At BlizzCon 2023, Blizzard unveiled Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos, a brand new way to play the popular digital collectible card game. In Duos, players can partner with a friend or matchmake with a new one to take on another team of two. In this mode, the life is shared and cards can be passed between teammates.
We joined a roundtable press interview with Lead Battlegrounds Designer Mitchell Loewen and Associate Game Designer Jia Dee to discover everything about this new way to play Hearthstone, which is due to be released early next year.
Tell us about the origin of the idea for battleground duos. I heard that it was something that stemmed from the streaming community.
Mitchell Loewen: The origin is actually kind of interesting. The team has repeatedly wanted to explore a duos mode, we really wanted to have a cooperative experience for players for a really long time. We kept trying but couldn't quite find something that resonated. One of the things that we do periodically is Free Your Mind, which is a hackathon that happens on the team where different people on the team are given the opportunity to explore things that they're interested and passionate about all around the theme of exploring new avenues for Hearthstone.
A couple of people on the team were like, we're going to make a duos prototype, so they spent their entire Free Your Mind building the initial prototype of it. People then played it and went, this is awesome and we really want this to be real; we really want to launch this. So, once everyone got a chance to try that demo, we decided to turn this into a real content update and give it to our players.
Jia Dee: I was one of the people who said this is awesome, just want to put that out there!
Will there be matchmaking for solo queue people that want to duo up, or do you have to go in as a pair?
Mitchell Loewen: Yes, there will be. You will have the ability to both queue as a pair, so you and a partner, or if you don't have someone that you want to queue with, you can queue solo and you will be paired with somebody of a similar skill level.
Jia Dee: I also wanted to clarify that you'll be able to queue in solo battlegrounds separately. It's not a system like anomalies or anything like that. You'll have two entry points and you can choose which one.
When you were considering coop, I know it might have started from another team in a game jam, but what made you settle on duos as opposed to triples or quads? Also, I noticed that it's still eight players. Could you explain how you settled on teams of two fighting in groups of eight players?
Mitchell Loewen: While we were working on duos, we wanted to try and keep as much about the experience pretty familiar to players because there's a whole new dynamic you have to consider when you're playing with another person. We want to try and create an experience where you're keeping as many constants as possible, so keeping the same eight-player count, keeping the same general health and damage system as well as keeping very similar minion pools. It's really important so that if you're coming into this mode and you're bringing some friend along, you don't have to suddenly re-explain everything. You can go off of most of the built-up knowledge you already have.
In terms of why we did a two-player experience instead of three or four, I think it's because it was just really fun. The thing that worked really well for a two-player experience is that it's a lot easier to strategize when you only have to factor two boards. It starts getting really complicated if you have to consider a third or a fourth. We often try to strike that balance between really fun, engaging gameplay that is also approachable. We want as many players to be playing Hearthstone Battlegrounds as possible, we want it to be a fun and friendly experience for everybody and that makes accessibility of the game something that we really care about. 2v2 was a nice balance of that cooperative experience without being too overwhelming.
Do you believe that Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos can bring new players to the franchise?
Jia Dee: Absolutely! I think it's extremely fun. I've already heard stories of people on the show floor saying like, I've played this mode but my friend has it but since we're here together, I can just bring them in. You can queue up by yourself or with a friend, but I think it's largely incentivized because we're saying it's a duos mode to talk to somebody, make a new friend. I think it's one of the main reasons that we were pushing the mode is to have that ability to socialize.
Mitchell Loewen: To build onto that a little bit. I have a lot of experience in board games, it's where a lot of my background came from, and what I found is one of the best ways to teach people how to play any game is to bring a friend. It's one of the most effective ways to get people into that experience. There's been a lot of times where even though I work on the game and I know it inside and out, it's tricky to get friends into it. It's a little bit intimidating as a first-time experience, but if I can be in the game with them and we're having this fun together, it's so much easier for them to learn because then you get that shared enthusiasm and excitement and you can help each other out. There's lots of ways that, regardless of the skill level people are playing, you can find lots of opportunities to help your team and feel really good about it.
