So, Blizzard Entertainment have released a little free to play game called Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. This game is currently in its closed beta stage but it’s gone down a storm across the internet. I know free-to-play is a very dirty thing in video games and for the most part it still is and should be, but in this game it seems to have been done right. After all Blizzard are great at the whole ‘internet crack’ thing aren’t they!
Don’t confuse this game with the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game which is already out there and has been growing from pack to pack thanks to Cryptozoic. While that game could well have been converted over to a digital format it seems like the small team from Blizzard wanted to do something different. While both are equally good Hearthstone will certainly be easier to get a hold of!
Much like in the Trading Card Game a player can pick a class: Rogue, Warlock, Mage, Paladin, Druid, Hunter and so on. I imagine that this selection is going to increase over time and they have drawn on notable heroes from the fluff like Garrosh, Uther Lightbringer and Thrall to be their figure heads for each class. Each class can pick from a selection of cards that are labelled neutral and another group of cards specific to their own class and within each set of cards are monsters known as both minions and spell cards.
Neutral cards are obviously available to all classes but when you get to the class specific ones they will all be tailored towards the class you are playing. If you play a Hunter then you will have groups of Beast minions and spells that tie off their summoning. A Warlock on the other hand will have access to Demons and ways of buffing them and hurting the enemy at the same time.
They seem to have worked on making the game feel very different with each class with the likes of Warriors being more like rush decks and the more defiant and defensive Paladin or Priest building to a specific tipping point where you can wear your opponent down.
The game itself is focused around crafting your own deck by either picking it yourself through a book of cards, getting the game to choose randomly for you or joining a paid for piece of content called the Arena, but more on that one later. When you build your deck it’s much like with any other card game. You need a good mix of cards that provide a decent curve. A few low cost cards building up to a healthy mix of medium cost cards and then a few mighty ones thrown in for good measure.
During the game itself you will be given a mana crystal each turn going from one all the way up to ten. Each card, as you might imagine, costs a number of mana crystals and managing this spending is key to the game. Every turn you can send out cards totalling your mana crystal score but keeping the total at ten means that the game actually has a definitive ‘end game’ where you know it’s going to come to a close.
The cards themselves have both a health and attack score but unlike a game like Magic: The Gathering they aren’t healed from round to round. Simply when a monster attacks it takes damage and deals it out to either the Hero or one of the opponents minions. This can mean that you do a lot of what folks are calling ‘trading out’ where you let your minions die in valiant attacks against something usually much tougher!
Of course there is a little bit more depth to it as each card has a selection of different abilities. For example Taunt provides a card that MUST be attacked before anything else. Usually they are high health cards able to absorb a lot of punishment but they also come in strategically low health flavours too just to aggravate that opponent with a massive ten damage creature! Another example of some abilities would be the likes of Windfury or Battlecry. Windfury allows your minions to attack twice on your turn and Battlecry provides a range of different ‘when played’ bonuses. This could be doing damage before even activating or returning a minion to yours or your opponents hand, the list of abilities is pretty long!
The game ends when one Hero is reduced to zero health and they have done a lot to make this a fast gaming experience. Turns have a timer, represented by a burning wick that will eventually count you out. As well as that once your deck runs out you will begin to take fatigue damage which mounts up and soon kills you. A basic game can take on average fifteen minutes although with some it might get up to half an hour. Not too bad!
You will be learning your deck, crafting it to suit your play style and hero, and then taking to the tavern to play against folks from across the world (once the Beta ends of course!). There is one more mode for the game called the Arena and this could be where you end up spending all your hard earned money.
The Arena, apart from the buying of card packs, is the only place where you spend money to actually play. You can dive into online matches whenever you like for no cost but with the Arena you will have to pay a small amount of Gold, which can either be earned in game or bought with real world coin, before competing. For that you do get a rather different gaming experience however.
In Arena you don’t use a pre-constructed deck of your own making but instead are asked to choose a random Hero and then build a deck from a selection of cards they offer you three at a time, picking one to enter your deck. It’s a lot tougher and of course you will need to know your synergy but you also get to see a lot of cards you might not already have. This much harder mode does have it’s pluses though.
In the Arena they have adopted a three strikes and you’re out mechanic. You play successive games trying to avoid loses and building up your wins either hitting the cap or losing three times and being chucked out of the Arena. Think of it as a bit like winner stays on but with a bit more lenience. If you go zero for three then, well, unlucky for you but even if you get just one win you’re are guaranteed a reward be it cards, dust or in-game gold to spend later down the line. It’s quite an addictive game mode and really tests your deck building skills.
In the overall scheme of things if you win or lose you’ll still be getting rewards. Each class levels up as you play and unlocks class specific cards along the way. Thankfully by level ten you will have a complete set of cards for each class meaning you won’t be behind in that regard at least. The other rewards include dust which is used to craft cards you just cannot find (a nice antidote to opening hundreds of packs and not being able to find that one card you like) and gold which can be used to buy packs of cards or enter the Arena. This keeps you interested and gently pulls you along, wanting to keep playing the game to earn more experience and improve your own deck.
The video game behind the card game is very, very pretty. It has great sound design and visuals, even when you open up new packs of cards! The animations for when you use a spell card or charge across the battlefield are all engaging and while it’s very much a “ooh pretty lights situation” it does make the game more engaging to play . It is all very gratifying and leads to an overall pleasing experience. One of the nice bonuses right now is that there is no chat, so no smack talking ass holes and the like! Instead you have selected phrases your character can speak, even your cards talk when played which is kind of nice. They all sound like their Warcraft counterparts too so you do feel pretty awesome.
The free to play part of this game means that thanks to gold rewards for the daily quests (something World of Warcraft players will be familiar with) you never have to spend any money at all. You can go and buy packs of cards if you don’t have the time to play and grind, or you just feel a little lazy. The packs are fairly well priced and aren’t beyond the pricing of anything you wouldn’t see when buying cards in the ‘real world’ for something like Magic. What really makes it a less dirty thing is that you are completely able to play the game and enjoy all of it without having to pay for cards and while you might think you’re going to be on the back foot against someone who has paid for a whole bunch of cards the game pairs you up against someone of your level and deck power. It’s not as pay-to-win as you might think.
I would say that the one thing I would like to see added is that you could trade cards for other cards, as a player to player exchange. They do deal with this at the moment by allowing you to break down your additional cards into the dust material which allows you to craft one you like. I should mention that (apart from in the Arena) you can only have two of each card in your deck so you will regularly be clicking that break down button!
The game itself runs through your Blizzard Battle.net launcher which is a bit like their version of Steam. It will also be coming to tablets and the like in the future too meaning you can get your Hearthstone fix wherever you are.
As an actual card game Hearthstone matches up against the best of them. It’s fun to play with great effects and engaging artwork and mechanically is very sound with a lot of tactical depth. Weighing up the options when spending your crystals and then attacking minions or the hero him/herself becomes a real brain teaser! It’s well worth a look at once it launches fully soon.
Sign up to the Beta.
Karl Luther Moore
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