When you review an expansion for a game like Hearthstone, you're appraising the community that plays it every bit as much as you are the new tools forged by Blizzard's blacksmiths. And this particular community is for the most part remarkably conservative; one that prefers to huddle around the warmth of an established fireside rather than seek out new flames. It's to the internet that the majority of players turn - rather than their own card collections - in order to craft the latest and greatest decks.
What that means in practice is that the first month of Hearthstone's first full expansion has been dominated by a gradual, grudging evolution of the old order, rather than the sort of explosive revolution thematically suggested by the new mechanical characters and contraptions of Goblins vs Gnomes.
One by one, reliable cards are nudged out of established decks with no small amount of hesitation, to be replaced with a new card that synergises just a little better with the rest of the deck. The fine details have changed a great deal, in other words, but the broader brush strokes remain the same - for the most part. Certainly anyone who feared that their hard-won combat experience would be made redundant by this fresh content drop can rest easy.
If the game hasn't exactly changed overnight, it would nevertheless be unfair to categorise Goblins vs Gnomes as an expansion that merely shores up existing trenches. The signs of more interesting things to come are there in the blossoming Mage decks, where the influx of Mech cards has given the class some exciting new synergies to play with, as the scraps of metal that fall from certain contraptions are fed neatly into the class's more traditional arcane combat systems. Less dramatically, Paladins have been given a considerable boost to their mid-game threat thanks to an obvious synergy between Muster for Battle, which summons an army of minor minions to the table, and Quartermaster which increases their individual power. Priests are still dicks.
Even where decks have simply been strengthened - needlessly so, in a handful of rather frustrating cases - the cards that do the bolstering have been designed to restore a little uncertainty to the game. Whether they're flinging explosives around the place, or quietly growing in power in your opponent's hand, there's more to both anticipate and react to at every stage of the game.
Despite the fizz and fireworks of more notable cards, it's the lighter, more playful touches to the expansion that have left an even greater impression. It's a stony-hearted Hearthstone player indeed who can't appreciate the mischievous design of Annoy-o-Tron, the little minion with a lot of annoying defensive bonuses, or the heart-thumping tempo served up by the card-dealing butler Jeeves during a race to the death.
While Goblins vs Gnomes hasn't shaken up the metagame quite as drastically as sections of the player base have both hoped and feared, it has at least forced everyone to stop and think just a little more before idly engaging their cards. Your hands hesitate just a little longer before making that same play you've made so many times in the past. You look more keenly at your upcoming turns, spinning more branching narratives for yourself. Don't Mages have that thingamabob now? Maybe there's a better way of dealing with the situation.
This line of thinking applies mainly to the ranked ladder-climbing area of the game, of course, where you're free to assemble a deck of delicious synergies, then make the best you can of each draw, while your opponent attempts to maintain a fair appraisal of your capabilities. The differences wrought by the new expansion are felt more keenly in Hearthstone's Arena mode, where you're randomly presented with a selection of cards from which you draft your deck, drastically reducing the chance to stack preferential win-conditions - not to mention game-saving plan Bs.
While acknowledging that change is most certainly afoot, the community is still trying to wrap its head around what exactly the new expansion has done to Arena. Are the more aggressively drafted decks favoured overall, or should you seek board control options to stave off potentially devastating random effects? How much value should you assign to those randomised bonus effects when choosing a card? Not even the experts who produce regularly-referenced card ranking lists are entirely in agreement here.
Whatever the answer, it's telling that Blizzard has held back from adding new mass clearance spells to the expansion, instead letting the existing ones dilute naturally into the growing pool of cards. What that ultimately means is that there's more interaction between minions - for a longer period of time - and less assumptions of what's likely to happen on any given turn. It was a wise decision, and unquestionably good for the health of the game.
If certain sorts of cards are notable by their absence, then others are more remarkable by their inclusion, and Goblins vs Gnomes brings the usual roster of gimmicky options for those who like to take an outlandish approach to strategising. Perhaps in time these less tangibly useful cards will become more appealing, just as the game's previously lacklustre Pirate cards have become more relevant to Rogues in recent weeks. Perhaps in some far-off future there's even an Angry Chicken meta - the ultimate end-game envisaged by Hearthstone's mischievous engineers.
Whatever happens to Hearthstone in the future, the new content has stumbled a little by strengthening certain deck archetypes that needed no such help, but it's also revitalised flagging areas of the game, and given new purpose to tired Heroes. Most importantly of all, it's re-introduced a thoughtfulness to play that's been absent for too long. As the game settles down after the disruptive influx of new gadgets and gizmos, you sense there are plenty more remarkable inventions hiding in plain sight, but they're waiting for a curious mind to start tinkering with them.
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