Impressions from Blizzard's 'Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft'

Posted Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 04:00 PM PST by
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Free-to-play trading card game taking off in beta.

Everything about 'Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft' feels exaggerated. With loss comes despair and in victory you are a King or Queen of intellect and tactics. The best cards are game changers, the worst cards are total pieces of trash worth their weight only in the insult it means to play it against a losing opponent. Blizzard's latest is as addictive as it is verifiably unbalanced, and yet the nature of the game's varying twists on the card game genre makes it so we just don't know yet how balanced 'Hearthstone' could ever end up being. All this and the game isn't officially released, though a beta with microtransactions should be known in another way – a full game immune to review scores. We aren't reviewing this game right now, but we are judging it. There are great times to be had in 'Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft,' but for every triumphant victory is an equally matched heartbreaking defeat. For every trump card there's an outcry of disbelief on the other side of the table. I've never been so emotionally confused in my entire life – can that count as a score out of ten?

The Basics

The first thing to note about the game is how 'Hearthstone' differentiates itself from those other card games, virtual or not. Like most card games, the cards represents numbers. The creatures that are palyed boil down to attack power, health and possibly an extra ability (a Battlecry activates when a card is played, Deathrattles activate when a creature is killed, etc.), or spells, which might augment creatures, do some kind of damage or contain some wildly fantastic trait immune to generalized description. In essence, your goal is to whittle your opponent's health down to zero (starting at 30) with whatever strategy you can, managing your own creatures while countering the opponent's.

The Twists

So it's your health versus the opponent's health. The game's specific twists start with Heroes, whom you choose as the forerunner of any deck. Each hero grants you a hero power, which you can activate once per turn at the cost of two mana (a resource that compounds by one and recharges every turn, used to cast any kind of card), and specialized cards which you can use to populate your deck alongside the much larger pool of hero-neutral cards. The Mage, for instance, who employs a collection of powerful spells, can hit any creature or the opposing hero for one damage as her power. She's about controlling the board. The Warlock damages himself for the opportunity to draw a new card, so his deck encourages quick damage in a race against self-destruction. These immediately apparent strategies, which are formulated as a direct result of a hero's power and specialized cards, are the very core reason of why 'Hearthstone' isn't just attracting card players. The game is creating new fans of an old genre. Possibly for the first time ever, a card game is truly accessible. At the very least, it's not an intimidating task to simply play the game.

Straightforward Turns

It also helps that a player's turn nearly indelible. Whereas in something like 'Magic: The Gathering,' opposing players are able to set blockers against attacking creatures, or to play instantaneous spells in the middle of an opposing turn, 'Hearthstone' has very little in the way of direct intervening action. There is no creature blocking, and the only way you can interrupt another player's spells or creature drops are through secrets you play during your own turn and activate under the right circumstances. It makes for a wonderfully tense pace from game to game, as decision making happens all at once and lightning fast.

I enjoy the pace and I'm grateful for the relatively low learning curve, but for every way 'Hearthstone' is designed to welcome new players, there's a downside. While I wouldn't call it a dumbing down of a notoriously intricate genre, 'Hearthstone's' simplifications have a way of amplifying the most unbalanced inherent traits of any card game. With the pace increased, for example, burning through your deck and depending on randomized draws becomes less a strategy and more an inevitability. You won't just be searching for a fortunate top-deck when your hand is down to null, you'll be in a top-deck standoff with your opponent, both sides having drained the other in an attempt to win out in the final lucky draw.

The Power of One

Even more, instead of having to slowly building up to a killing blow, most heroes are capable of the severest and crippling of combination attacks at relatively low mana cost. Some heroes have board wipes, meaning they can potentially eliminate every enemy creature currently active, while others are capable of felling the largest and most dangerous creatures with one simple spell. Every strategy and most of the cards lay near the extremes, with nuance traded for excitement and immediate simplicity. The worst is that hump you just need to get over, when you simply can't place down the creatures you need to get your strategy going. In other card games this might feel like a small mountain. In 'Hearthstone' it can feel like a black hole.

