Hearthstone’s Eric Dodds on why new cards need to scare him

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When The Grand Tournament expansion hits Hearthstone next month, it will mark the biggest shake up of Blizzard's game of wizard poker since launch. The influx of 132 new cards—see all the ones revealed so far here—will provide numerous ways for players to alter the signature Hero Powers, plus an army of minions who will use the new ‘Inspire’ keyword’ to trigger benefits (well, usually) each time you spam the Hero Power button. At the announcement of the new set last week in San Francisco, I sat down with game director Eric Dodds to discuss the expansion, plus get his thoughts on potential balance changes, the eternal battle between control and aggro, the success of Tavern Brawl, and, whisper it, more deck slots.

PC Gamer: What were your design goals going into The Grand Tournament versus Goblins versus Gnomes?

Eric Dodds

Eric Dodds

Eric Dodds: Coming into this we were looking at things from a couple of different perspectives. We wanted to have a mechanic that we’re excited about, and we also wanted to a theme that we’re excited about. The Grand Tournament is a pretty fun place for us because we’re springboarding off an existing WoW theme, the Argent Tournament, and taking it to a new space which is fun for us to explore. At the same time we were thinking about mechanically what we wanted to do. We felt like we probably wanted to have a new keyword, we wanted to have cards that can trigger based on criteria that you do, and we want to have the hero matter more, or be able to interact more. And all of those worked out very well with the Inspire keyword, and the idea that we’re going to start messing with the Hero Power.

When we’ve talked in the past about keywords, it seemed like that was something you were kind of loath to add because you’re very conscious of the new player. What makes now the right time to add a new one?

Well, the game’s been out for a while, we’ve had a number of expansions, and some of it has to do with how easy the keyword is to understand? I think Inspire is super easy to understand. It’s not something you’re gonna get lost in. You’ll read it once and go “oh yeah, that totally makes sense”.

You mentioned that you expect players to discover lots of new combinations with how Inspire can interact with the other cards that affect how the Hero Power changes, plus all the existing cards and their mechanics. As a player, I was excited to by that but also a little worried because it sounds like there’s a risk of degenerate combo that haven’t been foreseen. How much can you try to test all of the things that can be done?

We do a lot of testing. We have a balance design team and all of them are easily Legend players and could be competing at the highest levels if they wanted to. So they have good insights when we’re putting together a set. They’re able to quickly jump on issues, so we’re pretty confident that a lot of those cases are going to be caught, but on the other hand there are so many combinations. It’s sort of exciting for us to be putting it out there and going “we think we’re in pretty good shape,” but we also know that there’s an awful lot of players, they’re very smart, and they’re going to come up with awesome interactions. So we’re never 100% sure, but we do a ton of testing with extremely skilled players to make sure the extreme degenerate cases are not out there.

Justicar Trueheart was announced the day after The Grand Tournament.

Justicar Trueheart was announced the day after The Grand Tournament.

With the Hero Power changes, the cards we’ve seen so far represent tweaks to the Hero Power, but will there also be expensive cards that make huge changes?

Over the weeks to come you’ll hear more about it, but certainly there’s a ton of different ways that you can interact with the Hero Power that you guys haven’t seen yet. Undoubtedly there are going to be more cards coming that interact with it at a high power level.

How many of these new cards, roughly in terms of ratio, are going to feature Inspire? How big a thing is it?

It is a big thing. The Grand Tournament is an expansion, which means there’s over 130 cards. So, in Goblins vs Gnomes you saw a fair number of new mechs because there were so many cards for us to explore that space. And in Blackrock Mountain, of course, it’s a smaller set so you saw fewer Dragons in there. The Grand Tournament is a big set, so you’re going to see a lot of cards [using the Inspire mechanic]. And in a lot of ways it also doesn’t require as many cards to explore that space, in that I could see some decks of course being focused around the Hero Power. But I can actually also see a lot of additional decks focused on stuff like interacting with totems. And sure, there’s an Inspire card or two in there that interact with totems, but it’s just a piece of this larger Shaman totem theme. So you can have Inspire decks that have a couple of Inspire cards, or Inspire decks that have a ton of them, whereas if you look at mech decks you always want to have a ton of them in there.

I asked before about how the Warlock Hero Power works, and about the strength of some class cards that lead to combos like Druid’s Force of Nature/Savage Roar, and what both of those things can mean in terms of making the design space tricky for you to add to those classes. How does Inspire and the change to the Hero Power affect that? Has it made it easier for you to design class cards or has it made it actually more of a headache because you’ve got to take those things into consideration?

That’s a tricky question.

Wilfred Fizzlebang Hearthstone The Grand Tournament

Isn’t it? As I was asking it I was thinking “what the hell?”

Yeah, I don’t know if there’s a straightforward answer to that, but whenever we’re adding new cards we have to pay attention to it. I think we’ve been getting better at recognizing what types of cards we can put in the environment and how scary they have the potential of being. And certainly, for instance, anything that has Charge is something we’re going to be paying a lot of attention to, because it has the possibility of exciting things happening around it. So far, I’m not super concerned about the Inspire mechanic compared to some of those others, but on the other hand we’ve yet to see what crazy things the community comes up with—so really that’s a question for when we release and see what actually happens.

To phrase it differently, I would argue that the Warlock power is particularly strong, because we know that card draw is strong, so won’t that class benefit exponentially more from these new cards?

That’s one of the things that is interesting to me, because I don’t feel any of them has explicitly a stronger Hero Power. I feel like they in certain circumstances they have a stronger Hero Power. If you’re not gonna run out of cards, the Warlock Hero Power is terrible, but if you’re playing a deck or in an environment where you are going to run out, it’s much better. And it’s pretty much the same with all of them. When you have board control, the Priest Hero Power is super awesome, and before you have heat on the board it’s kind of bad. So it certainly does create a lot of combinatorics, because all these minions are going to trigger off of the Hero Power.

Our balance team, when looking at these cards, has to go “okay, what does this mean in a Warlock deck? What does this mean in a Priest deck?” But they’re pretty good at looking at the cards and the environment and going “this is where we think these cards are going to be strongest, let’s make sure we handle this environment,” and “okay, Frost Giant costs less each time you use your Hero Power. That’s going to be potentially interesting in Handlock. Maybe that’s interesting in a Hunter environment”. Where it is going to be interesting is where we see something that was not anticipated. Like, maybe there will be a crazy Priest Frost Giant deck. That’ll be really interesting to see.

On the next page: Hunter, Dr. Boom, and Warsong Commander...

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.