Stepping into the plaid shirt of Blizzard's outgoing creative director, Ben Brode, must have been a daunting task, but it doesn't seem have to have phased Ben Thompson (though he has clearly upped his beard game since his most recent set of headshots). Previously the team's long-serving art director, Thompson's first expansion as franchise lead is Rastakhan's Rumble, announced at BlizzCon last Friday. Despite some audio goblins on the day, plus an accidental leak from this site for which our future mulligans will be forever cursed, Thompson was in good spirits when we sat down to talk with him.
Rastakhan's Rumble is partly inspired by World of Warcraft's recent Battle of Azeroth expansion, in the sense that it also leans in hard on trolls for its gladiatorial theme. (Nobody mention The Grand Tournament.) The set also promises a new keyword, Overkill, which rewards players for showing off, and more free singleplayer content in the form of Rumble Run—the latest variant of Hearthstone's popular PvE deck-building format. But in terms of flavour, the most important cards are likely to be the Loa and Spirits. "They are the combination that is really at the centre of this set," Thompson confirms.
The Loa are powerful gods which manifest themselves as animals, represented by a legendary card for each class. Each Loa also has a spirit card it synergises with, though these will be rare minions, meaning you can include two copies in your deck.
Of the Loa, so far we've only seen the Paladin card, Shirvallah the Tiger, which costs a whopping 25-Mana initially, but can be discounted heavily by casting spells. It looks powerful but also slow like furry molasses. Hopefully Shirvallah will seem more playable once we've seen the associated Spirit card. Right now, Rogue has the only revealed Spirit card, which is Spirit of the Shark—it has a strong-looking effect that is likely to trigger flashbacks to the era of Brann Bronzebeard.
Interestingly, Thompson tells us that not all the Loa use a high-cost mechanic like Shirvallah's. The Spirits do function similarly, in that they're all 0/3 minions which have Stealth for a turn. "You're guaranteed to get the benefit of that Spirit, at least for a turn or two before your opponent can get rid of it," says Thompson. "We found that Stealth helped it stay long enough that you felt good about putting it in your deck to begin with." When Rastakhan's Rumble goes live on December 4, all players will get a free Loa and two copies of its accompanying Spirit as a log-in reward, which means we will immediately get to experiment with one class's new toys.
Thompson insists that Loa/Spirit combos won't be so obvious that the decks that house them will effectively build themselves. "We’re very sensitive of making sure that we don’t design things in a certain way that telecasts to a player what they should be doing or shouldn't be doing or chasing after when building a deck or collecting the cards," he says. In that sense, the Loa are less like the Old Gods and more like the Death Knights in that you can include them in your deck without having to build every other card around their presence.
Loa aside, each class will also be getting a legendary Troll minion. It's far too early to say which will make it onto our tier list of best legendaries, but Hex Lord Malacrass looks to be a potent tool in any value-driven Mage deck. His Battlecry effect adds another copy of the cards in your original hand to your current one, which has interesting implications for what you keep or toss at the start. "You immediately have to think about the Mulligan in a different way," says Thompson. "Other than himself, the only thing it doesn't copy is the Coin, because that’s just cheating."
As for the new Overkill mechanic, which grants a bonus effect for killing a minion with excess damage, Thompson says it's very gladiatorial. "Vibe wise, it felt like a really good set to introduce a sense of styling on your opponent. It’s the idea of 'I’m not just going to beat you, I’m going to do so with a flourish and a dramatic overplay.'" Overkill can be applied to weapons, spells, and minions themselves, and the fact it's easy to understand and plays into something you want to be doing anyway—killing stuff—makes me optimistic for its chances of sticking, unlike Inspire, which relied on players using their hero power, which generally speaking you'd rather not be doing.
Where I am a little worried, though, is whether Rastakhan's Rumble is the set Hearthstone needs right now. Since the cancellation of the planned tournament mode, which Blizzard confirmed in September, there's been a noticeable sense of disquiet in the community about the lack of more fundamental changes to the way Hearthstone is played and watched. That mood has been compounded by the fact that the previous expansion, The Boomsday Project, didn't really do enough to shake up the metagame of its predecessor, The Witchwood, with tweaked versions of the same decks largely still dominant.
Thompson seems confident that Rastakhan's will have a more dramatic effect. "It’s unlike any other set we’ve done to date, so I think it stands to offer quite a bit of change to meta and the kind of decks that people can build." He points to the Overkill mechanic as one part of that, and also cites how unique and varied the effects of the new legendary Troll minions are, along with the Loa and Spirits, as reasons to be hopeful for a radically different meta. The fact remains, though, that Rastakhan's follows the same release pattern that Hearthstone players have become very familiar with: 135 new cards, a new keyword of two, and some thematically-defining legendaries. No surprise, really, given that Blizzard is working on up to three sets at any one time. Change isn't going to come immediately.
When asked whether he's happy with the cadence of how Blizzard releases cards, Thompson notes the benefit of the current schedule versus the old system which alternated big sets with smaller adventures that were even less likely to make meaningful changes. Nonetheless, he accepts that the initial rush of experimentation with a new release is inevitably followed by a certain amount of staleness setting in. He highlights the addition of free PvE content, like Boomsday's puzzle mode, as a way of alleviating some of that frustration, and also says the internal conversation about how to avoid fallow periods is ongoing at Blizzard. "We’re exploring all sorts of different ideas," he says.
"If we’ve proven anything with Hearthstone, it’s that we’re very willing to experiment and try new stuff. We are aware of and have talked a lot about the cadence. We like how many cards there are, the cadence is something that we continue to still talk about with an ear towards the community and listening to what they are saying as well. I’m confident we can land on something that continues to bring Hearthstone to players in way that they’ll enjoy for as long as possible in the three months [between releases]."
With the vast majority of the cards in Ratskhan's Rumble still to be revealed, the next few weeks should give us a better sense of how much the Year of the Raven's final expansion is likely to affect the current meta. Later down the line, I hope Thompson's leadership delivers more dramatic change in terms of new formats and modes, particularly with Artifact now looming large and focused on delivering as competitive an experience as possible. But much as it's always tempting to hang out with the new kid on the block, you write Hearthstone off at your peril.
Only this week the game passed the monolithic milestone of 100 million players, and dished out a bunch of free packs to celebrate. The opponent might be Valve, but Blizzard isn't likely to shy away from gladiatorial combat to keep the top spot. And that should be good for all of us who love slinging cards.