I’ve never been a Blizzard guy. I didn’t have much stomach for Diablo’s loot grinds, and the life-consuming power of the *craft games terrifies me. Many of my friends love their games, and I get why, but the company’s output has never been my cup of tea. What I am, though, is a card game guy. I love studying metagames, building clever decks, and outthinking my opponents. Plus, opening booster packs is a healthier outlet for my gambling compulsion than playing the lottery.
In my time I’ve played a lot of CCGs. There’s Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering, of course, but I’ve also had flings with Cardfight Vanguard and Duelmasters, not to mention the new Adventure Time game Card Wars. I always come back to Yu-Gi-Oh! though. For all its broken, imbalanced nonsense, I love the game’s mix of simplicity and open design. You don’t have to worry about getting mana stuck or anything like that, but you still have a wide variety of cards and effects to play around with, which you don’t get in other mana-less games. Plus the lack of set formats means that the cards I buy now will always be viable.
Of course, the things I like about Yu-Gi-Oh! have trade-offs. The absence of a mana ramp is the precise cause of the aforementioned “broken nonsense,” and that in conjunction with a lack of rotating formats resulted in a need to permanently ban or limit certain cards. Balancing card games is tricky, especially when it comes to the human element of interpreting effects and rule text. There’s only a certain level of complexity players can reasonably be expected to handle. Computers, however, can fill in a lot of those gaps.
Hearthstone strikes a good balance between the speed of Yu-Gi-Oh! and the more careful pacing of Magic, while setting itself apart as a distinct product. You have 30 life points rather than 20 or 8000, though the goal is still to reduce your opponent’s tally to zero before they can do the same to you. There is a resource curve to keep things manageable in the initial rounds, but instead of making you worry about your mana ratio, the game gives you a crystal automatically each turn, capping out at ten. This lets you focus entirely on your deck’s win condition, and makes for very quick game flow. A deck limit of 30 cards, with only 2 copies of each, allows for deck building that is both varied and relatively simple.
One of the biggest dangers when balancing any CCG comes from unexpected card combinations. Magic limits potential interactions by dividing cards into colors, each of which needs a specific kind of mana to be played, and by breaking its sets into blocks where only cards from certain years can be used. Konami has a more reactionary tactic when it comes to Yu-Gi-Oh!, limiting or banning outright any card combinations that become “broken.” Hearthstone takes a more fun approach by dividing its most powerful cards between 9 classes. In worst case scenarios, imbalanced cards can be patched, something that’s impossible in physical games.
Hearthstone features a cast of nine “heroes” from Warcraft lore, ranging from Valeera the Blood Elf Rogue to Gul’dan the Orc Warlock. Honestly, I have no idea who any of them are, but they all bring colorful personalities to the table (in the form of voice clips), and more importantly, handy magic powers. Each Hero has an ability that can be triggered once per turn for a cost of two mana. These skills range from summoning a random totem, to restoring 2 life to any target, to taking 2 damage and drawing a card. None of these powers is as effective as anything you can do with an actual card, but they each have their advantages, and they ensure that you’ll always have at least two options on every turn.
In addition to their powers, each class has its own set of cards that defines its core play style. Priests have plenty of control and healing effects, Hunters focus on dealing fast damage and buffing beasts, and Druids have the ability to ramp up their mana more quickly in order to drop huge threats early in the game. There’s also a pool of basic cards that can be used by any class, but class cards tend to be stronger overall. This ensures that – for the most part – you won’t see the same “staple” cards over and over again. Every class is balanced in a way that gives them a chance of reaching legend rank (though some are clearly favored over others), so you’ll face a diverse array of challenges as you climb up the ladder.
