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How Hearthstone's 10 Year Celebration Unpacks Its Zany History--And Readies Fans To Make More

Hearthstone's next expansion pays homage to some of the game's most popular and beloved cards. We talked with Blizzard designers about how it all came together.


Hearthstone is celebrating its 10-year anniversary today, and the weeks-long birthday blowout is well underway. The celebration includes free giveaways of special "gift spell" cards for each class, a new Harth Stonebrew card as a login card that grants iconic hands from Hearthstone history, and an upcoming nostalgia-tinged expansion that brings a new twist on some fan favorite cards and mechanics. GameSpot spoke with senior game designer Cora Georgiou and executive producer Nathan Lyons-Smith about how they approached paying homage to a decade of Hearthstone.

GameSpot: When you were brainstorming for the 10-year anniversary, what did you want to accomplish? How did you want to mark this big occasion?

Cora Georgiou: Well, we had no shortage of options, I will say. We started, oh goodness, we started out [on] Whizbang's Workshop a little over a year ago, and at the time the 10th anniversary was still so far away that it was just a little nugget of an idea in our brains. And when we were brainstorming as a team and with our narrative design team thinking about what the expansion theme should be, we weren't 100% sure when the set was going to come out–[we were] just hopeful that it was going to be around the right time.

"Well, that timing does line up pretty closely with Hearthstone's 10th anniversary. Would it be a wild idea to do a theme that really leans into that?" And the more that we thought it over, the more that the dates sort of solidified with the planning for the coming year and the more we realized that it was going to be quite literally perfect timing with the actual 10th anniversary date. We realized we have to go for it. This is the one opportunity, our one shot--[we]cannot throw away that shot.

And from there it was just really figuring out, 'Okay, we want to do the 10th anniversary? How do we do that? How do we make an expansion that encompasses 10 years of Hearthstone?' We've certainly done expansion themes in the past that have brought back characters like the League of Explorers; we just did with Showdown in the Badlands. We brought the League of Explorers back. So how do we make this one feel really special?

And I think [it] really just came down to the vibes, just the overall vibes of celebration and joy and humor and whimsy. A little bit of dark in there as well. Death Knights can only be so whimsical before they start getting annoyed at us. But from there it really was just, 'Hey, what are the most beloved characters from Hearthstone of all time?'

And Whizbang was one that really came to the forefront because so many of us as designers really just fondly remembered playing with that first version of Whizbang and playing with those Whizbang decks. And it had been a character that we'd wanted to bring back for a long time but hadn't had the right opportunity to do so. And so it seemed like he was just a great sort of hallmark character for the set. And then from there, I think every good story has an antagonist--has a little bit of conflict. We needed a foil to Whizbang, and I think there's no better villain, there's no better foil in Hearthstone's history, than Dr. Boom.

And then that also kind of brings us back to Hearthstone's history with a goblin versus a gnome, which was really then how we were thinking of this story. It's Whizbang versus Boom, but it's also kind of goblins versus gnomes at its core. But it's also so whimsical and fun that there really isn't much conflict there. It's all around just a really good time. So it seemed like a really good foundation for bringing back all of these characters and just have a good time.

So it sounds like it kind of clicked in such a way that it synergized in all these myriad ways that you weren't necessarily expecting.

Georgiou: Yeah. Once we got the ball rolling, different people came with different ideas. The picture started to really come together.

And you said about a year ago you were starting to work on Whizbang's Workshop. Is there a universe where a Whizbang-themed expansion is less nostalgia-focused and more just like the Willy Wonka of Hearthstone?

Georgiou: Yeah, I think there were a lot of different ways that we could have taken a Whizbang expansion. Sort of characterizing him as an inventor and as a toy maker was not necessarily the direction that we had to go, but I think certainly him being a little wacky, a little zany, a little off the wall, very colorful. That's just who he is as a character. So that characterization of a toy maker and inventor really just came naturally.

And it plays into the whole anniversary theme in a way, because you've got this Miniaturize keyword where you're basically making little collectible figurines of classic Hearthstone things.

Georgiou: There are some layers to it for sure. And I think when we're putting together the theme and the fantasy of the story that we're telling, and then of course we're trying to fit keywords and mechanics to it. Sometimes it's a little bit more difficult, sometimes it's a little bit easier. I would say that the process with Miniaturize was fortunately one of the easier ones that I've been a part of. The gameplay came really naturally. It was [a] really smooth, really wonderful design process and a lot of design potential there for the Miniaturize cards. And of course, in the fantasy aspect, it kind of felt like a home run.

