Hearthstone devs talk new expansion, how to improve Battlegrounds without breaking it, and the problem with Priest

Sorcerer's Gambit art

Each of the mercenaries returns in a new form for United in Stormwind. Here's Varden Dawngrasp burning the old meta down. (Image credit: Blizzard)

Another card I really like the look of is Darkbishop Benedictus. It's one of those unusual Start of Game effects that you don't tend to do very often, and this one puts Priest into Shadowform from the get-go. Is that part of the desire to find an alternative direction for Priest that may be quicker to end games?

CG: I think that's definitely part of it. Anyone familiar with Priest in World of Warcraft knows that they are two sides of the coin with Shadow and Holy. With the introduction of spell schools in Forged in the Barrens, Priest was always going to have access to both types of spells. Holy Priest has been the way we've explored Priest in the past by nature of their base hero power. Shadow Priest was really something we wanted to dig deeper into. 

Baku and Genn in the past… everyone's got their opinions on them, but I think there is inherent excitement for Start of Game effects. Legendaries that change the course of how an entire game will go are really cool and they're something that we've explored internally a bunch of times. In this case, the requirement is quite high—you can't play any Holy spells or any untyped spells in your deck. Everything has to be Shadow. It really says that you're committing to the Shadow Priest deck, but now you get to deal damage right off the bat. 

How does that change your gameplay, what do the Shadow spells look like, and what do we have to make as designers to accompany Darkbishop Benedictus to make it a deck that not only our players want to play because it's exciting but also can play because it's a valid archetype? It's just really cool to have that completely different design space.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

What have these decks been looking like in testing? Are they more tempo-based and board-centric? 

LB: Well there's removal like Shadow Word: Death and there's some Lifesteal as well… I think if you look at Shadow spells in the past, it's going to feel kind of similar to those sorts of things but fleshing it out and giving them a little bit more to work with. And of course, going face a little bit more than we're used to doing with Priest.

Staying with Priest, I've seen commentary that there are a surprising number of players conceding on the spot rather than sit through a marathon game. How do you feel about where the class is sitting at the moment?

LB: It's interesting for sure. If we look back at Rez Priest, that deck is really fun... for the person playing it. It's important that we have decks that are for those sorts of players, but we want to make sure that the people playing against them aren't tearing their hair out. If we look at the previous year, there's the "generation priest" where you're creating a huge amount of spells. I think that's something we're moving away from and will probably tone down going forward—or at least putting a number on the upper limit of spells they're going to be able to generate over the course of a game. But Shadow Priest is super different—there are cards like Insight for Shadow, but generally they're pretty forward moving, looking to directly do stuff to the opponent, and that's the goal in this expansion for Priest.

CG: Priest decks have often dealt in extremes. You either have a ton of resurrection and healing or you deal a bunch of damage really quickly… 

Or you're dead on turn 4. 

CG: Yeah [laughs]. It can be somewhat difficult to find that sweet spot. We've found it in the past and we're maybe slightly over right now, but I think the gameplay at the core of Priest—and I'm gonna get called a sadist for this—is fun! I don't hate Priest! 

I can hear a lot of Grandmasters taking to their keyboards.

CG: "This is why she doesn't cast any more!" Nah, we're gonna find that sweet spot for Priest. 

Tikilord Ragnaros is one of two new fully-voiced alternate barkeepers coming to the Battlegrounds mode. (Image credit: Blizzard)

Let's switch gears and flip to Battlegrounds. The mode is finally getting cosmetics. What will it take for BGs to actually come out of beta? What's the next step?

CG: Honestly there's a lot that we'd love to do with Battlegrounds. Cosmetics are just the tip of the iceberg for the art potential that we see and some of the ways that we think players would love to personalize their own games. For it to come out of beta… that's an internal conversation and something that we've been discussing what exactly constitutes taking the tag off. We feel that BGs currently is very enjoyable and something that our players really, really love. There's a lot that we would love to be able to do with it. We're looking at hiring people for the BGs team, we're doing these cosmetics, and we have plans to do more... It'll happen some day!

LB: Yeah, one of the challenges for Battlegrounds is that we found this core thing that's super fun and different every game, and there's so much randomness going on. We don't really want to mess with the core gameplay, and making it more similar to constructed Hearthstone feels wrong so we definitely don't want to do that—leaning into the cosmetics is really important. These are ways that people can interact with Battlegrounds if they're really big into the mode and can get packs that really let them show their own personality. It allows us to keep the core gameplay the same while being able to put more resources towards battlegrounds so we can keep doing these content drops. 

There's also a big minion shakeup coming to BGs. Can you give us any clues about what direction you might go in?

LB: So we're changing up which minions are in the pool. You'll see gameplay styles change from minion types, you'll see heroes come and go — well, I don't know if they're going so much as being adjusted, but we'll have some that are coming back that may have new effects. The idea is "what would a Standard rotation look like for Battlegrounds?" and what are we going to do to change the way the game plays. 

CG: We have a couple of heroes that haven't been in the game for quite some time now. I know everyone wants their Galakrond achievement that they may not have gotten before we took him out—he'll be coming back along with Trade Prince Gallywix and Maiev, who we'd recently taken out. We made some adjustments to her and I believe those are all coming in 20.8. We've got a bigger shakeup coming after 21.0 is released.

