Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone invokes memories of my experiences with Carcassonne a couple of years back. I remember making a joke about loving the esoteric yet fiendishly strategic gameplay, while somehow managing not to have grown a neck beard. As clearly, at least in my pea-brained head, the two go hand-in-hand. And with Hearthstone, well I’ve got that feeling all over again. You see Hearthstone, like Carcassonne, isn’t a game I ever thought I’d play once, never mind become absolutely hooked on. Yet for all of my pre-conceptions and ill-conceived notions about the type of person that would play a CCG (collectable card game – don’t worry, I had to look it up, too), I couldn’t have been further from the truth. And if anything, I’m now wondering what other greats I’ve completely missed out on due to my own ignorance and narrow-mindedness.
Hearthstone is currently in what Blizzard is calling open Beta, but seems pretty close to completion save for a couple of statistical tweaks and minor graphical glitches here or there. I’m playing on Mac so your mileage may vary.
The first thing that should jump out at you about Hearthstone is its pricepoint - it’s completely free. Sure, it features various in-game purchases to help further your progress, but these are far from essential and you absolutely, 100%, can play and succeed without spending a single penny. In fact, some of the top players in the world have deliberately got where they are in the rankings without spending a single penny just to prove that it can be done. For the record, I have spent money, but that’s only due to my own impatience and incompetence.
A two-player experience, the game begins with each player choosing one of the nine available fantasy character classes before being dealt thirty random cards. This deck will include cards that are unique to your chosen class as well as some that are available to all classes. The player that gets to play first receives three initial random cards from that deck of thirty, while the other player receives four. Before the game starts proper you can choose to return any of your initial cards back to the deck in exchange for other random replacements. There’s apparently a very slight advantage to playing first which is sensibly countered by the additional opening card for the player playing second. Players also have mana crystals, the number of which which increases by one after each hand. Each card costs a set number of crystals and players take it in turns playing either as many cards as they have crystals for, or as many (or as few) cards as they so choose per round depending on their opponent’s actions. Each character begins the game with thirty hit points and the first person to reduce their opponent’s health to zero is the winner.
The brilliance of Hearthstone lies in the range and variety of its various cards. Every card type has its counterpart but these cards can be combined together to devastating effect. There are taunt cards - cards that have to be attacked before your chosen character can receive damage. Charge cards - which allow a minion, beast or demon to attack immediately without having to wait for the next round. Weapons cards - which give your character a temporary weapon as a whole myriad of other devious options you'll grow to love as you figure out your favoured class and deck.
For such a simple premise with relatively basic mechanics at its core, it's remarkable just how much Hearthstone's aesthetics manage to pop and wow. Every individual card has been skillfully hand-painted by one of many talented artists that have contributed work to the game and the character designs, while more-often-than-not archetypal and generic, still manage to charm and delight in equal measure. Blizzard also manages to add a real weight and almost physical satisfaction to everything you click, drag or manipulate. There’s also something mysteriously satisfying about unlocking new cards and opening a new pack and the way they almost burst out of the screen at you. 3D somehow but without needing any silly glasses or funky hardware. I don’t know quite how Blizzard has done it but the visual trick is startling. There are also lots of subtle touches. Each character class has his or her own custom backdrop over which their cards are dealt, but in the downtime while you’re waiting for your opponent to pick their next card you can click drag and manipulate the background in hidden and fun ways. For instance one character’s backdrop shows a pile of rocks and a catapult. You can drag a rock into the catapult and then launch it at your opponent with another click. It adds nothing to the actual game play but it’s these exquisite little touches that add to the brilliance and overall polish of what’s clearly a well-designed game, well designed in terms of both aesthetics and mechanics.
There are four main games modes at the time of writing. Practice mode which sees you facing off against easy or expert AI players, casual mode which sees you playing real Battle.net players online but with nothing at stake. Ranked games which see you battling against higher quality, hopefully-equally-matched opponents, in order to increase your rank and the brilliant Arena mode.
Arena mode is Hearthstone’s whole raison d’etre and also clearly how Blizzard is going to make a boatload of money even though the core game comes gratis. Arena modes sees you playing against an online opponent with you both choosing one character from the same three randomly selected choices. You’ll then be presented with sets of three cards from which you can only select one. Do this thirty times in order to build a deck and then duke it out, for shit or bust.
What’s equally infuriating and brilliant is the way almost every single set of three cards from which you must choose features at least two that you desperately want in your deck. Every single minute choice could be the difference between success and defeat and you’ll carefully deliberate over every single choice trying to strike a fine balance between selecting cards that cost only a few mana crystals while also making sure you have a decent number of higher level more expensive cards in order to finish off your opponent as you reach the end game. That you’re both choosing from the same three characters and therefore also the same three potential decks means the playing field is leveled and no matter how exhaustive your opponent’s custom deck and no matter how much real money they’ve thrown at the game, you still stand an equal chance of victory.
You have three lives in Arena mode and the key is to win as many games as possible before those lives are exhausted. You begin with a level zero key which increases in rank up to a maximum of level twelve for every victory. The higher the level of your key the greater your reward at the end of Arena mode.
Arena mode costs 150 points or £1.49 to play. Yes you can pay your way into it, but there are plenty of opportunities to earn in-game gold by way of the many quests that popup daily which conveniently also encourage you to explore different classes and unlock cards across all classes. Arena prizes include gold – if you win enough games you can actually earn enough to enter the Arena again immediately – as well as card packs which always include at least one rare card, as well as individual rare cards and Arcane dust which is used to craft your own cards, more on which later. Even if you lose three games in a row, you'll still unlock one card pack which will contain at least one rare card. There's always an incentive to play. And as you build up a collection of cards it’s even possible to disenchant them which means grinding them into Arcane dust which can then be re-used to unlock rare character-specific cards to add to your deck.
Hearthstone, even in its current beta state is nothing short of a staggering achievement from Blizzard. It’d be easy for it to rest on its laurels and ride the remaining life out of the Warcraft cash cow before inevitably launching its next epic MMORPG, but with Hearthstone it’s taken something of a gamble and produced something that manages to be equally as compulsive and addictive and with remarkable hidden depths. That it’s both simultaneously accessible for all as well as being nuanced and tactical is testament to the incredible job it's done first designing such a game as well as balancing and making it such a rewarding and enjoyable experience. I can see myself playing Hearthstone for years to come, when one month ago, I couldn’t ever see myself playing a CCG. Colour me converted. Here Blizzard, have some more of my money.