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Published October 1, 2013

Blizzard's Hearthstone may only be in beta, but it's generating a fairly high amount of buzz, and even has a sizable, healthy streaming population (frequently the number 2 or 3 game on Twitch.tv) which is odd because it's not an action game.

That's not entirely true, though. Hearthstone is the "action game" of card games.

Hearthstone is a World of Warcraft themed Collectible Card Game (CCG), but it's not the World of Warcraft CCG. Think Magic the Gathering on the computer. MtG fans in particular will see Hearthstone as "dumbed down Magic," and while that may be true, it doesn't paint the whole picture.

Gameplay

Each player starts with 30 health and a hero from one of the core WoW classes (no Death Knights or Monks, yet). The goal is to take your opponent's health down from 30 to 0 before they can do the same to you through the use of minions, spells, and abilities. Games generally take 10-20 minutes (the game has a per-turn time limit to prevent griefing).

Each turn follows the same sequence:

  1. Refill mana crystals and gain 1 new one (up to 10). Mana crystals are the resource used to put cards into play. The better the card, the more mana crystals it costs.
  2. Draw a card
  3. Player uses mana to play new creatures and/or spells
  4. Player attacks with any creatures they have
  5. End of Turn

The attacking and card playing can (unlike MtG) be done in any order or combination (attack with one, play a spell, attack with two more, play a second spell, and so on).

Like most games, the minions come with an attack and a health rating. Health is persistent and will dwindle over time, though there are ample ways to heal your creatures. When you attack with a minion, the attacker chooses who to attack. This gives considerable advantage to the attacker, as they can use a cheap, tiny 2/1 minion (2 attack, 1 health) to take down a big 5/2 creature that would otherwise pound their face every turn.

It also means that creature stalemates are relatively rare. Your creatures don't "tap" or otherwise expend themselves to attack, so it's very unusual if there's a turn where you don't attack. If you can't attack your opponent's creature profitably, your creatures can at least punch your opponent in the face for some damage.

Minions have a variety of special abilities. The most common are:

  1. Taunt forces attacking creatures to kill the creature with Taunt before they can choose another target. It does not force them to attack in the first place.
  2. Charge allows creatures to attack the turn they come into play. otherwise they have to wait a turn with cute little "zzz"s coming out of them.
  3. Battlecry makes a creature do something when it is summoned. It can be drawing a card, doing damage, or whatever.

Hearthstone is rather straightforward. There is no interaction between players in a turn. When it's your turn, there's nothing your opponent can do to disrupt your actions. There are a few "secret" cards that can be played by your opponent ahead of time that will trigger an event based on some action (being attacked, losing life, etc), but these are generally easy to play around, and they're not all that common because they actually take choice away from the player playing them (he doesn't get to choose if they're used, he HAS to use them when the triggering event happens).

As mentioned, you play as one of the 9 core WoW classes (Hunter, Rogue, etc) in Hearthstone. Each of these heroes has a unique ability. These abilities cost two mana and can be used once per turn. They're hugely effective, and proper use of them is absolutely critical to success. Most of them (poor Hunter and Warrior) can be used for a card advantage, which is the most critical concept in Hearthstone. There are three abilities in particular that are quite powerful.

Paladin: 2 mana to summon a 1/1 creature. This allows you to freely put creatures into play, and can be used to survive (and even thrive) in the early game without expending cards. Good for card advantage, but also good for deck construction, because you can largely skip those 1 and 2 mana creatures and make your whole deck stronger.

Druid: 2 mana to give yourself 1 attack and 1 armor. Your hero can, if he has equipment or something else (like this ability) attack the enemy. This Druid ability is powerful because it lets you clear off creatures at nearly no cost. Those creatures do damage back to you, but the armor helps to mitigate that. You can also attack your opponent, effectively giving yourself extra health.

