Hearthstone has been around for a long time now – almost nine years – and in that time the game has evolved a great deal. That’s part and parcel for any live service game, of course, but it’s also a reflection of the development team learning from all those years of designing cards, mechanics, classes, events, modes and more. And as Hearthstone has grown, so too has its development team, even hiring some really well-known pro players and personalities to bring their own expertise and passion to bear on the game.
Back in mid-October during my trip to Blizzard HQ to see the new Death Knight class, I caught up with one such well-known Hearthstone personality turned developer, Cora Georgiou. A prominent commentator and host for several years in the Hearthstone scene, as well as one of the original members of the Coin Concede podcast (now with 373 episodes and counting), Cora joined Team 5 about three years ago, starting out in final design but soon playing key roles in a number of different areas, including leading design on the recent Murder at Castle Nathria set. It’s a path many fans would love to be able to follow, so I sat down with Cora to chat about her career, her drive to succeed and what working on Hearthstone is actually like. What follows is a slightly abridged transcript of our conversation.
IGN: Tell me a little about your card gaming background and how much of a role TCGs played as you were growing up.
Cora Georgiou: First off, my father owns a computer store, and he went into entrepreneurship specifically because he wanted to play video games and sell software. And now that was 27 years ago. The landscape has obviously changed significantly, but you can see where we get it from! My brother and I are two years apart – I’m older – and growing up we just loved card games. We always had each other as our opponents, our dad played with us [too] and, yeah, it’s hard to think that I would be in a similar position if I didn’t have that influence growing up to really drive competition and love of that style of games. They’re just really something that has been such an important part of my life.
IGN: It gives you an innate understanding of how they work, too.
Cora Georgiou: Yeah. Honestly, I’m as surprised as everyone else that I fit in well with this, because I’m not a super analytically brained person. Even when I was casting, I was the host. I have a communication background, I was a competitive public speaker, I was a singer – I sang at weddings. I loved performing and I loved communicating, but I wasn’t, you know, a computer science major. I wasn’t a coder. So game design didn’t even seem like it was something that was possible. But you know, on the flip side, esports commentary and hosting fit very well.
So… I did that for four years and when it came time that I was getting a little bit older, I was in my mid twenties, and I looked to – what do I want my next five years, ten years to look like? I just wanted something that was a little bit more stable, and I had that competitive Hearthstone background and just took the shot of leveraging it into game design, which was quite the surprise, I think, to myself, and you know, even the small yet mighty audience that I had built up over the years. And that was now three years ago.
IGN: You studied broadcasting originally. Was that with esports in mind or some other goal?
Cora Georgiou: It was intended to be traditional radio broadcasting. Throughout high school I did a group called the Speech Team. (laughes) And I actually won state in Illinois for an event called Radio Speaking, which was essentially news broadcasting. Growing up my dream was always to be a singer and so I went into college not super passionate about anything other than music, but wanting to be realistic and wanting to get a degree and then to pursue music if I came out of college, and still wanted to.
Broadcasting was something that I was good at. I liked public speaking. It was something that I could see myself pursuing long term and being happy enough with. And so I went into a broadcast communication degree with a music minor, and I worked in a radio station for four years. I ended up being the news director there. I think the issue was I really liked speaking, I really liked communicating, I don’t so much like the news and I don’t so much like the radio, which made it difficult to picture that long term. (laughes) And then when I was in my junior year of college, that’s when I really started getting competitive in Hearthstone. I was doing Coin Concede every week, as part of that Hearthstone podcast.
IGN: How did that come about? Were you there at the start?
Cora Georgiou: Yeah, I was. Myself, Kenny [Downey] and Kevin Keefe were the first three. I was on a small Hearthstone team for some time called – you may recognise it – Vicious Syndicate, back when they had a Hearthstone team. And that’s how I met some of my best friends in Hearthstone. From there… Kenny… was looking to start a Hearthstone podcast and they were like – oh, Cora is pretty good at speaking, you should see if Cora wants to do it. And so he recruited me and our other co-host originally named Kevin, and that’s how we started on that.
