Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft - Review
Card games are always kind of an odd beast. First off, they usually have to pass what I like to call the "Magic: The Gathering test". You see, when you're first on the scene like Magic was, you get to dictate the dos and don'ts of the genre better than anyone else. This usually leaves only a few major competitors, such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon. The alternative is to make your card game a straight out of the box ordeal; think Summoner Wars or Nightfall.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, pinches ideas from both of these approaches. First off, it's got the brand identity to give it some clout, yet it's also free to play and lets you make you do with the cards you start with if you want. It's also really, really addictive.
Hearthstone is perhaps best described as Magic: The Gathering-lite, and I don't mean this in a disparaging way either. For all of its success, Magic is not particularly the easiest of games to get into. In contrast, Hearthstone is ridiculously simple to learn, with the game guiding you along a series of tutorial matches when you first boot the game up. Players take on the role of a particular character from Warcraft mythos, be it a Mage, Priest or Druid. The aim of the game is simple: summon creatures, cast spells and get your opponent from thirty life to zero as quickly as possible.
Blizzard mix things up by also having each character come with their own ability. Take the Priest, who's able to heal himself or a summoned creature each turn, or the Warlock, whose ability allows him to trade life for an additional card every turn. These abilities are complimented by class-specific cards which help reinforce certain strategies depending on the character. It's a great way of blending role-playing into the card gaming experience, with Magic's "which colour are you?" question being replaced with "which class are you?"
The other, rather ingenious, decision by Blizzard was the mana system. Rather than have to draw into the resources to cast your spells, the game instead increases your magic points each turn, ensuring that the game steadily ramps up as the turns progress but also keeping both players at relative parity to one another. It makes for much faster, more dynamic games, even when you feel as if your opponent got lucky there's less of a sense that you simply drew useless cards throughout the entire game.
I'll be honest, I felt a tad guilty when I first started playing some matches. I've played Magic on and off for over a decade now, along with other card games. There's some skills that just transfer over from one game to the other, and Hearthstone is no different. You notice patterns and lines of play that just won't be there for newer players, not to mention having a better grasp on concepts such as card advantage and tempo. Still, it didn't take long for me to be put in my place. As you play through matches, your rank steadily increases, starting at 25 and going all the way up to Legendary status. By the time I reached rank 15 my win-streak was quickly turning into a win-crawl. For a game that's free to play, make no mistake, there's plenty of competition to be found in Hearthstone.
For a game about collecting cards it's at first odd that there's no option to trade. This however, is another smart move by the developers. Trading typically results in rare competitive cards quickly becoming unobtainable by newer players, locking many of them out of playing with tournament-worthy decks simply by virtue of not having deep enough pockets. Instead, the only way to obtain new cards us by opening packs, which either cost 100 in game gold or can be bought with real money. Gold is earned by completing daily quests (i.e. win two matches with a Priest), or by winning a series of games in ranked mode. The steady, drip, drip, drip of free stuff is enough to keep players coming back, even if they aren't willing to part with real cash.
It's the Arena however, that truly ramps up Hearthstone's addictiveness. Again, Blizzard have taken more cues from Magic by attempting to emulate a Limited draft, but without including all of the complexity. Here, players have a choice of three randomly selected characters before going on to choose thirty cards out of a random pool of available choices. It adds one more layer of strategy to Hearthstone's arsenal as players are encouraged to utilize card evaluation skills as well as play well. It costs gold to enter, but provided you win some of your Arena games, there's decent prizes to be had. The beauty is how you don't have to complete all of your games in one sitting, meaning you can dip in whenever you like to play another round or two. It's almost certainly the game's most popular mode and is likely to be the reason that many continue to play the game over the coming months.
For a game with that oft-dreaded free-to-play description, Hearthstone isn't just out to nab your wallet. Sure, it's crafted to gently encourage the more impatient players to part with some of their money but it doesn't do so at the expense of the game itself. It's not pay-to-win either, I've managed to make it halfway up the rankings with nothing but free cards that I started out with. It's unlikely to sway the really hardcore TCG players away from the likes of Magic but that just might be a good thing. Hearthstone's difficulty and barrier to enter is set mercifully low, encouraging all newcomers to try it out.
Just be warned that this is the gaming equivalent of crack cocaine.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft was released in March on PC and Mac. An iOS version was released in April and an Android version is also planned for release later in the year.
This review is based on the PC and iOS versions of the game.
© 2014 LudoLogic