Dean Ayala Interview - Ashes of Outland, Game Balance, Tournament Mode and More

Dean Ayala Interview - Ashes of Outland, Game Balance, Tournament Mode and More

Precisely 1 month ago on February 18th there was a Summit about the upcoming year in Hearthstone where we had a sit down interview with Hearthstone developer Dean “IksarHS” Ayala, who’s been featured in our news posts quite a lot lately with interesting things he’s mentioned about the Standard and Battlegrounds game modes.

Our discussion ranged from such topics as the new Demon Hunter class and Ashes of Outland expansion, to Card Balance, how powercreep influences their design and even Tournament mode!

Below is the full interview as transcribed by us. Enjoy!

Meta Updates

HearthPwn: Last week (the interview took place on Feb. 18th) you gave an update on the current Meta including daily win rates for a handful of decks. Is that something you intend to continue doing on a regular basis? If so, how often can we expect them?

Dean Ayala: One of the reasons I gave this update is because there’s something interesting to talk about. What we want is basically a cadence of information about what’s going on. Maybe we’ll talk about changes we’re going to make to Arena or to Wild or there’s something going on with Battlegrounds right now, and this is what we think about it. So in terms of how often we do this, it’s important to us that there’s at least some communication constantly. So with regards to Standard, it had been a while since we made balance changes, so I thought players might be interested to hear how we felt about the fall out of those and if there’s anything else coming.

Demon Hunter & Other Classes

HearthPwn: Many people will want to know about this. Blizzard famously said about adding a new class “Patience young Monks, and Death Knights.. you're immortal, so just chill?” And now here we are and you introduce Demon Hunters and not Monks or DKs. Why did you go with Demon Hunters? What made them the right choice (for right now and in general)?

Dean Ayala: First thing that comes to mind when you want to introduce a new Hero, at least to me, is “Who is this Hero?”. For Death Knights it’s a pretty clear character, it’s Arthas, but Illidan is one of the most core characters we have, so I think we could have done really either.

It’s just that Demon Hunters is the one we fully explored first and we felt if we did this we needed to make this class meaningfully different than others. And Demon Hunter felt, with it’s furious attacks and quick playstyle, maybe a little similar to Rogue, but a more aggressive nature and with Demons. We felt that was something that differentiated itself from other classes enough that that was the one we felt the most excited about.

HearthPwn: Can we expect Death Knights or Monks in the future?

Dean Ayala: I have gotten that question a bunch. And the normal answer would be “Yeah we will see” but honestly, we put a lot of work into building out this class. And it comes with things like “How do all the UI elements work?” and all the other challenges you run in to. There’s a bunch of stuff we work on that doesn't necessarily make it out the door, doesn’t make it into the public eye, but we made a new class and it was a lot of fun and a lot of the groundwork has been laid for what it feels like to have a new class and I think at this point all that remains is how this is going to go over with the community. So if this turns out very positive I can certainly see us doing it in the future.

HearthPwn: For the first year of the Demon Hunter introduction you will get them 15 cards in every expansion. That seems like it will be detrimental to the class when those expansions rotate because at that point Demon Hunters will only have 30 base cards to work with + the normal 10 that the expansion introduces. So are there plans to introduce more cards for DH as time goes on, or are they just always going to have this problem of a smaller card pool to play with?

Dean Ayala: Oh man, I wish Chadd (Celestalon) was here to go over the exact numbers, he formulated this. So how this is going to work, after the first year we are going to retroactively give Demon Hunter a “Classic Set”. That might be from new cards that we create when we see there’s cards that they need or cards that would have rotated that we decide aren’t going to rotate after all. So the plan is that after the year ends Demon Hunters will be at the same level playing field as other classes.

HearthPwn: What was the inspiration behind the new Outcast keyword?

Dean Ayala: Thematically, it’s cool. Illidan and his Demon Hunters are outcasts themselves and it’s a little funky how you get there, but if you look at your hand as a group of friends, the left and right most are kind of the outcasts. We thought it was really interesting gameplay wise, because you kind of manipulate the cards in your hand. Maybe you have a card with Outcast on it, but there’s a card to the left of it, so it’s not active, so maybe you wouldn't normally have chosen to play that card first but maybe you do now so you can activate the Outcast card. Mechanically it was just really interesting and causes you to play Hearthstone very differently than you had done before.