And obviously, you know, over time it grew and we brought in new people and now none of the original hosts are on there, but we’ve got wonderful hosts like Ridiculous Hat and Bot[ticus] and Edelweiss, and yeah, it really grew into this thing that I never had any expectations of, but now to see the work that they get to do and – they get card reveals! – and like, when I was on the show, that would’ve just been the coolest thing ever. It’s something I’m really proud of.
IGN: What expansion cycle were we at when Coin Concede launched?
Cora Georgiou: Probably 2015-ish… it would’ve been, so a couple years into Hearthstone’s life. I would’ve been like sophomore, junior in college. And I was casting some weekly Hearthstone tournaments here and there. This is when, you know, everybody and their mother’s small Hearthstone team was running a Hearthstone weekly [competition] for some packs or some small amount of money – it was the height of homegrown Hearthstone competition. That’s when Coin Concede really got going.
…It’s wild looking back at how much the game has grown and evolved over time and the people that made it the way that it is, and now to be one of those people who’s sort of ushering it into this new era of Hearthstone is, I don’t know, it’s very odd. It’s very humbling and very exciting.
IGN: But who better to do it than those who’ve been living and breathing it for years. Right?
Cora Georgiou: I think so. We’ve got a lot of really wonderful people on the team who come from similar Hearthstone backgrounds to me. People who played Hearthstone eight to ten hours a day or were competitive players and who just loved nothing more than Hearthstone for so long. And, you know, to be able to tap into that passion, but then also to take the individual talents of those people in game design or communication or engineering or just all of these different disciplines, I think it makes the team really special.
IGN: Absolutely. So how did you pivot from those grassroots tournaments to casting higher profile stuff?
Cora Georgiou: Back in 2016, I believe it was, no, it might have been 2015, there was a competition the esports team hosted called “So you Think You Can Cast Hearthstone?”
IGN: Did Raven also come from that?
Cora Georgiou: Raven and Sottle were also picked up at the same time. I sent in a video casting a mock game that I think was like Stephen Chang, who was a final designer for many years, and Rob Wing who was on the esports team – I think he was the one who made the initiative – and [I] got picked up to cast a winter playoff, I think it was. So I was about 20 at the time and they flew me out to California. This was the first time that I was meeting people that I so significantly looked up to in Hearthstone commentary, like Frodan and Reynad and Savjz at the time, and just these people who were so iconic in Hearthstone.
So yeah, that was 2016. And then from there I was honestly really fortunate I was able to leverage consistent work for about four years. I did a lot of third party events. I did a lot of the collegiate circuits which was about as consistent as you could get in Hearthstone at the time. There wasn’t a Grand Masters league at the time – it was the Hearthstone Championship Tour, and more inconsistent Hearthstone tournaments. So to be able to work fairly consistently – like two weekends per month for four years – was really good for me as someone who was just out of college who didn’t really want to do anything traditional with my degree but was still working in an industry that was, you know, close enough to what I had been educated in, that it felt like it was sort of worthwhile for me to do that.
IGN: What were the some of the best things about that and the worst things about that?
Cora Georgiou: The best things [were] just the opportunities that the average person doesn’t get to have. I mean, I casted a Hearthstone team tournament in China for three weeks in 2017, right around the release of Kobolds and Catacombs… we got to cast the finals in the Olympic Winter Games Center! The amount of travel that I was able to do and the amount of awesome people that I was able to meet and work with, it’s crazy to think back on, on the amount of cool stuff that I got to do in that brief period of time in my life.
But you know, on the flip side, I was very young. I’m a person who is – I like being on stage and I like being in front of the camera. I don’t necessarily love my face being in front of the camera, which is why I didn’t go into television media. I just never wanted to be on camera. So that was something that took some time to get used to, it was not the easiest. And then, yeah, obviously lots of critics in esports – not the easiest space to to be in for anybody, really. So it was definitely something that took some time to get used to. I think the good far outweighed the bad though. And just the places that I got to go and the people that I got to meet were, I mean, they were incredible.
IGN: Hearthstone’s community can be pretty toxic, as can internet culture in general. How was that for you as a woman in such a prominent position in the community?
