When the Forged in the Barrens set for Hearthstone dropped a few months ago, the overall theming of the set was clear: wilderness, brutality, long horizons, worn boots and bloody axes. A barbarian wanderer’s dream.
Appropriately enough, now we’re seeing the other side of the tracks. Our UK-exclusive interview with Hearthstone senior designers Chadd Nervig and Matt London opened with various pictures depicting palatial architecture, bustling market squares, vaulted throne rooms and stalwart knights. The logo in the corner of these images - the title of the new set - makes everything clear: United in Stormwind.
For those who don’t know, Stormwind is a famous nation and city in World of Warcraft and Hearthstone lore that serves as one of the iconic capitals of the Alliance and a primary location for many players in WoW. Things are looking very different to the Barrens, as Nervig and London were keen to explain.
(Interview edited for clarity and concision)
Chadd Nervig: United in Stormwind! This is our next big expansion for Hearthstone; our year follows these ten different mercenary characters who started in Forged in the Barrens, just starting out their adventures, getting their footing. Well now things have progressed, they’ve levelled up a bit and they’re off to the big city. It’s an Alliance-themed set; while Barrens was an outdoors, rough-and-tumble fight for survival, this is our city set, where we’ve got things like bustling trade, heroes getting their mounts, and going on epic questlines.
Chadd Nervig: Questlines are a revisit to our old quests mechanic, but with a new spin. Questlines, like Quests, start in your hand and cost one mana, but they also have three parts now. So as you complete the individual steps, they transform into the next layer.
Gfinity: Ah, so a real three-act narrative then?
Chadd Nervig: Yes, this is how we’re telling at least part of the story for what each of our mercenaries are doing during their time here in Stormwind!
Here Matt London steps in to explain this in more detail, using an upcoming Legendary Stormwind Questline card as an example: The Demon Seed.
Matt London: For people who have been following Forged in the Barrens, by this point they’ll know that Tamsin Roame has gathered the Demon Seed, this powerful Warlock-y artifact. Her goal is to sneak into Stormwind and summon the dread lord Anetheron, but the Demon Seed is incredibly difficult and painful to use, so we represent that here in this Questline where you have to take a bunch of damage on your turn. Obviously there’s a bunch of Warlock cards that feed into that mechanic, and then over time you’ll be able to get back some of that life. The amount of damage you have to take each turn escalates with each step, and once you complete the final step, you’re rewarded with a very powerful minion that represents your mercenary at the end of their journey.
Chadd Nervig: Each of these Questlines (there’s one for each class), tend to create deck archetypes. The Demon Seed is clearly based around a deck that damages yourself. Blightborn Tamsin, the final step, is a five-mana 7/7 whose battlecry says that “for the rest of the game, damage you take on your turn damages the opponent instead.”
They take us through another example of this afterwards, the Mage’s Questline card: Sorcerer’s Gambit. Here the emphasis is on drawing different kinds of spells, representing mercenary Dawngrasp’s increasing versatility in magic. The final step is equally brutal - another five-mana 7/7 (though we’re told they’re not all like that) whose battlecry gives you +3 spell damage for the rest of the game. Clearly many future decks will be based around fulfilling these Questlines for the substantial rewards that they give you.
Tradeables, Mounts and Profession Tools
Chadd Nervig: Another big feature in United in Stormwind is Tradeable, a new keyword. It means that for one mana you can drag it to your deck, it’ll shuffle it back in and you can get a new card. It’s great for situational cards; take this Rustrot Viper: your opponent might not have a weapon, but it’s OK to run this card in your deck, as you can swap it out and find something more helpful.
The further examples of Tradeable cards we see seem to follow similar lines; devastating in certain situations, but not optimal in others. The opportunity to mulligan them back into your deck mid-game could seriously change what kind of deck builds are viable. Already this seemed like a substantial addition to any set, but there was still more to come.
Chadd Nervig: Mounts! As you level up in World of Warcraft, once you’re mid-level you get to earn your mount. And that’s a series of cards that we have coming to United in Stormwind! These are buff spells that give minions some stats and cool effect, then when it dies it hops off as its own minion. Similar to something we did in Un’goro Crater, but now we have a bunch of these.
The other cool thing is Profession Tools. Professions are a big part of the big city in WoW, so we’ve added these profession tools that go in your weapon slot but don’t have an attack; but they trigger when certain things happen.
Gfinity: So weapons that provide more of a utility function - that should be interesting.
New Legendaries and Card Changes
Gfinity: The new Legendaries that we’re going to see: are they all Questlines, or are there more besides?
