"We want to set the scene for you guys". Lead designer Ben Brode and producer Yong Woo have just taken the stage in a dimly lit theatre at Blizzard's headquarters in Irvine, California. A small group of journalists, streamers and professional Hearthstone players are in attendance, as the duo starts bringing us up to speed on the latest from the Hearthstone universe. Apparently, an eerie feeling has been creeping upon the Warcraft tavern recently. The air seems unusually cold, the regulars have been noticing cloaked new visitors, and, if you listen closely, you can hear whispers from the deep.
The Internet has done some whispering of its own over the last few days, so we have a fairly good idea of where the presentation is heading. A trailer rolls over the screen, and sure enough, there it is, the announcement of the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion.
Whispers of the Old Gods is a set of 134 new cards centred around the ancient Old Gods from Warcraft lore. The Old Gods are monsters that lie dormant under the earth, influencing the people and creatures that live on the surface through whispers. As Brode puts it, these are the bad guys behind the bad guys.
Central to Whispers of the Old Gods is the theme of corruption where once innocent-looking characters turn into bizarro-like opposites of themselves. Healbot becomes Corrupted Healbot, a more powerful mech that heals the other player instead of its owner; the innocent-looking Loot Hoarder turns into the foul Polluted Hoarder; and of course, Doomsayer, the card that has been predicting the end times since the beta test, has emerged as the Validated Doomsayer. "I was right all along", he declares in a triumphant voice, as he is positioned on the game board.
But those cards are small fry. Of the six cards we were shown, the most interesting by far was C'Thun, the first of the four Old Gods and a 10-cost tentacle behemoth that splits its attack damage randomly between all enemies when played. The most interesting aspect of this card is that there are going to be several other cards that enhance C'Thun specifically. Like Beckoner of Evil, which when played, gives your C'Thun a 2/2 bonus, no matter if it's in your deck, in your hand or already on the board.
This made for some great moments during our hands-on with the expansion. By using cards like Beckoner of Evil and Twillight Elder we were able to build a fairly powerful C'Thun, at one point being able to boost it to 16 in attack and damage. Since C'Thun does a lot of immediate damage once it's placed on the board, it can't be countered entirely with Big Game Hunter or a spell like Polymorph. Blizzard wants players to build their decks around the four old gods, and based on our initial impressions, it certainly seems like this will be the case for C'Thun.
The demo certainly placed the mythical monster in the centre. Every time a player strengthened their C'Thun a portal would pop up on the screen, briefly offering a glimpse of the tentacled god and its stats to both players. This helped build anticipation, and both players had to make sure they were ready for each other's C'Thun once before it hit the board.
The other cards made less of an impression. We would be surprised if the 4-cost Polluted Hoarder sees any ranked play at all. It dies to a regular Loot Hoarder for starters. Corrupted Healbot and Validated Doomsayer didn't seem too powerful on their own, but we can at least imagine them making some sense if they're paired with the right cards.
The real star of the show, and indeed, the entire presentation, was undoubtedly C'Thun. This should perhaps not be much of a surprise. After all, we had access to two different decks in the demo: A ramp druid and a fairly typical mage deck, both of which were clearly designed to showcase possible interactions with C'Thun. If it can shape ladder matches in the same way remains to be seen, but as far as fun goes, using it to completely devastate your opponent felt deeply satisfying.
So far, we've only seen six cards, with more to come over the next few weeks. The expansion will cover a mix of bizarro-versions of previously released cards as well as some brand new characters. Since the upcoming Standard format only allows for cards from expansions released during the last year, we wouldn't be surprised if Healbot is but the first of several 2014 favourites to get a twisted reprint.
So maybe it's not the end of the world for the Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins VS Gnomes sets after all. They're not all coming back, and those that are coming back are quite different, but they might be kept in the loop after all. "This is the darkest thing Hearthstone will ever do", Brode tells us in a group interview later that day. And sure, it's darker than the Grand Tournament, but it's Hearthstone dark. It's silly and colourful, and as far as reprints go, it feels unusually inspired.