Chinese Interview with Ben Thompson and Dean “Iksar” Ayala: Part II – The Hall-of-Fame, Wild, Single-Player and Communication

hearthstone 7 - Chinese Interview with Ben Thompson and Dean "Iksar" Ayala: Part II - The Hall-of-Fame, Wild, Single-Player and Communication

This is Part II of the interview with Team 5's Creative Director
benthompsonart?lang=en - Chinese Interview with Ben Thompson and Dean "Iksar" Ayala: Part II - The Hall-of-Fame, Wild, Single-Player and Communication

Ben Thompson
Ben Thompson HS - Chinese Interview with Ben Thompson and Dean "Iksar" Ayala: Part II - The Hall-of-Fame, Wild, Single-Player and Communication/u/Ben_Thompson_HS and Lead Final Designer Dean "Iksar" Ayala /u/iksarhs, Part I was posted yesterday.


Q: You haven’t printed a Charge card for a long time. Instead, we’ve seen many Rush cards. What are your general opinions on the Charge mechanic? For Charge cards like Stonetusk Boar and Leeroy, is it possible that they would be put in the Hall of Fame?

Iksar: Is it possible? Yea sure! (everyone laughs for a while) For Stonetusk Boar, it’s funny because so many designs are like “Ooh this design is sooo cool.. Ahhh Stonetusk Boar. We can’t do it now.” Part of it is ok, we need designs that are interesting and every card that we print limits design in some ways.

Iksar: A card like Leeroy feels core to Warcraft fantasy, so it would pain us a little bit to ever rotate it. I think Stonetusk Boar may be at a higher risk, since it’s a little less important fantasy-wise. It’s just a pig (laughter). We can potentially do it, it hasn’t felt very limiting recently.

Iksar: The decks that we’ve seen recently with Stonetusk Boar like APM Priest are actually pretty cool! Even though that was an OTK deck, the skill required to play that deck was so high, and it was actually only played by a very small % of the population. Even Stonetusk Boar can create games that are pretty fun I think. It’s not something that’s very, very high on our list, but we’re not making a ton of Charge cards on purpose, since they lead to a lot of negative experiences.


Q: Another card that comes to mind is Malygos. During reveal season, a popular Chinese meme was about how the cards seemed to be in two opposing camps: “Let’s send Malygos to HOF” ( Muckmorpher, Jepetto) and “Let’s protect Malygos” (Unseen Saboteur, Hecklebot). What are your general thoughts on these combo decks and archetypes?

Iksar: The general thought process behind rotating cards to Wild is: If this card were in Wild, is Standard more fun? We had this conversation about Auctioneer and Malygos. Is it limiting design-wise. Yeah! Are some of the decks OTK decks? Yes. Is the game more fun if Malygos was not in Standard? I think the answer to that so far has been no. Those decks haven’t been such a huge problem for us that we feel like we can’t design cards for the most powerful decks in the meta.

Iksar: For players that enjoy that kind of playstyle, it’s been fun for them! It hasn’t been too limiting for us, so it’s the reason why they stuck around. It’s still something we talk about all the time, it’s a very fine line and any moment we could feel like it’s too much. For now, we feel like the game is more fun with them.


Q: We’ve just had a fairly major reform of the arena. I remember one of your goals was to attract more players to play Arena. I was wondering how it’s been going for the first week, and whether you were happy with the trend.

Iksar: Personally I’ve been travelling since the set release and haven’t had a chance to sit down. I’ll definitely look at it when I get back. The reception, for the most part, has been pretty positive. There’s some stuff about balance specifically raised on reddit that’s either already addressed, or will be in the next couple of days. It takes a while when we do a complete format switch to get everything right immediately. I think we went in together with the community with the expectation that “Hey we’re going to change a lot and then we’re going to do some quick adjustments for balance”.

Q: As someone who works on both Constructed and Arena balance, do you feel like it’s different working on the two modes?

Iksar: There are a lot of differences. For Constructed it’s working on card design, what’s fun and what’s not, there are tons of challenges there. For Arena, we’re not designing new cards, the challenge there is with the pool that’s available, how do we make the classes to be equal power level? How do we make them feel like they have synergies to draft that are fun? What’s the format of drafting? It’s more about the system, and how we make Arena more fun.

I think Constructed is already pretty fun as a system, we just have to make the right cards. Whereas Arena, there’s more things we are willing to change because we’re trying to make that mode as fun as it can be.