We have seen dual modes in other games as well. What do you guys have in mind to keep the mode from dying down? We always see very quickly with dual modes introduced that they get a quick peak and then it goes down again. Is this something that is actually going through your mind?
Jia Dee: Well, with our demo here, we have a lot of Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos exclusive minions and heroes. In playtesting, we came up with a lot of different designs. These are just the ones we feel most confident about at the moment, but there's tons of space to explore there, so we could definitely see the release of these new minions and heroes. There is no set cadence for that yet, but just as we refresh the solos queue every so often, we could definitely see that for duos as well.
Mitchell Loewen: One thing I also want to flag about this mode is the general pool is going to mimic solo battlegrounds, so every time we add new minions, change the minion pool, add back in new mechanics. Say we decide to bring quests back or bring buddies back. Or, once anomalies rotate out, decide to bring them back. Those would also be reflected in Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos, so it's really just another way to play. We're obviously fully committed to making sure that Battlegrounds, however you choose to play it, is going to be a fun and engaging experience.
I'm so glad you mentioned the exclusive hero pool. Is Cho'gall someone you came up with exclusively for Duos, or was that a hero you were batting around for a little while now and just couldn't find a way to get into solo Battlegrounds? Then Duos came along and it was like, they fit!
Jia Dee: It was for Duos specifically. I'm a recent-ish addition to the team, so I'm not sure about the entire history, but the first I heard of Cho'gall in Hearthstone Battlegrounds was for Duos mode and yeah, I think they really fit. They're the only ones that kind of share one hero power between them and we thought that was very core to the identity of Cho'gall.
Mitchell Loewen: I think we very deliberately made the choice to never make a Cho'gall hero because we wanted to save them for Duos, but we kept not landing on a version of Duos we loved so it just kept not happening. Then when this happened, we're like, Cho'gall is going to be in,
we're going to make it happen. We spent a lot of time iterating. I think it's probably one of the heroes that had the most different versions internally while testing because we really wanted to make sure that it was a fun, unique experience, and that it was taking advantage of the new design spaces opened by the two-player mode.
What were some of the ideas that didn't work out?
Mitchell Loewen: The wildest idea we tried was probably that you shared everything. All your gold, all your minions, like everything is shared and it was so chaotic because it would be like, oh, I'm going to tear up, but then your teammate spent your gold already, so you can't tear up. Maybe there's something there for us to explore in the future. Who knows? It was a pretty hilarious experience.
Maybe that could be fun for a limited time?
Mitchell Loewen: Yeah. I think it's really fun to try and I'm super excited for Hearthstone Battlegrounds duos because there's a lot of new space that gets opened up. We feel like the heroes that are available in the demo right now are really only scratching the surface of the kind of stuff we can do now. I'm super excited to kind of explore this and make a lot of really weird, interesting heroes.
I guess somewhat piggybacking off of that, when you were working on duos were there any kind of unforeseen challenges from adding a cooperative mode to a game that was originally designed to be 1v1? Did approaching a Duos mode make you have to reevaluate or change anything that you thought was core to Battlegrounds?
Jia Dee: Oh, for sure. First, how we were going to make health work. Is it 30 and 30 plus armor? We did some version of that and the games took forever, so we're like, okay, health stays 30 and then we add armor together. Then there was like, how does combat work? Are you in it by yourself and your teammate just never fights you and they fight everybody else and you try to meet at the top? That didn't feel particularly collaborative, so then we ended up on board A then board B versus your opponent's board A and board B and so many other things. How does passing work? We knew that we wanted you to be able to share cards in some way so it doesn't just feel like you've queued up with a friend and you're not going to face each other.
We wanted to be like, I found something in the shop that you might want and I feel really good about sharing it with you now. But should passing be free? Should it be available any amount of times throughout the game? Should it be free every three turns? There's just many different possibilities to go through.
Since it's two people queueing up with their MMR, what happens if I have a really high one and my partner has a really low one?
