You just knew that when Blizzard finally decided to step into free-to-play that it would do something that would be both spectacular and expensive. Hearthstone is that; both spectacular and expensive. I want to warn those with addictive personalities in advance; stay well away from this game because it will bankrupt you.
The basic idea of the game is to take the collectable card game (CCG), popularised by the likes of Magic the Gathering, and mix it with the World of Warcraft world, which is obviously a popular one. The end result is one of the finest examples of the genre ever made.
Players build a deck of 30 cards from their entire collection. At first they’ll only have access to the “base” deck, but by spending the in-game currency earned from winning games (or spending real money in the place of the in-game currency), players can purchase “packs” of random cards to add to their decks. The rare cards are the powerful ones, naturally, and the rare ones are, as the term implies, rare to find in these packs of cards.
So you’ll need to open a lot of packs in order to perfect a killer deck. As you do earn some in-game cash each day from achieving certain objectives (for instance, winning a certain number of matches), when you start playing Hearthstone it seems like it’ll be easy enough to play for free forever. But this is Blizzard, and they’re no fools. Rewards earned in-game are small enough to require a lot of grinding to be in a position to be competitive at the higher tiers of competition. And then there are the serious competitions, which cost money to enter, offer the best rewards, and can become very expensive if you play a lot of them.
Compared to other digital CCGs, such as Might and Magic: Duel of Champions, Hearthstone is generally worse value for the thrifty. But it’s hard to hold that against Blizzard, since the game is generally worth the money.
The most immediately noticeable thing is the presentation; put simply Hearthstone is a beautiful game. Each card is drawn beautifully, and on the battlefield there’s enough animation that the experience feels more energetic than a simple card game has any reason to be. The character design and background environments are all modelled after the World of Warcraft universe, so the same bold colours and rich variety in character and monster design holds true.
After the art style has pulled you in, it’s the finely honed gameplay balance that will keep you playing. There are nine different “character classes” all based on World of Warcraft types (Warrior, Shaman, Rogue, Priest, etc), and each of these character classes has its own unique cards. A typical CCG builds a “rock, paper, scissors” style of play into the rules, whereby one group of cards will have a natural advantage over another. So for instance, in Magic the Gathering there are five classes of cards – white, black, red, blue and green. White cards, being based on healing abilities, have a natural advantage over black cards, which tend to be based around death and darkness. Blue, meanwhile, being based on water and the oceans, has a natural advantage over the fire-based red cards.
But in Hearthstone, there’s no real clear advantage of one set of cards over the other. This is a better way to go, as it means that the outcome of a game is never certain before the game even starts. Success is always based on strategy and deck construction, which is a nice change from my Magic the Gathering time where I would often start a match and know within three cards if I was going to win or lose based on the colour deck my opponent had chosen.
Because you’re limited to only 30 cards in a deck, there’s no room to waste any of them, so pulling together a great deck takes a lot of time, practice, and hard decisions. But then seeing it succeed is a truly great feeling. Hearthstone has been in development for a long time, and it’s easy to see why – the range of deck construction strategies are nearly endless.
As a game my only concern with Hearthstone is what will happen in the future. The typical CCG introduces a new set of cards at periods (be it six months or a year), and with these new cards one of two things can occasionally happen, even to games as great as Magic itself; one or two new cards might be way too powerful that they unbalance the game, and the only solution is to either ban the cards from competitive play (disadvantaging those that have them and want to use them), or introduce cards to counter them in a later set. But this leads to the second problem – power creep, where each set trumps the last and makes the one before that redundant. As a business this makes sense as it forces people to spend more money on keeping their cards updated, but it costs a fortune in the long term.
I have no idea if Blizzard has a strategy to deal with these potential pitfalls, but even if neither crop up, this needs to be said; don’t think of the game as a free-to-play one. It’s actually very expensive if you want to be competitive, and so it’s a premium game. It’s worth it, but go in expecting it to be a big part of your gaming hobby going forwards.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld