Discussing the past, present and future identity of Shaman with Team 5.
I recently published an interview with Team 5’s Lead Initial Designer Peter Whalen and Lead Final Designer Dean Ayala, discussing the design process behind Hearthstone’s latest set, The Witchwood. As part of that conversation, we also chatted about the state of Shaman and where the team would like to take the class. I cut it from the first piece (for length reasons), but found it pretty interesting, so here it is, published separately. Enjoy!
PLEASE NOTE: This interview was conducted a few weeks ago but I held it until after the post-nerf meta settled, and until after E3 had come and gone.
IGN: Let’s chat about Shaman broadly. The class has dabbled in quite a few different identities over the years, maybe more than most other classes. You tried some freeze effects, originally it was Overload synergy, some totem synergy, and now we’re looking at battlecries and random spells and things like that. First of all, what do you think the identity of Shaman is now and where would you like to take it in the future?
Peter Whalen: So all the classes do a bunch of different things. They have a bunch of archetypes. We actually have a list on our whiteboard of – here are build-around type things that all of the different classes can try out. Shaman had Rumbling Elemental that played with Battlecry stuff. They’ve tried out totem synergy, Overload synergy. There’s a lot of different things in the Shaman pie, the things that Shaman can play with.
“Shaman as a whole, the fantasy is that you are a spell-casting fighter. You have weapons and you’ve got spells, so you got an axe in one hand and you’re casting lightning bolts in the other.” – Peter Whalen
Shaman as a whole, the fantasy is that you are a spell-casting fighter. You have weapons and you’ve got spells, so you got an axe in one hand and you’re casting lightning bolts in the other. You’ve got healing stuff. In World of Warcraft, they were very much this jack of all trades that played really well with your party type totem buffs and also casting cool spells and hitting things with weapons. And so that’s the fantasy that we want to capture. Battlecry really plays into that. Battlecry minions are minions that cast a spell. When you play a minion, it’s casting a spell as it’s doing it and that’s exactly the Shaman fantasy that we have.
And so, these are the various directions that we want Shaman to play in. We want them to cast cool spells, maybe with Overload. We want them to do buffs and totem type stuff. We want them to play with minions that are fighting the opponent. We like Murlocs in Shaman. They feel very natural because a lot of the Murlocs in World of Warcraft do Shaman type lightning and that kind of spell, and so it’s a very natural space for Shaman to play in. I think like with many of the classes, Shaman are going to play in a bunch of different spaces but right now, Battlecries are a good example, tokens with Bloodlust is a good example and they’re doing a bunch of totem stuff in part because they can do Genn and the Hero Power.
IGN: Does the Shaman Hero Power prove problematic from a design point of view? Does it weaken the class as a whole at all? Having RNG baked in?
Peter Whalen: I don’t think the Hero Power restricts us, the Hero Power’s quite cool. It’s another variance on the Paladin Hero Power but a little bit more interesting. It naturally lends itself to swarm type strategies where you’re doing things with Dire Wolf Alphas or Bloodlust or Flametongue Totems which I think is cool. And it pushes them in that direction but it also lets them be this sort of jack of all trades, do several different things. You do have a small damage totem in there. You’ve got the healing totem that helps you out if you’re doing some bigger minions, or some taunt minions. So I think there’s something very interesting about [the idea that] you hit the Shaman Hero Power and you’re not 100% sure what you’re going to get but you do know that it’s going to be a minion and you’re going to be able to take advantage of it in a minion type way.
“One of the issues that we had with Spirit Claws back in One Night in Karazhan was that you wanted the spell damage totem so bad that it felt like there was more randomness than I think it feels like there is today.” – Dean Ayala
Dean Ayala: We probably won’t make a bunch of cards that you really want a specific totem. I think one of the issues that we had with Spirit Claws back in One Night in Karazhan was that you wanted the spell damage totem so bad that it felt like there was more randomness than I think it feels like there is today.
