As we’ve previously reported, the next Hearthstone year will herald in the most sweeping set of changes in Hearthstone’s history. Not only will several sets of cards leave the Standard format, including Rise of Shadows, Saviors of Uldum and Descent of Dragons, but the cards that form the baseline for the Standard format will also change. Previously, Hearthstone’s Basic cards and Classic sets were the evergreen underpinning of the game, but soon they’ll be out and a new 235 card core set (which is a mix of new and existing cards) will be in, and free for all players, ensuring everyone has the building blocks required to build half-decent decks. Each year will see a new core set rotate in, and thus create the foundation for the year, giving the game’s designers more opportunities to shape the play patterns for each class and keep the game fresh.The first core set will go live alongside the new expansion Forged in the Barrens, which is themed around the iconic World of Warcraft location in central Kalimdor. You might say this expansion is being made… FOR THE HORDE! This won’t be a standalone expansion, however, as the Year of the Gryphon will play host to a story that runs across the entire year and touches many facets of the game – including Mercenaries mode. Kicking this off, Forged in the Barrens will introduce ten legendary mercenary minions – one for each class – and we’ll follow their adventures for the whole year. The set also introduces a new keyword, Frenzy, which is a one-time effect that triggers the first time a minion survives damage. Lastly, Forged in the Barrens will have spells that can rank up based on how much mana the player has in total.
Hearthstone – Forged in the Barrens Reveal Cards
There’s a lot coming in the immediate future, then, but arguably the most exciting new announcement made at Blizzcon won’t be with us until later this year, and that’s the new mode Mercenaries. As we’ve seen with the hugely popular Battlegrounds and the Dungeon Run-inspired PVP action of Duels, new modes can completely reshaped Hearthstone’s gameplay, so it’s going to be exciting seeing what this mode has to offer.
For now we know that players will assemble a team of characters both new and iconic – including the likes of Sylvanas Windrunner and Ragnaros the Firelord – each of which has a unique set of abilities and can level up into increasingly powerful versions of themselves. Each run will be comprised of a new set of randomly generated encounters, with players choosing who from their team will take part before each fight, then teeing up their actions at the same time as their foe and watching it play out. Your characters’ levels and progression will be persistent across the mode as a whole.
Hearthstone Mercenaries – Map & Character Progression Art
Blizzard is only really teasing Mercenaries right now, but despite that, the team has already put a lot of time into it. They’ve been working on it for almost 18 months, according to Production Director Nathan Lyons-Smith. “We started with a handful of pitches and ideas to explore,” he explains. “One of the things that gets asked about from the community, and that the team is passionate about trying to figure out, is some form of 2v2, and that was actually one of the original pitches. But as we went through, we settled on… character progression, roguelike RPG [elements]… as the thing that we wanted to add to Hearthstone. And we’ve been prototyping and building and growing that team over the last, I’d say, really 11, 12 months to then have a timeline of, ‘This year, we’re expecting to release.’”
The Mercenaries team within the Hearthstone team is currently 15 or so dedicated to the project, but with plenty of other staff also hopping in to help out across different disciplines as needed. “The designer that’s been taking the lead is Paul Nguyen,” Game Director Ben Lee tells me. “He’s the original creator of the Dungeon Run – the Dungeon Run was his pitch and his ideas, obviously [with] tons of talented people [who also] helped make all of those Dungeon Runs across the years. And there’s a really great, awesome core [team] working on the Mercenaries mode, but Paul’s been spearheading this endeavour and doing really awesome, fantastic work.”
Dungeon Run – and the many PVE adventures that have riffed on it within Hearthstone – already offers something of a roguelike experience, so what sets Mercenaries apart? Does it have more of a Slay the Spire feel? Or perhaps take inspiration from something like Thronebreaker? “It’s more in the Slay the Spire vein, just for simplicity’s sake,” Lee explains. “It’s our own take on it – I think that’s our MO, we do our own takes on these things, like Battlegrounds was our take on the auto battler genre. And this is our take on a mixture of strategic RPG and combat elements, and also some wrapping of roguelike levels and progression.
