I wrote this just before Christmas but held off posting it until Hearthstone hit open beta, which it did just last week. Aside from some card tweaks the game has not changed at all between now and then.
Let’s talk about Hearthstone.
If you follow certain news websites *cough Eurogamer cough* you can’t have missed the existence of Hearthstone. It’s a surprisingly low-key project for Blizzard: a collectible card game with a Warcraft theme whose ruleset is basically a heavily adapted and streamlined version of Magic: The Gathering. It’s a game that’s clearly being made on what, for Blizzard, passes as a budget, and which is selling itself solely on the core mechanics of its card game. Now, I don’t know if this is intentional or not (knowing how game development works I think it’s far more likely to be a happy accident) but all that stuff we associate with Blizzard games that’s missing from Hearthstone — the “epic” story and CGI cutscenes in particular — is stuff that Blizzard are indescribably bad at these days, and their absence is actually a massive, massive plus point for the game. This means Hearthstone’s development team has been free to focus on making their card game as good as it can possibly be, and the one thing I would say Blizzard are still peerless at is taking somebody else’s idea and polishing it to the point where it’s twice as fun and three times as addictive.
My knowledge of M:tG isn’t fantastically detailed, being limited to a couple of hours spent playing one of the yearly Duels of the Planeswalkers video game adaptations, but even I can see the similarities between Magic and Hearthstone. Each player starts the game with thirty hit points and a board in front of them onto which they play minions in the form of cards. Minions have attack and health values, plus one or two special abilities or attributes. Minions cannot act the turn they are played (unless they have the Charge ability), just like Magic’s Summoning Sickness, and cannot attack more than once per turn (unless they have the Windfury ability). The objective is to use the attacks of your minions, plus spell and weapon cards, to reduce the other player to zero health and win the game before they do the same to you.
So it’s not just a superficial resemblance, Hearthstone is pretty much nicking Magic’s core gameplay structure lock, stock and barrel. However, when it comes to fine detail the two games are very much different, and (at least in my limited experience of Magic) play very differently. Let’s run down the list:
- In Magic, the resources that you spend are represented by Land cards that you play alongside your minions, and which you “tap” (i.e. spend for the turn) to buy stuff. This makes the rate at which you gain resources somewhat irregular; most of the time you’ll have a Land card in your hand to play, but sometimes you won’t. In Hearthstone, the resources that you spend are represented by an autonomous mana stockpile that increases at a fixed rate — one mana on turn one, two mana on turn two and so on — and refills at the start of your next turn. It’s both more predictable and 100% hands-off.
- Except in special cases, Magic’s minions do not retain wounds once a turn is over, with most of them regenerating back up to full health. I’ve always thought this was as much a practical choice to save faffing around with tokens as it was a mechanical one, and Hearthstone takes advantage of its nature as a computer game by making wounds persistent. You do two damage to that troll and he’ll stay damaged, allowing you to finish him off next turn if he doesn’t get healed. I think this is a far more intuitive way of doing it.
- Magic relegates its minion attacks to a special combat phase that takes place towards the end of a turn; the attacking player selects how many of their creatures they want to attack, and then the opponent selects how many of their creatures they want to use to block those attacks. By contrast Hearthstone’s minions can spend their attacks at any time on whichever target the attacking player deems most appropriate. They can do this before, after or in between the playing of other cards, which means the order in which you do things suddenly becomes very important.
- Finally, I’m a bit fuzzy on how deck themes worked in Magic because deck construction was conspicuously missing from the version of Duels that I played, but it seemed like you had a theme for your deck — Nature, Fire, Earth etc. — and that having more than one or two themes would weaken the deck significantly due to each type of card requiring its own specific type of land to play. In Hearthstone it’s a bit more fluid; here you pick a hero class to play (along with their associated special power) and up to about half of the cards in your deck will be cards only available to that class, but the other half will be cards drawn from a common pool of “neutral” cards. While the choice of hero does have a profound effect on how your deck plays and which strategy you try to employ, the neutral cards mean that this is more of a flavour than a choice that’s set in stone.
Each of these changes reduces the complexity of the Magic concept — yes, even the ones about minion wounds and attacks, since I found the way Magic did it to be pretty counterintuitive when I played it. This meshes well with Blizzards goal of creating a version of it that’s more streamlined and accessible while retaining a reasonable amount of depth, and while Hearthstone is naturally a more limited game than Magic — there’s only a couple of hundred cards rather than several thousand, after all — I’d say that it’s a reasonable tradeoff. The only real issue it’s created is that thanks to the reduction in complexity Hearthstone is somewhat more vulnerable to the whims of the RNG than Magic is. You have to accept that occasionally a match will be decided by your opponent getting excellent draws in the first few turns of the game, or that they’ll sometimes be in a seemingly untenable position with no cards in hand only to draw the one card that’ll kill you before you can kill them. It happens. It happens to the best players in the world. Best I can say is that it’s something I’ve learned to live with, and if I can do it so can you.
