Blizzard's latest drop shakes up one of the most popular games in the world
A deafening squeal of glee was audible the world over late Thursday night when Hearthstone's lead designer Ben Brode took the stage at the ChinaJoy expo to reveal the latest addition to the hit digital card game. It's a new adventure – what Blizzard calls the story-driven kind of expansion that you buy all at once, as opposed to individual card packs – and it's titled One Night In Karazhan. It has fans inordinately excited. Not that it's weird by any means that people are excited about something Hearthstone-related. It's a certified blockbuster with 50 million players, and according to SuperData research from last year, makes $20 million a month for its publisher, Activision Blizzard.
It's the unanimous enthusiasm that's surprising. Even for a game so widely admired, you'd expect a more measured reaction. But One Night in Karazhan is evidently pushing all the right buttons for Hearthstone's fanbase. It might have something to do with the theme and setting.
What's a "Karazhan" and why do people love it so much?
You never forget your first love. Karazhan is a raid that was introduced in 2007 as part of The Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft's first expansion. (Hearthstone is based on Blizzard's 12-year-old MMO.) Back then, raiding really was for WoW's one-percenters. That changed with Karazhan. It was the first raid designed for comparatively small groups of 10 players, instead of the usual 40, which meant it was much easier to organize and coordinate.
It also helps that Karazhan was considered a masterpiece, with some of the most memorable encounters in WoW's history.
How will this adventure change Hearthstone?
From the looks of it, it'll introduce a measure of chaos, and that's a good thing. Hearthstone is at its healthiest when the "metagame" – the ever-evolving strategic ecosystem that determines which cards are in vogue – is in flux. "We're always trying to disrupt what people think will be next, essentially," says Dean Ayala, one of Hearthstone's designers. "That [goes for] the cards that people are playing, and the decks that people are playing."
Ayala is hoping that a new card called The Curator will do the trick. In a nutshell, it encourages you to build a deck around a specific combination of card types that would never occur to a sane Hearthstone player: dragons, beasts, and Murlocs. Normally, you pick one. All three is just nuts. But if players end up fielding this oddball deck, let alone winning with it, then Ayala and company will have succeeded at their principal task: to delight us with the unexpected.
What does the 'Hearthstone' community think?
One Night in Karazhan's reveal has been met with a chorus of approval. The mood of Hearthstone's Reddit community is downright cheery, and the same goes for Hearthstone's A-listers.
"So these cards all look pretty interesting," says Jeffrey "TrumpSC" Shih, one of Hearthstone's most renowned players. "I like how every single one of the cards seems to push a certain not-popular meta deck right now."
Janne "Savjz" Mikkonen, a Finnish pro Hearthstone player, concurs. "We have only seen seven cards, and I am convinced that overall the set will be awesome," he tells us.
Depending on when you check the numbers, Octavian "Kripparrian" Morosan is probably the most popular Hearthstone streamer out there. He's cooler on Karazhan than his peers. "Seems like a fun expansion," he says. "We can expect many exciting shifts in the game, at least in the ranked format."
That said, Kripparrian is known primarily for being good at Hearthstone's less-structured "Arena" format, where players build decks from a random assortment of cards. He finds one particular addition quite worrisome: the Firelands Portal, which deals a substantial amount of damage and summons a minion.
"Overall, I'm not very happy that Blizzard created it, at least in the version that we see there," he says in a lengthy YouTube breakdown. By introducing such a versatile common card, he argues, Blizzard risks ruining the Arena format's delicate balance – and making one class, the mage, inordinately powerful.
This sort of contentious change is inevitable, in the end, for a game like Hearthstone. "That just makes me sad, when you queue into Hearthstone, and it's the same over, and over again," Ayala says. He's referring to the Undertaker, a card that once upon a time was so strong that close to half of all decks were built around it. From the sounds of it, it appears Hearthstone's designers have a strategy to defend against that: to periodically introduce whacked-out cards that throw the whole paradigm for a loop.