Hearthstone

The Warcraft franchise is a vast, ever growing, almost sentient thing. It includes a number of extremely popular strategic games, the worlds biggest MMO, spawned world’s first MOBA, inspired series of licensed novels, toy lines, an obscure and unpopular tabletop RPG and even a semi-popular CCG. When I say “semi-popular” I’m speaking in relative terms. For example, Magic The Gathering is genuinely popular. It’s the biggest card game out there, and the Warcraft CCG is nowhere near as ubiquitous or respected. Then again, my local Wallmart and Game Stop never carried MTG cards (you’d buy those in specialized nerd-friendly establishments), but they always seemed to have exactly five Warcraft CCG blisters behind the glass somewhere. So while few people actually knew about it and played it, it was always somewhat more accessible because cards were sold just about everywhere you could buy other Blizzard merchandise.

Personally I have never collected it, because I swore off CCG’s after I was done with Middle Earth: the Wizards. Honestly, I don’t care what you say: that game was motherfucking amazing, and we played it like a decade before Peter Jackson introduced Tolkien to the Internet by way of movies. But in addition to being obscure hipster game, it also had really cool set of rules which emphasized exploration, resource gathering and gearing up your heroes in almost RPG like fashion rather than the simplistic MTG wizard duel setup. It was nuanced game which could be won by persuading more factions to join your cause, or by throwing the ring into the volcano. After playing it for a few years, MTG and it’s clones seemed like a step down, and a waste of money. So I never actually got into the Warcraft card game. My evil arch-nemesis brother however bought , traded and eBay-sniped enough cards to build not one, but several competitive decks. So whenever we felt like playing, he would let me pick one of his decks, and then he would proceed to completely obliterate me with one of the remaining ones.

Warcraft CCG

First person view of me totally losing this game.

If you have ever played MTG, the Warcraft game is much like it, but simpler. For example, there are no lands but instead any card can be played face down as a resource that can be tapped just like a land. Some cards are special resources called “quests” which are played face up, and can be fulfilled (usually by tapping things) to give you a reward (usually extra card draws) and become regular resources afterwards. Personally I think the Magic resource mechanic is more intuitive, but Warcraft one ends up being simpler once you get used to it.

The only other departure from the MTG model is the fact that instead of playing a nebulous, invisible and anonymous wizard, you instead start by playing a hero card. Heroes have hit points, abilities and if they are equipped with weapons and armor they can make attacks just like the minions do. This makes for interesting strategies sometimes: for example, if you’re playing a warrior your goal is essentially to use minions as a meat shield until you gather enough resources to equip all your epic armor and weapons at two-hit your opponent while being neigh invulnerable. It’s a fun little game. Where it lacks in depth, it makes up with dynamic, fast paced gameplay.

Why am I talking about the Warcraft CCG here? Because Blizard’s new video game Hearthstone is exactly that game (it even uses a lot of same art on the cards), but even simpler and in digital format. I guess you can call it a CCCG. That’s a thing right? I mean, I know that there exists a digital version of MTG so I’m assuming they are simply following an existing business model and are attempting to steam-roll over it gliding on the massive (but very slowly waning) popularity of WoW.

Pretty much everything that made the Warcraft CCG unique and different from MTG is gone in Hearthstone. The quests and resources are replaced by “mana crystals”. You get one extra crystal each turn, up until you have ten ensuring a rather linear progression. At the beginning you can only play weak, basic cards, and must wait til later to play the big and scary ones. The character cards are also gone, replaced with the basic WoW classes. Each one has 30 hit points and one ability which costs 2 mana to play. Depending on class it could be direct damage spell, heal or a summon spell for a basic minion. Armor is gone, replaced with spells that give you temporary armor that basically pads your hit points. Weapons typically do not cost resources to swing, but instead have set durability which decreases with each attack until they break. All decks must have exactly 30 cards, which makes the system somewhat rigid and inflexible. Other than that it plays exactly as the real life CCG. Or, if you will, exactly like Magic, if Magic had weapons and was on the computer (which I guess it is, but bear with me here).

