Heroes and villains
At PAX East 2011, I interviewed the WoW TCG's lead designer, Ben Cichoski, and he reiterated the goal of the Icecrown game: accessibility. So I took him on his word. I grabbed Seven and Thespius of Raid Warning as well as Tim "Heartbourne" Tusing of Lore Hound, borrowed an Icecrown game from Cryptozoic, and headed to the tabletop gaming area.
To test the pick-up-and-play appeal of the game, we put Seven, who had never played the TCG before, in charge of the Lich King. Tim, also a newbie to the TCG scene, chose Sylvanas, and Seven and I rounded out the "good guys" team as Tirion and Jaina, respectively. Our own Joe Perez, a TCG veteran, provided tips and support for Seven on the other side of the table.
The first thing we noticed upon distribution of everyone's hero card was that Arthas has an "enrage timer." On turn 11, he deals 30,000 unpreventable damage to everyone and everything on the opposing side. So, essentially, if you don't win by your tenth turn, game over.
Thankfully, the heroes have their own "enrages." On top of passive bonuses (Tirion can heal one damage at the start of each turn, Jaina deals one extra damage with spells and abilities, and Sylvanas' party does one additional point of combat damage), each of the heroes can flip their card when the requisite resources are paid late-game to take advantage of a powerful active effect. Jaina, for example, deals a powerful field-wide AoE with her flip ability, and also boosts her passive ability to +2 damage. When the game starts entering its most vital turns, that's when these abilities become available, and that happens to be just when you need them.
The hero flip abilities are important, not because they're overpowered, but because Arthas almost certainly is. He's limited by the same rules that apply to any other player and hero -- he can only put one resource card down per round, etc. -- but the cards at his disposal are devastating. Arthas' deck contains a number of signature spells, abilities, allies, and items, but it also contains his minions, ranging from lowly ghouls to the bosses of Icecrown Citadel (all of them). As long as he can afford a card, he can mess you up with it.
We on the hero side checked out our decks, which contained lots of classic cards with new art and a smattering of allies from previous sets to augment the hero's damage and protect them from harm. The theme of each deck was easy to recognize right away -- Tirion was meant to be the healer and buff-bot, Jaina's role (in true mage fashion) was to control the board and deal lots of wide damage, and Sylvanas acted as a sniper and executioner to damaged units. Players familiar with the heroes and their classes in the MMO should be able to choose the deck that fits their preferred playstyle best. And there's even better news: the hero decks are legal to play in organized TCG play. Just replace the hero with a normal one, remove their respective legendary weapon from the deck, and you're good to go.
Sharing strats and searing Scourge
We got the game going and quickly discovered that, as we feared, the Lich King was one mean dude. He had dangerous and annoying abilities, like an ongoing one that made us take 5 damage every time we played a card for up to 25 total damage. He could bring out Frostmourne and the Helm of Domination, two very powerful items, every turn. He had what appeared to be an endless supply of Scourge allies. But we had one powerful tool: we could all see each other's cards.
And here's where the game really shines. Figuring out how to handle Icecrown's bosses or particularly troublesome lesser allies was like strategizing for an in-game raid. How could I force Arthas to use his Helm to defend against an attack prematurely and leave him open to attack by Tim? We had to work together and take advantage of our turn orders to tackle problems.
For example: Seven's Lich King brought a Blood Prince into play. When one Blood Prince enters play, Arthas is able to search his deck for the other two princes and put them into play as well, and at no cost. And each of them has an incredibly annoying power: they block the powers of opposing abilities, allies, and equipment, respectively. If you're not familiar with the rules of the TCG, imagine "powers" as "any effects written on the card." Without powers, our heroes were significantly less powerful, our equipment was useless, and our abilities did absolutely nothing. That included awesome abilities (like Jaina's Whiteout, which really ruined Arthas' day by forcing him to pay every time he wanted an ally to attack) that were already on the board.
So we hatched a scheme to get rid of the Prince that blocked our abilities' powers. I used an instant ability to deal four damage to the princes three, and Thespius finished one of them off with a melee strike from one of his allies. With the prince dead, our ability powers became active again, and Thespius was able to prevent the fatal combat damage done to his ally with a clutch instant ability. Then, Tim's Sylvanas picked off the two remaining princes with her Steady Shot ability and a melee strike from one of her allies. At that point, our turns were over, but we wouldn't be totally defenseless the following round. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
The whole game was full of moments like that: being confronted with an obstacle, conferring with each other, checking out each other's hands, and working out the best strategy for what resources we had available. Drawing a card when I really needed it felt like having a cooldown ready in the right raid phase, and combining card effects with a teammate at the right time felt just like executing a raid strategy correctly for the first time.
And that's what made the game feel so great: the Lich King felt like a huge challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Knowing we had limited time to beat that challenge also added a new dimension to the game: we didn't just have to keep ourselves alive, we had to be on the offensive on every turn to beat the clock.
So was it accessible?
We ran into surprisingly few problems with our newbie players. Seven forgot to take out Frostmourne for the first few turns, which undoubtedly would've been a benefit, but with Joe's guidance he picked up the rules very quickly. And Tim, another TCG neophyte, was able to play effectively with little guidance after a quick primer on the rules of the game. He started developing strategies for his Sylvanas on his own, asking me questions only when he wasn't totally sure. He understood his role in the game almost immediately, and I think the very specialized nature of the hero decks helped that immensely. A team of brand-new players with no help might run into some issues trying to play the game, but that's to be expected, and Cryptozoic has included a robust rulebook to help with that.
The appeal of not having to construct your own deck in order to play seems as if it would help a lot in getting people to hop into your party, and if our game was any indication, you might have two or three of you arguing over who gets to be the Lich King. On top of that, getting familiar with a hero deck as a new player means you could legitimately take that same deck into organized play, opening the door into new and more complex decks and strategies.
Knowing that the game could shift in or out of your favor at any time thanks to the inherent randomness of the deck format and the large number of unique and maddening allies Arthas can summon guarantees a different game every time you play, and if you lose as either hero or villain you can bet your life you'll want a rematch. With only ten turns available, too, the game doesn't take long -- an hour or so -- to complete.
Honestly, my only real complaint with the game is that with the large number of allies and the amount of damage flying around the board, there's no good way to track damage. No dice or other kinds of damage counters are included with the set. It would've been a nice touch.
What you will find in the set aside from the four decks is a treasure pack, which contains foil cards unique to this box. There's even a chance to find a Loot card from Worldbreaker
(the Mottled Drake, the Grim Campfire, or Landro's Lil' XT). If you just want a shot at a particular treasure card, the packs are available separately too.
If you want the experience of downing a difficult boss with your friends in card game form, regardless of your skill level with the TCG, the Assault on Icecrown Citadel Four-Player Game is a blast to play from start to finish.
Custom Lich King 60-card raid deck
Highlord Tirion Fordring 61-card deck
Lady Jaina Proudmoore 61-card deck
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner 61-card deck
Nine-card Treasure Pack (included in Four-Player game, also sold separately at MSRP of $5.99)