. The upcoming “Year of the Phoenix” is going to be so packed that I’m resorting to bullet points so you can see the key pieces of information at a glance, before we get stuck into the details.
Hearthstone Year of the Phoenix updates:
- Demon Hunter, a tenth class, is being added to Hearthstone, with Illidan Stormrage as its main hero
- A “no duplicates” rule is being implemented across ALL card rarities when opening packs
- Priest is getting a rework this month, with six Basic and Classic cards being replaced and changes being made to other key cards
- Five neutral cards from the classic set will be going to the Hall of Fame, including icons like Mountain Giant and Leeroy Jenkins
- The ranked ladder is being overhauled at the start of April, with better matchmaking and a more meaningful progression system
- New players and those coming back to Hearthstone after more than four months away will be given a free competitive deck in the class of their choice
- The next expansion is called Ashes of Outland, introduces Dormant as a keyword and is heavily World of Warcraft themed.
Now let’s dig into this.
Introducing the Demon Hunter
For the first time in Hearthstone’s history, a new class is being added to the game – Demon Hunter. Led by Illidan, Demon Hunters are proactive and agile, with many ways to use their hero to attack and take advantage of attack synergies. It makes sense, then, that the class is the first to have a one mana hero power: “Demon Claws” which gives it +1 attack this turn.
As you can imagine, this can be weaved in easily throughout play, giving Demon Hunters a whole lot of versatility in how and when they attack. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually huge, and it took the design team a lot of iteration before they settled on it. (We’ll be taking you behind the scenes on the whole Demon Hunter design journey in about a week, once all the new cards have been revealed.)
Demon Hunters also have a class-specific keyword: Outcast. These cards get a bonus when played as either the leftmost or rightmost card in hand, and as a result, change the way Demon Hunters will approach utilising their cards in hand. (This will be reflected by Illidan’s representation as a hero in Battlegrounds, which will have the passive hero power: “Your left- and rightmost minions attack immediately.”)
Demon Hunters have several core deck archetypes, including an in-your-face aggressive approach, a token-based strategy in which they sacrifice small minions, and a control option that harnesses the power of big demons.
Returning players will be introduced to Illidan and the Demon Hunter class through three new missions that take them back to a time when Illidan was an aspiring Mage, while current players will have a four mission prologue campaign to play through, which will then unlock the new class. The returning player experience and prologue will go live on April 2 in NA (April 3 in ANZ), but Demon Hunter won’t be playable in the broader game until April 7 in NA (April 8 in ANZ).
Completing the prologue will reward players with all ten Demon Hunter Basic cards, as well as a 20 card “Initiate” starter set of Demon Hunter cards (which count as Year of the Dragon cards, incidentally). And instead of having ten class cards in the first full expansion of the year, when Ashes of Outland launches the Demon Hunter class will get 15. The same will be true of the second and third sets this year, and then when rotation happens at around this time in 2021, 15 cards will be shifted across to become the Demon Hunter Classic set. At that point, the class will have the same number of cards in the Standard format as the other nine classes.
Hearthstone: Demon Hunter Cards
No Duplicates in Card Packs!
This change is arguably almost as big a deal as adding a whole new class to Hearthstone. After all, one of the biggest – and most enduring – complaints in the Hearthstone community is how expensive the game is to keep up with. Players like myself who want to dabble across all classes need to open at least a hundred card packs (but realistically a fair few more) to have a halfway decent collection when a new set drops. If Hearthstone is your primary game, then that can be seen as an acceptable expense, but if you want to just play here and there for fun, well, good luck doing that above rank 20 with a bad card collection. And if you take a break from Hearthstone and miss an expansion or two, then the cost to come back goes up significantly.
And that’s why this change is so important. Instead of seeing card packs as a way to acquire dust which can then be used to craft the cards you want, every card you gain – regardless of rarity – in every pack will be a card you don’t own. This “no duplicates” rule already applies to legendaries, but opening it up to all rarities will make a big difference in terms of how many packs you need to open to have a good collection. After all, there’s a lot of power in Hearthstone’s epic rarity cards, which meant players have had to spend a lot of their dust crafting them… and could still then open them in packs down the road. To be clear, you’ll get duplicates of, say, commons, once you have two copies of all the common cards in a set, but even so, the fact that I won’t be able to randomly open the same epic seven times is brilliant.I should also mention that this isn’t the only initiative to help make coming back to Hearthstone after a break more manageable. If you haven’t logged into Hearthstone in the past four months you’ll be given a free competitive deck in the class of your choice when you do.
The Priest Rework
Hearthstone has been around for more than six years now, and for that entire time each class has been anchored by an evergreen set of Basic and Classic cards. Unfortunately, however, not all classes were created equal, with some wielding a more cohesive and/or powerful set of evergreen cards, while others had to be propped up more by expansions, which meant that when those cards rotated out of the Standard format the class would be partially nobbled by its uneven foundation all over again.
