We take an in-depth look at the biggest Hearthstone update in years and talk to key figures at Blizzard about its goals with this trifecta of updates.
Though Blizzard has long supported Hearthstone with regular expansions, new game modes, and quality-of-life improvements, the coming weeks will bring all three at once. The new expansion, Madness at the Darkmoon Faire, brings back the fan-favorite Old Gods--huge minions with wild game-changing effects. A new game mode, called Duels, brings the popular Dungeon Run mechanics into multiplayer. And these big new additions are coming alongside a completely revamped progression system, which will let you earn seasonal rewards across all the different modes. We've also seen the first batch of new cards coming to Darkmoon Faire, so check out our gallery of all the Darkmoon Faire cards we've seen so far.
I played an early session of the new Duels mode, which like Dungeon Run makes you feel severely OP. I also spoke with game director Ben Lee, Darkmoon Faire set lead John McIntyre, designer Liv Breeden, and engineer Sarah Chen about Hearthstone's most ambitious game update in years.
Old Gods at the Darkmoon Faire
The centerpiece of these updates is Madness at the Darkmoon Faire, the new Hearthstone expansion coming November 17. That expansion adds a 135 new cards as usual, including the four Old Gods. These 10-Mana neutral minions were first introduced in Whispers of the Old Gods, the third official expansion, in 2016. They've remained popular since, and so Blizzard is bringing them back with new unique effects that echo their original powers.
"We'd been wanting to do Darkmoon Faire for a really long time," McIntyre said. "It's a really fun, lighthearted setting, but it doesn't have that much conflict within it. And the Old Gods, you know, they're nothing but conflict. And they need a setting, they need somewhere to go. So we think that the two of them made a lot of sense as a pair."
The Old Gods
C'Thun, the Shattered - Start of Game: Break into pieces. Battlecry: Deal 30 damage randomly split among all enemies.
Instead of being empowered by cultist worshippers, this time C'Thun is broken into four parts which manifest as individual playable cards throughout your deck: Heart of C'Thun, Eye of C'Thun, Body of C'Thun, and Maw of C'Thun. Once you've assembled them all by drawing and playing them, you get access to the C'Thun, which again deals massive damage.
N'Zoth, God of the Deep - Battlecry: Resurrect a friendly minion of each type.
N'Zoth no longer resurrects your Deathrattle minions, instead working with tribal synergies. If you build a deck with one or two key representatives from each tribe, you can guarantee certain ones show up at once for a big, impactful turn.
Yogg-Saron, Master of Fate - Battlecry: If you've cast 10 spells this game, spin the Wheel of Yogg-Saron.
Described as "maybe the flashiest thing in the set," Yogg-Saron's mechanic presents a game spinner. When you summon the Wheel of Yogg, you get to spin for a prize like a board full of rush minions or random spells that cost 0, each with a roughly 19% chance of occurring. The jackpot, a slimmer wedge with only around a 5% chance, is the Rod of Roasting: it just wildly casts Pyroblast at everything until you or your opponent dies.
Y'Shaarj, the Defiler - Battlecry: Add a copy of each Corrupted card you've played this game to your hand. They cost (0) this turn.
Y'Shaarj has the most significant changes from his original set, now working with the new Corrupt mechanic. But by making your corrupted minions (0) cost, you can still use them for big swing turns, just like the original Y'Shaarj could summon another big minion.
"[The Old Gods] were definitely the hardest things to design for for the set," McIntyre said. "But we spent a lot of time on them, because we knew they were just the important part of the set. And they drive a lot of our archetypes in our classes. A lot of the other cards are dependent on serving these Old Gods. Original design goals for them were, let's make them 10-mana neutral minions that drive deck archetypes, and each one should serve different types of play."
Meanwhile, if you miss the original designs of the Old Gods, they're making a return of sorts too. Four class-exclusive spells called Old Gods Artifacts are designed to imitate the original Old Gods effects.
A new Corrupt mechanic, as synergized with the new Y'Shaarj, encourages saving some of your lower-cost cards for later. These cards are upgraded by playing a higher-cost card, but your opponent won't see the transformation effect until you play them on the board. And fitting the flavor of the set, all of them cost less than 10 Mana, which means that playing any Old God will always trigger your Corrupt effects.
