Hearthstone players are about to head into the most exciting part of the calendar: the announcement and launch of the year's first expansion. With it will come the annual rotation of the Standard format, which means that Whispers of the Old Gods, Mean Streets of Gadgetzan and One Night in Karazhan will be sent to live out their days in Wild, where the Piloted Shredders roam free.
We don't yet know the name or theme of the first set, though Blizzard has confirmed that The Year of the Raven—which is what the next 12 month cycle is being called—will feature three large expansions, exactly like Year of the Mammoth did. Blizzard has also just revealed more info about what to expect from Year of the Raven, and yesterday I had a chance to speak with game director Ben Brode about the coming changes. Let's get into it, in order of juiciness...
This year's of Hall of Fame
Since rotation began, Blizzard has gradually been removing cards from the Classic set that either restricted long-term design space or were too ubiquitous in their classes. This time, three cards are leaving Standard: Ice Block, Coldlight Oracle, and Molten Giant, which will also be reverted to its pre-nerf stats.
Ice Block will come as no surprise to most players, though will no doubt sadden Freeze Mage afficionados. "I do expect players to be a little bit sad to see Ice Block go", said Brode. "We're not rotating [the cards ] because they're too powerful, we're rotating them because we want to see fresh new decks in Standard." Brode also promised a some fun new Mage cards to help Jainaphiles adapt. More of a shock is Coldlight Oracle, which has long been a staple in 'mill' decks which seek to overdraw the opponent, and also sees play in combo decks that need to cycle through their cards quickly.
Brode said there were multiple reasons why Coldlight Oracle's time in Standard is coming to an end. 1) The card has prevented the design team from creating certain Battlecry and 'bounce' effects which would have been too powerful when used in conjunction. 2) Generally speaking Team 5 doesn't like neutral card draw because it can be jammed into any deck and thereby dilutes class identity. 3) The supposed downside of the card—that your opponent also draws cards—can often be used as an upside.
On that basis, I think it's fair to infer that Blizzard isn't keen on mill ever being a top tier strategy, which to be fair it never has been, but is happy for it to be a niche strategy. The kind of player who delights in burning the other guy's win condition will be annoyed, but to me this seems a sensible decision—and one I saw coming given the amount the card is being played. The Molten Giant switch is more likely to be well received. Brode said that the entire idea for the Hall of Fame came from the negative reaction to the original Molten Giant nerf, which he admits was intended to make the card unplayable. Brode said that this change "keeps the dream of Wild alive, which is that you can play every card."
However, when asked whether other nerfed cards might also be sent to the Hall of Fame and reverted to their previous form, he said this was unlikely, noting that some nerfs are done specifically with the health of Wild in mind. RIP double combo Druid. As for why only three cards are being added to the Hall of Fame with this rotation, Brode said that it was simply a case that the most problematic Classic cards have already been hit. He also said that Spellbreaker isn't being touched because it represents a specific sort of 'answer' that can be used to correct a meta that skews too far in a particular direction.
I asked him whether, as rumoured, Wild Growth had been considered for the Hall of Fame this year. Surprisingly he said it hadn't been considered at all, and that's because it's a Basic card. Blizzard prefers to nerf Basic cards, as it did with Fiery War Axe and Innervate, because sending them to the Hall of Fame would require "significant amount of additional finagling" due to being part of the level up process and not having a dust value. Speaking of which, as was the case previously, when the Hall of Fame happens you'll receive a full refund for any of the Cards you own, without needing to disenchant them.
Brode also said the team are considering adding a couple of cards from old expansions to Mage's Classic set in order to compensate for the loss of Ice Lance and Ice Block. However, don't expect these cards to be meta-defining for the obvious reason that they want to avoid creating new problems. In fact, Brode gave the specific example of Shatter as a possible choice. "I don't think players are itching to see Shatter, but it's kind of a cool combo."
Tournament mode is finally coming
Support for in-game tournaments is high on the Hearthstone community's wishlist of new features, and now it's happening. This summer will see in-game tournaments launch in beta, enabling players to create their own 'Swiss' competitions using either the Conquest or Last Hero Standing formats. From the sounds of it, the feature is designed more for groups of friends and Fireside gatherings rather than major esports events. "It can support a significant number of players, but it won't have things like bans at launch," said Brode, adding that competitive tournaments require a greater level of fine control than the initial version will offer. "We expect the feature will grow and evolve over time."
In fact, Brode was careful not to call this 'tournament mode', because he said that description means very different things to different players. The way it actually works is that the tournament organiser creates the event, then shares it as a code (presumably much as we do with decklists now) to potential participants. Verifying you're using the correct decks will be handled on the client-side, and the organiser can set a time limit for each round. If everyone gets done early, you all click ready and move on with the next one. Brode made it sound like solutions are also on the way for the esports scene, but I'm excited to try this out.
Easier and more rewarding daily quests
I log on every day to eke out a little gold by doing my dailies, but it's a slow grind. Things are going to get a bit easier in the Year of Raven, because Blizzard is making quests easier to complete, and give a better payout. Once the change kicks in, what were previously 40g quests will all now be 50g. Examples of them getting easier include changing the three wins with a particular class requirement to two, and playing 50 cards of a certain class becoming 30. Brode said that the expectation is that players will be able to earn half a pack per day on average. It probably won't be enough to quell the debate around the cost of Hearthstone, but it's definitely a step in the right direction, particularly if you follow our crafting tips.
Druid gets its new hero skin
Everyone will be able to earn a new hero portrait for Druid, which is the last class not to have one, once the next set launches. All you have to do is win 10 games in Standard, and Lunara the Dryad is yours. Wowpedia says she's the daughter of the demigod Cenarius, who's also the OG class legendary for Druid.
I like her cheeky smile, and even though Malfurion was my first golden hero, I'll be glad to take a break from ol' green beard.
We'll have more on The Year of the Raven in the next few weeks, starting with the expansion announcement, which on past evidence I expect will arrive early in March. Now that we've had Death Knights and legendary weapons, I wonder if we can expect another new kind of legendary?