Hearthstone: Ashes of Outland interview — The demon hunter workshop
When Ashes of Outland opens up shop April 7, Hearthstone will be celebrating more than just the arrival of a new expansion and Standard year — it will bring the first new class to Blizzard Entertainment’s digital card game since it launched out of a beta test in 2014.
The demon hunter is the marquee attraction for Ashes of Outland, which is Hearthstone’s 17th new card set. It riffs on The Burning Crusade, which was the first expansion of World of Warcraft’s long history. This new class takes a bit from some of the other Hearthstone heroes — the demons of the Warlock, the 1-damage ping attack of Rogue, and the token-style of Druid, Paladin, or Shaman. Throw in new mechanics like Outcast (which give bonuses to cards depending on if they’re on the left-most or right-most side of your hand) and Dormant, along with the previous refresh of Priest and the 2020 Hall of Fame class (I don’t miss ya, Mind Control Tech!), and Hearthstone looks so much more different than it did in 2019.
And that should be a good thing. Digital card games like Hearthstone depend on engaged players buying card packs, bundles, and other in-game goodies. By making these changes, adding modes like Battlegrounds while releasing frequent updates, and creating new classes, Blizzard is making a good case for players, be they lapsed, old regulars, or new, to keep playing (and spending). This is especially important for Blizzard as Magic: The Gathering — Arena continues to challenge Hearthstone for card-game supremacy.
During February’s Hearthstone Summit, Blizzard briefed me on the demon hunter and Ashes of Outland. I played a bunch of matches with the deck, and it took me some time to nail down the class’s rhythm. I enjoyed how active it feels, as you are often outright going to your opponent’s face or setting up big swings for the next turn. I interviewed Hearthstone FX artist Hadidjah Chamberlin and game designer Stephen Chang about the team’s approach to creating the demon hunter and its mechanics.
This is an edited transcript of my interview.
Demon hunter workshop
GamesBeat: It’s been six years of Hearthstone. Why add a class now? In Hearthstone’s first few years, people talked about having new classes, but that died down, and many players had given up on new classes.
Hadidjah Chamberlin: A lot of it does have to do with the fact that Hearthstone’s been around for six years now. We’ve had six years to learn about what players enjoy about the nine classes we had, to really refine what we want each of the identities for those classes to be. As part of that, we’ve gotten to see where there’s still room for another class identity, cool things we could do with that that wedge in nicely with all the rest of the classes. That’s led us to build a class that feels unique and exciting. It’s bringing something new to Hearthstone, but keeps all of the rest of them feeling special.
GamesBeat: When did work on demon hunter start?
Stephen Chang: About a year ago, a bit before a year ago, roughly? Our production for expansions runs about a year, and we had talked about it around that time. We wanted to see if there was excitement amongs the team, if we could do it typically. There’s a lot of things to think about when adding a new class. We had all those conversations. Everyone was super excited. We thought it would be something that was exciting that we could bring to Hearthstone.
GamesBeat: When you’re designing a new class, what do you look at first?
Chang: The first thing we looked at when we were approaching the design of the class was, we wanted to make sure we captured the fantasy of the class, what people think of when they think of demon hunter, how to capture that feeling of being a demon hunter: that fast, aggressive, agile style. From there we started iterating and experimenting with the types of archetypes that–how it would make sense in Hearthstone and the types of archetypes that class would have. From there we started iterating on mechanics for the class. We gave it a new keyword, Outcast, and a part of that was both from the thematic standpoint of, these are the outcasts of society. People aren’t exactly sure if they’re good or evil. They do their own thing. We wanted a mechanic to capture that. The word fit well with the mechanic of caring about the edges of your cards and how to manipulate the cards in your hand to take the most benefit from it. We also spent a ton of time iterating on the hero card. That dictates a lot of how the heroes will play out. We explored a vast variety of hero powers, constantly iterating on it, and then ultimately we landed on the one mana hero power, which is very unique to the demon hunter class. All the original classes have two mana powers. We wanted to capture that fast play style, the idea of demon hunters always being on the attack. We have a lot of cards that play around attacking for the turn and getting bonuses from that.
