Very possibly a new record for colons in an article title
Even though Artifact never really found an audience, other digital Collectible Card Games (CCGs) like Eternal and Magic The Gathering: Arena have provided some legitimate alternatives to Blizzard’s venerable card battler over the last few months. To their credit, the team at Blizzard have stepped up to the challenge and recently released the biggest Hearthstone expansion ever created.
As usual, we waited until the entire expansion was available before writing the review, so what does The Dalaran Heist bring to the virtual table?
Hearthstone: Rise of Shadows: The Dalaran Heist (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Released: April 9, 2019 (PvE content added May 12-June 6)
MSRP: Free-to-play, packs cost $1.50 apiece. Single player mode can be purchased with in-game currency or costs $7 per chapter or $19.99 as a bundle.
Hearthstone‘s lore seems to take place in a parallel universe, similar to but legally distinct from the Azeroth explored by World of Warcraft players. The most recent expansion calls back to Hearthstone‘s previous history, letting players join the boss villains from Kobolds and Catacombs, The Boomsday Project, The Witchwood, and even going as far back as The League of Explorers from 2015. The villains from these earlier expansions were called together by Madame Lazul, a troll fortune teller who was the harbinger of the Old Gods.
This group of bad guys have all been defeated by Azeroth’s champions, but decide that they might be stronger if they form an alliance. The five combine their powers to form the League of E. V. I. L. and begin working together to wreak havoc on the world, starting with the magical, floating city of Dalaran. None of them are the type to think small, so when they say they want to take the city for all it’s worth, they’re quite literal about the concept.
Dalaran is a fantastic location in which to set a Hearthstone expansion. Run by a cabal of powerful mages, there’s a lot of history and lore to borrow from when designing cards and scenarios. The city didn’t appear intact in World of Warcraft until the well-regarded Wrath of the Lich King expansion, where it served as a combination travel nexus and base of operations against the undead hordes of the frozen North. It’s also a fully functioning metropolis with its own private citizens, merchants, sanitation workers, and a supermax magical prison.
The single player content of The Dalaran Heist puts you in the shoes of one of the five antagonist’s underlings, supporting your boss on their mission to disrupt the city and prepare it for a hostile takeover. Dalaran’s citizens aren’t going to stand idle as you attempt to make off with the city however, and everyone from the most powerful mage to the lowliest barber will do their best to stop you from completing your task.
The Dalaran Heist follows the now-familiar roguelike format introduced in Kobolds and Catacombs, letting players choose three cards to add to their deck after defeating each foe, and choose from a variety of “treasures” (game-changing spells, creatures, or equipment), at set intervals. These latter cards are far too powerful to be included in the main competitive mode, and frequently have greatly reduced costs considering the impact they can have on the game. It’s a lot of fun unleashing completely broken combinations on the computer-controlled opponents, particularly when you draw just the right card to turn the tables on what looks like an impossible situation.
The goal is to defeat a gauntlet of eight semi-random boss encounters, each with their own unique hero power or some condition which makes them behave differently from a standard Hearthstone opponent. Many of these are based on new cards from the set, while others are borrowed from World of Warcraft or made up from whole cloth. While some bosses seem to be better planned out than others, each is entertaining and requires a different strategy to defeat. It gives this mode great replay value, but it ‘s always frustrating when a promising run crashes into a boss who perfectly counters your deck.
New to The Dalaran Heist is a series of Taverns where henchmen such as yourself can make changes to your deck. The taverns are almost all hosted by Barkeep Bob, though a few rare replacements will appear in his place from time to time. These friendly encounters allow you to remove a few cards that might not fit with your strategy, or improve some of your heaviest hitters. It’s a welcome improvement to previous versions of the single-player content, and helps reduce the chances you’ll draw a dead card in a critical situation.
Each of the heist’s five chapters introduces a special condition which remains in effect throughout the run. The first chapter adds two coins to each side’s hand when a neutral minion is defeated, the second adds a random minion to the board after a set number of turns, the third reduces the number of board space available, the fourth swaps the attack and defense value of all minions, and the final chapter adds some extra bosses on top of the eight you’d defeat during a normal run. On top of this, buying all five chapters with cash or in-game gold unlocks the optional “anomaly mode,” which adds an additional condition to the run. This can make things much easier or provide additional challenge since both sides of the board are affected equally by the anomaly.
While each henchman starts with their class’s standard hero power, each has two additional unlockable starting decks and hero powers which can be earned by performing certain class-specific actions while playing through the campaign. For example, the Mage can unlock a different hero power by freezing enemies, and the Paladin can earn one by using minions with Divine Shield. This adds even more replay value, since the strategies you can employ are multiplied ninefold when you unlock all the available options for a class.
