After weeks of mounting rumors, Blizzard today revealed the next expansion for Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. We were able to check out the news and test-run some cards from the expansion a little bit early. Let's go over everything we know so far, along with some quotes from the developers at Blizzard.
Glad you asked! It's a full expansion for Hearthstone — as opposed to the smaller and more single-player-focused adventure sets — that will contain 134 total new cards. As the first expansion of 2016, it will also mark the introduction of the new standard format.
It's a long story, but basically, beginning with Whispers of the Old Gods, Hearthstone's ranked mode will be split into two. What we currently know as ranked will become wild mode; in this mode, every card from Hearthstone's history and future will be usable.
In the new standard mode, however, only cards from sets introduced in the current and previous calendar year will be allowed. For this year, that means that Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins vs. Gnomes cards will not be playable in standard format. Standard format will be used for official tournaments, and it seems to be the mode Blizzard is placing most of its weight behind in terms of design and balance.
In Warcraft lore, the old gods are a group of, well, old gods — extremely powerful, extremely evil, immortal beings who tend to be covered in tentacles and eyeballs. If you're familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, you have some idea of what to expect.
Hearthstone senior designer Mike Donais: The first thing I did when I figured out we were doing the old gods, I started with a Google search. I started reading stuff by Lovecraft, and I picked out up some written material.
To be precise, the Warcraft universe has four known old gods: C'Thun, Yogg-Saron, Y'Shaarj and N'Zoth. These eldritch horrors have the ability to corrupt any mortals they come into contact with, which is why they've been chained deep beneath the surface of Azeroth. Their only way to affect the world above is by slowly driving people insane via whispers — thus, Whispers of the Old Gods.
For reference, old god crazy-making is what led to Deathwing, the big bad of World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion. Would you believe he used to be a totally normal, chill giant dragon bro?
Have no fear! Hearthstone pulls from the Warcraft lore, but it also gets a lot of freedom to do weird stuff. In this case, that means allowing players to use those four old gods as hard-hitting 10-mana-cost minions.
Hearthstone lead designer Ben Brode: I think it was years ago when we were brainstorming ideas for Goblins vs. Gnomes, old gods went up on our whiteboard. It immediately got us excited. Hearthstone takes a different look at Warcraft. It's a very high-up look at things, so we can explore wider themes, I think. The old gods is such a wide theme. It immediately inspires so many cool takes on that stuff.
Plus it gives us an opportunity to explore new lore in a lot of ways. Some of the old gods have never been seen. We don't even know what some of them look like. Hearthstone's going to be the first game to explore what some of the old gods look like. That's awesome to me.
We'll come back to the old gods, though, especially C'Thun.
Blizzard has only revealed a handful of new cards from the expansion so far, but we can go over them now. Thus far, they're split into two distinct groups. The first is corrupted versions of cards we already know and love. Let's take a look.
Hearthstone senior producer Yong Woo: The dark influences of the old gods are changing the minions in Azeroth in different ways. In some cases, they make them more grotesque and bigger and more powerful.
In other cases, the twisting words of the old gods make a bizarro, evil twin version of minions we're familiar with. It's kind of like Wario to Mario, I guess.
Woo describes Polluted Hoarder as just like its Loot Hoarder counterpart, but twice as big. That includes double the mana cost, attack and health, though it still only draws a single card upon death.
Is it good? Well, the stats aren't superb — for four mana, we'd usually want something with more than two health. Then again, anything that provides card draw has strong potential. It could see some play in mid-range decks or any decks that heavily depend on cycling through to the perfect cards in your deck to win.
Yep, even robots aren't safe from the horrifying influence of the old gods. Corrupted Healbot is the exact opposite of its cousin, the Antique Healbot. It's got much more attack potential, but it heals your opponent upon death.
Between the high mana cost and heal to your opponent, a lot of players we spoke to were scoffing at this card's potential (or lack thereof). That said, in our tests with some prebuilt Whispers of the Old Gods decks that Blizzard provided, Corrupted Healbot actually did fairly good work for us. Six attack and six health is plenty to allow for taking out annoying minions and possibly even inflicting more damage to your opponent's face than they'll heal whenever the bot dies.
Woo also mentioned the combo potential of playing an Auchenai Soulpriest before the Corrupted Healbot dies, ensuring that you actually damage rather than heal the enemy. Tricky stuff!
We love this card just for how goofy it is. A twist on the Doomsayer, a card that clears the board of minions if it survives a turn, the Validated Doomsayer is so stoked about the approach of the old gods that he actually gets powered up if left alive.
While five mana cost is asking a lot, there's a lot to like about Validated Doomsayer. It pressures your opponent to put all their attention on this minion, lest they allow him to become a much bigger threat. It's also a seven attack minion that cannot be removed by Big Game Hunter until you've attacked with him. Pretty cool!
Not at all! The next set of cards we were shown is what Blizzard is calling "cultists." These are minions who serve C'Thun and, as such, interact with him in a really interesting way.
Brode: You've seen the effects of the old gods in World of Warcraft, but I've always wondered what it would be like to unleash the power of an old god on Azeroth itself. There are four old gods — N'Zoth, Yogg-Saron, Y'Shaarj and C'Thun. C'Thun is the most insidious of the old gods. C'Thun has been gathering people to follow it, and building a cult who are trying to empower C'Thun and unleash it on the world of Azeroth.
That name doesn't lie! When Beckoner of Evil gets dropped early in the game, it's a warning sign to the other player that C'Thun is coming, and from this point, you better start preparing. Playing this card (or other cards that buff C'Thun) also includes a cool animation where a portal opens up on the side of the board to show how strong that player's C'Thun has become.