Cora Georgiou: It is what it is. I think everybody has their struggles if you are a prominent face in the community. And I can’t imagine being someone who has an audience like, you know, even Brian Kibler or Frodan or Reynad or any of the larger Hearthstone personalities, who just have so many people who know who you are, and everybody has an opinion – I can’t imagine what it must be like to be them. In the grand scheme of things, I think I got off pretty easy. But yeah, it’s not an experience for everybody. And I think after a certain number of years I realised, well, maybe this just isn’t for me in the long term.
IGN: There isn’t necessarily a great deal of progression that you could have really made from there, either.
Cora Georgiou: Yeah. Long term it would’ve meant branching out. It would’ve meant different games, it would’ve meant more stage hosting. And those were things that I considered. I really enjoyed stage hosting. I could have gone into more of a traditional host role, but I was very proud of being a commentator. There weren’t a lot of women who were esports commentators at the time, a lot of them were hosts. And I really looked up to someone like Jia – I still do – who is one of the most knowledgeable people in Hearthstone, period. And I so wanted to be like that. I wanted to selfishly have that role even though I honestly was better at hosting than I ever was at commentary.
But I did consider branching out. I considered, you know, going to an agency for representation. And I was just sort of at that crossroad, I think after the Master’s Tour Las Vegas in summer 2019, where I was like, well, what do I want my next step in life to be? Up until now I’d sort of just ridden the wave of what’s the thing that’s most obvious or easiest to do next, and esports came as an opportunity and I just sort of rode that wave for four years.
IGN: So you hadn’t been keeping an eye on the job postings at Team 5?
Cora Georgiou: I sort of peripherally had, obviously at that point… I knew people on the team. I knew Chakki had gotten hired, about a year before me. And I had met a lot of the Hearthstone devs at various events, but I wasn’t super close with any of them. And I think I had posted on Twitter, I was like – ‘oh, there’s a dev opening, that would be fun!’ And Dean [Ayala] messaged me and was like – ‘yeah, you should apply’. And I was like – ‘okay, Dean, sure’. Because, I mean, let’s be realistic, people like Chakki or Realz or Puffin or Iksar were just, they were just such phenomenal Hearthstone players, such competitive Hearthstone players. And I never considered myself to be part of that echelon of really hyper competitive players. I was good, but I was never going to be great. I didn’t have the drive to be great. So I was like, nah, I just wouldn’t fit in here. But, I don’t know, I kind of saw it as a challenge. I was like, I might as well – what’s the point of not applying?
IGN: What’s the worst they can say? No.
Cora Georgiou: And I thought they would. (laughes)
IGN: So what did you have to present? How did that process roll out?
Cora Georgiou: The initial process was to send an application, a resume obviously and a cover letter. And I think one card that that they would have you design… And at this point – I know this is something I’ve been very open about – I didn’t have card design experience. I had a lot of different card game playing experience. I’d played half a dozen card games at that point, but I had not designed any card games because I didn’t think of game design as an option. It wasn’t something that was super prominent – I think I took one game design class in college, but it wasn’t something that people were majoring in at that time. I just didn’t see it as an option, and I didn’t want to go into computer science, so I was like – this isn’t something that I can do.
So I sent in one card and I was like, realistically, am I gonna make the most balanced Hearthstone card ever? No. But I can make a flavourful Hearthstone card. I can show ’em that I can make something fun that’ll make them laugh…
And after that it was a phone interview with a recruiter, and then I got a take home card design test essentially, where you actually have to go through, and it’s a much more in-depth process trying to test various areas of card design, like flavour and numbers and just a bunch of different things. And then from there they flew me out and I did a full day of onsite interviews with a bunch of different groups, testing a bunch of different areas. And I was so nervous. It’s like training your brain to think in a different way, that I just hadn’t done before. But it went really well. And that was August 2019 I think.
IGN: That’s so great. How difficult has it been to learn those skills and to think in that way? Are there a million things that you had never considered before?
Cora Georgiou: It’s a very humbling experience to intentionally put yourself into the position to be a little fish in a very big pond and to go into something and essentially have to swallow your pride and say – I don’t know these things, can you help me learn them? And I was really fortunate to have mentors like Stephen Chang, like Liv Breeden, like Dean Ayala who never made me feel bad for a second for not knowing something and who were always very willing to help me to learn.
