Hearthstone: Blackrock Mountain interview

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Hearthstone's second PvE expansion, Blackrock Mountain, is on the way. I had a chance to play a small section from its first wing, and talk to lead designer Eric Dodds. Much like Tyler at PAX, I acted as a conduit for Tim's piercing questions on a variety of topics.

Structurally, Blackrock Mountain will function a lot like Curse of Naxxramas, with a new wing opening each week for a total of five wings. The first of those wings is Blackrock Depths, and the first boss is Coren Direbrew. In a short demo I was able fight him using some of the expansion's new cards.

It was fun. Direbrew's hero ability is "Pile On!", a 0-mana spell that draws a random minion card from each of our decks. In our game, this was frequently to Direbrew's disadvantage—my pre-built hand frequently throwing out minions that outclassed his. Nevertheless, I like that the ability is about personality more than utility. Direbrew wants to brawl, and that means adding minions regardless of whether it's the sensible thing to do. (In the Heroic version of the mission, he'll get two minions for the player's one.)

My play revolved heavily around the new card Grim Patron. If it survives damage, the card summons another Grim Patron. Playing Mage, my hero power allowed me to cheaply chip away a single health, thus slowly growing my Patron collection. Against a human, this could be easily countered, but between that and Pile On!, my board quickly filled—taking out Direbrew with ease.

Eric Dodds

Eric Dodds

PCG: In Curse of Naxxramas you unlocked Kel’Thuzad at the end of the final wing. Does that mean Nefarian is the final boss rather than Ragnaros, as Ragnaros is already a collectible card?

Eric Dodds: We have some twists and turns coming up, so we don't want to talk too much about who the final boss might end up being or what your path to get there might be. I think that there's going to be a twist and turn there, and also some cards you might not expect to see that I think people will be surprised about—as well as the cards that are playable by Ragnaros and Nefarian and all those characters. I can't go into it too much, but I think there's going to be some fun there to be had.

PCG: People seem to be struggling with exactly how the Road to Blizzcon point system works, and still feel like it favours popular streamers getting invited tournaments. Can you explain the idea behind it?

Eric: How it works is you're going to get points from doing a variety of things, and those points are how you get invited to the qualifier that'll get you to Blizzcon. You can of course get points just from playing in ranked play each month, and I believe it's the top 200 legends that are going to get points towards to getting into the finals. You can also get them from the big tournaments.

I'm not as involved on the esports side, but I'm fairly certain that all of these big tournaments are required to have a certain percentage of their players be not invited, so that there's a pathway for you to play your way into these tournaments. It's important to us that everybody has an opportunity make the route to Blizzcon. Through the open invite aspect, everybody has a path through the big online tournaments, and everybody has a pathway through ranked play as well.

Hearthstone Blackrock Mountain Axe Flinger

PCG: With Naxxramas, Ben Brode admitted afterwards that not handing out all the Class cards at once felt unfair. Will that be done differently with Blackrock Mountain?

Eric: The class cards are still coming out slowly. Not all of the cards are coming out at one time. In a lot of ways that's what's fun for us, that over the period of five weeks various classes are going to have a chance to shine. It's like, the first week, 'oh my goodness, this card is out.' For a week it's very exciting for a specific class, and some other class is like, 'why don't we have anything yet?' You know that it's all going to be balanced at the end of the five weeks, and cards are going to be out for all classes. By slowly giving them out over time, and having various classes getting things over time, it makes for a more diverse experience over those five weeks. I certainly agree, over the path of those five weeks different classes at different moments are going to have the woo-hoo moment where they're very excited, or the 'darn class X, if only my card was out yet.' But soon enough—the next week or the week after that—it will be out.

PCG: So you want players of other classes to be planning their response?

Eric: Exactly. That really does dig into the changing meta, and the changes over the five weeks. We really do love that, because the players who want to build a response to that are deck builders—the players who get to own their decks at that time and can't just go, 'what does streamer X say I should be playing?' Nobody knows what they should be playing. It's the wilderness at that point. They figure out what the best deck is and then, at the end of the five weeks, things start to settle down a little bit. Although I have to say, the high level metagame based on Goblins vs Gnomes is still changing. There are still decks that are coming into high level play that haven't been seen as much. Even after all this time they're still changing, it's just the changes have slowed down a lot.