Mitchell Loewen: To be clear, we are still iterating specifically on the MMR part. However, what I can say is our primary goal is to make sure that you're getting matchmade into something of a similar skill level and it'll probably be a similar process to the way that it currently works if you were to queue on to a normal solo experience with a friend, which you are able to do up until a certain threshold. We'll probably use a similar matchmaking ability there, but we're still trying to iterate on that and we're also definitely trying to listen to the feedback. There's the survey right now and I think there's some related questions there about how you feel about the players you're playing against so we can use this to try to explore this space more.
I might be too early for you guys to know this yet but if I was matched with someone random for Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos and they dropped out, would they be replaced with another player or would an AI bot take over there?
Mitchell Loewen: There's definitely been a lot of talks around there. I don't think we've quite settled on exactly what we want to do but I can definitely assure you that like that's a topic that we're discussing a lot. That's something that has to be considered, there's a lot of reasons why someone could end up dropping you. Someone could have a weird connection issue; you could just be like oh shoot, I can't play, actually. Sometimes life happens, so we definitely want to make sure that if you're the person who's stuck there and you don't have your partner anymore, there's a good solution for you in that situation.
We know that Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos will be released next year, but do you have an approximate date?
Jia Dee: Early next year is what we can say this time.
Will Duos and regular Battlegrounds share progress to the same reward track, or will Duos have its own separate reward track?
Mitchell Loewen: I think the current expectation is that's a shared track, but we're still iterating a little bit, so there might be changes between now and the launch, but that's the most likely.
I know Jia in particular has an e-sports background, so I wanted to ask: is Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos something that you could potentially see taking off in a competitive circuit?
Jia Dee: It's definitely not something that we can speak about at the moment, unfortunately. I mean, if you ask about what I'd like personally, e-sports for sure. But there are many constraints around that, so we'll definitely share more in the future when we know something.
Mitchell Loewen: Also, just broadly, we're really curious to see how the community reacts to this. If people really love this. I always love seeing those kinds of grassroots things that start to come out when people hold their own community tournaments and make their own unique twists on the mode. I remember seeing there was a stream where they were doing like a three-person tag team thing. We were working on Duos at the time and when I saw this I was like, that's awesome.
I love it when the community can have these expressions. If people really like Duos and they resonate with it, then that's awesome. I would love to see that and support it in the ways that we can.
Hearthstone is famous for having a song in its trailers. Will there be a trailer for Duos, and will there be a song?
Jia Dee: Have to admit, we have not thought about that, but that's a great idea.
Mitchell Loewen: I would love a song! I don't know if that means there's going to be a song, but I would say I want a song.
Jia Dee: We're, like, legally obligated to make it a duet now.
Mitchell Loewen: Unfortunately that's not really our call, but I can definitely pass the feedback on that. Hey, a duet sounds pretty cool! But obviously, I can't make any promises about what that will be.
Is there a ping system for communicating?
Jia Dee: Sure. you can just right-click on any minion on the board in your hand or any of the buttons in the game that you can interact with. You'll have a radial of four pings that are pickable: the portal, green checkmark, red X, and question mark. These are also not necessarily what we're going to launch with, but this is what is in the demo today.
You can just click one of those. Let's say I click on the portal on a minion in my shop. My teammate will see a little preview of the minion that I pinged through their portal alongside the ping with it. I can ping something while spectating their board using the portal as well, and they'll be able to see that.
At one point during the What's Next for the mode, there were some green arrows showing. Could you go into more detail about what that system is and when that shows up while you're playing?
Jia Dee: So, in solo Battlegrounds, you might be familiar with the indicator for pairs and triples. Let's say I have a shell collector and there's a shell collector in the shop. If that's just the second one available to me, it'll have a little blue sheen indicating a pair. If I have two and there's a third one in the shop, it's going to be the up arrow for a triple. In Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos, if my teammate has a shell collector and there's one in my shop, I'll see a green sheen instead. If it's going to be a triple for them, I'll see a green arrow and it's pointing sideways instead of up because it's like, hey, drag it to the portal.
Mitchell Loewen: Essentially, they are the triple and pair indicators for your teammate's board.
So it's possible to kind of pair between teammates with the passing?
Mitchell Loewen: Yeah, absolutely.