HearthPwn: Demon Hunter Hero Power costs only 1 mana. How will they interact with Genn Greymane and Baku the Mooneater?

Dean Ayala: *laughs* Well, not very well.

Decks you will not be playing in Wild is Even Demon Hunter, cause there’s really not a benefit there. Maybe if these were core strategies in Standard we might have wanted to play around with it a bit. Just with the way Demon Hunter Hero Power works it’s probably not going to be good in those Even decks. Even the Odd decks, you are supposed to use your Hero Power on your even turns and play cards on your odd turns, and that just doesn’t flow well either because your Hero Power costs (1).

So they likely won't be very good with those cards, but anything that says “Upgraded Hero Power” will still work, it will just be +2 Attack instead of +1, I believe.

Year of the Phoenix Changes

HearthPwn: Is the new ranked MMR system the same MMR system being used currently in casual mode or is this an MMR system that was specifically designed for Ranked play? Will actual MMR numbers be hidden aside from the general bronze through legend ranks?

Dean Ayala: The actual MMR number is not visible. It is pseudo visible at Legend rank because your rank number there directly correlates with your MMR. You’re just going to have to trust us that we will match you the best way we can.

It is very similar to how MMR works in Casual, we still match you based on MMR, but they are 2 distinct values. So losing a whole bunch of games in Casual is not going to influence your MMR in Ranked.

HearthPwn: For several years we've seen cards from the Classic set rotated to the Hall of Fame. On one occasion, some were replaced with cards that turned out to be not very impactful. With Classic serving as Hearthstone's "Core Set", are there any plans to replace HoF'd cards with more meaningful replacements?

Dean Ayala: I think one of the reasons for moving cards to the Hall of Fame is that they get too much broad play. Something that gets broad play is very powerful. We want things to be powerful, but in a more narrow way.

I’d consider it a good thing if we had a card in the Classic set. Let’s say there was a Rogue deck that was really good at drawing a bunch of cards and in this particular deck there’s some cards from the Basic and Classic set that made that slightly more powerful, but once that deck went away, those cards went away too. Whereas cards like Leeroy and Mountain Giant and Sylvanas and Ragnaros, are cards that are good in every Meta and as a result of that every expansion people are playing those same cards.

The whole point of doing an expansion is that you log in and things feel fresh and different and if the Basic and Classic set have those more universally strong cards that game play experience feels more stale.

So hopefully you can expect for the cards that we replace that they will be just a little more narrowly powerful or they are played in classes, so that you don’t have those cards be very powerful for all 10 classes.

HearthPwn: You are taking some very decisive measures to change the Priest class and the cards they have available. With making those changes there’s always a risk it will be detrimental to gameplay. Are you keeping a close eye on Priest performance, and would you be willing to make more aggressive changes if it turns out it’s necessary?

Dean Ayala: Yeah, absolutely. I think we will make a little more aggressive changes than we have done in recent memory and this is even more true for Demon Hunter. It’s a completely new Class and I think we would be doing it incorrectly if we are not open to a little more change than players are used to.

We have been playtesting it for a long time, so hopefully we will have got a lot right and we won’t have to step in and make too many sweeping changes. But of course it’s a difficult task to get all of this exactly right, so I’m sure there will be things we didn’t think of or missed on a little bit but our technology makes it easy for us to step in and make a change.

HearthPwn: You mentioned an improved returning player experience with a free deck for a class of choice. That’s a really cool feature to make it easier for players to come back and be able to play straight away again but will there be any special reward for the players who have kept playing?

Dean Ayala: I think that for the players that kept playing along, there’s our new Ranked system, with more rewards on every 5 levels you gain (rank 35, rank 40 etc.). And we’re trying to make the game more accessible to everyone, including new players, with the new duplicates protection. You’re going to find you are going to have to buy less packs in order to play the decks that you want. That was really the goal, to make 1 change that would help everybody.

