Hearthstone’s eighth expansion, The Witchwood, was released just last week. It has some fresh and interesting ideas, from a game design perspective, so I thought I’d write a mechanical review of the new set. Let’s jump right into it.

Rush

The Witchwood added 2 new mechanics to the game. The first one is rush, an ability that lets a creature attack other creatures on turn it was summoned (unlike charge, which also lets you attack the opponent directly). Let’s take a look at Militia Commander, a Warrior rush card.

I really like this card! If it had charge it would be massively overpowered (at 4 mana for a minion that can instantly deal 5 damage to your opponent – one sixth of their total health). This is the problem with charge in general – it’s almost always used in aggressive decks to deal quick face damage. But rush is far more fair, since that 5 damage can only be directed towards other minions. If Militia Commander survives this first attack, it can continue attacking on future turns but its attack will go back down to 2.

Some Rush cards also have other abilities – like Vilebrood Skitterer, a Poisonous Rush card. Five mana is a very steep price for a 1/3, but the combination of Poisonous and Rush means it can instantly take out a creature much larger than itself.

I think Rush is a great mechanic because it allows for sudden and surprising plays – but only as a reaction to your opponent’s creatures. It can be a strong control tool, without also being a strong aggro tool. Blizzard has had a lot of trouble with charge cards in the past (leading to nerfs of popular cards like Warsong Commander and Patches the Pirate), so I really hope they continue to make Rush cards in the future.

Echo

The second new mechanic is Echo, an ability that lets you cast one card multiple times this turn. Technically speaking, the game already had one echo card before this expansion – but it said “Repeatable this turn” instead of “Echo”.

Unstable Evolution was a really fun card to play, so I’m glad they’ve keyworded Echo and are trying out new things with it. Let’s take a quick look at Sound the Bells, a Paladin Echo card.

This card is really quite expensive! It costs 4 mana to give a minion +2/+4, comparing unfavorably to Blessing of Kings, another 4 mana card that gives a minion +4/+4. Most Echo cards are mana inefficient in this way.

But what they lose in efficiency, they gain in flexibility. You can cast Sound the Bells just once, early in the game, if you really need a particular minion to survive. But you can also cast it twice (all on 1 minion or split over 2 minions) for 4 mana in the mid game. At the end of the game, you can cast it up to 5 times, divided across all your creatures. So while this card might be expensive, it also scales with your mana pool and has a number of flexible uses. It also works great with my Paladin quest card, The Last Kaleidosaur.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Hunting Mastiff – a Hunter card that has both Echo and Rush. It gives Hunters a new crowd control tool, something they’ve been sorely lacking.

Overall, I think Echo is also a good addition to Hearthstone. Flexible cards can increase the level of skill required to pilot a deck. Instead of the usual “play my 6-drop on turn 6”, you need to think carefully about when you’ll get the best value from your Echo cards.

Odd and Even

Now let’s get to the coolest addition of the set – Even and Odd decks. These new deck archetypes are enabled by 2 legendary cards: Genn Greymane and Baku the Mooneater.

Having your hero power discounted by 50% from the start of the game is very powerful! You can use the power more often, gaining a lot of tempo in the first few turns. The even-only restriction can be an issue (forbidding many powerful cards like Bloodlust or Flamestrike) but it isn’t as bad as you might suspect. Your 1-cost hero power can easily use up that last mana on your odd turns. This means that Even decks can be surprisingly easy to put together and to play.

Odd, on the other hand, is a little trickier. When you add the even cost hero power to your odd cost cards, you still end up with an odd number! This makes curving out on your even turns very difficult, and means your hero power competes for mana with your cards.

I pulled several Glitter Moths, so I figured I’d try to make an Odd Priest deck. The big problem, though, is that Priests have one of the worst hero powers in the game! The ability to heal does come in handy in specific situations, but you first either need to have lost health or have a damaged creature on the board. As a result, my Odd Priest deck didn’t really revolve around healing all that much – instead it revolved around Glitter Moth, which I found to be quite inconsistent because it has to be played after other minions.

My friend’s Odd Mage is much stronger. They have Black Cat (a miniature version of the powerful Azure Drake card in the Wild format) which is very versatile and helps them keep up tempo in the early game. Fireblast Rank II is also a strong hero power, with its ability to deal 2 damage to any enemy.

His Odd Paladin deck is stronger still, gaining huge value from spawning 2 Silver Hand Recruits per turn. I guess the lesson here is that Odd decks really need to make good use of their hero power to be worthwhile.

