If you've been following along with TouchArcade for the last half a decade, I've mentioned a bunch of times how much I love collectible card games. I've been playing the physical version of Magic the Gathering for no joke, over 20 years now, and I've never found a digital collectible card game (Short of just playing Magic online, of course.) to even begin to compare until I got in to Blizzard's Hearthstone [Free]. Like any CCG, I've had more love/hate moments with Hearthstone than I could even count, but at minimum, just playing even a couple matches has turned in to part of my daily routine. We've already got a review of the core game on the site, so I'm not going to focus on that as much as I am the new expansion. If you don't know what Hearthstone is, or much about it, definitely start there first.
Back at PAX East Blizzard announced plans for a vague "single player campaign" for Hearthstone called Curse of Naxxramas. Hearthstone leans entirely on the World of Warcraft universe for its cards and lore, so it made a lot of sense for them to implement additional content in the card game based on existing content in the MMO. Naxxramas is an infamous raid instance that was featured both in the original pre-expansion World of Warcraft and then re-released as part of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Blizzard got a lot of flak for recycling content, but, so few people ever even zoned in to the original Naxxramas that it made a lot of sense. If your only exposure to the WoW universe is Hearthstone, it's worth watching the original Naxxramas reveal trailer from 2006:
Needless to say, the production value of Blizzard's expansion trailers increased exponentially when they revealed the Curse of Naxxramas trailer in July:
Collectable card games, like most multiplayer games are built around the idea of intentional imbalance. (Check out this awesome video for a great explanation of what that means.) Hearthstone has a metagame that was constantly evolving, but felt like it was on the verge of beginning to get stale right around the time Curse of Naxxramas was on the verge of release. After all, with a small initial card pool, there are only so many reasonable possibilities for putting together competitive decks.
Curse of Naxxramas added much needed cards to spice things up a bit, both providing answers for some of the more popular decks as well as expanding deck building strategy with additional cards which when paired with cards that were previously seen as under powered could turn in to some killer combos. Typically, in the CCG world new cards are released as an entire set that you need to chase down by opening up packs of cards. In the world of Magic, this makes for an awkward couple of weeks as people without the time, money, and desire to track down all the new best cards are at a significant disadvantage to casual players who just buy a couple packs here or there and don't dabble in trading or buying individual cards from dealers.
Hearthstone did things totally differently, and is without a doubt the most clever way I've seen new cards injected into an existing CCG card pool. Instead of chasing packs, the playing field was leveled in to five wings, each with their own cards that everyone who played through it would unlock. There's no chasing down play sets, getting frustrated because you're opening every card but the one you want, you just get everything.
The pricing structure is great too. Hearthstone is a free to play game, I've dropped some cash on it, but I've got many friends who I play with competitively who haven't spent a cent on it. Similarly, the expansion content can be entirely unlocked via spending in-game gold earned through completing daily quests. Better yet, you can spend a mixture of in-game currency and real-world currency to get the expansion content. Each wing costs 700 in-game gold, or $6.99, and the more wings you buy with in-game gold the cheaper unlocking the rest of the content gets. It's totally agreeable, and in an era of the App Store where it seems like its in fashion to endlessly abuse player through infinite consumable IAP, it's great that it's just a buy once and get everything sort of affair.
To unlock the cards, you've got to play through different boss battles, all following the World of Warcraft Naxxramas theme along with specific class challenges for each of the nine classes included in the game. Each wing has three bosses, with the exception of the Construct Quarter with four and the Frostwyrm Lair with two.
The normal boss battles are a lot of fun, and seem pretty flexible regarding what kind of deck you need to beat them. Most fights involve trying them out with your favorite deck, seeing if the hero power of the boss you're fighting requires you to tweak it or try something else, then going back again and unlocking your cards. The overall difficulty level of these fights in normal mode ranges from pretty easy to sort of tricky, but if you've been playing Hearthstone and have a decent understanding of the game, you shouldn't have much issue.