HearthPwn: Last year, in the Year of the Dragon, Dragons became a huge deal in the end. Is there similar significance to Year of the Phoenix or is it just a cool name with no deeper meaning?

Dean Ayala: It’s a cool name, but I would be, I think… *trails off thinking* I’m just going to stop. *laughs* I wanted to try and get clever, but *laughs again* I don't wanna reveal anything.

Ashes of Outland

HearthPwn: You did a yearlong story in Year of the Dragon, with the expansions loosely chaining together, and have already mentioned that that's not going to be the case this year. What made you choose not to repeat it and go with Ashes of Outland instead?

Dean Ayala: We didn't really think about it. We could have done it, with Illidan’s journey, with the classic Warcraft storyline, from Black Temple to where it is now. We could have created some new story.

But after some brainstorming and thinking of all the places we have yet to go in Warcraft, we were excited to do something a little bit different. I really liked the yearlong storyline and when we next do it we will probably do it better than we did this time.

There were a lot of links between the story between the stories each expansion, but pretty loose ties mechanically, with just Lackeys in each expansion. Next time we will try to do a little more that if you are not watching cinematics and not playing single player as much that the story is still connected for you all the way through.

So it’s not like we didn’t think the yearlong story was a good thing or not, but we wanted to do something a little different this time.

All 3 upcoming expansions are distinctly different, they are all really cool and we’ve been wanting to do all of them for a while.

HearthPwn: What made this expansion theme so compelling? What made it cool over other things you discussed?

Dean Ayala: Well, the first thing we did obviously was we chose to have a new class and chose Illidan for that. So then we kind of had to do something that’s loosely related to Illidan, if you want to do Demon Hunter as a new class.

So we thought about doing Black Temple (a Raid Instance in World of Warcraft), like a very traditional Black Temple expansion, but then we decided to go a little broader. There’s a whole lot of cards in an expansion set and if you go very narrow in location, all the cards start feeling the same. So while Black Temple was an awesome raid, if you really think about all the creatures there, the colour palette, it’s really hard to get an expansion that feels like there’s a bunch of different things going on.

In Hearthstone it’s a little bit easier to take a more broad location and take all of Outland and put a little bit of Hearthstone spin on it. It’s still Warcraft universe, still very much Outland, still going to see a lot of the places you remember if you played in the Burning Crusade expansion in World of Warcraft.

It had to be tied in some way to Demon Hunters and the Burning Crusade expansion and Outland was the most broad we could go there.

HearthPwn: What was the Inspiration behind the Primes, the new Legendaries that you introduce with Ashes of Outland?

Dean Ayala: Ashes of Outland is this post-apocalyptic place where everyone is trying to make it on their own and build stuff from scraps, and put pieces of metal on themselves.

Primes are characters where you wonder “What would it be like if they came back?” and they come back in bigger, better, more awesome versions after they were defeated the first time.

Mechanically, it’s really hard to make big powerful cards that are kind of generic, cause then you would put them in every deck. These Primes are a little bit more restricted, to decks that are trying to play a little more mid-range/control style because it's going to take a long time for you to draw the first card, for it to die and then that card to get redrawn and then to play it.

There’s going to be different decks where you can utilize card draw or utilize that you survive for a very long time and they are not going to that appealing for aggressive decks. But that’s okay, because there’s a lot of stuff that appeals to aggressive decks.

HearthPwn: The first expansion each year coincides with 3 older expansion sets rotating to Wild. Do you approach this expansion differently knowing that it will be introduced into a decreased pool of Standard cards?

Dean Ayala: Yes and no. There’s a lot of different things about this expansion. First, there’s an entirely new class! We have to figure out how this basic and classic set is going to work with just this 1 expansion worth of Demon Hunter cards. There are more Demon Hunter cards than there are for other classes, but still less than classes that have been there from day 1. We’d like for Demon Hunters to be the new thing and that people are really excited about them and want them to be at least a decent power level for people to want to play. That is certainly a challenge.

The first expansion of the year is both the most difficult, and the easiest. It’s the most difficult, because there’s not really any precedent. The decks people will play when the expansion releases will be quite a bit different than they were the month previous, because there’s all kinds of stuff that rotates and of course there will decks that don't lose very much, but for the most part it will be wildly different. It will be easier, because we design new cards so there IS change and even if these new cards don’t have much impact, we still get this new fresh feeling because a lot of stuff left.

