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Tech - Game

Designing Hearthstone's Death Knights

Team 5 reveal some of the bonkers ideas that were left on the cutting room floor.

One of the marquee features of the most recent Hearthstone expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne, is the fact that each class gets a brand new hero card. These cards turn each hero into a Death Knight, and radically shift up the gameplay. I recently caught up with Team 5 senior designer Mike Donais and game designer Dean Ayala for a chat about the design process behind those cards. Not only that, but the guys dived into the vault to provide work in progress art for some of the early designs! You're going to love seeing some of this stuff.

(Oh, and this is part two of the interview, so be sure to check out Mike and Dean's thinking behind the recent Hearthstone card nerfs here.)

IGN: Before we get into specific Death Knight cards, take me through the initial design phase; when you decided to do a Death Knight for each class, and that it would be a different type of card. Laying the groundwork for what was to come for Frozen Throne.

Mike Donais: Something that we wanted to do for a long time was make more cards like Jaraxxus, he's one of our favourite cards in the game. He does some really cool stuff. He was implemented as a minion, which means he has all these weird interactions. Sometimes he ends up in play as a 3/15 minion. Sometimes a secret will trigger and do something to him that you didn't expect.

So, we wanted to do it in a nice clean way as a new card type. We talked for a while about when to do that new card type of heroes. We wanted to make sure that it was a set where it was really worth it; it was really about those new heroes, and that new hero card. And this, Knights of the Frozen Throne, we were introducing all nine heroes as Death Knights, it was the perfect set for that. Each of our old heroes was coming back as something badass, more awesome, than we've ever seen before.

Our heroes, reinvented.

Dean Ayala: Yeah, we went through some iterations… one of the problems with Jaraxxus is sometimes you don't want to play him, because you are in a meta-game where being at 15 health after you just played a big card, and haven't done anything else in your turn, is just not something you can do.

An all-time classic.

Originally we had thought, "Hey, maybe we'll make a bunch of cards like Jaraxxus," but ended up going off of that thought pretty quickly. Just because we didn't want all of these awesome character cards that we planned on doing to be something that you couldn't play because you are worried about going too low. It's like doing the same sort of design as Jaraxxus, so we ended up keeping them as sort of like, you get this 5 armour, so they all have some consistency, and they all look a bit different than any card that you've seen in Hearthstone previously. And also, you get to keep your old health, which is a bit different than the Jaraxxus implementation. But, we thought that it ended up being pretty cool in play-testing.

IGN: So, how early on did that idea to unify the five armour come about, but also the flexibility to have things like different meta costs? Overall it must have been a really exciting path to start to go down to design nine of these cards.

Mike Donais: Yeah, it was. Pretty early on we decided that we were thinking, "Hey, would they set you up to 15 health or 20 health," and it's like, sometimes that will be big heal for you and sometimes it would feel bad because it would deal 10 or 15 damage to you. If there's a burst damage deck in the meta then setting yourself to 15 is just setting yourself up to die. Pretty early on, we identified that, "Okay, let's not change your health total." If you're gonna take a turn off, let's give you 5 armor to make up for that, as a little bonus. And let's give them all a battle cry so they have an immediate impact of some kind. Then leave your health exactly the same.

"Rexxar and Jaina and Anduin are characters that we take very seriously, so we wanted to do them all justice." - Dean Ayala.

We were talking about whether it should say, plus 5 healing or plus 5 armour in the bottom corner there? It became obvious, fairly quickly, that plus 5 armour was more clear on what it would do. Having a 5 with a heart around it or something would be like, "Well, does that set me to 5 health?"

Dean Ayala: To answer your other question too, it was very exciting and also a bit stressful. All these characters are very important to Hearthstone obviously. Rexxar and Jaina and Anduin are characters that we take very seriously, so we wanted to do them all justice. We wanted them all to be cards that people would be very excited to play. Cards that are not only really exciting for people wanting to build a deck, but also for all of them to be a reasonable power level that you might think about playing in a Hearthstone game.

Concept art for Anduin as a Death Knight.

If your favourite class is Warrior, we want you to be able to think about playing the warrior hero card, or Garrosh in your deck. Getting them all balanced correctly and also be very, very exciting, was super important to us. We went through a lot of design iteration on all of them, to figure out what hero cards even were. Not only from the design side, but also from the art side. How do they come into play and what does the card look like? We didn't want it to look like a spell, and we didn't want it to look like a minion.

So a lot of work went into these things to make them feel different and awesome and exciting, because, y’know, they were a new card type. They were really the point of interest for Knights of the Frozen Throne in general. And also, they were our heroes, they’re very important to us.

