Blackrock Mountain – A Review at Halftime

The third wing of Blackrock Mountain was released today, and I’ve already had the chance to power through the wings on both normal and heroic and the new class challenges. With that wing down, there remain only two to go, and we are officially past the half-way point of the adventure. It seemed a good time to reflect on what we’ve seen so far, and what we can expect from the next two wings.

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Naxx is Out!

The most obvious thing about the Blackrock Mountain adventure is how closely it adheres to the formula established by Curse of Naxxramas. Like Naxxramas, Blackrock Mountain contains five wings of bosses, with one wing being released each week. Defeating each boss on normal grants the player a card, and defeating a wing unlocks a new legendary card. There is also a single class challenge for each class, with a couple such challenges unlocked each week (except for the last wing, which only comes with one class challenge). Each class challenge also unlocks a single class card. The only real change from Naxxramas is that some normal bosses unlock class cards, so that each class will have two new class cards after completing the entire adventure.

Prior to its release, I wrote about some of my hopes for Blackrock Mountain. Unfortunately, those hopes have been dashed. Blackrock Mountain contains little that justifies the word “adventure” in its description. Like Naxxramas, the “adventure” element consists simply of clicking on some boss portraits and challenging them to a duel. While there is a small amount of occasionally amusing commentary from Nefarian and bosses, this neither establishes any meaningful narrative, nor creates a sense of place.

Except for heroic difficulty, the content also fails to provide any kind of meaningful challenge. While it’s understandable that Blizzard has to cater to the casual player, the normal difficulty bosses and class challenges are beyond simplistic. Any moderately competitive constructed deck will easily beat every normal boss. Despite the special cards available to the bosses and their intriguing hero powers, no real strategy or thought is required. Not once so far have I been defeated by a boss on normal difficulty.

So too do the class challenges fail to live up the “challenge” in their name. Each one showcases a potentially interesting deck design, though typically with more than two copies of many of the core cards. While some of the battles can rise momentarily to the level of fun, they’re over so quickly and are so easily won that any enjoyment is extremely fleeting.

Altogether, these elements feel as though they were created only to be the most minor of speedbumps to obtaining the new cards, and, perhaps cynically, to justify the price of admission.

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Be a Hero and Beat Heroic

It’s hard not to feel like heroic difficulty is the only real element into which any real thought was put. Although completing the wings on heroic provides no rewards (except for a special card back once the entire adventure has been completed on heroic), completing the sometimes difficult challenges is its own reward. These challenges force critical thinking, and in many cases, trial and error, as the bosses have access to incredibly powerful cards and hero powers, and usually begin the game with more than the normal 30 health. They also often require having access to a deep card pool, and new players may find them impossible with nothing but the basic set.

Unfortunately, heroic difficulty is inconsistent and some bosses are truly punishing while others are pushovers. There’s also the problem that they often seem designed to lose to certain specific classes or cards. Once you twig on the right cards to include in your deck, the bosses are often quite straightforward. For this reason, they sometimes feel less like a puzzle and more like an exam that simply tests card knowledge. The puzzle is always in the deck design rather than the play decisions.

Having heroic difficulty class challenges, where your deck is pre-created and expert piloting is the only path to success, would be welcome. So too would it be an improvement to see a succession of single-turn puzzles, such as those that Blizzard once published in its Hearthstone blog. Indeed, this latter concept would also go a long way to making each adventure feel more like an adventure, and it wouldn’t prejudice new players who don’t have access to all of the cards. It might also teach newer players some of the more complex play decisions that can be made during a game, rather than predicating success solely on deck building.

For new players, it must be disconcerting to so easily run though the normal mode, only to face the brick wall of heroic without access to the necessary cards. For them, it seems like Blackrock Mountain has very little to offer beyond simply access to the cards in its set.

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Here There be Dragons 

A review of Blackrock Mountain wouldn’t be complete without discussing the expansion’s raison d’être: the cards. Naturally, every player serious about the game will need to complete at least the wings on normal difficulty and the class challenges to obtain the full set.

I’ve discussed my preliminary thoughts at least on the class cards in a two part series (part 1, part 2).  I’ve also discussed my thoughts on Emperor Thaurissan in some detail. However, now that I’ve had the chance to play with the cards, I can say that the cards do add some needed variety to the game. Unfortunately, most of the interesting neutral dragons, including the legendaries Chromaggus and Nefarian are still to be released, along with their non-legendary kin. This makes building a true dragon deck quite difficult currently.

However, the release of Blackwing Technician and today’s Dragon Consort did let me try out a new Dragon Paladin, and it’s quite fun. I look forward to adding more dragons to the deck in weeks to come. The main dragon synergy, which focuses on having dragons in hand, is quite powerful in cards like Blackwing Technician, allowing some significant early game drops. Unfortunately, Dragon Consort didn’t seem to make the impact I had hoped, as even having a seven-drop legendary dragons was often too slow. I’m not convinced that it’s currently better than the standard mid-range Paladin build.

Amongst the other cards, Grim Patron has allowed for a few new Warrior archetypes, which focus on using Warsong Commander with Grim Patron and Whirlwind effects to perform one-turn-kills. As for other classes, the new cards have mostly simply improved existing archetypes. Imp Gang Boss in particular appears to have catalysed the return of Zoo Warlock on ladder, as well as being a welcome card in Demon Warlock decks. Quick Shot has become fairly standard in Face Hunter decks, and Druid of the Flame is being experimented with in some Druid decks. Priest, so far, appears to have been left in the cold by Resurrect and Twilight Whelp, and I have yet to see a viable Overload Shaman even with the release of Lava Shock.

Of course, there’s still a number of cards to be released, and only time will tell if they’re going to redefine the metagame.

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More of the Same

Overall, Naxxramas Blackrock Mountain is more of the same in terms of format and content, and serves mostly as a card delivery vehicle for Hearthstone‘s legions of players. Many of the new cards are interesting, although I feel that they don’t do enough to shake up the existing archetypes and meta, which has become very firmly established. While it will slightly adjust the class tiering, I doubt that there will be a full scale shake-up until another true expansion like Goblins vs Gnomes. 

I had hoped for more on the adventure side from this adventure, but unfortunately, Blackrock Mountain has been disappointing in that respect. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly reasonable card delivery mechanism for an otherwise excellent game.

Matthew Marinett

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