansion, and how they play to go about addressing the Warlock—Hearthstone's most troubled class going into Knights of the Frozen Throne.
What Death Knights Will Add to Hearthstone
Can you tell me about how you guys came up with the idea to make all of the heroes into Death Knights?
Matt Place: We originally started sitting down with the cinematic team and started exploring this, and they had the visuals, we were like "Oh my god, this is amazing, right?" Seeing Frost Lich Jaina, Death Stalker Rexxar... we got super excited, because not only what it meant vibe-wise and story-wise, but also what it meant mechanically.
It made us ask: what does it means if we make each class a Death Knight class. And so Malfurion, which you've probably seen in the key art, he's kind of going the plague path. I don't think I can talk about any of those mechanics yet, but exploring that mechanically and visually was super exciting and I can't wait for people to get their hands on it.
What does being a Death Knight add to Rexxar's class specifically? Like, what are you hoping to really accomplish with that.
MP: So, for his class it actually gives you kind of an angle that Hunter doesn't usually excel at, which is a bit of a "Hey, what is my long game." And the long game for his hero power, which lets you combine two different existing beasts into one new zombeast, gives him some outrageous leg kick.
It kind of gives him a different angle, which is something that I really enjoy, having that option inside of a class of going, "Oh, there's multiple ways to play this class." I can go Face Hunter, which hasn't been nearly as good as it used to be, but that's one way to play Hunter. But now I can also kind of slow down and go, "Okay, what about Mid-Range Hunter? What's my late game?" This new Death Knight hero is a pretty good answer for your late game. And it's just tons of fun.
So now you can hypothetically go a lot more control with the Hunter?
MP: Yeah. It doesn't have nearly the support as say Priest, with Dragonfire Potion and all those options; but yeah, both his Battlecry-dealing two to all enemy minions- and the hero power. Do you want charge so you can go more aggressive? Or do you want taunt? There's plenty of beasts with taunt. It kind of opens up that door, and I don't know that it's going to be the best deck ever, but it's certainly a lot of fun and I can't wait for people to explore it and see where it goes.
That's a lot of the fun of these Death Knight heroes It's a bit like quests in Un'Goro where you're like, "What does it mean to my class to get this? What new decks pop out having this new hero power?"
One of the things that interesting about each class is that each one kind of has its own particular style of play. Are you concerned that you might end up expanding the play opportunities for these classes so much that the differences between them start to break down?
MP: Yeah, that's a great point. Having the division is a lot of the strength of Hearthstone, right? It feel different to play Priest than it does to play Paladin, so that's super important. But it's also important that we're inside a range where we're like, "Hey, this is what this class should feel like right, this is correct for this class in terms of these different deck types." Not all of those deck types exist all the time, as we do rotation in Standard. For example, sometimes we lose certain aspects of a class. Warlock is a great example of this right now.
We have people who say that you can face more than a dozen decks even at high levels on the ladder. That's a lot of our goal here, to say, "Okay, let's keep expanding on that." We're not rotating with Knights of the Frozen Throne, but we are introducing a new card type that could have big impact on what types of decks are viable. So, yeah. Very curious to see how players, where they take it.
Will the Classic Adventures Ever Come Back?
You guys have really shaken up how you approach the kind of story expansion. In the past you would release a wing each week, and with that you would get a certain set number of cards for free. So why are you going with the model that you are now?
MP: It has a lot to do with the vibe and the story that's going on with Knights of the Frozen Throne. Ice Crown and the Lich King was not something that we felt was a small story, so this felt like the perfect opportunity to say, "Okay let's do something ambitious," and do the full 135 card expansion along with the solo missions. It felt perfect to start off with the subject being Ice Crown. It deserved this larger amount of content, which was a big undertaking.