"Corrupt is super cool because I think some of the coolest designs in a Hearthstone are the ones that show progression," Breeden said. "So whether that's the Worgen transforming back and forth, or Galakrond progressing and becoming more and more embodied by the class that he is, the Corrupt cards are just that for the Old Gods. The Darkmoon Faire is this carnival that's got spooky vibes about it, of course, but it's a pretty normal carnival. But then once you add the Old Gods touches to it, the carousel comes alive or the roller coaster starts eating people, I think that's just the core of what Madness at the Darkmoon Faire really is."
Making and Expanding the Darkmoon Faire
Whenever making a new set, the first step is a wide brainstorming session. That includes weeks of rapid prototyping using in-game editing tools and even sometimes physical cards or other game pieces.
"The first three weeks of starting an expansion we just explore," Breeden said. "And we start really wide blue sky, anything goes: 'Do we have a ticket currency system where you acquire tickets and then you sacrifice them to Yogg-Saron? That sounds pretty cool. How complicated is that system? Do we have like a ticket booth? Do we have prizes?' We start really wide and then we narrow ourselves down and find the ones that play the best as well as are easy to understand."
Meanwhile, Darkmoon Faire represents Blizzard hitting its new stride for the cadence of game updates. While the updates have been increasing in frequency, it was hard to discern an exact pattern. Some of that was the company setting the groundwork or preparing for its new update format, which it is now putting into action.
"The general idea is that at every major patch, there's a [version] dot-0. The x.0 is an expansion launch, the x.2 is a major Battlegrounds update, the x.4 is an event--like Halloween, etc.--and then the x.6 is our pre-patch, meaning the new expansion is announced. Then we get into the cycle for the next expansion, and we do events around that sometimes. For example, Silas Darkmoon is the card from Darkmoon that is released early to shake up the Standard and Wild games a bit."
Silas Darkmoon literally shakes up the battlefield, with a Battlecry effect that rotates all minions on the board.
Lee said the x.4 updates will be getting "much stronger" because of the addition of mini-sets, like Galakrond's Awakening in the middle of the Descent of Dragons expansion. He suggested we can expect these mini-sets to become more common going forward now that Blizzard has analyzed the data and found how well players responded to it as compared to other mid-season events.
"We saw by a significant margin that the thing that worked the best for the game's health was mini-sets," Lee said. "We couldn't enact on that so quickly, which is why, for example, Ashes of Outland and Scholomance [expansions] didn't actually have mini-sets. Because we needed to learn from that and then take away from that, and then actually do the work to deliver on it. We'd actually have really liked to have been able to do those for those expansions to shake up the game a little bit more."
Dungeon Run, Meet Duels
In its history, Hearthstone has only added a handful of new modes. Standard and Arena play have been available from the beginning; Blizzard added the Tavern Brawls in 2015, and Battlegrounds in 2019. Though it has experimented with various solo modes like Story Adventures and Puzzles, it was the roguelike Dungeon Run that was an instant hit. With a variety of overpowered heroes, powers, and treasures--and equally tough bosses--it got a big fan reaction as fun, repeatable content.
"Dungeon Runs have been around for pretty long now. I think Kobolds & Catacombs was the first Dungeon Run, which is a few years ago now," Lee said. "So something that has been in the back of the team's mind, various people across Hearthstone. We thought it would be a pretty cool thing to try out."
In Dungeon Run, you pick a new hero with a unique power that would be far overpowered for standard play. Then you battle your way through a series of randomly selected bosses, each with their own OP hero powers, while accumulating more cards along with strong treasures. Playing the Dungeon Run repeatedly will unlock new hero powers, enabling new combinations.
The new Duels mode is very much the same, except instead of a series of AI-controlled bosses, you're fighting against other players who are all doing the same thing with their own powerful heroes. Similar to Arena, your goal is to reach 12 wins before you accumulate three losses. But Duels has one more significant difference from Dungeon Run. You start a Duels run by constructing a small deck of 15 cards from your own collection.
