Blizzard is a company known for making some of the best games available. With titles like World Of Warcraft, Starcraft, and the Diablo series under its belt, you can’t help but be impressed by what it has done over the years.
Now, the company is working on a game that seems a little out of character called Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft. It’s a free-to-play collectible card game, which doesn’t sound like something you’d expect to see from the biggest RTS and MMO company on the planet, but alas, it’s currently in a semi-open beta, and it’s surprisingly fun and addicting. It sounds crazy, but like anything Blizzard does, it’s made with a degree of care and quality that only Magic: The Gathering’s virtual card games can match.
At its core, Hearthstone is a collectible card game (CCG), but of course, there are no physical cards. Instead, players earn, buy, and collect digital cards, which are then used to build their decks and battle against other players and AI opponents. If you’ve played Magic: The Gathering, or most other popular CCGs, it should all feel very familiar. Blizzard isn’t reinventing the wheel, it’s just putting its own spin on it.
Before you jump in and play online, you can go head-to-head with a bunch of AI opponents. Beating them grants you access to their deck, so it’s a good use of your time to play them. Each deck has its own strengths and weaknesses, and unlocking the basic decks will help you discover a play style that suits you best. Not only that, but playing these matches helps you grow accustomed to the mechanics before you run up against someone online and get crushed.
As far as actually playing a match goes, it’s all quite enjoyable. You start off with a coin flip; winner goes first, loser gets an extra card in their opening hand. From there, you automatically gain one mana (the resource used to play cards) each turn. Unlike Magic, where you have to draw land cards to get mana, in Hearthstone it happens automatically. From there, you play cards that you can afford based on the mana cost. You play minions, which are creature cards that fight for you, and spells, which do things like direct damage, grant you the ability to draw a card, make your minions more powerful, and so on. These also cost mana, so you will need to carefully consider what you want to play on each turn.
A major change from Magic to this is the way minions attack. In Magic, you simply attack, and it is up to your opponent whether he wants to block the incoming attack with one of his creatures. In Hearthstone your minions either go at the other player’s life total directly, or one their minions. This puts the choice in the hands of the attacker, unless of course your opponent has a minion with an ability called Taunt, which forces all attacks to go to it. That’s a slightly more advanced mechanic, and thankfully, the game’s tutorial will teach you about that and other abilities.
An awesome mechanic in Hearthstone is called Hero Abilities. With these, the player can use mana to make his chosen hero do something to the other player. Some may say something like “Deal 1 damage,” or “Pay 2 life, draw a card.” This makes unlocking each of the hero’s decks even more important, as you will want to make your custom deck around a hero with an ability that suits your play style.
In the end, the goal is getting your opponent’s life total to 0 as he or she tries to do the same to you. Like all CCGs, it’s all about strategy and synergy, and the game has plenty of cards that allow you to flex your creative juices in each match.
Unlike Magic 2014, Hearthstone actually lets you build custom decks from scratch. You pick one of the heroes, each of which has one of the aforementioned hero abilities, and then you choose 30 cards to make your deck with. You will unlock new packs of cards as you play, and these can be used in the deck, along with the cards featured in each of the basic decks. The game can help you build one by recommending certain cards for you, but once you become more experienced, you will want to figure it out for yourself.
The deck building mechanics are easy to use, but the actual skill of learning how to make a strong mana curve and finding cards that combo nicely together will take time to master. It really feels like going into my real life closet, pulling out my thousands of Magic cards, and building a deck. Of course, this is way is easier, and quite a bit more organized.
Playing online is a ton of fun. The matchmaking system always seems to find an opponent who is around the same skill level as you, which makes for fun and competitive games. Knowing you hand-crafted your deck makes it even more enjoyable when you manage to fight out a victory. The fact that the average game takes no more than 15 minutes makes this a great game to play when you just want to kill a little time. Be prepared though, because you might just find yourself saying “one more game” for a few hours, as it’s very addicting.
In addition to playing with your standard custom decks, there is also a mode called Arena, which is where you get a limited pool of cards to build with, and you keep using that deck until you lose three games. It costs in-game money to enter the Arena, but you will earn this, so spending real money is not necessary, but it is an option.
As you would expect from Blizzard, online play is fun, and it works incredibly well. This is the company responsible for World of Warcraft, so they certainly know how to make Internet-based play fun.
Hearthstone is free-to-play while in beta, and it will remain so when it enters its final release. This means players can spend real money acquiring packs if he or she should so choose. Thankfully, you earn in-game money through leveling up your heroes, completing challenges, and playing games, so spending your hard-earned money remains optional. It never shoves the ability to buy things in your face, so it’s not hard to have a great time while keeping your wallet tightly sealed.
The in-game purchases are reasonably priced if you should choose to take part in them. You can buy more packs, which will help you build a larger collection quickly, but the cards are the same as those in the free packs, so you will not gain an advantage in terms of how powerful the cards are, you will just amass a larger pool to choose from.
Overall, I am incredibly impressed with Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft. The CCG gameplay mechanics don’t stray too far from what has worked in other games, but it brings enough newness to the table to make it feel fresh and exciting. The animations during the battle are smooth, and they make playing the game a great deal more fun. Really, there isn’t much I can say as a negative to Hearthstone, even as someone who has been playing Magic for more than 10 years. Sign up for beta access, and you will most certainly be impressed with what Blizzard has managed to quietly pull off.
Have you played Hearthstone? What do you think? Let us know in the comments!