Wot I Think: Hearthstone’s Blackrock Mountain

Weelcome, it’s goood ta see ya again! Blizzard may not do the best Scottish accents in the world (and have you heard that Brit in Overwatch?) but there’s no doubt they make extremely sticky games – I must’ve been welcomed to the inn thousands of times by our dwarven chum. Part of this longevity is the sheer quality of the core games, and the other is in how well and regularly Blizzard maintains and expands things. The latest expansion for Hearthstone [official site], Blackrock Mountain, is a singleplayer adventure costing a whopping £17.50 – read on to see wot I think.

The Goblins ‘n Gnomes expansion in late 2014 added a tonne of cards to Hearthstone and while Blackrock comes with some new toys, it doesn’t add to the game with anything like that scale. We can now see a pattern in the game’s releases: first was Curse of Naxxramas, a singleplayer adventure, then Goblins ‘n Gnomes, a cardfest, and now Blackrock, a singleplayer adventure, with four or five months between each. So first of all, expect some new cards in the Autumn, and secondly admire the efficiency with which Blizzard approaches this work. A card game’s lifeblood is new cards and so this model allows Hearthstone to have one big injection per year, alongside a minor fillip dressed up as singleplayer.

That last bit was too harsh, perhaps? There is of course value in a decent singleplayer mode, but for Hearthstone – a game played entirely against other people – it’s more a matter of convenience than an overarching necessity. That’s not to say Blizzard phones these adventures in, and Blackrock Mountain has charms, it’s just the way it is – personally, I get the Adventures to play through them and acquire the new cards as fast as possible.

The cost is an interesting one. Initially it took me aback, but that was entitlement speaking – I play Hearthstone fairly regularly and have done so since release, for free. Sure I’ve bought some cards after a nice payday, but the pressure to spend in Hearthstone is so light it’s almost not there at all. The other side is that you can pay for each of Blackrock’s five wings with 700 Gold and get a proportional discount. I’m not an enormous fan of the ‘you don’t have to pay, you can grind!’ rationale as a rule but, again, Hearthstone being such good value-for-no-money makes it hard to grumble.

The wing structure, with one released per week from launch, does bother me though. As of this writing four of five have been released and the structure seems little more than a way to stretch time and make the expansion feel larger than it is. You’ll breeze through each wing’s normal mode – three fights – in twenty minutes, unlocking the Class and Heroic challenges, the former being another fifteen-minute cakewalk and the latter a curious ‘endgame’ we’ll come to later. The wings serve no purpose other than making sure you can’t bash through Blackrock in an hour or so and scoot off with your cards, and it’s hard to feel good about that.

Driving through each wing, however, is a lot of fun. The three fights are each introduced by a hammy villain, who initially pretends to be your buddy in the most OTT glowing-eyes-and-goatee way, and the bosses have a unique hero power and a deck that works with it – one might summon a minion from both decks every turn, while another grows eggs that explode for mega damage, and some reverse expectations by having conditions for use that you then have to ensure are not met. Any reasonable Hearthstone deck won’t have much trouble with them, but the reward of a free card after every victory somehow makes things very satisfying anyway.

The Class challenges are even easier, despite the title, setting you against the bosses with a premade deck that’s always more than up to the task, but fun to use. These challenges each reward a card too, so ticking them off is another enjoyable moment for the loot hoarder in all of us.

So far so good, but I find myself really wondering about the function and design of the Heroic challenges in Blackrock. These encounters are supposed to be super-difficult and, as the game says, require multiple attempts and deck revisions to beat. The first challenge, against Coren Direbrew, shows what’s to come by amping up his hero power – every turn he now summons two minions from his power-packed deck, but only one from yours – and,as if this wasn’t enough, gives him a larger-than-normal deck size. Note that Hearthstone’s designers are now breaking fundamental rules in order to introduce artificial difficulty, but let’s run with it.

The main problem with designing a super-specific and tough challenge in Hearthstone is that the game itself doesn’t support this style of play. At the core of Hearthstone is the random chance of a given deck, yet here we are faced with an inflexible set of demands – yes there are counters to each Heroic boss strategy, but whether you can perform them depends on the luck of the draw.

