The stories behind Shirvallah, Jan’alai, Gonk, Krag’wa and more, with exclusive work-in-progress art.
Hearthstone’s most recent expansion – Rastakhan’s Rumble – took players back to the Gurubashi Arena from World of Warcraft, and gave them a set of cards themed around trolls, teams, arena combat, Loa and spirits. I caught up with Team 5’s Lead Initial Designer Peter Whalen and Lead Final Designer Dean Ayala to chat through some of the most interesting cards in the set and how they came about. [I ran the section of the interview focused on Zul’jin and designing hero cards separately – read it here.] The guys also dug up some incredible work-in-progress card art that’s never been seen outside Blizzard. Enjoy!
IGN: One of my favourite cards in this set is Jan’alai the Dragonhawk, and I think the Hearthstone community just, as a whole, lost its collective minds when that card was announced. It’s very cool. What can you tell me about designing that card?
Peter Whalen: Yeah. That card is awesome. Jan’alai and the Dragonhawks have always been about their hero power. We wanted to get this fire vibe into Mage, and we liked the hero power stuff. So, between the Spirit, Pyromaniac, and Jan’alai, we always had the “your hero power hits adjacent minions.” It’s moved around as to exactly which guy that was on.
But we’ve also had, let’s see, there was “spell damage effects your hero power.” So Jan’alai at one point was “spell damage plus three, spell damage effects your hero power.” Then… the spell damage effects your hero power moved on to the Spirit for a little while, but then you had to have another card to go with your Spirit , so it didn’t play all that well. The deck just didn’t quite work, because you were trying to do the hero power stuff at the same time as the spell power stuff. It just took up to many spots, and it was too hard to make happen.
So then we moved to Jan’alai being more of a direct pay-off card. More of just mid-rangy style. So it became a battlecry: “summon all the minions your hero power’s killed this game.” And that was sweet. It had two really big issues. One of which is, people really hate it when you beat them with their own minions. Really, really, really hate it. And the other one was you had to remember all of the things that died. And that was kind of a pain for both you and your opponent because both of you had to track that information even if you hadn’t drawn Jan’alai yet.
IGN: Right. And you don’t want to finish off a Doomsayer with your hero power.
Peter Whalen: Right. Yes. And you might have, and then you forget, and then you feel really dumb. So that felt pretty bad. So for both of those reasons, we wanted to find another version of it that was in that same space where it was like a six, seven, eight cost card that gave you some mid-late game value and also tempo. It just gave you some board presence.
And so we were thinking about, “What are awesome fire creatures from Warcraft’s past and Hearthstone’s past?” And we said “What if we just bring back Ragnaros?” Ragnaros is awesome, he’s fiery, it’s perfect. And we played a couple of games with it and we said, “Yep. Yep. It is perfect. This is awesome. I think we can do this.” And it was really cool.
IGN: I really love that card. I had a lot of fun experimenting with it early on in the set release. Another Mage card that I really like from a design perspective, that hasn’t necessarily found a place yet, is Hex Lord Malacrass.
Peter Whalen: Yep. That’s my favourite card in the set.
IGN: Oh really?
Peter Whalen: Yep. I love that card. That one came in the first week of initial design. We had a new designer who started and the first day he was here, we said, “Okay. You’re just going to do Mage. So go design Mage and it’s going to be great”, right? And he said, “Okay!” And he put in a bunch of cards and one of them was Hex Lord Malacrass. And it just basically stayed the same the whole time the set was in development, and I love it.
It’s just one of those cards that’s like – Hearthstone can do this, it’s a digital card game, it’s weird. It also has really good gameplay where it changes how you mulligan and how you decide what cards you’re going to keep and when you play it based on how you mulligan. It’s really cool. The gameplay’s cool. And also just the idea’s really neat.
IGN: So what do you think needs to happen for it to find a place? Do you think more experimentation, maybe some conscious support from you guys? Or is it just one of those cards that will always be niche?