When we started to think about, okay, well we really like this gameplay of the base minion creating a smaller copy in your hand. And there's a lot of fun things that we can do with it, like Toy Captain Tarim. Designs that really make the base version and the mini feel very different gameplay-wise, even though they have the same effect on them.

So that was like, this is the sweet spot, this is where these designs feel really good, but what does it look like when we start to figure out art descriptions for them, when we start to tell our artists how we want these cards to look, and when we write VO for them and we try to tell our actors how we want these cards to sound. And so we worked with our art team and we worked with the narrative team and that's where we really figured out that these cards, the base versions being the characters, and then the minis being the toy versions of themselves, in most cases was just a really fun fantasy.

So when you started the project of making it a nostalgia trip. How did you go about picking out major trends and popular standouts? And particularly, how hard was it to find one standout for each class?

Georgiou: It's tough because it's so incredibly subjective and because all of us as designers and players first and foremost have our own preferences, we have our own favorites, we have our own favorite decks and characters from history. So there were certain instances like Shudderwock where we're like, yeah, it's kind of obvious. Shudderwock Shaman is the most iconic Shaman deck. We haven't used him since The Witchwood. We should bring back Shudderwock.

But there were some that were a little bit more difficult. And even though this set is very nostalgic, so we wanted to bring back lots and lots of old characters and reimagine them in new ways, we also wanted new characters in there as well. That's where characters like Pipsi Painthoof come in, or spells like the Wheel of Death in Warlock. We still wanted this set to feel like it was a new addition into the Hearthstone universe even though we do have all of these old characters as well. So finding ways to fit those new characters in to bring new life to the Workshop space itself, while also then trying to sort through thousands of iconic characters that Hearthstone's made over the last 10 years. It was a pretty arduous task, but you can't really have a more fun task than looking back at all of the cool stuff that has been made and just trying [to] pick the coolest of the cool.

When you looked back at classic mechanics, classic breakout cards, were there any mechanics or combos that, in today's Hearthstone, don't really work anymore, whether it be too powerful or it just doesn't work well?

Georgiou: Yeah, absolutely. Some of these original cards were just so iconic and so powerful that it's pretty much impossible to outdo the original. So what we realized we had to do was these need to feel reminiscent of the original, but they need to have their own identities, and they need to have their own effects that ultimately aren't in competition with the original effect.

So Shudderwock specifically had to be some sort of Battlecry interactive card, but we didn't want it just to repeat Battlecries in a new way because people are always going to compare it to the original and we don't want the new one just to be a less cool version of the original. That's no good. So we tried out a bunch of different ideas as far as Battlecry interaction designs, and what we landed on was your next Battlecry triggers three times.

And then we had the idea of hey, this is really powerful, would we be crazy to put Miniaturize on it and to let players have access to that effect two times? We do kind of like that because you can't just play the base and then play the Miniaturize. They don't interact that way. It doesn't make your next Battlecry trigger nine times. We made sure that that wasn't the case. So we liked that you had to space them out.

And there was some concern with specifically damaging effects. We just had Brann Bronzebeard in Core for a whole year. That was really fun, but there was a lot of power baked in there. Maybe we didn't want to retread that ground right away. And when we were designing Shudderblock is his name, Alexstrasza Life-Binder was in Core. And so there was just a lot of gameplay [consisting] of: I play my Shudderblock, I play my mini, and Life-Binder you in the face for 24 damage. It's certainly powerful. It certainly is giving a game finishing combination of cards, which is not always a bad thing. You got to win games somehow. But it just was lacking a little bit of the nuance that we were hoping players were going to find with the card.

And that's when we started playing with the next Battlecry triggers three times, but can't deal damage to Heroes caveat. And we found we actually liked it quite a bit, and I think that the player response has been quite good as well. It seems like they're excited about a lot of different options of what to do with the cards, so we're pretty happy with that. But yeah, pretty much everything that we do is just lots and lots of play testing, lots of iterative design, lots of trying to get a feel for where's the fun and how do we make something as fun as we possibly can.

The original key art for Hearthstone depicted it as a way for residents of Azeroth to pass the time.
The original key art for Hearthstone depicted it as a way for residents of Azeroth to pass the time.

It seems like you've got very careful phrasing that maybe you've learned the lessons from the past. The one that I was looking at today was the New Priest Legendary, Timewinder Zarimi, where it specifically says "once per game" just to make sure that you can't exploit it too badly.

Georgiou: So much of card design, and especially very self-referential card design, is looking at what we've done in the past, looking at what worked, looking at what didn't, and making improvements on things that you've done. And that doesn't mean that the original is not amazing. Time Warp is an incredibly powerful Hearthstone card. Not so much when it was in standard, but obviously in Wild it has been a bit of a terror.

