World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Classic and Hearthstone are both revisiting one of the franchise’s most beloved villains: Arthas Menethil, the Lich King. Arthas first showed up in Warcraft 3 in 2002, and 20 years later, Blizzard is still telling and retelling the story of his rise, corruption, and fall. Arthas has made such consistent appearances as a villain because he’s a walking origin story for half of the heroes in Azeroth.
While players gear up to eventually face the Lich King in Wrath Classic, Hearthstone is exploring a hypothetical battle for the city of Silvermoon that celebrates the game’s most angsty elves, the Blood Elves. The card game’s newest expansion, March of the Lich King, launched Dec. 6, adding the new Death Knight hero class for free and introducing 145 new cards.
“Arthas is for sure our most popular character — there’s star power there, and excitement to see his story. Knights of the Frozen Throne was one of our most popular expansions ever. But we haven’t gotten to tell Arthas’ story in Hearthstone before, and it has a broad audience that might not have played World of Warcraft and Warcraft 3.” says Chadd Nervig, features lead on Hearthstone.
Players can unlock Hearthstone’s Death Knight class by playing through a story prologue that introduces Arthas and shows his impact on the rest of the cast. (Spoiler: it’s not a good one, and no one else likes him very much.) Hearthstone introduced its first new class in 2020, with Illidan the Demon Hunter. “It’s very important to us that playing that class in Hearthstone feels like it does in World of Warcraft — the vibe is there, with the iconic spells and abilities,” says Nervig.
So the Death Knight rises, with a unique rune system and an army of undead. This hero class tutorial comes with a showcase for undeath, blood, and frost runes. “One of the things we learned from the Demon Hunter prologue is that it did a great job of Illidan’s origin story, but players were kind of left to solve what [gameplay] archetypes were there for themselves,” says Matt London, modes designer. “We were able to show off the power of each rune and give players an idea of what each specialization is trying to do.”
But it’s not much fun for a Death Knight to rampage over weak enemies. Enter the Blood Elves, one of the Lich King’s biggest foes in Warcraft 3. Arthas’ campaign to Northrend and the Frozen Throne led him through his own homelands and the elven homeland of Quel’Thalas, where the Scourge killed 90% of the High Elf population. The elves rebranded as Blood Elves, and started doing some morally questionable things to rebuild their people, like drinking demonic crystals and torturing a being of pure Light called a Naaru for paladin powers.
“There are few absolute black-and-white sides to conflicts in Warcraft lore,” says Nervig. “There are different shades of gray, and Blood Elves were on the darker side in some cases, and they’re coming out of that [circa early Wrath of the Lich King], but some of those roots are still visible in there.”
The Blood Elves made a natural pillar for this new Hearthstone expansion as the team started iterating on the early concept. Blizzard needed something that stood apart from Knights of the Frozen Throne and Icecrown Citadel, but still had grounding in lore. The team had also wanted to have a Blood Elf-centric expansion for some time, so pitting them against their long-time nemesis made sense. This time, Arthas is on the offensive, going for round two with Silvermoon.
It harkens back to a simpler time in Warcraft lore, back before the metaphysical implications of the Shadowlands. While the team says an Ardenweald expansion is a when, not an if, for now Hearthstone is, right alongside World of Warcraft Classic, indulging in the nostalgia of 2008.