Friday 1 August 2014

The Curse of Naxxramas

Many years since I was last there, I'm back in Naxxramas. This time it's only a game: Hearthstone. It's great to be back, actually. I've been playing Hearthstone since its release, and as anyone who plays it knows, the challenge of the game is in building decks. Once you have those decks built, actually playing them against an opponent is not tricky. The tricky bit is in building the deck in the first place: selecting the deck of 30 cards from which the cards you play against your opponent will be randomly chosen.

At first, players naturally crowd-source decks from the internet. Let me tell you that while these decks are better than a beginner could build, they are still of variable quality, and once you get a little experience, it's more fun to see how you can improve on those decks. And since its a game of PvP, I'm not going to publish my best decks and let my opponents have an advantage; and I imagine most other players are the same: your edge lies in your decks.

Some people call the deck-building part of it the meta-game. Not quite. The real meta-game is in watching what decks are popular, and building decks to counter them. For instance, a few months back Murlock decks were popular: a warlock class with a hand full of murloc cards. The idea behind this deck is that the murlocs on their own are pretty weak, but they buff each other so if you can get several on the board, they become very powerful. And the warlock is ideal for getting several on board, because his special class power is to draw more cards, so he will have more cards in his hand to choose from than his opponent. So during the deck-building game you had to always bear in mind the likelihood of meeting a Murlock, and that led to decks that had plenty of low-level board-clear, or decks that were heavy on board control.

At one time, nearly a quarter of the opponents I was fought were using Murlock decks. And then the Murlock faded in popularity, and so many of the decks that had been built to counter them were now not as well-suited as they could be to the next flavour-of-the-month build (currently frost mage), and so players altered those decks accordingly. Knowing this, I recently built myself a classic Murlock deck that is wiping the board, since everyone is trying to counter frost mages now, not Murlocks.

Anyway, that's all by-the-by. I wanted to talk about Naxxramas. This is a PvE adventure in Hearthstone, player against the massive intellect of Blizzard's AI. Before Naxxramas, Blizzard provided 9 expert AI opponents (one for each class), and when you built a deck, the first stop was to see how well it fared against those nine. If you couldn't beat those opponents, you would be toast against real opponents.

Now with the introduction of Naxxramas, new AI opponents have been added. The first wing opened last week, for free: the Arachnid Quarter, where we met Anub'rekhan, the Grand Widow Faerlina and the giant spider Maexxna.. It was fantastic to meet them again in Hearthstone. The designers did a great job of providing them with a personality and a deck that matched them in real life. And the deck each got had new cards, and each of these bosses has new abilities, which provided the real fun of the encounter. Suddenly, all the decks you had, all the counterplay you had imagined, it all went out the window. Suddenly you were playing against decks and abilities you'd never seen before.

There are two levels of difficulty: normal and heroic. Your good decks can probably get you through normal without needing to edit them, but for heroic mode, you absolutely needed to tailor a deck to the boss you were about to face.

For instance, Maexxna has a class ability that she uses on every turn (for free): she wraps two of your cards in a cocoon and returns them to your hand (this is in heroic mode, now). Anyone who fought Maexxna in real life will smile at this, remembering the wipes that ensued as half of your team became entombed in those cocoons of silk, their health ticking away! Anyway, Maexxna's hearthstone ability means that every turn you have two fewer cards on your board to counter the opponents that she puts on the board, and you hand is getting fatter and fatter as cards accumulate. As you can only hold ten cards in your hand, pretty soon you are burning draw cards.

The secret to dealing with Maexxna is this: build a deck that has no draw powers, because you won't have a problem filling your hand (draw powers are cards that you play whose side-effect is to draw another card from your deck into your hand). So out with Arcane Intellect or Northshire Cleric, for instance. Fill your deck with minions that have a battle-cry (an effect that takes place as soon as you place them on the board), and with spell cards. Use your battle-cry minions two at a time to to silence her minions, or to heal yourself, or attack Maexxna (luckily she doesn't use many taunt minions - tanks) and use the spell cards to destroy or neutralize the minions she has on the board. On her turn, you get your two minions back to re-use! This is where Ironbeak Owl and Voodoo Doctor really shine.

Each boss needs its own counter-strategy, and building decks to counter these bosses has really revitalized the game for me.

Moreover, the bosses drop loot when you defeat them, in the form of new cards that can be used in your decks when playing against other opponents. That has shaken up every deck you've built. Every internet deck published before these new cards became available is out-of-date. I love it. For instance, the Nerubian Egg has really reduced the value of your board-clear cards, while at the same time making silences more valuable.

Tobold is pretty annoyed about the pricing structure. Each wing except the free Arachnid wing costs €6 to enter, or 700 gold. Tobold thinks this is a lot of money to spend on playing 3 new decks. As gold is earned in-game, I doubt many will be paying euros, dollars or pounds. We've known this was coming for a long time, and like many of you, I've been building up a war-chest to pay to unlock each wing. The people who will be paying real money are those who didn't have the patience to build up a war-chest, or those who play so casually that they didn't play enough to build up a war-chest. This is great. Those players are paying for my enjoyment, and I thank them for it. It's a win-win situation. They don't benefit by getting better cards than me (we both earn the same loot rewards from defeating these bosses), so I am not at a disadvantage by not paying dollars; and they are not at a disadvantage to me because they didn't have enough time to build up sufficient gold to unlock the wings and benefit from the loot-cards. I can't see what Tobold's gripe is.

Here's what I would pay for, though: space for more decks. At present, you have nine decks you can build, one for every hero class. That means of you want to build a special frost-mage deck to take down Maexxna, then you have to record an old deck, because you'll be replacing it. In World of Tanks, I happily pay real money for extra garage spaces, so I don't have to discard old tanks just because I'm getting a new one. I'd pay blizzard for storage for my decks, too.

By the way, the plague quarter is open now. I love Heigan's ability: deal damage to your left-most minion. Remember the Heigan dance, and how there was always somebody too slow to move into the right sector before he burned the sectors beside it?

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