My unusual forbearance of the luck-based aspect of Hearthstone is down to how absurdly quick it is. A typical game of Hearthstone will clock in at under fifteen minutes long, with a turn timer of about forty seconds for each player to think and make their moves. It’s very rare that they’ll use all of it, unless they’re either stuck or trolling. When the matches are so short it’s hard to get invested, especially when the matchmaking system can get you into another one within thirty seconds, and there’s no player-to-player communication except for a broadly-positive set of emotes which ensure the obnoxiousness of your typical Battle.net denizen is drastically reduced. Hearthstone is the friendliest, easiest to deal with multiplayer game I’ve played in quite some time simply because there is almost no pressure to win unless you’re playing Arena mode or really give a shit about a rank that gets reset at the end of the month anyway. The emphasis is very much on having fun with your cards, and I find that immensely refreshing.
Now, about those cards. Like I said, Hearthstone currently has a roster of about two or three hundred cards. Each card has a mana cost that will depend on how “good” the card is; this must be a nightmare to balance since the quality of each card will vary dramatically depending on the deck and the current situation on the board, but you soon learn to identify the cards that are particularly good for their cost (hint: they’ll be the ones that everyone else is playing). For example, Taunt is an ability that forces incoming attacks to hit that minion first. In general you want minions with Taunt to be big and beefy and capable of absorbing two or more attacks before being destroyed, but since an attacked minion will exchange damage with the attacker you also want it to have a decent attack value. This means that the Shieldbearer — 0 attack, 4 health — is not a very good Taunter in spite of its low cost (1 mana) because even a crappy 1-1 Argent Squire will be able to plink away at it without fear of retribution. The Frostwolf Grunt – 2-2, cost 2 mana — is similarly terrible since it’ll soak just up one attack, and that’ll likely be from a single 1-mana minion.meaning you just made an unfavourable trade. No, if you want a decent Taunter the absolute minimum you should be going for is the Sen’jin Shieldmasta, affectionately known as TAZDINGO since this is what he says every single time he is played. Tazdingo is relatively pricey at 4 mana, but his five health points mean that he can weather an attack from nearly every other 4 cost minion in the game and remain standing while inflicting three damage in return. If he’s played before the big beasts come out an opponent will either have to expend two cards to deal with him, or else use removal of some kind to either nullify his Taunt or get him off the board entirely.
Removal is a very important concept in Hearthstone. A card with single-target removal provides a way of countering big, tough minions without having to waste your own minions plinking away at their health, while mass removal does the same for a large number of low-health minions. As an example the Priest probably has the best single target removal spells in the game, with the 2-cost Shadow Word: Pain instantly killing any minion with 3 attack or less, and the 3-cost Shadow Word: Death doing the same for minions with 5+ attack. Mages and Shamans can Polymorph/Hex minions into harmless frogs and toads, while the Warrior’s Execute ability instantly kills any wounded target. Then there’s quasi-removal like Silence which removes all card text abilities and leaves a minion with just its basic stats; this is excellent for dealing with minions under the influence of multiple buffs since they’re usually quite weak without them, or for bypassing a Taunt minion. Since Taunt is a card text ability Tazdingo is vulnerable to being Silenced, but he at least has decent stats to fall back on if this happens, plus you just made your opponent waste one of their Silences (I’m aware of only two basic cards that actually have it, and you can’t have more than two of each card in a constructed deck).
The prevalence of removal in Hearthstone means that filling your deck with high-value, high-impact minions and attempting to weather the storm until you get enough mana to play them is a losing strategy, since it’s very likely you’ll plonk down your Sea Giant on turn seven only to have it instantly removed while your opponent has three cheaper minions all inflicting steady damage on your hero. Removal means Hearthstone is a game about covering your bets. Several minions have passive abilities that mean they constantly grow in power, but this makes them prime targets for removal; you can’t rely on them. Playing buff cards is a gamble that you should only take at the start of your turn when you have active minions who can make some use of them, since the minion you use them on will almost certainly be removed during your opponent’s next turn. Having active minions at all is a pretty big deal, in fact, as it probably means you have board control which gives you a defacto advantage. The one turn lag between playing a minion and having it be able to do something is usually enough time for your opponent to kill them before they can do anything, if they have board control and are willing to make intelligent trades, and if you don’t have board position you’re extremely hamstrung since unless you’re a Mage your options for dealing direct hero-to-hero damage are extremely limited.
Leaving the specifics of the cards aside, what Hearthstone is about, at the end of the day, is tempo. If you can make your opponent spend two cards to deal with one of yours, or six mana to kill something that cost four mana to play, or you play a three mana removal card to eliminate a massive seven mana minion, you’ve just clawed yourself a small advantage. It’s abstract and probably won’t help all that much at first, but if you can do this two or three times you’ll notice the momentum of the match start to swing in your favour, as your opponent begins to run out of cards in hand that can prevent you from gaining board control and eventually winning. While it’s possible to come up with combinations of cards that seem ridiculously overpowered — I’ve heard tell of a Priest creating a 48-48 Fen Creeper — there will always be a counter in the form of removal, and so building a deck with these hail mary plays in mind isn’t a very good idea, especially because you can’t guarantee getting all of them in hand at once.