IGN: Was there a particular card that cemented - yes, this is the right direction to go in? Did you get Frost Lich Jaina worked out and that set the tone? Or was it all bubbling away organically and came together later on?

Mike Donais: Flavour wise, the Cinematics Team presented the idea of, "Hey, everyone's a Death Knight and Frost Lich Jaina is the face." So that concept, flavour wise, like - yeah, of course she's a Frost Lich - that's so cool to us. That sort of cemented it in flavour wise.

Setting the tone.

Then we had to start doing the mechanical design. That took us quite some time to get designs we were happy with, both for all nine battle cries and all nine hero powers. Dean printed out some of the previous ones before we came to this meeting, and just going through them, "Wow, we had a lot of crazy ideas."

Dean Ayala: We initially were looking at all the hero card designs, and a lot of times, the first time that we design something on the sheet, it actually ends up staying all the way through. The numbers might change, but the general concept of the design sticks around. For the hero cards, there were zero that stayed from their original design through. None of them escaped being redesigned at some point, which is pretty interesting. It's not to say that the original ones weren't very good. It was just that they were so important that we tried more things with these hero cards than we do with basically any of the other cards that we've made.

IGN: Should we run through some of those earlier designs? I am so fascinated by the journey to get to the final card. Is there anywhere in particular that you'd like to start?

Shadow Mistress!

Mike Donais: We'll start with Valeera. One of the things we had is, our concept artist drew out a bunch of the heroes for us - what would they look like corrupted? That really helped us hone in on, "Wow that's so bad ass!" With Shadowreaper Anduin, and we saw his concept, we were like, "Holy cow! That's just creepy." Valeera was another one like that. We're like, "Wow. She's like a shadow now." What does that mean? Stealth obviously came to mind. One of her designs was battle cry, give your hero and minions stealth until your next turn.

IGN: Woah.

Dean Ayala: It was very close to what she ended up with. The hero power was “discover a secret from any class.”

IGN: What? That would be mental.

Mike Donais: Yeah, it was really awesome. It was a bit weird, because you're like, "Wait, now she has a Mage and a Hunter secret in play, how do I play around both of those?"

IGN: I guess that's happened before with Yogg.

Mike Donais: Yup. And that was crazy too. We liked that, because secrets and being a shadow sort of made sense concept wise, but the hero power we ended up with was even crazier.

Bad ass.

Dean Ayala: It was one of the reasons that we changed some of these. They were cool designs in concept, and a lot of them were cool mechanically. It's like, "oh, they might inspire you to do this kind of deck, or that would be cool for a card that we would make." But, a lot of the time we were looking at these heroes and we want to do something that was truly different. Truly something that you haven't seen before. For Valeera “discover a secret from any class” is totally wild, but I think what we ended up with was so unique that it really hit what we wanted to do.

It's the same for Hunter. The battle cry used to be, "Summon your beasts that died this game." It was sort of a N’Zoth for beasts. The hero power was, deal 2 damage to all enemies. It was just a constant AOE over time to protect all the beasts that you had summoned this game.

These two early designs for Rexxar's DK both have insanely powerful effects.

IGN: Wow.

Dean Ayala: Which is cool and it's crazy. It was also quite powerful and created this new deck. But, it wasn't really something that you've never seen before, so when we ended up with, “stitch these two different beasts together,” there are so many iterations that went through on that. That was something truly different that you hadn't seen before, that was very, very cool to us.

IGN: Let's talk a little bit more Valeera’s hero power. I think even just wrapping your head around what that hero power means, was step one. That's a good feeling to have when you read a card – you need to see it in action and there are so much possibilities there. I feel like Valeera is the sleeper Death Knight that’s yet to be figured out and will be amazing at some point in the future.

Dean Ayala: Yeah. I think we all thought that Valeera was very, very powerful. It might not be the meta-game for the Valeera hero power or hero card right now, but I think at least it'll be quite powerful, at some point in some meta-game. And in basically any Rogue deck that does exist now, you can put in the Rogue hero card and it'll be quite good for you.

The final design is pure potential.

I think Warlock is like, I think a lot of people played Warlock very early on, but over time, as more demons come out, because that card is specifically – “what demons are in Warlock right now?” That matters a lot to resummon all your demons that died this game. So I think over time, that one’s going to get better as well.

IGN: Yeah, totally. I've played games against that card where they'll bring back maybe three minions. It's rarely a big enough impact to really turn the tide of the game. With that said, the Warlock DK hero power is amazing, too. We'll touch on that in a minute.