While there are a variety of card types ranging from weapons (which allow your hero to attack on their own) to spells (which have powerful one-time effects) the major focus of Hearthstone’s gameplay is minion cards. Minions form the brunt of your attack force, putting pressure on your opponent and allowing you to take action without spending mana (so long as you can keep them on the board). In addition to attack power, each minion has its own health value, and any damage minions take is persistent. Beyond their basic stats, a number of minions have effects that can shift the flow of the game. These include battlecries, which activate when a minion is summoned, deathrattles, which activate when it dies, and continuous effects that do things like draw extra cards or increase attack when certain board conditions are met. Juggling this many variables would be a nightmare in a physical game, but thankfully the computer takes care of it for you.
There are no turn phases in Hearthstone, nor is there need for convoluted mechanics such as priority or effect chains. If there is any kind of conflict or complicated game state, the game’s AI resolves it for you. Each player has 90 seconds in which to place minions on the board, cast spells, and attack, and these actions can be taken in any order. There are only two very limited ways you change the course of opponent’s turn: by playing “taunt” minions which must be targeted for attack first, or by using “secrets.” Secrets are like trap cards in Yu-Gi-Oh! or Instants in Magic, but instead of needing manual activation, they trigger automatically when specific conditions are met on the board. By limiting players’ ability to interact on their opponents’ turns, Hearthstone eliminates the tedious back-and-forth that can bog other card games down.
Not only does Hearthstone’s digital nature make for smoother play, it also opens up interesting mechanical possibilities that would be difficult to pull off with pens and paper. Some of the most powerful abilities in the game are based on RNG, such as Ragnaros’ ability to do 8 damage to a random enemy each turn, or the Shaman’s hero power, which lets him summon randomized tokens with various powerful effects. Positioning can also play a key role in battle, with several minions having powerful buffs that only affect adjacent enemies, and certain spells using a small area of effect. One of the most interesting creatures in the game, Nozdormu, plays around with the match timer, giving players only 15 seconds to complete their turns. While there are no alternate win conditions (decking your opponent out causes them to take damage rather than lose instantly), you can affect the tempo and pacing of a match in much deeper way.
For a free-to-play title, Hearthstone gives you a startling amount to do right off the bat. After a short and amusing tutorial you’re dumped into practice mode, where you can unlock new classes and test out deck strategies. After a few rounds of practice, you can enter play mode, which allows you to duel other players in casual and ranked matches. Every game you play nets experience for your selected class, which unlocks new basic cards up to level 10, and “golden” variant cards from then on. Winning gives you an experience boost and earns you gold, which can be used to buy booster packs and participate in the arena. You can also win gold by completing daily “quests,” which challenge you to win a certain number of times with a specific class, or kill a large number of minions.
While you can use gold to buy booster packs directly (each pack costs 100) you’ll have a better time of it if you save up an extra 50 for an arena ticket. The arena is Hearthstone’s version of draft play, where you’re given a random selection of cards and asked to build a deck from them. Once your hodgepodge deck is complete, you can take it online and compete for prizes. Your arena run ends when you lose three games or win twelve, and your prizes are determined by your performance. You’ll be given a varying number of boxes containing gold, booster packs (which have better odds the better you do), and arcane dust, which can be used to craft new cards. Winning at least 7 games will net you enough gold to buy another arena ticket, so you can theoretically play for free forever and fill out your card collection. While ranked play is certainly compelling, Arena can be positively addicting with its constant variety and increased element of risk. If you catch the arena bug like I have, Trump’s tier list will help you improve your luck.
These three modes provide a lot of value, but there are still some features Blizzard could add to improve the game. Other competitive CCGs have free fan-made online offerings, such as Cockatrice for MTG or YGOPRO and Dueling Network for Yu-Gi-Oh!, which allow players to test out meta decks at no cost before they commit to building them. While these are fan-made apps (and exist in sketchy legal territory) they give their respective games longer legs and make for a richer metagame. As a digital title, Hearthstone could easily include a “testing” mode that gives players access to the entire set of 382 “expert” cards, but doesn’t reward them with gold or experience when they play. I understand why Blizzard hasn’t gone this route – there’s no money in it, and they want to keep players caught up in the addictive feedback loop of gold and EXP rewards – but I think it would make for even richer competitive play if they added it. There also isn’t much in the way of single-player content – just AI practice heroes with pre-constructed decks – but that will change with the Curse of Naxxaramas expansion which is set to drop some time this month.
