Hearthstone Year Of The Gryphon, New Expansion, And Mercenaries: Everything We Know

Blizzard took the wraps off its plans for the coming year of Hearthstone content, including a new expansion, a new base set of cards, and a RPG-like Mercenaries mode.

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Blizzard has revealed its plans for the upcoming year of Hearthstone at its BlizzConline event, and they include some big changes to the long-running card game alongside the usual set of card expansions. Those include a new expansion, Forged in the Barrens, a new Core set, Classic mode, and a new mode called Mercenaries to come sometime later this year. The 2021 season has been dubbed the Year of the Gryphon.

New Expansion: Forged in the Barrens

As some fans guessed following a brief teaser, the new spring expansion takes place in the Horde territory of Kalimdor. It's called Forged in the Barrens, and will add another 135 new cards to collect.

Some of those cards will feature a new keyword, Frenzy. A Frenzy minion will trigger a one-time special effect, similar to the Spellburst keyword from Scholomance Academy, the first time it survives damage. This means that your Frenzy minion is killed in one shot, it won't ever trigger the effect. The Forged in the Barrens set will also add 10 legendary "Mercenary" characters, said to be part of a year-long storyline. Those likely tie into the new Mercenaries game mode that will be launching later this year.

Blizzard showed a handful of Forged in the Barrens cards as part of the reveal event to give players a taste of the flavor in this expansion.

Big Changes: The Core Set and Spell Schools

Forged in the Barrens will also serve as the debut for two larger changes to Hearthstone that will continue going forward: the new Core set, and Spell Schools.

As long as Hearthstone has existed, the main building blocks have been the Classic and Basic sets. The Basic set was a free, earned set in Hearthstone that you would unlock by leveling up each class, while the Classic set gave eager card collectors something to hunt when cracking open Classic packs. These are the cards that defined class identity and mechanics, and for the entire history of the game, Blizzard has built expansions around these features.

That will change this year. Instead of static Basic and Classic sets that never change, Blizzard is introducing the new Core set. This will incorporate hand-picked cards from the Basic and Classic sets and bring back some from Wild, and even introduce a bundle of new cards. Unlike the Basic and Classic sets, the Core set will change every year, allowing Blizzard more flexibility in rebuilding the foundation of Hearthstone for new expansions, providing a more dynamic experience. So this first set will be Core 2021, to be followed by Core 2022, and so on. Basic and Classic cards will be merged into a single "Legacy Set."

Also, unlike the Classic set, the Core set will be absolutely free, just like Basic. All of the cards in the Core set will be granted automatically if you've leveled up your characters the requisite amount, and each year when the Core set rotates, you'll automatically be granted all of the new Core cards. That should make it easier for new and lapsed players to jump aboard.

The Core set will consist of 235 cards, and 29 of those are brand-new. Blizzard has now revealed all of the Core set cards. They include some foundational cards that longtime fans will recognize, like the Mage's Fireball spell. Some other established cards have been reimagined, like the new Deathwing the Destroyer--still a board clear, but a less indiscriminate one. And some others are entirely new, like Vanessa VanCleef, set to replace Edwin as the Core Rogue Legendary card.

The other major change going forward is the addition of Spell Schools. Similar to minion tribes, this will sort many new and existing spells into one of seven spell types. That spell type will be identified with a small banner across the bottom of the spell, right where a minion tribe appears. The seven types of spells are Arcane, Fire, Frost, Holy, Nature, Shadow, and Fel. Older spells in previous expansions will be retrofitted with Spell School sorting.

Blizzard has already shown some Barrens cards that interact with specific spell schools. The neutral card Spirit Healer, for example, interacts specifically with Holy spells, and the new legendary Shaman minion Bru'kan gives a big boost to Nature Spell Damage, but not other types of spells. It appears Blizzard will use this for a greater degree of fine control over spell interactions.

Though the Core set and Spell Schools will roll out alongside Forged in the Barrens, both of these signify permanent changes to Hearthstone going forward.

