How Team 5 and WoW created an awkward situation for new Hearthstone classes
Demon Hunters are the first new class coming to Hearthstone! I am absolutely thrilled about this announcement, particularly about what it means for the future of the game. Team 5 has finally decided to expand the original roster of nine classes that we’ve had since alpha. This is a sea change for Hearthstone, and I hope it will open up the game to more robust development in the future. The additions of achievements and a new game mode, announced this week as part of 2020’s Year of the Phoenix, indicate that the team is really ramping up. We’ve never before gotten so much good news about Hearthstone in one day. The years of stagnation prior to the introduction of the Battlegrounds mode are officially over.
There’s a lot to be happy about, but even so, something is bothering me. The decision to make Demon Hunter the first new class is, I believe, an awkward one, coming at an awkward time. Let’s rewind the clock and analyze why that is.
The “wasted” class
Players have been speculating about adding classes to Hearthstone pretty much since the game launched. Countless custom class ideas have been designed and discussed. It was a natural way for the game to evolve, after all. If WoW could add classes during expansions, Hearthstone eventually would too — or so we all thought.
From early on, Team 5 downplayed that idea. They talked about balance issues, ongoing design costs, and even UI problems, since the current interface fits nine classes perfectly. They were pretty firmly decided that it was never going to happen.
This nine-class paradigm for the game was cemented beyond the shadow of a doubt when Blizzard announced Knights of the Frozen Throne. Instead of adding a new Death Knight class, Team 5 reimagined each existing class as a Death Knight with a new Hero Power. WoW‘s Death Knight spells like Army of the Dead and Anti-Magic Shell were added to the game as triggered bonuses from The Lich King and other cards. The way Death Knights were handled without adding the class itself was a brilliant end-around execution, and Knights remains one of the best expansions that Team 5 has ever made.
However, it’s hard to argue that adding an entire Death Knight class would have been much better for the game in the long run. Blizzard burned an entire WoW class for a single expansion when they only had three to use. Given that Knights has long ago rotated out of Standard, the Death Knight feels like a “wasted” class outside of Wild.
In hindsight, Death Knight was the best choice
It’s hard to say which character is the most popular and iconic in Warcraft history, but if you had to pick one that is above Illidan (or Thrall or Sylvanas), it would absolutely be the Lich King. Arthas’s evil alter ego has always been one of the foremost characters in players’ imaginations when they think about what WoW is. His presence in the story has echoed far into the future, having long-term implications for Jaina, Sylvanas, the fates of the Horde and Alliance, and now in Shadowlands the future of Azeroth itself.
Death Knight as a class has a massive amount of design space to explore. Its three specializations are more thematically distinct from one another than perhaps any other class in WoW. You have the icy winds of Frost spec, freezing enemies in place, blinding them and shattering their minds with cold, summoning Frostwyrms, and scything through armies with icy blades. Then there is the corruption of Unholy, encompassing all by itself an entire necromancer theme, along with diseases. Finally, there’s Blood, a vampire-esque tanking spec that drains health from enemies, boils their blood, and creates shields out of body parts.
In contrast, the Demon Hunter is quite limited in its themes. We see that already in its design in WoW. For one thing, it’s the only class with two specs instead of three or four, and those specs share most of the same abilities, although some have different names. There is almost no thematic difference between them. Also, Demon Hunters were designed in the era of pruning. The Classic set cards and Ashes of Outland have already used up most of the in-game spells that Demon Hunters have.
Demon Hunter, unfortunately, already has a lot of overlapping design space with Hearthstone classes. We saw this when the class came to WoW. Blizzard had to remove the entire Metamorphosis concept from Warlocks to give it to Demon Hunters.
Death Knight lore is full of card options
In Hearthstone, almost all of the announced Demon Hunter cards already overlap with what existing classes do. Its signature mechanic, Outcast, has a cool name, but is essentially a rebranding of an idea from the Warlock’s Soul Infusion and Mage’s Stargazer Luna. Its gimmick of summoning lots of minions with one spell has already been done by Hunter, Warlock, and other classes. Weapon synergies are a longstanding tradition of the Warrior and Rogue classes. The Demon Hunter’s one-mana Hero Power is a mildly interesting twist, but half a Druid Hero Power for half the cost is hardly a fresh take. I’m sure it will come together as a fun package of abilities, and I like the aggressive nature, but the Demon Hunter doesn’t bring as much uniqueness to the game as you would expect from a brand new class.
