Hearthstone Curse Of Naxxramas interview: "We're keeping an eye on" Zoo

Tim Clark

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Tomorrow sees the second wing of Hearthstone's Curse of Naxxramas expansion opening its mouldering doors to players around the world . So now felt like the perfect time to talk to Blizzard about the current state of the game and what we can expect from it in the future. I nervously approached the giant ebony coffins of senior game designer Ben Brode and production director Jason Chayes and asked them about the new cards, how close they came to nerfing Leeroy, what's going to be done about the seemingly unstoppable Zoo onslaught, and whether we'll ever get more deck slots.

PC Gamer: Are all future card releases going to be in this staggered, adventure format, or is there going to come a time when you could just drop 60 new cards into the pool in one hit?

All members of the dev team have their own (sadly, non-playable) cards

Jason Chayes: We have a bunch of different ways that we're excited about releasing cards in the future. We're definitely keeping a close eye on how Naxxramas does and what the player response to that is. We feel excited about doing more adventures in the future, but beyond that we have other ideas to do more traditional expansions and even potentially other ways to release cards that we're still kind of in our earliest phases of design on. You can definitely expect to see other ways beyond adventures for putting out new cards.

PCG: What's your favourite combo in the new Naxx cards, and what sort of deck do you use it in?

Ben Brode: For me, probably anything with Baron Rivendare is my favourite, especially in combination with Reincarnate, the new Shaman spell. When you can set up some Deathrattle minion and then play Baron, which doubles the Deathrattles, and then reincarnate that guy—you just end up with a ton of copies of whatever you're reincarnating and it's super fun.

JC: You can do some pretty cool stuff with Echoing Ooze and the Blessing Of Kings or Defender of Argus. That's a pretty fun one when you think of the ways you can really leverage the duplicating ability there.

PCG: Before Naxxramas a lot of people were saying 'everyone's going to run a ton of Silence', but there still aren't that many cards with Silence in the set. Is that deliberate because you wanted to see these new cards being played and used, rather than being snuffed out?

It seems fair to say Ben's not 'the quiet one' on Team 5.

BB: Yeah, I would say that's definitely deliberate. Silence is a useful tool. In general, whenever there's a dominant strategy, you want to have tools in the card pool that players can use to counter that strategy. I think there's already enough Silence cards to do that, and so you can go play the [Ironbeak] Owls and the Spellbreakers if you need to, but we didn't need any more tools for that in the metagame.

PCG: People generally seemed able to clear the first wing in Normal in about an hour, was that in line with your expectations?

JC: I think in general a lot of players have been able to make it through the wing relatively quickly. That was by design. We wanted to make sure that anybody who unlocked one of the wings had the clear ability to get access to the cards. It was a design challenge for us to figure out how we were going to be able to have this cool new way to acquire the cards without making it so that it's frustrating. Normal mode was created in a way that anybody who wanted to should be able to get access to the cards.

PCG: I saw one writer complaining that he felt the Heroic mode was unrepresentative of what you might face in Constructed—but that seemed like the whole point to me. They're almost brainteasers that you pit yourself against.

BB: Certainly. Especially Maexxna was absolutely a puzzle for the Heroic mission. There are some missions that are a little bit more skill based—but puzzles are really fun and different to playing on the Ladder. If you want a really hard match of skill, the Ladder is a great place for that. We can explore new places in the single-player Heroic missions, and puzzles are a fun way to experience Hearthstone.

Even Maexnna Sea Giant proves no match for the Zoolock.

JC: It was never our intention in terms of the design of the Heroic missions in particular to make it so that one all-powerful deck that you use in Constructed can make it through all the various bosses. One of the things we wanted to incentivise was that people would have a reason to go back and construct new kinds of interesting decks, and that's part of the intent behind the various Heroic bosses. You're really thinking about what this boss does and what tools are in your card collection that could help you defeat this interesting challenge you haven't seen before.

PCG: It's interesting you mention the competitiveness of the ladder. I wrote a piece about the stress I feel while laddering, and often I'll go and just beat up the Innkeeper for a while because I find it relaxing. Did you feel you needed to flesh out the single-player side for people like me?

JC: We had that feedback a lot, and we wanted to make sure that going through Naxxramas did actually speak to people who wanted to try out a bit more of a single-player experience. Naxxramas isn't really designed to have a full campaign as you might think of in other games, but more as a way to try a different way of playing and see what people think about it. We feel pretty good about where we ended up, and we're excited to do more things like this in the future.

PCG: In terms of the new cards, some of them seem like obvious responses to the dominance of a couple of decks—I'm thinking of Miracle Rogue particularly—so at what point as a design team do you feel the need to intervene in the metagame to fix things that are perceived as a problem?