And I think because I’m so competitive, at that point I’m like – well, I put myself in this position, I can’t fail now because that’ll be really embarrassing. And I think a lot of people expected to see me, you know, not do terribly well, and I guess I wouldn’t have been surprised if I did, but I didn’t want to prove them right.
And so yeah, I joined the team on the final design team. I worked on final design for Scholomance Academy, expansion 18.0. From there I went to initial design for [Forged in] the Barrens, and then I actually worked with Conor Kou on elementals in Battlegrounds, which was super fun. Battlegrounds design was awesome. Battlegrounds design looked a lot different back then. Now they’ve got a full team and they’re doing crazy awesome stuff. I worked a little on Darkmoon Prizes too. And then I worked on Fractured in Alterac Valley, I did the first pass of the Onyxia’s Lair mini set, worked on Sunken City and then got to lead Murder at Castle Nathria.
IGN: Amazing. How different was it leading a set compared to being involved in other ways?
Cora Georgiou: In the initial stages it doesn’t look much different. You’re just sort of doing the same thing that you’ve done working with the team to make cool mechanics and to then make the individual archetypes. I followed the set from initial design to final, so I got to work with the final design team as well in refining things and balancing things. And that team was wonderful. It was, you know Edward Goodwin… and George Webb, who’s better known as BoarControl, and Keaton [Gill] and so that was a lot of fun.
It’s after the set actually goes through the card design process that things look different, because then you have to still be the champion for the set and the vision holder for the set as you start to essentially shop the set around to all of the different teams – art and engineering and UI and VO and you have to make sure that everybody is on the same page because you’re making one set across a group of several hundred people who work in all different departments and disciplines…
So that was really a process that continued all the way up to pretty much the set’s release… making sure that every bow is tied tight and that nothing is being forgotten. And obviously it’s a massive, massive team effort between everybody. But yeah, that was something that I was working on up to pretty much its release and then Maw and Disorder… that was a less intense process as it came down to the wire because it’s a smaller pool of cards to worry about, but even still, it’s something that takes a lot of time.
IGN: How do you feel about how Castle Nathria turned out, overall?
Cora Georgiou: I am my own harshest critic. I think if you ask any card designer – what would you do differently if you could, we would spend so much time on card sets if we could, just trying to get every single detail perfect. But overall I really wanted to tell a very narrative-driven Hearthstone story. The most important part to me obviously is card design, obviously is individual gameplay, but after that was having a set that felt very cohesive and very thematic through and through. I didn’t want to have any card names that didn’t feel like they were intentional or any flavour text that didn’t feel like it was meant to be there.
There are so many references in the genre, there are so many iconic pieces of media in the genre that to not make absolute use of the most that we possibly can would feel like doing it a disservice. I am such a fan of murder mysteries and thrillers and horror, and it’s like you can just take all of it and put it together in this wonderful, funny, satirical package with these awesome characters that WoW made, like Denathrius and the venthyr are the perfect medium to tell this story because they are dark characters, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. And it was perfect for Hearthstone.
I think ultimately we got that across. I think we did a good job of telling the story through the cards. Are there archetypes that I would’ve done differently? Yeah. Are there individual designs that I think could’ve been better? Yeah. But I think ultimately the gameplay is pretty good. I think there’s some really fun new things to do and I think players have enjoyed it.
IGN: What are the big card design hits for you in that set?
Cora Georgiou: Oh, I think relics are so much fun… a lot of the design in the set was very top down – let’s decide who the suspects are first and then build off of the suspects. So Artificer Xy’mox being the suspect for Demon Hunter, in the raid on Castle Nathria, he is in the Relic Vault canonically. And I was like, well, we have to do something with relics. And for a long time we were like – how do we mimic the Jade play style? Because that’s not something that Demon Hunters ever had access to. But we knew that Jades had some drawbacks and that they were not limited – especially in Druid with things like Jade Idol that can just go on forever. We were like – what if we can emulate this play style, but make it feel more impactful because we put a cap on it. We don’t give them significant amounts of discover to just access these cards over and over again. Edward [Goodwin] actually did a wonderful job there trying to figure out how exactly they would work. And I think they are so much fun.
