I am not normally one for addictive, endless video games. The only MMO I’ve ever played was Phantasy Star online, into which I sunk over 48 hours of my February vacation during my sophomore year of high school. The last Blizzard game I played for any meaningful amount of time was Diablo 2. I’ll hurl myself into a game at the expense of friendship, work, or personal hygiene, sure, but can typically only do so with a guarantee that it will, eventually, come to an end.
Hearthstone dominated the first half of my summer. It sent me bounding, with a moronic smile on my face, into a labyrinth fraught with meta-games, saying the phrase “boulderfist ogre” in public, and even, briefly, podcasts. After that initial introductory period, I tried to approach Hearthstone the way I’ve approached activities like playing music, programming, or cooking: How much time did I want to invest in it? How good did I feel like I needed to be? How much of my life did I feel comfortable dedicating to it? It seemed like the sky was the limit. Whatever amount of time, money, or mental energy I felt like throwing at Hearthstone, Hearthstone could comfortably accommodate it without the guarantee of any ROI.
At first, this was intoxicating. After about six weeks of steadily escalating addiction, though, I began to feel like I could see around Hearthstone’s edges. I had a couple of good decks on, uh, deck, and my win percentage crept steadily upwards. Shortly after that feeling appeared, however, I cracked some invisible barrier around rank 10, and the average skill level of my opponents abruptly doubled. I started getting beaten worse than I had been as a rookie. Any illusions of serious Hearthstone progress were shattered.
Hearthstone, with its small set of cards and simple rules, seems like Blizzard’s stab at reaching players like me, who are notionally open to the idea of getting their lives and wallets wrecked by a video game, but who are also wary of the nakedly exploitative mechanics and steep learning curves endemic to the life-ruining genre. Targeting the untapped “jaded weirdos” demographic is an undeniably smart business move on Blizzard’s part, but everybody knows that jaded weirdos are easily discouraged. We want something achievable, something we can feel like we’re working towards finishing.
Cue the release of Curse of Naxxramas, the first in what seems like it’s going to be a cavalcade of Hearthstone single-player campaigns.
Over the past month or so, Blizzard has been unlocking seven-dollar collections of between two and four AI enemies. The releases gradually escalated in difficulty, culminating with the release of last week’s Frostwyrm Lair and a final showdown against Kel’Thuzad, a skeletal arch-lich that had been taunting me between my matches against his minions for weeks leading up to our battle.
The encounters themselves feel like a tutorial of second-level Hearthstone play. Each opponent has a quirk meant to throw a wrench into normal ways of approaching a match. For example, one has more than twice the normal amount of hit points. If you defeat another’s cards, they reincarnate as pesky and hard-to-kill ghosts. A third has no cards at all and hurls a gigantic chain at you instead. The first few collections caused me to rethink how to use the decks I’d already built. The final handful of enemies all but demand bespoke strategies, their power and sheer strangeness overpowering my laziness and false confidence in the universal possibilities of my pretty average rogue deck.
As an aside: All of the playable classes in Hearthstone are humanoid. Many of the Naxxramas opponents are not. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to imagine what a Hearthstone match looks like to its in-game participants, but it’s strange to imagine something like a giant spider or a living embodiment of a devastating plague sitting at an ornate table and playing a card game that somehow kills you if you lose.
The collections were sort of expensive (they are seven dollars apiece, but can be bought as a single purchase for $25), but along with your garden variety enemy encounter the buyer is also granted a “heroic” version of the same encounter, which tends to play as less of a normal Hearthstone match and more of a puzzle, with enemies so powerful you’re forced to construct decks and class choices around whatever cracks you might find in their foundation. Finally, defeating an entire collection grants access to “class challenges,” whereby the player is given a predetermined class and deck with which to defeat a predetermined boss. None of the regular Naxxramas collections took me more than an hour to clear, but collectively they comprise a solid, enjoyable experience. Despite being alone in my apartment, I performed an embarrassing little fist-pump upon defeating Kel’Thuzad.
Winning a regular challenge nets broadly usable cards, often ones that had just been used against you. Class challenges net class-specific cards. I haven’t summoned the wherewithal (and probably will not) to defeat Heroic mode, but I’m told the reward is less concrete; for those dedicated enough to sink hours into playing against a computer in Hearthstone, the ability to advertise that they’ve sunk hours into playing against a computer in Hearthstone is, apparently, its own reward. Even at its most material, Hearthstone insists on drawing a line in the sand between its bourgeoisie and the monastic statisticians willing to see how deep its rabbit hole goes. (And those willing to read their walkthroughs.)
Over the past couple of decades, Blizzard has manufactured a sort of attention economy, the currency of which is steady confirmation of a player’s long-term progress. They’ve done so both by building their empire on games based on numbers going up and now, for the first time in years, appealing to people used to more traditionally-structured games. With Hearthstone, Blizzard gave that latest permutation of their economy away for free, then held out objective indicators of progress for as long as they felt necessary. Finally, they released a few weeks’ worth of those indicators for money. I paid that money, and got precious validation in return. What was once a few weeks of unmoored skills and various failures has concretized: I beat a Hearthstone thing.
Joe Bernardi plays a pretty basic aggro Rogue deck. He isn’t afraid to admit that he’ll concede outright to nearly all Warlock murloc decks, and the only other CCG he’s ever played is the Pokemon game. He tweets.
Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas was developed and published by Blizzard Entertainment. It is available for Android, iOS, Mac, and PC.