Chamberlin: One of the coolest things for me about demon hunter, that I was having so much fun with in playtests, is that it gives you tons of these interesting tiny decisions, constantly. [The new mechanic] Outcast is a great example of it, because sometimes when you draw an Outcast card, maybe you want to play it right then, but maybe you want to hold on to it. Clearing the rest of your hand out of the way starts to matter. They also have a kit that’s very focused on soul magic, where it’s — some of your cards will get benefits from how many of your own minions have died during that turn. That’s another thing where play order starts to matter. How you trade your minions, whether you want to go wide with a small board so that you can chip away at a lot of things and have a lot of minions die in one turn to get a powerful version of that card in your hand, there’s a lot of cool choices like that. You get to constantly feel pretty clever for those sorts of things. It’s really fun to play.
GamesBeat: And also the order of how you attack matters, too.
GamesBeat: At what point did having your hero attack first and and then having cards play off effects from that attack crystallize as part of demon hunter kit?
Chang: A lot of it was just that we wanted to live out the fantasy of the demon hunter leading the charge of the armies following it. We wanted to ensure that the class was very active. By attacking and getting a lot of bonuses from that, it encourages a very proactive playstyle. That was one of the things we definitely wanted to capture with demon hunter. They do a lot of front line attacking, but they also jump into the back line to attack. We wanted to capture all of that mechanically in Hearthstone. But we also want — there’s also the soul magic archetype, but there’s also a big demon archetype as well. Demon hunters care a lot about having power. There are demons out there that also really respect power. The demon hunters have recruited some of these big demons to help fight alongside them, and one of the play styles as demon hunter, you can play a very control play style with very large demons that you can summon.
GamesBeat: Like the Imprisoned Antaen, which goes dormant for two turns and then does 10 damage.
Chang: Yeah, and also the Pit Commander that will recruit another demon. You have all these giant demons that you can activate that have that more control style, if you’re not the type of player that enjoys an aggressive style. There’s also that play style that demon hunters have, and it still fits into the fantasy of controlling these large, powerful armies.
GamesBeat: Why did you decide to give a hero power that’s only 1 mana?
Chang: We iterated a ton initially. The hero power was 2 mana, and we tried a lot of different varieties at 2 mana. But we knew we wanted a hero power that granted an attack, because of all the attack triggers that matter for all the cards we were making. We tried plus 1 attack, immune to plus+1 attack, ignore taunt. We tried activating twice. They all didn’t quite fit exactly what we wanted for demon hunter, which was to have a very reliable, fast way to activate and attack and provide that for demon hunter. After all the iteration, someone suggested, what if we just make it 1 mana? Can we do that? That’s kind of scary, but we gave it a shot.
We started playtesting with it. We tried out the variety of cards that worked with it, and it just felt right. It felt fast, and it felt like you had ease of access to activate the things you had. You had a lot of interesting choices. There were a lot of decision points where you might have a card that you want to play on curve, or you might play a card that’s a little off curve, but you get a hero power. There were all these tiny decisions that you get to make, a lot of interesting choices. Everything felt right when we started exploring that hero power. We adjusted all the cards to account for a 1 mana hero power, so they were at the right level, and then everything just flowed from there. It was a ton of iteration. We worked a lot on the hero power. But once we got to that point and playtested it, it felt right and felt fun.
Chamberlin: It’s one of the things that’s really fascinating to me, seeing all the iterations in the hero power. When the 1 mana version came in, suddenly it felt right. You felt like a demon hunter, because … you feel fast. You feel like you can weave it in anywhere. It really contributes to this whole flurry of attacks feeling you have. It’s aggressive. It’s a bit chaotic. That’s something that we were trying to support on all sides, on design, art, everywhere. That was one of the things where it went in and, yeah, now you feel like a demon hunter. It was really cool.
Chang: Other iterations, something just felt off. We couldn’t explain it. I don’t think this is right. All right, back to the drawing board and let’s try another one. Eventually we tried that one and it just worked. You know it works when everyone’s eyes light up. This feels right. This is how this hero should feel like when you’re playing it. It really fit that fantasy of being a demon hunter.