The chunky, goofy exterior that Blizzard slathers across the Warcraft franchise often belays a serious depth that number-crunchers and elite strategists attempt to plumb. Both are perfectly at home in Hearthstone, which is affable on the surface but, like many CCGs, has no end to the possibilities in builds and play sessions.
So what's it like to sit down to an evening with Hearthstone? I'm glad you asked.
At first glance, Hearthstone is a lot less busy than both World of Warcraft and, say, Magic Online (an online card battling title I spent well over a year playing). It boasts a simple interface that creates the impression that you're in one of the game's fantasy inns, throwing down a few cards while a nearby fire crackles. The clean-cut look of the game will undoubtedly serve its upcoming tablet version well.
In fact, Blizzard has gone to great lengths to pare down the CCG to its basics, dress it up in the franchise's outfit, and polish it within an inch of its life. There are only a few options available when you get into the game. You can check out your collection and build a deck, you can buy new decks from the store, you can craft new cards from old ones, you can check out quests and your progress, and you can play in one of three game modes: practice (versus the computer), play (versus a similarly matched opponent), and arena (draft play-for-pay).
Before I could get to any of that, the game put me through a mandatory tutorial in which I learned the mechanics of Hearthstone over the course of several matches. It's a good tutorial that takes about half an hour, and by the end of it I felt pretty confident that I knew how to play without completely embarrassing myself.
It doesn't take much to start slinging cards like a pro in Hearthstone. The board is simple and the cards, while diverse, aren't the fictional Encyclopedia of Fantasy Terminology that Magic: The Gathering offers. And yes, I love that I can click on the board elements to see little animations happen. Sometimes you get bored waiting for an opponent to act!
Each player has one of nine heroes (mirroring WoW's original classes) and 30 hit points. You get a hand of cards at the beginning -- the player who goes second gets one more card -- and the first person to make his or her foe dip to zero health wins the match. All of the cards have a mana cost, but unlike other games where you have to manage mana cards as a separate resource, in Hearthstone the game automatically starts by doling out one mana per turn to each player and then ups that number by one for successive turns until it caps at 10. So before you begin, you'll want to make sure that your deck has a good spread of card costs so that you won't be twiddling your thumbs until turn five just to play that Doomguard you've been saving.
Decks are made of 30 cards, and a player can only put two of one type of card into a deck (meaning that you'll have between 15 and 30 different cards). There's certainly synergy galore to explore in the deck building portion, but generally you'll want a mix of minions (creatures) and spells to use.
The game progresses smoothly and with a noticeable curve as the mana pool gets larger and larger. I haven't yet played a game past turn 12 or so, just because by then everyone's health is getting low and big monsters are coming into play.
If Magic: The Gathering is often like a delicate chess match where elaborate combos are constructed and the entire board is a demonstration of checks-and-balances between players, then Hearthstone is somewhere in the vicinity of Connect Four and thumb wars. It's quicker, less complex, and not as concerned with keeping minions alive for turns on end.
There are two things that accomplish this faster pace. The first is the fact that you don't have to go through minions to attack your opponent. You have the choice to do either (or both, if you have enough minions on the field), but unless the enemy has a minion with the taunt ability, you are free to ignore the creatures and go right for your opponent's throat. This keeps the board from becoming an elaborate tower of mathematics. Simpler math, perhaps. The second aspect that helps is the hero ability. Each hero/class has a special ability that can be triggered for two mana once a turn. Mages can fling a bolt that does one damage to a creature or enemy, Paladins can spawn a 1/1 minion, Shamans can summon a random totem, and so on.
Since you can only communicate with your opponent through six basic emotes (unless they're a Battle.net friend), chatter isn't going to slow you down, either. I got quickly used to flinging up a wall of minions only to see them decimated on the next round. Instead of hording them, I often sent minions to their deaths as long as their suicide attack helped to take out a threat across the board. It all comes down to maintaining an advantage over your opponent in one or more ways: having more health, having more cards, having more pieces on the board, or having more options at your disposal. For example, taking out a 1/1 enemy minion and doing two additional damage to the opponent for the cost of a 1 mana arcane missiles card delivers a small but definite advantage. I want to give up as little as possible and make the enemy give up everything.
There's a personal metagame to Hearthstone: leveling and quests. When you play a class, you earn XP for each match and get benefits (and the classic WoW "ding" sound) when you level up. What's more interesting are the quests, which go hand-in-hand with Hearthstone's business model.
So let's tackle the model first. This is a free-to-play title that sells two things: packs of cards and advancement in the arena. You get a basic deck of cards for each class as you play them, but additional cards are going to cost. It's not terrible, but you could go broke if you don't check yourself and your spending.
Fortunately, there is a slower but more affordable path for us freeloading folks. You can earn gold by winning matches and completing quests, and 100 gold equals a new deck of five cards. I'm getting 10 gold for every three matches I win, which means I have to win 30 matches to earn a new deck. That's pretty dang slow, but hey, free is free. There are also quests (one-shots and dailies) that offer more gold if you achieve their objectives.
I think it's a good balance between giving away the store and nickle-and-diming players. It's a question of time vs. money, and whatever you want to spend more of on the game will speed you on the path to a larger collection.
Grooving to the feel
I used to get stressed out a lot playing Magic, but I've been enjoying Hearthstone matches. It's nice that people can't start flaming you in chat, but I think it's also that the game does for CCGs what World of Warcraft initially did for MMOs. Blizzard has made something accessible for the casual gamer while retaining options for the hardcore. I can just play, react to each turn, plan a little strategy, and enjoy a quick game session without ripping my hair out.
There's just a great feel to this game. Cards don't appear on the board with a weak "ffft;" they yell, spout out a catchphrase, fling fireballs, and clash with force. If you want to look back at previous turns to see what cards were just played, you can hover over the left-hand side and enjoy a closer examination of the moves while the rest of the game mutes the visuals and audio. The artwork is decent (not as great as Magic's renowned illustrations, I'll admit) and even opening up a pack of cards is an exciting experience thanks to the animations. As a music buff, I also like the tavern music that helps create a relaxing environment.
There are only a few things that I'd like to see added to the game. Guilds, for one, would be terrific. Ditto for a public chat room; the prospects for an in-game community seem limited with just Battle.net's friend list and no card trading. I really wouldn't mind an in-game encyclopedia of cards and terminology so that I wouldn't have to pick over a wiki (not that the tooltips aren't helpful). Player housing? Just kidding, although there seems like several MMO systems such as achievements, game-wide events, titles, and personal avatars could find their place in Hearthstone.
Hearthstone feels like a bite-sized game that satisfies that old WoW and Magic itch while being something new as well. I'm looking forward to going from being a greenhorn to a leathery veteran of countless card battles.
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