Talking Lackey Rogue, Bomb Warrior, Elysiana and more.

On the eve of Hearthstone’s World Championship – and a mere two weeks after the release of Rise of Shadows and the Standard rotation – I caught up with Lead Final Designer Dean Ayala to chat about how the current meta looks from Team 5’s perspective, the discussion around Elysiana, the rise of Nomi Priest and whether Darkest Hour is a problem in Wild.

IGN: Let’s start off focusing on Standard. How has the launch been from your perspective? Are things as expected? How’s the meta looking?

Dean Ayala: In terms of the decks that people are playing, I’d say that we’re very happy. I mean, rotation always carries with it a lot of change; there are very few decks that aren’t affected by three expansions going away and another one coming in. So there’s very few decks that didn’t change very much. Hunter has a deck that’s maybe the closest to what it was, but even that, there’s ten cards missing.

IGN: Losing Deathstalker Rexxar changes things.

Dean Ayala: Yeah, and there’s just a lot of stuff, I think. The biggest impact one in terms of how powerful something is, which informs how much it’s played, is Crackling Razormaw, that [was] really carrying that deck quietly.

In terms of – did things change? Which is one of the ways we factor in success when an expansion hits – do things feel fresh, do things feel new? I think that is, for sure, success. So what are people playing in its place? Are those things fun or not? I think the answer to that has been yes, too.

Whenever you have these tentpole characters of the set, like Togwaggle and Dr. Boom, and people are playing these cards, and they’re playing Rafaam in Zoo Warlock. When you have these major characters and some of these major themes, and they come through, that feels pretty good.

And when things are just shifting, like with Bomb Warrior, for example, and in the first two days it’s 25% of all decks and then it shifts pretty naturally. It went from 25 to 16 to 9 or something like that, over the first three days of the expansion. And then it’s Rogue and then it’s Druid, and then people are like – maybe’s Shaman’s good, and then you have people like killin[allday] who are like “what if I brought Nomi Priest to Worlds?” And actually, I’ve been playing ladder the last few days and there’s an insane amount of Nomi Priests.

IGN: Because people have been testing his list after seeing it posted?

Dean Ayala: I guess, right? It’s certainly one of the things that you see that is different enough that you want to mess around with it.

IGN: I chose killinallday based solely on him bringing that deck.

Dean Ayala: Same here… I started playing it and it’s interesting because the whole idea behind the deck is that you play [Chef] Nomi three times, and there’s a lot of times in Hearthstone history where, if you’re going up against a deck that needs to board clear three times, well, they’re just going to do that and you’re going to lose, but it’s not really true [right now], especially with a lot of the decks that people are bringing to Worlds. There’s two Brawls [in Warrior], there’s just not a lot of stuff that can clear three times. And a lot of times there’s so much card draw in the deck that you’re doing this on turn nine, turn ten and turn eleven, which is pretty early to have all the answers that you need, and if you don’t deal with it, there’s seven 6/6s.

One card win-con.

One card win-con.

It’s really interesting. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to infest ladder any time soon, because it’s one of those decks that’s really difficult to play. I would say more so than something like Patron [Warrior], but maybe less so than something like Stonetusk Boar OTK Priest. The kind of decks that take so much brain power to really pilot everything in the exact right way – the understanding of what your opponent has and what you have, how many cards you have left, how many cards you can afford to draw, what you can afford to burn and not, there’s just a lot of information there. It’ll probably just be a high legend deck for its existence, would be my guess.

IGN: What I’m hearing right now is that I’m going to get some free packs.

Dean Ayala: Maybe, yeah, we’ll see. There’s, I think, three people that brought Hecklebot, and Hecklebot is really sketchy for that deck, because it doesn’t run a ton of minions, you don’t ever mulligan for Nomi, so if you ever get Nomi pulled by Hecklebot you just lose the game on the spot. So there’s that dynamic, but it’ll be interesting. We’ll see.

In terms of how happy we are though, yes there’s diversity, I don’t think any of the decks are supremely unfun to play, I think a lot of the conversations right now are around [Archivist] Elysiana, Control, Baleful Banker, games that last forever. I buy it in [terms of] Specialist format stuff, and that’s something that we’re continuing to talk about and see what happens, but in the live environment, those games [do] happen to people, but it’s a very super rare case. I think if games are going to the turn limit and both players are exploding, that would be a negative experience to have on the normal, but [overall] it’s been good. There are classes like Paladin that are lagging a little bit behind right now, but it’s real early. The diversity has been really high.

