Hearthstone is incredible: it’s an online collectible card game built by Blizzard, using Warcraft characters and abilities. It’s also ridiculously good.
Here's PCGamesN's Jeremy and Tim on exactly why it's so good.
Tim: So. Just to illustrate how much a hole Hearthstone is, here’s a little story. I installed the game last night at about 7.15, just after putting my kids to bed. My wife went to bed at 10.30 ish, grumbling about how she’d barely seen me. I looked up from my screen five minutes later, and it was three a.m..
I got back to my desk at 8.30 this morning. I felt the awful tiredness and sense of empty regret you get after a long night on the booze. I stared at the icon for what felt like an age: a feeling of shame and restlessness.
“Did I really play it for that long without moving? Was it really that good? Best have a quick go to check.”
What I’m trying to say is that I really, really like Hearthstone. And I fear it. I fear that it will destroy me, and possibly the planet with me.
Do you like it?
Jeremy: More than I'd dared contemplate. On my first night, one (probably superior opponent) was flicking a big red arrow back and forth between possible destinations for his fireball. Hearthstone is really good at letting you visualise your opponent’s thought process, and a burning outline indicated they were highlighting each of my minions and me - my hero and the stack of hitpoints crucial to victory - in turn. Suddenly, though, the arrow turned to target the enemy hero - and before I’d finishing furrowing my brow, they’d shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.
They’d realised their doom even before I, its orchestrator, had. It was the most stylish possible way to concede a match - and they’d also denied me valuable hitpoints toward my next achievement.
Tim: Let me explain some mechanics. I think it plays like a lite version of Magic: The Gathering. You have cards of varying mana costs. The goal is to decrease your enemy’s health pool from 30, to zero, by fighting through cards. To do that, you have a pool of mana, and a set of cards in your hand. Your total pool of mana increases by one point, up to the maximum of 10 points, per turn. You spend your mana on playing cards from your hand, your hero ability, and occasionally, using a weapon. There are the nine core World of Warcraft classes to play as (the Monk and Death Knight aren’t included) and each has their own set of spells and abilities, that can be mixed and matched with a shared pool of cards. Cards are a mix of minions, that can attack the enemy and enemy minions each turn, and activated abilities that can damage and heal.
So, why’s it good. I can think of a couple of reasons. For me, it feels like a World of Warcraft duel, played in slow motion. Classes feel both distinct, and like their World of Warcraft equivalents. The mage’s arcane missile card feels like it does in the big game, spewing purple bolts at random. Fighting a shaman is like playing whack-a-nole with totems spammed all over the board. Warlocks corrupt themselves to do ever increasing amounts of damage. It feels Warcrafty. And it feels so right.
Have I missed anything?
Jeremy: Loads. You’re trying to throw up defences faster than your opponent can pull them down, and the turn-by-turn growth in mana means there’s a steady escalation to each match. A game of Dota might take an hour; Hearthstone takes 15 minutes, and I’ve not had a dud yet.
It’s absolutely gorgeous, too - polished in a sense that these games usually aren’t and Blizzard games usually are. That shows through in the little things: like the way each clicked decision flows into the next. When you plant your last card, you can already be stabbing hungrily at the ‘End Turn’ button. The game allows for that.
The soundtrack is all acoustic guitar noodlings, jaunty violins and flighty flutes - like spending eternity in Pirates of the Caribbean’s Tortuga bar. And the ambient pub noise - true to life but for the low grunts and shrill chatter of WoW’s more colourful, teethier clientele - means that ‘Hearthstone’ is right. It’s warm, inviting and escapist.
Over the two or three weeks I’ve been playing, I think I’ve probably won about as many matches as I’ve lost. How have you found it for difficulty?
Tim: Basically perfect.
So, there’s something I realised about Hearthstone. I’m not really into playing games competitively online. I thought I didn’t really like losing.
But that’s not necessarily true. I don’t really mind losing in Hearthstone. And I think I know why.