Let’s come back to Deathstalker Rexxar quickly. I'm just curious about the current hero power, the build-a-beast, and how difficult it was to find the right implementation of that concept. I know that when it was first announced, Mike, you hopped into Trump’s stream or somewhere and explained, "Here are the rules around what you're gonna be presented with to stitch together the creature." I can imagine that there would have been a few different ways you could've implemented that.

Mike Donais: Yeah. It became clear pretty quickly that picking a two six mana minions and ending with a 12 mana minion was not a good idea. [Laughs] So we restricted it to five mana or less [for each pick]. At that point you could also get minions that are outside of your class. Getting some of the warrior taunts was just a bit too weird… so we removed that. Then at one point the battle cry was, to craft a Zombeast and then summon it.

That was a bit weird, because the first Zombeast went directly into play without getting its battle cry, and all the rest went into your hand. So, the very first one you wanted to avoid picking a battle cry on. Then for all the other ones, you wanted to take battle cries on. It was kind of counter intuitive and it didn't really need to go on the battle cry. It felt like on the hero power was plenty - it communicated this awesome concept fine. So we took it off the battle cry.

Rexxar's DK hero power.

Dean Ayala: It was on the battle cry for a while - we were play testing it. One of the really cool things about creating a custom Zombeast is, you look at your hand, you see how much mana you have to play, and then you try to pick something that either, "Well I'm out of cards I'll just pick the biggest thing," or, "I have a bunch of cards, and I'll make this really powerful guy to summon with four mana."

[When it was] on battle cry it took a lot of that decision making out of it. You just picked the biggest thing possible, because you don't have to spend the mana for it. That was the less interesting way to craft the Zombeasts, so we ended up thinking we should change that. There wasn't really much decision making going in to summoning one on battle cry.

IGN: Let's come back to Bloodreaver Gul'dan. What other things did you think about for that battle cry text? I was wondering whether, at any point you’d tied it into minions that had been discarded or anything like that?

"It was kind of like a Molten Giant hero card that summoned demons from your deck." - Dean Ayala.

Dean Ayala: For Gul'dan, we had the concept of Gul'dan being sort of this vampiric guy. The pictures of him were – sort of the concept of a Vampire Death Knight. So we had the hero power in, almost from the beginning. That was the hero power that we had from the very start. It was deal two, restore two, it ended up being deal three, restore three, but it's basically the same thing.

The hero itself, it was “battle cry: summon 3 demons from your deck.” But that wasn't the interesting part of it. The interesting part of it was that it originally cost 30 and it was “cost one less for each health you're missing,” so it sort of worked how old Handlock was used to playing, like, with Molten Giants, where you'd get really low and you'd be able to play these things for a tiny amount of mana. It was kind of like a Molten Giant hero card that summoned demons from your deck. It was different because of that.

Both of these early iterations for Gul'dan sound NUTS.

IGN: You just blew my mind. That sounds crazy.

Dean Ayala: It is super crazy. Also, it has a lot of the swingy-ness of, "I was doing what I was supposed to do, which was kill my opponent. Then he played a zero mana gain 5 armour, summon a bunch of demons from his deck." Though, there's something really cool about that design, and I think that the players that have played Hearthstone for a really long time, hearkening back to playing Molten Giant is like, "Yeah, this is really, Warlocky." Warlocks were doing a lot of damage to themselves, so maybe there's some synergy there. But we thought that there was enough in the, “summon the demons that die this game,” so you’re playing a demon deck and that card was interesting enough and it was fun enough to play that we didn't also need it to layer on the possible super swingy-ness of playing it for zero mana, and swinging a game totally back from being way behind.

IGN: Got it. In a general sense, I also like the fact that you’re leaning back into the demon synergy for Warlock as well.

Dean Ayala: Yeah, I'm really excited about that kind of thing. It's pretty good now. Like I said, it will continue to grow in strength over time, as more demons get added to Warlock. Which will always be a thing. Warlocks play demons, so we'll probably continue to make demons.

Early concepts for Garrosh.

IGN: Let’s chat about my favourite card in the set - Shadowreaper Anduin. That in combination with Raza - it's insane the burst that Priest suddenly has. How much did that card change over time and did you anticipate exactly how people were going to use that in the Highlander decks?

Mike Donais: Oh yeah.

Dean Ayala: We played him a lot.

Res Priest.

