Alex discovers that Blizzard's CCG is shaping up quite well.
By Alex Walker on June 28, 2013 at 12:17 pm
When I came out in defence of Hearthstone a couple of months ago, I figured I’d be vindicated sooner or later. Most of the negative commentary surrounding Blizzard’s upcoming collectible card game was rubbish, since it was largely obsessed with the idea (based on no evidence) that Diablo 3 or StarCraft 2 could have been better games if it wasn’t for this random free-to-play side project.
Absolute tosh. And after spending an hour and a half with an alpha build of Hearthstone, my bet’s paid off.
In a presentation early yesterday morning, Blizzard revealed what the internet should have already figured out: the team behind Hearthstone is really small. Less than the original StarCraft kind of small. This isn’t a triple-A title — it’s a labour of love and one that’s gained a lot of traction inside the developer.
Part of the reason is due to Hearthstone’s sheer simplicity. Players choose one of nine heroes from the Warcraft universe — Mage, Priest, Warlock, Shaman, Rogue, Paladin, Hunter or Druid — and build a 30 card deck.
Cards are broken into three types, and each costs a certain amount of mana to play. Minions are creatures that you summon to the battlefield, and many have a particular ability. Spells are your typical magic-type effects, encompassing direct damage, board wipes, enchantments and so on. Weapons are basically equipment that can only be used by the hero, although not every hero has access to them, and they only last for a few rounds.
Every card has a mana cost. You start with one mana, and gain one more every turn to a maximum of ten. A few cards give you an extra mana for one turn only, but otherwise the progression remains the same.
Games are fast, cards are fun to play and the interactions are easy to understand. The visual design, backed by the typical vibrancy you’d expect the Warcraft universe (only with almost something of an animated feel) makes it obvious what cards can do, what the heroes and do and the order of things on the battlefield.
With the interactions and game lengths relatively simple, most of the strategy comes down to the deckbuilding. Luckily for newer players, Hearthstone can automatically create a deck for you on the fly if you’re a complete novice. If there are certain cards you want to play with, but unsure about the rest, don’t worry: the game will make recommendations on single cards for you, giving you a choice from one of three. And if you’re comfortable enough to do the whole thing manually, well, you can do that too.
There’s an inbuilt mana curve graph on the deckbuilding screen, which shows how many cards you have and how much they cost. In CCGs, maintaining a proper mana curve is absolutely essential: it’s what allows your deck to be as consistent as possible. (Obviously there are some decks that don’t follow this rule, but with the lack of mana-generating creatures and other advanced abilities, including the ability to cast a discarded card onto the battlefield, following a proper mana curve is the most important.)
Hearthstone is integrated into the Battle.net ecosystem and works with your existing login. When it’s fully established, you’ll be able to challenge anyone in a Battle.net 2.0 game to a match of Hearthstone, although naturally they’ll have to open the Hearthstone client to accept the challenge. Battle.net’s matchmaking system works in Hearthstone as well, and there’s a ranking system for those who really want to get competitive.
The entire game is geared for a casual, fun experience. It helps that it feeds right into the Warcraft universe as well; a Paladin or a Priest would have some healing capacity in World of Warcraft, so their Hearthstone equivalents wield cards with similar effects.
Your playstyle isn’t limited to your hero choice though. It’s entirely possible, for instance, to build a deck around one creature type. I had some fun playing a whole bunch of Merlocs that buffed other Merlocs, while one of the Blizzard PR staffers told me about an interesting pirates-only deck that was floating around.
But decks are no fun to play if you don’t have the right cards, and Blizzard have made sure that every card is accessible in the game without handing over a single dollar. Any card, apart from ones gifted by Blizzard to a player’s account when they start playing Hearthstone, can be disenchanted into dust that can then be used to create a whole new card.
The idea is that you can offload your excess or redundant cards for something more useful. If you want, you can always pay real money for the boosters and cards directly. Boosters will set you back around US$1 each, with each pack containing five cards and at least one rare card (the rarity is the same as WoW; common, rare, epic, legendary).
To stop the cost from decks reaching astronomical levels, players are restricted to a maximum of one legendary card and two of any other card in their 30. While this reduces the potential synergies by increasing the possible permutations you might draw, it should also ease the concerns of people concerned by the amount of money thrown around in some of the more competitive CCGs.
The developers even spoke about a tournament-style drafting system that will be available upon launch, where players build a deck by selecting cards from a selection of three. It’s an interesting bridge between the traditional draft and sealed deck styles of play, although we weren’t able to test the mode for ourselves.
Despite the early nature of the code, Hearthstone is a blast. It’s simple to understand, easy on the eye and fast to play. Blizzard plans to release the game on PC and Mac in the near future (and not in Blizzard’s alternate universe-style definition of soon either), with a later release on iPad. Players can also sign up to gain access to the closed beta through Battle.net right now.