Last week, the Hearthstone community found itself swept up in the excitement of an enigmatic new challenge, which suddenly appeared in our achievement log. In case you missed it, the Barrens Mysteries was a series of secret puzzles that Team 5 managed to sneak in alongside the 20.2 patch. The mysterious new achievement rewards persevering players with the Mysteries of the Phoenix cardback, although it's not as straightforward as meeting the requirements of regular challenges. Unlike every other achievement in the game, this one's text simply reads "solve the mysteries hidden throughout the Barrens."
The Barrens Mysteries immediately spurred determined players to work together online and in the WoW Secrets Discord channel as they tried to work out what to do. In the end, there were four puzzles to complete, and they were surprisingly long and complicated. Each requires you to spot clues concealed in the flavour text of four Mercenary legendary cards. Using this information, you build a deck and play specific cards in order to activate a puzzle against the Innkeeper. Each puzzle is unique, with one focusing on a combination lock, and another based on the idea of a maze. If you haven't nabbed the cardback yourself yet, I recommend checking out RegisKillbin's videos for the puzzle solutions as the steps you need to follow to finish this are ridiculously complex.
So, how did the Barrens Mysteries come to be? Hearthstone's systems and initial game designer, Chadd Nervig has written a detailed thread outlining the development process. At the end of each year, Team 5 are given a month or two to work on whatever they want, and Nervig decided to create a secret puzzle for Hearthstone.
One of the reasons why the puzzles have been such a success is because Nervig already has a solid history of creating secret puzzles in WoW, and managed to keep the entire thing under wraps to avoid leaks. In fact, apart from Nervig and two QA staff, "not a soul got to see the whole thing" before it launched. He even cleverly wove the riddles into each cards' flavour text two patches before the puzzle went live to ensure no one would spot the connection.
The fact that it only took three days for the community to crack Blizzard's cryptic codes is enough of an achievement on its own. However, I was more impressed by how players diligently pitched in and worked it out together. The Hearthstone community is a friendly bunch that are always more than happy to share deck codes, discuss balance changes, and pull apart teaser trailers to glean the most obscure clues for upcoming card sets. But it was especially exciting to see everyone focused on a single challenge for a few days.
The Barrens Mysteries couldn't have arrived at a better time, either. We're currently stranded in a bit of a sleepy period in Hearthstone's season cycle. The latest expansion released at the end of March, and we won't see the Barrens mini-set for a few more weeks. With the meta having been stuck in Paladin's unwavering grasp for months, it was nice to have a secret new mode to play away from the monotony of Standard. Thankfully, there's room to continue experimenting with the newly added (and balanced) Quillboars in Battlegrounds. This week's update has also toned down a couple of Paladin's peskiest cards, while buffing 10 others across various classes. So far, these adjustments look promising and should have a noticeable impact on the meta.
As I mentioned earlier, we've never really had a community-wide mystery like this to solve before. We're routinely forced to play Tavern Brawls cooperatively—which is usually far more frustrating than it needs to be, unless you're playing with a pal. February 2019 also saw the release of the Mark of Hakkar cardback. This played on Hakkar, the Soulflayer's role as a Blood God, originally rewarding the cardback to a tiny pool of players, who were responsible for sharing it with others. To this day, you can only acquire it by playing against an opponent that has it equipped. I'm eager to see what future secret challenges would look like. Many of us really enjoyed the Boomsday Project's Puzzle Labs, but the Barrens Mysteries feel like they're on ultra hard mode in comparison.
In the Twitter thread, Nervig noted that "these puzzles are designed for an entire community to solve, not just an individual. They have to be *ridiculously* hard to solve." To his credit, this is the most challenging thing I think we've ever faced, and we're already hungry for more. Unfortunately, we may not see another puzzle like this for a while: "One question I've seen asked a bunch is... Will there be more of this in the future?!" Says Nervig. "I honestly don't know. It takes time to do, and I don't know when I'll have time to again, but I'd really love to."
Finally, the Barrens Mysteries have served as a cheeky teaser for Hearthstone's upcoming Mercenaries mode. This new mode lets us assemble a team of Hearthstone and Warcraft characters to take on roguelike missions. It's expected to launch during Phase 1 of Hearthstone's 2021 roadmap, but we're still yet to see a glimpse of it in action. Blizzard recently introduced us to the 10 Mercenaries, and after focusing on four of them for this puzzle, I'm even more excited to try out their unique abilities.