At the start of last month, we got our first taste of the final Year of the Mammoth Hearthstone expansion in the form of Kobolds & Catacombs. December is now upon us, bringing joy and festivities, but it also means we're much closer to the release date, and as a result we got to spend some time with lead art director Ben Thompson, and senior game designer on the expansion, Peter Whalen, and find out more precisely what's in store for us.
An interesting trend about Hearthstone expansion releases is how they tend to alternate between light-hearted, wacky themes, and spooky, serious ideas. One Night in Karazhan and Journey to Un'Goro are two examples of the former, while Knights of the Frozen Throne and Whispers of the Old Gods undeniably represent the latter. This time around we're back to the funky stuff, as Kobolds & Catacombs from the get-go has been representative of dungeon crawling, with treasure and monsters behind every door. We spoke to Thompson about why they actually decided to opt for this dungeons & dragons style:
"We knew we wanted to do a set that involved loot; we knew we wanted it to involve legendary weapons, we had spellstones, these things were set as things we wanted to explore with the set," Thompson explained as we sat in a side room, away from the other journalists, next to some larger-than-life Kobolds & Catacombs props. "Previously, there had been some ideas of 'maybe there was a Blingtron element to it', Loolapalooza was the internal name for fun, but ultimately when we started nailing it down was when we started talking about 'nah, it's got more of a dungeon-y vibe type of feel, maybe going down tunnels, banging down doors and fighting creatures for the loot'; it started to become more about catacombs and tunnels and depths below.
Thompson went on to say that that's when Kobolds entered the fray, due to their prominence in World of Warcraft. "Certainly, we all have very fond memories of snuffing a number of candles in our time across Azeroth, so maybe there's a different kind of Kobold in the form of the cornered Kobold in their own dominion, with their king on high who's ready to fight back and do something about it. And it started to bring up a lot of fun vibes and some real - at the same time, parallel to that - nostalgic theme for the idea of a dungeon crawl and tabletop gaming and that whole fantasy of just an old-style fantasy dungeon type of vibe."
Despite their titular presence and appearance in so many of the cards, Kobolds aren't a new tribe this time around though. Mechs were introduced in Goblins vs Gnomes, and more recently, Elementals appeared in Journey to Un'Goro. So why not Kobolds in this expansion, as it would make sense thematically, right? Whalen told us more:
"We try to think a lot about when we introduce new tribes, or minion types, to the game. So, we did with Journey to Un'Goro, we introduced the elementals, and so we didn't feel like we needed a new one for this, there's lots of characters that don't have a minion type," Whalen explained to us. "Kobolds are some of them, Night Elves don't have a minion type, or Humans, or Orcs. So, we don't feel like every card needs a minion type, just when it makes sense mechanically, that it does something that's good and helpful for the set, or we have a cool way to build around it so that minion type feels special or feels different than the other ones."
Another aspect to consider that Whalen pointed out, is that this set is more focused on the 'Catacombs' part of the name, rather than the 'Kobolds'. The expansion is about you, the player, going into a dungeon and discovering the traps and treasure, the loot and the lurkers behind every corner. Kobolds appear in a lot of the cards, be it minions or spells, but they're not the centrepiece; decks won't be built around the Kobold aspect, more so the effect each card brings.
As Kobolds & Catacombs is the final expansion of 2017, Whalen told us how Blizzard approached the expansion differently compared to the first one for the year:
"One of the responsibilities that a third expansion has, is to look at the things from the year before, and say "What are some cool archetypes that existed there, that we didn't get to play up all the way? Or that people would like another chance to experiment with?" Because the last year's worth of expansions is going to rotate at the start of next year, so what are things from Whispers of the Old Gods, from One Night in Karazhan, from Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, that need a last hurrah in Standard?"
Whalen specifically noted the Paladin handbuff archetype as one that they're exploring again, despite it being prevalent during much of Hearthstone's history, it's never been a particularly strong or meta-defining deck, so they want to give players the chance to try the deck out once more, with some new cards that could perhaps elevate the deck to a higher tier.
"At the same time, it's not going to change the metagame as much as a first expansion. Set rotation is a huge deal, it makes an enormous shift in the metagame, so there's less burden on the first expansion to do a lot of crazy stuff. I'm not saying Journey to Un'Goro didn't have some crazy stuff in it, it absolutely did, but it's going to make an impact kind of regardless of what the individual things are that are going on there. A second set has more responsibilities to play up its own mechanics, its own themes. I think the Death Knight cards were a fantastic example of that, as a way to shift the metagame a lot without a set rotation."
Whalen went on to explain that the new Recruit mechanic focuses mainly on deckbuilding and pushing new archetypes, along with some of the new cards that are intended to push decks that haven't had as much time in the limelight. One card he pointed out is the new Paladin legendary, Lynessa Sunsorrow; the 7 cost 1/1 that seems very understated at first, but every spell that has been cast on your minions throughout the game is cast on her when she enters the battlefield. Combine a couple of Spikeridged Steeds and maybe a Blessed Champion, and you're quickly looking at a very hard to remove minion that can swing the battle in your favour. Adaptation could quickly become a widely used card in the deck too, as Elusive, or "Cannot be targeted by spells" would mean Lynessa becomes almost impossible to remove.
Kobolds & Catacombs is looking like a fantastic addition to the Hearthstone lineup, with hardly any 'pack filler' cards being announced so far, like Worgen Greaser or Wretched Tiller. Legendary weapons are being introduced with deck-defining effects, so it'll be interesting to see how they interact with cards such as the Death Knight alternate heroes and the other strong legendaries that will co-exist until the sets rotate out of standard play. Keep your eyes peeled for our full analysis of the Kobolds & Catacombs expansion shortly after it launches later this month.