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Talking keywords, celebrations, and the future with Hearthstone’s devs

We sat down with Hearthstone’s lead designer Cora Georgiou and Executive Producer and VP Nathan Lyons-Smith to discuss ten years of Blizzard’s mobile CCG.

Hearthstone anniversary interview: Cora in the Whizbang trailer

March 11 of this year marks ten years since Blizzard released its Warcraft spin-off digital CCG Hearthstone in full to the world. In the past decade, Hearthstone has cemented itself as a leader in the genre, offering a complete CCG experience that isn’t reliant on the restrictions of tie-in physical TCG products like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic The Gathering.

Since its initial release, Hearthstone has maintained a dedicated player base for its Standard and Wild formats, and has branched out into various other game modes. You can play Arena if you prefer to draft your deck, check out solo adventures to learn more about the game’s heroes and lore, or compete against seven other players in auto-chess in Battlegrounds. While some game modes like Duels and Mercenaries weren’t meant to last, Hearthstone still manages to give its players new and exciting content, events, and twists to explore.

To celebrate this milestone achievement, we were lucky enough to sit down with Hearthstone’s Executive Producer and VP Nathan Lyons-Smith and lead designer Cora Georgiou to discuss all things Hearthstone – looking ahead to the Year of the Pegasus, Whizbang’s Workshop, and everything else the game has in store for 2024.

As the anniversary falls quite early in the year, we wanted to know how the team plans to keep the celebrations going throughout the rest of 2024. Lyons-Smith said, “This year is Hearthstone’s tenth anniversary, World of Warcraft’s 20th anniversary, and the Warcraft franchise’s 30th anniversary, so we’re going to tie into each of those moments.” The first part of a three-part Hearthstone OST drops on the anniversary itself and ahead of the first expansion of the year’s release, with the other two parts planned to coincide with the remaining expansions.

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Events like this which fall outside of the game itself, as well as the WoW and Warcraft Rumble tie-ins that we already know about, show off how the team is implementing celebrations of Hearthstone and Warcraft’s anniversaries “across all of Blizzard with different events and fun interactions for players.”

Whizbang’s Workshop, Hearthstone’s first expansion for the Year of the Pegasus, features the new keywords ‘Miniaturize’ and ‘Mini’, which we assumed were a nod to Warcraft Rumble, Blizzard’s latest foray into the mobile gaming space. Georgiou clarified that it’s actually inspired by a range of different tabletop games, but the team certainly had a lot of fun incorporating Rumble’s original characters into Hearthstone via the new cards for the core set.

She said, “Being able to work with the Rumble team to make those core cards and being able to communicate with them about, ‘Hey, if we were going to do a couple of cards, what characters would you want us to use? How would you want us to represent these characters? Who are they; what are their voice lines? What are they known for? How do we represent their personalities through designs?

Hearthstone anniversary interview: Inventor Boom card art close up

“For Gnomelia of course, that’s by being really explosive and a little bit rash, really getting in your face and dealing a bunch of damage. For the grunt that’s being a little bit more defensive and protective. It’s the first time that I’ve been able to be part of something like that, working internally with another Blizzard property. I thought that was really great.”

While not as big an anniversary as Hearthstone’s, Warcraft Rumble is also celebrating its first anniversary this year, and Lyons-Smith is excited to see how all of the games under the Warcraft umbrella can collaborate in the future. “There’s a lot of encouragement for us to figure out the right ways to partner and help each other and celebrate each other, especially this year.”

Continuing on the keywords theme, we wanted to know how the card design team decides which keywords deserve a comeback in future sets, or which get added to the core set, making them a staple of the game. Georgiou explained, “It depends on player response and what the players want to see. ‘Magnetic’, while not necessarily an evergreen keyword but one that we brought back in the core set, returned because specifically it fit really well with a couple of the themes that we had last year. In Titans specifically, we knew that we wanted to have quite a few mechs in that set, so it made sense to have magnetic in the core set and be able to design with that in mind, which was really fun. I’ve never been able to design with magnetic before!”

