When I was in middle school, Magic the Gathering began its domination of nerds. Being part of its target demographic, I quickly turned my discretionary spending away from Star Wars action figures in lieu of the addicting hobby of opening booster packs. Although it has been nearly a decade since I last seriously play MTG, I blame those damnable cards for my lack of willpower when it comes to things like Team Fortress crates, Counter Strike: Global Offensive crates, and any other avenues for collection through randomly chosen purchase. Blizzard’s first foray into free-to-play, microtransaction-laden games, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, could very easily eat me alive. And after playing it for a little over an hour, I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing.
Before the open beta launched today, I hadn’t really bothered to look into Hearthstone in any meaningful way. In fact, until today I didn’t even know it was a card game. As such, this quick review should be read knowing that my hype-level was as close to zero as possible.
But now that it’s installed on my computer, and I’ve dipped my toes into its warm pleasing waters, I’m hyped for what it could be as it moves through the early access period and eventually finds itself.
Mechanically, the game follows in MTG’s footsteps very closely, with a few simplifications and an equal number of innovations. Like its card game predecessors, Hearthstone pits two players in head-to-head combat through proxy minions. Players control whether the minions attack the opposing player or his or her minions. Similarly, the game allows for various spells and abilities to influence the battlefield and its participants.
Anyone who played a fair amount of MTG for any number of years knows that Wizards of the Coast, by the very nature of an ever-expanding pool of cards to work with, eventually expanded the fundamental elements of the game. Mirrodin, for example, brought forth a slew of ridiculously expensive cards with the ‘indestructible’ modifier, which is just one of many examples of new abilities through the game’s lifecycle. From what I understand having only barely paid any attention, there are now legendary ‘hero’ cards that act as a secondary player whose actions are based on a self-derived resource. In a way, this latter innovation seems the inspiration for Hearthstone’s most dynamic mechanic.
In the game, each player is represented by a proxy hero. Everyone begins life as the mage, Jaina Proudmoore. These hero characters represent the various classes from both the core Warcraft canon, and the later additions from World of Warcraft. Unlike MTG, the players have a selection of abilities, weapons, and spells with which to enter the battle.
Another aspect that differs from MTG is the lack of phases. By this, I mean that during a player’s turn there is no restriction as to the order of events, excluding the card draw that accompanies the start of each turn. One minion can be ordered to attack, after which you can decide to play another creature from your hand. This open-ended approach to the genre alleviates many of my qualms with the codification of phases in MTG over the years.
So far during my time with the game, I have noticed a few questionable design decisions. For one, defending players have no control over the outcome. There is no blocking to be seen. While this choice has not put me off the game in any way, it does create a sense of helplessness whenever an opponent suddenly unloads a barrage of minions. Hearthstone’s answer to blocking is the prevalence of the ‘taunt’ ability. Players familiar with WoW’s mechanics will quickly understand the system. Minions with the ability must be attacked before the player can be targeted. Attackers again are given priority in situations of multiple taunters, since they have sole deciding power in the order of attack. This creates an interesting level of strategy that might well be more complex than MTG’s attacking mechanics. For one, it is not as simple as amassing minions and winning through sheer numbers. Since attackers can bypass their opponent’s non-taunting minions, setting up a good defense requires a mixture of taunters and a menacing enough counterattack to provoke your opponent into attacking your minions instead of your hero.
In another departure from the expected norms determined in MTG’s long history, minions are not limited to one action per cycle. There is no ‘tapping’ your minions in Hearthstone. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains unclear in my mind, but I’m interested enough in the altered dynamic of the game to keep playing.
The only real annoyances I’ve found thus far are superficial and easily fixed. The game’s menu philosophy is erratic and poorly thought out. Some menus offer a ‘back’ button, while other require you to either press Escape or click the background to return to the previous menu. There are some other questionable UI decisions, but, I reiterate, there is no reason to believe that this is the final state and it should therefore be judged lightly.
Similarly, the constant banter present during battles could be described as grating, if I were feeling nice. While there was something charming about a mage and a Pandaran exchanging quips, by my fourth game I had had enough and promptly lowered the volume almost all the way. Voice acting might be, in part, to blame. There is a whimsy to every character’s portrayal that seems more suitable to a Sam & Max game instead of a Blizzard venture.
The inspiration for every hero in the game.
With these paltry qualms in mind, my enjoyment of the experience hardly suffered. There is enough competitive theory crafting behind the concept that I can safely admit that I’m hooked. Many hours shall be played and, unfortunately, several booster packs shall be paid for with real money.