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Hearthstone has changed a lot over the last few years. The development team’s approach to the core game has become much more dynamic – they’ve added a tenth class and a free, rotating core set of cards, for one, and they’ve been hugely proactive in keeping the meta game as fresh and balanced as possible, whether that’s through regular balance patches or the introduction of mini-sets between every major expansion release. Hearthstone has also evolved as a platform, thanks to the introduction of brand new ways to play, such as the wildly successful Battlegrounds, the over-the-top deck-building fun of Duels, and – as of today – Mercenaries mode.
Mercenaries is another step towards broadening what Hearthstone can be, and in attracting a new audience. This time by coming up with a new play experience that takes inspiration from sources as varied as classic JRPGs like Pokemon and Final Fantasy, and modern roguelikes such as Slay the Spire. “We looked at – what are approachable types of strategy gameplay that we could represent in our game?” says Production Director Nathan Lyons-Smith, “And what are some other areas where we think we’re missing in Hearthstone? We, of course, have collecting… [but] we didn’t have a lot of progression mechanics and certainly nothing related to progressing cards themselves or progressing characters yourself.”
This aspect of Mercenaries is radically different from anything else in Hearthstone. There are 51 mercenaries to collect at launch – including the Lord of Terror, Diablo! – and each starts at level 1. This represents that mercenary’s most basic form – its lowest attack and health, its fewest abilities. XP is earnt by using that character as part of your six merc party in PVE or PVP, and as it levels up it gains more attack and health and unlocks new abilities and equipment that can be used in combat. Abilities and equipment are also able to be significantly upgraded. (You can see all the mercs and their gear here.)
“Character progression is huge. It’s very, very core to the Mercenaries mode and something that we thought about very early on,” adds Game Designer Joe Killion. “I mean, in standard Hearthstone, you play Varian Wrynn and you have that [big] moment. And then he gets hit by a minion and dies the next turn. And I’m like, ‘my cool character has gone!’ And so, in Mercenaries you get to play with Varian Wrynn and have him be part of your core team, level up of all his abilities and everything… this just adds a lot more gameplay in that PVE space with a lot of new depth. People who might not be interested in spending time building a deck can jump in and have that cool experience with the characters that they collected.”
Anyone who has played a JRPG would instantly recognise this aspect of Mercenaries, but on top of character progression there’s a far more direct link to one particular genre mainstay – Pokemon. Simply put, if the idea that fire types (red) beat grass types (green), that grass types beat water types (blue), and that water types beat fire types is ingrained in your brain, you’ll be right at home here. In Mercenaries, every character is either a protector (red), a fighter (green) or a caster (blue), and when damage is dealt in battle, protectors do double damage to fighters, who do double damage to casters, who do double damage to protectors. As Game Director Ben Lee joked during the hands-on briefing, the system is “super effective”.
When damage is dealt in battle, protectors do double damage to fighters, who do double damage to casters, who do double damage to protectors.
This rock, paper, scissors-style mechanic is an interesting wrinkle atop an already-interesting combat system. Combat in Mercenaries sees three members of your six strong squad face off against three members of the opponent’s at any one time. Battles are turn-based, and each turn sees both sides choosing an ability for each of their three deployed mercenaries. These actions be anything from directly attacking or dealing damage with spells through to buffing, debuffing, healing and so on.
Each action has a speed and this determines the order that actions play out each round, with ties decided randomly. In PVE you can actually see the ability each opposing mercenary will be using as well as its speed, which means you can try to, say, queue up a kill on a big threat before it is actually able to act. In PVP meanwhile, both players select their abilities in the same way, but you don’t know what the opposing characters are going to be doing and when they’re going to be doing it. It becomes a game of knowing their capabilities and guessing what they’re likely to try and do.
