Blizzard managed to surprise us all 5 years ago when it revealed it’s digital card game Hearthstone, and what a long strange trip it has been. Rastakhan’s Rumble marks Hearthstone’s tenth expansion, featuring 135 new troll flavoured collectible cards and a bombastic experience to simulate the raw hype that comes from gladiatorial combat in the Stranglethorn jungle. I was given the amazing opportunity to talk with Creative Director Ben Thompson and pick his brain about the year of the troll, wrestling references and funnel cakes.
Honestly – Come at me bro
WP: It is an absolutely pleasure to talk with you today, Mr Ben Thompson regarding some of the amazing movements within Hearthstone with regards to Rastakhan’s Rumble – how’re you doing today sir?
BT: Very well! Thank you. We couldn’t be more excited to talk about this set that is coming; I should say it’s about to come out!
WP: I know – we are only a couple of days away, it’s coming out on the 4th of December, only a hop and a skip away. Before we get too deep into it however, obviously yourself you get to enjoy the title of head honcho when it comes to the Hearthstone team, what is it like coming from your artistic background within the team and now stepping into these lofty shoes that were once filled by the marvellous Ben Brode?
BT: Well I would say they are very different shoes, first and foremost. Moving into creative director doesn’t necessarily mean I am replacing anyone – it’s kind of a new role for the team as a whole. We’ve been without a game director; still working together as a team to create all the content you see within Rastakhan’s Rumble, and even Boomsday Project plus further back. The truth is the team and the game that results from it is definitely more than the sum of one person. I do count myself to be very fortunate to have been part of this project for as long as I have – nine and a half, almost ten years.
WP: …I think it’s a common thing that people who work on Blizzard games are themselves fans – I mean correct me if I am wrong, but I heard you were responsible for drawing the art for Rexxar within the Hearthstone game because you yourself were a hunter main within World of Warcraft?
BT: It is indeed true – I am responsible for Rexxar, and as far as any other card art there is The Coin, which means I get to feature in EACH and EVERY game as a card itself.
WP: I actually have my notes here, mentioning that though you have a rich and interesting background in the Hearthstone team, your real crowning achievement – most importantly, in bold: ‘He drew the coin which means his work is in every game REGARDLESS’.
BT: Hahaha, that’s pretty funny. You stole my line!
WP: It was an observation I made, but obviously it’s worth holding on to because it’s fantastic!
BT: It’s something an artist can really hold on to: ‘My work is in every game, one way or another’.
The theme tune is a serious banger
WP: Moving into Rastakhan’s Rumble, there’s been some incredible expansions released for Hearthstone – packs, as they are called – they all have this incredible flavour. But I have to point out that the Rastakhan’s Rumble reveal trailer, the theme song, the art, It’s probably my favourite piece of Blizzard Marketing material ever. Were you involved with it at all? …maybe some sneaky backing vocals?
BT: Ha, that’s awesome to hear. The only involvement I have had is working with the very talented Story and Franchise team. The Story and Franchise team at Blizzard are responsible for all of our cinematics and trailer materials that you see – including the Hearth and Home 3D short you may have seen recently. It’s a very talented bunch of people. We’d meet with them once a week and go through all of the concepts they have been creating. Really and truly, while a lot of the contributions may come from myself and the team, a lot of it comes down to representing the team and the team’s goals and most importantly, VISION, so that everything they create can be very much on point to what the games goals are.
WP: That sounds like a group of very talented, very creative individuals. I personally have a long history with World of Warcraft, Warcraft in general, I am one of those people very excited to see that Warcraft III Reforged is coming out – I actually named my daughter Jayna, so that may give you a bit of an insight into how much I love the worlds that Blizzard creates…
WP: …but one thing I always felt was that Trolls were a little neglected in Warcraft – but now we are seeing them emerging in the WoW cinematics for Battle for Azeroth, and now we see this incredible Hearthstone expansion which is just Troll-tastic, is 2018 the year of the Troll??