So take for example Emperor Thaurissan, whose heroic ability is ‘deal 30 damage’ (i.e. instakill you). But this can’t be used unless his wife (a 3/1 minion) is dead. In the Heroic Challenge you need to neuter his wife without killing her (or she’ll kill you), but Thaurissan’s deck is full of cards that will deal damage to all minions like Death’s Bite and Abomination. Yes, he’s going to kill his own wife.

Thus your deck has to include ways to silence his spouse-shattering minions and, because weapons like Death’s Bite can’t be silenced, ways to protect her from other damage too. So I built a Paladin deck to give her divine shields, chucked in a load of silence and 0 attack taunt, and had other neat ideas like giving his wife a Blessing of Wisdom (I draw every time she attacks).

This deck hard-counters what Thaurrisan is doing but its utility depends on getting the cards in a an extremely specific order. If I didn’t get an excellent mulligan I immediately conceded and started again. Sometimes I’d concede after two turns, or three. If you don’t have a silence or divine shield when he whacks down Abomination or Death’s Bite on turn four, it’s a GG. And he’ll have multiples so you’ll need multiples.

I enjoy having to work out a puzzle, looking at how a particular boss operates and then ‘solving’ it with a new deck. But these encounters have such strict win/lose conditions that the fun is lost because every strategy relies so utterly on randomness to work – you must draw the right cards in the right order. It counter-intuitively removes the flexibility and surprise that are the good elements of random design, and foregrounds the punitive and frustrating parts no-one likes. You’re not even learning anything new about how the game works, which should be the prime target for any Hearthstone singleplayer design. When Thaurissan fell it didn’t feel great, I just felt glad my luck had held and that it was over.

The final insult? I didn’t even get a new card! Joking aside, Blackrock introduces 31 new cards with the minor theme being Dragons, a faction that has existed in Hearthstone since the beginning but hasn’t thus far been developed. Blackrock’s Dragon cards basically offer bonuses for having other Dragon cards, which didn’t exist previously, and so tie them together much more neatly as a set – a Paladin for example could build a neat deck around using the new Dragon Consort, a 5-mana 5/5 that reduces the cost of the next Dragon by 2 mana, and getting out the legendary 8-mana card Chromaggus on turn six. A sprinkling of minor Dragon minions takes care of the opening and thus another style of minion deck is born.

Other class-specific cards tidy up holes in their armour or offer neat new possibilities. Shaman can now unlock overloaded mana crystals (the main disadvantage of that hero’s cards) by ending their turn with the 2-mana Lava Shock that as a bonus deals 2 damage. Warlocks gain Demonwrath, a 3-mana early board clearer to help those disgusting rush decks, and another imp-summong minion, while Warrior gets the amazing 4-mana Axe Flinger, a 2/5 that does 2 damage to the enemy hero every time it takes damage. Druid, Mage, Priest, and Hunter get nice but familiar new toys, while Rogue gets what seems to be the most OP card in the world – Gang Up. This beauty puts three copies of any minion on the board in your deck. Get this in the lategame and some ridiculous stuff can happen – I haven’t managed it yet, despite my best efforts, but soon I will clone, assassinate, and then slam down three Yseras.

So Blackrock adds up to a decent expansion for the money, adding a little freshness to core play with the Dragons and new class cards, and giving every player a diverting few hours worth of adventure. Despite any issues, it is all-too-easy to underestimate the skill with which Blizzard’s designers are pulling this off – adding to a core game would be easy if you just repeat and tweak the existing cards, but each expansion always adds a few new notes to Hearthstone’s already-rich interplay. We may have to wait for the revolution, but Blackrock Mountain is business as usual for Hearthstone. And business is good.

30 Comments

  1. Gothnak says:

    I have only unlocked the first wing so far as i am a casual free to play player. For 700 gold, i unlocked it, and finished it in 22 mins. I would have been most annoyed if i had paid £4.99.

    The battles were fun admittedly, but my decent Priest deck just blew them over and there is no reason to play them again…

    I really don’t think Blizzard understands how to make a decent Free To Play Service, although at the moment they don’t have to, as they are raking it in :).

    • bglamb says:

      You wouldn’t call base Hearthstone a decent Free to Play service? I’ve never bought a thing and I’ve played about as much as all my other games combined this last year.