IGN: And Paladin’s showing some promise – the Mech Paladin builds look interesting.

Dean Ayala: Yeah, people have been playing Kangor’s Endless Army and trying to figure out a mech build of that. That’s been a last couple of days thing, a lot like many of the different Shaman builds that people have. So a lot of diversity, it’s been really good.

IGN: How long will you generally give the meta to settle before you start thinking about whether changes may be necessary? It depends, I guess.

Dean Ayala: Depends on data and perception. Both are pretty weak on their own. For perception, obviously we can’t go to Reddit or wherever and see like “well, people are complaining about this a lot today so based on the number of posts we’ll decide to do something,” and also data doesn’t do a good job of telling you how something feels to play against. The thing that data does do a really good job of is giving us an idea of… is this a real thing or not? For example, if everyone is really upset with Bomb Warrior, and are like “this is going to be the thing that people are going to be playing for the whole expansion and it’s going to be really awful” and then we look at data and it has a 50.2% win rate and it has really bad match-ups versus these other four things that are really popular, well we can infer from that – this is going to fade away, pretty quick. And we did see that…

And then sometimes you’ll see something that you think actually is a little unfun to play against, and has no bad match-ups, with a 56% win rate and that’s the sort of thing we’re like “okay, we have to figure out – if we’re going to do something, what are we going to do?” And honestly, we do that anyway… we talked about “what are we going to do with Bomb Warrior? What are we going to do with Token Druid? What are we going to do with Rogue?” because we have to be [prepared]. When we decide we want to do something, we don’t want to be in the position where we’re thinking about what to change for the first time. We want to be like – we want to do something, alright, we’ve already thought about what we’re going to do. Let’s figure out when we can do it.

So it’s never too early to start thinking about that stuff. We do it constantly at the start of expansions, but in terms of actually executing on changing something? It depends on the severity. We’ve shown that we’ll do it early [if needed].

IGN: My strategy on ladder is that if I really hate playing against a particular deck that’s popular I switch to the most viable counter… most of the time there’s something you can do about it.

Dean Ayala: From a design perspective it’s kind of strange to think about – what is the perfect meta? I think that a lot of people might think, “okay, you have nine classes, so obviously the best meta is that they’re each 11% play rate and they’re all a 50% win rate” but when you’re looking at things like engagement and people that are actually playing the game, and what people gravitate towards, a lot of times, the times people are most engaged with Hearthstone is when there’s a deck that is the best, so you can… talk to friends, look online to find a deck to play.

People like gravitating towards [a situation where] there is a best thing, and it’s 30% play rate, and I think that when you’re reading a lot of online forums… people view that as really negative. And maybe it is to them in particular, for their personal perception, but just in terms of what type of gameplay results in the most amount of people having fun and having things to gravitate towards, I think the answer of “everything is totally balanced and you can choose anything and there’s not really any direction I can push you” – sometimes that’s negative for people because if you can just do anything maybe they don’t know what to do now. Both have their merits. You don’t want something that’s dominating everything else and making it feel like you can only do that thing, but at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with having a best deck and a worst deck.

IGN: To be honest I really like being able to go and play a deck that just feels powerful against the field. I like hopping around, but I don’t really have time to master a bunch of decks. It’s good to be able to play something that’s strong and learn its ins and outs.

Dean Ayala: When you’re thinking about card games, one of the cool things is – okay, what’s powerful, and you can either be like, okay I’m going to choose to do that, or – what’s powerful, and what can I do to counter that? We have this deck that’s the most powerful and popular right now, so I’m going to build my deck to beat that, and that’s part of the fun of card games. And when you start to lose that, it’s like – well, I can’t really build my deck against anything because there’s just everything. You lose a little bit of what makes card games cool in the first place, so that’s interesting to think about.

IGN: Let’s run through a few of the classes in the current meta. Rogue feels really powerful at the moment. There’s a lot of burst in Rogue right now. Is the strength of the class about what you expected? Are any cards – Waggle Pick, for instance – that are performing above what you thought they might? Raiding Party has really come into its own too.