Peter Whalen: It feels like more of a meta game thing. If you’re in a world where playing a late game draw three or four is good, then that’s the kind of world that Malacrass can shine in. In the same world where Ancient of Lore was a phenomenally powerful card, Malacrass can also be incredibly, incredibly good. Especially if you’re going to fatigue and also need value, because he’s just generating these extra cards rather then drawing them. That’s the sort of old school Reno Mage type world from Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. He might be a pretty good card in that kind of a world.
“For Hunter and Mage, having those resource generation cards are going to be a lot more valuable when they’re not battling with the DK Rexxar and the DK Jaina.” – Dean Ayala.
Dean Ayala: It’s the kind of card where rotation, I think, is going to help a lot. If you think about the kind of deck that Malacrass can get in, it’s like a Control Mage deck where you need resources. And right now that deck is competing with Jaina – the Death Knight – right? So I mean, you don’t really need a lot of these card draw resource generation cards when you have Jaina, ’cause Jaina is really carrying a lot of that resource generation. So you can just depend on having a whole bunch of removal and a little bit of burn, and then have Jaina sort of carry you in terms of just having resources to deal with your opponent.
So when that leaves Standard, I think that’s going to give a lot of room to, “Okay. I don’t have Jaina anymore, now what do I do now?” I think it’s the same for a lot of the DKs. We talked a lot about when Classic and Basic were just around, you used to win a games by just playing Ysera. Ysera lived and that was kind of how you won games.
And now there’s the six sets in Standard and there’s all these crazy cards and a lot of the DKs are… the environment is actually really cool. I just think it’s going to change a lot when a lot of these value generators go away. I think cards like Malacrass are actually going to have an easier time finding a spot when the idea of generating three or four cards is actually like super, super valuable.
IGN: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. In terms of value generation, did you ever toy with the idea of not having the “except this card” part of the text?
Peter Whalen: (Laughs) Yep. Yep. We had that version until someone did it enough times that we added that. It can just be pretty frustrating. If you’re in that space where value generation is important, having Malacrass happen over and over and over again is pretty frustrating. Or Malacrass plus Arcane Missiles and whatever other things. Or Malacrass plus Frost Nova for every turn forever is pretty frustrating.
Dean Ayala: Yeah. I don’t know how interesting this is, but for Malacrass I remember that what I spent the most time talking about Malacrass was what your opening hand constitutes? Is it-
Peter Whalen: Does the coin count?
Dean Ayala: Does the coin count? Is it… and a lot of people, what opening hand means is when the game starts and the mulligan happens and you draw your first card, does that also count as your opening hand? And I think in some ways that’s the way people… like whenever you’re talking about like, “Oh. My opening hand was this”. And a lot of times when you’re talking about Hearthstone, you’re also including the first card that you drew. But do you think about it in the same way as when you read a card? Is that what you’re expecting? And, yeah, does it include the coin, does it not? So we ended up going back and forth a lot on that as well. But I think we ended up in a pretty good space.
IGN: It will be cool to see a bit more play from this card once rotation hits. The next card I’d like to talk about is for Druid, and it’s Gonk, the Raptor. There’s a lot of support for this kind of concept in the set, and it’s definitely wound up being relatively niche but we’ve seen some people do some ridiculous things with this card.
Peter Whalen: Yep. He was in a pretty similar state to that pretty much the whole time. We iterated a bit on the feral package; Pounce, and that guy [Gonk] and the battlecry Savagery minion [Savage Striker]. The Spirit, at some point, was “your hero has windfury.”
IGN: Right. Really?
Peter Whalen: Instead of Gonk doing that and Gonk gave you a bonus when you attacked and killed minions. I don’t remember whether it was drawing cards or something else – gaining armour, I’m not sure what it was. And then your hero had windfury was the spirit.
We ended up moving them because the more exciting thing was your hero attacking a whole bunch. And then that deck needed some more resources, because you’re spending so many of your resources to give your hero attack on removals. So giving the Spirit card draw made sense in that context.
IGN: And so where did the general concept of upping Druid hero power and doing more damage with it come from?