      • Gothnak says:

        That’s exactly what i mean… I’m in the same boat as you. Never paid a penny, but most of the time i just play the Arena, as constructed it ultimately entirely pointless. I’m not going to reach Rank 1 and go to an event, so why would i bother playing?

        A Free To Play service involves interesting things to partake in for all Players so you keep them engaged and they don’t disappear off somewhere else. Their Single Player add-ons last a couple of hours and then i’m off back to the Arena again. There could be so many more interesting things to do.

        I’m not saying it isn’t profitable for them, but as a Player i don’t feel engaged to play anything other than my one best deck, or just play Arena.

        • blastaz says:

          Far be it from me to tell people how to get their jollies but if your playing a collectible card game without wanting to collect cards your probably not the target demographic…

          Personally as a super casual hearthstoner I love these single player expansions. The guaranteed and symbiotic nature of the rewards give me basic combos to build off when exploring a new class, and the battles just ooze charm.

          • bglamb says:

            Well that’s weird because I agree with both of you in so many ways except for your conclusions. I’m a big MtG fan, and I only play sealed (arena), not constructed in both games because I don’t wanna pay/collect cards. And that’s fine, I love it. I think it’s potentially more skill intensive (or at least in different ways) than constructed and is endlessly enjoyable with a good set of cards.

            I’m happy playing Arena until the cows come home and at least in Hearthstone (with the help of the daily quest) I can basically go infinite (win enough to keep playing for free) which is nigh impossible in MtG.

            Massive free-to-play hit for me, as a non-card-collecting player!

      • malkav11 says:

        No, because you get hardly any gold for completing quests, quests are largely premised around winning games (and they have to be PvP games so better hope you luck into fights you can win, which happens maybe one game in five, in my experience, at most), and booster packs give you a whole five cards which have no guarantee of being new and are split across nine character classes. I haven’t tried games like Infinity Wars or M&M Duel of Champions, so perhaps Hearthstone’s F2P experience is better than the competition, but it’s still pretty miserable.

        I’m sure if you play it a metric shit ton and don’t mind being utterly crushed over and over you can get something out of it. I can’t be arsed. Especially since they’re paying such lip service to the idea of singleplayer content, which is what I really want out of digital TCGs, and charging through the nose for that meager serving to boot.

        Personally, I’m getting more out of Hex even in beta with most of its PvE (which will be entirely free) not in yet. But I resist making too many comparisons because after all, I’m coming to Hearthstone without spending a dime, whereas with Hex I dropped a whole bunch of cash in the Kickstarter and there’s a huge difference in my available card pool and perks as a result.

        • dontnormally says:

          “which happens maybe one game in five, in my experience, at most”

          Then you are, by definition, a quite below-average player.

          • malkav11 says:

            If I am granted a match that I am capable of winning with the cards available to me, I have decent odds of winning that match. The reality is that I am typically matched against people with vastly larger card pools that have things I simply have no way to deal with. Arena might be an answer to that dilemma if it didn’t have an entry fee, or if you kept the cards you drafted, but as it is I’m not reliably in a position to win enough to roll straight into another Arena match.

            I’m sure if I stuck with it long enough and played frequently enough this might someday work itself out, but I have so many better things to do with my time.

        • Marley says:

          Have you tried any of these basic deck guides? link to reddit.com He has one for each class which require no other cards then the basic ones you have by default. and one for each class that use the basic and Naxxramas cards if you have that expansion. Those decks should give you at least around a 50% win rate. no offense but 1 in 5 extremely low.

    • Flopper says:

      The “honest game trailer” of Hearthstone nails it…

      The game is garbage. It’s a thinking mans Candy Crush and a dumbies Magic the gathering.

      If you like RNG and going on reddit to copy decks then this is the game for you!

      • Phendron says:

        Eloquent!

      • Koozer says:

        Because of course, massive amounts of complexity is the mark of a good game. The rules are more complex than chess, are you going to insult that too? Are you also going to ignore the fact that every game under the sun has guides and builds posted online on how to play better, including chess and MtG.