Chadd Nervig: There are! This is Flightmaster Dungar, a card we’ve giving away free as part of the announcement, and reflects that Stormwind is a main hub for travel. You play Flightmaster Dungar and decide - do I want to fly to Westfall, to Ironforge or the Plaguelands? Those flight paths take longer depending on how far away they are, but the reward you get scales up depending on how far away it is.
Gfinity: And are there going to be any changes to existing cards; balances that might change the way people are playing?
Chadd Nervig: Every expansion is an opportunity to look back at old cards, to see how they may synergise, to reevaluate the power level of existing cards as they’re played in a brand new meta. So we don’t have any immediate changes to Barrens or Core cards, but we will be watching and seeing how they play out so we can make changes if necessary.
Storytelling in Hearthstone
Gfinity: Obviously this kind of storytelling is pretty experimental and unconventional - what would you say your inspirations are, both when it comes to the stories of the Mercenaries and just how to tell these kinds of stories overall?
Matt London: One of the things that we wanted to do when we started Year of the Gryphon was to have the stories of these Mercenaries represented in all the pieces of Hearthstone: collectable cards, singleplayer content, Battlegrounds heroes. We wanted it to be everywhere in the game. I was always fascinated by transmedia as a storytelling mode and I felt like Hearthstone itself tied into that nicely.
I find it very enjoyable to be able to tell stories inside of a card game. It may not be a natural, logical storytelling format, but I was able to draw from older storytelling modes, whether that be radio drama or even theatre. I think back to Shakespearean times where you would listen to a play, not go see a play! I think about that when I’m writing for the game, because the visual version of what you’re seeing is so limited by the cards on the game board that you often have to embellish what the characters are saying a little bit. And so far it seems like players have responded really positively, that they are able to suspend disbelief, just like you would when seeing a play, and get into the story even though you have that bit of distance, what with it being a card game.
Gfinity: Do each of you have a favourite mercenary? Either mechanically or for the story that they’re going through?
Chadd Nervig: For me, I’d say Dawngrasp. I just love them as a character and I especially like that mastery of all the different elements of being a mage.
Matt London: (laughs) Guff Runetotem is definitely my favourite to write! I find him very amusing just for myself. I'm glad that people have responded in such a fun way to him because he is so nice, almost to a fault. And though we’re not revealing it today, Xyrella’s Questline is one of my favourite cards we’ve ever made, maybe my favourite card. That’s one I’m excited to put into my deck.
Gfinity: Are there any new characters from Warcraft that you’d love to bring over and put in that Hearthstone context? Or put them in more of a starring role if they’ve already made that jump?
Chadd Nervig: Well, we’ll get to see some of that coming in Stormwind. It’ll be fun - I don’t want to spoil any cards that are yet to be revealed, but there are some major characters that you’d expect to find in Stormwind that’ll be appearing in the set. But also, WoW is just a really rich source of material, and it’s fun to pull from that rich canon and also from our imagination, as well as how those things mix. The Mercenaries and how they interact with canon characters.
When there is a big cohesive set of settings and characters - that makes a great situation for a new expansion set (or mini-set if it’s that size). For more one-off characters, we tend to go for Hero Skins, or now Battlegrounds Hero skins and Bartenders. So I’m looking forward to all the ways we can mix and match and introduce more of these characters in.
New Decks and Builds
Gfinity: What decks are you both going to play when the new set launches?
Chadd Nervig: (instantly) Shadow Priest! Darkbishop Benedictus, that’s a Legendary I’m super excited for. I’m not much of a Priest player usually, tankiness is more something I do in WoW. I tend to play more aggressive things in Hearthstone, and it’s been interesting to take things in a more aggressive direction - you’re a Shadow Priest, you damage enemies, damage enemy face, just get ‘em! I’m excited for that.
Matt London: I don’t want to piggyback on Chadd’s answer too much, but I’m also super-hyped for this card. One of the things I think is amazing about releasing cards like this is that it makes you reevaluate all of the spells in Priest that have come in the last couple of years.
Chadd Nervig: Oh, yeah.
Matt London: Now you have to think about spell types, what Shadow cards does Priest have available, and that to me is one of my favourite things about Hearthstone - each new set, each new mini-set, makes you evaluate each new card that’s currently in Standard.
I also am really excited to play Mage; I feel Dawngrasp’s Questline really lends itself to a very spell-heavy, reactive deck, which is a style I really enjoy, and so I think it’s going to be fun to put that hodge-podge of spells into your deck, try and use them, timed perfectly to trigger the different steps of the Questline.
Battlegrounds and Duels Mode
Gfinity: When it comes to Battlegrounds and Duels, are we going to see any changes to those when the set drops, or are they still in development?
