So there you have it, Scholomance Academy will be the next Hearthstone expansion and the second in the Year of the Phoenix (following Ashes of Outlands). Before the reveal we got the chance to talk with two of the game's developers, principal narrative designer Dave Kosak and set design lead Alec Dawson. Before the interview, both shared their thoughts on Scholomance Academy, first from a conceptual point of view, and then from a mechanical perspective. Here's what Dave Kosak had to tell us.
"If you played World of Warcraft, you might remember Scholomance as a haunted, broken down school, a dungeon filled with undead, and a lair for necromancy. But we, the Hearthstone team, wanted to envision what the school might have looked like at its prime when it was the premier magic academy on Azeroth, and how it would be if all ten Hearthstone classes studied there. So we created this set with some great mechanics that explore that. We had a lot of fun with this, as we explored the students, the faculty, the professors, and of course the Head-Master, Kel'thuzad, before he became a Lich."
"Scholomance is a school of magic, so you will be casting a lot of spells," his colleague Alec Dawson added. "That's why we created the new keyword: Spellburst. After you play a minion or a weapon with Spellburst, a one-time special effect will happen when you cast your next spell. Another big feature are the Dual-Class cards that are available to two classes instead of one, and this means classes will have access to more cards than they ever had before, with 14 cards and 3 legendaries. Lastly, we have a new type of spell, Studies, that cost 1 mana, allow you to discover something, and lowers the cost of the next spell of that family by 1 mana."
Dawson also talked about how important it is for the team to retain class identity, despite the introduction of Dual-Class cards. According to the developer, these will be about exploring what classes might have in common, not removing class-specific traits or adding something that feels out of character. Kosak also confirmed that the expansion will have 40 different Dual-Cards, which will "add a lot of variety to play around" with.
One of the most curious cards revealed so far is Transfer Student, a 2/2 minion that costs 2 mana, but whose effect changes depending on the board being played on. Dawson revealed that this was a concept the team was "playing around for quite some time", allowing the Transfer Student to essentially retain an effect that matches the expansion connected to the board. For example, On a Scholomance board, the Transfer Student will allow you to discover a Dual-Class card. "We are always looking for ways to expand the possibilities of what a digital card game can be, and we think Transfer Student really defines what Hearthstone is and can be".
While Dual-Class cards are an interesting idea, they also sound like a potential nightmare when it comes to balance. Considering how previous expansions suffered from very imbalanced classes and cards - in particular, Galakrond's Awakening - we asked Dawson how he was feeling about the overall game balance for Scholomance Academy. "This year we have taken a much more pro-active stance towards balance. If there's something that's unhealthy for the game, we are going to get in there right away and cook a fix for that. Regarding the Dual-Class cards, it will still be a card by card basis, and we're still gonna make changes to the cards if we feel they are making for an unhealthy meta or environment for our game."
It turns out that doing a digital card game like Hearthstone can be a lot of fun, and to Dave Kosak, one of the most amazing aspects of creating Scholomance Academy was to envision how the school would be in the past, and how all the different class-specific areas would look. "It felt like a university campus you would really like to go to", Dave told us (and we agree). The principal narrative designer also told us to be on the lookout for secrets and Easter eggs in the arenas and cards, as they will be pointing to the inevitable corruption of Kel'thuzad and Scholomance itself.
In terms of game mechanics, Dawson talked about how Spellburst can change your way of playing, using the new Diligent Notetaker minion as an example. Diligent Notetaker is a 2/3 minion that costs 3 mana and has a Spellburst effect that basically returns the next spell you use back to your hand. This means a control deck can use this to recycle something important for the late-game, while a rush deck can use it to bombard the adversary with damage or buff their own creatures. Dawson believes players will probably include more spells in their decks because of this, but he assured us that there will be ways of countering these spell-heavy decks with neutral minions we haven't seen yet.
We asked Kosak about Hearthstone eventually catching up with World of Warcraft's timeline in terms of expansion content, and the principal narrative designer shared a curious episode with us. It seems the Hearthstone team is wary of doing current WoW content for fear of actually spoiling something, and it seems that almost happened in the past. WoW Spoiler: During the Rastakhan's Rumble expansion design, WoW was actually doing a lot of Troll content themselves, and one of the cards in the expansion was called Queen Talanji. Well, as you might know, Talanji starts off as a Princess, and players don't know she will become a queen unless they play her storyline. The team had to change the card just before release, and that's why she is now Princess Talanji in Hearthstone.
As for a story-based campaign, Kosak re-affirmed that there will be no paid content in Year of the Phoenix, but they will have something to announce at a later date.
We also asked if they still get surprised with players decks and tactics, and it seems that they do, as there's a lot of possibilities in the game. "That's part of the excitement of developing Hearthstone and releasing expansions, to see what players can do. There are some deck builders out there that do some crazy stuff, and I'm always excited to try them out," Dawson concluded.
So there you have it, Hearthstone: Scholomance Academy is the next expansion for Blizzard's evergreen card game. For more details, please check out our reveal news piece right here.
Please note that this interview was conducted in a group setting, online, and it was slightly edited for reader convenience.