We’re just over a week into Hearthstone’s Kobolds and Catacombs expansion, which has launched to great success. From the rewarding dungeon run to the revival of class archetypes, there’s something here for every collectible card game fan. But a lot of work goes into developing an expansion like this, ensuring fun, balance and depth.

During the Hearthstone Sydney Innvitational we sat down with Dean Ayala, game designer at Blizzard, who walked us through everything in the new set, from cards and meta to design and dungeon run.

What was the inspiration behind the Kobolds & Catacombs set?

Dean: A lot of different people would give you a lot of different answers. A lot of people on my team took inspiration from old school tabletop games and dungeon crawling with their friends in board games. For me, I was never too into to that, but I did play a lot of MMOs like Everquest and obviously World of Warcraft for like, the last twelve years of my life. When it comes to going through a dungeon, fighting bosses and getting loot, the idea behind that just reminds me a lot of WoW – and we’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from WoW bosses, encounters and weapons – that’s where I was drawing the most inspiration for the set.

This is a very different imagination of Azeroth than what we saw in Knights, and a much lighter tone. How’d you go about adapting the infamous kobolds into interesting and balanced cards?

When we were thinking about having a dungeon adventure and crawling through a wacky dungeon with different types of bosses, and trying to figure out what would bring that together, the idea of Kobolds – Iconic warcraft characters themselves – digging a bunch of tunnels and outfitting their caverns with all sorts of loot just tied everything together nicely.

We ended up really exploring that, and generally what we do when we’re trying to explore a theme for the first time is we’ll give the idea to one of our concept artists, and they’ll come back having drawn a bunch of stuff. We got stuff back of kobolds and a bunch of cavern areas for the first time, and we all sorta fell in love with it. We ended up drawing a lot of the card inspiration and all the kobolds design from the concept we got.Last time we had heroes, now we have weapons and spellstones. What lead to this and what do you think these new additions will do to shake up the game?

For legendary weapons, I think if you’re gonna do an adventure about dungeon crawling the thing that comes to mind most quickly is ‘why go into a dungeon in the first place?’ – it’s to get loot. When you think about loot, the first thing that comes to mind is weapons. The idea of weapons as loot was something we latched onto very quickly, so the idea of nine legendary weapons. They all have really cool individual effects, but we’re really going after the theme of dungeon crawling with that.

Spellstones were a little different. They’re cool and thematic, but for dungeon runs they feel like they fulfil a more mechanical role than a thematic one. They’re all sort of mini quests essentially – they all say do a specific thing, then get rewarded for it in some way. When you’re creating a new expansion one of the things you want most is for people to be playing new decks than what they’d played in previous expansions, so spellstones are a good way for us to say ‘do this different thing’, then have that thing be something that hasn’t been happening for a while. So in order to play spellstones, you wanna do something different and hopefully the meta game feels different because of it. So there’s definitely a few different reasons behind doing legendary weapons and spellstones.

Dungeon run is something very new for the game. How’d this idea come up and what do you think players will get out of it?

One of the best things about dungeon run is you can play it for quite a long amount of time. That wasn’t really the goal with any of our other solo adventures, they were all designed as one shot experiences. That’s fine if you’re designing it that way going in, but you would get maybe a couple of hours out of it, have your fun, then move on, whereas dungeon run is actually a full fledged solo mode.

At its core Hearthstone is a PVP, 1V1 game – that’s just what it has been. If PVP was something that turned you off as a solo player of games, it’s hard to say Hearthstone was for you, but now that Dungeon Run is here and it has that replayable mode that I  think you can do for 100-150 runs and still be having fun, now there’s something in Hearthstone for those players to enjoy for a long time. It really brings that, and also for people coming back to the game or beginning entirely, it’s just a low stress environment to learn about the cards and how to play the game.

Depending on how successful it is, do you see Dungeon Run as a mode that may be either added to or evolved in future expansions?