But it also fed into something else that we love doing, which is basically saying how can we make the game more accessible, and just more fun. And so saying, "Okay, we've got a 135 card expansion," helps us go down the path of saying, "Okay, and we can do missions for free." Plus, those missions can give you rewards. You probably heard about the prologue, and we're excited about this. We're giving away a free Death Knight hero to everyone who defeats the Prologue, and everybody's gonna defeat the Prologue.
But just that along with a lot of the other decisions that we've made in terms of giving people access to the new fun, I think had been a good path for us to go down, because more people having fun kind of makes us the guys who are making it feel good, right? We don't want it to be a barrier.
But on the flipside you would previously get all the cards included with the package, and that was nice because everybody had those cards and it didn't feel like you were left behind as much. So, by moving away from that, doesn't that hurt that kind of feeling a little bit?
MP: Yeah, it's something that a lot of people do like. I've enjoyed that. We're trying new things, we're always exploring. So this one we kind of said "Okay, let's do this a bit different." You do get free missions and free rewards, one of which will be the Death Knight hero. There's also new packs associated with it. This is the first time we've done this, so we're gonna be taking feedback.
But the thing I like about this is if you are someone who's like, "Hey, I kind of want some guaranteed content," this does a great job of it for free, right? You not only get to be able to play through the mission, but the rewards are tied to the free missions. I think people will be happy with that. But, yeah, we're gonna listen to feedback and see what people think.
Is there any chance that you will go back to doing the more traditional story expansions like League of Explorers?
MP: Yeah, we don't have any plans specifically on what we're gonna do. We're kind of waiting for feedback, but I don't think anything's off the table. Personally, my expectation is this gets a lot of good positive feedback because it's got rewards, and it's free, and the writing and the missions are super interesting. The writing, by the way is hilarious, unbelievably funny. I think people are gonna flip their lids over where we've taken the Lich King. It'll a lot of fun.
The New Legendary Distribution
With the new expansion you're changing the balance of the legendary distribution a bit. Is this kind of an acknowledgement that there's so many legends, and they're so important to the metagame that it's just like, people need to get more of them?
MP: Yeah, it's in line with what we were talking about with giving away one of the Death Knight heroes, right? We want to see what is fun and how we can increase the fun. And saying to people, "Hey, you're not gonna get any duplicates," is appealing. I mean, that sounds good to me as a player.
So once again it's one of those things I love that we're doing right. And as you probably know, the other big piece here is that you're guaranteed in your first ten packs to get a legendary, so combine that with the prologue, right. People are going to be able to dip their toe and experience legendaries right away, because you're gonna get a lot of free packs just by playing the missions and getting rewards. So, yeah, I'm pretty excited.
My own experience has been that if I need a legend for a deck it's a giant barrier because they're so expensive to craft from dust and everything. And more than that, legendaries only give you 400 dust. I've seen plenty of people say that's just not enough dust. What are your thoughts on that?
MP: I think that part of it is the fun of collecting, right? Like, progressing your collection is a lot of fun. That's a lot of the fun of a card game. So I think that the system has kind of shown that it plays pretty well into that. I love watching when Trump, and I don't know if you watch many of the streamers on Twitch, when they do the, "Okay, I'm gonna play for free and see what I get." And my mind is blown. Like, on Day 2 their decks are so good, it's like I guess they're really good at the game, but it kind of shows, right?
It's fun to watch not only to see them do those and have success but to see them progress. When they get a new card that's exciting for that deck all of us that are watching are like "Oh yeah, that's great." That's also part of the fun. So I think the system does a good job of not only rewarding people just for playing, but also giving you the feeling of, "Yeah, level up. I just got this legendary that I want, and it feels really good."
What aspect of Un'Goro do you feel worked best and how have you built on it for Knights of the Frozen Throne?
MP: Great question. Elementals and quests are probably the two biggest things that said there's a wide range of decks you can feel good about. That you can build towards something and feel like "Yeah, this deck can really make an impact on the ladder or kicking my friend's butt," or whatever. So that is a big piece of Knights of the Frozen Throne: new themes that are viable, exciting, and fun. Not just in the Death Knight heroes, though the Death Knight heroes will be a big part of that, but also on individual cards.