Illidan has a lot of lore to draw on with Outland, his Illidari armies, and his struggles throughout Legion. However, the Lich King has just as much if not more lore to draw from, with the Scourge, Northrend, and the Knights of the Ebon Blade. Illidan’s moveset and capabilities don’t lend themselves well to designing new cards every four months. Blizzard couldn’t even give him a good card in the Classic set. Out of the three remaining WoW classes, I think Team 5 chose the one that will be the most difficult to design year in and year out.
It worries me that Team 5 has a backup plan for DH to be a temporary class for one Standard rotation only. Giving it away for free leaves the door open for the team to axe it in Standard after two years if they feel like it has run its course. In other words, they could “rotate out” the Demon Hunter class. Then they could add a different new class for 2022 or just go back to the original nine. I think that would be kind of sad for the game, since part of the excitement of this moment is the assumption that Hearthstone will have ten classes from this point forward.
Overall, I feel that Death Knight was a much stronger candidate to add to Hearthstone than Demon Hunter. I wouldn’t have had any of the above doubts about a Death Knight class.
I love Demon Hunters. My main in WoW is currently a DH. I love everything about the class, particularly the Demon Hunter questline and Class Hall in Legion that had so much tasty Burning Crusade nostalgia. Ashes of Outland likewise is bringing back Burning Crusade in a big way, and I’m super excited for it.
But why now? Why not three years ago when Legion launched? The hype would have been off the charts. Hearthstone and WoW could have been synced up to market each other’s content. Now they are most definitely desynced. After Warlords of Draenor and Legion, WoW players are burned out on anything Burning Legion-related, and Demon Hunters are a bit old hat by now.
For those who have never played WoW, it’s awkward and confusing to have a Hunter class and a Demon Hunter class. On top of that, they both use a green color palette.
The Monk Option
The WoW team also has a hand in this awkwardness. With Team 5 keen to finally add a new class, it would have been the perfect time to add one that tied into either Battle for Azeroth or Shadowlands. But neither expansion features a new class, so Team 5 only had two choices — Demon Hunter or Monk — which is an awkward choice.
Monk has way more to work with in terms of Hearthstone design space than Demon Hunters. You’ve got brewing, martial arts, the chi and mysticism angle, and basically the entire Mists of Pandaria expansion to build cards around. Much of what Monks do feels distinct from the other Hearthstone classes. The four August Celestials of Pandaria are easy fodder for Monk legendaries.
Demon Hunter is a more popular class and concept, so it’s easy to see why Team 5 opted for them, despite their thematic limitations and huge overlap with other classes. It seems so awkward to release it now, a year and a half past the Legion era, as the first new class, all while skipping over the easier-to-design, deeper Death Knight class entirely. But this is the path that Team 5 chose. Can they pull it off?
The fourth option: something else entirely
Team 5 has never been shy about adding new ideas to the Warcraft lore. For example, the Tortollans were basically invented for the Journey to Un’Goro expansion. They made their way to WoW in Battle for Azeroth, and we’ve been saving (and murdering) baby turtles ever since.
So I have to say I’m a little disappointed that Team 5 didn’t opt for the fourth choice: to create their own new class. Adding a Mekgineer or Tinker class to Hearthstone, for example, would have let them put their own stamp on a class concept without the expectations, limitations, or baggage that come with reusing a WoW class. It also would have lined up well with pre-existing Hearthstone cards and themes. As a class concept, it would be unique to the classes of Hearthstone (or those of WoW, which has an Engineering trade profession but no class defined by it).
It’s way too early to say how it will all work out, but I’m still more than ready to step into Illidan’s shoes and smorc a Gul’dan or two. I just wish I could also be the Lich King outside of Battlegrounds. Maybe someday, when Knights of the Frozen Throne is a distant memory, Team 5 will revisit bringing the Death Knight in all its unholy glory to Hearthstone. Until then, let the custom class ideas flow. Now that Demon Hunters are coming, the gates are wide open.
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