Review: Blizzard’s new title ‘HearthStone’ shows love to the TCG genre in all of the right places as it enters closed beta

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hearthstone-game-review-lytherusMany “nerds” of the past few generations grew up playing trading card games. Whether Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! or Munchkin, it’s likely that you’ve encountered a TCG at some point in your life. They have undeniably played a role in influencing gaming as we know it, from turn based games to the MMORPGs we play daily.

Before we get into the meat of this review, this writer needs to make a confession: while I collected Pokemon cards as a child and loved to pretend I knew what I was doing while playing Yu-Gi-Oh! on my PlayStation, the truth is that I’ve had very little experience with trading card games in my lifetime… which made diving head first into HearthStone all the more exciting!

HearthStone piqued my interest on the day it was announced by Blizzard. It was a unique and bold move from the publisher, previously only known for its Big Three franchises — Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo — and its AAA titles from each. Blizzard simply did not create smaller scale free to play games — until now. It was a wise decision for Blizzard, as they’ve managed to tie this new game into a universe their gamers know and love without alienating new gamers who may not be interested in Warcraft or its heroes.

In short, HearthStone aims to allow you to collect playing cards and build decks to compete against and best other players. You can progress your hero by gaining levels (by playing games), expand your deck by completing daily quests and challenges to unlock the gold needed to purchase new random decks (or use real money), and battle others using a variety of different heroes, all once you’ve unlocked them.

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The player and their heroes

The HearthStone play experience is incredibly welcoming to new players. Your initial play through of the game offers you a TCG campaign of sorts, which sees you as the hero character play through a brief campaign, working your way through increasingly powerful allies.

Your initial class is chosen for you at random, but you’ll later be given the chance to unlock eight additionally hero classes by defeating an A.I. hero in a match. HearthStone allows players to play as one of nine classes, with the Death Knight and Monk classes noticeably missing. Each class has a major lore figure attached, such as Jaina for mages and Anduin for priests, each with its own unique voice acting. In addition, each hero has its own special ability which enables the player to perform a skill unique to their class. For some classes this skill is a heal, while others allow you to do damage to the enemy hero or summon a minion.

Leveling your character from one to ten will unlock all of your hero’s basic set of class cards. Levels after ten that will unlock special gold cards. You can continue building your heroes’ deck of cards by unlocking cards through Expert Packs, which are purchased for 100 gold (in game currency) or real money, and crafting new cards using materials gained from disenchanting old and unwanted cards.

Gameplay

Blizzard allows for three play types: Practice (PvAI), Play (PvP), and Arena (PvP). Practice mode is a great way to unlock new heroes and to test out new heroes and deck builds. Your wins here have no bearing on your ranking in Play mode, and after level ten, do not allow you to gain XP for your heroes.

Play mode allows you to play against other HearthStone players. Two modes in regular play — Ranked and Unranked — allow you to determine whether or not you want your wins “tracked” via a medal on your account. Play mode also aims to match you with players of a similar proficiency so you’ll never feel as though a “superior” player has an unfair advantage.

Arena mode is a buy-in only mode where you play until you hit three losses. The more wins, the better your loot! Winning nine games will reward you with the best possible loot.

Once playing the game, it is very important to pay attention to Mana Crystals. Each round gives you one Mana Crystal, which function as the “currency” used in each round to play cards and your hero’s special abilities. You start with one Mana Crystal during round one and gain an additional Crystal each round, up to a total of ten. Used Crystals reset after each round.

Each game starts out with a coin toss determining who plays first. The player forced to go second receives a bonus card (four cards rather than three), plus a card that gives them a one time free Mana Crystal (costing zero Mana Crystals to play). The game is turn based, and once a player has used up all of their hero abilities and Mana Crystals, they have the option to end their turn, allowing their opponent to move.

Your overall objective is to reduce your enemy hero’s health from thirty to zero. This is not as easy as it sounds, as you’re forced to deal with your player’s minions (powerful offensive and defensive allies who fight alongside the hero). Some minions have strong offensive attacks, while others have defensive attacks such as taunt, which force the enemy and their minions to attack the taunt target until the target is dead.