Q: Currently the four Defender of Dalaran classes are the least represented classes in Wild. Is this by design or is it a coincidence? (laughter all round)

Thompson: From a lore perspective, the classes that are labelled EVIL are very much evil, we look at Warlock, Shadow Priest represented by Madame Lazul….

Iksar: The short answer is, it’s a coincidence. There are no long term plan to make them bad, it’s a coincidence (everyone laughs).

Q: Do you have any plans to support Wild even more?

Iksar: There are two parts to this as well I think. I think when people are talking about Wild, one of the questions is: How can we make Wild and Wild cards cool? That means using them in the Wild format, maybe it means Special Tavern Brawls or using them in the Arena. Being able to use my cards from the past in these ways is certainly something we’ll do in the future.

Iksar: The other thing I hear a lot about is: Because Wild doesn’t have as many balance changes, does that mean we care less about the format or we’re paying less attention to it? I think that goes with Wild being, to some degree, a place where you can all the stuff that you’ve enjoyed from the past. Forever!

It’s kind of the identity of the mode, you can do crazy stuff, you can use the new expansions with your old cards, and there’s some safety that comes that. There’s going to be all these broken decks and you can play them against one another. To some degree that’s why we don’t make as many changes; we want that format to stay true to that.

Iksar: There are violators of that sometimes, that’s just not really fun for anybody. Like Naga Sea Witch, for instance. We thought that wasn’t really fun for anybody, so there’ll be circumstances like that where we’ll make changes. But for the most part, we try to stay respectful to the things people like doing for a very long time.

Q: Speaking of Naga Sea Witch: recently the Wild community has come up with a new combo that they think is reminiscent of Naga Sea Witch – Darkest Hour Warlock. Is it something that you think will be looked at, like Naga Sea Witch?

Iksar: I know about the deck. I’ve seen people talk about it, people have messaged me about it. Conceptually when you think about it, the combo is you must have exactly these 4 cards on the early turns and it’s a super powerful thing that everyone is doing all the time…. It’s very inconsistent, right? That said, when the combo goes off, can you deal with four giant minions on turn 2? Probably not.

Iksar: It’s one of those things that just comes down to – is it consistent enough where that leads to an unfun experience for us to change something. Like I said, we try to stay respectful of these cards that you can use for a very long time. We kind of committed to saying “If you like Bloodbloom, you should be able to play Bloodbloom as it exists forever.” There is a line, but there’s no hard rule that says if something is played “X” amount of times, we will change it, but we’re just constantly evaluating data and perception and try to make the right decision.

Solo Adventure

Q: The single-player content has been free for a few sets but for this set, we need to spend gold or cash on it again. Is this a one-off “call-back” to the old adventure model, or will this be coming back as a regular thing?

Thompson: We feel that the cost associated with the single-player for Rise of Shadows is consistent with the amount of content behind it. In reality, there’s more content behind the single-player mode than there’s ever been (Interviewer was at the summit and says he agrees).

If you look at just the free portion, that content comes with not just a new Hero skin, 3 new Hero Powers and 4 new decks, one of which is random and has a lot of fun stuff when it goes off. That alone constitutes gameplay that you can go back and have a different experience every time.

Thompson: We feel like if you really love that content, and find it to be something you want to spend more time with, then there are other chapters that you can end up purchasing for gold or cash. That’s a choice you get to make as a player. If you don’t, it’s not inherently required for you as a player to engage it. If you want to go back to ladder, that’s totally fine as well.

Q: Have you considered putting more rewards behind the single-player content? Or maybe achievements? While it’s fun, we worry that there’s not much motivation to play them again after a period of time. To be honest, I think the single-player content is great and can be a stand-alone game by itself. Have you considered trying to push it to become as popular as ladder or arena?

Thompson: The single-player content is inherently interesting to another type of player. There’s a lot there for the regular Hearthstone player who just enjoys trying new things with Hero Powers that are both familiar and new at the same time.

The new mode, though, has a lot of repeat play possible with all of the different decks and Hero Powers and also the different type of tracking inherently available too. There are many different ways you can track for winning this chapter, with this hero, with this Hero Power, with this deck – there are a lot of checkboxes for players to explore.

Thompson: There are players across the globe who are very interested in collecting all the checkmarks, experimenting with different decks; there’s a lot of repeat play that’s possible for players of all types.


