A Game by the Fire: Blizzard's Hearthstone

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Several months back, when World of Warcraft studio Blizzard teased their new game, everyone was thinking big. Way big. New MMORPG, perhaps? Another real-time strategy game? Something even more amazing?

Well, yes and no. It wasn’t big, but it was, in its own way, amazing. Blizzard unveiled Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a, um, digital collectible card game.

Hearthstone's Field of Battle

I recently snagged a spot in the closed beta for Hearthstone, which still has no firm release date, and I’ve been cautiously pleased with what I’ve seen. Drawing art and sound assets from World of Warcraft, Hearthstone captures the feel of that game quite well, taking nine classes from WoW as deck archetypes. The card play itself is fairly standard—mana grows turn by turn, allowing the play of cards from your hand; creatures usually cannot attack the turn they are played; and the object is to whittle the opposing hero down to zero health. So, essentially, a very streamlined Magic: The Gathering, gussied up with particle effects.

The emphasis is on fast play. Interaction during your opponent’s turn is almost nonexistent. Indeed, you cannot even chat with your opponent beyond a few pre-programmed emotes. And, given my long experience with World of Warcraft, that’s a feature, not a bug. The AFK timer is rather efficient at burning through an absent opponent’s turn, too.

Hearthstone will be free-to-play, with Blizzard making money through the optional sale of booster packs and entry into a drafting format. One can earn enough in-game credit by playing other people to purchase a booster pack probably two to three times a week with regular play. The matchmaking engine thus far has done well pitting me against players of similar (which is to say, limited) skill, enabling me to get a fair number of wins. Play against the computer is possible, but quickly becomes boring. At a certain point, AI play is only good for testing a new deck.

As a collectible card game, there are quite a few cards to accumulate, both class-specific and neutral cards usable by any class, though once you obtain more than the maximum hand limit of two of any card, you can “disenchant” the extras to form a crafting material that can then be used to create cards you want. A slow process, but if there’s a card you really want, you can get it, eventually.

The card collection interface is unwieldy and looks designed more for tablets than computers, but then I have yet to see a really good digital collection interface.

Hearthstone Collection Interface

While the limit of nine constructed deck slots makes sense with the nine classes you can play, I do wish there were more slots for creating multiple decks of the same class. One hopes Blizzard will not monetize that particular feature.

On the whole, I think Blizzard has (yet another) winner on its hands with Hearthstone. The gameplay is accessible for people without prior exposure to the collectible card game genre, appealing to World of Warcraft fans, and fast playing enough to make up for the slight lack of tactical depth (at least as compared to Magic: The Gathering). Besides, you can summon chickens to attack your opponent. That’s a win right there.

My First Friday Night Magic

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I’m a wargamer from way back, a good twenty-five years at this point. Never dabbled much in minis, play a ton of Euros, and own a nice collection of role playing game materials. I consider myself broad-minded in my gaming interests. But collectible card games? No, thank you.

The perceived wisdom amongst the chit-and-paper-map crowd is that CCGs are money sinks with constantly changing rules and a mostly adolescent (or adolescent-acting) audience. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who got sucked into a CCG and abandoned the true faith, ranting instead about mana screws and the superiority of a red/black control deck.

Still, the grandfather of all CCGs, Magic: The Gathering, has been around for almost twenty years now, and my experiences with some of the computerized versions (notably Duels of the Planeswalkers on the 360) revealed a significant depth of play. The customizable (read: collectible) nature of the card decks, the millions of potential randomized interactions with another customized deck, and the elegant basic rules intrigued me. Luck plays a role, but it’s mitigated by strategy. There’s some good gaming to be had here.

Oh, yeah. A Mythic Rare!

So, having some free time on a recent Friday, I took the plunge and visited my new Fine Local Game Store on Capitol Hill here in Washington, DC, Labyrinth, and participated in their Sealed Deck Friday Night Magic tournament. The Sealed Deck aspect was key—you buy the booster packs you play with on the spot, a twenty dollar outlay, and use those and those alone the whole night. No need to spend hundreds on a competitive deck with the new flavor of the week card. The event, a “sanctioned” tournament in Wizards of the Coasts’ international tournament structure, was well run, and while there were quite a few seriously competitive players showing off their binders with thousands of cards, everyone seemed pleased to interact with the more casual attendees. I got in four hours of play, met some decent people, and thoroughly enjoyed myself for a minimal expenditure. And now I’ve got some cards to build a deck with if I want to keep playing.

I can easily see how the game becomes addictive. There’s a thrill in opening a sealed booster pack and hoping for a rare card, and every new card adds to the potentials for your deck. Even the constantly changing cards (many of which become ineligible for tournament-level play after a year or so) make sense from a play standpoint—the speed with which you can play matches (fifteen minutes each) can make the extant cards seem stale after months of gaming with them. Most of the people I met didn’t play other games, so keeping their gaming experience fresh is both profitable for Wizards and enjoyable for the consumer.

So, while I may not be a convert to the Church of Magic, I think I’ll attend Friday Night Magic at Labyrinth when I can if they’re running Sealed formats. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to inventory my cards and see about buying some sleeves . . .