Cards in Hearthstone are divided up into four rarities, which are usually a rough indicator of their overall power. Common and Rare cards are general-purpose, while Epics have more specific and powerful effects, and Legendaries are so effective that for the sake of balance you can only run one of each in your deck. Cardscan be obtained in one of two ways. The first is through booster packs, which can be purchased for real money or gold, and are guaranteed to yield at least one rare. If you want a specific card, you can convert cards you own into “arcane dust,” which can then be used to craft it. Higher-rarity cards have exorbitant dust costs, so expect to spend a lot of money or a lot of time grinding if you want the best ones. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get your hands on a golden card, Hearthstone’s equivalent to holo-foil. Golden cards have gold borders and feature animated versions of their card art. Not only do they look nice, they can be converted into enough dust to buy any normal card of the same rarity that you might desire. It should be noted that you don’t need to spend a lot to be competitive. One of the best decks in the game only costs 1480 dust, less than the price of one legendary.
While Hearthstone is incredibly fun, what really sets it apart from the competition is its presentation. Gold cards are a nice touch, but they’re really just icing. Each and every piece of card art is top-notch, with a large number of cards taken from the defunct WOW TCG (which featured work from the likes of Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik), and the rest drawn by Blizzard’s unmatched concept team. Many games feature amusing flavor text for cards – and if you look at your collection screen you’ll see Hearthstone is no different – but that’s just the beginning. Whenever a minion hits the board, attacks, or dies, it delivers a charming catch phrase. It’s great to hear “LEEEEEROY JEENKIIINS!” when everyone’s favorite overzealous paladin enters play, followed by “Time’s up! Let’s do this!” as he launches his attack and “at least… I had… chicken” when he inevitably bites it. The voice acting for all of these lines is top-notch, as is the acting for the various heroes’ taunts and emotes, and the Innkeeper’s charming Scottish brogue.
But the game board itself is far and away Hearthstone’s most appealing aesthetic feature. As you sit at the virtual table, you can hear the buzz of the inn patrons around you, as well as light, pleasant bar music. Every match drops you onto one of four distinct board variants: Orgrimmar, Dalaran, Stormwind, or Stranglethorn Vale. Each board has unique, interactive set decoration. Stormwind features buildings with breakable windows, while Orgrimmar contains a catapult that can be loaded with rocks and fired again and again. Clicking around and playing with the board gives you something to do while your opponent is thinking through their turn. When it comes time for you to play, the interaction is even more satisfying. Your minions are represented by round baubles that have real 3D depth. You can click on them to pick them up and drag them into whichever enemy you want to attack. This interface gives the game a very tactile feel, something that’s missing from contemporary digital CCGs like HEX. Much like my favorite iPad game The Room 2, Hearthstone excels at building the illusion that you’re interacting with real objects in a real place (though I wouldn’t recommend the game’s iPad client, as it’s plagued by bugs at present).
When Blizzard announced they were making a digital CCG, we all expected it to look and sound beautiful, and there was little doubt that it would be well-balanced, but I don’t think anyone anticipated this level of sophistication and subtle brilliance. Its turn-based nature and straightforward mechanics make this one of the most immediately accessible competitive games ever devised, but at the same time its depth is positively cavernous. None of its contemporaries, digital or physical, can match it in terms of value per dollar. You can play endlessly for free – and believe me, you’ll be compelled to – but you also won’t mind forking over a bit of dough for the satisfaction of opening packs. From its gameplay to its aesthetics to its accommodating pay model, Hearthstone is, in a word, elegant.
Version Reviewed: PC