BT: It certainly seems that way! The irony here is that actually from our very first adventures for the game, every time we ended up doing a brainstorming session to figure out the vibe for the set would be, we ended up gathering in a room and having whiteboards just covered with different themes and vibes and subject matters, and trolls would feature on there for YEARS at this point. And it just never felt like the right set to attach them to, be it an expansion or an adventure, there just wasn’t that ‘hook’. Ultimately what ended up happening here that helped, there’s many different Hearthstone classes, and the vehicle that got the trolls in there was the introduction of the nine Loa spirits introduced in Battle for Azeroth. An awesome set of material for us to work from.
WP: The Loa spirits do have a huge impact on gameplay with their class specific nature, do you have a particular favourite?
BT: It’s hard to say, because even in the playtests I have been experimenting with a bunch of them – trying to answer exactly that question. There’s a lot of compelling things about the SPIRIT and the LOA combos that result in many different splinters. A lot of existing combos go from A to B, to C – but in this set you can play them in a variety of different orders to get vastly different results depending on the state of the game and what your opponent is playing. It gives you a lot of versatility. I think one of the ones I am aiming to play with first would be Hir’eek the bat, largely because I am a warlock player and I enjoy the warlock playstyle. Right behind that would be Priest, with Bwonsamdi, because being able to resurrect minions back into play sounds really powerful!
Pleasant looking fella
It feels like – yes, it’s gladiatorial fighting– but it feels more like Professional Wrestling. Then you put that in line with like, a major rock concert – then we’re starting to get to that vibe, that feel, of a participant or spectator of this kind of event
– Ben Thompson, Hearthstone Creative Director
WP: Now Rastakhan’s Rumble does seem to be exploring lesser realised class builds within the game, some playstyles that people might have wanted to play in the past couldn’t quite get there. Look at Heal Paladin. They got a weapon, a minion, and a legendary minion to damage themselves to activate some potential plays in the game – was this the intention, to shake up the meta by spotlighting some alternatives that never got fully realised in the past?
BT: The mistake would be to think that anytime we put together a set that we do it in a void, that they are separate to sets that have come before or the ones we would plan for the future. Any time we make a set we know and think of it as a set bracketed by sets on both sides of it. So, sometimes what that means is that cards will get introduced where their apparent useability or even power is not super apparent or obvious. That may rectify itself in a set or two as you start to see things that attach to that, and add on to that momentum.
WP: I’m super excited for the number of people that are looking backwards to older cards, particularly older legendaries that may not have seen a lot of play in the past, but Rastakhan’s Rumble looks to hopefully resurrect some old ideas.
BT: That is exciting to hear, because that absolutely is some of the most fun for us as developers as we see people do things that we never considered. I am much more proponent for experimentation in the name of fun, rather than always trying to build the deck that always wins all of the time.
WP: I could not agree more. I have a close friend who is keen to perfect his hilarious Discard-lock deck into something truly entertaining to watch, and I personally gravitate towards decks that are more about fun than domination.
BT: Ooh – That sounds real interesting.
WP: Now, moving onto the new Overkill keyword. I find that I always end up using my big scary minion to mop up all the one-drop trash, this may finally be my answer to those that swarm me. Being able to eat up all of these minions thanks to Overkill allowing me to attack multiples times sounds great – Now, I am not one for spoiling myself and looking up every revealed card, but tell me, have you guys dared to create a card with both Overkill AND Charge keywords?
BT: Hahaha – I do not believe there is such a thing in there, I MIGHT be wrong but I highly doubt there is a card with both Charge and Overkill.
WP: Good, I can rest easy knowing people will need to work to earn that immediate board clear.
BT: I will say, one great thing about the Overkill mechanic though is that there is no one right way to play it. There‘s a way that ‘feels’ more right as you sort of get that board clear bonus, but it’s not definitive. So, a mechanic like Overkill creates what I think is one of the most important design tenets, which is player choice. Setting up a decision where the player is faced with a difficult or challenging choice really leads them to what we hope is a satisfying player moment. All of these cards are very prominently designed to be played in a variety of ways for this reason.
WP: Definitely, Hearthstone is a bit of a poster child for moment to moment gameplay, and Overkill represents a really good new thought method for how a player might approach a situation.