Yeah of course. The current plan is not for Dungeon Run to really go away, so when we launch the next expansion it’ll still be around. In terms of building on Dungeon Run in the future, it’s not really something we’ve fully decided on – what the solo experience is going to be like for the next expansion and the next expansion after that. I think something that we like to do every set is to do something different. One of the core things in Hearthstone is that we like things to change set to set or patch to patch, so it feels like there’s only a few things to do and you’ve already done them or get bored. I think it’s likely that we’ll look at dungeon runs ant try to see what we can do that feels a little different so that if dungeon run comes back or we’re doing a new kind of solo experience in the future, it feels different enough that it feels like a fresh experience when it happens.As balance & esports are as key to Hearthstone as the story packs/card design, how do you go about the meshing of esports competitiveness with your goals to set a tone and tell a story in dungeon run?

There’s a couple of different teams on Hearthstone luckily, so there’s a team literally just working on the solo experience, which wasn’t always the case. One of the biggest reasons why this solo experience for Kobolds and Catacombs is so robust is this is really the first time we’ve had a team dedicated to working on the expansion – it’s not really shocking to me that this adventure is the best one, just because there’s been so much love and care put into it by a team. We’ve always had a team that’s worked on balance and card design and I think that when you have a bunch of teams focussed on their own specific projects it’s not really as much an issue of trying to find the time to have a solo experience or a competitive PVP experience, especially when you have so many reams so dedicated on making their piece of the game as good as it can be.

How do you think this set will shake up the current meta? Are there any cards/combos you’re excited to see how people pick up and play?

There’s already been a bunch of people playing some really crazy decks. I’m really excited for people to play ‘Unstable Evolution’ and see how it really works out because it was one of the ones I was most confused on once we finished all the balance on Kobolds and Catacombs. It was one of those cards that we weren’t sure if it was medium to very good and exactly how people were gonna use it. When you have those cards it’s always kind of exciting, cause we’re playing for like a month or two and we’re playing thousands of games, so when you have cards you’re not really sure about it gives us confidence there’s a lot of depth there, and a lot to think about in terms of what kind of decks you can build.

Control Warlock is also an interesting choice. It was already sort of a medium, B or C tier deck. We added some pieces for it, we added the voidlord, the legendary weapon that recruits a demon so I think a lot of people have been playing that. I was just watching some streams – one of my favourites is called Dog – and he streams a lot of control and I was just watching him play the warlock and he was pretty successful with it. I’m interested to see how the decks change over time, it always happens after the first week of an expansion, where they change all the time.

The first couple of weeks is probably the most exciting in terms of deck building, where everyone is trying to figure stuff out. That’s why the tournament in Sydney is one of the more exciting ones that we’ve had because you have players like NaviOOT, Ant and really good players who’ve proven themselves on a competitive format, but then they have a tournament now where they’re trying to build decks right as the expansion released. If you’re the type of person who wants to know what to play, I think tuning in to the Innvitational is going to be pretty beneficial for you because there’s a bunch of really excellent deck builders doing so just a few days after the expansion.

Yeah, I spoke to NaviOOT and he said some similar things. I’m very interested to see what ha plays at the Innvitational.

NaviOOT is an excellent player, he’s actually quite an entertaining streamer, I watch him from time to time, but I think people forget just how good he is at Hearthstone, but he’s pretty respected in the scene. I’ve talked to a lot of different players and a lot of them have respect for how good he is.

We’ve seen WoW play around with PvE esports, and now you & twitch have announced a ‘loosely’ esports tournament factored around dungeon run. Does esports factor into the larger design of the game or was this more of a fun, one off exploration of PvE Esports?

The answer is that when you’re making a game, you’re not really trying from the start to make an esport. One of the goals we have at Blizzard when we’re making any game is that we don’t make games you play for ten or twenty hours then put down. All Blizzard games have this goal that if you want to play it for 100 hours, 500 hours or even 1000 hours you can do that, and still find depth there. In order for that to happen you need to have a fun game first of all, but it needs to be relatively easy to learn, with a welcoming experience to help you learn, but there also needs to be a tonne of depth. If you’re gonna play it for 1000 hours you need to be still learning stuff on hour 500, 600 and 700.

When you have a game that’s easy to learn, that generally means it’s fairly easy to watch too. When you make that game hard to master and you have these skilled players playing their 600th hour and thinking about it a lot, doing a lot of theorycrafting, it becomes fun to watch them because they’re doing a lot of things that you wouldn’t ever think to do because the skillcap is so high. When you combine all those factors,easy to understand with players playing on such a high level, it makes it fun to watch and you end up with a game prime for esports. Hearthstone falls on that line when we’re making that experience.