It comes down to this - every kind of deck with any hero is overpowered in its own special way. That's a long way from balance, but it's a solution that complements Blizzard's desire for accessibility. Longevity, well, that's another question entirely. We aren't there yet. The game is still in beta, technically, supposedly.

The Deck

A lot of the real strategy comes down to deck creation, as it should be. Even considering the limited combinations of a hero's specialized cards, matching those with whichever in the pool of neutral creatures is where you get to actually use your brain. At first I was partial to creatures with taunt, an ability that forces attacking foes to target that creature instead of others or the hero. It was comforting and matched up well with the Druid and Paladin's wait-and-draw decks. On the other side, charge creatures, capable of attacking on the same turn they're played, are great with the aforementioned Warlock and the Hunter, who can damage the enemy hero with his power, encouraging blitz-style play. The more I played, the more I tinkered with combinations of abilities, spells and hero powers, but there's always that wall of what one hero excels at over another.

Deck creation is not completely open-ended, for better and worse. It's immensely satisfying to see a strategy come together, but again, it's the potential for longevity that I worry about. A couple weeks into the game and generalized hero strategies are extremely easy to spot. I'm mostly surprised by rarer cards that I haven't earned or even seen yet for myself, which brings me to 'Hearthstone's' greatest failings – the microtransactions and the arena.

The Draw

The arena is a randomized mess of luck and happenstance. Take all those extremes present in the normal matches and amplify them tenfold, then take out all that strategy that comes along with building your own deck. You're given the opportunity to make a new deck among randomly generated groups of three at a time. Amazing and powerful cards are littered among the offerings, but there's nothing to guarantee your particular draw of 30 in a deck is equal or even half as good as somebody else's.

Good luck. Oh, and the arena is also the premier for earning new cards. It's a place where the high stakes are matched only by a factor of luck. Every winner feels like a genius and every loser feels like a shmuck.

Microtransactions & Crafting

Another, far less gamey way you get cards is through straight purchases, with real money or in-game currency earned primarily by completing quests (win two matches with a certain hero, destroy X number of minions, etc.) or as an arena bonus. Each pack is guaranteed to win you a rare card, marked with a blue gem in the center, but there's also the chance for epic cards (purple), legendary cards (orange) or gold cards, which are animated versions of something you probably already have. You can disintegrate cards you don't want and use the resulting dust to create something you do want, but the amount you get versus the amount you need to use is so lopsided as to almost encourage the use of money.

Because for every dollar you choose to spend on the game gets you closer to your ultimate deck, no matter if it's randomized, this is a very subtle version of pay-to-win, but it is pay-to-win nonetheless. Like in the arena, the microtransactions are designed to empower potentially less skilled players, while the rest of us try to maintain our dignity in an uphill battle. Every time I'm trumped by a card I've never seen before with a purple or orange diamond in the middle, it stings. It really does. Again, that's just a part of trading card games in general, and I can accept that, but somehow 'Hearthstone's' dramatic ups and downs feel a bit too severe.

In the end, 'Hearthstone' is still a unique experience within its genre. To nullify these many issues runs the risk of making 'Hearthstone' boring, and though I don't think I'll ever find the game as seriously competitive, the gaming world sees it another way. It's among the most popular games on Twitch right now, and some players have already earned enough expertise to charge for their coaching services. Yes, there's depth there, the kind of depth only a trading card game can offer, and 'Hearthstone' opens up that depth with ease to new audiences. That in itself is wildly impressive, given the many years the genre has gone on as "hardcore only." One might even call it a mini-renaissance, but that person may be jumping the gun. We'll need to wait until this thing is out of beta before making such proclamations.

Author: Trevor Ruben

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Tags: Blizzard, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone (all tags)