This is our town, scrub!
The barrier to entry in a trading card game tends to be enormous. Acquiring enough cards to form a deck can be an expensive endeavor, particularly if hoping to play competitively, and as a fresh-faced newbie nervously shuffling a fresh stack of cards, finding a match or group to practice with is an intimidating prospect in itself.
Fortunately, the internet has stepped in to save those cards (and you) from sustaining nasty battle scars. With the rising popularity of online card games, more companies have seen fit to inject this once-personal encounter with digital ways to play and a particularly insidious focus on new ways to pay. In looking out for the broke or unsure among us, industry heavyweight Blizzard Entertainment has graced us with the excellent Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, and successfully proven that online card games can be truly free to play.
Feeling like a slightly streamlined version of Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone pits two players with their own decks of summons, spells, and abilities against each other in a rush to eliminate the other. As each round passes, one mana crystal (the resource used to play cards) is added to each player’s pool, allowing for increasingly stronger creatures (called minions) and more devastating spells to be played as the match goes on. Unsurprisingly, when a player’s health is reduced to zero, that player loses and the game is over.
One big difference between other collectible card games and Hearthstone is the inclusion of classes. Players choose one of nine heroes each representing a class from World of Warcraft (with the exception of monk and death knight) before each battle. With each character comes specialized cards that only that particular hero may use, similar to the different resource types in Magic: The Gathering. This system pushes players to try drastically different strategies depending on their enemy match ups and keeps the game feeling fresh even when playing for long periods of time.
After choosing a class, players must then build a deck of thirty cards. With nearly 400 cards available to use, and a maximum of two of the same card per deck (with the exception of the ultra-rare and powerful Legendary cards, of which a player can only have one), deck-building can be a stressful process for newbies. Thankfully, Blizzard has included a recommendation system to help choose proper cards each step of the way and build playable decks out of any player’s collection.
Hearthstone allows for classic (as described above) or arena play. Paying 300 gold (or $1.99) allows players to enter the arena for the chance to win more gold, card packs, and arcane dust (used to create any card in the game, providing you have acquired enough). Once in the arena, the game offers a random choice of three different heroes. After picking one, the player is then faced with three cards and the ability to choose only one. A randomized trio of cards is offered thirty times to build a deck before beginning battle proper. Using this new deck, the player must attempt to win nine games or lose three to finish the current arena run, with both endings resulting in prizes. With this mechanic, skillful players can pay for their runs using their rewards and never have to pay a cent of real currency.
Gold can also be won by completing daily quests. Every day, a player can do one to three of these objective-based missions to earn different amounts of the in-game money. From winning three games as a certain class to destroying a certain number of enemy minions, these dailies rarely take more than a couple games and can quickly lead to arena runs if tackled often. Playing against other humans is exhilarating, but for those of us that don’t feel quite ready to take the plunge to ranked or even unranked play, two levels of AI exist to practice against. These bot matches can be used to unlock different classes, requiring only a battle won against the hero that the player wishes to acquire.
One huge advantage that digital card games have over physical cardboard is allowing for easily tracked card effects and even full out transformations. For example, the mage’s polymorph spell changes an enemy minion into a sheep, which could be problematic to keep track of in a tabletop game but is easily accomplished using digital means. Other examples include power ups to creatures and special minions that change as battlefield conditions are met. Writing down stat changes and bringing a box of dice are things of the past and never a concern in Hearthstone.
The game offers a wide variety of card art, ranging from the Penny Arcade-drawn Leeroy Jenkins to the excellent fantasy renderings seen in the likes of M:TG. With four different battlefields each featuring small interactive easter-eggs, Hearthstone has enough variation and style to keep players interested in what is happening on-screen.
The game features some wonderful sound design as well. Songs fit to be heard in any Irish pub play over the matches and each card comes with different sound effects, many recognizable to even the most casual World of Warcraft players. Blizzard’s trademark humor can be found in many of the minion’s recordings, with hits like the Leper Gnome’s, “Gimme a big hug,” being my personal favorite.
For those unwilling to part with their hard-earned dollars on digital goods, the game manages to be completely unobtrusive. Players can easily make enough gold without spending real money to enter the arena, and the game offers enough cards frequently enough to make powerful decks without purchasing anything. Buying more cards is easily done for those who wish to, however, and for a game of this quality, I didn’t mind buying a couple packs to beef up my collection.
A game of the entertainment value and depth of Hearthstone would be at home even in a retail environment. Luckily for us, Blizzard has implemented a completely fair free to play model and in doing so, given players every reason to jump in and start summoning some minions. Regardless of interest in World of Warcraft or collectible card games in general, there is enough here to bring anyone into Hearthstone‘s warm, rock-solid embrace… Pun very much intended.