For me, Hearthstone’s winning formula is about three parts charisma, one part complexity, a dash of RNG (and therefore plenty of salt), and ample accessibility. It demands little in the way of my time, but it rewards me for logging into the game relatively frequently. I can play it virtually anywhere I have access to my phone, and the experience is rewarding and consistent regardless of which device I’m playing on, from my iPhone to my tablet PC to my gaming desktop at home. It’s challenging and exciting; it has an an active and dedicated community. But more importantly, I think, than any of this: it’s charming.
Hearthstone is a delight to play, with all the production values you’d expect of a Blizzard title. It’s bright and colorful, it’s humorous, the music’s catchy but non-invasive, and its ties to the greater Warcraft universe reward dedicated fans and lore fiends without punishing more casual fans who may not have played a Warcraft title since the last RTS *cough* *cough*.
And like it’s parent title, One Night in Karazhan just oozes charm. The promotional artwork for the expansion features a very toothy and comically handsome rendition of the archmage Medivh extending an invitation out to the player to a party at his home, the tower Karazhan. WOW fans will no-doubt recognize the name as a ghost-filled raid from the MMORPG, but the plot of One Night in Karazhan is set decades prior to the events that transpired in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.
In other words, this is Karazhan re-imagined in the disco-feverish not-too-distant past of Azeroth, and its host is not yet a demon-possessed madman, but a playboy wizard. Speaking of disco fever, the first thing I noticed when I loaded up the adventure was its theme music, which blends mystical-sounding harps with a disco boogie. It’s catchy and silly, and it perfectly summarized in a melody everything I love about Hearthstone.
While it strays pretty far from its source material, Karazhan is full of references to the infamous raid, particularly with its primary antagonist, Prince Malchezaar, and a chessboard challenge that occurs in the first wing of the adventure. Like the other Hearthstone adventure expansions, Karazhan is being rolled out over the course of four weeks with each of the four wings comprised of three “boss” fights. Each duel features some new gimmick or game mechanic intended to deviate from the core Hearthstone formula, which means that you typically need to either build new decks or tweak existing ones to tailor them for specific challenges. Defeating a boss nets you two of the expansion’s unique cards (two copies of each, the maximum allowed per player) along with a class-specific challenge that in turn unlocks a third unique card specific to one hero class.
It’s too early to give Karazhan a full-fledged review, but the first four challenges in the expansion already feel better-crafted and more entertaining than the other Hearthstone adventures that I’ve played. Each boss fight truly felt like a unique experience from the more typical grind of the parent game. The prologue mission, for example, actually has you assume the role of Medivh and equips you with a suitably overpowered deck of mage-flavored cards and a hero power that allows you to draw three cards once per turn. It’s as if the game thrusts you into the shoes of one of the boss characters you’ll be playing against, and it’s simply a fun experience that I drew out for as long as I could.
Another challenge sees you facing off against sentient plates and silverware in an obvious nod to Disney’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast. A third replaces your deck and class again with chess pieces and game mechanics that feel tactical and, well, chess-like. This particular challenge was my favorite of the bunch, and it really does a good job of highlighting the playful spirit with which the developers seemed to have approached the expansion this time around while simultaneously remaining faithful to the source material. I’m really looking forward to what they have in store for us over the next three weeks.
I never felt particularly challenged by any of the boss fights this time around, and only had to make some minor adjustments to an existing deck once to progress through the story, but that didn’t necessarily bother me. I was intentionally speeding through the duels as quickly as I could, and I haven’t attempted any of the fights on the far more challenging “Heroic” difficulty just yet.
From a metagaming perspective, Karazhan is bound to have at least the same level of impact on competitive Hearthstone as its predecessors. Adventure-style expansions differ from the more standard expansions in that they promise every player the same forty-plus cards, and because each adventure carries a fairly hefty cost of admission of $20, Blizzard seems to strive to make the cards unique and powerful enough to justify the price tag. CCGs inherently feel “pay-to-win” by their nature because the more disposable money you have to throw at the game, the more dynamic your collection of cards is bound to be, but this is doubly true for Karazhan and the other adventures. None of the expansions cards can be collected by other means as they’re exempt from the game’s crafting system and do not appear in the card packs players can buy with real or in-game currency.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword for players who have already accepted the CCG monetization model because knowing you’re guaranteed a certain set of cards for your money gives you a chance to pre-mediate just how those cards will fit into your competitive play, but it also means that until you’re willing and able to shell out the money for them, you’re inevitably going to be playing against opponents with access to a powerful card set you don’t have.
The cards that have unlocked in Karazhan so far don’t feel particularly overpowered to me, but they definitely bend the rules of thumb of standard card sets. The Druid, for example, receives a 1-mana, 2/2 beast, effectively providing a 2:1 return on your mana investment. It’s a relatively simple card, but it’s upsetting enough to the current balance of the early game to provide a strong advantage to the player in the first few turns. Plus, it synergizes well with other Druid staples, meaning there’s tremendous potential for uptrading against 2+ mana minions. Because the current state of Hearthstone relies heavily on beating the mana curve with sticky minions, it’s easy to imagine how a card like this could feel cheap for free-to-players.
Bear in mind, I don’t intend this point as a criticism of Karazhan; this is par for the course for the game model, and it’s already a fact of life for Hearthstone players.
Other cards unique to the expansion feel less obviously powerful, and the community’s already having some negative reactions to an as-of-yet unreleased Priest card. The Priest class is arguably the weakest in the current meta, and players who were hoping to see the class get some life support don’t seem to feel like Karazhan will be the turning point for the class that they were expecting.
It’s probably too early to tell just how deep of an impact the expansion will have on the metagame, but we’re sure to see the ripples it’ll make for weeks to come as new cards trickle into the general pool. I’ve already encountered a large number of Karazhan cards in ranked play, but nothing thus far that has deviated from the more common deck types I was already facing.
At the end of the day, dedicated competitive Hearthstone players are going to want to pick the expansion up so as not to fall behind the meta curve. Many are already pot-committed at this point anyway, and I doubt that my impressions of the game are going to sway any such players one way or the other. For casual fans, though, I still think the expansion really holds some appeal this time around. I felt less impressed with, say, Blackrock Mountain, whose cards and challenges never really felt worth the price to me.
With that said, twenty dollars is still a lot of money to invest into a free-to-play title, and the cards you earn in the expansion aren’t going to singlehandedly invert your win-loss ratio if you’re struggling in ranked play. To that point, if you’re new to the game and not sure just how much you’re willing to invest into it, you’re probably better off buying a few card packs to get your collection kickstarted before investing in Karazhan.
But if you’ve got some disposable income or, like I did, have a Battle.net gift card burning a hole in your pocket, One Night in Karazhan is off to a great start and feels like the best singleplayer expansion to the game to date. Assuming the forthcoming wings feature the same kind of unique challenges as this first wave, I won’t have any reservations whatsoever recommending it to my fellow Hearthstone fans.