Parties in Mercenaries can be highly synergistic, thanks in part to leaning into abilities focused around spell schools, which allow players to build, say, a frost strategy with Jaina Proudmoore at its heart. Another of its not-so-secret weapons, however, is an expanded roster of tribes in the mode. Hearthstone players are, of course, familiar with minions that fall into categories like demons, beasts, dragons, murlocs and so on, but Mercenaries expands these out to include orcs, humans, dwarves, elves, taurens and more. Each category has its own opportunities for tribal synergy, so exploring all the possibilities on offer here will be a big part of the fun.
“The new tribes came on pretty early [in development],” Killion explains, “and it was very fun trying to figure out, like, what makes orcs cool. We landed on them being this really buff-heavy, aggressive, attacking kind of composition. And then humans, they’re also doing some buff stuff, but they’re a lot more on the defensive side – they’re doing a lot of heals and health buffs, so they’re much more about sustain.
“We’ve done a ton of iteration on the concepts that we take from traditional Hearthstone and bringing them in,” he continues. “I think [the keyword] Deathblow is a good example of that. That actually started as [existing Hearthstone keyword] Overkill. And we played with Overkill for the longest time, but we just kept running into those spots where it was like, ‘I did the cool thing, and I killed them, but I didn’t do, like, one extra or two extra damage to get that [Overkill effect]’. And so Deathblow became this much more natural way for things to occur in Mercenaries.”
PVE is very much the backbone of Mercenaries’ progression system, giving players a host of procedurally generated “bounties” to work through in a variety of different iconic Azeroth locales. Each bounty is like a super truncated Slay the Spire run. You start at the bottom of a map and choose from a handful of branching paths on the way to the boss encounter. After each battle you can choose a treasure for one of your mercenaries – these can be bonus active abilities or passive perks – allowing you to modify your strategy as you go. In addition to battles, each bounty map will typically have at least a couple of other encounter types, including the option to randomly resurrect one of your dead mercenaries. Yes, if a mercenary falls during a battle they stay dead, meaning you’re going to have a tough time if you lose multiple mercs on your way to the boss. Thankfully, any surviving mercenaries at the end of each battle fully heal up in preparation for the next.
Doing bounties is the main way to get XP for your mercenaries, as well as to earn coins that can be spent to level up their abilities and equipment. Each mercenary has a specific coin to collect, and part of upgrading your characters in this game is taking on bounties that reward the coins you’re after, as well as using characters you want to upgrade so that you’re likely to earn their coins. As a system, this coin-based progression is totally reasonable, but how much you want to engage with it will very much depend on how interested you are in grinding bounties.
Doing bounties is the main way to get XP for your mercenaries, as well as to earn coins that can be spent to level up their abilities and equipment.
From my limited hands-on before release, I found the core gameplay pretty engaging. There’s a lot of depth to be found here in using synergistic abilities and finding ways to shut down your opponent’s strategy, and this depth only grows as you unlock more options. That said, the bounty runs feel extremely short – I’d have liked a longer journey with more branching paths and more non-combat encounters. This is particularly relevant for the treasures, as you rarely have long to actually enjoy getting a strong treasure or combination of treasures. There are also a few UI elements that need to be added, like ensuring you can see a merc’s existing abilities when choosing a treasure, or being able to highlight which characters are Alliance and which are Horde, when deciding whether to choose a faction-based buff. That said, PVE is starting out in good shape.
PVP promises to be robust too, and one of the biggest focuses for the team here has been matchmaking. After all, for PVP to be fun, players want to find a fair match – a winnable match – where they’re not outclassed by someone who has simply been grinding for longer. The end result is the most complicated matchmaking system Hearthstone has ever had; it takes a large number of variables into account. “It goes into what are the characters you’ve brought? What are the level of skills they have? What’s the equipment you brought, what level of equipment it is, then what XP level your characters are at,” Lyons-Smith tells me.
