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Hearthstone at Gamescom: a fireside chat with Blizzard

On adding new deck slots and in-game tournaments, helping new players, and why nine Heroes is enough.

Blizzard's going big at Gamescom this year. First, there was yesterday's media briefing which revealed a sprinkling of the publisher's plans for games like Heroes of the Storm and StarCraft 2. Later on tonight though, we'll be getting our first look at the next World of Warcraft expansion at the publisher's second special event.

The continually rising star of Blizzard's roster of games right now though is Hearthstone, the incredibly moreish and colourful collectible card game that's gobbled up more hours in the Eurogamer office than anyone really cares to think about. This month sees the release of The Grand Tournament - Hearthstone's second full expansion - which not only introduces some 130 new cards to the game, but also makes some interesting tweaks to the game's mechanics.

The new 'jousting' mechanic adds a further layer of random behaviour to the game.

Shortly after yesterday's media briefing, we had the opportunity to sit down with Hearthstone's Hamilton Chu and Mike Donais, and the conversation began naturally enough with how players will actually add the cards to their collection. Just as before, players will be able to purchase card packs with in-game Gold or real-world money, but things are changing a little bit for Hearthstone's Arena mode.

Players are guaranteed to receive a pack of cards as part of their reward for participating in this mode - regardless of how many games they manage to win. Those who are particularly talented at Arena can earn back the entry fee altogether though, allowing them to play the mode an infinite number of times, and effectively expand their card collection for free. When the last major expansion - Goblins vs Gnomes - was released, the new card packs connected to the expansion became the default reward, replacing the Classic card packs of the original release.

The same thing won't be happening with the Grand Tournament this time though. Instead, players will receive a randomised pick of either a Classic, Goblins vs Gnomes, or a Grand Tournament themed pack. If you're cynical, you might think this was a measure to stop talented veterans - sitting on huge stockpiles of Gold - from simply churning through Arena entries and grabbing all the new cards for free. Not so, according to Blizzard.

"We got a lot of feedback from people who wanted to see a variety of cards as their Arena rewards, so you know we thought a lot about how to do that. It's really fun for it to be a surprise on what you get.

"I get that some people might want to choose and we thought a lot about that. There's actually a lot of execution that comes with that. There's not really a clean way to have people choose in the interface right now, so that's something we would have to put some work into.

"Right now I think it will be really fun for people to get a surprise, and what kind of pack they get at the end of Arena. That's part of the fun of it I think."

Just prior to the release of Goblins vs Gnomes, Hearthstone players were able to get an early taste of the new upcoming cards when Blizzard dropped the whole lot into the pool from which Arena players draft their decks one by one.

We asked Blizzard whether something similar might happen ahead of the launch of the Grand Tournament, but they weren't able to talk about pre-launch promotion of the expansion. With Blizzard traditionally favouring a Wednesday launch of new expansions in the EU though, there are only a few possible release dates for the Grand Tournament: the 12th, 19th and 26th August. You might expect any preview of the cards to take place in the week before launch.

There'll be no in-game tournament support this time around, but the feature's on the cards.

Given the name of the next expansion, it was a little surprising to learn that a long-requested tournament feature wouldn't emerge as part of the update. For now, players wanting to run competitions must instead rely on the honour system, and manage tournament progress outside of the game.

Spectator Mode, introduced earlier this year, allows streamers and casters to get a more direct look at proceedings, but while it's unquestionably helped the competitive Hearthstone scene, is there more that Blizzard can do to help in this area? Are there plans to integrate a tournament management system directly into Hearthstone?

"We hear that a lot and I think that's something we would have a lot of fun playing with too, so it's definitely on our minds and we think about that a lot.

"For Grand Tournament, we really want to focus on getting this great new content out to players. We think in the end that's what's most important for the game. People love seeing new cards, they love seeing how it changes up the whole meta, and so that was the whole focus of the Grand Tournament.

"We explored the idea of it [tournaments], and we actually decided to do Tavern Brawl instead, because they're both kind of big new systems. We think Tavern Brawl is more fun and interesting - it's changing all the time and making you think about the game in different ways. It was a cooler thing, so we decided to go with it. One day we'll probably do some kind of tournament mode too."

Players participating in Hearthstone's Tavern Brawl mode, where the game's rules and mechanics are shaken up to provide a unique experience each week, receive a free Classic card pack for winning just a single game. Packs are typically purchased for Gold, and it can take a day or two of game time for most players to be able to afford a single one.

In this way, newer players are given at least a fighting chance of catching up with those who have been playing the game since launch. This problem of keeping new players competitive within the game, a game that features an increasingly large ecosystem of card types and synergies, is something that Blizzard thinks about a great deal. It seems like we can expect more help for newer players in the future.

"Definitely. This is something we think about a lot actually. Part of our hope is that Tavern Brawl is interesting and fun and kind of casual-feeling enough to bring players back. That was something we were very deliberate about - not putting a lot of pressure to have a great win record or anything like that for Tavern Brawl.

"Beyond that, yeah, definitely there are more and more cards entering the Hearthstone system and I think it can be daunting. We don't have anything we're talking about right now, but that's something we talk about internally a lot. Making sure it stays very friendly and accessible for both new players and those who maybe left and want to come back.

"We don't want this to be come more and more of a problem. It's really important for us that Hearthstone stays very friendly and accessible to new players and players coming back, so we're kind of thinking about all possible ways we can make sure that stays the case."

Tavern Brawls are one way for new players to catch up on their card collections, and it sounds as though more help is on its way.

One thing that isn't on the cards for Hearthstone though is a new Hero. There are currently nine in the game, and between them they offer a fair mix of different combat flavours. Every hint of a new expansion for Hearthstone brings community chatter around which new Hero might be coming to the game next, but Blizzard is adamant that the current roster represents enough variety for now.

"We've got nine classes already and that makes for a lot of variety in gameplay. We don't feel like we need to have more classes. In fact, adding more classes might dilute the differences between the Heroes. We think that the number of classes right now is actually really good. There are no plans to make a new class."

Along with the new Ranked play rewards announced during the media briefing, long-term Hearthstone fans who favour the game's ladder mode will be pleased to learn that an increased number of deck slots will be coming to the game after all.

The team had previously shied away from such a move, fearing that it would add an extra layer of confusion for newer players, but it seems as those those concerns have subsided a little over time. What we don't know, however, is whether these extra deck slots will be provided for free, or involve an extra microtransaction within the game. Blizzard isn't saying much on either possibility quite yet.

"We haven't figured out the details of how we want it to work but we're actively figuring that out and designing it. We want to get that out to players, but we want to do it the right way."

To stay on top of all the latest Hearthstone developments, take a look through our dedicated Hearthstone site MetaBomb.