Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, by Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone is a collectable card game played entirely online, produced by Blizzard and similar to the World of Warcraft CCG, but with various features only possible in an online environment. Hearthstone is free to play on the computer (Mac or PC) or on the iPad, and while you can pay for things in game, it’s easily possible to be competitive and enjoy the game without ever spending a penny – I know, I’ve done it!

It’s not as deep or intricate as other CCG’s (like Magic: the Gathering), and it doesn’t offer the same visceral pleasure of buying and opening packs at your Friendly Local Game Store, but Hearthstone is a perfect mix of a compelling game, elegant design, beautiful graphics, and a top-notch interface that’s redefining online games. I feel about this game like I did when I saw The Matrix for the first time: “Whoa.” This is something new, something that’s raised the bar.

If you’ve got an internet connection and a few hours to burn, go download Hearthstone and give the tutorial a try. It’s like traveling to Italy or eating some great Thai food… I can explain why it’s great (and I will after the jump) but to truly understand it, you have to do it for yourself.

(Bonus: I’m posting a short Q&A with Phillip Jenne, competitive HS player and co-designer of NOVUS, at the end of this review. Enjoy!)

In Hearthstone you have a simple goal: reduce your opponent’s life total to zero (or less) before they do the same to you. There are no other victory conditions (at least, not yet), and in order to accelerate a long game towards its end, once a player’s deck runs out of cards that player takes increasing damage each turn until the game ends.

Don't spend it all in one place
Each game starts with a coin flip: the winner goes first, and draws three cards to start. The loser draws four cards, and is given a one-time use spell called “The Coin” that’s good for an extra “mana crystal” when played. At the start of their turn one and each turn thereafter, players draw one card (up to a maximum of 10 in your hand), and gain one mana crystal (up to a maximum of 10). 

Cards have a single cost in mana crystals to pay, and mana crystals can be used only once each turn. Unlike some other card games, the number of things you do on a turn is relatively small, and often your decisions are straightforward, at least early in the game. You put yourself in a position to win by building an advantage over time, either by overwhelming your opponent with minions, summoning big baddies that are hard to deal with, or winning a war of attrition by stalling your opponent and slowly chipping away at their life total. 

Your job is to beat your opponent down before they do the same to you, but the ways you do that are varied and interesting. The real flavor of Hearthstone comes from the nine classes available to players, the special cards those classes have, and the hero power each class is given. Hero powers are abilities than can be used once per turn, every turn, and cost 2 mana crystals to activate.

This would make an epic Tic-Tac-Toe board!
The Hearthstone tutorial starts you as a Mage, a powerful spellcaster whose general strategy is to lay low early in the game, remove threatening minions from play, then dominate in the late game with big minions and powerful spells. The Mage is just the starting point for a new player though, as there are nine total classes to choose from. Each is unique, in that it has its own unique cards, hero power, and general strategy promoted by its cards.  Each hero power is unique to its class, and the powers do a lot to define strengths and establish the general play style of each class. 

There’s no requirement to be good with all of the classes, though it’s certainly worth playing with them to enjoy the game – and also because your daily quests (explained below) will ask you to do so to earn extra gold. Though there are only around 400 cards in the game currently, the cards that are class-specific make gameplay unique for each class – no two decks are the same, even though many of the non-class-specific basic cards play so well in many decks that they’re often included in most builds.  

Every card has two characteristics – a cost in mana crystals to play the card (shown in the top left) and a rarity (represented by a jewel in the middle of the card). The cards are broken down into two basic types, minions and spells. Minions are creatures that enter the board and attack minions and opponents, and last until their health has been reduced to zero. 

Secretly very good.
Spells are played once and have a specific effect, often to remove opposing minions from play, or deal damage directly to a player. Each class has its own minions and spells that make it unique, and there is a large pool of “common” cards that are available to be used in all decks. 

For Mages, by Mages.
To break things down further, many minions have abilities beyond their attack and health. Some abilities happen when those minions enter play, as indicated by the keyword “Battlecry”, and others have an ability when they’re killed, called “Deathrattle.” 

Other abilities include “Charge”, which lets a minion attack the turn it enters play (normally not allowed), “Windfury”, which grants the minion the ability to attack twice per turn, and “Taunt”, which requires that the minion be killed before any other minions (or the player) can be attacked.  

While minions have many more types and abilities, spells also range widely in their powers. Many spells do things other than damage, like granting boosts to friendly minions, “nerfing” opponent’s minions, or equipping weapons that your hero can use to attack directly. 

The combination of attack/health, the above abilities, and other unique abilities, like increasing spell power or granting boosts to the stats of other minions, create a larger spread of available effects from which to build decks. This lends to a compelling, challenging game despite a limited card pool, and is one of the biggest reasons I enjoy the game.