BB: Basically any time a deck gets very frustrating to play against, what you're actually feeling is 'I don't know what to do about this. There's no card I can add to my deck to feel like I'm crushing this type of deck.'

"Oh you've played Ragnaros? Cool." *Yoink*

If you're playing against Control Warrior and you're a Priest, you can think 'Maybe I'll put Mind Control in' or something. For Miracle Rogue, specifically, I think players felt like they didn't know what to do against it. And so we just in general want to have tools available so that if you're seeing a lot of Miracle Rogues you can tune your deck specifically to beat Miracle Rogue, maybe at the cost of being a little worse against some other deck, but then you know what trade-off you've made and feel empowered and maybe less frustrated.

So it's almost not even related to the power level of the decks that you're playing against, it's more about the tools that we give you to feel like you can tune your deck based on what you're expecting to see on the ladder.

PCG: Pre-Naxxramas, had you become concerned that there wasn't enough minion playing and trading happening? A lot of the cards in this set feel like they're designed to encourage more minions on the board and more interaction between them.

BB: I think that that type of gameplay is really fun: trying to figure out do I attack the enemy hero or trade these minions, and how do I set up this series of actions to get myself into the best board position for next turn. I think that's very interesting, and so there's definitely a lot of cards in Naxxramas that can stick around a little longer with Deathrattles summoning new minions. We're going to see how that type of environment plays out over the next couple of weeks.

PCG: If there was any card that was going to be nerfed in the Naxx patch, I wouldn't have predicted the poor old Eaglehorn Bow. How close did you come to changing Gadgetzan Auctioneer or Leeroy Jenkins?

Hopefully he'll no longer be offering the best deals in town. Because he'll be dead.

BB: We definitely discussed lots of different options. The reason we didn't change those cards is because we felt like we were introducing new cards in Naxxramas that give players tools against those types of strategy. So we'll see if we have given players enough tools. Maybe there'll be more tools in future updates and maybe we'll nerf a card again sometime, but right now we're excited about seeing what happens as the new cards are released and where things shake out at the end of it all.

PCG: Let's talk about the elephant in the room, or should I say the Doomguard. We're only one week in, but far from stemming the tide of Zoo it seems to have opened the floodgates. I've seen people complaining that they're facing 70% Zoo on ladder. Miracle Rogue is a deck that's played well at the top of the ladder, but often misplayed lower down, whereas with Zoo the decision making is comparatively easier and I think a lot of people find it frustrating to constantly come up against. I decided to join them rather than beat them and instantly went 8-3 with the new version of the deck. Quite a few people were conceding on turn three or four rather than seeing the game out. Surely that has to be a problem for you as a design team?

BB: I'll say that there's a couple of cards coming up in the Military Wing that I think are very strong against Zoo in general. So we're keeping an eye on things, but I think it's too early to say what effect Naxx has on the meta. Certainly we know what effect the first wing has had, but it's going to change dramatically as different cards are released.

One of the new Naxx cards which may stem the Zoo tide. Or be used by them.

PCG: But isn't the problem with Zoo not any one card but the Warlock Hero power itself? I heard Reynad [the player widely 'credited' with popularising Zoo] say he thinks that the Hero power will have to be changed at some point because as long as there are efficient small minions in the game, you'll always be able to run this strategy—and some of these cards which feel like anti-Zoo tech cards, such as Deathlord, will also probably play well in Zoo. They'll chuck down a 2/8 Taunt on turn 3 and build their board behind it. It strikes me as hard to come up with solutions.

BB: Sure. I think we'll see how it goes but it's not something we're planning on changing right now. Once Naxx is all out and we see what the meta is like we can think more about it at that time, but there's a lot of change coming in and who knows what the big decks will be at the end of it.

PCG: Okay, I'll leave the Zoolocks alone for now. What's the logic behind not having any neutral weapons currently?

BB: One of the things that's interesting about making a deck is choosing which class to start with, and when the classes have things that are unique about them it gives you some interesting hooks like 'maybe I'll choose Warrior because they can use weapons', or 'Mage can't use weapons but they can use freezing'. So giving classes hooks that are unique, that they get to mess around with, is useful for pointing players in different directions and also making classes feel different from each other.

PCG: A few cards stood out to me in the new set—Spectral Knight, Loatheb and Nerub'ar Weblord—because they all seemed designed to disrupt the opponent's turn. Isn't that against the idea of encouraging interactivity?

