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.
Hearthstone: The Curse of Naxxramas is a fantastic idea for an expansion pack for the collectable card game - and one with interesting origins. You might imagine those lie in World of Warcraft, and you'd be half right: Naxxramas was a raid dungeon in that game, floating above Dragonblight in Northrend. (Or so it says on the internet. In common with a lot of Hearthstone players, I never really got into WOW - you don't need to know any lore in order to enjoy Hearthstone.) But if you ask me, the reason we have something like Naxxramas is more to do with Blizzard's core philosophy about what makes Hearthstone tick.
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When it first became obvious that Hearthstone was awesome and everyone loved it, a lot of people expected Blizzard to hurl resources at it and for the game to grow massively in scale and scope - and yet it hasn't really changed. Instead, the Hearthstone that emerges from a long and increasingly public beta period is much the same as the one that became an invite-only sensation late last summer: a beautifully appointed card strategy game with a few game modes and a smallish stable of 500 cards. How come? There were bugs to squash, sure, but wasn't there time to bang out much-requested features like a spectator mode?
The final pre-release patch offers a clear hint. Nat Pagle, a popular card that allows you to draw other cards quickly from your deck, has started waiting a turn before he becomes useful, giving you longer to take him out, while Ragnaros the Firelord now has a sweet new animation that sees the board crack open to reveal a flaming chasm that he rises out of before slamming fierily into place. There are dozens of these little tucks and tweaks - some cosmetic, some systemic - and they seem to have been the focus of all those new resources. But then what else did we expect from Blizzard, a company that often scraps or redesigns games entirely, years into development, if they don't meet its exacting standards?
It makes sense for the game, too. Hearthstone doesn't trade on its fine detailing alone, but the charm in those details is what forces it into your every waking thought. The different game boards are interactive, letting you peck holes in windows with your mouse cursor or fire an orcish catapult between turns, while the interface for checking your card collection is a book that you can leaf through admiringly - a slightly clumsy tool more than worth it for its tactility. Every card has gorgeous, colourful and enigmatic artwork and some of my favourite throwaway sound effects since clicking on peons in Warcraft 2.
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Pick a card, any card, and I can probably tell you what it does. Backstab? One of the rogue's finest - zero mana cost, does two damage to an undamaged minion, useful if you can buff spell damage beforehand. Knife Juggler? Love that card! 3/2, which is great value for two mana, and he tosses a knife at a random enemy every time you play a minion. Always in my deck. Ragnaros? By the time you see it, you're dead already.
Two months ago, I couldn't have told you why a collectable card game was different to a trading card game, but today all I think about is Hearthstone. I wake up earlier so I can play it before work, I take lunch at my desk so I can play an extra match, I watch people play it on Twitch while I'm idling on my sofa. Blizzard's collectable card game (you can't trade the cards, see) has only just made it out of closed beta, but I'm already an addict.