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HearthstoneMar 22, 2022 2:00 pm CT

Hearthstone’s Ben Lee and Nathan Lyons-Smith share details about Voyage to the Sunken City

We had the opportunity to chat with Hearthstone Game Director Ben Lee and Executive Producer Nathan Lyons-Smith to learn all about the upcoming expansion, Voyage to the Sunken City. They talked about the keywords, cards, and concepts arising with this new expansion, and gave us a glimpse of what the game might look like in the coming year.

But we also touched on topics related to other areas of Hearthstone, such as Battlegrounds and single-player modes, and got some insightful comments about game design. In fact, the concept of “balance” in a game like Hearthstone might not be what you think it is.

So let’s take a deep dive into the Voyage to the Sunken City expansion and the future of Hearthstone.

Bringing Naga, Colossal minions, and Dredge mechanics to Hearthstone

The inspiration and theme for this expansion — going underwater — is something that the Hearthstone developers have been thinking about for years, even before Ben and Nathan joined the team. When one of the team’s artists created concept art for underwater creatures that everyone really liked, the idea moved forward from there.

World of Warcraft helped inspire the team as well — the Nazjatar zone, with its focus on Queen Azshara, was an influence. The team also appreciates the simplicity of the theme: Ben says that the concept behind this expansion isn’t too different from Journey to Un’goro, except with sea monsters instead of dinosaurs.

Retrofitting the new Naga minion type into existing cards

And an underwater expansion has to have Naga. The Naga minion type is probably going to be extended to existing minions from past sets, but while some classes may find more use for Naga as a whole, the team thinks it’s unlikely that there will be specific Naga-based decks for the time being. It’s more likely that these changes will have more of an impact on non-specific synergies, such as which Naga minions can you be offered from a Discover effect.

Colossal Minions aren’t a brand-new idea

The game’s new Colossal minions — in which multiple cards come together as parts of a larger monster — aren’t as new as they seem. It’s an idea the team has had in mind for a while: Big Ol’ Whelp from the Descent of Dragons expansio, was originally supposed to be a minion that would take up two board spaces! But the idea evolved into the current, visually-distinctive form, where you have a “host” minion with several “appendages,” and players are driven to defeat this host minion. Big board-based minions are some of the most fun things in Hearthstone for many people, and the team wants to reinforce that aspect of the game.

The team is excited about the possibilities that players will explore with Colossal minions, such as ways to getting them on the board early, or duplicating them. One example given was Xhilag of the Abyss, the Demon Hunter colossal minion. Demon Hunters have tools to get multiple copies of a Demon on the board, and the Stalks summoned by each copy of Xhilag will “double dip” from both, which could greatly accelerating their effect.

Dredge, deck manipulation, and the danger of “too much consistency”

The Dredge keyword is another new tool for players to be able to manipulate their decks, gaining some degree of control over the consistency of their draws. However, the team is careful not to go too far with this concept. “If you give players too much consistency, then the game becomes formulaic and can become boring,” Ben said.

The biggest change to the Hearthstone meta will be the Core Set rotation

While Voyage to the Sunken City will certainly shake up the meta, according to Ben, it won’t be the biggest factor: the Core Set rotation is. Hundreds of cards from three expansions leaving the meta all at once is usually the most fun time to play the game, since it’s a massive shake-up. Power levels usually go down across the board, which opens up room for new strategies and possibilities.

In addition to cards rotating out, some cards will be reintroduced to the Core Set — Ben specifically said that “old favorites” are coming back. With these changes, Ben hopes that the game will be a little slower, so that players are allowed to get threats like the new Colossal minions on the board, and play with them.

We know very little about the Core Set rotation so far, only that it’s happening at an unspecified future date.

But Voyage cards are sure to make an impact. Mech Mage might be making a comeback. Nathan is super excited about that archetype, and mentioned Azsharan Sweeper, which plays with the Dredge keyword and brings a lot of the nostalgia for Mech Mage back.

But Ben is looking forward to new kinds of gameplay. He likes Blademaster Okani for the possibilities of counterplay it offers, creating a lot of dynamic and different situations. “Counterplay for minions isn’t really something we’ve dabbled with much at all, so [I’m] really excited to see how that works out, and what players think of it. Hopefully it’ll be fun.”

