In most circumstances, the Warcraft ambience is too bold and cheerful to allow for anything as creeping and underhand as fear. And yet Curse of Naxxramas, the new Hearthstone single-player adventure, is still a horror game to me, and the horror - the wonderful, energising horror - began when Eurogamer staff writer Tom Phillips showed me Duplicate. Duplicate's one of Naxxramas' new collectible cards, and beneath that suspiciously anodyne name stands a thing of real dread. Play Duplicate - it's a secret, which means it lurks hidden on the board until its trap is sprung by specific circumstances - and when a friendly minion dies, it will put two copies of it back into your hand.
Imagine this for a second. Or rather, imagine it working against you, and imagine it working perfectly. Imagine facing an opponent who suddenly has had three Yseras, each spewing out a dream card at the end of its turn. Imagine those dream cards piling up. And that's just Ysera.
This is horror. Hearthstone's meta would rumble and shift and spasm in the presence of one or two new cards like this, of course. Naxxramas will bung in 30 - six of which are legendaries.
That stuff's going to take a while to shake out. For the first day of the first wing of Naxxramas, though, it's all about the single-player content. The Arachnid Wing, which is free to all players at the moment, unlocked last night. Three more wings and a final lair will join it in the weeks that follow, although you'll have to pay for those.
I've spent this morning making my first tentative explorations of the first section of the spooky floating citadel of Naxxramas, home to some manner of cartoon bad guy who plans on doing something terribly ominous. I've fought three bosses, earned four new cards, and had a glimpse into just how deep the well might go. Ultimately, the complete Naxxramas expansion will pit you against 15 different bosses. If they're as entertaining as the first three, that's good news. (What follows is inevitably a bit spoilerific, incidentally.)
Naxxramas is all about the deathrattle, an event that's triggered once a minion has been defeated. Sometimes that's bad for your rival, sometimes it's bad for you, to balance out some positive that lurks elsewhere in the card. Sometimes, it's bad for everyone, and while there have been deathrattles in the game since it launched, their foregrounding here still takes a little getting used to.
"Welcome to my parlour," said Anub'Rekhan, the first boss I was up against, a big, dusty spider-thing, its gilt carapace shrouded in cobwebs. "You asked for it," replied my slightly wonky mage build, a deck I got from the internet and then tinkered with aimlessly until it was much, much less effective. Sadly, it turns out that I asked for it. My first match against Anub'Rekhan was a total disaster.
Anub'Rekhan had a hell of a deck for 8.30 in the morning. Before I knew what I was up against, he was flinging Abominations and Nerub'ar Weblords in my face. Abominations have been around a while, hulking 4/4s who deal 2 damage to all characters when they expire. Nerub'ar Weblords are new, however - you'll actually earn some over the course of the Arachnid Wing. They increase the cost of cards with battlecry. That's bad enough, but Anub'Rekhan's hero power, Skitter, allows him to summon a 3/1 Nerubian every turn.
These guys are no problem on their own as long as you have board clearers, but Anub'Rekhan also likes to throw in Crazed Alchemists who swap the health and damage around, perfect for subsequent buffing. Add Haunted Creepers that spawn two 1/1 spiders on deathrattle, and it's a campaign of persistent low-level harassment. You can deal with it, but it can still make you waste cards, and it can make you waste turns if you haven't planned for it properly. Eventually, after just five minutes, Anub'Rekhar did me in with a sheep. A sheep I had conjured to get rid of something much worse.
Salvation, as far as I'm concerned anyway, ultimately lay with Illidan Stormrage, a legendary I've never had any real luck with, and was actually at the point of dusting a few weeks back. The problem I always have with Illidan - and I appreciate that this is just me - is that he's like some kind of hand-crafted uber-deadly cyberpunk shotgun, but with butter smeared all over the grip. Everytime I pull him out, I drop him and he explodes at my feet. Luckily, early on in our second game, Anub'Rekhar played Deathlord, the deathrattle of which yoinks out a card from my own deck and slaps it on the board. Illidan it was, and, played so unseasonably early, he was soon filling the joint with those 2/1 flames of his. Anub'Rekhar succumbed to those flames. I did not miss him, and my reward - Haunted Creepers of my very own - only sweetened the moment.
Happily, the remaining two bosses were equally interesting to play against. The Grand Widow Faerlina's hero power is Rain of Fire, which unleashes a missile for every card in your hand, turning the material game on its head a little. She spams it like crazy early on, too, for pretty obvious reasons. She also unleashes Nekroknights, which are an absolute nightmare at 5/6 and 4 mana cost.
Those Nekroknights have a hilarious weakness, though - their deathrattle means that when they die they take out the minions next to them, which in turn means that, if you get rid of them just right, you can send a Mexican Wave of misery rattling across Faerlina's board. Blizzard, eh? Where even schadenfreude is OP, where the back and forth of a match can throw up these moments of spectacle that feel so hand-crafted.
Finally, there's Maexxna, which sounds like the sort of thing you need hydrocortisone cream to sort out. Nope, it's actually another giant spider with Web Wrap, a hero power that returns a random enemy minion to its owner's hand. Since that owner is you when you're playing against Maexxna, this battle was a bit like musical chairs but with particle effects. By this point, I'd got those Haunted Creepers, though, so Maexxna was in serious trouble regardless of who was zipping on and off the board. (Also, I'd dug out some hydrocortisone just in case.)
Defeating Maexxna grants you Maexxna the legendary, which destroys any minion its damages, but even with that, with Haunted Creepers, Nerub'ar Weblords and Nerubian Eggs, (0/2, but they spawn a 4/4 spider when they die) you're still just getting started with Naxxramas. Even before you fling in all those new wings to come, there are class challenges, which see you tackling bosses with pre-constructed class decks to earn a class-specific card, and heroic challenges, which remix the boss fights in dastardly ways. Tough! It's also worth noting that you get an icky new board to play on, filled with skulls and spider eggs and a giant crystal hanging over a pit and probably causing some kind of psychic ill to someone, somewhere, and you get new music and even new reasons to mute the Inn-Keeper.
Beyond that, of course, there's the ever-evolving meta-game, enlivened by all these new deathrattles, reminding you to consider how a card dies just as much as how it lives. Frankly, it makes me shiver to think of it.