Odd and Even decks are pretty novel and can be a lot of fun to play. But they also strengthen some deck archetypes that I’m really not fond of. Taunt Warrior and Face Hunter are both famous for being non-interactive. In Face Hunter you play lots of aggressive cards and deal lots of damage directly to your opponent. The idea is to quickly overwhelm them before they have a chance to play their own good cards. The upgraded hero power lets you deal 3 damage to face each turn, granting the deck a noticeable boost.

Taunt Warrior is worse, though. They play a taunt minion every turn – preventing you from dealing any damage to them. The upgraded hero power grants them 4 armour per turn, and new cards let them spend this armour to destroy enemy minions. Slowly, eventually, they overwhelm you with strong control cards like Sulfuras.

Personally, I much prefer playing against decks that are more interactive – where each player has a greater ability to influence the other player’s plans.

Spreading it Thin

While some Odd and Even decks are very powerful, many classes struggle to make them work. Part of this is caused by the eternal problem of Hearthstone – it has nine unique classes. To make cards for each class they have to spread themselves very thin, mechanically. It’s almost always the case that a couple of classes are going through an identity crisis or are lacking any decent cards. I feel Hearthstone’s general balance could have been much stronger if they only had 4 or 5 classes (though this would be thematically difficult, since Hearthstone based on World of Warcraft – which had 9 classes). Let’s look at Murkspark Eel, Shaman’s only Odd- and Even-interacting card.

The card is definitely useful, acting as a miniature Fireplume Phoenix. But it really doesn’t make up for not being allowed Bloodlust in your deck (it costs 5 mana). The Even Shaman hero power lets you summon lots of cheap Totems, but they aren’t much use without a buff card like Bloodlust. Paladin’s similar power (summoning Silver Hand Recruits instead of Totems) is far stronger.

The silver lining in all of this is that, as cards continue to be released in future expansions, the Odd and Even archetypes will only get stronger. Maybe at some most classes will have a viable Odd or Even variant.

The Bottom Line

There’s no way I could talk about every card, partly because there’s 135 of them, but also partly because there’s no realistic hope of me owning all the cards!

I saved up my quest gold for 2 months and also spent £45 on the expansion (for a total of 125 packs) but still only pulled 7 of the 23 new Legendary cards. And I’m nowhere remotely close to getting 2 copies of each Epic!

I was lucky enough to get Genn Greymane and I crafted Baku for an exorbitant 1600 arcane dust, but I could easily never have gained either. I even pulled some cards so bad they’re practically unplayable, like Duskfallen Aviana.

Your opponent will just play their biggest card for free, and then a removal spell on Aviana. I can’t even think of a meme deck that might want this card. Considering how few Legendary cards you’ll get, pulling terrible ones like this really feels bad.

Hearthstone has always been this way. Blizzard have a very aggressive monetisation model, designed to wring as much money out of players as they possibly can.

A Polygon writer recently calculated that it takes “$150 plus all the gold you earn from four months of playing to get most of the good stuff in a Hearthstone expansion”. With 3 expansions launched per year, it costs in excess of $400 each year just to get most of the cards you want. Getting a full collection is more expensive still. Getting a full golden collection is unthinkable.

This pricing is in the same ballpark as physical card games like Magic the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh. But these games at least have manufacturing and distribution costs. For purely digital goods, Hearthstone is staggeringly expensive. No wonder it made $1.4 billion dollars in 2017!

It’s a huge shame, because Hearthstone can be lots of fun to play. This new expansion contains  some cool ideas and the design team have come a long way since the days of Goblins Vs. Gnomes, which infamously added many highly powerful yet highly random cards (like Piloted Shredder, Unstable Portal and Dr. Boom).

So in the end, I can’t really recommend that people invest much into The Witchwood. That said, I’m hopeful that Hearthstone’s design ideas will slowly trickle out into other, more reasonably priced card games – as they have been doing for the past couple of years.

 

I hope you liked reading this article! I write one most Fridays, so why not take a loot at my back catalogue? You can also find my articles on /r/gamedesign.

For my day job I develop Patch Quest, a game about extreme hiking on a dangerous, randomised island. Last week I released a progress report video explaining what I’ve been working recently, and giving some details for the upcoming Deadly Dungeons update. Patch Quest is currently available for free, so if you’re curious about it why not grab it now.