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Monday, February 3, 2014

Video game Review: Hearthstone

Let's take a look at Blizzard's latest game, Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is Blizzard's version of jumping on the online collectible card game (CCG) surge that we saw in 2013. It's fairly similar to the old World of Warcraft TCG. If you're not familiar with the CCG genre, you collect randomly distributed cards and build decks with them. The format was made popular in the early 90's with Magic The Gathering, otherwise known as the savior of games stores everywhere.

The past year or so has seen a surge of the same format being offered as an online game. This has the advantage of being able to play whenever you want (in your underwear at 3am!), and with a wide variety of opponents - in theory, possible never even the same person twice. Obvious disadvantages include the lack of face to face social interaction, and the prevalence of spending real money for virtual goods.

With all that out of the way, let's take a look at Hearthstone! The cards in your deck can summon creatures on to the battlefield, blow up opposing creatures with spells such as Fireball, heal yourself and your minions, and other expected effects. Each player starts with 30 hit points, and the goal of the game is to reduce your opponents hit points to zero. Each player builds a 30-card deck, and then goes to town on their opponent. Let's take a look at some game play with my Warlock deck.

Hearthstone is set in the World of Warcraft environment. You can build decks with each of the nine main classes in the game.
Here is the deck editing screen for my Warlock deck. The available cards I can use are shown in a "book" format taking up the majority of the screen, and my current deck is shown in a column on the left.

Hearthstone has a random matchmaking system, with both a casual, unranked league, and a ranked, ladder-style league.

You start with a hand of three cards, and draw an additional one on each turn.

In addition to your hand of cards, each class has a special ability that can be used once per turn. Here, the Warlock can spend two mana, two life, and draw a card. At bottom right, you can see a single blue crystal - that's my bar of mana. You gain one mana each turn, allowed you to play bigger and more powerful cards each turn. This is a big difference from games such as Magic where you develop your mana by playing lands.

The player who goes second gets an extra card in their starting hand, and also gets a special card called "The Coin", which is a one-use inject of mana to help regain the lost tempo by going second.

Here I play a Murloc Warleader, which cost me three of my four mana crystals. The creature deals three damage, and has three hitpoints. He also makes all of my other Murlocs stronger.

I'm developing quite the little army of Murlocs. The ones with the "ZZzz"s are ones I just summoned this turn - creatures cannot attack the turn they are played. I can use these creatures to attack my opponent directly, or attack any creatures he has in play. Unlike Magic, if I attack him directly, he can't decide to "block" with his own creatures. As the attacker, I decide who fights what.

My opponent plays a Shieldbearer that does no damage, but has four hit points. It also has "taunt" special rule, meaning I must attack it as long as it remains alive. This is an exception to the normal allows, allowing (and actually forcing) that creature to block attacks.

But that's no worry. I've got enough Murlocs on the board to smash the Shieldbearer and destroy my opponent.

The game offers quests to earn gold. Gold is an in-game currency that lets you purchase more cards and tickets to events. Here I've completed a quest that was simply "Win three games" and earned 40 gold.
You get a basic set of cards just for starting out with the game, and further additional basic cards specific to each class by playing that class. However, the majority of the cards in the game are purchased through random "Expert Card Packs". You can purchase them with both real-life money and in-game currency. Obviously, it's a lot easier to simply buy them with in-game money, and since the game is otherwise free-to-download and play, many people start off by buying $20 worth of cards or so. You can also purchase them with the in-game currency "gold". Gold is earned slowly just by winning games, and in larger sums as event prizes and quest rewards. The cards you receive in each pack are random.

You can also get cards through a crafting system, allowing you to pick which card you get. Every card in the game is attainable from crafting. You gain "crafting dust" from winning events, or from "disenchanting" extra copies of cards you own. It's a slow, but surefire, way to get specific cards you want for your deck.

There is also a "draft" style format you can play called "The Arena". Arena is the most interesting playstyle in my opinion. Your first entrance to Arena is free, but additional Arena tickets either cost $2 or 150 gold. If you've ever played a Magic draft, Arena will look very similar with two key differences:
  • You're not actually drafting with another player. You're just getting random cards.
  • You don't get to keep the cards you draft. So draft for your deck, not your card collection.

In Arena, you are given three random classes to choose from.

Here I picked the Druid. You then are given 30 series of choices of three cards. You pick one card from each set of three to build your deck.

Once you have your 30 card deck, you play games with it until you either win 12 games, or lose three. Depending on what your record was, you win prizes, including rare cards, Expert Card Packs, gold, or crafting dust.
All in all, Hearthstone is a fun little game that anyone can play for free, now that it went into "Open Beta" in January. While they claim it's "Open Beta", no cards or accounts will be reset, so effectively it's a release version of the game, but they're keeping the "Beta" tag to account for balance and bug issues that may arise.

If CCGs or the Warcraft universe is something that interests you, I'd highly recommend giving Hearthstone a shot. It's a small, low system-req, free to play game to try, and especially playing it casually, you certainly never have to spend a dime. The matchmaking system prevents new players from getting matched up against people with finely tuned  killer decks, and in Arena mode, everyone's on the same page.

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