Pow, right in the kisser
WP: Now one of the things that tickles me pink about this set is the hilariously on-the-nose references, particularly in regards to wrestling. So I have to say, DA UNDATAKAH has to be one of the best cards I have ever seen. I didn’t want to spoil myself, but I HAD to look up the flavour text, and it did not disappoint. It’s not a subtle reference, it’s a blunt, bludgeoning reference to the fact that in nineteen ninety-eight when the Undertaker threw Mankind off hеll in a cell, and plummeted sixteen feet through an announcer’s table.
I applaud everyone involved.
BT: Ha! I mean, everything we do is with more than a firm tongue in cheek. That reference was not lost on really anyone, even across age groups. I think preparing ourselves with story time for that one was the most fun. Everyone was just SO on-board, which was really cool to see.
WP: I actually have a close friend with little to no interest in Hearthstone.
BT: Oh no!
WP: …but I think this card alone has been enough to pique his interest.
BT: Oh, good.
WP: Now, with the incredible vibe there comes some incredible visuals. With your artistic background within the Hearthstone team, is there a particular piece of card art within the set that resonates with you? Something that you can’t get enough of? Personally, I love the Banana Buffoon…
BT: There is a lot of great art in this set – I could say this for every set we release – but this one particularly feels really exciting to me and it’s for a very surprising reason. I think I was very surprised as I saw more and more of the art come in, by how colourful everything was getting. I’m not sure why, because when I look back now it’s obvious, when you are dealing with trolls you think OF COURSE it’s colourful. Even when I was painting the logo for the set more and more colours started creeping in – it felt natural – but it was not expected. I think I was expecting a lot more gritty, dirt strewn, war torn type of feel – and what we got was this far more festive, over the top, buoyant in colour kind of approach.
There’s so many different ones that play so well to that. You can take Captain Hooktusk, who does such a great job of introducing a new troll to the lore in a way that feels very Hearthstone, so I really like her. I love even the colour of Bwonsamdi, who goes to the other end of the spectrum, the lack of colour – this undead, y’know, troll back from the grave and it’s got this sickly grey and blue hue to it, but at the same time there is so much colour in that piece even in the muted style of it.
Is tusk bling a form of piercing I wonder
WP: Hearthstone is a very pretty game, but THIS is a very pretty set.
BT: I am glad to hear that. I mean, certainly when we were talking about the cinematic in the early early stages a lot of the things we discussed in the early meetings tend to be very vibe-centric; there is nothing drawn yet, it’s just a meeting where we are vocalising thoughts. Certainly more than a couple times we were bringing up this sense that like, ‘It feels like – yes, it’s gladiatorial fighting – but it feels more like Professional Wrestling’. Then you put that in line with like, a major rock concert – then we’re starting to get to that vibe, that feel, of a participant or spectator of this kind of event.
WP: It sounds like a perfect kind of feeling to nail, this bombastic element that mixes wrestling and a rock concert is just amazing. Now with the wrestling element being so strongly noticeable, was there ever a time where you considered perhaps naming the set Stranglethorn Smackdown? Maybe Tuskamania?
BT: Well certainly the naming of this set took a while. We were talking about naming it Rumble in the Jungle, we thought that could be really cool! But as we talked about it we felt it was just too …specific. We needed something that would just yank people out of their homes and into our world. And we could not for the life of us figure out a fun, quirky, tongue-in-cheek jokey name for this set and at some point, I don’t remember who it was in the meeting, someone said something to the effect of, ‘Do we want to lean into Rastakhan?’ You know, he is this major king figure in Battle for Azeroth, and he has a lot of personality to burn so maybe there is something there. He feels bigger than any of the participants in the rumble, so of course he is going to put his name on it.
Just a little fantastic
WP: Now you mentioned in one of the earlier developer videos, you stated clearly that the first rule of Rastakhan’s Rumble is that THERE ARE NO RULES. So, does this mean I can make a deck of nothing but Doctor Booms? Or is that something that still needs to be reined in?
BT: …Give it a blast! Let’s see what happens. Keep the dream alive.
WP: Alongside the set, you have also announced that there will be a single-player component that fits into the Rastakhan’s Rumble lore that people can play for free. What can players expect?
