Blizzard's Ben Brode is many things: game director on Hearthstone, hero to its community, world-renowned laugher, and a thoroughly affable guy. But on the dawn of The Witchwood expansion, which launches this week on April 12, he's something else entirely - afraid, of just how bananas a specific Hearthstone card might be when players get their hands on it. That frightening card is Shudderwock, a new Legendary Shaman minion with a Battlecry effect that allows for some absurd combos, which will surely be the fuel for many memes and highlight videos to come.
"Shudderwock is the craziest card we've ever made by a significant amount," says Brode. "If you play it late in the game, that's like maybe twenty Battlecries, which is pretty silly. And it was a heroic effort from our engineering and art teams to make the card even work. Some of the targets are random, but you can control the randomness pretty significantly here with cards that don't require a target. Cards like Saronite Chain Gang, which says 'Summons a copy of this minion,' so now you're summoning copies of Shudderwock. So it can get pretty ridiculous depending on which Battlecry minions you choose to put in your deck with Shudderwock. There are a lot of crazy Battlecry minions, but I'm really excited to see how Shaman players build this type of deck."
Brode witnessed Shudderwock's potentially game-breaking potential just last week, while checking in on his colleagues on Hearthstone's Team 5. "I was walking around the design pit, and somebody was playing Shudderwock, and they played Shudderwock and summoned an exact copy [thanks to Sarnite Chain Gang], and then apparently they played Grumble, Worldshaker earlier in the game," says Brode. "Grumble's a kinda underused Legendary that says 'Return your other minions to your hand. They cost (1).' So it returned the exact copy to his hand. Now he has a 1-cost Shudderwock, and each Shudderwock he plays summons a copy and returns a 1-cost Shudderwock to his hand. So now he has infinite 1-mana Shudderwocks."
"I said, 'Guys, whatever you've done to make this combo possible, change it now.' And they said, 'Oh, this is all shipping in Witchwood.' I was like, 'NOOOOOOOOOO!' [laughs] A hundred percent, I'm terrified. They've assured me that things are going to be fine."
Despite Brode's trepidation about infinite Shudderwocks, Hearthstone's willingness to experiment with mind-boggling effects that enable unconventional deck archetypes has always been one of its best traits. If anything, Shudderwock could fill the void in player's hearts left by Yogg-Saron, Hope's End now that his completely random, spell-flinging apocalypse effect is rotating out of Standard.
Besides getting a sneak peek at Shudderwock, I also got to pick Brode's brain about all things Hearthstone; you'll find some enlightening tidbits below. If you're keen to know more about The Witchwood, read up on what designers Dave Kosak and Dean Ayala have to say about its lore and impact on balance.
Exploring the possibility of more alternate win conditions, like Uther of the Ebon Blade:
"In general, I think we want to be very careful there. Because when your opponent wins in a way that's non-traditional, it can be quite disorienting. You kinda have to go back and read the history log. It's a thing you need to see coming a little while away. Uther does a pretty good job of that. And we just have to be pretty careful with it. I don't mind soft win conditions, like the Emperor Thaurissan boss fight in Blackrock Mountain. His Hero Power says, 'Deal 30 damage,' but he's got a minion in play that says, 'You can't use your power while I'm here.' His Hero Power could just say, 'Win the game.' But it doesn't, and I think that's a way that's more telegraphed somehow. When you see a giant fireball come out of nowhere and hit you for 30 damage, you don't have to read the history log."
On Druid's 'benefit both players' theme for some Class cards in The Witchwood:
"It's actually something we've been trying to do for Druids since we launched Hearthstone, right? Naturalize: 'I'll kill your guy, but here's some stuff.' Grove Tender: give both players a card, or both players gain a Mana Crystal. Balance is one of the Druids specs [in World of Warcraft], so making balance between both players - that's the thing we've been trying to play out for a while."
Why Tauren got snubbed when making a new Druid hero:
"Yeah, people were upset about that. I think mostly because [Tauren like Baine Bloodhoof are] very similar in tone and theme to Malfurion. He's kinda Malfurion's counterpart on the Horde. They're both [dips into a Tauren voice] serious, deep-toned Druids who fight for the land. And we wanted to give players another opportunity to play Druid differently if they wanted to. We did something similar with Gul'dan and Nemsy Necrofizzle. If you're playing Warlock and you want the fantasy of the really bad, evil guy, then great. But if you want the fantasy of the obnoxious punk kid, who's getting in there and messing things up, then Nemsy's a really fun, different take on Warlock. I think it's cool to have those options. So that was the biggest reason. We wanted to provide a wider palette of potential choices."
That moment when you know a card is too powerful:
"Well, it's gotta be when you lose to it. [laughs] Very rarely is it when you beat somebody else with it. That's when they realize it's too strong. But often it's when something's happened where it feels extra bad. It's hard to tell, because you want cards to be strong. You want to win with the new cards; it's important that the metagame changes when a new set comes out, or else why bother? And so, separating the difference between, 'I won and it's okay that I won in this manner and it's strong,' versus 'I won - but that was dirty, and that's too strong, and that's going to mess everything up,' that's very hard to tell. So we have a fantastic team that works on balance and card clarity and it's one of their primary duties."
If cards were ever playtested with paper versions:
"Loooong ago. Nowadays our tools are so good, and the ability to get something in the game is so fast, that actually it's faster to just add the card to the game digitally. Random effects are easier to template and try that way. But we have not done paper prototyping in a long time. Every once in a while, there's a thing that's easier to prototype on paper and try it out. But, back in the day, that was all the prototyping. Just getting paper cutters and cutting up cards and sleeving them and playing a game."
Ben Brode's favorite meme Legendary card:
"Rhok'delar. I love Spell Hunters. It's more fun when you beat people with bad cards. It's more enjoyable."
Ben Brode's favorite battlefield clickable:
"The Pandaria farm. I've never even gotten the one golden vegetable [let alone three], and I'm just spam-clicking that thing the entire game. Never lucky."
If you or someone you know is just starting out in Hearthstone, be sure to check out our guide to the best Hearthstone decks for beginners!