Saviors of Uldum is Hearthstone’s 16th expansion and the second included in the Year of the Dragon. Having been released on August 6, 2019, I’ve had a few days and a full weekend to get to grips with it. I was also fortunate enough to chat with Lead Designer Mike Donais and Lead Mission Designer Dave Kosak. Both provided some great insights into Hearthstone and Saviors of Uldum in particular, including how an expansion is created and what the future of the game may hold.
Saviors of Uldum follows directly on from the previous expansion; Rise of Shadows. I asked if the Saviors of Uldum was a direct response to the League of Evil’s activities in Rise of Shadows and Donais explained that the team was working on creating a “cross-year narrative.”
The idea was that in the Year of the Dragon a story would be told across “three exciting chapters.”
With Rise of Shadows we got to be the bad guys. We had a lot of mechanics with the bad guys, and now we’re switching perspectives to our heroes and seeing what they’re up to. And what’s fun is that we’re returning to some of the most iconic Hearthstone heroes.
We get to see how they’ve evolved and what they’ve learned. They’ve all learned some new tricks that we get to play around with and it’s fun because we have these familiar characters returning and it’s a mix of the familiar and the new.
They’re in a high stakes situation and they’re not just trying to get Rafaam, it’s the entire League of Evil.Lead Designer Mike Donais
These heroes that Donais is referring to of course include characters from the League of Explorers; Elise the Enlightened, Sir Finley of the Sands and Reno the Relicologist.
Knowing that Reno was coming back I had to ask if we’d see a return of the dreaded Reno Meta. Thankfully, both Donais and Kosak assured me that they’re not looking to repeat the past.
I think people will definitely try out the Explorer’s once we release them. They’re all pretty awesome designs awesome flavour and I can’t wait to get into the Explorer’s and decks based off all four of them.
When it comes to the question of Reno specifically, my fears are calmed when it’s explained that the new Reno card is very different from the original.
Where Reno Jackon would fully heal your hero if your deck had no duplicates, Reno the Relicologist will instead deal 10 damage randomly shared across all enemy minions. Players will again, need not have any duplicates for his Battlecry to fire.
Will the meta be the same with Reno? I don’t know. Reno has a pretty fun meta with a lot of different decks so I expect we’ll see a lot of fun decks with him this time.
Any player who faced a Reno deck at the height of its meta will likely breathe a sigh of relief. There’s never been as soul-crushing a moment as a full hero heal when your aggro deck has pushed too hard and run out of gas.
With that out of the way, I wanted to learn more about Plague and Reborn; Saviors of Uldum’s two new mechanics. Having had time to experiment with the cards since release, I’m definitely a fan of Plague of Murlocs — as predicted by Donais — and Reborn certainly has a lot of potential too.
When we spoke, Donais and Kosak explained that Plagues are designed as board clears. The team has implemented this mechanic based on what they’ve seen in the game’s meta prior to the expansion’s release.
I think that’s something [board clears] people will be looking for because in the meta right now there are some decks that fill up have the boards. Right?
The Mage Spell Deck is something that people have given a lot of feedback, like, “Hey, can you please give us some answers to these giants?” Well, we have some plagues for you.
Plague of Murlocs is joined by Plague of Death, Plague of Flames, Plague of Madness and Plague of Wrath. Each of these plagues if powerful in their own way and can be used to cause maximum havoc to the enemy. Because I like to play a Shaman Murloc deck, Plague of Murlocs works really well for me; not to mention being incredibly satisfying.
Especially when used just after a Mage has created four Mountain Giants in a turn. Seeing three or four 8/8 minions turn into pathetic 1/1 Murlocs never fails to put a smile on my face. However, I have seen an incredible number of minions become Scargil, both for me and my opponent.
I’m not complaining since it works in my favour. It’s just interesting to note how often Plague of Murlocs seems to create that Legendary Minion.
Plagues are one of the new mechanics, while Reborn is the other. Reborn is a keyword that returns your minion to life with one health on death. It almost feels like a variation on Divine Shield at this early stage in the expansion’s life. It even gives minions with the Reborn keyword a shiny, coloured overlay, just like Divine Shield.
However, Reborn does function differently and creates its own problems for opponents. The most obvious is that players need to defeat minions twice or silence them in order to clear the board. It seems that Blizzard has created Saviors of Uldum to deal with this new mechanic as there are many cards that are able to deal with Reborn minions.
Plague of Death and Earthquake are both great cards for getting rid of Reborn minions. It also works for Divine Shield too. And it makes sense. Creating a new mechanic like Reborn without giving players a way to deal with it would cause all sorts of headaches.
While not a new mechanic, Quest cards have returned to Hearthstone in Saviors of Uldum. Quests were first introduced in Journey to Un’Goro and offered some incredible rewards for those able to finish them. Sulfuras, for example, was a dominant feature of Warrior Decks in this period.
In Saviors of Uldum, Quests have been scaled back a bit, but not much. According to Donais and Kosak, Quests are the most important feature of the expansion, without being such an almost guaranteed win condition.
One of the big differences is that not quite as big of a victory results and the reward is over time. You improve your hero power and each turn you get a benefit over what a normal hero power looks like.
Over the course of the late game, you get a big boost. So what you want to do is go ahead and put high tempo low-cost cards into your deck to make sure you get there and once you get there you rely on your hero powers to do the rest of the work.