The most important thing to note about these cultist cards is that they affect C'Thun wherever it is. Very few cards exist in the game that affect minions whether they're in your hand, in your deck or even already on the board. It's a cool twist.
Twilight Elder has solid stats and the ability to keep making C'Thun bigger and bigger the longer it survives on the board. He's a three-cost with four health, so you've got a solid shot at keeping him around for at least a couple of turns to buff up your dark god.
Of course, none of these cultist cards function very well without C'Thun himself, so let's take a look at the big bad guy you're building toward.
How many eyeballs does one eldritch horror need? What is this tentacle-beast overcompensating for?!
In all seriousness, the decks we got to test out were built around the previous two cultist cards and C'Thun himself, and finally throwing down this monstrosity felt great. There's a fascinating interplay when you know an opponent's C'Thun is growing bigger and inevitably going to appear on the board. You need to hold onto removal to make sure he can't attack, and you also need to flood the board with smaller minions to soak up as much of the initial burst of damage as possible.
It's too early to say. Blizzard says there are 16 total cards in Whispers of the Old Gods that will interact with C'Thun in some way, and so far we've only seen two.
Donais: The challenge was to make a 10 mana card that doesn't instantly kill your opponent but is still somehow worth putting in your deck. And then do that for all the old gods.
We can say that playing a C'Thun deck with even just these two cultists was a fun and unique challenge. But we're skeptical on whether it will work competitively. Generally speaking, building a whole deck around one giant card is a surefire way to fail. But at least C'Thun is a giant card that makes an immediate impact when it hits the board.
That would suck. Luckily, Blizzard realized that and decided to do something kind of cool. Whenever anyone opens their first Whispers of the Old Gods pack, in addition to the five regular cards they receive, they will get C'Thun and Beckoner of Evil.
Brode: We want everyone to be excited when they open a cultist. If we didn't give you C'Thun, you'd open a cultist and be like, "What's a C'Thun? I have to get a legendary card to even use this?" That feels kind of bad.
C'Thun and cultist cards also will not be included in the arena drafting mode, for similar reasons.
Donais: I played arena all day with one of our designers. After playing for a full day, it was obvious that we were seeing the C'Thun cards a lot, and it was a weird experience. We weren't likely to get C'Thun itself, and it felt off. So we've pulled them out of arena.
We've talked about doing more than that, but we don't want to add too many weird exceptions. People start to wonder if there's more exceptions they don't know about. Too many rules will add more complexity, and people won't be as confident in how things work. We don't like the idea of removing cards from arena in general. We would only do it if we think it makes the game a lot better.
Blizzard says that anyone who logs into the game during the expansion's "launch period" will receive three Whispers of the Old Gods packs for free. It wasn't clear what "launch period" means, but presumably it's the first few weeks following the expansion's release.
We don't have much to report yet. Blizzard is waiting to reveal the three other old gods, though it has said that each of them will be a 10-cost legendary. The other old gods will not interact with cultist cards — those are only for C'Thun — but they will have other mechanics that have yet to be announced.
We promise we would never hide anything from you. At this time, Blizzard has only shown off the six cards mentioned above. The developer has a plan to keep revealing cards from the set bit by bit right up until launch, just like it did for The Grand Tournament.
Woo: We're really excited about working with members of the community to slowly get that excitement going with different cards. Starting from today, there's going to be more and more cards released until the launch.
Blizzard hasn't provided an exact date, but it says it plans to release Whispers of the Old Gods in late April or early May.
It sure does! The break between last year's League of Explorers and Whispers of the Old Gods is one of the longest we've seen since Hearthstone's launch in 2014. That said, there are some fairly understandable reasons for it.
In addition to designing 134 new cards, the Hearthstone team has been hard at work figuring out the proper way to implement formats (read all about that process here). The developer is also looking at cards from the Basic and Classic set that it plans to "nerf," or decrease in power.
Brode: The gap between League of Explorers and Whispers of the Old Gods is longer than maybe we would have liked. I don't know if making that period of time more consistent would be better. We're paying attention to the different types of players. I think players who play a lot are always going to be on the side of wanting more faster. But I actually know a player who quit as soon as we released Curse of Naxxramas. It was too much. There are some players who will be overwhelmed. Picking the sweet spot is difficult.
We don't know yet, and if you believe Blizzard, the studio's not 100 percent sure yet, either. Either way, the developer says it's not going to tell us which cards are being nerfed until just before the patch where those changes are implemented. Blizzard will allow people to refund any of the changed cards that can be crafted at their full arcane dust value, allowing you to turn them into shiny new cards if you'd prefer.
Brode: I'll tell you that philosophically we're looking at cards that are very metagame-defining. Cards that are, if they don't change, going to keep standard format from reaching its goal of being a dynamic format that changes yearly. That's the kind of card we're looking at. Also we're looking at a greater percentage of druid cards, because so many of the cards that they're using are from the Basic and Classic sets in a way that's pretty out of line with the number of cards in those sets that other classes are using very frequently. We're hard-pressed to make exciting expansion cards for druid for that reason.
Hey, thank you for being such a good audience. If you want to keep up with new cards and mechanics from the expansion as they're revealed, the best place to go is Blizzard's official Hearthstone blog, where the studio will be running polls on which new cards to show off next. We'll also be running updated info right here on Polygon, of course. And if you're feeling extra saucy, you can check out our Hearthstone playlist on YouTube, where we both disseminate important information and play badly while making bad jokes.