"[Battlegrounds] doesn't necessarily serve some of the core Hearthstone experience in terms of making your collection feel valuable," Lee said, "and that's one of the key things we wanted Duels to do."
This has a few key benefits. As Chen pointed out, building a 15-card start deck, which you then build on through your Duels run, might be less daunting for aspiring deck-builders than a full 30-card deck. Breeden also pointed out that it allows some flexibility--letting you build a generic starter deck or spec towards building around a specific Legendary that synergizes around your unique hero power.
Duels doesn't use your entire collection, however. Instead, seasons of Duels are themed around certain expansions. The first is themed around the idea of Wizard Duels, matching the Harry Potter-like theme of the last expansion, Scholomance Academy. The initial card pool will pull from the Scholomance, Curse of Naxxramas, One Night in Karazhan, and the Classic and Basic sets. Rotating the playable sets, as well as the heroes and treasures, is how Blizzard aims to keep Duels fresh.
"We're adding a lot of new Treasures and Hero powers and Duels throughout the cycle," Lee said. "For example, at the midpoint of the expansion, we're going to hit them with a whole big bunch of updates to Duels. It's like all of those cards that you earned or purchased earlier in the expansion cycle, they have more value again, and they feel better because you're getting more use in different ways. So with Duels, we wanted to create something fun, something different, something interesting--but we also wanted to respect players' collections and make them feel valuable."
Duels is also taking a different approach to prizes. Arena is only available by purchasing your way in with 150 Gold, $2 IAP, or a "Tavern Ticket." Duels will be available in two tiers. The first, a free mode available for everyone, offers no prizes. But if you want to compete for rewards like in Arena, you'll need to buy your way in. I wondered if this means we might see Arena changed to match, with a free tier for players who aren't interested in competing for prizes.
"We have some thoughts internally about it, but there's such a really cool, loyal player base that enjoys Arena and plays it a huge amount every day," Lee said. "And with change disrupting that isn't always necessarily the best thing."
Hands-On (Swords-On?) With Duels
After a brief hands-on with the new Duels mode, it was clear Blizzard has a winner on its hands. Dungeon Run was an instant hit because it used familiar mechanics, but the enhanced hero powers and treasures made you feel extra-powerful. Duels understands that and delivers a similar feeling, while the competitive multiplayer nature of it makes the balance that much more impressive and engaging.
I've always been a Paladin main--2000 wins and counting, thank you--so I chose Turalyon, The Tenured as my hero of choice. The standard Paladin hero power summons a 1/1 Silver Hand Recruit, giving you constant access to board presence. The first unlocked Duels power is a huge upgrade, giving you a 1/1 resurrected minion that had previously died, with one health remaining.
I promptly filled my deck with Deathrattle minions to synergize with the revival mechanic--why not get multiple hits from the same Deathrattle?--and started progressing my way through my opponents. It wasn't long before I discovered an enviable treasure, the Wax Rager. This 5/1 minion from prior Dungeon Runs resummons itself as a Deathrattle. Paired with my hero power, I could theoretically fill my board with unkillable minions. Like a good Dungeon Run session, I felt utterly confident that this combo would be wildly overpowered. Surely I would be unbeatable!
In practice, not so much. For one, my build was clumsy and not particularly well thought-out, which I credit only partially to it being my first time. More significantly, though, my third and final loss was against a Mage whose upgraded hero power would summon a Mana Wyrm if its 1-damage magic bolt killed a minion. Needless to say, this was a hard counter for my hero power which guaranteed 1-health minions populating the board.
It was a massacre, but it was the kind of massacre that illustrates what Hearthstone does so well. Every hero and build can meet its match--and in a game mode that heightens everyone's power level, that can manifest in surprising and devious ways.
New Rewards System Introduces the Tavern Pass
Finally, both the new expansion and new mode will come roughly alongside the totally revamped progression system. This is the second large update to some of Hearthstone's legacy systems in the last several months, starting with the reworked Ranked structure. This time, Blizzard wanted to tackle how players earn and unlock rewards, which had slowly become difficult to track.