Shaman: 2 mana to summon a random Totem creature. Totems summoned are one of the following:

  • Stoneclaw Totem: 0/2, Taunt
  • Healing Totem: 0/2, heal everything on your side by 1hp at the end of the turn
  • Wrath of Air Totem: 0/2 +1, spellpower (makes all your damage spells more powerful)
  • Searing Totem: 1/1

The Healing Totem in particular is amazing. It not only heals all your creatures; it heals you as well. Keeping a Healing Totem alive and on the board for multiple turns will often be enough to win a game all by itself.

The metagame: Getting cards

The natural question is how do I get these wonderful cards? Each day, you're given three quests. These quests are tasks like "Win two games as Priest" or "Kill 40 minions". Each completed quest gives you 40 gold. 100 gold lets you buy a pack of cards. In a pack of cards, you get five cards, with one guaranteed rare. Don't get too excited, though; the rarities are "common", "rare", "epic" and "legendary". It's fast food naming conventions for this stuff, and the "rare" you are guaranteed is really just an "uncommon" in any other game. I've opened maybe 10 or 15 packs so far, and have yet to see a legendary or even an epic card.

That's a problem. The Legendary cards are amazing and will absolutely wreck your face. I was completely dominating a game my first night of playing, when all of a sudden my opponent used 9 mana to play a 4/12 dragon with spellpower +5. I could have used all four of my creatures to attack, but elected to simply attack him (taking him down to about 5). Then he played a card that did 2 damage to all characters on the board. Except that it did 7 because of his stupid dragon. He then buffed the Dragon by +4/+4 and proceeded to do 15 damage to me in one turn. A game that was an easy win for me was lost in the blink of an eye.

In fairness, part of the problem was that I didn't understand what the cards were capable of. But the greater part of the problem was my card collection. After that game, I went and looked and found that I had zero cards in my deck that could do anything to that dragon by themselves. In fact, if I could have magically picked from every card in my collection (not just my deck), it would have taken three cards just to clear the dragon off.

As your collection grows, that becomes less of a problem. When you're first playing, though, it feels really frustrating and swingy. Because the really powerful cards are Legendary, the new player doesn't ever get to experience the that strength in their favor.

What's Good

  • Quick, simple nature
  • Very action-oriented play
  • Excellent theme and UI
  • Free to play
  • Hero-specific abilities

If you're feeling a void from MtG and don't want to get sucked back into that expensive habit, Hearthstone is a decent option to explore. While you can buy cards for money, the pace you gain cards is sufficient that you certainly don't feel compelled to. They will probably tone it down once it's out of Beta but, at least at present, it doesn't feel overly burdensome or "grindy".

What's Bad

  • Lack of complex interaction
  • Ultra-rare legendary cards
  • Limited strategic decisions
  • Static mana system

Hearthstone is just good enough to play for free, but lacks the lasting appeal necessary to get people paying for it, beyond "fill my collection".

Hearthstone lacks a little bit of "heart" right now. Because so many of the cards are "all class" cards and you can't mix and match "class-specific" cards in any way, there's only nine different deck archetypes you can build. Sure, you could try to go with a "direct damage" deck for your mage as opposed to a "control" deck, but ultimately they're both mage decks. You have the same hero ability and the same 20 class-specific cards to mix with the group of communal cards that everyone gets.

Maybe I'm nostalgic for the old days and being able to mix and match two colors to make an oddball deck. Because you're limited to 2 instances of any 1 card, you're also restricted in building cool, combo-oriented decks. Most games of Hearthstone go back and forth, trading one card for another until someone can gain an advantage, either with a two-for-one trade or by putting a bigger creature on the table. It's hard to build your deck around cards in that kind of environment.

That said, Hearthstone is definitely worth playing. Sign up for the beta or try to get a beta key from a friend. It's a nice diversion while you're waiting for other things to happen, and shows plenty of promise.

Seminole Sun
I enjoy the intellectual / theorycrafting side of his games and write about what I enjoy. Follow me for mostly LoL rated tweets @econocentric and join the in game chat room "themittani.com" in LoL. You can also email me at seminole.sun7@gmail.com