What's the strongest combo that you've run into for having the two hero powers, and what's the most unexpected one?
Jia Dee: Strongest... I'm not necessarily sure if it's the strongest, but one that I'm excited to play every time I see it and playtest is Thorim and Reno. I'm like, oh yes, let me get my tier seven and give it to you and you can goldenize it - if we live long enough to do that, because that's a very greedy strategy!
Mitchell Loewen: I think one of the things that surprised me though are some of the less obvious pairings, which are things like a tempo hero and an aggressive leveling kind of econ hero. Because they don't inherently talk to each other in the same way that Reno and Thorim would talk to each other in this synergy. But that one does a really nice balance of, one player can be more about just keeping ourselves healthy, letting us survive this damage and the other one can be greedy and power up. Then that gives you the opportunity to be like, well, I'm on tier six. You're not at tier six yet; let me give you my sixes that I'm finding so you can support each other that way, which is a pretty fun strategy that can come out of there even though the hero powers don't talk to each other cleanly if that makes sense.
Can you both explain the compatibility between 1v1 and 2v2 cards? Will they show up in each other's modes or are they very distinct decks and cards that you'll be playing with?
Jia Dee: You can think of this solos pool as a subset of the Duos pool. None of the Duos exclusive minions are available in solos but all of the solos minions, if we can help it, are available in duos. That's what it is today.
If necessary, we have the ability to ban minions from solo battlegrounds in Duos, but as a goal that we have for ourselves, we're trying to avoid that as much as possible, because there's a lot of value in being able to have that transfer knowledge. But if a situation comes up that we can't avoid it, then we can't avoid it.
Are there any familiar Hearthstone characters that you would love to see as a Duos hero?
Jia Dee: I can think of quite a few, but no promises yet. I think anyone who has, say, maybe somebody that they are known for being partnered up with in World of Warcraft, that seems like a good candidate. Like, if we haven't already used them as a buddy, for example.
Diablo has popped up in Hearthstone a couple of times. Are you happy with just that one extra character from outside the Warcraft universe or are you looking into maybe doing more from other universes?
Mitchell Loewen: I think that it's definitely something that I would personally like to explore. We have no plans right now, unfortunately. Nothing that we can share right now, but I think that it's cool sometimes when you can get those kinds of overlaps. I think Hearthstone and Diablo are two franchises that have a really natural connection because they both have a fantasy setting. As we were releasing that around Diablo Immortal and then there was also Diablo IV, it was a really natural moment to explore this. If opportunities like that present themselves in the future, maybe we'll be able to take advantage of them.
What makes Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos stand out?
Jia Dee: I think definitely the collaborative nature. Just that you can in theory play with a friend, but you're not necessarily winning with them, as only one of you can win first place in solos. With Duos, not only are you like sharing pretty much everything and your victory, it's also the fact that you're actively looking for things in your shop that can be useful to another person.
In that train of thought, it's kind of like you are building for two boards. Just having a wider variety of things in the shop that might be interesting to buy and fitting for at least one of your comps.
You can't pass board minions, the ones that you've already played on your board, correct?
Mitchell Loewen: Kind of. To be more specific, you can't pass them through the portal, but there are some other ways to pass cards that aren't the portal. For example there's Madam Goya, which is one of the Duos heroes, who can target minions that are in play, breaking the rule a little bit.
The rule of thumb and what you should expect in the majority of interactions is to hand minions through the portal to your teammate. But we like to break the rules a little, so there's sometimes other ways you can do that, which actually opens up some fun space. You could do something like take a minion, build it up all game and you're like oh, this was a dragon and I'm thinking about moving to beast, but it feels like a waste to get rid of. So you could use one of the pass things, send it to your teammate, and give him a really strong minion. You don't feel like you've like lost that big investment you've made.
Does this mean bounce (meaning a return to your hand) could be a potential mechanic in Hearthstone Battlegrounds Duos?
In some forms. We have some cards that do this in a soft way, not like the Darkmoon Prize. It's a design space that we could explore, and for Duos I could see it having cooler interactions because then you can pass it through the portal, but no concrete plans yet.
Thank you for your time.