There are three game modes in Hearthstone (four if you count Practice mode against AI opponents). Casual and Ranked modes are two sides of the same coin, where you build a deck out of the cards that you personally own and see how it performs; you’re limited to having no more than two of each card in the deck so you can’t build anything too broken. You get 10 gold every three wins plus your rank will go up if you’re in Ranked, and that’s all the reward you get. You can also complete daily quests in Casual/Ranked mode, which are along the lines of “Do 100 damage to enemy heroes” or “Win 2 games as Warlock or Shaman” and which pay out between 40 and 60 gold when completed. What do you use gold for? Well, you could spend 100 gold to buy a pack of five cards, but this would be a waste of gold. Instead, what you should do is save your gold for the entry fee for Arena mode.
Arena mode is Hearthstone’s version of a sealed draft, where you get a selection of random cards and have to assemble the best deck you possibly can before taking it in against other people who have done the same. You get a choice of three (out of nine) hero classes, and then you’re presented with a choice of three cards, of which you pick one. Repeat another twenty-nine times and you have a deck. There’s a chart at the bottom that tracks the number of cards in the deck by cost (popularly known as the mana curve) so that you have some idea of which areas of the deck are looking a bit weak, but this is all the help the game offers you; it’s up to you to play the odds and get cards that synergise well enough to win. Arena mode has two particular quirks compared to the regular modes: first, you don’t have to own a card to be offered it in Arena mode. The card selections you are presented with are drawn from the entire range of class and neutral cards, meaning that Arena mode is a great opportunity to play with cards you otherwise wouldn’t see. Second is that the two-card limit no longer applies; if you’re lucky enough to be presented with three Flamestrikes or four Hexes1 then you’re allowed to take all of them if that’s what you want.
This makes the draft in Arena a little more chance-reliant than I’d really like, as sometimes you just don’t get the cards you need in order to make a deck work while your opponent has managed to get some wonder draft that ends the game on turn six, but everyone else playing Arena is struggling with the same problem and other than that it’s a level playing field. And this feeds into the main draw of Arena, and the reason why it costs 150 gold to start an Arena run: the more matches you win with a given deck in the Arena, the better the reward you get at the end of it. You can currently win up to twelve matches, and you’re allowed two losses (the third will end your run); however, as you win more and more matches you’re matched against other people who have won their matches, and so the competition gets harder as you push your win streak further. Winning a full twelve matches is something that only a small number of players will manage. Most of my Arena runs have ended at three or four wins, and the best I’ve ever managed is seven. Even so, though, once you know which cards to go for and how to build a deck the economics of the Arena are remarkably forgiving.
Some numbers. A pack of cards costs 100 gold. An Arena run costs 150 gold, and is guaranteed to reward you with a card pack even if you win no matches. This means that in the very worst case scenario you’re paying 50 gold over the odds for a pack of cards. If you win even a few matches you have a chance of getting a small gold reward, and once you get to four or five wins you reach the break even point where the rewards you get back out of the Arena are equal to or greater than the value of the gold you paid to enter in the first place. Seven wins refunded my entire entrance fee and gave me what amounted to a free pack of cards. I’m not very good at Hearthstone and yet I’ve managed to make seed capital of 600 gold — four Arena runs — last for eight runs because of all the extra money I made from Arena rewards. Better players than me can play the Arena indefinitely. And this is strange to me, because it seems like this economy renders the two pay-for options in Hearthstone — buying card packs and paying real money to start an Arena run — utterly redundant. You don’t need card packs to play in the Arena, and you don’t really need to pay real money to enter the Arena unless you’re irrevocably hooked on the thing, and if you’re even remotely talented at the game the rate of return that you get for your gold is pretty much the same as if you just spent it all on packs. I spent real money on a few packs (my getting the beta key just after getting my Christmas bonus was not good timing) but this was before I realised that it genuinely is possible to play Hearthstone and have a lot of fun without having to spend any money on it all.
And finally since this is a Blizzard game there’s an absolute ton of neat touches despite its “budget” nature. The playfields are bright and cheerful, the card effects are very nice, and there’s amusing flavour text for every single card. When you play a card you get an appropriate soundbite that’s taken from either WoW or one of the Warcraft strategy games, while the matchmaking system plays tinny Warcraft 2 music while it’s searching for an opponent. In general Hearthstone is just a pleasure to play, and that goes double if you have any experience with the Warcraft series. I have just two complaints. First, the crafting system — whereby you can disenchant unwanted cards into magic dust used to make other cards — is a bit impenetrable. It’s not so much complex as it is saddled with a rather ugly interface. Second, the stat tracking doesn’t go into anywhere near enough detail, especially considering what Blizzard do with their other titles. All it does is show you number of wins the Arena and number of wins in the other modes, with no losses or wins broken down by class. It’s a superficial thing to want to see the numbers, but then Hearthstone is numbers: the rapid summing of attack values to see if they add up to more than an opponents current health, or a comparison of mana costs to see if a card sacrifice is really worth it. It’s a game for mathematicians and students of chance, and with plenty of ways to manipulate the latter2 it couldn’t be better suited to my tastes.