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Wot I Think: Hearthstone - Goblins Vs Gnomes

Mechin' bacon with RNGesus

Everyone loves Hearthstone, don't they? Yes OK Mr Internet Commenter, I know that YOU consider the rigid turns an unacceptable oversimplification of CCG mechanics and blah blah blah, but every player I know just can't enough of Blizzard's card juice. Goblins vs. Gnomes is the game's second expansion, following hot on the heels of the singleplayer adventure Naxrammas, and it adds 120 cards with one new minion class and a bunch of new effects. So is it all gravy, or a case of too many cooks?

There are several aspects to GvG – the new mech minions, some powerful standalones, and a bunch of cards designed to make pre-existing deck archetypes stronger. Some of these can be crazy in the right situation, like the Druid's new 'Tree of Life' card, which costs nine mana but heals all characters including heroes to full health. I dropped this at 5 health with a wounded Ironbark Protector on the board, and my opponent instantly quit.

My previous Paladin deck ('Palabuff' thangew) was basically suffering from a lack of punch, which two cards in GvG absolutely solve. Muster for Battle summons three Silver Hand Recruits (lowly 1/1 minions) and gives you a 1/4 weapon for three mana, which is decent enough earlygame, but then in the lategame can be comboed with the five mana Quartermaster, which gives Silver Hand Recruits a 2/2 buff. If you're on ten mana this can get you four 3/3s (including the hero power) and a 2/5 in one turn. Beautiful. Combo this with The Clash's 'I fought the law' for one of 2015's greatest gaming experiences.

The real joy of the GvG cards, however, lies in the simple trait of 'mech.' There are tonnes of new minions that are mechs, and a large number that combo with this trait, most of which are at the lower end of the cost range. This makes building a mech deck extremely flexible, because there are so many possible synergies between these cards and, if you get the balance right, you're always going to be able to exploit them somehow.

An example of this is how an old favourite, the Mage legendary Archmage Antonidas, is rejuvenated in a Mage Mech deck. Antonidas is a theoretically amazing card that gives you a Fireball card every time you play another spell – usually a guaranteed win if you can trigger this three or four times. Problem is that before GvG I'd rarely have many low-cost spells left by the time he arrives and it costs seven mana to put him down – so he's often killed before you can use the ability.

One of the side-effects of a decent mech deck is obtaining 'spare parts' cards through battlecries and deathrattles. These are one-mana spells that provide a minor buff to a minion, or other effects. So with a Mage deck you can build through the midgame with a beefy mech army and plan to follow into a turn-ten Antonidas followed by three spare parts, giving you a serious minion and three Fireballs in a single turn. Bonus points if the last spare part is the 'Time Rewinder' that returns Antonidas to your hand.

Discovering new combos like this is amazing, and the sheer number of potential strategies instantly catapults the mechs ahead of other minion factions. Cards like Antique Healbot single-handedly open up new types of strategies across classes – it's a healing card that also provides a 3/3 mech on the board (most other heal cards are passive spells, or don't heal for as much), allowing you to soak damage while still building a presence on the board.

Other minion factions are bolstered by a few new cards in GvG, but it's hard to see underused types like Pirates being revolutionised by Salty Dog (a top-heavy five-mana 7/4) or even Ship's Cannon (two-mana 2/3 that fires when Pirates are summoned). Much more interesting is the Rogue-specific card One-Eyed Cheat (two-mana 4/1 that cloaks when another Pirate is summoned), which in the right rushdown deck would be a nightmare to deal with.

There are also new cards that have proved so useful they're common on the ladder. Dr Boom is widely considered to be one of GvG's few missteps, a legendary goblin resembling the Fantastic Four's nemesis that comes with two Boom Bots which explode on death to deal 1-4 damage to a random enemy. The card does do a crazy amount of damage, but the random element also means you occasionally face him down and live to tell the tale. And perhaps this quality of Dr Boom is the underlying issue.

Cards like Dr Boom and Goblin Blastmage tend to be where a lot of 'OP!' anger is directed, because the effect can be game-winningly random – if you have a mech when you drop Goblin Blastmage, it deals four damage to random enemies. At any point, depending on chance, the effect can be devastating and you also get a beefy minion on the board. The catch-all term for this is RNG ('Random Number Generation'), as in “I pray to RNGesus.”

This is a core theme for Goblins vs. Gnomes - an emphasis on cards with random effects. Such things have always been a part of Hearthstone but now there are many more, including a deathrattle summoning a random minion, random damage distribution, random portals, and so on.

For some players this is Hearthstone's glass ceiling, a mechanic that often trumps skill. I wouldn't argue against the basic truth of this, but it rests on an assumption about what kind of game Hearthstone is. The line of thinking goes that the more a competitive game depends on pure skill over random chance, the better it is as a competitive game. Games built on such principles include Starcraft, Counter-Strike, Dota 2 – take your pick.

Hearthstone is a competitive game, and popular as an eSport, but for the majority of its audience, the emphasis is on 'game' rather than 'competitive.' The community discourse around Hearthstone congregates around the meta-game and will confidently make statements such “there are only 12 viable decks” while bemoaning RNG. Whatever their merits, these positions are irrelevant to 99% of Hearthstone players.

The reason Blizzard's designers not only included RNG but have focused on it for this expansion is because it's enormous fun, and as the effects layer and clash against each other, this becomes even more true. The random summons in GvG once turned me up a Nat Pagle (50% chance of an extra card each turn) that my enemy couldn't kill, and which I then buffed up to ludicrous levels while it pulled an extra card for four turns in a row. I've had a Warlock hit me with an Imp-plosion for four damage, producing four 1/1 imps, and then drop an Enhance-o-Mechano giving the full board a random buff. Next turn he dropped two Power Overwhelmings to create two 5/5 imps with windfury that battered down my door.

Watching this stuff play out and discovering unexpected combinations is the lifeblood of Hearthstone. It's why it still remains on regular rotation over a year after I started playing it and it's this element of the unexpected that GvG ramps up. I've never hit legendary rank, don't plan on it, and don't play meta-sanctioned decks. I just like playing Hearthstone, and love it when that extra little bit of luck takes me over the edge in a tight game. Luck works against me too, of course, but you can't enjoy the highs without the lows.

Goblins vs Gnomes doesn't turn Hearthstone upside-down, as the very best kinds of CCG expansion can do. For the game to truly have legs, that will need to happen at some future point. But the 120 cards GvG introduces - particularly the mechs, which work across classes while linking to class-specific mechs - emphasise chance and synergy, which are two of the most fun things about playing a card game. Finding new solutions to old problems and a new use for an old toy is what GvG delivers, its additions freshening up the overall game in a way that Naxrammas never quite managed. It doesn't quite make Hearthstone feel new again. But it does make it feel a lot less old.

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