Almost a decade ago, Blizzard set out to remove the musty stigma surrounding the MMO genre, by releasing the ridiculously addictive and accessible World of Warcraft. Recently revealed to have had over 100,000,000 players in its lifetime, WoW has proven to be a monumental success.
Now, Blizzard is attempting to regenerate a genre that has a similar reputation to that of the early MMOs.
Collectible card games can be a daunting experience for those new to the genre, with frequently convoluted mechanics and an often high cost of entry. Hearthstone endeavours to resolve these frustrations, offering a fresh, streamlined take on card battling, contained in a sleek, perfectly polished package.
Hearthstone is a free-to-play title, currently in open beta and set in the world of Warcraft. Anyone that’s played through past Blizzard titles will appreciate the frequent references and sounds in Hearthstone, from the unmistakable call of the Murlocs, to the ‘legendary’ Leeroy Jenkins card.
Everything in Hearthstone has been designed to feel welcoming and homely; a brash northern innkeeper welcomes you back every time the game loads, and the constant murmur of a crowded tavern plays in the background the entire time. The crowd occasionally respond to your battles too, with ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s being exclaimed when a particularly powerful creature enters the battlefield.
Hearthstone is a game best played while curled up on the sofa, or watching your favourite show on Netflix. Games generally last no longer than ten minutes or so, and the turn-based gameplay means there’s no real-time action that requires constant focus.
That’s not to say Hearthstone isn’t competitive. Battles can be brutally tense affairs, and turnarounds can be swift and merciless. The smallest mistake can prove fatal and, while the game rarely feels unfair, it can be devastating to lose a match you thought you were ‘just one turn away’ from winning.
Hearthstone uses a system very similar to that of Magic: The Gathering, albeit a faster-paced, more accessible version. Most distinctly, Blizzard have done away with the need to use cards for mana, with each player instead gaining one more to their mana pool every turn.
For those unfamiliar with games like MTG, the concept is relatively simple. The aim of the game is to make the other player lose all of their life points (in Hearthstone that number is 20) before you lose yours. This is usually achieved by summoning creature cards, which act as both defenders and attackers. There are also numerous other spell cards to use, that can do anything from turning a creature into a harmless frog, to healing up your own life.
How you choose to build your deck of cards is just as important (if not, more so) than your actions on the battlefield. If you haven’t put careful consideration into which cards you want to include, then you can be left with a completely useless arsenal to play with.
This doesn’t just come down to picking the ‘best’ cards. Many cards have been designed to work together, towards a specific strategy. For example, in a Priest deck, a common strategy is to have lots of creature with very high defense, but low attack. These creatures can then be ‘buffed’ by a spell that doubles their defense, then another spell that makes their attack the same as their defense.
For a very low cost, you can be left with a creature that can end the game in just one turn. Of course, these mini-strategies rely on you drawing the right cards, so each deck should always have more than one endgame strategy.
As mentioned earlier, Hearthstone is a free-to-play game. Because of this, there are in-game transactions.
More specifically, players are able to buy booster packs that contain a randomised set of cards, using real money. Many of the cards in the game can only be obtained by opening these booster packs, which cost around £1 each, a little less when bought in bulk.
A key problem with games that are free to play, is that the vast majority are what players have coined ‘pay to win’. Naturally, with cards able to be purchased for real money, many have expressed concern that Hearthstone fits into this category.
A common counter to this argument is that the booster packs can also be purchased using the in-game gold. For every three victories, you earn 10 gold, and there are also daily quests that generally earn around 40 gold each. Realistically, most players will be able to purchase just one booster pack with in-game gold every 2-3 days of casual play. Of course, unlocking every card using only in-game gold would take months of hardcore play, depending on luck.
However, this way of thinking makes the assumption that owning all the cards gives a big enough advantage that Hearthstone becomes a ‘pay to win’ game. While there are ‘good’ cards and ‘bad’ cards in Hearthstone, most of the rarer cards are strong, yet situational.
As previously explained, a good deck in Hearthstone isn’t just a set of strong cards, but cards that work together well in order to achieve particular strategies. While having every card in the game would allow you more options in the range of decks you can build, you do not necessarily have an advantage on a game-to-game basis.
When playing through Hearthstone with a deck created using primarily ‘basic’ cards (unlocked from the start, or through levelling classes), good players will be able to identify what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what specific cards would help to remedy or improve them.
Blizzard have included a crafting function, wherein players can craft any card that you can find in boosters, using Arcane Dust. This dust is given as rewards for completing the arena, but also by destroying existing cards (including duplicates), at a diminishing return.
If you have a particular 30-card deck that you want to build, assuming it isn’t completely filled with legendaries (usually not a viable strategy anyway), then it only requires a bit of forward planning and a little time. For example, I was able to create a full Murloc deck with several rares and legendaries within around 2 weeks of casual play, without spending a penny.
Think of it like playing an MMO. It can take months and months of play in order to have a character specced to exactly how you want. Hearthstone is the same. No deck is ever out of reach, unless you want the instant gratification of having every card straight away. In which case, Hearthstone will just be a frustrating experience for you.
The basic and class cards are not ‘weaker’ than their rarer counterparts, although they are often less situational. Even in a rare-heavy deck, basic and class cards will often serve as the backbone.
Another important thing to note is that Hearthstone uses a skill-based matchmaking system. You will generally be matched with players that have a similar range of cards to choose from. In the 400 or so games that I’ve played, I have never been in a rut of players with legendary-only decks.
Hearthstone is not pay-to-win. Almost every card in the game has its place in a certain deck, and the skill comes in knowing how to work with what you have. Having knowledge of what cards your opponent can play with their current mana pool, or what the identity of their ‘Secret’ card is, is far more valuable than having that 8-8 Ragnaros.
As it stands, Hearthstone is a very well-made game. It’s a game that can be played for relaxing to, but also one that can leave you shouting at your monitor. It’s accessible to the extent that anyone could be up and playing within minutes, but deep enough to offer a lengthy, challenging experience. Players that spend money get value for what they pay. However, patient players that spend nothing will not have a diminished experience.
Hearthstone is free-to-play done correctly, and manages to offer a lot of fun without bludgeoning the player with paid gateways and restrictions.