Mike Donais on One Night in Karazhan, whether Priest really has a problem, and if Fiery War Axe is the best card in Hearthstone

Priest is in a rough spot that some players are even dropping ol' faithful Northshire Cleric.

PC Gamer: Let’s talk about Priest. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of discussion about the problem with the class. According to the Vicious Syndicate data, it’s barely being played on ladder. There are a variety of issues, from how reactive the core class cards are, to the lack of early game. Is it something you’re looking to fix?

Mike Donais: Is there a problem? When you list the nine classes in order [of power], there will be always be a class that is ninth. It’s impossible for there not to be a ninth class. So in a way, if you call it a problem, then there’s always a problem and it’s not fixable, because there’s always a bottom class. So in that respect, not really, it’s just a matter of which class.

As sets are released Priest will get its day in the spotlight, just like all things in Hearthstone rotate in some way.

But more importantly, it should change over time, right? As time goes by, when a big set gets released, it should mix it up. So I think as sets are released Priest will get its day in the spotlight, just like all things in Hearthstone rotate in some way. I don’t know that a small set [like One Night in Karazhan] is enough to move Priest from class number nine to class number one, but hopefully it’ll give the Priest some new stuff to try out and explore. Book Wyrm has been revealed, and I think that’s a reasonable card for Dragon Priest, Barnes is pretty good in N’Zoth Priest, and there are a couple of other cards like that in this set, where even though they’re neutral, they actually apply to Priest better than other classes. Then of course there are the new Priest cards.

So, do you see Priest not being ninth after Karazhan?

Um, it’s really hard to tell whether the class will be ninth versus eighth. Priest will get some new cards, and whenever new stuff comes out players are going to explore those cards. I think people will try out Dragon Priest with Book Wyrm and maybe The Curator, and I think they’ll try out Deathrattle Priest with Barnes and some other new cards. Whether it’s middle of the pack or whatever after that is up to the players to figure out. I know that some people did make top 20 Legend with Priest this season because they just kept working at it, and I don't think that’s normal but it does happen still.

Flamewreathed Faceless is a 4-Mana 7/7. Seems good.

Masochists! I read an interesting theory from the pro player Impact, who argued that the entire metagame right now revolves around the fact a 4-Mana 7/7 card exists. Every top tier deck has to be able to deal with that eventuality, and then other decks spring up to counter those. But it all comes back to the existence of Flamewreathed Faceless. Do you think there’s any truth in that, or is it an over-simplification?

I’m sure there’s some truth to it, as with all meta calls. Yeah, sure, you better have some way to deal with [Flamewreathed Faceless] hitting the the board, either by killing it with spells or playing your own minions. So of course there’s some truth to that. But I think there’s a lot more going on, right? We’re seeing a more diverse meta than we’ve ever seen. We’re seeing more than ten decks getting played a lot competitively. The win rates of the best decks are closer together than they’ve ever been.  They’re closer to 50% than at any time before. So by any mathematical measurement, this is the best meta we’ve ever had, and I think it’s a good time to celebrate that and be happy about that.

But going back to the Vicious Syndicate data, Warrior is way ahead. It also has a greater variety of viable decks than I can ever remember another class having, with OTK Warrior, Tempo Warrior, Pirate Warrior, Dragon Warrior, C’Thun Warrior, Control Warrior and so on. Presumably because its core set of tools, like Fiery War Axe and Execute, are so good.

If you have a hit with Barnes you can get Cairne or Sylvanas or something. That’s berserk value.

The nice thing about our design theories recently is that we’ve been trying to make cards more specific to individual decks, and more “build around”, so that if a card is really good, it’s good because you’ve built around it properly. There are some cards in the most recent set that do that, like Ethereal Peddler is really good when you play the cards that combo well with it, and Malchezaar's Imp is really cool when you’re playing a lot of discard cards. I think Warrior is benefiting from that, because they have a bunch of good cards, but they’re all good in different decks, and that’s why you’re seeing such diversity. It kind of doesn’t bother me that Warrior has five different decks, because they’re all different styles. The Warrior win rates aren’t any higher than, say, Shaman or Warlock, so power-wise it’s totally fine.