I think a lot of times when you get a totem, what you really want is something to Flametongue, or something to buff, or something to Bloodlust. The fact that there is some randomness there, it’s not super high impact randomness. Like sometimes you’ll be facing down lethal and really want the taunt totem. But as long you’re not really hoping for the same totem over and over again, and it really feels like the one out of four was a huge deal every time, I think that situation might be a little bit negative but I don’t think that we’re there right now.
And in terms of the Shaman Hero Power strength in general, I certainly don’t think it’s much weaker than any of the other Hero Powers. It’s actually one of the stronger ones.
Peter Whalen: I don’t think it’s wildly stronger than the others, I don’t think it’s wildly weaker than the others.
IGN: What do you think about Overload as a mechanic now? It must be interesting, four years down the line, to still have some of these fundamental mechanics that were built out under really different conditions or different expectations. And Overload is cool in a lot of ways but that drawback can be pretty punishing, particularly if it’s a high power level meta for Hearthstone, because you can’t print anything too ridiculous with Overload but the drawback is significant in terms of turn planning and curve.
Peter Whalen: Overload’s pretty cool. It lets you get something very powerful now for a cost in the future. Which is a nice skill-testing trade-off. Personally, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last few months is – what’s the most interesting version of Overload? I think in a lot of ways, having large Overload costs relative to the cost of the spell, tends to be more interesting because you get a meaningful power upgrade right now in exchange for a meaningful cost in the future, rather than just a small power level upgrade now. I think there’s a place for small Overload cards, or cards with small amounts of Overload, that’s also interesting, but I think in general, the bigger Overload costs tend to be more satisfying.
“I think in a lot of ways, having large Overload costs relative to the cost of the spell, tends to be more interesting…” – Peter Whalen
I think that the small Overload costs, in particular are cool when you’re going to combo it with something else. It’s like one mana Overload (1) and you can combo with something cool, I think that’s a great space to be. Lightning Bolt’s a good example of that. But I think especially for the expensive cards, something that’s like five mana Overload (1)’s not super interesting. But something that’s like five or six mana Overload (3), you can get a lot of power out of the Overload (3) and the cost on the future turn is interesting but not debilitating. So I think that’s a pretty healthy place to be. That makes Overload an interesting mechanic.
IGN: Do you think you’d also explore cards that take advantage of Overloaded crystals again or that kind of idea? To round out the synergy as a whole?
Peter Whalen: Absolutely. I think we’ll definitely do “Overload matters” cards again in the future. We’ve taken a little bit of a break because we had some very powerful Overload matters cards, Tunnel Trogg in particular, but it’s a core Shaman mechanic. I think there’s no questions that we’re going to do cards that care about Overload again, at some point.
Dean Ayala: And we did the Overload cards that cared about [Overloaded crystals] – Lava Shock and the two mana 3/2 [Eternal Sentinel]… Unlocking your Overloaded mana crystals is kind of cool too. Maybe that’s something we would also explore.
IGN: Let’s talk about the most impactful Shaman card in Witchwood – Shudderwock. It’s a super cool design. Was this always a Shaman card? This effect? Give me a little bit of background about this one.
Peter Whalen: It was. This one is actually straight from somebody’s head into the game. I think the numbers shifted a very small amount as time went on but this is almost exactly as the card went into the sheet originally.
Dean Ayala: Yeah, it was like a nine mana 8/8. I was like, that’s a lot of 8/8’s. (Laughs)
Peter Whalen: It was maybe a ten mana 8/8 and we moved it to nine mana 6/6, something like that.
Dean Ayala: It was pretty close to how it originally went in there as a Shaman card because we think of Shaman as one of the classes, maybe with Rogue as well, that’s doing Battlecry stuff. So it’s sort of a natural fit with Shaman. I think the name changed quite a few times.
Peter Whalen: A lot.
IGN: Was that card in from the very beginning of initial design on the set, or did it spring in fully formed a little bit later on? How did that impact the rest of your thinking around the set?