Hearthstone players have suggested a number of ways to fix this over the years, and Team 5 is now beginning the process of addressing it, starting out with the class that most would agree has the worst Basic and Classic cards – Priest. Six Basic and Classic Priest cards are being replaced, while seven existing cards are being changed/buffed. The goal is for Priest to be able to keep minions on the board, buffing their health, making value trades, healing them up and generally playing a board-centric game.
The cards that are being replaced (which means they’ll no longer be in Standard but will still be playable in Wild) are Northshire Cleric, Auchenai Soulpriest, Prophet Velen, Divine Spirit, Shadowform and Holy Fire. These are hugely iconic, but enable strategies that Team 5 wants to move away from.
Decks that revolve around bursting opponents down using Divine Spirit/Inner Fire, for instance, have come and gone regularly throughout Hearthstone’s history, and are problematic for a class that’s supposed to be about having minions on the board and getting value out of them by healing them. A world in which you can’t leave a single Priest minion alive for fear of an OTK isn’t a fun one. Velen is also a burst enabler, while Auchenai Soupriest and Holy Fire also represent face damage. Northshire Cleric, meanwhile, has been such a staple draw engine that I can understand why they’d want to move away from it.
Hearthstone Year of the Phoenix: The Priest Rework
The new cards seem pretty good overall. Natalie Seline offers strong single target removal, Shadow Word: Ruin is great conditional removal, Kul Tiran Chaplain is a solid two drop that ties into the idea of minion health being central to Priest gameplay, as does Power Infusion. You can see all six in the slideshow above.
And last but by no means least, we have the changes/buffs to existing Priest cards. Temple Enforcer is going from a six mana 6/6 that gives a friendly minion +3 health to a 5 mana 5/6 that does the same. Power Word: Shield is going from a one mana spell that gives a minion +2 health and draws a card to a zero mana spell that just gives a minion +2 health. Holy Smite is staying at one mana but now does three damage to a minion instead of two damage anywhere. Holy Nova has gone from five mana to four and is the same except its two damage doesn’t hit face. (Are you seeing a pattern here?) Shadow Madness, Thoughtsteal and Shadow Word: Death, meanwhile, have just been straight up buffed, and will all cost one mana less than they used to.
Leeroy Jenkins and Mountain Giant Are Going to the Hall of Fame
One of Hearthstone’s most iconic finishers, Leeroy Jenkins, is one of five neutral cards heading to Wild via the Hall of Fame, with the next Standard rotation. What does that mean? They’ll still be playable in Wild, but they won’t be part of the Classic set any more and thus, won’t be legal in Standard. The design team does this every year, and uses the Hall of Fame as a way to ban cards that they think are problematic, limit design space or are the default evergreen option for certain needs.
Leeroy Jenkins, for instance, is in basically every deck that wants a good option to close out games after getting an opponent low on health. The card was even nerfed back in 2014, but has remained a fixture, essentially representing six damage from hand with no relevant downside. Moving Leeroy to Wild means that other potential finishers will get a chance to shine, and it also means Team 5 may be able to design cards with a little more burst.
Another key card that’s going to the Hall of Fame this year is Mountain Giant, and the rationale is simple – the team has designed a number of other giants over the years, but they rarely see play because Mountain Giant is just such a reliable option. It’s been a staple of control decks (and some combo decks) for Hearthstone’s entire existence (remember Handlock?) and so it’s time for a change.
The other cards that are leaving Standard are Acolyte of Pain (the default evergreen utility draw option), Mind Control Tech (it punishes wide boards but with a high degree of variance) and Spellbreaker (which isn’t played much, but I guess silence being available in neutral isn’t something Team 5 wants outside of Ironbeak Owl).
Ranked Ladder Changes and the Year Ahead
Hearthstone’s ranked ladder is going to be reinvented at the start of April. Instead of matching players based on where they are on the ladder – meaning that an inexperienced player with a small card collection could be up against a lapsed player who has returned at a low rank, but is playing a top tier meta deck – matchmaking will instead be determined by MMR. In other words, you’ll play against players of similar skill, with a similar record.
The ladder itself will still have 50 tiers + legend, but instead of being focused on climbing to the top, it will instead be about climbing to your skill level and proving yourself there. The new system will start at Bronze 10, which will ascend to Bronze 1, then go from Silver 10 to Silver 1, and on through Gold, Platinum and Diamond, before reaching Legend. Each rank below Legend will have three stars, while the Legend ranking system will stay the same.
Each month the ladder will reset to Bronze 10, but high skill players should have no issue climbing quickly, as the higher you finish at the end of a season, the greater your star bonus multiplier to rank back up. It will then decay as you approach your usual level of play. Win streaks will return from the old system, as will rank floors, which you won’t be able to drop below.
Along with these changes is the promise of improved rewards, like card packs and rare (or higher rarity) cards, as well as first-time rewards. You may get a legendary card for hitting Legend for the first time, for instance. Card back rewards will also be immediately available after hitting five wins, as opposed to being unlocked at the end of the month.
