An Interview with Alec Dawson of the Hearthstone Dev Team
Posted by Paolo Arciga September 23, 2020

We recently had the opportunity to interview one of Hearthstone’s senior game designers, Alec Dawson, on what went on behind the scenes during the creation of the game’s latest expansion, Scholomance Academy. You can read our interview below:


Paolo: Hi! I’m Paolo from GG Network. Thank you for your time and the opportunity for this interview.


We’ll be focusing on the Scholomance Academy expansion for this interview, but before we get to those questions, I’d like to start off by checking up on the development team! 


When the Scholomance Academy Announcement Trailer was released last July, I enjoyed seeing Dave Kosak, Alec Dawson, and Liv Breeden revealing the expansion and showing off some cards through a group video call as they looked through Kel’Thuzad’s laptop. I thought it was a clever way to present the expansion with everyone safely working from home. In the weeks leading up to the release of the expansion, were there any difficulties or problems in getting everything ready with everyone working from home, as opposed to being able to work together and collaborate in one place?  How’s the dev team holding up given current work conditions and with the expansion release months remaining fixed?


Alec: We’ve actually been working from home since March, Blizzard was quite quick to turn us around and get everything working smoothly. Collaboration is definitely different, but we make sure to keep proactive communication going. Normally, it’d be very easy to have a side conversation with the person sitting next to you, now we are in calls during playtests and take extra care with getting the right amount of awareness on things. We’re lucky enough to continue to release awesome content for our players and still having a great time doing it.



P: Now, let’s move on to some questions about Scholomance Academy.


The name Scholomance might ring a bell for World of Warcraft players who know it as a dark and horrific school of necromancy, but its Hearthstone counterpart seems to be much more whimsical and Hearthstone-appropriate. What went on behind the decision to create an expansion based on Scholomance, and how did you guys go about translating Scholomance’s WoW lore to fit the humorous and light tone of Hearthstone? (You guys did a great job, by the way.)


A: Coming off of Ashes of Outland, we wanted to change the mood a bit. We entered Scholomance knowing that it was going to be brighter and more light-hearted than the version players know from WoW, as this reimagining of it takes place way earlier . It wasn’t just the mood we were going for but it also made a lot of sense for us mechanically – when you imagine all 10 classes present at Scholomance, there needs to be a place for Warriors to train or an area for Druids to enjoy nature. So on the surface, Scholomance Academy is a happy place, but don’t be too fooled, there’s plenty of darkness happening in the basement. I mean, just look at RATTLEGORE!


P:  When I first heard about Scholomance Academy having Dual-Class cards, I was extremely excited because it reminded me of multi-colored decks in Magic: The Gathering. I think that the current expansion’s Dual-Class cards are very cool, and they open up a lot of possibilities for new and interesting decks. How did the team go about deciding which classes to pair with which, and were there any interesting pairings that didn’t make it past the conceptualization stage? 


A:  So we’ve toyed around with dual-class in previous expansions, but never got it quite right. I think it was back in Rise of Shadows that we had a very early iteration of what dual-class heroes could be and it turned out to be a lot of face damage in some combinations (looking at you, mage/rogue). When we came into Scholomance Academy, we had the right setting to iterate further and actually landed on Priest/Warlock as the first combination early on. There was a great shared mechanical identity there with health changing so we had that one set then started building out a circle from there all the way back to Paladin/Priest.


P: Scholomance Academy is the first expansion right after the addition of the Demon Hunter class. I think that the Demon Hunter set in Ashes of Outland established the class’s deck archetypes as well as its class identity, so I wanted to ask: was it easier this time around to design cards for Demon Hunter now that its class identity was more or less solidified in the last expansion? Or was there still some experimentation done on which directions the Demon Hunter class cards could go?


A: Going forward that would be the case but we actually weren’t done with Demon Hunter during a lot of Scholomance’s development. I think some interesting things came out of that though, look at Soul Fragments for Demon Hunter/Warlock. It was a case of not really being sure what the main Demon Hunter archetypes would be so we made something completely different that still played into both classes. Soul Fragments are one of my favorite mechanics from Scholomance Academy, we’re very happy with where it landed.



P: Alongside Dual-Class cards, another key mechanic introduced this expansion is the new keyword Spellburst. I think the Dual-Class cards really stole the spotlight at the time of the expansion’s announcement, but after having played with some Spellburst cards in my decks, I realized what an elegantly designed mechanic it is. I’m curious to know: how hard was it to balance the power levels of Spellburst cards considering their mana cost, stats, and effects? I find that a lot of them are really good for extracting value from mana, so I imagine that it must have been a tough task to balance them out.


A: That’s a great question, I think sometimes we look at Battlecry as the centerpiece for balancing Spellburst in some way. If that effect is guaranteed to happen, what would it cost? We’ve done that many times so you have this foundation of balance to lean on then you can start working backwards a bit to determine a good place to start. Our balancing work mainly comes through playtesting though, so we spent a lot of time looking at which classes would be able to trigger their Spellburst cards a bit easier than others and how that plays a role as well. One-time triggers in Hearthstone give us a lot of room to put really exciting effects on the cards because we know it won’t happen again and again, it actually gives a lot of freedom as designers to explore effects like Forest Warden Omu’s or Headmaster Kel’Thuzad’s.


P:  Just like with any expansion, meta-viable deck lists were quick to pop up on the internet with the release of Scholomance Academy, but I personally enjoy building fun and wonky decks over high-winrate ones. I find that the Dual-Class cards especially make deckbuilding more fun and interesting. What are your personal favorite decks from this expansion so far? Are there any deck archetypes that you feel are currently slept on and that more people should try playing? 


A: One of my favorite lists recently has been what players are calling Libroom Paladin, with one of the more popular lists coming from FunkiMonki. It’s a really interesting take on Libram Paladin, taking advantage of cards like Pen Flinger and Animated Broomstick.


P: Thank you again for your time, and I look forward to seeing more of what’s to come this expansion!

For the latest news and updates on Hearthstone, make sure to stay tuned to our site and Facebook page. 

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