Most fun are the interactive boards Blizzard has created for the game to be played atop of. Each board or environment is animated and narrated, with hidden “Easter eggs” in different places. For instance, clicking a window enough times on one map might smash the window, while clicking a lamp on another will darken the board.

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Progression through new cards, new decks

Blizzard tied most of its unlockable cards, which are unlocked at random, to deck packs. Deck packs can be purchased with two forms of currency: gold, which is earned in game by winning games and completing daily quests, and with real money. Deck packs aren’t the only way to earn new cards, however. Players have the ability to disenchant cards they do not want or need, or have spares of. These cards turn into a special type of dust which is used to craft new cards. The conversion is not one to one; rather, it’s closer to one to ten, and one to twenty five if you’re looking to craft a gold or “foil” card.

Decks can be customized in a special deck builder window and saved per hero. When initiating a new Play-style game, you’re asked which of your preset decks to play from. If you’d prefer, you have the option to play a random pre-generated deck. If you’re new to the game or the TCG genre as a whole, the game will help you build your first decks by recommending cards for you to use. If you’re playing an Arena game, you’re forced to craft a deck on the fly.

Overall impressions

HearthStone is a game I was interested in from the day it was announced, not because it was a TCG but because it’s based on a property I’ve spent the past decade of my life playing. I was an avid Warcraft 3 player before picking up my first copy of World of Warcraft in 2004 (a game I still play). I saw HearthStone as an opportunity to seriously attempt a TCG for the first time, and with it entering closed beta on last Friday, that time was now! Needless to say, what kept me around was not the Warcraft characters, but the addicting, challenging, and unique gameplay of HearthStone itself.

It is important to note that HearthStone is an entirely free to play game with “pay to play” options, but no “pay to win”. The game makes pay to play fun and exciting without sacrificing the core game experience of those who do not wish to spend real money on the game. Those players are given more than enough options to earn currency used to purchase Expert Decks without ever having to open their real-world wallet. Most importantly, the “buy cards” option does not enable other players to purchase cards that are better or exclusive to real money purchasing. Real money buys the same cards that in game currency buys, with real money only enabling the player to obtain the cards at a slightly faster rate.

HearthStone was the first game of its kind to suck me into a genre that I now feel as though I’m in the early stages of being addicted to. Since starting beta over a week ago, I’ve been tempted to play a game or two in between sessions of work, after meals, and when I should be sleeping. Daily quests offer players an incentive to log in each day, although this writer did not have any difficulty feeling compelled to play on a daily basis. These quests offer small challenges — win two games as a Druid, do 100 damage to your enemy’s hero — in exchange for 40 gold coins.

Since playing, I’ve unlocked all nine hero classes and have enjoyed experimenting with each, and I’ve enjoyed learning to play them against other classes in the arena even more. Through extended PvP play, I realized that abilities unique to each class, such as cards and the hero’s special ability, create an incredibly diverse sense of play. I never felt that any match was the same or that at any point I had an overpowered deck. Similarly, I never found myself “raging” at another player for playing a “broken” hero or “broken” deck, which is a great indicator of the care that Blizzard has taken to balance the game as best they can. Competitive play will be strong with this game because of the amount of care that has gone in to ensure a fair and even playing field.

The game feels rewarding but punishing — in a good way — at the same time. I’m encouraged to constantly be on the watch for unique card combinations and my opponent’s tricky plays with minions.

My only criticism towards balance is that some of the hero abilities seem unbalanced — but this is beta, and I’m sure those will continue to be tweaked and balanced as Blizzard progresses with the game’s development. I’m partial to the mage, which I’m sure is my World of Warcraft bias seeping it, but felt that her hero ability — a one damage, two Mana Crystal fire blast — is a bit weak when compared to others.

HearthStone is a game I highly recommend playing as soon as it leaves beta. With some very minor tweaks, HearthStone has the potential to become a leading game in the TCG market, and most important, to turn more non-TCG players such as myself on to such an incredible, fun, and fast-paced new game type.

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About Author

Mike Macauley

Mike Macauley is the founder and editor in chief of Lytherus.com. He also founded and runs Shurtugal.com, the official Inheritance Cycle community, and published his book, The Inheritance Almanac, in 2011. Mike can be found on Twitter at @mikemacauley.

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