Having played Hearthstone relentlessly since the release of Saviors of Uldum I certainly agree with Donais and Kosak about the importance of Quests. While my poor old Shaman Murloc deck doesn’t really benefit from the Shaman Quest, it makes a Shaman Lackey deck incredibly viable.
Corrupt the Waters — the new Shaman Quest — requires you to play six Battlecry minions. Once you do, you gain access to Heart of Vir’naal which, for two mana, makes your Battlecries fire twice. I especially like using it with Giggling Inventor to create a late-game wall of Annoy-o-Trons.
It’s even more fun when you recall Giggling Inventor with Bog Slosher and are able to create more Annoy-o-Trons. Perhaps one of the most important cards to use alongside the Heart of Vir’naal Hero Power is Barista Lynchen. Her Battlecry adds a copy of your Battlecry minions to your hand. If used correctly, it’s a great way to fill your hands with minions in the late game.
Other quests I’ve come up against that are certainly looking like strong contenders in the meta are the Druid’s and Warlock’s. Untapped Potential simply requires you to end four turns with unspent mana while Supreme Archeology requires you to draw 20 cards. Untapped Potential rewards you with Ossirian Tear which is a passive Hero Power that sees your ‘Choose One’ cards using both options.
Supreme Archeology rewards you with Tome of Origination which costs two mana but doesn’t deal any damage to the Hero. Additionally, the card drawn costs (0). These are both difficult to overcome, especially as the game draws out.
It’s still very early days in the life of Saviors of Uldum though, so the meta is in flux and will remain that way until the community starts to nail down the best strategies.
In designing the expansion I was keen to understand how the team at Blizzard goes about creating the cards and whether they have a meta in mine while they’re creating. I asked both Donais and Kosak if the current meta and top tier decks have an impact on what they create. They broke it down for me;
There’s a couple of different types of cards we could get into here. One of the kinds has a very clear, ‘here’s what you do.’
Most of the quests are super clear about what you need to do. The Shaman Quest for example, it’s just Battlecry cards that do that. Which Battlecry cards players use I think will vary a lot. And that’s the fun part of building that deck.
And the other cards, we don’t really know what they’re going to do with them. Plague of Madness and Psychopomp were not exactly sure how that’s going to play out. We’ll give you the tools and let you figure it out.
Interestingly, the deck archetypes that continue to be popular are something the developers are aware of and actively work to make sure they remain viable. Zoo Warlock is one that is specifically mentioned.
In many ways, part of Warlock’s identity is that swarm of minions. So we try to keep it there. It’s also a pretty inexpensive deck for a new player to get into and try out. So we like to have a couple of those in the meta.
I think it’s going to continue to be part of the Warlock identity. Maybe it’ll vary in power level up and down. Sometimes it’ll be discard-themed, sometimes it’ll be demon-themed, and all that’ll change, but there’s always the idea that Warlock’s swarm at you.
This idea of basic elements being retained goes to the core of the design philosophy of Hearthstone. With over 100 million players, I put it to Donais and Kosak that keeping players engaged while attracting new players must be becoming increasingly difficult. However, both designers were confident that Hearthstone can and will remain popular.
The original dream for Hearthstone was ‘we all enjoy playing all kind of different card games, and as kids, we played this growing up so now let’s make the best version we possibly can, and in a way that everybody can enjoy it.’
That was an awesome vision and it made Hearthstone into what it is today. I think that continues to be the dream of like, let’s get it out there so everyone can see how fun this is, and keep making it as fun as possible.Mike Donais
We take steps to make sure that the game doesn’t get too much complexity over time. You know, we try and limit the number of new keywords that come in. In the standard game, we only have a few Keywords active at any given time and we try and be very protective of that. Because we want people to be able to drop in anytime and pick it up and go.Dave Kosak
Hearing the devs explain this really rang true for me. I play a number of digital card games and I always find that Hearthstone is really the only one I can return to after an extended break and still understand how to play in the current meta. Other digital card games tend to feel overwhelming after some time off, so it’s great to hear that the Heartstone team actively work to prevent that situation.
As for the game’s future, both Kosak and Donais are excited for what’s around the corner, even with Saviors of Uldum only just releasing to players.
I think we’re doing something really important with the Year of the Dragon. We’re really trying to figure out how to keep Hearthstone continually happening in a way that there’s always something going on. And so certainly with Rise of Shadows, we had the set release and then a month later the PvE came out.
Then we did the Rise of the Mechs that changed some of our mech cards which refreshed the meta. We’re trying to make sure that it’s not just an expansion release and then silence for the next few months until the next one comes out.
So with the events and having things going on, it draws you to the game and makes the game feel fresh. That’s been working really well and I think that’s probably going to be what Hearthstone is in the future. That fast-pace of cool events happening so that it always feels fresh.Mike Donais
If the quality of Saviors of Uldum is an indicator of the future of Hearthstone, then for my money, it’s certainly got a bright future ahead. Although my skills in the game are mediocre at best, the new expansion has certainly rekindled my interest in the game.
Since the release of Saviors of Uldum last week, I’ve found myself experimenting with new decks, new strategies and new ways to lose in a humiliating defeat. However, this expansion has probably been the most enjoyable to learn and experiment with, which goes to Blizzard’s attempts to make Hearthstone as fun as possible for as many players as possible.
The single-player PvE mode for Saviors of Uldum will be releasing in the next few weeks too. Here’s hoping it’s up to the same standard as the rest of the expansion.
Saviors of Uldum is available now.
Thanks to Dave Kosak and Mike Donais for their time.