Team 5 on bringing back Elise and Hemet, on balancing Sherazin and on Lyra’s place in the “tricky Priest package.”
Hearthstone’s latest expansion, Journey to Un’Goro, has been a huge success. From a broad perspective it introduced a raft of new mechanics and synergies, like Quests, Adapt and Elementals. You can read all about how Team 5 went about designing those elements here. Focusing in, however, there are just a heap of great cards in this set, including returning characters and brand new ideas. I asked senior designers Peter Whalen and Mike Donais about the design process behind some of my favourites.
IGN: Let’s talk about Lyra the Sunshard. I love this card, and it feeds into what you were saying to me ages ago Mike, about the tricky side of Priest. Along with Radiant Elemental, Lyra opens up a whole lot of space for Priest to play in. And what I like about it is not just the fun of Miracle Priest – going off Gadgetzan-style – but finding ways to use the cards that you’re given. You’re often given cards you’re not going to run in your deck, but can find ways to make them work. How did this card change during development? What did it look like initially?
Peter Whalen: We were talking about, at some point, pretty early on in development, as to what Priest’s identity should be, and one of the things we were talking about – probably around when you were talking to Mike – was that we want Priest to be one of these trickier classes, and so when we said that we sat down and said – okay, what are the tricky things that we can do in Priest? Let’s make them more spell-based, and actually, at that point Radiant Elemental and Lyra went in, basically fully formed. Shadow Visions went in too, though at one mana instead of two, but final design fixed that, so those three cards basically went in and we said ‘this is the tricky Priest package in this expansion’ and they got some more tricky cards actually as time went on, with Curious Glimmerroot and some other stuff, but they actually saw very little iteration. I think Lyra’s stats didn’t even change. It just kind of worked out this way.
Mike Donais: Actually Lyra went up one mana. She was a four mana 3/5 for a long time and we were like – oh, she’s better than she looks, let’s add one more mana – and we played her to make sure she was still good, but this was definitely something we’ve been working on for a long time. We knew that we wanted to make one of the Priest builds a really tricky, fun, do lots of crazy stuff, make a lot of hard decisions, and I think we finally realised it with the release of Lyra and all these other cards that came out in this set. And I think hopefully we’ll keep doing that with a bunch of tricky cards and maybe it’ll get out of control because it’s harder to balance those types of classes, but we’ll put it out anyway.
IGN: In terms of the tricky Priest identity, what do you think the ideal balance between proactive and reactive is? Control Priest back in the day was very reactive – you could have a handful of cards and nothing to do with them, but I like that with Lyra you can put that on the board and start digging for options. Shadow Visions is reactive but it lets you find the answer you need in that specific situation. And then a card like Free from Amber lets you react to the board in a decisive kind of way.
Mike Donais: Well, I think the reason that we make multiple types of Priest is – for the people who want board presence and a tempo attack deck, they can play Dragon Priest or Elemental Priest or Deathrattle Priest, but for the people who want to be reactive, and enjoy that play-style, we give them spell-heavy Priest with Pyromancer and Lyra and let them do all their tricks, whether it’s Auchenai Soulpriest and Circle [of Healing] or other tricks. And if we put enough tricks out there they [can] decide how they want to build their deck themselves and how they want to combine those cards together, so it makes a lot of different gameplay for different types of players.
IGN: True. Another card I want to touch on is Sherazin, Corpse Flower. This is the first set that has allowed something to be on the board, taking up a minion slot, without any way to interact with it. I feel like people were pretty sceptical about whether Sherazin would really work, but I’ve certainly played a bunch of games against Rogues that are able to revive it multiple times. It seems strong. What are your impressions?
Mike Donais: I love it. I love how it turned out. I like that it ended up being playable, and not crazy. It turned out, to me, at exactly the right power level. And it’s really fun to play. When you’re playing Miracle Rogue or any Rogue deck and you’re trying to make the decision of – well, I’m going to play two cards at least, do I want to work in these other two, even though it’s not optimal to play them, because I’ll also get Sherazin back. They’re exactly the kinds of decisions that we want to put in the tricky Rogue decks and the tricky Priest decks, so the people who enjoy that playstyle where you’re making tonnes of decisions every turn, can play that deck and benefit from it.
IGN: And how difficult was it to get the stats and the mana cost and the number of cards played per turn right?
