There’s an elegance to Hearthstone.
It’s a fantasy collectible card game that feels simple and yet, when you dig into the mechanics, feels extraordinarily deep. It uses characters and artwork from World of Warcraft and transmogrifies them into little cards, making them fight with fizzles, crackles and pops.
I adore this game. It’s simple, fun and addictive: a truly astonishing feat considering the size of the development team. Thanks to an extended and open beta, there’s a good chance you’re already playing it. If not, allow me the pleasure of telling you why you should.
If you’re new to collectible card games, they can be daunting. Learning the ropes can drain the fun from playing. Hearthstone isn’t like that: you’re not going to find yourself grimacing when a exborbent rule book is dumped into your lap: because there isn’t one.
Instead what you have is mechanics that can be described in one sentence. Everyone has some mana. Cards cost mana. You have more mana every turn. Taunt cards ‘must be attacked first’. Stealth cards ‘cannot be targeted until they attack’.
Hearthstone doesn’t explain the mechanics: it shows. Taunts have big blocky shields. Stealth’s hide in a mist. Spells, like fireballs and arcane shots, fly across the board.
A match goes a like this. Both players start with 30 life and a deck of 30 cards. A coin flip determines the player who goes first, who draws three cards. The player that goes second gets to draw four cards, and that coin turns into a handy card: allowing you to add an extra mana to your pool for one turn. Mana is what you use to play your cards, and both players get one additional mana each turn up to a total of ten.
The first player to reduce their opponents health to zero, wins. The loser explodes.
You’ve got nine classes play with: represented by a character from the WoW lore all come with a ready made basic deck. What separates them from each other is their class specific cards and their hero power. Your classes hero power is a static ability which is always available to you. Shamans can summon signature totems, whereas a Priest can heal himself and his minions.
That’s all there is to it to get playing and having fun.
The depth is in the meta-game: the ever present process of building and improving your deck. Here players are free to pick from the cards they’ve earned or bought.
Deck ideas can be formed from just a few core cards and mechanics. For example: Warlocks can play powerful cards, cheaply, at the expense of their life. Add in Molten Giants - big damage dealers that cost less the more hurt you are, and you can see connections beginning to form. I’ve been experimenting with decks that prize spell power above all else, an overwhelming wave of murloc cards, and one deck that just utilises weapons. I’ve found that specialised decks, ones with a core concept, do better than those that just take a grab-bag of cards - but I haven’t found a deck that can crush all comers. That doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying.
The decks are meant to be played in ranked matchmaking: a multiplayer ladder that will take from rank 25, through to rank one. Reach level one, and you’ll earn titles and personalised card backs.
Multiplayer Hearthstone is endearing. The game makes a difficult choice early on: you’re not allowed to communicate with your opponent other than through a series of pre-selected emotes. That, in one swoop, does away with much of the toxicity that comes with online multiplayer. Hearthstone is better for it. Even the ‘threaten’ line, is solely in character. Players seem to appreciate the touch; most battles end with a “well played” or a “sorry” emote. If someone is a bit spam happy, you can satisfyingly ‘squish’ their emotes effectively silencing them.
At this point it’s worth bringing up how you earn and buy cards.
A basic set of cards is earned through levelling each character by playing in practice matches with an AI opponent - enough to show you the ropes. Everything else has to be bought using your own cash (approx $1.49/£1.00 per pack, with discounts for bulk purchases), gold earned from winning matches, or by destroying cards you own (like duplicates) to earn materials (arcane dust) that can be used to craft individual cards.
There will be accusations that Hearthstone is pay-to-win. That’s difficult to argue with. Some cards are unarguably more powerful than others. True too that if you’re looking for a natural, none-moneybags way to earn those cards, the rate at which you accumulate gold and arcane dust is slow.
Every card, depending on it’s rarity, has an associated dust cost. Golden cards: which are animated versions of their brethren, cost a premium amount. Dust is earned either through the arena, achievements or by disenchanting duplicates.
There are a lot of cards in Hearthstone: 465 in total that are playable, 382 which are collectible by the player. And a Hearthstone habit is hard to break.
Blizzard have made opening packs in this game as fun as cracking open the equivalent Magic: The Gathering boosters in real life. Maybe moreso: in real life, it’s rare that pack explodes open, and the cards are splayed facedown in front of you, waiting to be revealed. It’s rare too, that a cod-Scottish dwarf will proclaim your luck.
“Whoaa,” he screams. “A GOLDEN LEGENDARY!” Occasionally.
Confession time: I’ve probably spent just shy of £100 in Hearthstone: £80 on packs and £20 on arena entries.
For 150 gold, or $1.99/£1.49 you can roll the dice in Hearthstone’s hardcore mode. On entering the arena players are presented with three random hero classes, and then it’s time to draft a deck. While drafting you’re presented with a selection of three cards from a pool of your class specific and neutral cards. You’ll choose between rares, epics and even legendary cards if you’re lucky. Once you’ve got a deck of thirty cards, it’s off to battle.
The idea is to win as many matches as possible and avoid being eliminated by losing three matches. Your reward - represented by an upgrading key - is dependent on your final score. Get to around eight wins and you’ll make your gold back, and then some. Every reward no matter how bad is guaranteed a card pack, with other rewards including individual cards, golden cards and arcane dust.
It always made sense to me to never spend my gold on raw packs of cards, and instead solely on the arena. It costs 50 gold more, but you only need to make that difference back in your winnings to break even in terms of value. It’s also another excuse to play, which is always good.
And that’s the real problem with Hearthstone. The game is spectacular: both welcoming and tactically devious, funny and friendly. But it makes me feel dangerously cosey. It’s very, very easy to spend money in this game, even if you have the option to take the longer route of unlocking things for free.
The feedback of your purchase is immediate, but short. It often than not leaves you wanting more. Daily quests give you random objectives that can be achieved with a couple of games, but the gold reward is slim. It will take at least two to three days of play to earn enough from them to enter the arena.
For a lot of us, that’s just not enough: further highlighting the allure of spending a bit of cash here and there. And it all adds up.
Hearthstone is a wonderful game. Nostalgic, simple and best of all: fun. This is the best online collectible card game you can play. Just be careful how much you spend in it.