One of the few things I disliked about Blizzard’s digital CCG Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft was its paucity of solo content. Laddering and drafting are all well and good, but sometimes a player just needs to be happy being single, ya know? The game’s first expansion, Curse of Naxxramas (Naxx to its friends), aims to address this complaint with an “adventure,” a single-player boss-run mode with light story elements (mostly for flavor). This first adventure is based on (and named for) the Naxxramas raid from vanilla WOW, and pits you against every one of that dungeon’s bosses on your way to face the insidious lich Kel’Thuzad. In addition to the intrinsic reward of a hard-won victory, conquering the bosses of Naxx earns you a set of 30 new and powerful cards with which to build your deck – meaning the expansion will also shift Hearthstone’s metagame in new directions.
The bosses of Naxxramas are a motley crew of zombies, dragons, and giant spiders, each with their own unique personality and hero power. The boss decks make use of cards from across various class sets, which gives them some frightening combos – combos that are only further enhanced by the slightly broken exclusive cards that pepper their decks. Additionally, bosses have interesting, powerful hero abilities that present unique challenges – one flips the health and attack of all creatures on the board each turn, while another returns two random minions from the field to your hand. In order to play around these cards and abilities you need to think outside the box.
These overpowered cards and special abilities make up for the enemy AI, which is, to put it lightly, not very good at Hearthstone. With a competitive game as deep as this, though, that sort of design is to be expected. Naxx’s bosses won’t prepare you to face top tier players, but they’re a lot of fun to fight. Each boss has their own personality and unique voice clips. They’ll threaten and berate you as you fight them, and even respond to your emotes with context-sensitive quips. Between fights, Kel’Thuzad himself will taunt you with fantastic forth-wall breaking lines, and these exchanges culminate in the final fight where he mocks whichever hero you’ve chosen to play, and responds to you with delightful one-liners like “well duh, of course I played well, I’m Kel’Thu-freaking-zad!” One of Hearthstone’s greatest strengths is its lighthearted personality, and Naxx embraces that.
Once you conquer a wing of Naxxramas, additional challenges become available. You can earn nine class cards by taking on “challenges challenges” – special battles against previously-defeated bosses using pre-constructed decks (usually themed around the card you’ll get if you win). The most fun of these is the hunter challenge, which pits you against Loatheb with a deck full of Webspinners. Between the buffs you get from killing Loatheb’s spores and the random beasts you get by sacrificing Webspinners, the challenge lets you make some insane plays.
On top of the class challenges, you can also face heroic variants of each boss, who come packing even more imbalanced cards and hero powers. Whereas the normal bosses can be beaten with the standard decks you use in multiplayer, their heroic counterparts require a great deal more planning and specialization. You’ll have to build a deck specifically geared to take down each boss, often using cards that are considered “bad” in the current meta. Puzzle-minded players will have a blast taking each boss down. Unfortunately, all you get for completing heroic mode is a special card back, which is a bit of a letdown compared to the regular modes. Some sort of cool loot drop – maybe a random chance of earning a gold variant of a Naxx card – would encourage replayability and give heroic mode longer legs.
While the single-player campaign is solid, most Hearthstone players are more concerned with the cards Naxx adds to multiplayer. A few weeks back I opined about the impact of the expansion’s first two sets, and I stand by my evaluation now that I’ve played with all the cards. Most of Naxx’s cards fit nicely into Hearthstone’s careful balance, but a few of them might be a little too strong. Loatheb is definitely a game-changer, helping players catch up when they’re behind and solidify their leads when they’re ahead. Most decks would be ill-advised to play without him. Haunted Creeper has nearly the same stats as Harvest Golem for one less mana, and slots neatly into any control or aggro deck you might want to run. Mad Scientist is a little situational, and only works with two classes (mage and hunter), but he has a decent body and in the right deck allows you to get a value of four or five mana out of your secrets while only spending two. I expect new players will have a tough time of it on ladder before they beat Naxx, though the difference won’t be too great at lower ranks.
These three cards are each staples in their own right, but put together they’re very nearly game-breaking. Shortly after Mad Scientist dropped, Hearthstone pro Reynad (creator of the tier 1 Warlock Zoo deck) revealed a new hunter build that makes use of all three to devastating effect. Midrange hunter was already a force to be reckoned with (though nerfing Unleash the Hounds helped), but with a constant string of secrets at its disposal and the beast synergy of Haunted Creeper, it’s a nightmare. Hunter decks are presently dominating the ranked ladder at a ratio of ten-to-one, and since the only hard counter to secret-heavy decks is a hunter class card (Flare), it looks like it’s going to stay that way. The deck is by no means unbeatable, but its unusually high win-rate is harming Hearthstone’s diversity.
With that said, even the most overpowered cards in Naxx are well-balanced compared to what you normally see in a CCG expansion. Admittedly, 30 cards can’t compare to the hundred-plus you see in a traditional booster set, but Hearthstone has yet to show the kind of power creep you see in the likes of MTG or Yu-Gi-Oh! These three cards have upset the game’s balance, sure, but compared to Dragon Rulers or Caw Blade the new hunter deck a drop in the bucket. It remains to be seen if Hearthstone’s first full expansion will bring the game crashing down around us, but for the time being Naxx is causing players to rethink old decks rather than forcing them to build entirely new ones – just as a good expansion should.
As a single-player campaign for Hearthstone, Curse of Naxxramas provides quite a bit of bang for your buck. Admittedly, you have to spend a lot of buck up front – $25.00 or 2800 gold for the full package – but that nets you 39 single-player challenges as well as access to 30 game-changing cards. Some of these cards might be a touch too game-changing, and Blizzard might end up needing to nerf one or more of them in the near future, but they’ve certainly done their job when it comes to shaking up the Hearthstone meta.
Version Reviewed: PC