Chadd Nervig: Yeah, there’s some big news for Battlegrounds! Battlegrounds is super-popular and we’re going to keep supporting it - new minions, heroes, that stuff. But there’s another real big piece coming and that is along with the release of United in Stormwind, we are launching customization options for Battlegrounds. Just like the Hero skins for the constructed game, we’re launching Hero skins for Battlegrounds, as well as alternate Bartenders! The first one is the Battlegrounds Beach Party Bundle, where several of our favourite heroes have stopped to have a party on the beach!
Gfinity: (laughs) That’s just a great piece of artwork straight off the bat.
Chadd Nervig: That is Tiki-Lord Ragnaros! He’s set up shop in a Tiki hut and is selling Sulfuron Slammer drinks, and he’s our new Bartender! If you like Ragnaros, if you want to get yelled at, want to get called an insect, Ragnaros sounds like a good bartender. Meanwhile, Milhouse is playing Volleyball with a Pyroblast, Vol’jin and AFK are chilling on the beach, the Lich King Bolvar is grilling up burgers as Grill King Bolvar. There’s a lot of fun in the sun going on there!
The second theme we’ve got is Battlegrounds Heroes: Shadowlands. If you’re a fan of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands you’re probably familiar with the four covenants - the Necrolords, the Night Fae, etc. Now we see eight of our heroes join those covenants: George and Finley have joined the Kyrian, while Ysera and Omu have joined the Night Fae.
There’s also a new Bartender along with that: Ve’nari! Matt and I both love Ve’nari from Shadowlands, she’s just such a fun character and we thought she’d make a great Bartender. She’s neutral to it all...
Matt London: (laughs) Mildly condescending! And a little less aggro than Tiki-Lord Ragnaros.
Gfinity: Well, now you’ve got a nice trinity! The friendly, the incredibly unfriendly and somebody who’s just in the middle of it all. And can you announce anything for Duels, or is that still a work in progress?
Matt London: The team is super-committed to continuing to update and provide new content for Duels. There is more to come; one of the things we love to see with each new set release is how that changes the Duels meta, similarly to Arena, so - yeah, continuing to support Duels and add new content.
Gfinity: Last year we had the addition of the Demon Hunter class; probably one of the biggest additions to Hearthstone since Hearthstone. Can we expect any more classes or shake-ups on that level in the near future?
Chadd Nervig: Near future? I probably wouldn’t expect that. Demon Hunter was indeed a very huge addition to Hearthstone and a huge project to undertake. We don’t currently have another class in development, but I would probably say it’s a matter of “when”, not “if”.
The Progression System
Gfinity: The progression system changed in a big way last year; can we expect to see more changes to it in the future, or is the model that Hearthstone’s going to be using from here on out?
Chadd Nervig: I think we’ve got it in a really good place now, so there’s not a whole lot of major changes to it between the sorts of things you saw in Forged in the Barrens and United in Stormwind. But there is lots of new content - new Hero skins, new card packs to earn, gold to earn, achievements to do. Gameplay achievements especially are a ton of fun to give; exciting opportunities for all the cards in the set to shine. But overall we’ve been refining and narrowing the progression system down to just the right spot and it’s in a pretty good spot, I think.
Murlocs and Mailboxes
As the interview wound to a close, we started talking about particular cards from the upcoming set that Chadd and Matt loved. One image seemed very familiar indeed...
Chadd Nervig: I think my favourite card as a one-off to really nail that Stormwind flavour is Mailbox Dancer! If you’ve played WoW for a while you may be familiar with this; Mailbox Dancer! Earning some coin! (laughs) We try to keep things a little lighthearted - we may be dealing with Demon Seeds and summoning demon lords in the middle of Stormwind, but we also gotta have our Mailbox Dancers!
Gfinity: Well, what are we fighting for if not our Mailbox Dancer?
Chadd Nervig: Exactly!
Gfinity: Finally and most importantly, as somebody who’s always playing Murlocs, can you tell me any Murloc swear words that haven’t been revealed before?
Chadd Nervig: (guttural noises)
Gfinity: … I’m going to need that spelt out.
Chadd Nervig: G-L-R-R-A-C-H.
Matt London: You shouldn’t say that in mixed company though. It’s really inappropriate.
The 135 card expansion set United in Stormwind launches for Hearthstone on August 3rd, though players who log in now should be able to claim the Legendary Flightmaster Dungar card for free! Players will also be able to pre-order the Mega Bundle, Standard Bundle and new Battlegrounds Bundles right now for when United in Stormwind launches.