What's fascinating, and honestly somewhat unexpected, is the amount of flavor Blizzard was able to jam in to these battles. As someone who experienced the WoW iteration of these fights, it's an incredible feat of game design that they managed to make these multiplayer raid encounters feel strikingly similar in a single player card game. Notorious boss gimmicks are all there, with Hearthstone flair, providing both a fun challenge for players who have never played World of Warcraft and a nod to those who did.
Something I hope they explore more in future expansions is multi-phase fights like Kel'Thuzad. All of the most memorable boss encounters in WoW had all sorts of tricks you needed to know, especially as the fight evolved to different stages. The first time Kel'Thuzad steals your turn away is an awesome experience, and getting legendary cards as your "loot" for vanquishing these bosses is even better.
My gripes with the expansion start with some of the class challenges and the heroic side of things. Some of the class challenges are a ton of fun. The hunter one, for instance, gives you an entire deck full of minions which give you a random beast card when they die. This was so awesome I wish it was its own game mode that I could play with friends.
Alternatively, some of the class challenges, namely the warrior and paladin feel like you're just brute forcing the random number generator. Luck in card games is a cruel mistress, and while there's obviously strategy involved in a CCG, you're also depending on getting the cards you need to respond to threats while your opponent gets screwed out of answering your threats. In some of these challenges, the decks you're forced to use feel so clunky that you're basically just slamming your head against getting the god hand in your opening draw, then continuing that trend for the rest of the game. Lose momentum at any moment, and you might as well start over.
Heroic difficulty, much like the WoW raids of the same name, are intentionally designed to be way harder. Thankfully, unlike WoW, there's not any better "loot" to be had in the heroic side of things aside from a snazzy looking card back to show off.
The difference between WoW heroic raids and Hearthstone heroic bosses is that instead of the flawless execution required through player skill in WoW you're again brute forcing the random number generator. Some fights take hours of retrying to win, while you lose because an enemy's random hero power somehow manages to nuke the one minion of all the minions on your side of the board that you needed to win.
Player perception when it comes to random number generation is a tricky thing to deal with. People were so sure that the iOS version of Monopoly [$0.99 / $4.99 (HD)] featured AI that cheated they went as far as to add a heat map for dice rolls in the game to prove that it's not. I'm not sure what Blizzard can do to fix this, or if it's even something that can be fixed, but conversations with friends on Hearthstone since the expansion has been released have definitely shifted from discussing decks to sharing tales of how bad the random number generator screwed you over as you were one turn away from winning and the boss drew exactly the card they needed to end the game.
But, hey, the whole point of heroic mode is it's supposed to be hard, so it makes sense that these fights are tuned to require a perfect game to win. I suppose it's better than the alternative of making them as easy to beat as the normal bosses and being disappointed that the single player content included was so short. One thing that's desperately needed for heroics is a way to edit your decks from the actual expansion menus. Continually navigating all the way out of and back into the Curse of Naxxramas area to just swap out a card can be a little tedious.
The way the release was staggered with each wing unlocking over the course of five weeks was awesome. I'm definitely going to be bummed next Wednesday when I open Hearthstone without being greeted by a popup telling me a new wing has been unlocked. That's alright though, as all the cards that have been released will keep deck builders busy and the metagame shifting for months to come.
Overall, I really couldn't have possibly asked for more in a Hearthstone expansion. Curse of Naxxramas was flawlessly executed. The new cards are great, the boss encounters were clever, and while some of them along with the class challenges had their moments of pure frustration, that also came with the excitement of victory. Kel'Thuzad taunting you the entire time was highly amusing, and I seriously cannot wait to see what Blizzard comes up with next.
If you're even remotely interested in Hearthstone, unlocking Curse of Naxxramas is a no-brainer. Technically speaking, it's a better "value" if you buy it with cash, as you get more cards by spending your gold on packs compared to buying that same amount of packs with money, but it really doesn't matter. However you end up unlocking Curse of Naxxramas, whether it's gold, money, or a mixture of the two, just be sure you do.
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