Hearthstone may be pay-to-win, but even in beta, it's already the best CCG to hit the market in a long time.
By El_Funko on September 6, 2013 at 6:00 pm
When Blizzard announced Hearthstone at PAX East six months ago, the news was met with a potent geek cocktail — one part confusion, one part anger, poured over forum posts and served in YouTube comments. “Why is Blizzard making a digital CCG? Don’t they already have a CCG that no one plays? Hearthstone, more like Barfstone!”
Fast forward to the present day with the game in closed beta, and many of those same smug critics are willing to shave all the hair off their body in return for a single precious beta key. Probably, anyway. I just made that up, but we had over 10,000 entries into our beta key contest last month so I’m sure someone’s crazy enough to do it.
We don’t have any more beta keys. Please don’t send us any photos of your new aerodynamically hairless bodies.
Why has Hearthstone gone from public enemy to prettiest princess at the ball inside of six months? Well, because it’s a Blizzard game, and they know what they’re doing.
Hearthstone is already more visually engaging and polished during its closed beta phase than any other digital card game released this year, and there has been a lot of them. Look at Duel of Champions, Solforge, Magic the Gathering 2014… they all use particle effects and animations like they’re rationing the last Tim Tams in the packet. Hearthstone is the card game equivalent of a pinball machine, with flashing lights, awesome sounds, and enough addictive gameplay to make you want to flip the machine over when you lose.
Beyond the prettiness, the first hour of Hearthstone is a carefully orchestrated learning curve designed to gradually introduce the game’s mechanics to new players over a series of tutorial games with the Mage deck. After the initial introduction, the game then moves on to unlocking the other eight classes available and adding additional class cards as you level each character up.
If you’re not a CCG fan and your eyes are starting to glaze over at the thought of constructing a deck of cards, don’t worry: Blizzard has got your back. By limiting a playable deck to 30 cards total, with no more than two of the same card in a deck, it’s really not hard to put something together. The game will even make some suggestions if you’re stuck for what to add next. Blizzard has made a conscious choice to keep the game as accessible as possible. I definitely can’t think of any other digital CCGs out now that I would call “accessible” by casual players.
That doesn’t mean that Hearthstone is a snoozer for hardcore players, and there’s still a lot of depth and strategy to the sort of decks you can make. There’s also blatantly overpowered mechanics being exploited by nefarious players to shoot up the ranked charts that Blizzard will need to look at balancing (*cough* Rogue combo decks *cough cough*). There’s definitely room for complex tactics within the simplistic nature of the game, but these hardcore decks will often require specific cards only available from booster packs.
Which leads me to the topic of Hearthstone’s microtransaction model, and the notion that it’s a “pay to win” game. The short version is that Hearthstone is absolutely a game you can pay to win. Buying packs of cards directly leads to having a bigger card pool to choose from, often filled with vastly superior cards. If you play against someone who only has the basic set of unlockable cards to run with, you’ll probably crush them with a dramatic explosion of ridiculous and unbeatable cards they have never seen before.
This is something I’m very familiar with, because there’s currently a bug where Australian Battle.net accounts aren’t able to make any in-game purchases in Hearthstone. Blizzard says it should be resolved once the EU beta launches in a week or two, but until then I’m effectively a poor student living on mi goreng and 40 gold per day of daily quest rewards. A single pack of cards costs 100 gold, so I’m unlocking expert cards at a snail’s pace. It’s an interesting experience, because I’m quite happy to drop $50 on a free to play game if it’s something I enjoy. Don’t ask me how much I’ve spent on League of Legends skins.
Update: So it turns out in the between writing this article, and the day it took Tim to post it, Blizzard have fixed the purchasing bug. Now I look like a complete idiot. THANKS BLIZZARD
No seriously, thanks! I just bought 20 booster packs to check that it was working and now giggling like a schoolgirl while I open them.
My one respite from filthy card-buying people is the Arena mode. Hearthstone’s equivalent of sealed deck or draft mode, Arena has an entry price of 150 gold or $1.99. The basic principle is everyone in Arena mode crafts a deck from random choices — you begin by choosing one of three heroes, then you pick one of three random cards, then one of another three random cards, and so on until you have a deck of 30 cards. You’re not limited by what cards you “own”, as the cards offered are randomly chosen from the entire catalogue of Hearthstone cards. You then play your deck against other Arena opponents until you either win nine times, or lose three times. At that point you cash out of the Arena and earn booster packs, crafting dust (to create specific cards you want), or gold based on how many people you defeated. You’re always guaranteed at least one booster pack of cards, even if you lose three times in a row (don’t ask me how I know, I just know, alright?)
Arena is a fun way to level the playing field (except for the whole luck-of-the-draw thing), and a cost-effective way of getting additional cards since it only costs 50% more than you would spend on a booster pack anyway.
It’s important to point out that we’re talking about a mere $2.00 per pack of cards, in a game that’s free to play. Magic Online costs $10 to get in the door, and then you still need to buy cards – it’s pay to play and pay to win. Duel of Champions is free, but the packs cost considerably more than a couple of bucks and if you want one specific card, you need to pray to the random number generator gods that you get it in a pack. At least Hearthstone allows you to disenchant cards you don’t want and use the magic dust they produce to make a card you do want.
Blizzard aren’t fools: they know they need to present a tasty morsel of gaming if they want it to be successful. Hearthstone is definitely delicious on all fronts, and if the intense hype and fever surrounding the beta is any indication, it’s set to be another smash hit for the Warcraft franchise.
Now fix the stupid payment bug Blizzard, so I can throw money at you for imaginary magic internet cards I’ll never be able to actually hold in my hand. Please? (Update: It’s totally fixed, and now I’m swimming in card packs like Scrooge McDuck)