As of April, Genn Greymayne and Baku the Mooneater will be gone from Standard. For players who’ve grown sick of dealing with juiced-up hero powers, their departure can’t come too soon. Despite only arriving last April as part of The Witchwood expansion, Blizzard today announced that both these legendary cards are being sent to the Hall of Fame a year before they would have naturally rotated out. Since release, Genn and Baku, which require you to build your deck entirely using either even or odd cards respectively in exchange for an upgraded hero power, have had a warping effect on the meta. Once Hearthstone’s new Season of the Dragon begins, they will only be playable in the Wild format, where the Piloted Shredders roam free.
Joining Genn and Baku will be three Classic cards, as Team 5 continues its multi-year mission to remove anything playable from the game’s original set. The cards leaving will be Doomguard, Divine Favor and Naturalize. Of those, Doomguard is the biggest surprise, though I suppose given the design team’s struggles with balancing around Charge minions, we should have seen it coming. Naturalize is getting the boot because Druid isn’t supposed to be a class with cheap hard removal, while Divine Favor has been a staple in ultra aggressive Paladin decks, enabling degenerate card draw against control opponents. As ever, there will be a full dust refund available for those who wish to disenchant any of the cards effected.
In fact, that isn’t all the of the Hall of Fame inductees. Due to the removal of Genn and Baku, a number of cards designed to synergise around their deck-building requirement will also be removed from Standard. Those are: Black Cat, Gloom Stag, Glitter Moth, and Murkspark Eel. You can click through all the cards being removed in the gallery below.
Perhaps the real surprise, though, are the cards which didn’t get cut, with both Malygos and Gadgetzan Auctioneer being spared again. Earlier this week, Blizzard flew me to Irvine, California to attend an event previewing the new season, at which I asked principal game designer Mike Donais why the big blue dragon had lived to fight another day.
"He's been talked about for quite a while," said Donais. "One of the things I love about Malygos is that people are always trying to build new decks around him. Every year there are like five new Malygos decks, and most of them are 40 percent [winrate] decks. People play them for a while, experiment, and tune them until they get them up to 41 percent, then give up. But they have a good time, and that's kind of the perfect place for combo decks. Malygos and Gadgetzan Auctioneer have survived as long as they have because they’ve added so many different archetypes. One day these guys will go to the Hall of Fame, but in the meantime they've served so much purpose."
At the event Blizzard also revealed a number of new features and modes coming to Hearthstone when the Year of the Dragon begins, which it hopes will freshen the game up. Expect more info when the next set gets revealed, but for now here’s what we can talk about...
Random card back generator
You can now show off the inordinate amount of card backs you’ve collected (I have over 100 at this point) by assigning the new ‘randomizer’ card back in the deck creation screen. Whenever you queue into an opponent, the game will pick a random card back to display. A small change, but a fun one and something fans have been asking for.
Smart deck builder AI
The current ‘complete my deck’ autofill function is widely considered a joke, thanks to the likelihood that it’ll choose terrible cards. However, a substantial upgrade is on the way that will pick cards based on what you’ve added to the deck so far, what’s currently in your collection, and—crucially—by scanning Blizzard’s own internal data to see what popular meta decks use the same cards. So, let’s say you’ve got two thirds of a viable Deathrattle Hunter deck built, but aren’t sure how best to finish it off. The smart deck builder will pick based on the cards you own that players are seeing success with on ladder in similarly built decks.
The more extreme example we were given was that if you put a single card in your deck—say, Deathwing—and then hit autocomplete, the deck builder will scour its database for the best Deathwing decks that also use cards you own. I’m not going to get too excited about this until I see it in action, but it sounds intriguing, and is obviously intended to help returning players get back into the game with less friction. The rest of us will probably stick to using HSreplay as we netdeck our way to the sunny uplit lands of rank 15.
Arena gets new mode and golden hero tracking
Hearthstone’s draft mode has been in comparatively good shape over the last two expansions, largely due to changes to how the card bucketing system works, but Blizzard isn’t resting on its laurels. In another obvious but overdue quality of life improvement, Arena wins will now count towards the 500 needed in order to acquire a golden hero portrait with a particular class, although tracking won’t begin until the Year of the Dragon begins in April
The Year of the Dragon will also fundamentally change the way Arena is played, moving to a new format that uses a card pool that contains six expansions from Standard and Wild that will rotate every two months. Note that the six-expansion block will always include the latest release, and the expansions won’t necessarily be taken from the same era (for example, a block might include Curse of Naxxramas and Whispers of the Old Gods).
The limited nature of six expansions should mean that there’s still skill in knowing what cards to play around against each class. I’ve actually wanted something like this as an alternate constructed mode, so I asked Blizzard whether the new format could be extended to ladder. "This Arena experiment will be fun, and if people like it we'll keep doing more stuff in that vein," said Donais. “One of the things we think about a lot is: 'What happens in the second month after an expansion comes out?' Well, PvE comes out, and then the wings are unlocking, and then a couple of weeks later it’s another new arena format. So we're always trying to improve that situation.” Since we’re talking about PvE and wings, that brings us to...