Is Tirion ever coming back?

CG: I've been asking that for so long!

I loved Tirion!

CG: When we put out the neutral Taunt package, I said "You know who would really love this? My buddy Tirion!" Conor Kou at the time said no… I'll keep trying, but right now, we have no plans. 

Can you talk at all about how the resource split between BGs and core Hearthstone works? You mentioned you were hiring at the moment—can you give me a feel for what the Battlegrounds group looks like?

LB: We're a little under where we want to be at the moment. We want it to be about the same size as Initial and Final Design, so between 4 and 6 people. 

And we have to mention that there's a new bartender in town. 

CG: There are a couple of new bartenders in town! In the beach party bundle, we've got Ragnaros, Tiki Lord coming. It's important to note that the bartenders are fully voiced the same way Bob is. If he wants to take a couple days off, that's fine and Rag can come in and tell you that you're doing great, insects! He's probably not going quite so positive, actually. He'll be purchasable with the Beach Party bundle and then with the Shadowlands bundle we're going to have Ve'nari, who's a prominent character in Shadowlands. She'll also be purchasable on her own while Rag will only come with the bundle.

Ve'nari is the only member of a race called the Ve'nari. She's the one and only and is very unique, which is one of the reasons we had to get her up there as a bartender. She's a cool character. 

LB: Yeah, she's like the arbiter for lost souls in the Shadowlands and she kind of sends them where they need to go. 

I kind of want a bartender to be more harsh than Bob. "You suck, pick it up!"

CG: You might like Ragnaros, Tiki Lord, then. That's the tough love, hot-tempered bartender that you're looking for.

Here's the new board for United in Stormwind. (Image credit: Blizzard)

Cora, you're one of the newer members of the team. What's something you thought about how cards were made that ended up being completely untrue?

CG: I have an interesting story in that I genuinely didn't know how card design worked. Of course I had my ideas but coming into the team… I guess the whole process of everything and that the creative work and the balance work is separate even though there is still creative work within the balance work. It just wasn't a world that I had been exposed to. It's been a wild almost two years since I joined the team. How long it takes for a single card to go from inception to actually reaching our audience has been the biggest surprise.

LB: And Cora's gone from Final Design to Battlegrounds to Initial Design so I think she's probably seen most of the entire card design process. I'm really glad she's back on the Initial Design team—the cool team!

CG: They are cool! I like them very much.

I envision the teams snapping their fingers at each other like West Side Story. 

LB: And then we pass off our card design ideas and they cut them all down. There's the tradeoff. 

Look, I made it Sword of the Fallen as a 1/3 but I didn't think Final Design would ever keep it as a 1/3...

—Cora Georgiou

Can either of you give me an example of what you thought was a great card that you brought to the team and they said "no, that won't work at all"?

LB: So I came on in Knights of the Frozen Throne and one of the cards I had was this 10 Mana mage spell. The dream was to make it silly and fun—it filled the board with random minions on both sides. It sounds really cool, but in practice, your opponent gets initiative before you and it's just not good. I think we ended up shipping a similar version on Yogg where your minions gain Rush. 

There's kind of a meme among some of the pro players where they like to blame BoarControl [once a Grandmaster pro, now also an associate designer on the Hearthstone team] whenever there's a card they think is broken. What can we actually blame him for legitimately?

CG: I mean, I made Sword of the Fallen…


Look, I made it as a 1/3 but I didn't think Final Design would ever keep it as a 1/3, so technically you can blame Boar for that. Though actually I don't think he was on the team yet… 

The Paladin players were delighted with that card.

CG: I was delighted by it! Look, Secret Paladin hasn't been a thing for a very long time, it needed quite a good package of cards to become a thing… and it was a thing! 

What's the sleeper class with this set?

LB: I really like Mage this set. Mage is super cool, Rogue's got some new decks that we haven't seen so I'd look out for those too. 

CG: I think internally I've been playing a lot of Warrior when we're testing future sets and I've been including the Questline in that quite a bit. That's probably my favorite Questline of the bunch. It's very fun.

How's Demon Hunter looking? People were initially skeptical of the Deathrattle Demon Hunter that's ended up being pretty good. Have you tried anything new here?

LB: Yeah, it's tricky! We launched DH with two pretty good decks but we didn't really have a great stable of cards so when we wanted to build up a new archetype we had to give it a whole bunch of new stuff like when Deathrattle came around. Even Final Design was skeptical and said that Deathrattle DH wasn't a thing… but we needed to make it a thing. It's building from the ground up a lot unless you're leaning on one of the older designs—which isn't a bad thing, but I think we could do a better job of that going forward in the future. 

United in Stormwind is out on August 3. 

Tim Clark

With over two decades covering videogames, Tim has been there from the beginning. In his case, that meant playing Elite in 'co-op' on a BBC Micro (one player uses the movement keys, the other shoots) until his parents finally caved and bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. These days, when not steering the good ship PC Gamer, Tim spends his time complaining that all Priest mains in Hearthstone are degenerates and raiding in Destiny 2. He's almost certainly doing one of these right now.