PCG: How careful are you having to be with ‘power creep’, and will a widely agreed bad card ever get buffed to bring it in line with other ones.

Eric: It's certainly something that we pay a lot of attention to. We're always looking at the cards and asking how good is this card against other cards. Our intention is not to put significant power creep in the game. [In response to a question Tyler asked], I think Doctor Boom is just a very powerful card at a seven drop, where we didn't have a lot of neutral power at that point generally. In general, we're being very conscious about power creep and not trying to introduce, 'this set of cards is better than the last set of cards.' We're trying to make it be about in line, and just give you different ways to play, rather than giving you a bunch of new, powerful cards. I certainly can say that very often when I'm playing in ranked, often I'm playing decks that are all the cards from the original game and they're still fine. I still do quite well with them.

Hearthstone Blackrock Mountain Rend Blackhand

PCG: The mechanic of targeting cards based on rarity, as Rend Blackhand does, is interesting. Are there other cards in the new set with abilities based on rarity and is it a mechanic you expect to expand on?

Eric: That is not a mechanic that we're leaning into right now. That's more something we're trying to see how it plays out. The big mechanic [for Blackrock Mountain] has to do with dragons, and cards that have to do with whether or not you have a dragon in your hand. Those are the mechanics we're playing with. There are a number of other mechanics that were just like, 'we'll put one card in here. Let's just see what happens.' We don't really want to lean into it, but there could be something interesting there.

PCG: Another interesting new idea is Battlecrys triggering depending on what other cards you might be holding, what do you like about the way that works?

Eric: We're doing that specifically with dragons. We love the idea of 'hey, I put an Alexstrasza in my deck but I don't get to play it until late game, so I can't build a deck around it.' We were trying to figure out what would be a great mechanic for allowing you to enable other things to happen—a mechanic of if you're holding [a dragon], give a card a Battlecry or make a card more powerful. It's structured so that it allows you to have a big card in your hand and play these less powerful cards that become more powerful cards.

After we talked about that and liked that idea as an enabler, we also really liked the information that gets transmitted when you play that card. If you play the card and it does the Battlecry, I know you have the dragon. Or if you play the card and it doesn't [activate] the Battlecry, I know information equally well. I know you probably didn't want to play that, because you wouldn't want to play something unless it's getting the enhanced effect. Maybe I know you're on the ropes, which I wouldn't otherwise know. There's just a lot of interesting information that gets transmitted that way. Mostly it came from us wanting to support, 'I have this awesome dragon in my hand, I'm going to get to play it some day, I just need to make sure I'm able to get there.' That created the mechanic.

PCG: There’s been discussion about the way you choose card backs, as well as the infamous deckslot problem. What ways would you like to see the UI evolve and are there plans for an update to any parts of it?

Eric: That is a large question. Certainly, speaking about card backs, they definitely feel like a collectible and we definitely have some ideas we're kicking around to have a system that embraces them more as a collectible. Nothing that we're talking about yet, but we certainly have some ideas around it.

Relating to deck slots, it's certainly an issue we know our community feels very passionately about and we take very seriously. We're also talking through some ideas about improving that situation for players as well. Again, we don't have any specifics right now. For a lot of these things we don't have specifics because we're talking about ideas, and we don't have the final solution yet. We don't want to say 'well, we're thinking about this,' because then people get their heart set on that, and then we come up with some other solution. When we have the final solution I think we'll have one that lots of people are excited about.

Phil Savage

Phil has been writing for PC Gamer for nearly a decade, starting out as a freelance writer covering everything from free games to MMOs. He eventually joined full-time as a news writer, before moving to the magazine to review immersive sims, RPGs and Hitman games. Now he leads PC Gamer's UK team, but still sometimes finds the time to write about his ongoing obsessions with Destiny 2, GTA Online and Apex Legends. When he's not levelling up battle passes, he's checking out the latest tactics game or dipping back into Guild Wars 2. He's largely responsible for the whole Tub Geralt thing, but still isn't sorry.