Mike Donais: We play tested him a lot in Highlander, in not Highlander, in burst desks, in OTK decks, so we had a lot of information on him. His hero power changed a lot, his battle cry changed a lot. One of his early hero powers was just resurrect - summon a random friendly minion that died this game. That was okay and it was a little bit build-around, because you’d, like, not play cheap minions, but yes to play expensive minions. It was pretty cool. One of the reasons we went away from that, was we wanted to try a more spell heavy, crazy tricky deck.

The same thing happened with Valeera. Valeera started with “discover a secret,” which is cool, but then we changed her to be a spell heavy, crazy, tricky deck. It's an identity that Rogues and Priests both have, and I think they've come up really well in the last few sets. Another one we tried was – “whenever you play a card, deal three damage to a random enemy.”

IGN: Right. That's interesting.

Mike Donais:  Yeah, it was very random.

"One of his early hero powers was just resurrect... [but] we wanted to try a more spell heavy, crazy tricky deck." - Mike Donais.

Dean Ayala: It was also a lot of - that one actually did result in a lot of OTKs. You don't have to play a tonne of cards when all of your cards deal three damage.

IGN: True.

Mike Donais: And that one just happened automatically, so even if you weren't playing Reno, you could do a bunch of cheap spells and get it to trigger a bunch of times.

Dean Ayala: That's what sort of inspired the last version. There was something there. When it was “after you play a card, deal three damage to a random enemy,” we played it and it was a lot of face damage, but there was also something there. Like Mike was saying, you put in a little bit more cheaper spells in your deck and you have these crazy combo turns at the end of the game.

The version that we had was a bit too much. But we thought that there are these pretty cool combinations with Raza that you can do in these in the Raza Kazakus decks. And also, even if you don't have Raza, it's still pretty good. So having the crazy combinations you can do without having it be an actual OTK deck, that is killing you from 30, there was something there, so we ended up changing it and keeping the cool combo nature at the end of the game. But removing the mass face damage in one turn.

IGN: I think where you landed gives players a lot of decisions and maths to do, because sometimes you have to work out what damage you're capable of, sometimes you have to use the hero power on the board to stop yourself from dying, to set up for lethal on the next turn. Sometimes you use Kazakus for one mana-cost spell just to give you a little bit of extra juice.  I find it really engaging, you're not always machine gunning down your opponent. Sometimes it's just that extra burst to get you over the line. To win longer games.

Dean Ayala: Yeah. It helps a lot, because Priests don't have a lot of that. There's been decks in the past where you run [Prophet] Velen and Mind Blast and Malygos and do shenanigans like that. But that's not every Priest deck. You're normally, historically, pretty safe against Priests. You have five health left, you're like, "oh, I'll be fine". Priests, they don’t have a lot of over the top reach, this kind of gives them that extra threat at the end of the game, which is different and it also feels like you're a Shadow Priest. You're doing Shadow Priest stuff. That you're fulfilling the fantasy of what Anduin looks like when he's Shadowreaper Anduin. It hits on the core fantasy of what that is, I think as well.

Your tickets to burst damage as a Priest.

IGN: It's an awesome card. Was there any discussion about synergising with Shadowform, which is obviously already in the game?

It's no Shadowreaper Anduin.

Dean Ayala: Yeah. We talked at length about Shadowform and how it interacts with Anduin for a very, very long time now. We've had designs in the past where we did more things around Shadowform. Something we generally don't like to do in card design is reference other cards. We do it sometimes – like, we did it with Frost Lich Jaina where we referenced water elemental. But, Shadowreaper [Anduim] his power is called Voidform now, but it used to be like Empowered Shadowform, or something. So that when you cast Shadowform, there was some amount of synergy there, so maybe you could put Shadowform in your deck. But we just didn't end up needing it. Shadowform’s a cool card from the classic set and people will play it for a long time in Hearthstone. It just didn't fit in this deck. We talked about trying to make it work and trying to make all the pieces work together. It just didn't end up fleshing out the way we wanted it to. We thought that this deck could stand on its own without it.

IGN: Yeah, I just hate getting it off Lyra, when I'm already in Voidform.

Dean Ayala: Yup. That is something we've talked about, yeah.

Woah, check out the early concept for Malfurion on the left.

IGN: Lets quickly dig into a couple more. Frost Lich Jaina. Such a powerful card. She doesn’t even need an elemental shell - you just need to stall the game to the point where you can play her and then your healing capacity is off the charts. And if you've got Baron Geddon in your deck, then you've got a little mini Reno right there. Tell me a little bit about designing that card specifically.

Mike Donais: I liked her, because she's one of the more build-around cards. People experiment with some elementals, a few, a lot, or just like two, even. Baron Geddon being the obvious one, because if you play him after Jaina, you get a bunch of life.