So we approach it differently in that, we try to look at the sets from the previous year (In this case Descent of Dragons, Saviors of Uldum and Rise of Shadows) and see if there were any archetypes that we wanted to see played, because they were really fun, that maybe didn’t see play because of power level. We can try to support those archetypes, because even if only a few people play them, there’s still so much change due to the set rotations that we can afford to support them.

Cards and Balance

HearthPwn: With the Doom in the Tomb event you experimented with bringing cards back from Wild, and in Arena mode there's a tradition of variation in the active expansions that get drawn from. Have you considered changing up the usual Standard to Wild rotation with schemes like that or are you happy with how things currently work?

Dean Ayala: We tried a bunch of stuff last year, tried to buff cards, tried wild to standard cards (with Doom in the Tomb), tried new cards halfway through the expansion, we will continue on that path, trying new things that players aren't expecting.

I think as soon as you start to do the same thing over and over and over again, unless it’s proven that players say “This is the exact thing that we want!”, you set yourself up for players to get bored with it. I haven't really heard that players really want a buff patch half way through or really liked the Wild to Standard event, or really wanted cards halfway through so we will probably just try some new different stuff.

We, as a team, decided that going 4 months between content is too long, and that Hearthstone is a live-service game and that we want you to log in and for new things to be happening. We don’t want that to mean you need to relearn Hearthstone every month, but it should mean there’s something new and exciting going on. Battlegrounds has been really successful so maybe there’ll be an update with Battlegrounds or maybe there will be a single player thing or something to do with Arena or a Wild to Standard event. Just something every month, every month and a half, where something new is happening.

HearthPwn: The last expansion saw several rounds of nerfs directed at the main theme of Galakrond. Has that changed anything with the design philosophy for Ashes of Outland, or design philosophy in general, moving forward?

Dean Ayala: I don’t think so. We went through a bit of a change in design philosophy in terms of card balance in the last year or so. And it’s not because I think we were wrong in the first years, or are right in this year, it’s just that the audience changes over the years. Designing a game for new players is a lot different than designing a game for people that have been playing it for 5 years. First day everyone is a new player obviously, but 5 years in, there’s still some new players, but the majority have been playing for a while.

So first day when you think about doing balance changes, the thing you are worried about is people just getting into Hearthstone and they built their first deck and you make changes and they have to build a new deck. That’s a time investment and also a money investment that they lost. Whereas nowadays, with the better infrastructure in the game, and the better autocomplete function and having more tools online, makes it easier for players to build a new deck even if one of the ones they built was totally changed. With players being more experienced they are also better able to wrap their head around changes.

I think in expansion 1 we really didn’t want to make any changes and then nowadays we’re looking to make 2 to 4 balance changes each expansion cycle, not even necessarily because there are balance issues, but just to change things up, because we consider things being different month to month a good thing.

HearthPwn: Part of the fun in new cards is often that they do unexpected things or do things that break the usual rules. Can you tell us what goes into deciding when it is okay to break those rules for the sake of fun cards and when you have to reject a design cause it breaks those rules?

Dean Ayala: That’s kind of subjective, cause it depends on how you interpret “Break the Rules”. If you take like C’thun or Galakrond, things that we’ve never done before, the right time to do those is when they are a core part of an expansion. If you put something in an expansion 15 or 20 times, players will understand how things work. Players have a huge capacity to figure out how things work, but it gets to be a problem when you have to think with every card about what it does. Ideally you go into a game thinking about your strategy, what order you play your cards and so on, rather than decipher what your cards even do. Because that can be a jumping off point where players are like “I took a break for a month or 2 and now I don't really understand this game anymore.” So I think we cross a line when someone really doesn’t understand the average Hearthstone card and spends most of his game trying to understand what his cards even do. It’s just easier if you have like 20 or 30 Galakrond cards that invite people to want to understand what’s going on, as opposed to one-of after one-of after one-of.