BT: Well this one is a return to the rogue-like approach that you may be familiar with from Kobolds and Catacombs – but there is always a twist. The twist here is that it’s not nine playable classes, it’s one hero: Re’kar the Troll. Re’kar is the underdog troll who fought his way to the arena for his chance at glory – he hasn’t even pledged to a team yet. And that‘s the first decision you make when you start your run, allowing you to select from three cards for each class in the game, giving you 3*9 options. You are then and there pitched into trying to join that team. The cool thing here is that, say you pick the Priest shrine, the art for Re’kar will change to show your decision as he dons the raiment of the priest shrine, and your job is to help him fight the other eight teams and their champions in the quest for glory, and it’s aaaawesome. It is. So. Much. Fun.
WP: That sounds like the bessssst way to immerse yourself in what Rastakhan’s Rumble can offer you. That sounds incredible!
BT: It is going to be SUPER cool, and there is a ton of replayability too. I think some people feel that initially while there’s only nine classes you have to remember, there are three different shrines for each so there is a ton of options. It’s going to be super fun.
WP: Well it all sounds super fun and I can’t wait to play it, I don’t have a great deal more to ask. I mean, just a few things for the listeners at home. Firstly, how much funnel cake does the average Hearthstone team consume per year?
WP: …and is it provided as part of your employment agreement?
BT: Surprisingly, I would say that funnel cake isn’t the most consumed delicacy, churros are. Churros are something that has a long history with the team, back all the way in to Eric Dodds (former Game Director for Hearthstone) who having a Disney annual pass would often pick up a bag of churros on his way to work, and share them with the other eight members of the team at the time. They have a LONG history. Ironically, I have no idea how that became funnel cake within hearthstone.
WP: Yeah it’s odd how people have fixated on it, though I am happy every time it pops up within the game word. There’s never a dull moment with FUNNEL CAKE.
BT: It’s just one of those memes that continues to show up.
WP: Even in the development trailer, you personally made mention of funnel cake. I was already enjoying the trailer, but THAT was the cherry on top.
Another satisfied spectator
WP: Now as a final note, you do exist within the game as a unique ‘Credits’ card, my question is – being an artist yourself, is there a reason you didn’t end up drawing your credit card art ? Matt Cavotta did a great job, but is there some policy that stopped you drawing yourself?
BT: Oh! No, but what we did decide though is that the art that you see on the card for the credit cards is art that will never appear in the game itself as an actual card, so as to avoid confusion. It was a piece of art we knew we were never going to use, I frankly and personally LOVE that piece by Matt Cavotta, who is not only a talented artist but also a really good friend, so it’s really cool to use one of his pieces for my credits card. And at the time I personally had not done a great many WoW-related TCG cards. I had only done a handful at that point, so it felt like a fun one to use.
WP: In that case, the one question I do have – Ben, if your card was to exist within the game do you know what effects it would have? If I was to play BEN THOMPSON tomorrow, what would I get out of you? Are you an efficient card for my deck?!
BT: I feel like, for sure I’d have to play to the pun of ‘Drawing Cards’ – how many remains to be seen in terms of power curve, but just – draw cards until you are done. Something in there about card draw. Beyond that, what else would there be…something with Divine Shield? Not Charge…
WP: This is becoming a bit of a character study.
BT: Yeah! I mean, again I am all about that random element, less about the efficient win-at-all-costs nature, I am the kind of guy to put Rin, the First Disciple in my deck with the end game of ‘TRY TO GET IT TO GO OFF’. Some kind of fun effect like that.
WP: Maybe something along the lines of ‘Battlecry: Draw cards until Ben is exhausted’?
BT: Hahaha, sounds good to me!
WP: Until next time Ben, I will keep putting Togwaggle in my deck to have fun with it – Rastakhan’s Rumble comes out December 4th, everyone should check it out for a feast of trollish flavour.
BT: Absolutely, you and me both sir! See you on the ladder!
Rastakhan’s Rumble launches on 5 December AEDT/NZDT, simply log in to claim a free Legendary Loa, two Spirit cards from the same class, and six Rastakhan’s Rumble card packs.