So, I’ve been absolutely slammed with work at my new job – this last weekend was the first time that I could sit down and say “hey, I have an hour or two to just PLAY something.” Lo and behold, what do I get but a Hearthstone beta invite! Having checked it out when it was announced (and then promptly having forgot about it again), I really didn’t have any expectations except that it looked kinda fun. (For the record, I’m familiar with the rules of MTG, and spent a good bit of time playing a flash CCG called Elements, but wouldn’t consider myself “advanced” at all.) Here’s what I think.
Increasingly, games have to pass the “first 5 minutes” test with me. As I reach a stage of my life where time has replaced money as my primary limiting resource, I don’t want to deal with any non-fun crap right off the bat. Hearthstone easily passes this test As soon as you start the game for the first time, you get thrown into a series of tutorial battles against prominent WoW villains, which gradually teach you the elements of the game. Even if you’ve never played Magic or another CCG in your life, by the time you finish this tutorial series, you’ll be ready to battle other players (or continue to battle the AI, if you choose).
The big thing that sucks you in, though, is how well they evoke WoW in the card game itself. All of the creature and spell cards are patterned after their in-game equivalents, in both art and (most crucially) sound. Put down a murloc, and get the classic gurgle. Cast a fireball, and you get the whoosh-crack and glowy effect. Even the non-WoW sounds are done well; a small hit rewards a small “thunk” sound, while a large hit rewards a large “crack,” complete with applause. If you get bored during your opponent’s turn, all the game boards are fully interactable and have the classic Warcraft trope of doing something funny when clicked repeatedly.
Win or lose, your “hero” will get XP. Currently, there are nine classes, each represented by a single hero; XP increases your class level, which rewards you with a new card every couple levels for the class. Your deck is built from a combination of class-specific cards and a pool of neutral cards that are available to all classes.
Mechanics-wise, things are simple: many complex mechanics present in other CCG’s have been removed. There are only two major types of cards: spells and creatures (minions). There’s a few subtypes – some creatures are “weapons,” which cannot typically be attacked, and some spells are “secrets,” which are hidden when cast and execute automatically when their condition is met. Taking Magic as an example, there’s no lands, no artifacts, no differentiation in spell speeds, etc. While this lack of complexity may prove a detriment to the long-term health of the game, it greatly helps the casual player.
Deckbuilding is also relatively painless. It’s pretty hard to make a truly “bad” deck unless you’re trying to, and if you’re completely lost, an ingenious “Suggest a Card” feature will recommend one of the current cards you own, based on your current deck’s current composition.
Game modes are pretty sparse at the moment – the only options are “Practice” (vs. AI, you pick the class and basic/advanced deck), “Play” (single game against random human opponent, ranked and unranked modes) and “Arena,” which is the most compelling mode. In the Arena, everyone starts from scratch – you get to pick one of three randomly-determined classes, then pick one of three randomly-determined cards 30 times. You then take that fresh deck and match it against other fresh decks. Once you lose 3 times or win 9, you “finish” your Arena streak and get rewarded according to your number of wins…which leads us to the less savory bits of Hearthstone.
Hearthstone is free-to-play, but the amount of cards you get to start is very low. Off the bat, you get the “Basic Set,” which is 43 neutral cards, plus 45 class-specific cards, 5 for each class. (you get 2 of each, which is the maximum in a deck) Leveling a class to level 10 (relatively painless, since you gain a level when you win, and half that when you lose) will reward an additional 5 2-packs. That’s…it. The other ~400 neutral + class-specific cards are rewarded in packs – 5 cards in a pack.
Here’s the problem – a pack costs $1.50, or 100 in-game gold. You get a couple one-time packs, but after that, the only realistic way to make gold is by a once-per-day quest, which rewards 40 gold. Winning a “play” match against another player rewards a measly 1 gold. You can also make gold from Arena wins, but it costs 150 gold to enter in the first place.
That might even be okay, except certain classes are absolutely crippled without their class-specific cards, like druids and warlocks. RNG is of course RNG – I’ve opened 7 packs of cards so far, and received 1 druid card. Just 1. Other classes do better with the basic cards, but you’ll eventually hit a hard cap where you have to grind out daily quests or invest quite a bit of money if you want to be competitive against other prebuilt decks. (Obviously, the Arena has no such restriction, and is likely where I’ll spend most of my time.) This is brutal to player morale – imagine if Blizzard said “okay, WoW’s free-to-play up to the level cap, but until you pay you get no abilities, talents or quests past level 20.”
I understand the game needs to make money, but the cliff’s too steep at this point to drive long-term success. Still, this is an eminently fixable issue – just allowing a few more cards to be unlocked via XP would go a long way.
Early Thoughts on Classes
Druid – Focused on high-cost cards; minor themes include mana acceleration and “choose one” cards, where you can pick between one of two choices. Has strong cards, but the synergy between them is pretty weak. Haven’t had a lot of luck with it so far, but then again you need a lot of Druid cards to put together good combos.
Hunter – Focused on beasts and traps (aka secrets). Very much a rush-type deck; can roll early or get rolled late.
Mage – Focused on direct-damage cards and spells; weakish minions.
Paladin – Focused on buffs and pumping minions, with a little bit of healing and direct damage.
Priest – Focused on healing, obviously. One of the strongest late-game classes.
Rogue – Focused on using LOTS of low-damage minions and abilities. Most aggressive class.
Shaman – Haven’t seen too many; has a good bit of randomness to it, but tends to be a very “bursty” deck.
Warlock – Focused on an odd niche – cards and abilities with both benefits and drawbacks. Likely another class that requires a good complement of cards to build a good deck.
Warrior – Focused on weapons; not terribly subtle class.
Overall, I’d say Rogue/Mage/Hunter seem to be the strongest at the moment, though it’s beta so who the hell knows what’ll happen tomorrow. Fun game, and I’ll likely be getting in a few matches a day.