Q: At the moment, it seems like Priest are stuck with the resurrection archetype. Will you be giving us new ways to play Priest?

Iksar: Sure, we’ve given Priest many archetypes in the past; Dragon Priest was one of the most popular things ever for Priest.

I think resurrection is one of those things that are really core to Warcraft Priest fantasy. It’s something that we’ll go back to from time to time, but not something we’ll do every set. I’m sure Dragon Priest will eventually come back, as will Priests that copies a bunch of cards, or steal cards from your opponents.


We try to choose whichever ones makes sense for the flavour of the set, and also just presents different gameplay. Resurrection is cool, we’ll come back to it, but certainly not every set.


Q: You talked about check-boxes earlier. In that vein, would you consider adding more achievements to the game, such as for instance how many times you used a certain card, or how much Health you’ve restored? At the moment, it’s mostly just how many wins we have with each class.

Thompson: I think an achievement system that is valuable to a game is one which helps you become or reinforces you being a good player. The achievements that help you to do things like, how many murlocs can you put on the board, or how many times you can do X, means that the player across from you is often times playing a different game.

Thompson: That makes for sometimes a less interesting game for both players if each player has a different set of goals, other than taking the opponent down to 0 Health before you do. That’s the goal of Hearthstone. If the goal of the other player is to meet their achievement, they’re changing the way I as a competitor interact, and it changes the game of Hearthstone. That’s why we’re being careful when it comes to implementing achievements for that.

Iksar: The goal of achievements really is: Can we show meaningful progression? Are the things that you’re doing being tracked, and does it feel like you’re progressing towards something when playing Hearthstone?

I think quests are very good short-term progression. Golden heroes are really good long-term progression. We know that we can certainly do better in the in-between portion; how do we make the games feel like you’re progressing, whether you win or lose?

I don’t have anything to announce today, but if the goal of achievements is to feel like you’re always progressing towards something when playing Hearthstone, that’s definitely something we want to achieve.

states one will likely be released>

Archmage Vargoth

Q: Was Archmage Vargoth designed specifically to be given out as a free card? Or did you pick him to be the one later in the process? Why did you choose Archmage Vargoth to be the free card to be given out early this set?

Iksar: First, we think giving out a free card early is pretty cool, when the one card this set is played alongside the older cards in Standard. Everyone wants to experiment with this one card, it’s kind of fun to watch streamers trying to figure out how to utilise this specific card. We think it creates a fun experience for a short amount of time.

Iksar: Did we design this card specifically that’s cool for that? No. We design the 135-card set to be the most interesting they can be hopefully for the two years they are in Standard. Luckily for us, there’s almost always a card that’s a really cool character that would also be interesting in that 1-2 week period, so we were able to choose one of the cards that fits for that.


Q: I would like to ask something about communication. I find this particularly relevant with the two of you since Iksar is one of, if not the most active dev communicating online; Also Ben, you mentioned specifically that you guys would like to communicate more with the community in the reddit AMA and at the summit.

How is it going so far? Dean, is it taking up a lot of your time? Is it difficult? Is it exciting? Is it depressing sometimes? Tell us about the stories (everyone laughs)

Thompson: I think there are different ways we can communicate. Not all of those are individual tweets, or chatting in a reddit AMA. I think the reddit AMA was a good example of a first step, and there are going to be more of them going forward.

We’ve even taken to scheduling: we have a schedule we’re looking at where sessions will be very focused, with a specific purpose behind them that talk about things we want to dig into deeper with the community.

Thompson: The other thing to consider is the timing in an average Hearthstone release. There are about 3.5-4 months between each release. That’s going to change a little with the staggered single player but the fact remains that there’s a lot of talking up-front when a set’s about to be released, and right after a set is released. There’s already a lot of communication during that time, and players feel that “well, you’re talking to us right now since there’s a lot to talk about.”

So what I would say to those players is: Give us a chance in the 2nd and 3rd month, when the content’s been out for a while and there’s every excuse and reason to not talk as much since there’s less to talk about. Let’s see what we’re saying, and how often we’re talking then. It’s very much a goal for us to be in communication on a regular cadence over the course of the 4 months, and not just at the beginning.