“And it also even looks at the alignment types that you brought. For example, it would be a really bad match if you brought all casters and then your opponent brought all fighters… that’s a pretty boring match actually. And so we want to make sure that we’re giving you a really fair and interesting match. We hope that will help ease players into PVP. And we’ve also put in a system where if you queue in PVP and we don’t find a good match for you, we’re going to make an AI team that is fair for you to play against so that you can get a match in. And then, as the top players get through and level up their mercs they’re going to be matching against each other, and there’s a leaderboard to see who’s the best Mercenaries PVP player.”
Fee to Pay?
Of course, one of the biggest questions the Hearthstone community has had about Mercenaries in the lead-up to its launch is – how much will it realistically cost to play? Nathan Lyons-Smith has an unequivocal answer. “It’s super important that free-to-play be a viable path to players in Hearthstone,” he says. “And we think we’ve absolutely hit on that with Mercenaries. Everything is obtainable completely free-to-play. We give you a very powerful team to start, like, a very powerful team – that Cariel and Xyrella combo can carry you through all of the bounties… and I know, cause I’ve done just that with that group.
“You’re getting eight free mercenaries at the start just for completing the introductory missions,” he continues, “more than enough to create a party to carry you through all the bounties – playing through them, beating them, having fun, trying some different combos. And along the way, you’re going to earn Mercenaries packs, Mercenary coins… and unlock equipment.” There’s also no limit to the rewards you can earn each day. In the words of Game Director Ben Lee, the system has “no limits, no cut-offs.”
“Everything is obtainable completely free-to-play.” – Nathan Lyons-Smith
Importantly, while mercenaries do come in different rarities, the team wants players to have a wide collection. “One of the principles from very early on was – we want it to be pretty easy to get all of the mercenaries,” Lyons-Smith tells me. “Other games like this we play… some characters you just never get [because they’re] super rare. And we have a bunch of cool characters that we really want you to get your hands on, and so we’ve really indexed on availability to get your hands on those and play with them and have fun.”
As you’d expect from a live service game, the team will add to Mercenaries over time. “We aspire to have a big mode update in each patch,” says Lyons-Smith of Hearthstone in general. “Sometimes that’s a card set, sometimes a mini-set, sometimes a big Battlegrounds update… and we’ll have a big Mercenaries update at some point as well. But in the interim, like Battlegrounds, we expect to add little bits of content with each patch, as much as possible. Little bits of content can be a few Mercenaries, maybe three, maybe five, maybe even a little bit more sometimes. And we’ll try and theme those similar to the other content going on in Hearthstone. So [for] upcoming stuff we’ll have corresponding characters also appearing in Mercenaries. I think that’s really cool. In addition to that, we plan to add more zones for players to go and complete and we’ll add more difficulty there, and eventually make it easy to level up your characters further than they currently can so that there’s more content and more progression for players who are continuing to enjoy the mode.”
And in terms of expectations around balance updates? “I would describe our balance philosophy for PVP Hearthstone modes as ‘balance for fun’,” says Lyons-Smith. “Let’s make sure players are having fun, and so if something’s broken and everyone’s using it, that’s boring. That’s not fun. We’ll go change it. And certainly there are a bunch of levers [we can use]… there’s card text, there’s numbers, attack, health, speed. Speed is actually a pretty meaningful balance thing to change. So we’ll figure out the right changes. In general, we aspire to not have to make a lot of changes, but we’re going to make the right changes to make sure the mode is fun. And as you’ve seen over the last few years, we’re totally willing to go in and make changes to address any fun concerns.”
If Mercenaries sounds intriguing (but also, no doubt, overwhelming), your best bet is to just jump into Hearthstone and check it out, as it’s live in the client right now. Plus, Mercenaries is very much meant to be a less imposing way to welcome brand new players to the Hearthstone ecosystem. “You don’t have to go build a deck. You don’t have to go find a deck. You don’t have to open cards to have a deck,” explains Nathan Lyons-Smith. “No, here’s eight Mercenaries at launch, here’s a bunch of packs, make whatever team you want. It’s gonna be cool.”