It’s fun to tinker with interactions and see which cards combine for powerful effects, and which cards complement each other well. Many cards are deviously powerful in specific situations; typically the nuance passes me by until I’ve watched my opponents beat me down with a card or combination of cards I hadn’t seen before. Truly, it’s best to learn by doing, or by being crushed. 

When the tutorial begins, you’re challenged to beat scenarios specifically designed to teach you how to play. Once that initial training period is over, you’re given free reign over how you want to play Hearthstone. You can play head to head against random opponents in Casual matches, or against opponents with similar skill levels in Ranked matches. You can also challenge people on your friends list directly to head-head matchups. Each of these game types require that you build a deck from the cards you’ve acquired during play.

Another option for competitive play is the Arena, where you’re challenged to select from sets of three cards over and over again until you’ve got enough cards to form a deck. You can only take a single card from each set of three, and there’s no guarantee you’ll have cards of the rarer varieties. Once your deck is drafted, you play against random opponents until you’ve won 12 games or lost 3, whichever comes first.

Whether you prefer the challenge of drafting, or the creativity required to build your own decks and test them against opponents, Hearthstone offers a fantastic opportunity to play competitively against opponents just as skilled as you are. The classes, though very different, are well-balanced, and the cards in the game are designed to be useful in most situations. Even the basic cards that you start with are good enough to win games, so there’s no requirement to grind until you’ve got good cards or buy a ton of packs in order to have fun and have a chance to win.

I greatly prefer the Arena, as it’s an easy way to replicate my favorite card game format – Magic: the Gathering cube drafts. The Arena offers a quick, easy way to test my knowledge of the cards and my ability to build a deck from limited options, and I LOVE those kinds of choices. My favorite things about games are meaningful choices, and the Arena provides a lot of them.

Hearthstone is supported by an amazing online community that provides all sorts of cool resources, like what decks and cards are most powerful, tips and tricks for getting better more quickly, and guides to playing the various format. Given my affection for Arena play, I gravitated towards a few “pick lists” for the various classes in Arena play when I first started. Two I’ve used often are from Vivafringe and Trump, and I suggest giving them a look when you’re drafting!

There are three ways to acquire cards in Hearthstone. The first is to have them awarded to you by ranking up each of the nine classes. Getting to level 20 in each class unlocks all the basic class-specific cards, and ranks higher than 20 often award golden cards, which are fancy versions of the normal cards.

The second way to acquire cards is to open packs. Packs cost 100 gold in the Hearthstone marketplace, or you can buy packs with real money. I’ve never paid a penny and opened plenty of packs, so there’s no pressure in the game to do so. You also win a pack every time you play in Arena, even if you don’t win any games. This is in addition to other rewards, and since the Arena costs 150 gold to play, the cost is low enough that I find it’s always better to just play Arena rather than to buy a pack.

Each pack contains 5 random cards, at least one of which is rare, epic, or legendary. I’ve read that there’s about a 5% chance to open a legendary card in each pack, but my experience has been that it’s much less than that. I’ve seen plenty of people win legendary cards in the first pack they’ve opened, and I’m certainly not in the least bit bitter about that (run file sarcasm.exe). 

The third way to get cards is to forge them, using “dust” that’s acquired by destroying cards you’ve acquired and don’t need. With the exception of basic cards, every card you acquire can be destroyed, and since you can only use 2 of each card in a deck, there’s no reason to keep the extras. 

Though it costs about 4-5 times more in dust to make a card than you receive for destroying it, it’s still nice to get some value from the things you won’t use, and you get extra dust from destroying cards that are more rare, or gold versions of cards. You can also win dust after Arena runs, though it’s usually not much, or buy dust through the marketplace. 

If there’s a single card you just have to have, it’s not hard to get it. The pack system creates random rewards that give you a reason to grind every day to win gold and play in the Arena, and generate the same emotional response (for me, at least) as cracking open MtG packs at my local store after a draft.

Not surprisingly, Blizzard has turned opening a pack into a wonderful user experience that’s rewarding on its own. It’s not just the packs, either – every part of Hearthstone has been crafted to be fully immersive, comfortable, and entertaining. From your first login you’re guided through game play, opening packs, building decks, and playing in the Arena. Hearthstone was designed to be enjoyed by everyone, easy to learn, but compelling and difficult to master.

Anyone who’s played World of Warcraft will recognize the “daily quests” that pop up and award bonus gold for specific in-game achievements. The main way to earn gold in-game is to finish those daily quests, which usually grant 40-60 gold for winning 2-5 games with specific classes, or doing various other things like casting spells or summoning minions. The achievements make it much easier to build up the requisite gold to enter the Arena, since casual or ranked play only awards 10 gold for every three wins. 

“Tempo” and “Card Advantage” are two terms most experienced players of card games have heard of, and likely discussed at length. In the most basic sense, tempo refers to the amount of time your opponent has to make decisions in the game (before you reduce their life to zero) and maximizing available resources each turn to keep pressure on the opponent. Card advantage refers to gaining an advantage on your opponent by using one of your cards to counter two or more of theirs (like using a single spell to kill two of their minions).