And so we had a good idea of what that would look like in standard. Priest has so many copy effects, creation protocol, things like that. If they were to have basically access to as many Zarimis as they wanted, we pretty much knew how those games would look. And so it was just a matter of, hey, we want to make fun experiences here. We want our players to be able to win the game with these cards. But we also don't want it to be an incredibly frustrating experience for anybody who's not playing this deck, because ultimately we have 11 classes in this set and they're all doing something cool and unique and we don't want people to feel pressured to just play one of them.

In the inverse way, were there any cards that you thought were cool at the time, but wouldn't really hang in today's meta, because they're not quite powerful enough?

Georgiou: There definitely were characters that were like, hey, these characters are really cool. They maybe didn't land so well the very first time, so let's see if we can bring them back and reimagine them a little bit and see if we can't make them a little bit better. We just revealed Hemet, Foam Marksman, which is Hemet Nesingwary obviously. The first two iterations [of Hemet] were very, very different cards. Hemet, Jungle Hunter saw play in those Mecha'thun style decks where it's destroying much of your deck. We wanted to bring Hemet back in a way that was playable in maybe a little bit more swarmy, more aggressive Hunter deck. And obviously he's so tied to Beasts. But the original effect was we wouldn't print that card necessarily today in Hearthstone or if we would, we wouldn't make it a legendary.

So bringing back Hemet and re-imagining him in a way where he very much still works with Beasts, that is his identity, that's the core important thing there. But giving him a little bit of a new life, I think that was fun. Khadgar and the Wisdomball are two that I'm personally very excited to see play because they weren't standard cards originally. They were adventure cards and the Wisdomball sometimes is great, maybe sometimes not so great. We tried to reimagine how that might look in standard Hearthstone and I think we landed on something pretty fun.

What special considerations went into planning the Core set? Do you plan the Core set first and then plan the expansions around them, or do you know what the first expansion is and then you plan the Core set to facilitate it?

Georgiou: We actually do them a little bit in tandem. And so when we're designing the first set of the year, we are aware that the Core set is going to be new at that time as well. And so what we've taken to doing is if there are cards that we think would play well in the Core set with the new decks that we're experimenting, with the new archetypes that we're creating, with the new mechanics we're creating, with our scripting system we actually have a really easy way of just duplicating cards into a new set temporarily and playing with them as though they were in the Core set. And so we have just started doing that and that's how [we] figured out, 'Hey, Justicar Trueheart? A lot of fun, but maybe a little weak right now. What if we tried a version of her at 4 mana, at 5 mana?' And just a lot of the other cards that eventually ended up in the Core set were things that we were trying out as we were designing Spell Damage Druid, No Minion Mage, Handbuff Paladin, things like that in this set.

And then of course we come back and we do a full final pass and decisions are made much closer to when the actual Core set is going to be going live with the new year. But yeah, that's something that we are working on consistently for about a year of time.

The range of this expansion seems especially broad since it's revisiting so many different eras of Hearthstone. What considerations went into making sure the Core set would enable such a broad range of possibilities?

Georgiou: Yeah, it's definitely about making sure it's as flexible as possible. One, they had to be ideally pretty nostalgic this time around. They always are to an extent. But this time we definitely had a little bit more of an emphasis on it. And also targeted enough to work in some of these archetypes that we're creating so that we don't have to retread old ground with new cards. That's where the Core set I think fits in really well.

So take Warlock for example. The Warlock deck that we made with this set was very much not so subtly hearkening back to Handlock and Cubelock decks of old where you're playing a few select powerful demons, you're trying to cheat them out and then destroy them, duplicate them, things like that.

The original deck played Doomguard and Voidlord, primarily with Voidcaller Skull of the Man'ari. We ended up making a sort of new defensive, taunty demon in this set, and we tried to make a new aggressive demon as well. And everything that we kept coming back to, we just kept saying, "We might as well just have Doomguard. Everything we're trying to do here. We're not really doing better than Doomguard, so why don't we just do Doomguard?" And eventually we were like, "Yeah, why don't we?" And so we just put Doomguard in Core. We started playing with it and we're like, yep, this is doing pretty much everything that we want it to do. It's fulfilling the sort of gameplay condition in the way that we're wanting it to, but it's still feeling new and fresh and not like it's just a recreation of the old Cubelock or Handlock deck.

And so that's the sort of circumstance where it's like, hey, we might as well just bring back the old piece into Core; players are going to be really excited to see it. It's still fulfilling the kind of gameplay that we want to see, but we're still able to add on top of it and make a new experience with those cards. And I think that's really cool when we can get all of those circumstances to align.

Speaking of iconic, the Harth Stonebrew card itself was the free kickoff celebration type card. You had to decide on iconic hands for him to summon. What was that design process like?