Mike Donais: It changed a lot. He was cheaper for a while. He had more stats for a while. He needed different numbers of cards. He ended up being more powerful than he looks, so we had to balance around that. You sort of saw that when people just read his text box they underrated him. It’s sort of the same thing – before we play a card sometimes we don’t guess right, but we have the advantage of – we get to play it, and that’s what we do! We wanted to make sure, we could have made him more expensive and have three cards to come back but after a bunch of testing we decided, no, four cards was the right number. It also means you might build your deck a little bit around it, you might put in cards that add cards to your hand, and there’s a bunch of options for that in Rogue. Making him just a little bit build-around like that felt right to us.
Peter Whalen: It was nice that she combined so well with the different thorns cards in the set. You have a couple of different ways to add extra cards to your hand, and then, when you play them they bring back your Sherazin, and it makes her more awesome, and I think that’s pretty cool.
Mike Donais: People have called it the ‘plant package’ where they play some thorns cards and Sherazin. It feels very thematic.
IGN: In terms of Sherazin going dormant, and having things on the board that players can’t interact with – what was the genesis of introducing that to Hearthstone?
Peter Whalen: This was a final design card. The Rogue legendary we had before didn’t work out quite that well, and at some point someone pitched – let’s have a card that, when it dies, if you play four cards in a turn it comes back. We had no idea what the UI was going to be for it. It was just going to go off to the side somewhere and then maybe come back. There was a pitch that it would turn into a little plant, sitting on the board near your hero power and it would just, like, hang out there. And then we talked to our UI guys and they come up with this solution, which I think ended up being great. Our UI guys and our effects guys worked together to make something that I think has ended up [being] really cool. You have the leaves that show how far along she is in coming back, and then it flips over – you have the seed and it comes back. It worked out really well.
Mike Donais: When we identified the idea that we wanted a new Rogue legendary, a bunch of people pitched legendaries and not only was this guy one of the pitches, another one that was pitched at the same time was what eventually became Curious Glimmerroot. We wanted something very tricky and steal-y and Curious Glimmerroot is like – oh, I’m looking at your deck and making a choice and stealing a card from it. We knew that both Priest and Rogue were our tricky classes that had hard decisions to make and eventually Curious Glimmerroot moved to Priest because we thought taking a card from your opponent’s deck made more sense in Priest than in Rogue.
IGN: Interesting! Let’s talk about one of the faces of this set – Elise. How difficult was it to find the right way to bring her back? Her first design was so cool, and I think you’ve equalled it with this new Trailblazer card.
Peter Whalen: We iterated on her a lot. There were a lot of different designs… some of the things we tried were – Discover a Quest, then shuffle some helpers into your deck, so if you got the Warrior Quest you’d get some, like, 1/3 taunt minions in your deck, if you got the Warlock one you’d do some discarding, so that was one of the designs, but it actually made Quests less cool, I think, because instead of building your deck around it you just found it off of Elise, but it still had that sense of drawing though your deck and seeing what happened.
And at the same time that we were kind of figuring that out, we decided to cut the Priest reward. We decided that it wasn’t exactly enough for a Quest reward. And the Priest reward was an Un’Goro pack, and so at the same time that we had this Un’Goro pack that we really liked, but it wasn’t powerful enough and didn’t do the right thing for finishing the Priest Quest, we had to figure out where to put it, it was kind of a natural fit for Elise – she’s exploring this new terrain, she’s in this crazy crater, and what is the coolest possible treasure she could find? The answer, of course, is a Hearthstone pack! What is a cooler treasure than a Hearthstone pack? So we put that in your deck and that’s what you find.
Then we played that a bunch and it turns out just opening a pack isn’t that great in the context of a game – you were getting so many commons and lower rarity cards that it just wasn’t that interesting within the context of a game where you found this awesome treasure, so we made the pack much much more heavily weighted towards rares. It’s a pretty reasonable chance of getting a legendary. I think, in expectation, you get around one legendary per pack, which is insane, so often you get more than that, occasionally you get less, but you’re always guaranteed at least an epic, but I’m actually really happy with how she turned out. She’s seeing a bunch of play in some of the different decks – some Paladin decks, some Mage decks, and of course, in Priest decks, where you’re getting lots and lots of extra packs with Shadow Visions, which I think is really cool.