Dean Ayala: I think for Rogue, it was pretty much what we were expecting. Rogue traditionally has always been good at bursty sort of combos. And I mean, thankfully Cold Blood’s not as powerful, right? So it is one of the things we expected. And sometimes we target power at specific places. And normally when you do that, it’s because we have uncovered an archetype through play testing that we think is actually super fun. And that was Lackeys… the more and more we were playing them – generating Lackeys and figuring out ways to play them and comboing with other stuff-

IGN: -EVIL Miscreant has turned out to be super strong.

Dean Ayala: Yeah. We do power ratings just so we see that we’re on the same page, and if there’s a disconnect, we discuss it. It’s the reason why we do power ratings. We do it on a 10 scale. And I think all of us were like, “Okay. This is a nine or a 10.”

It was extremely powerful, but for our reasons, we thought this card is really fun. It resulted in cool gameplay. And specifically for Rogue, it fits perfectly… these one mana creatures that help you with combo, and they fit into the gameplay theme of playing a bunch of different cards in the same turn. It totally fit what Rogue was supposed to do. So we definitely just targeted a bunch of power there. And just having burst. Rogues don’t have access to things like taunt and heal. They’re about crazy combos, burst, tempo. So them being powerful at that is I think just what they should be good at.

IGN: Right. So you’re not too concerned about the Leeroy/Waggle Pick shenanigans? The ability to do big burst damage from hand?

Face is the place.

Face is the place.

Dean Ayala: A lot of damage from hand is always concerning. I think that when we get the most concerned is when it’s 30, or very close to it. I don’t think we’re going to end up in a space in Hearthstone where at least some class that’s supposed to be good at that kind of thing isn’t going to be able to do 12, 15 damage from hand.

So I think that they do an appropriate amount of damage from hand for now. They probably are the best at it, at least in terms of reasonable damage from hand – there’s all kinds of combos classes can create that deal 30 damage, but aren’t actually decks that people play.

So Rogue is supposed to be good at that. I think it’s pretty reasonable in terms of data, there’s nothing to suggest, there no… it’s not like there’s an overpopulation or their win rate’s too high.

There’s always going to be – and I’ve said this in the past, and it’s elicited sort of negative response – but there really is, there’s always going to be a best deck. And that best deck is going to probably do something the best. I think for Warriors right now, their hero power says gain armor. They’re a crazy control class. I think right now they’re the best at being late game resource generators. They’re the best at that. And I think that some of that generates negative sentiment sometimes, right? It’s like how can you do better at generating resources than a Warrior? Well to some degree, that was going to be true for somebody. Because somebody was going to be the best resource generator. And I think for Warrior decks, it makes the most sense.

There’s always going to be a best deck.

And the same I think is true of Rogue – it feels bad sometimes to be like, “Well, I don’t have access to the amount of burst damage this class does.” Well, that’s something that I think fits Rogue. And they’re the best at right now. And as a result of that, they have access to some of the most burst damage, and it makes them one of the better classes.

But I think it fits for Rogue, whereas I was a little bit less happy with something like Hunter where they’re able to put one card in their deck that made them the best resource generators, which is kind of not a real good fit for Hunter. So while I love [Deathstalker] Rexxar, and it was one of the coolest cards, and lots of people’s favourite card of all time – and least favourite too – I’m glad that doesn’t exist in Standard any more.

IGN: Yeah. It was fun while it lasted. Let’s talk a bit more about Warrior. The class has a really strong suite of tools right now. We’ve got bombs, rush, mechs, resource generation. There’s lots of stuff happening in that class. How are you feeling about Warrior and where it’s at in the meta compared to what you were expecting coming in?

Dean Ayala: It’s sort of interesting actually, because we weren’t expecting the Bomb Warrior to be as good as it was. But it actually was only kind of a one or two day thing, and it’s tapered off since then. But even then, I think that the deck we were thinking about was Big Warrior, with Dimensional Ripper, and 10 mana cards. And that was going to be fairly powerful. But it turns out that that deck fills the same role as just standard Control Warrior. And standard Control Warrior is just kind of better. It’s just destroying all your opponent’s stuff forever. It’s pretty good. You can win games that way.

Dr. Boom’s Scheme at one point was Hagatha’s Scheme. That was one of the original designs for it.

So we knew that Warrior was going to have a ton of tools, like Dyn-o-matic is an insane tool, Warpath is an insane tool. So they have access to a lot of different stuff. Actually Dr. Boom’s Scheme at one point was Hagatha’s Scheme. That was one of the original designs for it. And then we realised that Warrior already had so many crazy removal tools, we don’t want to give them Hagatha’s Scheme.

