A look at Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne with production director Jason Chayes

The release of Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion is just around the corner, and I had the honor of sitting down with Jason Chayes, the production director for Hearthstone. We settled under an umbrella in Petco Park, watching fans line up for a refreshing blast of frigid air and delicious ice cream at the Lich King’s Ice Cream Citadel to talk about the Lich King, reminisce about the World of Warcraft, and discuss the future of Hearthstone.

The Lich King is something of a dark and morbid character in the World of Warcraft, while Hearthstone is a little more happy and carefree. How much of a challenge was it to edit the Lich King to match the tone of Hearthstone?
Jason: Initially it was a challenge, because we wanted to obviously to be true to the Lich King, and not necessarily change who he is or change his identity, and there’s a lot of discussion about… should he be fun and whimsical and goofy, and none of that felt right. So, ultimately, we landed in a place where he’s still the Lich King, but he’s also, like, the most awesome, badass Hearthstone player in the world, and he’s got an attitude about it. He’s not afraid to let you know that you are inferior to him in all ways when it comes to playing Hearthstone. He’s the guy who has all the cards, and is very judgmental about how to play, so that was the version we took with it. You’ll see a lot of that when you play it in the expansion, I think we ended up in a pretty good place.

What was your favorite thing which was transformed into a card for the Lich King expansion?
Jason: One of the big features we’re going to be releasing with this next expansion is a new mechanic, hero cards. It’s the first time we’ve ever rolled out a new card type like this in an expansion, and we’re really excited about it. The way it works is that you have this card that’s sitting in your deck, and when you play it, it transforms your hero into their Death Knight incarnation. One of the ones we’re gonna have is called Deathstalker Rexxar.

Rexxar is a classic Hunter hero who’s been there from the very beginning, he’s one of the greatest hunters in all of Asrock. So if I put Deathstalker Rexxar in my deck, when I get that card and I play it, it will actually have this cool visual effect, and you’ll actually see Deathstalker Rexxar materialize and transform on top of your existing hero, and it comes with all these cool powers and effects. First of all, it will do two damage to all your opponent’s minions, it gives you some more armor, but the biggest thing he has is this hero power that essentially is called “build a beast.” The way it works is you’ll be presented with three different beasts and you choose one. You’ll be presented with three more beasts, and you choose another one. What’ll happen is it’ll stitch together, almost Frankenstein style, these two beasts into one sort of uber-beast. That’s kind of a cool character aspect of his class and his character archetype that we’re looking forward to releasing with the set.

I know that a lot of players are upset about the recent Rogue NERF, are you hoping that these types of new strategies coming in with this expansion will help balance that out?
Jason: That’s the hope! Every time we come up with a new set like this, one of the goals we had was to shake up the META — the very popular decks that a lot of people are playing and kind of give that a big push in a different direction. We think that’s the most exciting time to be playing Hearthstone: when new cards are coming in, new strategies are emerging, new deck types are coming out of it.

Have you developed your own personal strategy for this expansion?
Jason: There’s a bunch of deck types that I’m playing, but in terms of how that evolves when Knights of the Frozen Throne comes out… we’re gonna kinna wait and see. There are folks on the team who are kind of master deck builders… I’m ok, and so I’m very excited to see what the community comes up with. Like, what if we try this card and this card and combine them in this way? I think that’s one of the most fun ways to share. I think what’s really fun about Hearthstone is the creative process around coming up with cool deck ideas.

Have you had any “ah-ha!” moments where the cards did something completely unexpected?
Jason: There’s always things like that, in fact, we try to design those into the set from the beginning, where… What if people use this particular card type with this existing strategy, or something that came out in the past? One example was, there was a card that came out a year back, this card called Purify. This came out with one of our released adventures called One Night in Karazhan, and at the time it was launched, a lot of players looked at that card and said “Purify’s not that good, why would anyone make a card like this?” One of the things that’s interesting was seeing how Purify became a very strong card in a particular deck type, in the Priest class, down the road, and so we try to build in little hooks like that. We call some of the things “build arounds,” can you build something around the ideas in this deck? That inspires creativity, and there’s plenty of those things waiting in the next deck.

Have Hearthstone players managed to do something with a card that was completely unexpected and shocked you all?
Jason: There’s definitely deck types that have emerged where we had ideas that they might be okay, but the community took it a million times further than we might have imagined, and really did some really cool, creative, amazing things.

One example is the deck type that became very popular a year or two back was the Grim Patron Deck. This was one card that came out with an expansion called Blackrock Mountain and in that one there was this one card, Grim Patron, who when he takes damage, he spawns into another copy of himself. That was a case where, in the community, they found ways to mix and match just the right set of cards to make a very popular, very powerful deck type. That’s one of the best things, I think, about the Hearthstone community, is creative they are and all the different ways they find to play.

Do you have any fond memories from playing the Icecrown Citadel in WoW years ago that have made their way into Hearthstone?
Jason: Yeah, you’ll definitely see a lot of your favorite bosses! Professor Putricide is one of the well-known bad guys from the Icecrown raid back in the day, and you’ll be coming up against some of the other spells and minions. You’ll see Blood-Queen Lana’thel, she’s another one that people got to know really well, that are showing up, and you’ll get to see how they’ve been translated into Hearthstone for the very first time in this context.

How are you handling matchmaking? How challenging is it to balance getting good matches with paring players up quickly?
Jason: We definitely want to optimize for both. The way that the matchmaker works is that we really try to find and match people that are at the same rank consistently, but we also know that at a certain point, you might be at a level, say a very top-level Legend player, where the pool isn’t that big, there just aren’t many people at that skill level. So it does its best to match, if it doesn’t find a match, it’ll try again a minute or so down the road and expand the search a little bit. but it will reach a point where it doesn’t expand the search any further. We always are trying to think about this in everything we’re doing: How do we optimise for best possible match, but also accessibility? I think we’re in a pretty good place right now, but it’s definitely one of the things we keep thinking about.

Given the massive popularity of Overwatch, do you expect to see any of those characters making an appearance in future Hearthstone decks?
Jason: Probably not, we really want to keep the integrity of the IP and keep it focused on World of Warcraft. However, there is a card back in the game which was definitely inspired by Overwatch.

Where are you headed after this, what’s the future for Hearthstone?
Jason: Obviously, we’re very focused on Knights of the Frozen Throne, want that to be awesome, but we have a lot of other cool stuff that’s in flight that we’re very excited about. One of the things that we’re working on is our Fireside Gatherings program. This is something cool, because we’re all gathered here at Comic-Con today, and it’s kind of cool to be in the same physical space as the other people who love the same things you do. With Fireside Gatherings, you can come to a local location, like a cafe or a coffee shop, find other Hearthstone players who love it around you, as well, and it actually changes the experience of playing Hearthstone, when you play there together. So there’s actually stuff that gets unlocked in the game itself when you play from a Fireside Gathering that you wouldn’t see otherwise. So we’re just in the process of beginning to roll that out, so we encourage all the various folks out there who love Hearthstone to go check that out!

The Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion releases this Thursday, August 10th. While at San Diego Comic-Con, we were invited to attend a special Fireside Gathering, you can read all about our time at the Frostside Gathering right here!

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