Iksar: So what is it like doing it? (laughs) What is it like…..? (everyone laughs) I think the honest answer is that you have to want to do it. There’s no one forcing anybody on the Hearthstone team like “Hey I know you don’t want to be out there, but I need you from 8-9 POSTING ON REDDIT!” (laughs) That’s not happening, it comes from a desire of “I want to do this thing”.

It’s certainly challenging, since I’m not only representing myself, I’m representing a team of people I respect, a game I care about. That part is really important: It’s about conveying the right message and also what the teams believes in. It can be nerve-wrecking for sure. So that’s like Part 1, of a 5-part answer… (everyone laughs)

Iksar: Why do I do it? I think for me personally, interacting with the community, reading blog posts about game design was the reason I became a game designer in the first place. (Jeff) Kaplan works on Overwatch now; in the time he worked on WoW, reading what he wrote about design there was why I became a designer.

I remember reading all that stuff and thought “One day, I’m going to be a game designer too, and I’m just going to do that! And it’s going to be really important, because there will be people like me reading about Hearthstone, and maybe game design will pique their interest.”

Q: Compared to the West, Chinese players feel like it’s much tougher to communicate with you guys since there are no direct channels to do so. Have you considered communicating via channels where Chinese players can access more easily, such as Chinese social media or forums?

Thompson: It’s definitely something we’re aware of, to the point of us talking about how to separate each individual region for AMAs, rather than starting from a Western stance. Specifically keep your eyes out in May, that’s when we’re planning the AMA that will be focused on China. We’ll have more details soon.

Iksar: In part, that’s why we’re here now. The language barrier makes it more difficult to understand what’s going on in this region. I’m in my hotel and I can’t browse reddit or twitter! What does the community think here, compared to what’s going on in the West? We lean a little on our Chinese team to tell us what’s going on, but it’s harder to be plugged in when the language barrier exists.

Q: Dean – If you didn’t know, a lot of the Chinese players are jokingly talking about you as the “new Lich King” (everyone laughs). By that I mean, in Warcraft, there must always be a Lich King, and the same goes for communication, where someone must be the bearer of the messages to the community. Previously we had Brode chatting with us about Warsong Commander, and Purify, and now it’s usually Dean. Any final words for your fans in China?

Iksar: Are they really my fans…? (everyone laughs) It’s important to have the communication; there’s always going to be times where we disagree with each other to some degree. One of the blessings or curses about game design is that there’s a super wide range of audience. It’s our responsibility as devs to try create games and cards that appeal to hyper-competitive players, but also players just starting out.

Iksar: It’s hard to tell people that a decision that doesn’t work for them is maybe the right decision. Of course we don’t always make the right decision; for China and the east it’s even harder to communicate exactly why we’re doing something due to translations. Maybe something I say doesn’t come off the way it was intended.

It’s important for us to at least educate the reasons why we do things, so we can get feedback. It’s not very helpful for us to see a picture of a meme (laughs). What does it mean?! What is wrong? So I would just say keep saying the things that you want to be communicated to us.


  • For reference again, the interview was conducted last week on 17 April, Wednesday.

  • Some context about perception of Iksar in China, and Iksar memes (and Brode before him). As framed in the interview, Brode was very much a hated figure in the early years of Hearthstone in China, and was always mocked and insulted whenever he made statements about the game. He later turned the image around gradually and was beloved by the time he left.

  • As said, Iksar is now the “new Lich King” and is firmly the target of complaints and unhappiness. Part of that is because he’s been the one mostly making the unofficial statements via reddit comments and tweets; these are translated by third parties hours after he posts the comments and while I do try my best to ensure the translations are true to the context and intent, things slip through. Also, everything simply sounds worse when translated, especially when you can’t interact directly to clarify.

  • The
    most popular meme about Iksar in China says “But we feel like this is normal.” It was some time ago, but I think it was a translation of this comment, and this line specifically: “…but for a deck or archetype to reach this level of popularity this early on in an expansion is not abnormal.”

  • Side-Story: Dean actually PMed me when he reached Shanghai, asking where he should go to read Chinese players talk about the game, and whether there were English sections in those. When I told him that the discussions were exclusively in Chinese, he was keen to use translate tools to have a general understanding of what they were saying, or to even reply directly to them.

  • Apologies for the wall of text, this part was especially lengthy and I had troubles formatting it to be more readable. It was tough since there was a lot of breaks (pauses for the translator to work) and back and forth with the questions and answers.

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