        The amount of variance in some effects is a bit much though to the detriment of the game, I will give you that. Looking at you Dr. Boom and Lightning Storm.

        • sicbanana says:

          Hm, and the rules of go (weiqi, baduk) are even simpler than chess…
          But anyway… that’s not a valid comparison in my opinion. Comparing chess (or go) with something like this RNG tat is like comparing playing guitar with Yahtzee, and I’m not talking about the fun here but the skill needed to be any good at it.

      • Quiffle says:

        Resorting to the “RNG” complaint is a sure sign of a mediocre player. This applies to any game.

        • Machinations says:

          Ok, so you have complained about the player.

          And his point? Is it possible to address the argument, or because you don’t agree with what is said, that means open season on who that person is? Is this not a juvenile style of argument.

          Disclaimer: I dont play Hearthstone, and have no interest in it. I laughed at the Candy Crush comment, frankly – it does seem like shiny dross.

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      Carra says:

      Sure, it only takes 20 minutes to complete a wing. But the fun is in using the new cards in multiplayer.

      I had quite a bit of fun with my Grim Patron combo warrior deck so far. And I’m now trying a zoo deck which includes the dragon eggs + imp gang boss. It works out very nicely so far.

  2. Xzi says:

    Doesn’t seem worth the price in the slightest. You might as well just pay for the cards and be done with it, because Blizzard clearly doesn’t know how to design a challenging AI opponent that can be overcome in multiple different ways. And they had how many Duels of the Planeswalkers games to learn from prior to Hearthstone’s release?

    • dskzero says:

      Sadly, that’s the point right now of these adventures. The gameplay it’s amusing but extraordinarely short. Personally, i still think they are worth it, given how fun the game as a whole has struck me, and how irritating is to grind the gold for them, which is better used on arena or packs.

  3. drewski says:

    I enjoyed this review even though I have no interest in Hearthstone. Well written, Mr. Stanton.

  4. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    WUTCH YER BECK

  5. Koozer says:

    The ‘Scottish’ accents in Blizzard games make my ears bleed. I just about manage to stave off a burst artery by rationalising that they are really Dwarven accents, not actually Scottish.

    If you buy the adventures for the boss fights and class challenges, you’re going to be seriously disappointed. If you buy them for the actual cards, then card for card they are a better deal than buying packs.

  6. AngoraFish says:

    I’m not an enormous fan of the ‘you don’t have to pay, you can grind!’ rationale as a rule but, again, Hearthstone being such good value-for-no-money makes it hard to grumble.

    As you say, Hearthstone is all about grinding for cards. It matters not whether you’re grinding for gold to buy random packs, or grinding for gold to buy wings of Blackrock Mountain.

    Really, half the point of playing is collecting cards. Buying cards is effectively paying to have the game play itself for you, like buying an exp boost where you pay to level your charachter past most of a game’s content.

    For a regular player who does their dailies, 700g is pretty good value for a guaranteed 9 or 10 unique cards per wing (two of each, except the legendaries).

    Even as a 100% free player, most of my pack drops are now duplicates anyhow… I certainly wouldn’t get Blackrock Mountain’s new-card hit rate on a 700g spend on packs.

    Currently I’m only 160g off buying the current wing, all as a daily free player, so I expoect that I’ll have collected the whole set within a couple of weeks of the last wing opening. Not bad for a casual game that I have half an hour of fun with each day, all for free.

    Having said that, I don’t have any pretentions of being an elite player. I’m happy to bounce around levels 17 to 15 while having more or less the same win/loss ratio as anyone in the higher ranks.

  7. CrivenS says:

    I’ve been playing since beta and I have bought the occasional arena key but never packs. The price point for solo adventures is way off for me. I would buy the whole pack or at least some wings in a heartbeat for $10-15AU and $3AU respectively at >$20 and $7it is never going to happen. It makes for a loooong grind between wings and is incredibly frustrating.

  8. gbrading says:

    I have never paid a single penny for Hearthstone, and it was my Game of the Year in 2014. True I wish grinding for gold didn’t take quite so long, but considering the value proposition generally has set the gold standard for free-to-play, I don’t particularly mind. I’m still scavenging the gold to unlock the 3rd wing.