Peter Whalen: World of Warcraft, actually. We looked at – what are the Druid fantasies that we haven’t really hit in Hearthstone? And in Kobolds & Catacombs, we hit pretty hard on the Guardian fantasy. What if armour was important for your Druid? What if you were the tank in your adventuring party? And so we built this sort of Guardian armour package stuff into Kobolds & Catacombs, and a little bit into Witchwood to support that. And then when we looked at Rastakhan’s Rumble we said, “Okay. What’s a Druid going to do in the rumble? They’re going to get into cat form and they’re going to tear stuff up.” But really, in the rumble, it’s going to be the raptor form. They’re going to turn into a dinosaur and tear things up because these are Troll Druids.
And so it made since from that perspective – let’s do the feral thing. What does it mean in Hearthstone for you to be a Feral Druid? And that led to the Spirit of the Raptor and Pounce and all of those things.
Dean Ayala: It’s a bit unfortunate for Gonk that he had to live in the same world as Twig [of the World Tree]. We had a lot of playtests where – Gonk I think used to be, I don’t remember, like three or four mana, something like that – different stats obviously, but there was a lot of circumstances where your opponent would play some minions, and you’d play Gonk, and you’d play Pounce with the Twig out, and then you would attack like four times, kill all their stuff, get ten mana and cast a bunch more cards.
So in order for that circumstance to exist I think it had to happen a little bit later in the game, because it was just a little bit too insane, especially when comboed with stuff like Pounce and Twig. So I think, certainly when rotation happens and a lot of cards get rotated out and the strategies change a lot, I hope that there’s a little bit more room for Gonk to shine.
Peter Whalen: Shirvallah. Shirvallah came first. Which came first, the Spirit or the tiger? The Tiger came first. It was definitely Shirvallah. We had that design super early on and then it took us a while to find the right Spirit to go with it.
We knew we wanted something with your spells being more awesome to go into the Shirvallah, you’re casting lots of spells, especially big ones. Early on we had “your spells cast twice” as the Paladin Spirit. And that was pretty cool, but also pretty extreme. There were some very large Avenging Wraths. And just some nonsense from what happened with that.
And so we ended up moving to… we want you to generate a little bit more value on board rather than just shooting your opponent for 16, or double Holy Wrath-ing. So we ended up moving to the Spirit that we shipped of summoning more tigers for you. That also felt a little more Paladin-y, where they have a bunch of minions, they’ve got all these tigers that they’re using to attack their enemies rather than just supercharging their spells.
IGN: Cool. And so Shirvallah was there from very early on. In that present form or did that card change a lot?
Peter Whalen: I know it changed slightly – it was 30 mana at some point. But we thought that was too extreme with Holy Wrath, so we moved it to 25 and the stats went up, down a little bit.
Dean Ayala: I think it was 9/6 or something. Yeah, Shirvallah always surprised me in that we had it at a bunch of different stats and it was always pretty powerful. And I think even now a lot of the Paladin spells are pretty good, right? Like having something like Spikeridged Steed helps a lot right now because you can just burn twelve mana pretty easily and you’re pretty happy about it.
But Shirvallah’s really cool. Having rush on that card and giving Paladin the idea that they’re able to kind of come back into games and that they want to shuffle that card back in and getting copies of it is really cool because they cost zero mana in your hand. Sort of opened up a lot of different things for Paladin. There’s more of a control strategy, and then there’s people that are doing kind of OTK stuff with that as well. Shirvallah was one of my favourite designs going into the set, and I think now that the set’s been out a while, it’s still one of my favourite designs.
IGN: There’s a lot of decks in the game right now that have real late game inevitably. I know when you’re playing against that Shirvallah deck, as soon as they start shuffling it back in, the clock is ticking to finish them off. It’s a cool late game card.
Dean Ayala: Yeah I love Shirvallah a lot. I actually like it the most in a control sort of environment too, because I mean, Paladin’s getting low, and they’re healing themselves back up, and this is just one of the cards that contributes to that… because even a lot of the games with OTK – where the Paladin’s real winning is they’re destroying your minions and they’re healing themselves. And in very few of those games is the inevitability thing of like, “Yeah. I’m going to deal 25 damage to you.” I think having that dream is really cool and the cooler part is you’re not actually taking 25 damage shots every time you’re playing against this deck. It usually plays out in just kind of a normal Hearthstone way.
