Update 26/08/15: Our review of The Grand Tournament is here! See below for our impressions on the new cards and features, while our update discussion and original review are on page two and three respectively.
Hearthstone The Grand Tournament review
I love Hearthstone. But I hate recommending Hearthstone.
I didn’t realise I liked collectible card games. I didn’t understand why they were fun. But Blizzard’s version of a CCG - streamlined, fast, and funny - has hooked me.
Hearthstone is deceptively simple. Draw digital cards with funny pictures of gnomes on them. Place them according to a strict mana curve: with each turn allowing for more expensive cards to enter the arena. Choose to attack or defend. Repeat until dead.
Click play game. Repeat until the heat death of the universe.
There are some clear reasons why it is so entertaining, and has gripped more people than other collectable card games. The strictly defined mana curve (the resource that defines what you’re able to play) is very easy to understand but provides every game with a clear point of escalation.
It understands that digital card games are not restricted to physical problems. The effects of certain cards would be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce and track in a standard game. Cards like Grim Patron (replicates itself every time it survives an attack), Goblin Blastmage (randomly attacks other enemies), or Webspinner (when it dies it summons a random beast).
It feels alive. A Snowchugger doesn’t just stop an enemy from attacking: it encases them in ice for a turn. A Flamestrike doesn’t just remove some numbers from the cards it hits, it fills the board with flame. It is ultra-real: a magical board game delivered from a reality where turning goblins into sheep is a fairly regular occurrence.
It’s also mechanically brilliant. Hearthstone is one of the few games that embraces randomness. Many cards in Hearthstone depend on the luck of the dice. One of the most entertaining cards in the game is Flamewalker – which fires off random fireballs every time you cast a spell. The skill in playing Flamewalker is in which order you remove threats, so that your fireballs hit the targets you want. You don’t want to let RNG run its course: you want to manipulate the odds, stack the dice. Kill off those cheap cards with a single tap of your fireball so that the damage is concentrated on the opponent's face.
But Hearthstone is demanding, unfair, and occasionally brutal.
Your Hearthstone career will begin with a series of simple single player challenges: where you’ll fight various AI opponents earning the “Basic Set” of cards while learning the core mechanics of each class. Each of Hearthstone’s classes has their own play and deck style. Hunters usually aim to play aggressive low cost minions in the hope of finishing off opponents before they can create board presence. Priests are patient: countering threats until they can deliver massive minions and damage. Druids outpace their opponents, Warriors tank damage before deploying a wave of unstoppable enemies.
It’s those deck archetypes that will worry you.
Hearthstone is a ladder. And every rung climbed will cost you.
When I first started Hearthstone I tried to play it as cheaply as possible. I had a pretty good run with a Shaman deck that contained only Basic, free cards. It was competitive up to a certain point, but as soon as you graduate into the ladder proper, I found myself losing. Losing hard.
Hearthstone isn’t necessarily pay to win. You can earn gold and dust through completing daily quests, earning ranked rewards and disenchanting cards you don’t want. But that route is mostly theoretical. If you want to really compete, you have to suck it up and pay, buying bundles of packs or the adventure modes that release every six months. Getting up to speed as a new player today is ferociously hard unless you’re willing to chuck considerable cash at the game. And it’s not quite as simple as picking a deck you read about online and crafting the cards – you might need to buy specific adventure modes for specific cards before you can even think about crafting them.
At the time of writing, a new set of cards, The Grand Tournament, has launched. Right now, there’s no real sense of how these cards are going to shape or change the game. TGT brings in a few new mechanics: cards can be “inspired” by using your hero power, or you can “joust,” a way of comparing e-peon size, with the bigger minion earning bonuses. The two mechanics could theoretically slow down the game: there is a general feeling within the Hearthstone community that the game favours aggressive “fast” decks that overwhelm players who want to play more flavourful high end cards. I’m not sure that’s really true. At the levels I play at the only effect TGT has had on the game is to sub out some cheap minions for other cheap minions.
After spending the price of a full triple-A game on Steam, I’m still not able to create decks that I think will play well, just provide some small upgrades to what I already have.
And that’s why I love Hearthstone, but hate recommending Hearthstone. I think it’s an incredible game. It’s pervasive: I love that I can spend a few hours slumped in front of my PC playing, then transfer to an ipad to play casually while watching bad telly. I love being part of the community – browsing new deck ideas and ranting with friends about how overpowered Grim Patron really is.
But the cost of taking part is insane. For my fun over the past two years, I have paid around £200. That’s the kind of number that makes me wince. Hearthstone is the most expensive game I’ve ever played.
Hearthstone is good. I adore it. But think very carefully how if you want to get in here.