We started early on with the Frost Lich, so we knew it would be something frosty. We knew we wanted to make something build-around, so we tried the battle cry of “your elementals in your hand, in deck and in play all get +2/+2.” And that was close. It was a bit weird, because sometimes you would summon elementals later and they wouldn't get the +2/+2, like you've discovered them or something. So, we did an aura effect. But, that didn't capture the Death Knight. It just captured the frost part. When we came up with the idea that Lifesteal would be in the set and we figured out, "Hey maybe we can give your elementals Lifesteal to capture the Death Knight half of her concept." We liked that a lot. And then we had to figure out, what else besides Lifesteal? Just giving all your elementals Lifesteal was not nearly enough, so we gave you a Water Elemental, and that helped you see, "Oh, look, my Water Elemental has a Lifesteal icon on it." And your opponent would see, "Oh, his Water Elemental has a Lifesteal icon on it." So you both know right away, this thing is happening.

Two early versions of Jaina's hero card. That art is so good.

Mike Donais: We actually had it summon two Water Elementals for a while. We found out it didn't need to be two, Jaina was all about the Water Elemental… you know, in Warcraft 3 she had a pet Water Elemental flying around with her. Heroes of the Storm also. So it made sense to have a Water Elemental type concept and the hero power.

One of the early versions of the hero power was deal one damage to a minion, if you kill it the hero power grows stronger. So it would do two damage the next time and then three damage and then four damage.

IGN: Interesting.

Mike Donais: Yeah, it scaled up and by the end of the game, obviously it'd be very good.

"One of the early versions of the [Mage] hero power was deal one damage to a minion, if you kill it the hero power grows stronger." - Mike Donais.

IGN: Was that too good? Or did you prefer the final implementation more?

Mike Donais: It was good, I mean we could cost it. We could probably balance it if we wanted to. But, once we realised it was going be about elementals, having it be a source of more elementals was really elegant. So now we changed it to “deal one damage to a minion. If you kill it, summon a Water Elemental.” It just worked out perfectly for the first half of the card, the battle cry.

Dean Ayala: This is one of those things that there's a bunch of goals we have when we're making cards. One of the goals is, when you read it does this sound really awesome? Does this sound like, "Holy shit! This is crazy, I want to do this!" And I think that “deal damage to a minion, if it dies you'll get stronger,” that actually accomplishes that goal.

Some of the other goals we have are, "Does this really create anything new that people aren't doing today?" Maybe it does, maybe you only play this in super control decks. Maybe that's a little bit different, but for Mage particularly at the time, it wasn't a lot different.

And then one of the other goals we have which is also super important is - in a world where people are playing this card, is it fun? Do these result in fun games? And the games where this hero power got… very good? Your opponent, anything that they played would die. Every single card. Just imagine, you know that every single time you play a minion for the rest of your game, your opponent has a free two mana Assassinate, basically.

So while it was cool, and it was cool to read, it didn't actually result in a lot of fun games. Whereas we think that the card that we did end up with, did result in some of the push and pull fun games.

Uther, Death Reaper! A board clear with benefits!

IGN: Makes sense. Before we finish up, let’s touch on Thrall, Deathseer and the idea of Evolve being a real class identity thing for Shaman now. How did that design come about?

Mike Donais: It seemed like a cool, the idea of transforming minions into ones [with a higher mana cost]. A long time ago we did a minion that transformed as a battle cry another minion. That was fun and people enjoyed it a lot, I enjoyed it. We enjoyed it so much that we're like, "Oh, we could do more cards with this design.” And that's something we do a lot in Hearthstone,  we'll do one design and people like it, so we'll do more. And now it's kind of a Shaman mechanic. We talked a lot about, "Oh, what class should get this?" After some discussion we figured it feels right for Shaman. Then we started doing more and more in Shaman. Evolve, Devolve, Thrall and it's like, "Okay, yeah, we've explored this mechanic now.”

People seem to like it. It's a little bit random, but not super random. Once in a while it's very random. It's pretty fun. We'll probably - like all mechanics - take some time off it and maybe come back to it later, if people enjoy it. I think it's a reasonable mechanic for the four or five cards that we've used on it.

Now THIS is work in progress card art! Either that or it's Thrall of the White Mist.

IGN: Yeah cool. Thanks as always for your time, guys!

A huge additional thanks to Mike, Dean and the rest of the team for supplying the work in progress card art and concept art!

Cam Shea is senior editor in IGN's Sydney office and a CCG nerd. He's on Twitter.

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