BB: A little bit. The important thing to us is that on your turn you feel like you've done really powerful and awesome things, and so we're certainly not excited about taking away your fun options. We wouldn't make a card that makes your opponent discard their cards or blow up their Mana crystals. These cards slightly limit your options, but you could still play an awesome Taunt creature or do fun other things with your deck, and none of them are permanent effects that turn off your fun options. So yes, these are slightly into that territory, but not so much that it flies in the face of the core goal we have of making your turns feel powerful.

PCG: Of the new cards it's almost universally agreed that the Dark Cultist is the standout. That feels like an obvious attempt to buff the Priest class, which is one of the least played. If that doesn't work will you do something different? Is the aim to have all Heroes equally represented?

BB: That is definitely not the aim, partly because it's almost impossible having nine classes with nine different Hero powers and nine different pools of cards be in perfect balance. And, it's fun to have an underdog! I think a lot of players enjoy trying to make a class that other people feel is underrepresented do amazingly. You can just see players like Amaz , who has incredible success with Priest, and so there definitely is the possibility to do great things even when a class is traditionally treated as underpowered.

So I don't that the goal is to have every class be equally powerful. I don't think that's ever going to be possible anyway. But that doesn't mean we can't bring new and exciting cards into the game. Mostly [Dark Cultist] helps Priest play a little differently, be a little more proactive, which is exciting. It'll give you a new type of deck to play as Priest. We're always going to be adding new things to different classes, and so maybe next patch Warlocks will be the weak class and we'll add something for them. [laughs]

PCG: Won't somebody think of the poor Warlocks! I caught a story the other day about a bot program that had been used in Asia to play a couple of decks to Legend. Does that worry you or is it just the nature of the beast with online games?

JC: It's definitely a concern for us and something we take very seriously. We want to make sure that the quality of play on the Ladder is representative of the skill of people who are actually on the the Ladder. So we do have a team here that we're working with to try and identify cases where that's happening, and doing what we can to pull that back out of the pool. But it's one of these things that's an ongoing challenge to us, with our other games as well, because there's obviously a lot of super smart people out there who have a lot of great ideas about ways that they can come up with bots. So it becomes this progressive thing where we make fixes and then new versions come out, but it's something that we're committed to trying to address and pull out of the competitive scene as much as possible.

PCG: At the Numericable M-House Cup in France last month players were able to ban their opponents from using a single class. Would you ever consider implementing that on the Ladder, so players can say 'I chose not to go up against any Rogues'?

JC: We're definitely aware of that format, and think it's really cool. I'm excited about ways we might be able to integrate that into the competitive scene as well. Nothing right now in terms of the Ladder, where there would be a global system that you could ban a particular class from your opponent. At least there are no designs around that currently. But I do think it's reasonable that we're looking for ways to pull ideas like that back into the e-sports scene as it relates to Hearthstone.

PCG: There's the huge tournament coming up later in the year at BlizzCon. Do you expect to have a spectator mode in place, because I'd be keen to watch from within the client?

JC: We're working hard on getting that ready. No specific release time for it yet, but it's one of our main focuses on the team right now and we have some cool designs for it that we'll be rolling out here in the next few weeks probably.

PCG: What's the reason behind only having nine deck slots, is it just to keep the user interface uncluttered? I've ended up with a Google doc with nine different tabs for all the stuff I've shamelessly net decked and I'm constantly having to rebuild my decks. Is there no way we can have more slots, please ?

BB: One of the interesting things about that is that if you look at something similar—I don't know if it's a great analogue—it's bags in World of Warcraft. When you have a 16-slot backpack it's very easy to manage your inventory, but when you have a massive inventory it's more challenging, especially when you come back to the game after a long period of time. We're just worried that players who have 18, 30 deck slots can get overwhelmed and forget which one's which. It gets a lot more complicated quickly.

Nine is a really great number for user interface purposes when you're choosing a deck to use to face someone on the Ladder. And there are tools like Excel or other things you can use to save your decks. You can take screenshots of them. So it's not impossible, but it's a quality of life thing that can also decrease the quality of life for players who are already struggling to remember all the decks they have even with nine.

PCG: That sounds like I'm not getting more anytime soon.

BB: [Laughs]

PCG: Are members of Team 5 allowed to play on the Ladder?

BB: Yes. We even have some very high-level Legend players. Though I don't know what happens if they end up in the top 16…

JC: They're not eligible for participation in the Championship.

BB: Right.

PCG: Statistically, who are the better Hearthstone players: People on PC or people on iPads?

JC: It's really hard to say because one of the things we've seen is a lot of players like to jump back and forth between platforms. We've seen players who are very high level Legend players jumping on their iPad. We also see entry level players on both platforms. I don't know if we have any consistent overall skill level associated with platform.

PCG: I think that's a very diplomatic answer. Thanks for your time.

Check out our verdict on the first wing of Curse of Naxxramas here .

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