IGN: Just going back a little – the Un’Goro pack was tied to the Priest Quest?
Peter Whalen: Yeah, so at one point the Priest Quest was – ‘Start your turn with no cards in your hand. Reward: Un’Goro pack.’ So super unusual for Priest, because they never have no cards in their hand, so we said – alright, you’re building a totally different deck, and it was cool, but then we moved to a different paradigm for Quests and the Un’Goro pack it was kind of a ‘draw five cards’ type thing, which was cool, but not enough for what the Quest rewards needed to be, so they moved to something totally insane, where they get a five mana 8/8 taunt that also heals them to 40. The pack wasn’t quite enough so we moved it to a card that has smaller requirements for getting it.
IGN: It’s fascinating hearing the background around designing the Quests. They could have been so different.
Peter Whalen: Yeah, we iterated a lot on Quests. That was one of the biggest focuses of initial design, was figuring out what Quests meant and how they were going to work, and anything and all about them.
IGN: While we’re talking about returning characters, I’d love to hear a little bit about designing Hemet, Jungle Hunter. This is a pretty interesting card. Did you guys have very specific ideas about how you thought it would be played? And are the community testing out the things you had in mind or are they taking it to different places?
Mike Donais: I love cards like Hemet. When you read him you’re like – holy cow, that’s crazy! I’m not sure what I’m going to do with him yet, but I’m going to try out a bunch of things and put him in different classes and figure out some crazy stuff to do with him.
He is the kind of design that worries me the most when I’m in final design, trying to balance cards, because I have no idea which deck he’s best in, I have to play a lot of decks to find out what he’s even reasonable in and then iterate on all those decks, so there’s a lot of work involved, but he’s such a cool text box and such cool gameplay that I want to make cards like him. I watched Disguised Toast do a stream where he was playing Hemet and Molten Giants and Holy Wraths, and he would delete everything from his deck and just go Holy Wrath out a Molten Giant. It was crazy. It was pretty fun to watch.
IGN: Haha yeah I saw that too – very cool. So did that text box come fully formed? Or did the number change around a bit?
Peter Whalen: That was exactly the number that we put in the sheet to see what would happen, and then it just kind of worked out. We thought about some different numbers, but it just kind of works. Three’s a pretty good break point, you’re destroying all your early game. Once you get to four mana cards they have some late [game applications], these are actual big things that are in your deck, so that felt pretty good. But also, if you wanted to do some kind of crazy combo, like you’re destroying your whole deck except two cards, having just one, twos and threes and Hemet and your combo felt like it was enough. You could actually build a deck that was interesting and meaningful. We kind of got lucky there, with the number, it worked out okay.
IGN: And then Mike had to playtest it for two weeks straight.
Peter Whalen: For a hundred games or whatever it was! And then we had to remove other cards in the set.
Mike Donais: One of the cards that I liked that we had to get rid of was this two mana minion. The idea is that you play him early game and he would take the most expensive card in your hand and shuffle it back into your deck. So I liked him because if you got a bad draw, you played him on turn two and he would get rid of your expensive guy and you’d draw a card for that. You’d replace it with a random card from your deck, basically. And so, it felt pretty elegant, it felt pretty safe. You’re just smoothing out your draws, and then, Holy Wrath came along, and you could do that with Molten Giants, either because you’ve drawn 29 cards – you just play this and play Holy Wrath and your Molten Giant would hit your opponent or you could Hemet and Molten Giant with it if you wanted to speed that up.
IGN: Wow! At what point did you catch that interaction?
Peter Whalen: I think, like, week two of final design – they said ‘you cannot possibly do this’.
Mike Donais: Yeah, we were like ‘which one of these cards should we change?’ We had to discuss whether Hemet or this guy would have to go, and we decided that Hemet opens up more experimentation and deck building than this guy did. And this guy, even without Hemet, was a little bit dangerous, because you could just play 29 turns and then play him.
Peter Whalen: Some day! Some day he might come back!
IGN: What was the name of that card?
Peter Whalen: Excited Lookout.
IGN: Rest in peace, Excited Lookout.
Cam Shea is senior editor in IGN’s Sydney office and spends too much time obsessing over CCGs. You can read the rest of his interview with Mike and Peter here. He’s also reluctantly on Twitter.