A collectible card game for the most of us.
You can’t make a game as vast and successful as World of Warcraft without thinking that making some spinoff titles would be a good idea. That’s what Blizzard has done with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a (digitally) collectible card game full of spells and creatures familiar to anyone who’s spent a day in the Warcraft universe.
You play as one of nine original classes from World of Warcraft. To win, you must bring your opponent’s health from 30 to 0 hit points before the same is done to you. That’s done mostly with spells and minions; both are paid for by a pool of mana crystals that grows by one every turn until topping out at 10. Spells have a one-time effect while minions stick around, dealing damage equal to their Attack value with every strike.
As for minions, it’s best not to get too attached to them. Since they don’t recover hit points on their own, the turnover rate for everything you see on your dashboard (and your rival’s) is pretty high. Playing well means making your minions useful over just a few turns before they meet their match and fade from the battlefield. Starting out in Hearthstone, I was surprised at how strong some of these creatures were with high number values and neat abilities... until realizing how equally good the cards in my hand were at getting rid of them.
And once a turn, you can also use your main character’s ability for two mana. In the case of the Mage, who you’ll start the game with, he allows you to deal one damage to any target, good for killing those one-hit-point minions.
This game will strike a familiar and welcome chord with anyone who’s played Magic: The Gathering. Bouts in Hearthstone are more fast-paced and less cluttered (no lands here, just free mana).
They’re also way more visually enticing. Turning an MTG card sideways to attack your opponent is always a pleasure, but what Hearthstone does with your screen is downright enchanting. Minions played from your hand slam down on the board with varying oomph depending on their size, they’re applauded by an excitable “audience” of goblins and gnomes when they bash one another like pogs, they crumble into rocks when they die... Every action comes with some kind of animation, as you’d expect from Blizzard. They really do tend to get HUDs and eye-candy right. Also good: You don’t have to wait for a visual effect to end before queuing other actions.
There’s a sweet card in Hearthstone for Hunters called “Release the Hounds,” but that’s not the game’s motto when it comes to deck-building. In their efforts to get free-to-play gaming right, Blizzard has put a few walls up. You’ll unlock a class’s basic cards by leveling up. Playing against AI is a good way to do this early on. But there’s no trading to be done here, no flipping through your Battle.net friends’ digital binders. Just your own to look at.
Instead you can buy card packs with in-game currency earned by winning games, or disenchant (i.e., destroy) cards you already own for Arcane Dust, which can craft new ones. In both of these cases, you’re looking at a bit of a slog. That is, if you’re not willing to open your wallet for in-game content, that badass deck with a few legendary cards to its name is a while down the road. Looking back to the two options above, it takes 30 online victories to get a pack of five cards. And when you’re crafting, you have to disenchant more cards than seems fair to make a new one.
But the Arena offers a third option, and it’s just about the best one. For some in-game currency (or $1.99), you’re presented with a spread of three cards and made to pick one. Do that 30 times and you’ve got a sweet deck, yours until you lose three games. The more wins you’ve strung together before then, the fatter your reward at the end of the rainbow.
Two bucks isn’t so bad when you consider that a run on newer arcade machines often cost that much. Depending on your view of free-to-play games—oh, do opinions vary—the Arena can be a good place to plunk down a pocketful of change.
It’s hard to tell whether Hearthstone has gotten free-to-play right, because like any Warcraft game, it’s an evolving ecosystem. How quickly will the current run of cards (there are over 300) become dated? Creatures and spells in MTG saw their play-value fade somewhat in what’s basically a type of inflation. Will a strong deck today still hold its own a year from today? Or are we looking at a runaway scenario?
In the meantime, Hearthstone is definitely worth the entrance free of zero moneys. Now, your time investment may grow to be worth much more than that amount, as is the case with many games under the Blizzard banner. That part, once again, they definitely have gotten right.