With Hearthstone's Year of the Phoenix reaching its second phase, we got a new expansion, Scholomance Academy, introducing 135 new cards and a few mechanics. The concept of the expansion itself is rather fun, as it takes the haunting World of Warcraft dungeon and turns it into a school of magic, to a time before its dean Kel'Thuzad became a terrible Lich.
This means that the new mechanics and cards were mostly created around the notion of university, studies, and magic. Most importantly, the Scholomance Academy entertained and impressed us in a way we haven't been by Hearthstone for a while. The most recent expansions suffered from serious imbalance problems in their early days, which resulted in frustration and many similar decks. This is not happening with Scholomance Academy, or at least so far, as we are seeing a large number of tactics, decks, and possibilities.
We haven't noticed any decks or classes having any clear edge over the others, even if this is admittedly too early to really understand the balance of the game. Regardless, so far, so good. Also, Blizzard itself confirmed to Gamereactor that they will be much more proactive in rebalancing the game, and the studio will act quickly whenever necessary.
One of the biggest new features in Scholomance Academy is the Dual Class cards, which are available for only two classes. Wand Thief is a 1/2 minion that costs 1 mana, and if cast as a combo, allows the player to discover a Mage spell. As a Dual Class card, Wand Thief is available for both Mages and Rogues. Although it's a great novelty on paper, the truth is that Dual Class cards are nothing really revolutionary. Sometimes they make games more dynamic and unpredictable, as in the case above, in which a Rogue gains access to a Mage spell, but overall the fact that they are available to two classes isn't really a big deal.
Another new mechanic is Studies, cards that cost 1 mana and that allow the player to discover a spell or a minion of a certain type, lowering the price of the next card you play of that type by 1 mana. The Warrior, for instance, has access to Athletic Studies, a spell that costs 1 mana, and that allows you to discover a Rush minion, among three choices presented at random. After that, the next Rush minion you play will cost you 1 less mana. These are very useful cards, as they help to speed up the game without actually depleting your hand, in addition to the possibility of allowing the discovery of repeated cards that otherwise would not be possible, such as finding a second Doctor Krastinov or Kargath Bladefist in the case of the Warrior.
Finally, we have Spellburst, a new keyword found in weapons and minions. These are cards that come into play with a potential extra effect, that gets activated after the player casts a spell. The Druid's Gibberling is a 1/1 minion with a Spellburst that summons a second Gibberling. This means that if the Druid casts a spell while Gibberling is in play, he will automatically summon a second Gibberling. This effect only occurs once per card, however. Spellburst cards offer great advantages, but you need to make sure you get to use them. If the weapon or minion gets eliminated before you cast a spell, you will be wasting its extra effect.
We enjoyed the new mechanics introduced by Scholomance Academy, but also a few other original cards. One of the most interesting is Sphere of Sapience, a 1 mana 0/4 weapon that works automatically at the beginning of the player's turn. This card shows the player which card they will receive next and allows him to either keep it or send it to the end of the deck. If you keep it, everything remains the same, but if you deny it and get a new card, the weapon will lose 1 durability. This is a great way to control the flow of your game, especially in control decks.
Another very interesting card is the Rogue's Secret Passage, a spell that costs 1 mana and changes the player's current hand, for five cards taken from his deck. The player can then play these cards or leave them be, and at the beginning of the next turn, the new hand is swapped again by the hand the player had before. There are several similar cards in Scholomance Academy, and they seem to explore more daring and creative possibilities.
Scholomance Academy is an interesting return for Hearthstone, and it features innovative mechanics and a set of cards that, so far, have allowed for a large number of decks and tactics in virtually all classes. It's hard to see what the meta-game will look like in a few weeks, but for now, Scholomance Academy stands as one of the better recent Hearthstone expansions.