Sometimes you lose

Sometimes you lose very, very badly…

Hearthstone is free to play, but you will probably end up spending like $80 on card packs in the first few weeks because it is just too tempting not to. It feels exactly like a real world CCG. The game starts you off with a nice set of basic common cards, and you can unlock about a dozen uncommons and rares by playing the set of tutorial games against the computer. Then it slowly feeds you more cards as you start playing against real people online, each time you level up. But the higher you go, the least frequent are the new card drops and eventually they dry up. You also get small but consistent amounts of gold for each win which you can use to buy new card packs, but it is a slow grind… So the store conveniently accepts real world currency.

Blizzard doesn’t really pressure you into making purchases, because they don’t have to. They leave it to other players. When all your friends are crushing your starter deck with their legendary card sets, spending $2 to get 12 cards, 2 of which are guaranteed to be rares, and there is a small chance you will also get one or more legendaries starts to seem like a bargain. It’s a bit insidious because you do need at least a few decent cards to be competitive. You don’t necessarily need the epic and legendary level ones (though they are nice) but you do need more than just the basic set to actually build a deck with a good synergy.

Sometimes you win

Sometimes you dominate. I think I might have made this guy cry IRL.

There exists a crafting mechanic which lets you destroy cards you don’t like/need and turn them into “magic dust” you can then use to create new cards. Unfortunately this is economical only for the basic common cards you want to obtain for specific effects or abilities. Crafting rare and epic cards is not entirely practical as they require way to much dust.

The game has a ranking system which will ensure you are queued with the people whose decks suck about as much as yours, so deck envy is mostly an issue when playing against real life friends. Though if you always play ranked, then you will eventually hit a rank where skill alone won’t be enough to overpower much stronger decks. There also exists Arena mode in which each player get a randomized set of cards from which you build your deck leveling the playing field a bit. Unfortunately Arena costs either gold or real money to play, but it also offers prizes to winners. On a single Arena ticket you can keep playing until you lose total of 3 times. The more wins you score, the better prize you get: basic prizes include gold and free card packs, but with enough wins you might also get epic or legendary cards.

Deck building tool

Deck building tool

Like any collectible card game,Hearthstone has been engineered from the ground up to separate you from your hard earned cash. It’s actually quite insidious how tempting it is to just keep throwing cash at this game. and how easy it is to justify it afterwards (“I might have spent more than I intended to, but I got Onyxia legendary and two golds so it was probably worth it”). I hate this aspect of the game, but at the same time I can’t stop playing it, because it is actually a surprisingly decent CCG. Unlike a lot of free to play games, Hearthstone is a lot of fun.

The rules are incredibly simple, the game play is intuitive (you just drag and drop cards) and the pace of the game is very fast and engaging. The actual game UI is great (I especially love the fact you can fuck around with the game board and destroy the scenery while waiting for the opponent to make a move) and pulling off mad combos is extremely satisfying. While it is tied into the Warcraft franchise I think it stands on its own pretty well. You don’t have to know anything about the Warcraft lore to play it, but if you are a current or former WoW player it just adds to the experience.

I usually recommend enjoyable games to my readers, but I’m not sure if I can do that with clear conscience for this game. The truth is that it is addictive, and in the first two weeks you are going to spend as much money on it as if you would on a brand new AAA FPS, if not more. So, don’t play it. But if you do, my battle tag is reset#1266 so feel free to add me.

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3 Responses to Hearthstone

  1. Gothmog UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m loving Hearthstone as well, Luke- Have you had a chance to play the iOS client that was just released in the US? I have to say it is a perfect clone of the game and plays great on my iPad Mini. I’ve successfully kept the game from squeezing me dry and only game them the $3 to get the beta-only card. As it happens, my wife has sunk $30+ (that she admits to) into cards and she really has taken a shine to the game.
    I’ve found it very easy to teach to my 8 year old son as well. I doesn’t have the depth of MtG or any other CCG for that matter, but makes up for that in SPADES with 1.) fast, bite sized gameplay and 2.) POLISH.
    Holy crap, I’ve never seen a more beautiful implementation of a card game. I’ve been recommending it to gamers, pseudo-gamers and non-gamers alike. What’s more the client if completely free on iOS- Blizzard is quite insidious to be sure.

    Oh yes, my handle is Gothmog#1809 in case any of you would like to add me as well. I’ve been tweaking a Hunter deck and am trying to get into the teens on ranked.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Gothmog:

    I haven’t tried the iOS version yet. Looks really great, and I’m looking forward to being able to comfortably play this game while lying in bed. :P

    I have ok Pally and Mage decks so far and I just hit 20 the other day. I’ll add you when I get home. :)

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