After weeks of being drip fed info about Curse of Naxxramas, Hearthstone's single-player expansion, last night the Hearthstone subreddit had an almost Christmas Eve mood about it. Earlier, Blizzard had splurged the remaining cards over the game's Facebook page , triggering a wave of combo theorycrafting that was as excitable as some of it was improbable. “So, uh, I could play Echoing Ooze while Sword Of Justice is equipped, give it Blessing Of Kings , and at the end of the turn I'd have a 6/7 and a 7/8 Ooze because the Sword will proc a second time?” Sure! Maybe! Let's find out!
Truth is, these new cards—Curse of Naxxramas will add 30 in total as its five wings open up over the next five weeks—are desperately needed. After several months of riotous post-launch fun, Hearthstone's metagame has stabilised around a handful of decks that are mostly based on bursting your opponent's health down with brutal combos. Before today you couldn't swing a Wisp on the ranked play ladder without hitting a Double Roar Druid, Miracle Rogue or (ugh) Zoolock. Without the injection of these new cards, there was a real risk of stagnancy.
But now Naxx is here and the hype is very much real. Or at least it is when the servers are working, which they weren't for much of the afternoon. Slammed, presumably, although (as usual) it seems bizarre this wasn't planned for. Fortunately, I managed to clear all three boss battles on normal, plus the two class challenges, despite multiple disconnections, earning myself six new cards for my troubles. And, here's a caveat for you, I did that in just over an hour.
This first wing, The Arachnid Quarter, is free to enter over the month-long course of Naxx's launch, but each subsequent wing costs real cash or in-game gold. (Bundles are available. Pricing details here .) The ease with which you can race through the unlocks may give some pause for thought, but I should also add that I used the leaked info about the bosses to pre-build some decks I thought would be effective. Which they partly were. Here's how the the first wing played out for me...
Reward: Haunted Creeper
Deck used: Freeze Mage variant
The new Naxxramas themed board looks as gloriously spidery and slimey as expected. The first boss is Anub'Rekhan, a Nerubian lord who summons 3/1 spiders for the price of 2 Mana. (Somewhat better than the Paladin's 1/1 'dude' hero power.) Reasoning that I need to be able to ping these spiders consistently, I opt for a modified version of the Freeze Mage deck, with plenty of burn it to finish the big bug off.
I can almost sense the AI's irritation as I draw Mirror Image, and then play a Sorcerer's Apprentice. Unable to bust through the 0/2 Taunts quickly enough, I'm able to use the Water Elemental and Azure Drake to maintain board control. Around turn 7 I draw my Pyroblast, and from there it's a simple matter of chipping his health down to 10. In the end I actually finish him off a turn early with a Thalnos-powered Fireball. Anub'Rekt! *high fives self*.
Reward: Nerub'ar Weblord
Deck used: Black & Blue Warrior
Next up, it's the pleasing anime stylings of Grand Widow Faerlina. Her hero power involves firing a salvo of missiles, the number of which depends on how many cards you're holding. Clearly I need to empty my hand fast, so I opt for a variant of Reynad's infamous Zoo deck and promptly get my ass handed to me. Serves me right for straying onto the path of aggro evil.
I return with Blackacre's recent Control Warrior build, and get pretty lucky. I decide to go completely ham in the midgame, sending an Argent Commander at her face despite having no other cards left and facing a formidable board. With the Widow on 3 health, but likely having lethal damage against me next turn, I luckily top deck a Fiery War Axe and finish her off. Much to the terror of Tom, our intern, who I almost hug. Next!
Deck used: Maxxed Out Warrior
The final boss of the Arachnid Quarter is, appropriately, a big-ass spider. Maexnna's power is to return a random one of your creatures to your hand for 3 Mana. To counteract this I again go for a Control Warrior, but this time with additional weapons and more Minions that have Charge to ensure I get my damage in quickly. Initially things go exactly according to plan, and I manage to deal with a Sea Giant using Cruel Taskmaster and Execute.
However, the arrival of a Sludge Belcher (the new 5 mana upgrade on Senjin Shieldmasta which leaves behind a 1/2 Taunt behind it), stops me in my tracks. I end up having to run Leeeeeroy into it and then things get close. Late on another lucky top deck, this time Gorehowl, secures me the win. GG, AI. But the cards are mine now.
Next page: Class challenges, Heroic Mode and verdict
Reward: Poison Seeds
Each week/wing also comes complete with Class challenges, enabling you to earn a new Hero-specific card. I tend to main Druid, so tried this one first, and it was a complete blowout. There were spiders everywhere. I think some of them might still be in what remains of my hair.
Second time around I breezed through the match, drawing into a couple of Swipes, plus some Nerubian Eggs I was able to activate. I think without the element of having to craft your own bespoke deck, these class challenges are arguably even easier than the normal bosses, because all you have to do is play the hand you're dealt as efficiently as possible. To be honest, these seem as much about introducing you to how the new cards work as anything.
I plan on using Poison Seeds in my Midrange Druid deck, having recently experimented with running Naturalized as a high risk form of emergency hard removal. I'm still not sure how handy it will be though, beyond wrecking a Handlock's double Taunted Molten Giant board. To be honest just doing that once will be enough value to last me a lifetime.
Reward: Anub'ar Ambusher
Finally, it was the Rogue challenge, which again sees you pitted against Maexnna. Her hero power didn't give me any more trouble this time around though either, thanks to obvious synergy with a card like SI:7 Agent's ability to do 2 points of combo damage when played. There's some lovely flavour in the encounters though, with Naxxramas's necromantic overlord Kel'Thazud chipping in with quips at key moments. (“Sea Giant, Maexnna? That's not on my approved card list.”)
Having blasted through the three bosses on Normal, Heroic mode awaits, and the step up in difficulty is substantial. As an example, Anub'Rekhan's hero power gets upgraded from 'summon a 3/1 Nerubian for 2 Mana' to 'summon a 4/4 Nerubian for 2 Mana'. The bosses also now have a 45-point health pool. Suffice to say I'm yet to crack any of them, and there's potentially quite a bit of replay value (and frustration) to be had here as you try to come up with cheeseball strategies to overcome them, assuming you resist the temptation to net deck someone else's solution .
I will say that it feels like a pity that the only reward for clearing Heroic mode in all wings is another new card back. Pretty though it most definitely is , it hardly seems commensurate with the effort required. Although I suppose the same could be said for grinding to Legend. My preference would have been for Team 5 to stick with what appeared to be the original plan, and have gold versions of the new cards as bait for beating the Heroic bosses.
I keep coming back to the value and replayability of Naxxramas out of a sense of duty. The truth is, as a hopeless addict who's already spent quite a bit on packs, (whilst appreciating that paying for anything remains anathema to many Hearthstone players), I was always going to fall on new content like a hyena ravaging Savannah Highmane's still warm corpse. Overall, my take is that you're going to want these cards. They're fun and creative, with many using the previously underrepresented Deathrattle mechanic to intriguing effect. Moreover, you're going to need them. They're going to re-define so many deck archetypes over the coming weeks. Server strife aside—and it should be noted that it still seems very laggy—this is a fun start, and has only whetted my appetite further for the next four wings. Mmm, wings.