So that’s phase one of the changes that are coming to Hearthstone. Phases two and three (which coincide with the second and third expansions of the year) are similarly exciting. Phase two will introduce “a new way to play that is fueled by your collection and is similar in scope and scale to Arena,” so yes, another new mode – possibly a new way to draft, which would be great. And then for phase three, which will be near the end of the Year of the Phoenix, the team is planning on launching a progression system rework, which will include achievements! Huge stuff.
Hearthstone is Going to Outland
The next expansion leans heavily on World of Warcraft locations and lore, taking players back to Outland – the primary setting for WoW’s 2007 expansion The Burning Crusade. Forget the Burning Legion, though, as Ashes of Outland introduces the Rusted Legion, a ramshackle army that has ravaged Outland, making it even more of a broken wasteland. Led by Mecha-Jaraxxus, they’re armed with and protected by whatever they can scrounge – sawblades, bits of metal, and so on.
It’s a fun Mad Max-y take on Outland, and spans many familiar locations, like Zangarmarsh, Hellfire Peninsula, Blade’s Edge, Shattrath City, Shadowmoon Valley and Black Temple, and familiar faces – such as Kael’thas Sunstrider, a new neutral legendary minion with pretty poor stats but a pretty cool effect – every third spell you cast each turn is free. Better still, Kael’thas (like Archmage Vargoth before him) is coming to the game ahead of the set’s actual release. In fact, if you log in you’ll receive him as a reward right now!
In terms of cycles for this set, Ashes of Outland will debut a Prime legendary for each class aside from Demon Hunter. Primes are actually minions that upgrade, so the collectable card is the base form, and when that dies it shuffles a highly upgraded version into your deck. The Warrior minion Kargath Bladefist, for example, is a pretty respectable four mana 4/4 with rush, but its Prime version is an eight mana 10/10 with rush that gains you 10 armour each time it kills a minion.
Ashes of Outland also introduces a new keyword – Dormant. Dormant minions are imprisoned demons that are unable to attack for two turns, so cost less upfront but have a big pay-off when they wake. You can see examples of Dormant, as well as Kael’thas Sunstrider, Kargath Bladefist and all the other Ashes of Outland cards revealed during the announcement in the slideshow below.
Hearthstone: Ashes of Outland Reveal Cards
And don’t forget that Ashes of Outland will mark the end of the Year of the Dragon and the start of the Year of the Phoenix, which means that three sets of cards will leave the Standard format: Witchwood, Boomsday Project and Rastakhan’s Rumble. It’s going to be a pretty different game when that happens… even without a new class.
A Whole New Hearthstone
The Year of the Phoenix really is a fitting name for the next 12 months in Hearthstone. While the game absolutely isn’t “rising from the ashes” – it still has millions of daily players, after all – it IS absolutely reinventing itself. We’ve already seen the team take big steps forward in the last 12 months, moving faster than ever seemed possible before. We’ve had events designed to shake up the meta between expansions (buffs! Who’d have thought?), we’ve had a team prepared to nerf cards quickly when problems arise and unafraid to make regular changes, AND we’ve seen the team build out and launch a whole new game mode in Battlegrounds. And the next year promises to up the ante significantly.That’s not hyperbole, either. One of the reasons that Hearthstone feels like it’s being run by a different team is because… well, to a large extent it is. A couple of years ago in mid-2018 when Game Director Ben Brode, Executive Producer Hamilton Chu and Production Director Yong Woo all left, followed a little later by Senior Concept Artist Jomaro Kindred, Hearthstone fans wondered what that would mean for the game. And the answer is – a changing of the guard. Chris Sigaty came on board as Executive Producer (although he has subsequently left Blizzard), Ben Lee was hired as Game Director and Nathan Lyons-Smith became Production Director. Since then, the Hearthstone team has continued to evolve, with incredible people like Creative Director Ben Thompson sadly saying goodbye, but a wealth of fresh talent coming on board.
I’ll always have a soft spot for the devs that helped Hearthstone grow from an unlikely underdog to a massive success, but there’s no doubt that under the new leadership, Hearthstone is now a significantly more nimble game, which is exactly where it needs to be six years in.
Last year was a year of experimentation, in which each expansion meta was shaken up by a big event, and in which the team aggressively prototyped and built out a whole new mode. This year we’re going to see the true fruits of the new focus. We’re going to see a concerted effort to keep Hearthstone fresh, to make it more affordable, to give players more ways to play, and to address the pain points of the community.
It’s an energised Team 5 that we’re dealing with now, and yet the fact is that while the game is about to be turned on its head by a new class, a new set, a Standard rotation, new entries in the Hall of Fame, a rework for Priest and big changes to the ranked ladder, that’s only the start. And that’s pretty damn exciting.
Stay tuned for a whole lot more on Demon Hunter, as IGN has been given extensive behind the scenes access and we’re only just getting started.
Cam Shea is Editor in Chief for IGN’s Australian content team and has played Hearthstone basically every day for six years. He’s on Twitter.