Blizzard has finally done it. Rather than experiment in all of its successful franchises with elements of free-to-play or full-on microtransactions, the company has gone ahead and made a completely free-to-play game from start to finish. The catch? It's a card game with Warcraft-themed characters in it.
I could hear the collective groan across the internet as soon as it was announced, but as an avid gamer and tabletop fan, I knew I just had to give it a fair shake. And you know what? Even though the final game may prey on those who would spring to fill their decks with numerous microtransactions, the beta is actually really fun.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (iPad, Mac, PC [previewed])
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Released: TBA 2013
MSRP: Free (with microtransactions)
Understanding Hearthstone is simple -- at least, at first. Two heroes face off on a giant board across from one another, with one deck of cards each, and a mana pool that grows one point per turn. In the top left of each card, there's a mana cost associated with it -- usually this plays out where weaker cards cost lower, but not always.
There are two types of cards: minions, and everything else. Minions can be played on your side of the board, and assume either a defensive or offensive role, depending on what you want them to do. In addition to mana costs, they have two additional stats: damage, and life. Minions can't attack the turn they're played (for the most part), but when they're ready, they can strike at either an enemy minion or the enemy hero. Both cards match up damage and life ratings, and if damage overcomes life in either instance, those cards disintegrate. Minion battles can go on and on as long as you wish, but when the opposing hero's life is reduced to zero, you win the game.
Once games get rolling one mistake can mean the difference between a few more turns and the end, as your mana pool is slowly growing to accommodate more and more powerful cards. I like this system, as it gets straight to the point and keeps games from running into the half-hour mark -- most of my games lasted anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes.
As both a massive Warcraft fan (both the real-time strategy series and WoW), I was impressed with the amount of care that was put into the game, and the attention to detail. Most of your favorite Warcraft characters are here, and there's a decent selection from Warcraft I-III, and World of Warcraft. When used, cards often make the sound of the spell or character played, right down to the exact clip used in the games. If you're not a quick learner, Hearthstone is accommodating -- it features a very helpful, comprehensive tutorial that'll ease you along in the best way possible. Everything is taught step by step.
I had a ton of fun playing, and before long, I lost track of time flicking away -- I can easily see myself wasting hours on the iPad on it. Cards are extremely animated (and so are spells, which fly out of the cards), and both heroes in play will engage in some trash talk to help add a bit more character to matches. Each playfield is also designed around a Warcraft realm, and you can click on select setpieces to make fun little things happen if you're bored.
At first, Hearthstone feels rather elementary as it teaches you the basics of throwing out minions and attacking an enemy hero. Then you start to get hero abilities, cards that modify other cards, special rules, "taunt" cards, and more. At that point, Hearthstone shows its true colors, and really gets going.
There are a myriad of modifiers to keep up with on certain cards. "Taunt" is a special characteristic that forces players to attack minions with the taunt rule before they attack anything else -- whether that's an enemy hero, or other minions. Placing out weak minions with taunt rules on them can be a valid strategy, as those cards can sacrifice themselves to waste an attack from a powerful foe. Of course, your opponent can just use a spell card (like the Arcane Explosion card that does one damage to all enemy cards) to destroy your taunt minion in an instant, so you have to plan accordingly, and think multiple moves in the future.
Once you add in cards that have the "charge" ability (which can attack the instant they're put on the board), things start to get much more complicated. Heroes all have different powers as well. For instance, the Paladin class (represented by the famous Uther the Lightbringer) has the ability to summon a 1/1 card every turn for two mana. Mages can use spells, Warlocks can use life tap for more cards, and so on. In the beta, you can unlock new classes as easily as beating them in practice mode, which is a nice touch as it allows players to get some games in before braving online matchmaking.
Speaking of matchmaking, it's as easy as pressing a button and playing online. I had little issues getting into games in the beta, and found a decent mix of both new and experienced opponents. I won most of the games I played with my basic Mage deck, and I can only hope that the full game will be that fair to players with only the most basic of decks.
The jury is still out on whether or not Blizzard will skew the game towards buying more $1.50 booster packs with powerful cards, preventing players who don't wish to spend money from winning in a competitive environment. But right now based on what I've played of the beta, Hearthstone is a deep, rewarding card game that gives you plenty of leeway to learn how to play. I just hope the finished product is balanced.