Partly it’s because the games are short - they rarely last more than fifteen minutes, and in most cases, even if you lose, you’ll earn a little bit of currency or contribute to today’s daily quests. But the other part of it is really, really interesting. You don’t get to actually experience the festering boil that is humanity viewed through the lens of the internet. You can’t talk directly to your opponent in Hearthstone: all that’s really available is a few good natured emotes like “Well Played”, and “Thanks.” So it feels super-friendly. I don’t mind losing because the game’s managed to make me believe most of the players are quite nice.
Jeremy: Yeah. You’re not alone in filling the gaps in communication with the nicest-possible version of events. On my side of the screen, every last Hearthstone player is Enid-Blyton-lovely: magnanimous in victory and graceful in defeat. Even the trash talk turns out somehow cheeky, rather than hateful or openly racist. You’re left to read character into your opponent’s moves.
I do mind the losses: a string of them can be hugely frustrating. But after each I find myself tweaking my deck, biting my lip and working out what can be done to prevent losing the same way again. The slow stream of new cards in the opening hours of the game helps to feed that impulse, but I think there’s something else going on too: I’m aware every defeat was preventable, and can happily bow to my opponent’s superior sleight of hand.
That also works when you're winning. On a fundamental level, it’s hugely satisfying to out-think an opponent rather than out-twitch them. I can’t really stress that point enough. It’s hardly the first time I’ve played a PC game that tickled the cerebral glands rather than the testosterone pump, but Hearthstone does a great job of letting you own your actions and the victories that result from them.
Much of that is down to how deterministic it all is. The match begins with a coin toss, but there are no dice rolls here - only cold maths embedded in those warm, polished surroundings.
Tim: Let’s talk money. Hearthstone’s free-to-play, funded through card packet purchases. Packs cost £1.99 for two packs, each containing five cards, at least one of which is guaranteed to be rare. There’s also a disenchanting mechanism that allows you to destroy duplicates and recombine them into new cards, although I haven’t really had a chance to fiddle with that yet.
Here’s the big question: would you spend money on it?
Jeremy: I haven’t yet. There’s been a little noise around the beta that Hearthstone is pay-to-win. That’s not quite fair: it’s pay-to-compete. If, like me, you’ll play happily for a week before somebody has to tell you that the Arena mode even exists, I think you’ll probably subsist in Play mode forever without spending a thing. The matchmaking is as superb as you’d expect from them behind StarCraft, and I haven’t once been pulverised by a card I’ve never seen before.
You won’t want for choice: not at first, at least. You’ll unlock class-specific cards as you level up your favourites, and be granted the occasional pack after several matches. It’s blood-from-a-stone stuff, but I’ve been able to tailor decks to my playstyle using only the pile of cards I’ve landed for free. Eventually, maybe, I’ll buy a couple of boosters - just to inject some new colour into the game.
If you’re wanting to play seriously with your po-face on, it’s going to be a different story. You’ll have to cough up to build competitive decks, and pay $1.99 or a hefty 150 gold to enter the Arena for just one round - either three losses or twelve wins. Win seven games in a round and you’ll win back your entry fee, but let’s be frank: the tide turns frequently enough in Hearthstone to make that a pretty unlikely payment strategy.
Tim: Yeah. I agree, mostly. I wouldn’t begrudge paying for a few packs of cards, purely because I don’t mind giving money to devs who’ve done a good job, but as King Casual, I doubt I’ll ever step foot in that place. To be honest, I may even buy a mega pack of cards at the end of beta, just to get cracking.
There’s one last thing I want to say. Hearthstone is a phenomenal game, and it’s come out of Blizzard’s idea of just putting a small gang of developers together to see what they could make. Ubisoft are doing something similar right now; giving their best developers tools like the 2D art engine they used to make Rayman to their teams to try and make something new.
I think there’s a lesson in Hearthstone: that even in the biggest companies working with these sprawling development teams, there is real value in finding a space for developers to try and bust out of their roles to try something new. I think Hearthstone will turn into an exceptionally valuable business for Blizzard. It’s got to make you wonder what else they, and others like them, could achieve.