    • Machinations says:

      Was it your game of the year because you played little else, or because it really was your game of the year?

      I find that idea sort of terrifying though; I tried Hearthstone and it felt like a game with no real decisions, you could play on autopilot as depending on your draws there is always a best play..

  9. hammerAndEggs says:

    I love Hearthstone, but it frustrates me to no end that the prices are so ridiculous. I really want to support the development, but there’s no chance in hell that I’m paying close to 4 bucks for 10 (random) cards. Close to 30 bucks for a single player campaign is equally mind-boggling to me.

    I feel like a lot more people would throw money at them if they could just fucking chill out with these prices. To be completely honest, I don’t think I would even consider it unless we hit 1/4 of the current prices.

    But obviously, I don’t know their income or anything else internally about their current business model. Who knows, maybe these overpriced things sell like hot cakes, in which case I can’t really blame them.

    The only thing I know for sure is that I’m not paying a dime before the prices start to drop. And I believe there are a lot of people like me…

    • malkav11 says:

      I might pay close to $30 for a singleplayer campaign for Hearthstone. The problem is that neither Naxxramas nor Blackrock Mountain are anything close to as robust or substantial as an actual SP campaign, even taken together, and if you do that they cost way more than $30.

      • hammerAndEggs says:

        Well, if the content was actually worth $30 (which, by my own “calculations” is around 4 times the content) I would have no problem either. This, however brings another problem to the table: Development time.
        – By the article’s calculations, that would mean a single player campaign every other year, and that’s way too much time between content packs (IMO), especially for a card game like this.

        That’s why I would very much prefer the current frequency of new content, but with lowered prices as opposed to more content, same prices and longer development.

  10. Mitch.sp says:

    If someone wants to play a much deeper F2P cardgame alternative to HeartStone, I can fervorous suggest Might and Magic Duel of Champions.

    With more that 2 years of life, great art, 2 Base Set, several expansions, Standard and Legacy game modes, every card in the game available to free players and with an economic model really generous for new players, and inminent draft mode like HeartStone Arena.

    Is based in the lore of Might and Magic saga, and gameplay is really interesting, with 6 distinctive factions, and actually with 10 heroes for each faction, offering lots of options for gameplay and deckbuilding.

    Using a referal link for other player give new accounts 6 starter decks, one for each faction, plus another free one.
    link to signup.duelofchampions.com

    and here is a redeem code still active for more free packs:
    TH4NK5-70K-D0C-F4CEB00K-L3G1ON

    To redeem them after creating your account you can go to the ‘SHOP’ in-game and click on the blue ‘REDEEM CODE’ button on the bottom.

  11. Harzel174 says:

    This review seems obnoxiously biased and glosses over a lot of salient points about the latest adventure…

    First off, the price. Is it high? Yes. But you’re also getting 5 legendaries and full 2/2 sets for 25 other cards. That’s typically better than what you’d get spending the equivalent on packs, plus you get some single player fun out of it.

    Next, not one comment about how each of these boss fights ever so cleverly captures the spirit of their WoW counterparts? Granted some of them are out of left field, like Grakkisath, but others like Chromaggus are brilliant (you’re dispelling your hand!). It’ll fall flat on those who don’t play WoW but regardless I think the devs deserve some serious props for designing so many unique boss fights in a card game. There was a jab about introducing artificial difficulty and I found that pretty underhanded… most rule changes are done in the spirit of the fight, and sometimes they benefit you as well, such as Ragnaros giving you cards to help overcome the otherwise impossible (first) Nefarian fight. In fact, that entire match was an incredible encounter, and was some of the most fun I’ve had in the game. Next to the mage challenge, of course.

    Finally, even the normal mode fights aren’t quite as faceroll as you’re making them out to be. Some of them are, certainly, but others have gimmicks specifically designed to require a deck built with the mechanics in mind. And you contradict yourself by complaining that you’re just there for the cards, then bashing the game for having quick, easy normal mode fight progression.

    I will concede that certain heroics are poorly designed around RNG. Naxx had that as well. Some of them do a better job of playing to a theme rather than a play order, like Coren the first boss, that makes RNG significantly less relevant. Then there are the ones where you literally just have to get lucky on the draw, and those are hideously unfun.