Peter Whalen: It was pretty early on in initial design. I’m not sure exactly when but that card was in the set for a very long time. And it’s a cool card. You build a deck entirely around it and you do some very interesting things. So we did put some Battlecry cards in the set that were particularly cool with Shudderwock to play around with it. There’s the deal three damage, get three life back for you hero [- Lifedrinker]. There’s a couple of cards that are particularly interesting if you’re playing a Shudderwock deck.
Dean Ayala: We talked about Shudderwock, maybe more than any other card over the course of the set. We knew going in that it was very risky. We just kept playing it. We kept having a lot of fun playing it and it was a lot different than every other card. And then also from a development angle, it was a lot of resources to put together, a lot of nuances with the card like from the engineering side that required a lot of support so we had to be very sure that this was something that we wanted because it was going to take a lot of time on the backend.
“We talked about Shudderwock, maybe more than any other card over the course of the set.” – Dean Ayala
IGN: Interesting. So, coming into the launch of the set, where did you feel it was power level wise?
Peter Whalen: We thought the OTK deck that kills your opponent in one turn was quite weak. We thought that there was a Control Shudderwock Shaman that was pretty reasonable. Not tier one, but pretty reasonable. I think it ended up being in that place.
Dean Ayala: Yeah, it’s somewhere in the tiers – tier three or something like that, but it’s very fun. So in decks that are really fun and a lot different, they just tend to get played a lot more than decks that aren’t.
Peter Whalen: It’s almost like one of the lessons that came out of that is, I was personally surprised by how much people played the OTK Shudderwock deck especially early on, despite the fact that it didn’t win a lot of games. It was just so much fun that people really played a lot with it.
Dean Ayala: People like to OTK as it turns out.
Peter Whalen: No matter how weak you make the OTK, people are going to play that.
IGN: And Shudderwock as a whole is being refined now as well. The current builds are quite different and they’re less about the OTK.
Peter Whalen: And that was what we anticipated. Less the OTK and more of this Control Shaman variant that sort of evolved.
IGN: Cool. Let’s touch on the animation length issue. I think people in the community were a bit surprised that the card made it into the live game with potentially an issue that large. How did that come about? Why wasn’t the animation length addressed before launch?
Peter Whalen: There’s a couple of things going on there. One of them was that we anticipated people playing it more in the Control Shudderwock variant because that was the more powerful deck and that plays a lot fewer – 1) Shudderwocks and 2) Battlecries before the Shudderwock. So you’re less chaining a whole bunch of one cost Shudderwocks and playing 800 animations and more you’re playing three or four Battlecry animations with it which the shipping version was great at. It was very clear. It was very direct. And it showed exactly what was going on.
“I was personally surprised by how much people played the OTK Shudderwock deck especially early on, despite the fact that it didn’t win a lot of games.” – Peter Whalen
There’s a trade-off between animation speed and clarity with the card. And so with Shudderwock, we were leaning on the side of – we want it to be absolutely clear to your opponent what’s going on because it’s only playing a handful of things. And so the deck got popularised, played lots, and lot, and lots of Battlecries. It didn’t win very often but it made for very, very long turns. So that’s what we wanted to step in on.
So we made two changes. One is, we sped up the animation speed a lot by cutting out steps that were not as important. There was a glow around the Shudderwock when he triggered each piece that represents Battlecries happening, all Battlecry minions do it. We cut that piece out. We sped up how fast the big cards show up. It shows Saronite Chain Gang or Lifedrinker, exactly how fast that happens and whether the animations happening along with it. So we lose a small amount of clarity with it but speeding up that animation, that was very, very important for what people were actually doing. Shudderwock shipped with a cap on the number of animations that happened, it was 30, and so we moved that down to 20 because there were a very, very, very small number of people that were griefing by doing long, long Shudderwock turns and so being able to reduce the amount of grief you could cause to your opponent without impacting any of the regular gameplay, even in the OTK Shaman deck, seemed like an upside to us.
Big thanks to Peter and Dean for their time! And be sure to read the rest of the interview here!
Cam Shea is Editor in Chief for IGN’s Australian content team and – four years on – still isn’t very good at Hearthstone. He’s on Twitter.