Like most of my b.net friends (that is: auction house junkies and achievement whores), I downloaded Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft for a free mount. What I got was an addicting breath of fresh air laced with all the appeal of nostalgia. In Blizzard Entertainment I’ve trusted since I first picked up my copy of Starcraft back in 1998, but it would be hard to argue that the company has not grown a little washed out of late. Starcraft 2, for all its glory, faces too much competition to match the popularity of its legendary predecessor; Diablo 3 was a bore to all but the most devoted series fans; and World of Warcraft is gagging on the fumes that keep it running. I thought BlizzCon 2013 was the nail in the coffin (and I still do), but Hearthstone definitely breaks from the current trend. It is the first Blizzard release since StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010) that felt fresh to me.
Hearthstone is an electronic card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Unlike M:tG, you’re not going to find yourself at a loss for players when your friends grow up and get “lives”. (sigh…) I’m sure plenty of online M:tG-style card games have existed in the past, but what’s significant here is that I have never played them. Hearthstone had a few things going for it pre-launch that genre competitors lack: it is free, it is Blizzard, and its launch coupled with a long over-due Battle.net meta program that makes it highly visible to current Blizzard customers. The minute you click play, you’ll find a few other perks. Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is nothing short of brilliant, the game is conceptually very simple to grasp, and the graphics strike that balance between clarity and imagination that is non-existent in modern gaming. (If you don’t know what I mean by this, consider a modern game with severely limited character development–say Mists of Pandaria–to an old-school NPC overload like Suikoden, and ask yourself which game you remember more characters in.)
Once you’ve been at it a while–I’ve been playing for all three weeks the game has been public–some obvious cons will emerge. The game is highly dependent on card acquisition, and the availability of new decks is unnecessarily limited. Playing strictly for free, a casual Hearthstone fan will accumulate roughly two card packs every three days. A pack consists of five cards, with at least one guaranteed to be rare or higher (rarities roughly parallel WoW’s system of common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary). Because the game is new, the total amount of cards out there is relatively low, leaving little room for creative builds that can succeed in the absence of numerous epics and legendaries. Unfortunately, Blizzard offers no easy progress through pay. Booster packs (5 cards) can be purchased at a rate of 2 for $3, 7 for $10, 15 for $20, and 40 for $50. At the outset, nothing short of the all-in $50 deal is going to guarantee you much of an upper hand, and by the time you’ve accumulated 20 or so free decks through casual play the $20 and lower options seem like too much of a gamble. So if you want to roll your way up into the higher ranks, you’re stuck paying the full retail price of a major release or else sticking it out for free over an extended period of time. There is no financial happy medium. You will likely find yourself wavering between ranks 17 and 19 for a long, long time until you’ve gotten lucky enough to build a competitive deck. I would happily pay $20 for 40 booster packs at least once, but $50 is unreasonable.
Blizzard does not currently allow cards to be traded or sold, and that makes some practical sense. (I would just roll fake accounts and trade free boosters to my main until I had the full collection in a matter of days.) What they offer instead is a “disenchant” feature, where you can permanently destroy cards and use the byproducts to craft others of your choosing. The problem with this system is that it leaves collectors in the dust early on. Until you’ve accumulated enough duplicates, you’ll be faced with the unpleasant choice between remaining in the lower ranks and abandoning rare cards.
On the plus side, extensive losing streaks are pretty uncommon. The game seems to be very well balanced to match you against players of similar skill/decks. Skill development will cap out before deck improvement, unfortunately, but the monotony can be broken by a system that allows you to play 9 different classes loosely based around their World of Warcraft parallels. My Warlock deck might cap out at rank 17, but I haven’t even touched a Druid yet. Boosters are not class-specific, so what I earn on an alt class is of equal worth to me. Whether alternate class play too will dull before higher-level decks can be built is still too soon to tell. I can say that three weeks into the public launch, Hearthstone is still sufficiently captivating to chew up an hour of my evening daily.
I love this game not only for its innate appeal, but for its status as proof that Blizzard can break from their self-imposed molds and release a game that is not dependent on a franchise model. My dreams of a World of Starcraft are still far-fetched, but I really, really hope that Hearthstone succeeds. It serves as a reminder that, before Blizzard found themselves inextricably bound to decade-old gameplay models, they were the most innovative corporation in the world of PC gaming.
Did I mention that Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is godly? Russell Bower might be at the peek of his career with Mists of Pandaria, but this is what I want to hear in a game. Two thumbs up for Hearthstone all around.
Shad#1129 on battle.net if you want to hit me up for a round or two. 🙂