Is Fiery War Axe the best card in the game? In terms of value?

Er, no. Fiery War Axe is not the best card in the game.

What’s the best card in the game?

I’d have to check my notes but I know that Tirion [Fordring] is above Fiery War Axe.

I have the sense that you’re more willing to take risks with the value of cards when they have a lower Mana cost. Are you tempted to experiment more at the higher end?

Barnes

Barnes is going to work best in decks with high value Deathrattle cards like Sylvanas Windrunner and Tirion Fordring. There's also the potential to abuse end-of-turn effects from cards like Ysera and Ragnaros, or static buffs such as the spell damage from Malygos or Brann Bronzebeard's double Battlecry boost.

We do experiment with the legendaries. C'Thun, N’Zoth and Yogg-Saron are great examples of that, but even in Karazhan we have The Curator with his Battlecry that draws a Beast, Dragon, and Murloc—and he has Taunt on top of that. He’s pretty insane value when you build your deck to benefit from him. Even Barnes is pretty crazy. If you have a hit with Barnes you can get Cairne or Sylvanas or something. That’s berserk value.

You recently made it so daily quests could be completed against friends for a week. Did the experiment play out as you expected, and does that mean we can expect to see a revamp of the quest system?

We’re still gathering feedback on how that went, so if anybody has feedback please send it to us. We haven’t decided what we’re going to do with it. It seemed to go pretty well from our initial stuff. I enjoyed it, but it’s still something that we have to talk about and figure out what we want to do next.

My feedback is that the ‘win X number of games with class Y’ can be depressing if you can’t get it done. I much prefer the ‘play X number of minions’ because it feels like you’re constantly making progress even if you’re losing.

Yeah, I completely agree with that. I think we’re going to change the percentages on the win quests to be less common in the future.

What’s the reason for having players drop so far down the ladder each month? It causes a lot of congestion at the start of the season because all the legend players are at rank 16, and also contributes to all the aggro because they look to rank back up as fast as possible. Couldn’t the top players drop less?

When we initially made [the ladder] system we went with a nice, clean, you get one star per rank, because it was easy to understand. But I don’t think people focus too much on how stars relate to the ranks, so I think that your suggestion is a pretty good one. We do like the idea that as you play through the season, a lot of people gain ranks over time and that feels good because you feel like you’re progressing upwards. Say you’re a rank six player, and at the end of the season you went back to rank six, you would just be playing and not progressing at all and that might feel really bad. So hopefully we can try to strike a balance between how far you go back and what the right pace is there.

The Elder Scrolls: Legends biggest difference from Hearthstone is its lane system.

A lot of digital CCGs have spawned in the wake of Hearthstone’s massive success. The Elder Scrolls: Legends feels like one of the more serious competitors. Have you been looking at that game and its systems? Any thoughts on it?

I love playing other card games, I play basically all of them, and I think it’s just good when more people get into card games. I think it helps us, and it helps them, if everybody is thinking about card games and accepting card games as what they do when they get home from work. It’s just a healthy thing. I can’t wait to see what Hearthstone has created because people see its success and copy the good parts of it and make more games. I’m sure I’ll enjoy them.

Finally, as a Druid main I have to ask if you have any regrets over how hard you nerfed Ancient Of Lore? It still seems rough to me to, especially in comparison with Azure Drake which is a neutral that costs two less Mana. You could have just deleted it!

That’s the thing. Druid had so many great, playable cards, that the class just needed to have less of them in the classic set. Druids aren’t really supposed to be about card draw, but they kind of were because Ancient Of Lore was so good. They should be more about Mana acceleration and they just didn’t need that many tier one, goes-in-every-deck cards. Now maybe they’ll get their card draw from more “build around” cards like The Curator or Barnes or something.

One Night in Karazhan’s first wing will be released on 11 August. For our verdict on on the cards revealed so far, check out this gallery.