Classic Mode should offer a nostalgic experience for longtime players.
Classic Mode should offer a nostalgic experience for longtime players.

New Year, New Season

As usual, the spring expansion to Hearthstone will mark the changeover into a new year of content. This coming year, dubbed the Year of the Gryphon, will encompass all of the expansions, mini-expansions, and new features and modes that appear in the 2021-2022 content calendar.

Each year of Hearthstone content includes three major expansions, alongside any bonus updates. The annual cutoff also rotates out certain sets into the Wild format, making room for new expansions that will be playable in Standard mode. Blizzard has suggested that its expansion plans from now on will also include mini-expansions mid-season, so we can likely expect three of those as well.

Classic Mode

One other big change coming to the game, though, has already been announced. Hearthstone is adding a Classic Mode. This will let you play the game with the original bundle of cards, exactly as they appeared in 2014, before any balance changes. Many of the cards from this era have significantly changed since their debut, so this mode will be a welcome nostalgia trip. It also sports its own ladder and matchmaking pool, so you can compete, unlock achievements, and even reach Legend rank completely in Classic Mode if it strikes your fancy. Classic Mode will come alongside the Forged in the Barrens expansion, which will also introduce the Core set.

Mercenaries Mode

Sometime later in 2021 we'll get a completely new Hearthstone mode. The Mercenaries mode is described as an RPG-like mode with both PvE and PvP formats. You'll build a team of mercs from iconic characters like Sylvanas and Ragnaros, and unlike standard Hearthstone minions, you'll keep them and level them up throughout your run.

In PvE mode, you'll go through a gauntlet of random encounters while gathering loot and experience to unlock more powerful versions of your team. In PvP, your mercs will take on an opposing team, and both players will plan their next turns simultaneously before watching the characters come to blows and seeing how the dust settles.

As mentioned, the new Forged in the Barrens expansion adds 10 "Mercenary" characters, and those are said to be part of a year-long story. It's very likely that we'll see them reappear in the Mercenaries mode in some form.

A New Tavern Pass

The new season will also bring a new Tavern Pass. The battle pass-like system grants experience for unlocking achievements and completing daily, weekly, and occasional event-based quests. Those experience points then go toward unlocking rewards like gold, card packs, alternate hero portraits, and even a special seasonal version of The Coin. And like every battle pass, you can unlock certain rewards only by buying into the pass.

The system was surprisingly controversial when it debuted last year because fans calculated that it was actually granting less gold than the previous quest-based reward system. Blizzard explained that it had planned to offer XP boosts through special events that would make it grant more rewards. But based on feedback from fans, the company concluded that it should rebalance its rewards track to be more generous without the need to take part in special events.

For the next Tavern Pass, we can likely expect Blizzard to maintain something similar to the rewards track changes it already made, with a more generous structure. It's also probable that the new Tavern Pass will offer a new set of cosmetic rewards or another seasonal Coin. For example, reaching the end of the previous Tavern Rewards track allowed you to select one of 10 exclusive hero portraits. It's possible Blizzard will just bring back the same selection, letting you pick another from the pool across multiple seasons until you collect all 10.

Release Timing

Blizzard left one aspect of all these changes and expansion plans unsaid: the release timing. That leaves us without a certain launch date, but we can make an educated guess. Blizzard has tended toward short announcement-to-release cycles recently, usually no more than a month. That would make a release for the next expansion likely to come in March.

For the last six years straight, the first expansion of the year was released in April. However, the Year of the Phoenix winter expansion came in November, rather than December as previous expansions usually had, so it's possible that Blizzard is intentionally shifting plans to adjust the timing for new expansions to come earlier in the year. A March release would also mean that Darkmoon Races, the mini-set released in January, would have come midway through the expansion season between November and March.

Often when Blizzard unveils a new year, though, it's much more than just the upcoming expansion. It has often dropped clues for the full year of expansions, and last year, it even included an expansive content roadmap that teased additions like the new Duels mode. So we may get much more detail to come at BlizzConline.

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