HearthPwn: There are a variety of different types of players in Hearthstone. Some like chaining multiple cards together for an extravagant game-win. Others like summoning large minions and smashing through their opponent. What do you personally think are the criteria that makes a card fun?

Dean Ayala: Well you kind of answered it in the first half of your question, there’s not really something that covers all players. I think the way I would approach that is “How do you make a fun expansion?” Which works like you said, you have to have a bunch of different kinds of cards and strategies that appeal to different players. And just because someone says online “I really don’t like this thing” to us, that’s okay. The thing that hurts is when there’s a whole expansion and someone didn’t have anything they liked. That’s the real problem, as long as there’s something you can gravitate towards.

So we try to make it so that both thematically and mechanically you have options. For instance, if you are a Priest player, there should be some version of Priest that appeals to you. It can't be “Oh you can't play Priest this expansion.”. And if you are a Control player, there should be some version of the archetype there for you. You shouldn't be forced to play only aggressive decks this expansion.

So as long as there’s a wide enough variety of things, like maybe you are a Mage that likes Tempo/Aggressive strategies, as long as there is something that appeals to you without giving yourself an extreme disadvantage because the power level isn’t there, I think we've done a pretty good job.

HearthPwn: Powercreep is a problem in pretty much every game and every game handles that problem in it's own way, even if that means not doing anything to change it. What does the Hearthstone team do to combat powercreep in the game? Or do you encourage cards in the game naturally becoming more powerful over time, as a way to make sure the meta keeps changing? What's the guiding design philosophy in this regard?

Dean Ayala: I’m not going to say that Power creep is solved but set rotation is supposed to be a huge helper in that. The reason we do set rotation is so we don’t have to power creep things. Things just fade out naturally on their own and when new things get brought in that are just as powerful as the old things that there’s still room for those things to be played.

We also try to make it so that when we introduce a new expansion we have these powerful build around cards. For instance Beast Hunter. There might not be a reason to play Beast Hunter, then we might make a card that is really powerful if you build a Beast Hunter deck. We try to do less of creating a creating a 6 mana 6/6 and then next expansion we will do a 6 mana 7/6 or 7/7 etc.

People view power creep a lot differently. If for instance we create a card that is more powerful than a card that is weak, I wouldn't really consider that power creep. That’s more when you have things that are very, very strong and then make things that are more powerful than them. That’s when things can start to spiral out of control. I don't think we have hit that point. We have made stronger cards overall than we have in the past at least as a high water mark point and we try not to cross that line, otherwise every expansion you have to start doing that.

Battlegrounds and Tournament Mode

HearthPwn: Are there any plans to introduce a leaderboard or a reward structure to the Battlegrounds game mode?

Dean Ayala: I think over the next year we have big plans for Battlegrounds. The first thing we want to nail is the content pipeline. Like, how often are we changing things. That can be Hero Balance, that can be content update. I think the content patch that is coming, the Dragons patch, is probably like 75% to 85% of what we would want a big content update to be. So I think in the future you can expect big content updates around the same time you get expansion updates, so every 3 or 4 months. And then in between them we are going to do tons of Hero Balance, tons of card changes and that sort of thing.

Battlegrounds probably launched before it really had that final level of polish. I think it still has the beta tag on it for a reason. So we'd love to add some progression systems, love to add some goals for different players to hit. There’s just a bunch of features that we want to do first, like for instance getting 8 player lobbies, so you can queue up with your friends, but also for organizers outside of Blizzard to also make their own tournaments and broadcast those for people to watch. So that’s really the first feature. We’d love to do more, but that’s going to take some time.

HearthPwn: Are there any plans to introduce China’s Tournament mode in the West? A lot of players have been asking for that.

Dean Ayala: I actually did a walkthrough of the application. I think having a competitive mode within the game that’s probably like esports level experience, is super positive and we are just trying to figure out the right way to do that in the client. We can do that as “Every Thursday night there will be a tournament and it will be for Arena or for Wild or...” There’s a lot of things we want to do, progression systems we want to get through, we have talked about a bunch of different things. So it's definitely something that we want, it's just finding the time to do it. We are working on the new class and trying to figure out Battlegrounds content pipeline. We want to do competitive features in the client, just not right now.



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