Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft presents a fresh spin on the card collecting genre. Developed by the gaming addiction experts at Blizzard, on the surface it appears to be a simple, yet underwhelming trading card game, and after a few short play sessions, you may be tempted to write it off as a simplified version of Magic: The Gathering. To do so, however, would not only be a disservice to the game itself, but also to the game’s many subtleties and nuances.
Taking a cue from the evolution of past trading card games, Hearthstone thrusts you into the fray immediately after loading it up. Throughout a short five battle tutorial introduction, you learn about the basics of cards, abilities and gameplay, and once past this initial phase, you’re left to your own devices, for better or for worse.
Gameplay will be familiar to most collectible card aficionados. Each card has a mana cost, which is what the card costs to play. Mana gets added to your pool each turn, up to a total of ten, and regenerates each turn. Creature cards have an attack value as well, shown in yellow, and a health value, represented by a red droplet. Bram Stoker would be pleased. Non creature cards consist of spells, which have a variety of effects, from returning cards to your hand, to freezing your minions (making them unable to attack), to turning them from huge, imposing beasts, or less than impressive sheep.
Each of the base classes, including mage, hunter, druid, warrior, warlock, priest, paladin, and rogue are accounted for in the game, and if you’re a fan of Blizzard’s other addiction in the form of an MMO, World of Warcraft, you’ll feel right at home. Most, if not all, of the sound effects have been ripped from the WoW book, right up to the sounds of many of the spells and abilities.
The artwork on the cards is bright and bold and colorful, while spell effects and high level creature summons are flashy and impressive. Tabletop arenas are appropriately atmospheric. You can also click on various places on the board to break windows or turn off lights or close doors, just for fun, or something to do during an opponents’ turn.
The main object of the game is to use all the spells, creatures and other cards in your hand to whittle down your opponents’ life bar to zero, before they can do the same to yours. The sheer variety of ways this can be done is impressive and finding the right balanced deck that can win consistently and efficiently is a tricky endeavor.
Before hitting the ranked matches, your best bet is to cut your teeth in practice mode against the AI. This gives you a feel for the gameplay and unlocks as well as levels up your basic decks. Once a deck reaches level 10, all the basic cards for that deck are unlocked. Continuous level-ups grant you special “golden” versions of these basic cards every five levels or so.
Getting new cards is as easy as buying more packs for gold earned in matches, through daily quests, or god forbid, forking over a strange foreign currency known as dollars. Cards come in more flavors than you’d find at your typical ice cream shop, however. They range from common to rare and epic and even legendary. Every card also has a premium “golden” version, boasting a shimmering golden border and moving artwork effect.
You can also “disenchant” and “craft” your own cards to create decks. You use one of the base classes as a start, then you get “dust” for various cards; the higher the rarity, the more dust you earn for that card, and of course, golden cards command a premium. Values are always disproportionate, however. For example, crafting one legendary rank card costs a whopping 1600 dust, but try and sell that card back and you’ll only get 400 dust for it, a fraction of what you paid.
Ranked or just for fun matches, practicing against your friends or the computer is fun, but the other mode that comes with the game is Arena Mode. In Arena Mode, you choose between different levels of random cards to quickly forge a deck and then see how many battles you can win with that deck in a gauntlet style you versus the world series of match-ups. You earn gold and card packs with each successive victory.
The most impressive aspect of Hearthstone is that Blizzard managed to somehow capture the essence of playing a class native to an MMO in a trading card game. Mages are about direct damage and crowd control, which plays a lot differently than a rogue, who relies on moves like backstabs and assassination techniques, as well as other means of subterfuge, to get the job done.
Each class seems quite faithfully represented as well. Hunters rely on their sharpshooting skills and traps, while druids use the power of nature, such as giant trees, a mana pool that can be increased by leaps and bounds early on and several significant heals as keys to their victory. For a different play style altogether, you can try shaman, which relies on summonable totems to generate a variety of effects, as well as cards boasting overload, which use up more mana at a cost of having that mana “locked” next turn.
The variety of play styles ensures that everyone will find a deck that they like, whether it’s a more aggressive, offensive style, or a defensive one, requiring a more focused endgame. Indeed, the comparisons have already been made between Hearthstone and chess, as it shares a variety of similarities. Both occur in stages, such as an opening game, mid game, and endgame. Both games require you to gain board control, and at its most competitive, think about elements such as your card advantage and card value, versus your opponent’s, whereas in chess, you’re always considering your pieces value in any given situation, versus your opponent, and when you should trade, etc.
To compare Hearthstone to Magic still seems like giving far too little credit where credit is due. Depending on your point of view, it could also be a compliment of sorts. The task of breaking down an MMO into its barest elements and crafting a trading card game out of those elements could be nothing if not a lesson in gaming alchemy. As a first step on a road of evolution, Hearthstone is exciting to watch and undeniably addictive and charming to play. Its user friendly interface and collectible aspects cater to more than just the hardcore. Already there’s been an announcement of a raid expansion, as well as a recent release on the iPad.
In imagining where Hearthstone may be in the years to come, the prospects are inviting. Will it flourish and expand well beyond its initial borders, adding cards and rules and expansion upon expansion until the game we know as Hearthstone ceases to be recognizable at all anymore? Will it linger on past its prime, like a lonely murloc on an empty shore, gazing out at the sea, and wondering if perhaps it still had more to offer? If it still compelled those out there to give it a second thought? Just one more game. Just one more…