I don't know if you played The Curator, but I love that card. Finding cards like that that kind of says, "Oh, there's a whole new deck you can build around me." And you can iterate. Like "Oh, which murloc do I want in this deck, or do I want any murlocs?" I love cards like that. So that's a big focus for Knights of the Frozen Throne.
Fixing the Warlock
So, one of the other stories of Un'Goro was that the warlock had a really tough time, obviously, and I know that one of your goals always is to have at least a couple like viable opportunities for each class, maybe at a lot of different levels, and warlocks seemed to suffer at all levels. Can you give me an idea of what exactly happened there?
MP: So, Warlock hero power is often the most powerful hero power, right? Drawing cards in a card game is obviously very, very good. So the balance team looks at that and says "Hey, how can we cause this, you know, kind of wave," in terms of maybe it peaks here, and it dips here, and it peaks here. So, with any expansion one of the classes is gonna fall, which is also what happened to Hunter. Oh, there's still some good decks in those classes, but that's just part of a card game, right? There's going to be this ying and yang.
For Knights of the Frozen Throne, without giving away any spoilers, I'll say one of our focuses when we are creating each of the Death Knight heroes is kind of exploring, "Okay, what aspect of Death Knight do we want this class to focus on?" We kind of talked about Malfurion going on the plague part, right? And obviously Jaina is going down the frost, right? That was one of the runes the Death Knights had access to, so she's the Frost Lich.
For Gul'dan we're exploring the blood rune. What does that mean, right? How do you take Gul'dan and make him evil while he's already super evil? So, we said, "What if we made him a different type of evil." He kind of goes down this different path of the blood rune, and without giving it away, it plays super well with the class. Obviously all the Death Knights upgrade your hero power, so his new hero power is kind of, you know, down that path of like, "Oh this is exactly what Warlock needs." So, I think people will be excited to get their hands on it. And I'm excited to see what it does for Warlock in the Tier One meta.
When I was reading the recent Reddit AMA by Ben Brode, he mentioned that he really likes Handlock, and he would really like Handlock to be a more powerful archetype again. Do you guys kind of feel like that's the main direction you want to go with Warlock?
MP: Well we've been talking about we want to push multiple directions. I think Handlock is one of those, one of those solid directions that Warlock can go. I also think that it's nice for the game because it plays so differently than a lot of other decks. There's control decks, but Handlock is kind of neat in how it's different, right? In how you're kind of playing with fire as you're taking yourself down to 16, do you have ways to recover from that? Make sure you don't just suddenly get [one turn killed]. So, I think it's healthy for us to keep exploring that and, you know, giving it tools when it makes sense. Yeah, we'll see what Knights of the Frozen Throne does for it.
One of the things that you guys have kind of like emphasized over the past, god probably three years, going back to Goblins and Gnomes was like that you're okay with RNG, like RNG is not a bad thing and there's been a lot of criticism on that front. How do you feel about that, and are you going to just keep going "No, we're fine with this path," going forward?
MP: So, there's lot there, right? RNG isn't fun, right? I think the answer to that is pretty clearly "yes." It's fun to go, "Okay, let's see what happens," but I think it is at its most fun when it's this controlled version, right? Aa lot of people list Discover as their favorite mechanic. I certainly love it. I think it's one of the best mechanics ever devised. And it's not RNG in the sense of, "Oh, let's see who wins. Who knows, throw your hands up in the air." It's very skill tested. You still have to pay for the card, but there's so much skill in there while still being random.
So that I think is a great example of RNG at its best. I think a design we would never make, but I think it's a great example of terrible RNG, is flipping a coin. It's super throw your hands up, no skill involved whatsoever. So there are versions that we would pull back from, and getting feedback from the community on that has also affected how we design RNG cards.