Georgiou: Yeah, that was really fun. It was really fun. So Harth Stonebrew didn't start as a card in the Whizbang's Workshop. Actually started as a concept for the character Zephrys. The original Zephrys, you wish for the perfect card, and it was, what if for this Zephrys that you wish for the perfect hand? And it felt like, yeah, that was maybe an okay representation of Zephrys, but it didn't quite fit 100%. But then there was an idea to do this cycle of gift spells. And from there it was like, well, it doesn't feel like we should just do this cycle of spells. It feels like you need something else on top of it. Who's throwing the party? And when you look at that, it's like, well, obviously who's celebrating Hearthstone's 10th birthday, but Harth?

We'd never seen Harth in Hearthstone before officially. So it was a little bit of a risk; we're like, should we make a card for Harth? But when we decided to [do] that we thought, okay, well this idea of these hands from Hearthstone's history, obviously they're celebrating Hearthstone, Harth's the perfect character. So we all got together as a group and just sort of brainstormed our favorite decks from Hearthstone's history and how we could best sort of distill those decks down into an eight card hand. And that's where we came up with the 11 that we chose. Technically 13, because Death Knight's got three separate ones. But it was a really fun process.

And you have the gift spells as well, you had to come up with the three most iconic spells from each class.

Georgiou: Yeah. That was again, just an extension of that same process. What are some of the most fundamental spells that players remember from these classes? And so for Druid, yeah, it's obviously Wild Growth. For Warrior, yep, Shield Block.

So going forward, in a broad sense, when you're bringing back this sheer number of mechanics and combo enablers, how do you make sure that you're in a good place for the next expansion?

Georgiou: Yeah, there's a lot of factors to consider. I wouldn't say that it's really any different from any other expansion that we've done. In Titans we made the Titans. And going forward, how do you design knowing that the Titans are in standard for the next year and a half? They're very, very powerful.

It was kind of a similar situation with the Colossals. Having powerful cards to enable powerful decks and enable really fun gameplay is awesome. That's what we want. It's really when you start getting to those game winning combinations, the things that can really end games very decisively that you start to look at, well, maybe we should be a little bit considerate. Like, the best Warrior deck right now is an Odyn armor gain Warrior. Anytime we make armor gain, it's going to contribute to a deck like that. So we should probably be a little bit careful about how much going forward we make cards that are going to slot directly into a deck like that.

So just a few things to consider there. But definitely looking at the current meta that we have, looking at which decks are performing really well, which maybe aren't performing quite as well, and just figuring out what it is they need. Because ultimately with every set, we're looking to make new decks, make new experiences for players, not render old decks unusable, not render old decks meaningless. That isn't fun either. But to just make sure that there is a whole host of new stuff for players to get their hands on. And sometimes those new cards are really fitting in old decks that are good. Sometimes they're able to make old decks that didn't succeed very well when they were released successful in a newer expansion.

When Hearthstone started, balance changes were relatively slow. Now it feels a lot faster and more nimble. Does that represent a philosophical change of approach into how the team sees balance updates?

Nathan Lyons-Smith: Part of that, definitely it's been philosophy and willingness to react quickly. And also looking at the market and what our players want. They're very hungry for this. And you see a bunch of our competitors and other games just reacting really quickly to player feedback where it makes sense. That's also come alongside investment in our pipeline and process and capability to do that quickly.

We think about time to mitigation and then time to change. If something gets really bad, we can ban the card, and fix it the next week, if it happens on Friday. And so being willing to do that and talk to the community about what we're doing and why, and then go and change it. There's always more we could do there. It's not as easy as one button and done, but I do think that the team has been really responsive to that feedback and the investment we've made has unlocked our ability to make those changes quickly.

Georgiou: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's also in part a response to just how much more content we're making these days, how many more cards we have just in the average expansion. Plus we have many sets that are an additional 38 cards. It's just a lot more than was originally planned with Hearthstone 10 years ago.

And so we want to feel comfortable with taking big swings. We want to feel comfortable with making cards like Zilliax. I think that there are some numbers on Zilliax that might have to change just by virtue of how many numbers there are on Zilliax. We play tested with it a ton and we're like, we feel like we're really close here. But there are so many variables that you can't account for every single thing. And so what we can do is just try to set ourselves up for success as well as we can. There are tons and tons of knobs that we can turn there as far as balancing options after things go live and just making sure that we're in a position to be able to react quickly and to be able to make those fine-tuning decisions in a way that will just enhance the experience for our players.

For more on Hearthstone for its 10th anniversary, be sure to read our retrospective on how Hearthstone helped to popularize loot boxes.

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