Hearthstone players, like in many other card games, focus on both tempo and card advantage when building decks and during play. If you’re interested in a great explanation of both, check out this video from YouTube user “aimlessgun” explaining tempo and card advantage - it includes a quiz! Also, you may enjoy this explanation of tempo at

If you’re hooked already and want to dive deeper into the World of Warcraf... er… Hearthstone, try out some of the big online communities for conversations, deck lists, banter, and stories of getting beat by a vicious Hunter deck the turn before you would have won. Blizzard does a great job of enabling the communities around their games by providing tons of info and resources around their products, and Hearthstone fits right in. I recommend HearthPwn and the Hearthstone Wiki, plus various other places like the Hearthstone Deck Builder.

Shortly after taking Hearthstone out of beta and into the real world, Blizzard released the game for the iPad, completing its integration directly into my soul. Now I can lie on my couch and watch New Girl on Netflix while I grind towards my daily quests and munch on popcorn – truly, we live in the future. The implementation is perfect – they’ve replaced clicking (in the console version) with dragging and tapping, and with no deleterious effects on game play or user experience. The app is free in the Apple store and works exactly like you’d downloaded it to your computer. Go, get started!

If you like card games, try Hearthstone. It’s free, the interface is incredible, and you’ll never feel like you don’t know what to do, even when you’re just beginning. I think Hearthstone, along with SolForge, represent the future of online competitive games. For instance, the designers incorporated plenty of mechanics that would be hard to implement in a physical game – like randomly copying cards from your opponent’s deck, or granting random bonuses when spells are played. It’s a brilliant use of available technology to make an already-good game more interesting. I just can’t say strongly enough how happy I am to get to play this game - it’s a hands-down 10 out of 10 in my book, a game you simply must try.  

Don’t just take it from me, though. In a recent interview on our YouTube show, The Nerd Nighters, Eric Lang (designer of Star Wars LCG, Quarriors, Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men, and other games) talked at length about Hearthstone, and called it one of the few “finished” games he’s ever seen. It’s a great conversation that I hope you enjoy!

Bonus: My short interview with Phillip Jenne, co-designer of NOVUS and avid Hearthstone player. Enjoy this peek into the mind of a game designer and competitive player!

JR: You’ve been playing Hearthstone since it was in Beta, in late 2013. What were your first impressions, and what’s kept you interested in the game?

PJ: My first impression was, "This is super simple." The realization that there is so much more depth has kept me interested. It's easy to learn, hard to master. I'm also looking forward to extended card offerings. Also, it's free (if you want it to be). 

JR: Blizzard has aggressively updated cards in Hearthstone to maintain competitive balance – that is, they’ve nerfed cards that players have proven are too powerful. What do you think of that?

PJ: Being able to rapidly respond to concerns instead of simply update bans-lists is a much better solution to the balance problem. Cards that are "too powerful" are rarely too far off from balanced, changing the cost by 1 mana usually brings them into alignment. I have yet to have a nerf drastically change my decks or approach. 

JR: You’re the co-designer of NOVUS, a (collectable? what's the right term?) card game. From a designer’s perspective, what aspects of Hearthstone are most interesting?

PJ: The term we use is Feature Card Game. We release "expansions" or features that follow the self-contained approach (playable and backward compatible out of the box). Having "fixed" mana drops is nice and the ability to augment that is cool as well. Shaman Overload, Warlock "destroy a mana crystal" and the neutral "give your opponent a mana crystal", and Druid gain mana are cool mechanics that allow "burst" or slowly edging "ahead" intrigue me. One of the more unique things is the ability to play off or modify your champion's core ability. Priests can change it into damage. Warrior can use armor to damage minions. Rogues can destroy their weapon or poison. These are all cool ways to interact with the theme/lore of the class while being an interesting mechanic in-game. Overall, turning theme into mechanics. 

JR: What sites do you frequent for Hearthstone info, strategy, and chatter?

PJ: DFWNN Facebook group, but for the most part I take a casual approach and self-exploration. It's easy to simply take someone else's word but if it doesn't work you don't understand why. I spend a lot of time making decks testing out the play, tempo, and interaction with other classes. Trying a similar or same deck-list with different classes to see how they synergize. For example, a pirate deck with Warrior or Rogue, or a Murloc deck with Druid or Shaman (+1/+1 vs. +3 Attack, respectively, for burst). A lot of losing and learning. 

JR: If you had to play one game of Hearthstone and the fate of the Universe rests in the balance, what deck would you play?

PJ: That's a tough choice. My dragon deck has the best record but my Priest deck seems to perform pretty consistently and do well. Also gaining health is nice compared to losing health. 

Thanks Phillip!

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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