But yeah, finding cards that give you new scenarios and new ways to test your skill I think is the best version of RNG, and I think there's more ways to do it that just Discover. The Curator has randomness, for example. Like, am I gonna get the eight drop dragon or am I gonna get the four drop dragon? I really need the four drop, or maybe I need the eight drop. Well, I could have changed my deck, I could have just included the eight drop dragon and guaranteed it. But I have reasons why I didn't.
So controlled RNG and skill testing RNG is certainly something we're gonna keep exploring. It's a card game, so you draw off the top and you don't know what you're gonna get. That's clearly part of the core mechanics to the game and it's very fun, but we're watching out for unfun version of RNG, or too powerful game decider RNG.
Looking at where the metagame is right now, how do you feel about the balance between very aggressive decks and more control oriented decks? Are you happy where that is right now, and how do you want to approach it going into the new expansion?
MP: We're super happy with it right now. Having a wide range of decks and just different themes: mechanical, elemental. Can I play elemental, can I do the things that are cool in Un'Goro with previous sets? That's super important and awesome. But at the same time, if we didn't change it up with Knights of the Frozen Throne, that would be a mistake. Even though Un'Goro is phenomenal, I'm excited to see where Knights of the Frozen Throne kinda changes it up and takes it new directions. And once again we want to ask: do you have aggressive decks, do you have control decks, do you have mid-range decks, do you have wacky decks? I think Knights of the Frozen Throne will do some good in that area too.
The different Death Knight heroes can be a big impact on like how you want to play, right? We're talking about Gul'dan and Rexxar. When you have a hero power that you can use turn, after turn, after turn, that tends to be better if there's a lot of turns, which means you want to play maybe a mid-range or slower deck. So I think we'll see a push from that from a lot of the Death Knight heroes.
There's also some aggressive cards for if you don't want to go down that path. There are aggressive cards in the set that'll push the other direction and maybe foil your opponents attempts to use their hero power a whole bunch, which is when the meta is the most healthy. So, yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing how the meta is affected, but having big shakeup and new things happening is our goal with each expansion.
Over the last expansion things have felt a little unsettled in the fanbase and in the media. Some of the key points of criticism have been that the grind is extremely punishing to be able to get new legendary cards, to be able to put together viable decks, that RNG was still maybe a little too emphasized... those were a couple of big ones. One of the more high profile stories was a top player saying "I am leaving Hearthstone and going over to Gwent." What can you say to the fan base that will kind of reassure them that Hearthstone is on the right path going forward, that will address their criticisms?
MP: Something I love about the Hearthstone team is how the focus is on the fun, right? When there's conversations with my boss and Ben Brode, and everybody who is, you know, making all the big decisions and all this, we're never talking about anything that's like, "How do we get bad RNG into the game." You know, it's always this positive like, "What's gonna be fun, both in terms of the gameplay itself, but also the things surrounding the gameplay." The free missions and the rewards and whatnot. I love that not only is that the focus, but we're always listening to feedback and making changes.
So, I think to people who are curious, "Hey, what's going on Knights of the Frozen Throne," I'm actually very proud of this list, right? First ten packs guaranteed legendary, and by the way that will be true, you know, in the future as well. Having one of the Death Knight heroes be a guaranteed reward, and giving all the other rewards inside of the prologue for the Death Knight hero, et cetera.
I think this list is something that you can showing somebody who's worried can really get them going, "Wow, awesome, this is good stuff," and the proof will be in the pudding, right? A month after this is launched, you know, hey where is everybody at? Are people having a lot of fun with their new legendaries? Especially these guaranteed legendaries. And I think the answer will be yes. At the end of the day it's a collection game right, that's a lot of the fun, but upping that rate and guaranteeing that you don't have those unfun moments. Like, that may not happen to you, but the person who gets the third copy of a legendary might be like "Ah, I already have this legendary twice." That won't happen anymore. So there's just tons of ways that we're upping the fun for people, and I would point them to the list of new, fun-focused ideas in Knights of the Frozen Throne.
Knights of the Frozen Throne will be out in August.