‘Tradeable’ initially appeared in the United in Stormwind expansion but joined the evergreen keyword list last year. Georgiou said that the reaction to the keyword from players was immediately positive and that the flexibility and autonomy it provides were massive factors in it sticking around. “It really just opens up so much more opportunity for us as designers, and the players really like it because it makes their decks and turns feel more cohesive. It makes it feel like they don’t brick their draws.”

Hearthstone anniversary interview: Whizbang's Workshop key art close up

Whizbang’s Workshop is the first Hearthstone expansion to give an official keyword name to a recurring effect by introducing ‘elusive’. This keyword refers to minions that can’t be targeted by spells or Hero Powers, and players have unofficially referred to these minions as elusive for years. While the fanbase is glad to finally have the elusive keyword, many, including us, are left wondering, what about ‘cleave’?

We could tell that Georgiou and Lyons-Smith were both well aware of the cleave issue, especially as they both laughed when asked about it. As lead designer, Georgiou stepped up to answer. “We were considering cleave right alongside elusive and really what it came down to was, how much do we see ourselves designing with this effect in the coming year? With elusive, we looked back at the year prior and we thought ahead to the year following like, ‘Do we see ourselves using this keyword enough to justify making it an official keyword?’ and we did.

“With cleave, it just wasn’t something we saw ourselves using as much even though it is a rather long text box. That effect is so powerful in a vacuum that it’s a little bit more difficult to make a number of cleave cards that’s high enough to feel like we need to keyword it. We’re very willing to go back and keyword things that we had decided not to, so it’s possible but this time we decided not to.”

We had a brief discussion about the fate of assets from Duels and Mercenaries, two modes that Hearthstone discontinued in 2023 which both bring hundreds of unique cards, heroes, and hero powers to the table. In this past Arena season we saw Duels treasures appearing as part of the drafting process, so we wondered where else we might encounter these assets.

Hearthstone anniversary interview: An image showing off the Whizbang rewards track

Sadly, Georgiou said that the dedicated Arena playerbase wasn’t too keen on using Duels treasures, so they won’t be hanging around. As for Mercenaries, Lyons-Smith said that while there are no plans currently for its heroes and cards, “I imagine the team takes inspiration for some those abilities for future cards and future mechanics.”

Of course, we love mobile games here at Pocket Tactics, but we also cover Nintendo Switch games, so we asked if the Hearthstone team has any plans to port the game to consoles in the future. While there’s nothing set in stone officially, Lyons-Smith did mention Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Activision-Blizzard and the company’s “big aspirations of making it easy for gamers anywhere to play together.”

We couldn’t end the interview without asking if Monk would ever join Hearthstone as a new character class, especially as the additions of Demon Hunter and Death Knight were such a success. The team is very aware of the community’s clamoring for Monk, but once again has nothing to announce at the moment.

Georgiou and Lyons-Smith aren’t just key members of the Hearthstone team, but they’re also long-time fans and players, so we asked them what they’re most excited about for 2024. Lyons-Smith said, “I’m, as a player for ten years, excited to jump into the celebration of Hearthstone imagined here in Whizbang’s Workshop.” He specifically mentioned the new, configurable Zilliax Deluxe 3000 and adorable King Plush, just two examples of Whizbang’s reimaginings of Hearthstone’s history.

Hearthstone anniversary interview: Three variants of Zilliax Deluxe 3000 next to each other

Georgiou went into more detail about Zilliax’s reinvention as a fully customizable card, saying “I can’t believe that we actually made that happen. I think I said something about a year ago now like, ‘Hey, we just had a really cool idea. There’s no way it’s going to ship but if it did ship, dang that would be cool.’ When we started it was just this absolute mountain of work. The UI team, engineering, art, they just worked so hard to make it possible and it’s awesome. It’s so fun!”

We can’t wait to return to the Tavern to celebrate ten years of fantastical fun. Here’s to the next decade! Make sure you take a trip to Whizbang’s Workshop on March 19, 2024.

For more from the Warcraft universe, check out our Warcraft Rumble tier list, Hearthstone decks guide, and our Warcraft Rumble interview. We’ve also got a guide to the best mobile card games for you to peruse.