“In Thronebreaker there’s an overworld and lots of exploration and that’s a big part of it, but the narrative is the real driver there. There’s narrative here, but it’s pretty light – in Hearthstone, our narrative is more in the fun and whimsical sense rather than the deep, lore-based narrative. We’re dipping a little bit into that, but I think if you’re familiar with how we’ve been telling stories with Book of Heroes, I think you can expect things in a similar vein. We want to be true to our license and our lore, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously with Hearthstone either.”
Like Slay the Spire, each run – or level – will have a randomly generated series of events – usually regular fights, sometime elite encounters and sometimes not combat at all – for players to work through, with a handful of branching paths to choose between along the way. Each run will culminate in a boss – perhaps King Mukla or King Krush.
Unlike Slay the Spire – or Dungeon Run, for that matter – this isn’t a deck building game. All the gameplay hinges around the mercenaries in your squad and their abilities. “A mercenary is self-contained,” says Lee. “If you have Thrall, let’s say, Thrall has his abilities, and you unlock them through various different means, you actually unlock abilities through levelling up. Then those abilities themselves can be levelled up to be more powerful, equipment can be obtained through drops in levels, and also some other means as well.”“Progression is all permanent, so you get to take it home with you at the end of a run of your level,” says Lee. “And then you go to the next level and the next level and so on and so forth, and eventually you get into the end game content, which is – in the normal game flow you’re levelling up your characters from level 1 to, say, 30. The end game is enhancing your abilities, your skills, finding the cool builds, the synergies, the way to beat those really hard levels. So there’s a big PVE element to this, but there’s also PVP as well, so you can take your team of characters and fight in cool, strategic combat against other players.”
“Once you reach a certain point,” Lee elaborates, “you’re going to want to do those levels on Heroic and maybe even more difficulty levels… And there is a point where some of that content, you’re deliberately going to be repeating it to earn different equipment drops or different items, and the ability to level up the skills of your characters. So there’s a level grinding portion, that’s what roguelikes are to some degree, it’s repetition and generation… the essence there is that you’re going to be levelling up your characters and you’ll get new characters, and then you’ll want to level them up because they have new abilities that are better against different enemy types or different bosses. A lot of the endgame gameplay is figuring out, ‘Who are the characters that I should take with me to beat Jaina Proudmoore or to beat the Lich King,’ or whoever the boss might be.”
As I mentioned earlier, in any encounter both sides of the fight queue up their moves for all their characters at the same time, then watch them play out. “The fun and engagement there is like, ‘How can I get character A and B to synergise to do cool things that riff off each other, that make them more powerful, or to defeat the enemies?’” says Lee.
This also makes for some interesting differences between PVE and PVP. “In PVP, there’s a lot of… mind games because you don’t know what the opponent’s going to do,” explains Lee. “When you’re playing against the AI, we actually tell you what’s going to happen before. It’s also tapping into some puzzle elements, so if you know that this character is going to attack you and might damage you, you might be able to channel all your attacks to take that character out, so there’s a lot of decision-making in it. So the PVE is also tapping into puzzle elements, which I think a lot of roguelikes do anyway, and the PVP is more tapping into the bluffing and mind games sphere a little bit.”
It sounds exciting, even if it is just a tease at this year’s show. And for Ben Lee, Nathan Lyons-Smith and the team, using the BlizzCon (virtual) stage to announce Mercenaries also serves another purpose – to highlight how much more dynamic Hearthstone is now. “The real big part of… revealing this at BlizzConline is, there’s big stuff coming to Hearthstone, there’s always big stuff coming to Hearthstone,” says Lee. “We have this huge platform that many, many people are going to watch, and we want them to know that Hearthstone isn’t a game that only makes card expansions, we do a lot more than that these days.”
Indeed, Hearthstone is no longer a single game, but a platform. “You can come in, and we’re going to have a bunch of different types of gameplay for you, using Hearthstone’s card game mechanics and the gameplay that you see,” says Lyons-Smith. “We’ve been exploring that since about the time Battlegrounds shipped.”
We’ll have more on both Mercenaries and Forged in the Barrens soon. And be sure to also check out our chat with Ben Lee and Nathan Lyons-Smith discussing all the reveals around Hearthstone’s new core set.
Cam Shea is IGN’s AU Studio Lead and has a serious soft spot for rave era breakbeat . He also played more Breath of the Wild than any other game last year. Catch him on Twitter. Maybe.