Playing through each chapter of The Dalaran Heist earns you three Rise of Shadows packs, and beating all five nets a golden Classic pack. Buying all five chapters also gets you the ability to activate anomalies and unlocks the “Zayle: Shadow Cloak” card, which lets you play with a random Rise of Shadows themed deck in competitive modes. There are also two card backs that can be earned, one each for beating the heist in both normal and “Heroic” (i.e. hard) modes.
It’s nice to have a set goal to work towards, but I would still prefer a return to the old ways, where everyone unlocked the same cards instead of having random chance decide what kind of decks you can build. It doesn’t look like that’s ever going to happen again though, so at least the single-player content we’re getting is entertaining. I don’t know of any other collectible card-based roguelikes, and the combination of two genres I enjoy continues to be a lot of fun to play around with.
I’ve enjoyed my time with The Dalaran Heist more than any other Hearthstone expansion since The Witchwood, but there are a few things I’d like to see in future updates. For The Dalaran Heist and all of the other single-player content, I’d appreciate it if Blizzard removed the always-online requirement so it could be played without an internet connection, on airplanes or in remote areas. I’d also like to be able to practice against specific bosses, though I understand that might ruin part of the appeal of the randomized boss gauntlet.
For those wondering whether The Dalaran Heist‘s value is worth the price, the packs alone would cost $24.00 if purchased separately, so the expansion is a pretty good deal from a cost standpoint. The fact that it’s a lot of fun to play is a bonus, and even if you’re not interested in the main multiplayer mode, there’s a lot here to recommend. It doesn’t hurt that every player who logs in before July 1 also gets a free legendary card in addition to the other legendary freebie provided during Rise of Shadows‘ initial launch. In my opinion, The Dalaran Heist is well worth the asking price.
Moving on to the state of the game in general, things have improved dramatically since Rastakhan’s Rumble came out back in December. Apart from the yearly change to which expansions are allowed in Standard decks, the biggest change to the metagame was the removal of Genn Greymane and Baku The Mooneater from standard play. Both of these cards improved players’ hero powers if they built a deck around them, but this mechanic proved to be too strong, particularly for aggressive Paladin and Rogue decks. Both cards were sunsetted early, and over the last few months Blizzard has been taking a more active role in tweaking certain cards to make sure multiple deck strategies remain relevant.
A more recent adjustment was made to several cards released in The Boomsday Project expansion. With the recent Rise of the Mech update, several cards from Dr. Boom’s laboratories were augmented with greater power, lowered casting cost, or both. The Boomsday Project was initially regarded as a fairly weak expansion, but the changes made seem to have had the desired effect. Just before Rise of the Mech went live, several Rogue nerfs were also introduced. This has made an already-strong mech-driven metagame even stronger, but it doesn’t feel oppressive since every class has at least one meta-relevant deck. There also seems to be a lot more experimentation now that the powerful Kobolds and Catacombs, Knights of the Frozen Throne, and Journey to Un’goro expansions have rotated out of standard.
Rise of Shadows introduces a couple of new mechanics, and each of the villains brought something from their home expansion to the new set. One of the most interesting new additions is a new minion type called Lackeys. These low-cost minions are semi-random, but each has a fairly powerful effect when they hit the table. They’re especially useful in Rogue and Shaman decks, which can both increase the number of times a battlecry effect triggers. The developers have said Lackeys and other themes introduced in Rise of Shadows will be carried throughout the rest of Hearthstone‘s expansions this year, borrowing the idea of a 3-set block from Magic‘s physical card sets.
The other two new mechanics introduced in Rise of Shadows are Twinspell and Schemes, each of which apply only to spell cards for a few specific classes. Schemes increase in power for every turn they sit in your hand, and each is tied to one of the five villains. Twinspell cards can be cast twice before they’re removed from your hand, sort of like the More Arms card from Boomsday. Only the four classes not represented by one of the League members get Twinspell cards.
Each of the five main villains has also brought one of their signature mechanics to a new card in Rise of Shadows. Lazul’s Forbidden Words calls back to the Whispers of the Old Gods Forbidden cards, letting players spend all their remaining mana for greater effect. Dr. Boom’s Omega Devastator has additional power if the player has 10 mana crystals unlocked, Hagatha’s Witch’s Brew has Echo, and the Rogue’s Unidentified Contract has a semi-random effect when played, just like other unidentified equipment from Kobolds and Catacombs. Even Arch-Villain Rafaam lends a mechanic from his original set, coming into play like a Golden Monkey.
Hearthstone‘s development seems to have turned a corner. It’s been more than a year since longtime lead Ben Brode left Blizzard, and with the recent card rotation none of the old team’s ideas are still active in the game’s main competitive mode. Even though it’s got plenty of callbacks to Hearthstone‘s past, The Dalaran Heist feels like a fresh start for the five-year old game. For the first time in a long time, I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever’s coming next.
[This review is based on a retail build of the free-to-play game, with content provided by the publisher as well as purchased by the reviewer.]