Hearthstone’s first new PvP game mode, Tavern Brawl, is now available to play on the NA and EU servers, and it’s pretty ridiculous. First announced last week, Tavern Brawl is Blizzard’s way of shaking up the standard Hearthstone format. It hosts a unique set of custom rules that will change weekly and, unlike the Arena, wins count towards your daily bonus gold. With the promise of new cards unique to the format, altered rules, temporary buffs for certain cards, and more, Tavern Brawl is going to be pretty unpredictable
And for its inaugural week, Tavern Brawl doesn’t just change up a few rules, it gives you and your opponent control of completely different characters. Following in the footsteps of the recent Blackrock Mountain adventure, you take control of either the dragon Nefarian or Ragnaros the Firelord and play their unique, pre-built decks—full of brand new legendaries and some generally insane cards and abilities. Like, for example, Ragnaros’ 50 mana 20/20 legendary named Golemagg, who costs one less for each damage you’ve taken. Or Nefarian’s hero power, Wild Magic, which gives you a random spell from any class and makes it completely free to play.
Turn 1: Coin, Vaelastrasz, Blackwing Technician, Blackwing Technician. GG.
Since the game no longer needs to be balanced for a competitive environment, Ragnaros and Nefarian have a lot of asymmetries. Most obviously, Ragnaros has 60 health, while Nefarian has 30 health and 30 armor. Less obvious, and quite startling the first time you play, Nefarian starts with 5-god-damn-mana on turn one. How is that possibly fair? It simply isn’t but it doesn’t have to be. You are just as likely to queue into a game as Ragnaros as you are Nefarian, as the two will always be pit against each other. Whether or not they are equally fun to play is a harder question to answer.
Ragnaros’ minions are all significantly cheaper than the stats they provide—he has a 2 mana 6/6 with Taunt and a 2 mana 4/5 with Windfury, for example—but they still tend to pale in comparison to Nefarian’s extreme mana advantage off the get go. It gets worse when you realize that Nefarian’s hero power usually saves him even more mana because the spells he gets become free, while Ragnaros basically doesn’t have a hero power until turn 6. His initial hero power summons a 5/1 Magma Rager, but he starts the game with a 2/6 weapon with a deathrattle that changes his hero power to a significantly better one, dealing 8 damage to a random enemy.
Sometimes, even this isn't enough to stop the dragons.
It’s not that Ragnaros doesn’t have a chance, but to win he relies on getting specific cards early without Nefarian drawing too much removal. Playing as Ragnaros feels like a challenging fight from behind, while playing as Nefarian makes you feel laughably powerful—sometimes being able to wipe your opponent's minions, deal damage to their face, and play large threats all in the same turn. Both characters are a breath of fresh air to play compared to Ranked mode, but queuing into my 4th game in a row as Ragnaros did start to feel a bit tiresome. They are both fun, but the numbers don’t lie; I won 4/10 games as Ragnaros and 9/10 games as Nefarian—and two of those Ragnaros games saw significant misplays from my opponent, including Preparation into Coin.
Balance issues aside, this first Tavern Brawl makes me extremely hopeful for the future of Hearthstone. This is the first time the game has had a comfortable space for both the players and the developers to mess around in, free of consequences. The week long cycles means Blizzard can introduce drastically OP cards for the fun of it and it won’t leave a lasting mark on the meta. Frustrating or imbalanced additions will be forgotten by the next week, and Blizzard will be able to constantly adjust and learn what players are enjoying most. Hearthstone has always been a fun game, but Tavern Brawl is the first mode designed to be all about fun, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming next week.