There are already an awful lot of cards in Hearthstone, Blizzard's amazing new online collectible card game, and they cover a wide variety of play styles.
Last week, though, I opened a fresh pack and found a card that's posing an unusual problem: whenever I play it, it's so powerful that I feel bad about the whole thing afterwards. Meet Onyxia, the dragon.
First things first: I am not very good at Hearthstone, and I think Onyxia is particularly helpful if you're a bad-to-middling player. I've read plenty of people online saying that they don't think Onyxia is overpowered in the slightest, and I suspect that, in part, they're just too proficient to ever need her help. I'll often limp into Hearthstone's mid-game in a peculiarly sorry state, though: down on HP and with almost no minions in play. Onyxia's made for people like me, roaring out of the sky like the dragon she is and leaving devastation in her wake.
Actually, what she leaves is whelps. 1/1 whelps -- meaning they do 1 damage and have 1 health point -- which are easy enough to despatch in theory. Here's the thing, though: she leaves them everywhere, filling up all of your available minion slots in one go.
Okay, not all of them. After uttering her battlecry, she also plonks herself down on the board, and she's a beast: 8/8. (I call the seconds following all this the Pregnant Pause, incidentally, because I am classy like that.)
It sounds great, doesn't it? It is great. The problem is that it's a little too great.
Take a game I was playing online yesterday. My rival is doing well. He's a priest, inevitably (don't get me started), but he's also absolutely kicking me to pieces. His hero has 19 or so health points left -- you win games by taking out the other guy's hero -- and I've got 10. His board isn't looking bad either and mine is tragic. I'm going to die.
Except I have Onyxia ready to play. She costs 9 mana to cast, but we're well into the game now, so that's no problem. My only other minion on the board is a Core Hound: 9/5 and apparently unloved by the pros because he can be easily flattened before he has a chance to strike, during the round of slumber most cards have to endure before being put to use. Amazingly, he's almost survived his snooze and now he's going to have a dragon for company. A dragon and a whole bunch of whelps.
The whelps are weak, of course, but I've got a lot of them -- and two high-value cards, one of which is bound to linger until the next round. Amazingly, they both do and I win the match with a steamroller turn -- a steamroller driven by my dragon. Onyxia does it again. "Well played," I say, somewhat sheepishly. My opponent doesn't reply.
He's right not to. I didn't play well at all. I won through stupid luck of the stupid draw when a legendary card turned up in a pack I bought. I'm all for game-changers and table-turners, and rarity is the perfect way of distributing these things to players. Onyxia's not just a little too powerful, though -- she seems a little too smartly targeted on getting bad players like me back in the game and into a lead position. She encourages you to take risks by leaving your minion field empty, which is a great source of strategy if you are choosing to leave it empty as a calculated ploy, but too often that field is empty not by design, but due to good old incompetence. Onyxia can feel a little cheap.
I'm sure a really skilful Hearthstoner will already know how to bat Onyxia away with ease, but I've still had a couple of rather tacky wins with her over the past week. So, as much as I love her -- as much fun as it is to plonk her down on the table and romp to victory -- I'm going to leave her out of my deck for a while. Partly because she makes me feel like a swine, and partly because, with Onyxia by my side, I have fewer reasons to learn how to be a better player. Also, in a quiet way, the very sight of her makes me wonder if Hearthstone really is the game that some of its detractors suggest -- a game that's ultimately unbalanced by the material advantage it gives to the grinders, the spenders, the lucky ones who get a megaton card on their first paid pack.
That doesn't mean I can't sneak a peek in the card collection pages every now and then, though, and just look at her. Onyxia: you're too good to be true.
In my case, much, much too good.