Also, I will scream the praises of Alex Smith for Wildseeds. I remember we were going through the process of building archetypes for Hunter, and we knew we wanted something that was a little bit more mid rangey, but nothing was sticking out. And I think offhandedly, I was in a one-on-one with him, and I was like – well, Ara’lon is the keeper of Ursoc’s Wildseed in World of Warcraft, maybe, I don’t know, maybe we lean into Wildseeds in some way, I don’t even know what that looks like.
And then literally the next morning, the Wildseeds were in the sheet in almost their finalised fashion. The turnaround that he did and the quality of the Wildseeds, I think they’re just such a unique intersection of cards that are objectively powerful, but that feel so good to play that you’re okay with that. Like, we’ve obviously tuned them down on a couple occasions… but it still feels okay because they are that perfect intersection of thematic and power and just good feels. I’m super proud of those two archetypes.
IGN: You started working at Blizzard pre-pandemic, so you moved to L.A. and were in the building, and then the world falls over. How was that transition to remote work? How did the team in general handle it? Are you excited to be coming back?
Cora Georgiou: I’m of course excited to be back, but I think the team honestly are rock stars. The communication has never wavered. The teamwork aspect of it… just hasn’t felt difficult. Obviously, sometimes you wish that you could have those organic conversations that you can only have if you’re, you know, across from somebody. But we bounce ideas off of each other all the time and we’re in constant communication with each other. And I don’t think the set quality has suffered, which is the really important thing.
That being said, I’m super happy to be coming back to the office at some point. I don’t want to be here [at the office] every day [though] – I got a dog during the pandemic and sometimes I just want to be at home to hang out with her. And I think if you can work efficiently from anywhere, I think that’s a big bonus. And we have permanently remote members of the team now that we always need to keep included in everything that’s going on. But yeah, I think ultimately I am very fortunate to be in a position to be able to do my job from wherever I am most comfortable. And that is not something that I take for granted.
IGN: Your brother also works on Hearthstone. Tell me a little bit about his story.
Cora Georgiou: My brother’s name is Sage. He’s two years younger than I am, and I would love for him to tell his own story at some point, but he’s not media trained just yet – we’ll get him there.
I’m my brother’s biggest champion, obviously, but there are clear conflicts of interest involved with being related to somebody and working on the same team. So I was super excited when he applied for the team – I was not a part of the process of hiring him, obviously – but, you know, not gonna lie and say I wasn’t excited when I found out he was being hired. He’s always been the person that I can talk to about anything, so to be able to bounce ideas off of him and for him to do the same with me is really wonderful. I think he works well on the team, and I would love for you to be able to ask these questions to him at some point!
IGN: What’s his current role?
Cora Georgiou: He’s an associate game designer on the initial design team. I am not his manager which is good because honestly, I’m probably harder on him than anybody else would be. He actually competed in a couple of events while I was casting. He would just come with [me], and compete in events like Dreamhacks. And I was in the position to cast him on stream a couple of times. He top 8-ed a Dreamhack – Dreamhack Atlanta in 2017. And I look back at those streams, and I was like, oh damn, I was kind of mean to you. (laughes) I did not want to look like I was biased in any way, and I just kind of swung in the opposite direction and I was like – I was kind of a bitch, I’m sorry. But no, it’s so much fun. I know there are other sibling groups that work together at Blizzard – I think there’s one on the WoW team. So we’re not that special, but yeah, it’s cool. I’m not gonna lie. It’s cool.
IGN: Last question. Being part of Team 5 – what’s the reality been like compared to your expectations?
Cora Georgiou: Oh man, I had no idea. I had no idea. I mean, this is such a different environment than I was ever exposed to before. I had hopes, obviously – I hoped that it would be a really fun working environment and that everybody would respect each other and that I would be going into a place where I could feel valued. And I think I’m very fortunate – pretty much all of that has proven true. I just have the best coworkers and yeah, I’m not going to say it’s always been easy, but I think at the end of the day, we all want what’s best for each other. And to be able to work with those people day in and day out, I think they are what make Hearthstone truly special. They all just care so much and I’m now in a position to be able to help other people grow and move on in their career and to expand their knowledge. I get to mentor interns and mentor set leads and it’s like – oh, I remember what this was like when I was in your shoes. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. So yeah, it’s really cool.
Cam Shea is a huge fan of Hearthstone as well as a sake connoisseur and lover of rave era breakbeat.