Hearthstone is balanced for fun more than perfection

Balance, according to Ben, should be done by stepping in when the extreme cases arise: “It’s hard to get those things 100% right, and the idea that there is a definition of ‘balance’ is nonsensical, frankly. Balance is in the eye of the beholder, and also not necessarily the most fun experience. If Hearthstone was truly, ultimately ‘balanced,’ everything would be at the same power level and every class would function in almost the same way — no, I don’t think anyone wants that experience in reality; we know that would be a less fun game.”

But Ben did add that while the team tries to do things the best that they can, the important thing is that they’re willing to change. If something clearly isn’t working or players say they don’t enjoy something that the team thought they would enjoy, Ben says “We’re happy to go back to those things and change them.”

Perception of player power is as important as power itself

And what about those frustrating OTK decks? According to Ben, “one-turn kill” decks shouldn’t be vilified, since they don’t dominate the meta — at any point, there are still a multitude of deck types and archetypes being played. And right now — the end of a cycle, with the high power level introduced by six different expansions — it’s a prime moment for combo-based strategies to flourish, which helps explain why OTK decks may seem so prevalent. With the Core set rotation meaning players will have access to a much smaller card pool, the team absolutely expects for there to be less of that.

Another topic discussed was that of mana-reduction or “mana-cheating” effects. Ben stated that this is one of the mechanics that a large portion of the Hearthstone playerbase enjoys the most, and the reason for that is simple: it gives players a sense of power, and that feels fun.

The enjoyment that comes from this perception of power can sometimes be more important than actual power. He added that, for a long time Even Paladin was one of the best decks in the game, but it saw almost no play because players “didn’t find it super enjoyable.” Enjoyment of a deck can be as much of a factor for deck popularity as power is — and many decks that come to the top are powerful but also fun to play.

The perceived problem with OTK combos and mana-cheating cards comes from the fact that it can feel more crushing to lose to such rapid power swings. Ben said that one of the biggest things the team tries to do is prevent players from feeling like their time was wasted after a loss.

The frustration that comes from losing to an OTK after a 30-minute game was one of the reasons why the Hearthstone team shortened game length in general, making games “punchier and more impactful” so that players can get in and have their fun. If they lose a game after six or seven minutes, they feel less frustrated — on average, of course. He doesn’t discard that sometimes players can have epic games that are 30 or 40 minutes long, and that those can be very fun — but he said that those games are outliers, and it’s better if they remain that way.

Ben added that the team has tried to keep mana-cheating smaller — for instance, not having moments when cards that cost 10 mana are reduced to zero. Keeping mana reduction smaller is something that “definitely is going to be happening more in the future,” and something the team “is very mindful of,” as they know there have been issues with it. But there’s also a lot of fun to be had, too: “If mana-cheating didn’t exist in Hearthstone, the game would be less fun.”

Battlegrounds and other game modes in Voyage to the Sunken City

Naga will probably be the next minion type on Battlegrounds

One question is on every Hearthstone Battlegrounds player’s mind right now: will we see Naga as a new minion type for Battlegrounds?

We didn’t get a definitive answer, but Ben responded that while the team hasn’t officially announced what’s coming for Battlegrounds, “that would be a good bet to take.” And in classic Blizzard fashion, Nathan jokingly added that “that would be a really cool idea — nothing to share yet.”

Sorry, single-player fans, but no new content is on the horizon

When asked if there’s a chance that a mode like Dungeon Run will return, Ben responded that things in Hearthstone happen in cycles. “A lot of players forget that when we were launching the last Dungeon Runs, there was a huge player outcry that they were fed up and bored with [them.] Therefore, at the time, we listened to the player feedback and went with another direction.” That doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t ever be another Dungeon Run, he said.

As for other single-player modes, Ben said that the team is focused on their “three big modes,” traditional Hearthstone — spanning Standard, Wild, and Duels, and the traditional single player would come into that — as well as Battlegrounds and Mercenaries.

Nathan adds that they have “a bunch of cool things coming,” but “nothing in the works in this area right now.”

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