They’re actually, [and] people don’t view it this way, which is kind of a failure on our part I think, but Warriors aren’t supposed to be, and generally aren’t that good at mass removal all the time. And having two Brawls, in the past Warriors weren’t even good against stuff like Zoo. They’re good at killing things that they can deal with using Whirlwinds, but anything that has two or three health, they’re not as good at. Warpath made them better at that. And if they had Hagatha’s Scheme, I think that would certainly take them over the top, right? They would just destroy everything, forever. If Hagatha’s Scheme was in Warrior, there would be no Nomi Priests at Worlds. That is absolutely certain.

IGN: So when did that change? How late in the piece did that shift across to Shaman? What was the scheme for the Shaman before?

Dean Ayala: It was, we tried single target evolve and mass evolve for all their creatures, which ended up being a bunch of different stuff over time. And then obviously we ended up with what the schemes are now pretty early in the process. It’s something that you figure out. There was a design in Warrior, and we’re like, “Well, Warrior’s already pretty good. They have access to all these removal tools. Do they really need another card to do that? They’re already strong enough at lasting forever and having a ton of armour.” And it turns out they are without the scheme even. So I think Warrior’s not in a bad space at all. When there’s a class that has access to three or four archetypes, that’s a victory.

IGN: Yeah, should I put the Bomb package in or the Dragon package?

Dean Ayala: Right. They feel different too. Because a lot of times you have Druids who had a bunch of different archetypes, but it was like, “Okay. I have 25 Druid cards. And what other five cards will make it appealing?” And they can feel a little bit different when the win conditions are different. But for the most part, they play pretty similarly.

Whereas Warrior has some crossover cards, but if it’s Bomb Warrior and just Control Warrior, I think they feel quite a bit different. And there’s Rush Warrior still, people aren’t playing as much, but it’s still pretty powerful. You have Frothing Berserkers and Kor’kron Elites, Grommash, and all the rush cards. It’s pretty good.

Extension, please.

Extension, please.

So those decks feel meaningfully different to me, which is great. The only thing that I think is concerning to me personally is if the right Warrior strategy is, “I’m going to play Elysiana. And then I’m going to copy it. And then my strategy is to play 60 cards, for this game to last 45 minutes, and for me not to actually try to beat my opponent by destroying them. It’s by taking their 30 card resources, and then destroying all of them, and then losing by fatigue.” I think when the average game of Hearthstone is like that, it can be pretty negative. So if there’s anything going on right now, that’s the thing that we’re probably closely looking at. And that’s not really a win rate thing, or a population thing. It’s mostly just … I guess it’s more of a population thing. Like, how often is this actually happening?

IGN: Are you talking primarily about Specialist format or on ladder? Is Elysiana is a card that you could potentially just ban from the tournament scene? Is that something that you guys would consider? Or would you make a change to the card instead of having bans in Specialist?

Dean Ayala: As far as banning in tournaments, we don’t make that decision independently. We have an esports team that we talk to if maybe that’s the right option for them. I don’t really know. A lot of people would have to talk. Ben included, and my boss, and lots of different people. In terms of changing Elysiana for either of those things, like tournaments versus the normal ladder, that’s where you have to investigate. Because I mean, esports is important… these tournaments are run in a way where everyone is waiting for a round to finish. And if one of those rounds takes an hour and a half, when without this particular combination of cards, it would’ve taken 20 minutes, then that becomes a problem for those tournaments.

If the use case of Elysiana is, you play Elysiana for ten more cards, okay. If the use case on average is… I’m taking the game to turn limit where we literally both explode, and no one wins the game… then yeah, of course we’ll do something about that.

And a problem not in a, “Oh, wow. This is a really interesting thing that’s probably going to fade out.” If it turns out it’s like… now these tournaments, instead of taking four hours, they all take 10 hours, and they result in a bunch of ties to the games we have to replay, that’s negative. I think that’s something that we would address either through changing the card or otherwise. And if this is something that carried over into constructed Hearthstone, which I alluded to earlier, I think isn’t really happening.