IGN: Yeah I don’t know if I’ve ever been killed by that Holy Wrath combo. What was testing for that like internally?
Peter Whalen: For the Holy Wrath combo or Shirvallah in general?
IGN: For Holy Wrath and Shirvallah in general.
Peter Whalen: Shirvallah in general, we played a lot with it. It was pretty fun. Like Dean said it’s a card I really like in the set. It’s also one of the ones that when we show it internally, even to people on other teams at Blizzard, it got very positive responses. People really like that card. And also when you see a 25 mana card, you just get excited. People love 25 mana cards, which is maybe a weird thing to say, but you just know that if it’s 25 mana, something cool is going on. It’s got to be good.
“We used to have a whiteboard with the number of people Dean’s killed with Holy Wrath today.” – Peter Whalen.
The Holy Wrath combo in particular, I’ll let Dean speak to, because we used to have a whiteboard with the number of people Dean’s killed with Holy Wrath today.
Dean Ayala: [Things have changed now that] Molten Giant has left us for Wild… it’s pretty dangerous to have Holy Wrath in a world where you can have like four to six 25-35 mana cards in your deck. It can be pretty dangerous. But actually Arcane Giant used to be 35 mana and we ended up changing that. That was the one from the whiteboard. If you’re playing Paladin and it’s just right to just rip Holy Wrath at player’s faces and just hope it deals 30, it’s probably not the healthiest environment to live in. It’s fun for us to playtest for a while, but eventually we stop laughing and change the card.
But I think for Shirvallah, I mean when it was 35, there’s the risk of that but it’s not really so much. I think that it going down to 25 and having it just be less binary where, at 25, we don’t have to really go out of our way every single set to print a whole bunch of like really high mana Paladin spells in order for it to work. And at the same, it’s not just very easily zero mana every single game. I think 25 just ended up being the right number for that card in general.
IGN: I’ve been quite surprised at how easily people can get that card down to zero mana actually. So yeah, I think 25 is about right.
Dean Ayala: It comes down at a pretty late stage in the game too, ’cause even though I think players mostly do play it for zero mana, it’s not like a zero mana on turn eight thing. The game is played out over a long time, and I think maybe some of the results of that is players want to shuffle it in and it’s a lot easier to do when it’s zero mana? I don’t know if that strategy is going to be the thing to do with Shirvallah forever. Just playing Shirvallah and killing a minion and then healing is pretty good on its own.
IGN: Yeah. For sure. Staying on Paladin, let’s talk about High Priest Thekal. Another really interesting card from a conceptual perspective that ties into a lot of the other things that Paladin does in this set. Did that come before or after the heal theme?
Peter Whalen: So we know we wanted to the heal archetype. It’s been one of those things that makes sense for Paladin for a long time. It’s part of their core class fantasy both from World of Warcraft and in Hearthstone. So we had some of that in Kobolds & Catacombs, you can see it in the Spellstone for example. So we wanted to try again, and the key card there was actually Bloodclaw – the 2/2 weapon that deals 5 damage to your hero when you play it – that made us say, “Okay. I think we can do this.” And that helped one of their core problems which was sometimes you have all this healing and all these cards that need healing to happen, but there’s nothing that’s hurt. Especially against controlling type decks.
And so Bloodclaw let you hurt yourself or else gave you a weapon to hurt yourself more and that was nice, but we wanted another card that would also help you hurt yourself. So the original with Thekal design was a 3/1, “damage dealt to this minion is dealt to your hero instead.” I think that ended up as a mission card in the Rumble Run for Paladin and that was pretty painful to play against. It was actually pretty fun to play, especially in the healing deck, but when you were playing against it it was really frustrating ’cause you couldn’t ever remove it. Which makes it perfect for a mission card because the AI doesn’t feel bad but you still get to feel really smart.
We ended up changing it on the collectable side to basically replace all your health with armour so that you could heal up as much as you wanted and you’d have tons and tons of health. That’s another one of those cards that showed really well, people get really excited when they see it. The idea of being able to heal up to 60 is very, very powerful. That dream is very cool.