"Within Hearthstone, we actually give out quite a lot of rewards and we don't get a lot of credit to that with the community," Lee explained. "Honestly, rightly so, because it's pretty hidden and really quite fractured."
It's also a problem that may turn off new players. Experienced Hearthstone veterans know how to check in frequently for Daily Quests, how to earn gold through wins, how to earn your free weekly pack with a Tavern Brawl, and so on. But new players may not understand all those reward paths, and even experienced players could forget or be unable to check in during a limited-time event. Perhaps more importantly, not every mode would contribute to quests equally, which leaves some modes feeling less valuable than others.
With the new progression system, Blizzard is adding an Achievements system that tracks in-game accomplishments across all modes, with new Achievements added over time with new expansions and major updates. This was one of the top-requested features, according to Breeden. A centralized Reward Track will let you earn experience though all the modes, and help you track what can be earned. Quests will be revised to include larger-scale Weekly quests, and a new Profile page will offer a detailed breakdown of your stats.
"One of the important things to call out is that this isn't a sneaky way to give players less rewards," Lee said. "Players are actually getting more rewards. That's been one of the concerns in the community, is that this kind of repackaging, repurposing was going to lead to a worse player experience. We obviously don't want that. We're putting in a huge amount of effort for this and we obviously want players to log into the game, to see it, play it, experience it, and have an awesome experience and come away from that thinking, 'This was a great addition to the game.'"
In the new Reward Track, you'll progress along 50 levels which will award you with gold, card packs, cards, Tavern Tickets, and cosmetics. You can add a Tavern Pass (essentially, a battle pass) for extra rewards and an XP boost, and purchasing it anytime during the expansion season will grant you any previous items available on the reward track. Three new weekly quests will refresh on Mondays, and event-specific Legendary quests will no longer overwrite your Daily quests.
Reaching level 50 will earn you one of 10 new Hero skins. The initial set of level 50 prizes from Madness at the Darkmoon Fiare includes the Annhylde alternate Warrior Hero and card back, three Jaina Hero Skins, three Thrall Hero Skins, and one of Hearthstone's first-ever collectible Coins.
"Playing the way you want is just so important, right? If I'm ever doing Ladder and I just am burned out and I want to try something new and I can just hop over to the Battlegrounds, I think we should encourage players to do that sort of thing, because it's just awesome," Breeden said. "It's awesome that we have so many different ways to play."
While Chen said that Darkmoon Faire doesn't have a new engineering challenge at the level of Zephrys--the notorious recent card that reads the entirety of the current board state and tries to offer you three "perfect" options--the new rewards system was its own hurdle.
"It definitely is a major overhaul on the engineering end and the design, and honestly, on all ends," Chen said. "It's something that we've honestly have been looking forward to for a really long time. From an engineering standpoint, we're feeling confident enough in the back-end for Hearthstone right now that we can actually implement something like this. And it's honestly just really exciting watching so many things change and the Hearthstone client being able to deliver these cool new features. So it's definitely a major overhaul, but it's something that we've been like looking forward to for a really long time. I'm really excited about this one."
Release Dates and Preorders
Duels will launch in open beta on November 12, alongside the release of the overhauled progression system. Madness at the Darkmoon Faire will follow the next week, on November 17. That date is also scheduled to kick off the first official season of Duels.
However, you can also play Duels right now. Early access is being offered as a preorder bonus for either of the two Darkmoon Faire bundles. Those are offered in two tiers:
Madness at the Darkmoon Faire Pre-Purchase ($39.99)
- 45 Madness at the Darkmoon Faire card packs
- 1 random Madness at the Darkmoon Faire Legendary card (non-golden)
- The N’Zoth card back
- Early access to the new Duels game mode
Madness at the Darkmoon Faire Mega Bundle ($79.99)
- 80 Madness at the Darkmoon Faire card packs
- 5 golden Madness at the Darkmoon Faire card packs
- 1 random golden Madness at the Darkmoon Faire Legendary card
- The playable N’Zoth Warlock Hero
- The N’Zoth card back
- Battleground Perks
- Early access to the new Duels game mode