And to be clear, the thing wrong, quote, unquote, with Elysiana is not that you generate 10 new cards. That’s the intention. It’s a resource generator. It’s not a resource generator that wins you the game. It’s a resource generator where – I ran out of cards. It gives me 10 cards. And maybe they’re good. Maybe they’re just stuff that I have to work with. I think that’s okay.

If the use case of Elysiana is, you play Elysiana for ten more cards, okay. If the use case on average is, “I play Elysiana and [Baleful] Banker it, or Brewmaster it, and then I play it again, and then I play it again. And I’m taking the game to turn limit where we literally both explode, and no one wins the game – that’s the circumstance I’m talking about. If we get there then yeah, of course we’ll do something about that. I think we’re pretty far from that on the live environment now. And honestly, far-ish in the Specialist format as well. But a lot closer. So we have to look at those both independently.

IGN: Before we move on from Standard, do you have any other observations about the meta that you’d like to share? Classes that you feel like people are kind of sleeping on a little bit? Anything under-performing? Did you expect Silence Priest to be strong for instance? Or was that always going to be a tier two, tier three deck?

Dean Ayala: I think it was always going to be a tier two, tier three thing. I think any time you have these early game power spikes with zero mana cards like Silence, where I’m playing these giant minions, and then if I get the right combination of cards very early, it becomes an insane beating. I think any time you have a deck like that, you try not to target it to the top of tier one. Because that can be really frustrating. But when it’s kind of inconsistent and it’s like the 2, 3% deck, then it’s actually kind of cool to see that every so often. So I guess no is the answer specifically for Priests.

And everything else has been – obviously there’s stuff like Nomi Priest. We tried playing Nomi in a variety of classes. Rogue is the most obvious one, because they have [Myra’s] Unstable Element. And then Druid has a bunch of really low mana spells. They were already doing Auctioneer stuff with Togwaggle in the previous expansion. Priest is not one that we went crazy with. And that’s actually, maybe it’s Legend-only, or close to, for that deck. But it’s definitely one that I hadn’t played very much of in play testing. So that was a big surprise to me. That’s the first time I had heard about it was – someone’s actually bringing it to Worlds. You don’t think that’s the first time you’re going to hear about a deck – someone’s bringing it to Worlds. Never heard of it before! So that’s pretty cool. Outside of that, I’d say it’s been pretty close [to what we were expecting].

You don’t think that’s the first time you’re going to hear about a deck – someone’s bringing it to Worlds.

We test the extremes of stuff. Where it’s like – okay, this is the craziest control deck. How powerful is this? And this is the craziest aggro deck. How powerful is this thing to make sure we don’t end up in spaces where we’re making a bunch of OTK decks, or it’s gonna be nothing but this one deck that does a bunch of face damage in the first four turns. Outside of that, it’s just like – okay, here’s a bunch of tools. Are there different ways to build this deck? And then doing guess work around, are they of relatively the same power level? It’s hard to achieve. But I think so far, things are going really well.

IGN: Cool. And finally let’s touch on Wild. How’s Wild looking right now? Any concerns?

Dean Ayala: Honestly, there’s not a lot to report. One of the things about Wild is that there are so many cards, that one of the upsides is that you can go and you can play a lot of the old stuff that you think is really cool. One of the downsides for Wild is that when we release an expansion, there’s not nearly as much of an impact in the first week or two weeks as there is in Standard. Just because there’s so many cards.

For Wild, [it’s] still a lot of the same decks being played. A lot of the same powerhouses are still very powerful. And Wild actually has a pretty big diversity on its own without Rise of Shadows. I’d say it’s still fairly healthy.

Darkest Hour Warlock is something that a lot of players have been bringing up recently. The idea is that you summon a bunch of imps and you cast Bloodbloom and you cast Darkest Hour and you get a bunch of minions into play. It’s actually been a pretty low population [deck] in the last few days. When it popped up on day one and day two I was actually really interested to look at the data and that would suggest that it’s probably not going to be something that is as popular as something like Big Priest, or a lot of the really popular decks.

But certainly that’s not the kind of interaction [we want] – summoning a whole board of giant minions on turn four. It isn’t exactly the most fun experience, [so] if that turns out to be really consistent it would be something we’d address, but for now, that’s looking like it’s tapering off in popularity more so than something that’s going to increase, but we’re keeping an eye on it.

Cam Shea is Editor in Chief for IGN’s Australian content team and he’s hyped for Worlds. He’s on Twitter.

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