Blizzard has a knack to knowing how things should work. Across multiple genres, their legacy has been an exercise in distilling a particular type of game down to its core mechanics, and making them front and center, while adding a high level of polish and visual flair to hide it all behind. Diablo, Starcraft, and World of Warcraft are the stark examples of this “Blizzard effect” as it relates to Action RPGs, Real Time Strategy, and MMOs. Hearthstone is both their latest experiment with their formula in a new genre – collectible card game – and the greatest example of the developers ability to make any genre both accessible and fun to people who don’t normally play them.
Not that I’m that person, I’ve played my fair share of traditional card games, and many of them, though they try, are rarely different enough to fix the genre’s intrinsic issues. Issues that make them hard to get into at anything but a casual level. Magic: The Gathering is the premiere game, but it’s twisted tournament rules, and heavy reliance on drawing mana can make playing games a potential headache as you watch three turns go by, and stare at unusable cards in your hand thanks to the one color you need. Warlords involved ranks and dice and was way too complicated for a card game. The list goes on, but the point remains: Hearthstone is the solution.
Each Hearthstone game is a fast and furious exchange from turn one. Two players bring constructed decks of 30 cards apiece, draw three (or four if you go second), and take turns playing cards from your hands, summoning minions and casting spells until your opponent’s health equals zero. Each turn you gain a permanent mana to your total pool to a maximum of ten, taking away the need to actively draw your resources, and spend turns setting up the ability to play cards from your hand. You always feel “in the game” thanks to this design choice, and it does a great deal towards making players, no matter the skill level, feel more empowered. The simple act of playing the game isn’t dumb luck, anymore.
There are plenty of ways to spend your mana, as cards come in various types like minions (creatures), spells, weapons, and secrets (counters and traps), and cost-per-card feel very much balanced. A 10-mana card is the game changer is should be. Add in the class specific abilites (9 in all, based around the MMO’s signature classes) and your options are vast. Classes themselves also have unique ranges of cards only they can build decks from; Rogue decks and Mage decks have different options available to them that add the sort of class abilities you’d expect coming from the original franchise. Mages cast lots of spells, Shaman master the elements with totems, etc.
It’s all very rudimentary, and cards themselves are incredibly self explanatory. The flow of play doesn’t demand over manipulation of minute rules, or rules lawyering over order-of-operations type cues. You play a card, its effect happens. If it says deal six damage, you deal six damage. This can be a perilous idea for card game enthusiasts because over simplicity can turn any game into a card clashing mess after a while. Rest assured, the sum of a decks narrow parts can be an extremely deep and tactical weapon, that makes playing the game still feel fresh and rewarding 100 games later.
If there’s one plus that having a digital medium over a physical medium when it comes to card games is the huge presentation options. Each minion card says things when summoned, attacking, or killed. When attacking, cards rise from the table and slam into their targets with satisfying crashes that grow with the damage you’re doing. Big spells like the 10 mana Pyroblast are epic visual experiences that make the 10 damage you deal feel significant. Summoning big creatures like, Ysera the Dragon (who draws cards from her own “dream deck”) triggers a musical change that makes her arrival on the playing field feel important. There’s an emotional tangibility that replaces the lack of physical cards that enhances each game’s ferocity. The level of care is characteristically Blizzard: second to none.
Hearthstone’s free-to-play model is pretty ingratiating, as well. Everything can be bought with in-game gold that can be earned by completing daily quests, or through real money. Blizzard forgoes the normal F2P practice of having consumers buy currency, and using the currency to buy the product, and cuts out the middle man. Buying a pack of cards costs 100 gold or a $1.50, and buying entry into the Arena – the games version of blind drafting – costs 150 gold or $1.99. Another example of simplicity reigning supreme. I have no problem spending that money, as I don’t feel like I’m getting gouged by fake currency margins. I’m buying a product for a menu price; no frill, no confusion.
Which may be on of Hearthstone’s biggest weaknesses, as well. The card creation system involves a currency called arcane dust, earned as an Arena prize, or by disenchanting cards you don’t want. Every card in the 382 card catalogue can be created using this dust, and only the dust. There’s no way to directly buy any cards, which is an ironic shame, because this is the only card game I’ve played that I would want to buy specific cards for. It may be a balancing decision, removing the “pay to win” culture that a lot of F2P games persist in, but a disappointing one, nonetheless. No matter how much random stuff I buy, there’s never any guarantees. It’s a card game trope that Hearthstone still falls directly in line with.
Randomness is rampant in the game, as a matter of fact. Many cards rely on random effects, and can be a distracting element to what is a pretty well balanced experience. With time, experience will guide players into the right and wrong times to use these cards, but the inevitable time when your random play blows up in your face (sometimes literally) will be a demoralizing one.
But don’t let it take you down too long, as Hearthstone gets better with age. As you become a better player, and begin to identify combos and ranked meta tendencies, you’ll suddenly become something you’d never thought you could be: a good card game player. And there’s plenty of room to grow here. With single player campaigns being teased, and the prospect of expanding to new platforms and developing more game types, the potential seems limitless in the coming months and years for this franchise.