Hearthstone (PC, Mac, Android, and iOS)

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Have you ever played Magic the Gathering, The Pokemon Trading Card Game, Duel Masters, Yugioh, Bakugan, The Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, or the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game? Well now you can play the digital World of Warcraft Trading Card Game. A game complete with Leper Gnomes, Murlocs, Goblins, and legends like Deathwing or Leroy Jenkins himself. Relax, sit down, and just play a round or two of Hearthstone.

History

Hearthstone is an internet collectible card game created by Blizzard Entertainment. It was created by Team 5 within Blizzard, a team formed to create a smaller side project. They decided on a collectible card game because it would take lots of design knowledge, fairly little tech, and it would be something that was fresh and new in the digital space. When the game was nearing release Blizzard had a hard time creating interest for a card game where an up front fee would give the player access to all the cards. So they instead opted for a free-to-play model that enabled the cracking pack experience but further enabled impatient players to get the cards they wanted right now — and make some profit on the side.

For a trading card game it may come as a surprise that there’s no way for player’s to actually trade cards. The design team figured it would be best to avoid balancing a reactive economy, presenting opportunities for duplicating cards by meddling with the trade system, and enabling third party sales.

Hearthstone was released on March 11th 2014. It’s competition was Dark Souls 2 (PS3 and XBox 360), Smite (PC), and Luftrausers (PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, and PS Vita).

Experience

When I play Magic I don’t talk trash. I’ll happily engage in banter with an opponent, especially during the early turns of a draft event. But if that guy starts talking or they need to focus I shut my mouth immediately and try to give nothing about the board state away. I want to influence their play as little as possible. There’s none of that in Hearthstone. I shout, challenge, jeer, and get pretty rowdy about things overall. I can’t count the number of times I’ve played my win condition while bellowing, ‘CAN YOU DIG IT!?’ There’s something about the anonymity of the game over the web and the fact that I’m not face to face with someone that bring out my inner hooligan.

Gameplay

Hearthstone is a class-based collectible card game. You and your opponent each start with 30 health and your goal is to reduce their’s to zero by playing and attacking them with minions and playing spells. Each class has cards unique to them but there’s also a pool of generic cards that any class can use, which makes each class feel uniquely their own. Each class also comes with a hero power that costs 2 mana and does something simple such as the Ranger’s Steady Shot which deals 2 damage to the enemy hero. Each deck is composed of 30 cards with no more than 2 copies of each card in it so once you’ve seen your opponent cast those 2 fireballs, you know they’re fresh out.

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Naturally the classes are the World of Warcraft classes.

Unlike Magic there are no land cards to produce mana. Each hero’s max mana supply simply increases by one and refills every turn. Also unlike MTG you cannot play cards on your opponent’s turn — there are no instant speed effects, only sorceries [This guy would like that kind of game]. The closest things are secrets which are cards that trigger under certain circumstances. Such as the Paladin’s Noble sacrifice which will bravely jump in the way of an opponents attacking minion and take the blow instead. Further unlike MTG there are no phases, you can play cards and attack with minions interchangeably during your turn. Minions also have a health total that does not restore in between turns so they’ll eventually wear down over frequent attacks.

Now that the lecture is out of the way you can start playing. Every day you’ll get new quests which earn you gold which you can spend on packs, rounds at the Arena where you build a deck out of randomly generated cards, or Solo Adventures.

The Gush

Hearthstone is a free to play game and I would say that its micro-transactions are quite tame. You can purchase packs of cards or single player adventures with in game money or real world cash. The single player adventures are a little pricey at 700 gold per area — the gold purchase is sadly only available in one semi-hidden menu — or 20 dollars for the whole thing. It’s totally possible to get everything in the game without spending any real world money, and quite attainable at that. I’ve been playing for two years, have not spent a single penny, and I’m able to construct a decent deck.

The packs pseudo-random distribution is really interesting. Every pack is guaranteed to have a rare level card in it, every so many packs is guaranteed to have an epic card, and every so many packs is guaranteed to have a legendary card in it. There’s no guarantee that you won’t get extra copies but then you can break them down into dust which can be crafted into other cards you do want. You can even break down all the cards for a class that you never play in order to create cards for the classes that you do.

The single player adventures are simply fun. They all do very interesting things to warp the game or alter the rules in some sort of way. Such as having you play a unique class or having your opponent steal your deck — make an awful deck and watch him struggle.

Have you ever missed an ‘at the beginning of your upkeep ability’ in MTG? Or forgotten an ability that you can’t opt out of? Never again says Hearthstone. Because those systems are automated, there’s no room for that kind of human error.

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This also creates ease in bizarre systems, like replacing your character with a demon lord.

If the solo adventures don’t strike your fancy or are out of your price range then Hearthstone’s still got you covered with the Tavern Brawl. A special way to play the game is presented every week with new rules or stipulations. Sometimes the players team up to defeat a boss minion or maybe you must construct your deck of 15 of two different cards. Also, if you win, you get a free pack! FREE STUFF!

The attention to detail is top notch and keen. Certain cards will have different aesthetic elements when played against or alongside certain other heroes or minions. For example, if you play Illidan Stormrage while Mal’Furion Stormrage is your opponent his dialogue will change. Every play board also has things on it that you can fiddle with when you’re waiting for your opponent to make his move.

The Kvetch

You may have just started playing and you’re looking at your cards and you’re brewing up a brand new deck but it’s probably just going to lose a lot. There’s these little things called the meta-game and dominant strategy. A lot of players — or bots — have figured out what is the, statistically, most powerful deck. And then they’ve spent enough money to get every card they need to support this deck. Worse yet, in ranked play they can lower their rank by conceding repeatedly until they hit rock bottom and start smashing the newbies in a new meteoric rise. I’m just tired of facing top tier decks at low ranks when I just wanna have silly fun with my Druid Murloc deck.

As far as I’m concerned The Arena is black magic and the people who are good at it are literal wizards. Arena is most analogous to MTG’s draft format. You choose one of three random available classes and then build a deck by choosing one from 30 sets of three random cards. Then you go up against opponents until you lose three times. Then you’re awarded prizes for every victory you racked up. Rewards like gold cards, crafting dust, packs, and gold. The implementation is great, I must say.I’m just so consistently bad I had to complain.

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Pictured is a literal wizard’s Arena winning.

Occasionally cards will not interact in the way that you expect them to. If you’ve got 2 secrets that trigger at the same action, which one goes off first, do they both go off? Hell if I know. And that not knowing means that I can’t plan or strategize.

The Verdict

One of my major problems with Magic the Gathering is the pedigree. There are so many old cards that don’t fit with modern design sensibilities or are otherwise worth so much money that it acts like an incredibly high barrier to entry to certain formats.Hearthstone dodges all of these things by learning from MTG’s mistakes and being a pretty new game with no 500 dollar cards that you need to be competitive. It’s digital automation makes it much more difficult for someone to cheat on purpose or on accident. It’s also a much simpler game subjected to a different kind of RNG — never get mana screwed again but who knows what you’re Unstable Portal will produce. In short, it’s a damn fine card game that requires no previous knowledge of the World of Warcraft or experience with collectible card games. Oh yeah… and it’s free.

Next Week: The Consuming Shadow

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