From clashing swords with the mighty undead hosts in the floating necropolis of Naxxramus to slaying dragons in the caves of Blackrock Mountain, Blizzard Entertainment’s expansions and adventures for the collectible card game “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft” have been decidedly hit-or-miss since the title’s release in March 2014.
The latest, “League of Explorers,” is a departure from previous adventures in that it mainly features characters not already present in Warcraft lore, focusing instead on a theme that allows Blizzard developers more flexibility to create an engaging single-player experience with a compelling narrative. Another new addition, the Discover mechanic, gives the player the sense that their choices matter more and rewards thinking about future turns rather than only about what’s in front of them. More importantly for those who enjoy ranked play, new legendary minion Reno Jackson shows significant promise in shaking up the ladder by making control decks more viable.
Parodying tropes from Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” films, one boss fight takes a player through a collapsing temple complete with traps like a giant, spherical boulder, while another involves fleeing from a swarm of enemies on a mine cart. Past adventures have suffered from the AI’s poor decision-making and memorably frustrating fights that require perfect draws to win. The first two released wings, the Temple of Orsis and Uldaman, reward strategy but leave plenty of room for creativity in deck-building, even against the heroic bosses, who in previous expansions were a chore to defeat. These boss encounters, especially Temple Escape, are novel and are a welcome departure from previous expansions.
In addition to delivering a more engaging single player experience, “League of Explorers” has brought cards that show great potential to allow for more options to counter some of the most irritating decks to play against, such as Face Hunter and Aggro Paladin. Reno Jackson is a great example of a card that gives slower decks a powerful comeback mechanic against decks that rely on swarming the board with cheap, high-threat minions like Knife Juggler and Piloted Shredder, while encouraging people to experiment with a greater variety of cards.
When played, Reno can heal your hero to full health, provided there is only one card of any kind remaining in the deck, meaning players have to make compromises instead of auto-including two copies of powerful cards like Sludge Belcher. Reno has proven quite effective in Freeze Mage, Handlock and Control Warrior, but can find a home in any slow deck, provided people build around his inclusion. Brann Bronzebeard and the other legendary minions in the “League of Explorers” have a more niche appeal, but they offer players more deck-building flexibility and could possibly see serious constructed play down the line.
The Discover mechanic allows players to choose their desired card from three options that aren’t part of their deck so that players can pick the option that best suits their needs. Hearthstone’s strongest decks, historically, have relied on consistency and great card draw, luxuries that not all classes have access to. The Discover mechanic effectively allows players to choose a card from a selection of three, giving certain decks like Midrange Hunter or Zoo Warlock the extra value they need to shift tempo back in their favor.
This new mechanic seems genuinely useful compared to some released by Blizzard in the past such as the Joust mechanic in “The Grand Tournament,” while not throwing off game balance. Blizzard has historically churned out extremely powerful minions without allowing adequate means of counterplay since the first adventure ever released in Hearthstone, “Curse of Naxxramus.” The subsequent expansion, “Goblins vs. Gnomes,” added fuel to the fire with similarly troublesome minions like Piloted Shredder and Shielded Minibot. Instead of thinking through turns, players needed to only throw down their most powerful minion every turn, and many matchups felt decided from the get-go. “League of Explorers” is a positive indication that Blizzard is making an effort to reverse this trend and put players back in control of the game.
The final two wings of “League of Explorers,” The Ruined City and Hall of Explorers, are expected for release on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, respectively.