A Game by the Fire: Blizzard's Hearthstone

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.

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