Single-player content expanded, but no longer free
The next Hearthstone expansion will be followed by the biggest single-player mode Team 5 has built to date. I know this because I spent a full day playing it. Unfortunately, we’re not able to name the mode yet, or discuss any of the cards it uses, but I can confirm that it will release in May and follow the old wing-based structure used for the likes of League of Explorers and Blackrock Mountain, meaning additional content will unlock over subsequent weeks. However, the mode still feels very close to the deck-building style of Monster Hunt and Dungeon Run, with a sprinkle of Puzzle Lab’s lateral thinking thrown in.
When pitching it to us, creative director Ben Thompson described it as an evolution of all the PvE material Team 5 has released to date, rather than wholesale change. The biggest difference from previous releases is that you begin with a starter deck and hero power, but as you complete runs you will unlock additional hero powers (there are three per class in total), as well as different starter decks with corresponding synergies.
To give one example from what I played, but should be noted is not finalised, the Paladin deck (each class has a new hero in PvE, by the way) can use the regular hero power, or unlock one which adds two Silverhand Recruits to your hand, or another that grants a minion a Divine Shield. Likewise, the different starter decks were themed around spamming dudes, abusing shields and building Elemental synergy. Which sounds like it might be overly prescriptive in terms of which cards to pick after each round, but in reality I found that there was enough crossover between the different archetypes that there were still plenty of interesting decisions to make.
In terms of setting your expectations, I would say imagine the stuff you liked most about Monster Hunt, but dialled up with extra creativity and more deck-building options. During the day I spent playing, I had multiple games that felt like the kind of lunacy normally found in a Kibler highlight video. One particular highlight was a Rotface popping out from a [redacted] only to get damaged by a Chillmaw explosion that summoned me a life-saving Shirvallah. Decent turn, all told.
There are also some nice quality of life additions here over previous solo content. Stat tracking will make it easier to stay on top of what you've unlocked across the classes, and you'll also be able to pause a run at any point, including mid-game, and return to it whenever you like. The only reason the game wouldn't be able to resume is if there's been a client patch in between sessions.
"It sounds a bit like a catchphrase, but the honest truth is we really see this as the evolution, if not revolution, of what PvE for Hearthstone means. What we mean by that, is we feel that this is a good first offering for a fully-fledged, singleplayer [mode]. You could spend the bulk of your time here, really, instead of Ladder, for some types of players. And if that's the case, then this will also help inform what the next set and the next set looks like."
The single-player mode features five wings in total, the first of which will be free, while acquiring all five will set you back $19.99 or 700 gold. Each wing contains eight random bosses, and has a ‘plot twist’ that alters the way in which the games during that run are played.
Probably my favourite part of the new mode is what Blizzard calls the non-combat encounters. These take place between the boss battles, in a tavern with its own barman. One side of the board four opposing minions line up, whilst four of your own are placed on your side. Using tokens you've earned during the run you can then recruit or discover new minions for your deck, dismiss existing ones which don’t synergise well with your other cards, and do wackier stuff like reducing the cost of a random spell to zero permanently. It’s like a cross-between conventional CCG sideboarding and a fantasy football draft, and I suspect it’s going to be one of the best received things Hearthstone does this year.
There will no doubt be some grumbling at the fact the PvE element of the game has to be paid for (as, to be fair, it did when single-player content was originally introduced), but to draw the sting from those complaints, Blizzard will be offering three card packs from the new expansion for each wing you clear, in addition to exclusive card backs for completing the normal and heroic difficulties. Finishing all five wings also nets you a coveted golden pack (meaning every card inside it will be gold and animated).
Oh, and once you're done with a wing, you'll unlock Anomaly mode. Click the anomaly button and one of several possible random effects will be applied to that run. In my session, I had one anomaly (again note that these aren't final) that meant all minions grew by +1/+1 every turn, and another that saw both players taking increasing amounts of damage at the start of each turn, making a brutally fast strategy essential.
PS, if you're wondering what Zayle, Shadow Cloak is (see the image listing all the PvE content), it's the new Whizbang the Wonderful. You'll earn a golden copy of Zayle for owning all five wings, and he'll enable you to play with five new deck recipes. And because Zayle is golden, so will all the cards in those decks be. Again, great for new players, or those who love a bit of bling.
Esports gets custom bundle to fund prizes
We covered the switch from the old Conquest format to the new Specialist one last week, but one part of that announcement that flew somewhat under the radar is that a new card bundle will be introduced, the purchase of which will be used to fund and expand the prize pool for the Masters Tour series of events. It sounds like an attempt to do something similar to what Valve does for The International with the Compendium.
Season-long story telling
Last, and possibly least, the Hearthstone team is shifting to telling longer stories. The Year of the Dragon’s three expansions will form a complete narrative cycle, rather than each expansion being thematically self-contained. How much that actually impacts the play experience is going to probably depend on how much you dig the game’s flavor, but if nothing else it should be interesting to see how a different approach to the lore pans out. We’ll have plenty more on the Year of the Dragon in the weeks to come, but for now my one disappointment is that it appears not much is being done to alter the core ladder experience. Perhaps we’ll see more changes to constructed as the season rolls on. In the meantime, let’s pour out a bottle of ichor for our dear departing Doomguards. In the end, we all dared summon him a few too many times.