EDIT: I’m republishing this post from September, as it still serves as a good intro. I’ve gone through and made a few edits. I’ll have an original post going up on Friday with some analysis on how to get started with Hearthstone.
So, I’ve been absolutely slammed with work at my new job – this last weekend was the first time that I could sit down and say “hey, I have an hour or two to just PLAY something.” Lo and behold, what do I get but a Hearthstone beta invite! Having checked it out when it was announced (and then promptly having forgot about it again), I really didn’t have any expectations except that it looked kinda fun. (For the record, I’m familiar with the rules of Magic: The Gathering, and spent a good bit of time playing a flash CCG called Elements, but wouldn’t consider myself “advanced” at all.) Here’s what I think.
Increasingly, games have to pass the “first 5 minutes” test with me. As I reach a stage of my life where time has replaced money as my primary limiting resource, I don’t want to deal with any non-fun crap right off the bat. Hearthstone easily passes this test As soon as you start the game for the first time, you get thrown into a series of tutorial battles against prominent WoW villains, which gradually teach you the elements of the game. Even if you’ve never played Magic or another CCG in your life, by the time you finish this tutorial series, you’ll be ready to battle other players (or continue to battle the AI, if you choose).
The big thing that sucks you in, though, is how well they evoke WoW in the card game itself. All of the creature and spell cards are patterned after their in-game equivalents, in both art and (most crucially) sound. Put down a murloc, and get the classic gurgle. Cast a fireball, and you get the whoosh-crack and glowy effect. Even the non-WoW sounds are done well; a small hit rewards a small “thunk” sound, while a large hit rewards a large “crack,” complete with applause, rubble, and screen shake. If you get bored during your opponent’s turn, all the game boards are fully interactable and have the classic Warcraft trope of doing something funny when clicked repeatedly.
Win or lose, your selected class will get XP. Yes, there are classes in a card game; if you’re familiar with MTG, then think of the nine classes as analogous to MTG’s colors, as they represent a pool of cards to choose your deck from. Unlike MTG, however, you only get one class choice; your deck is built from a combination of class-specific cards and a pool of neutral cards that are available to all classes.
Mechanics-wise, things are simple: many complex mechanics present in other CCG’s have been removed. There are only two major types of cards: spells and creatures (minions). There’s a few subtypes – some creatures are “weapons,” which cannot typically be attacked, and some spells are “secrets,” which are hidden when cast and execute automatically when their condition is met. There’s no lands, no artifacts, no differentiation in spell speeds, etc. While this lack of complexity may prove a detriment to the long-term health of the game, it greatly helps the casual player. The one new mechanic is called “hero power,” where each class (hero) can pay 2 mana once per turn to activate a special ability unique to that class. These abilities are fairly weak, but they’re always available, and knowing when to use them is critical to Hearthstone success.
Deckbuilding is also relatively painless. It’s pretty hard to make a truly “bad” deck unless you’re trying to, and if you’re completely lost, an ingenious “Suggest a Card” feature will recommend one of the current cards you own, based on your current deck’s current composition.
Game modes are pretty sparse at the moment – the only options are “Practice” (vs. AI, you pick the class and basic/advanced deck), “Play” (single game against random human opponent, ranked and casual modes) and “Arena,” which is the most compelling mode. In the Arena, everyone starts from scratch – you get to pick one of three randomly-determined classes, then pick one of three randomly-determined cards 30 times. You then take that fresh deck and match it against other fresh decks. Once you lose 3 times or win 12, you “finish” your Arena streak and get rewarded according to your number of wins…which leads us to the less savory bits of Hearthstone.
Hearthstone is free-to-play, but the amount of cards you get to start is very low. Off the bat, you get the “Basic Set,” which is 43 neutral cards, plus 45 class-specific cards, 5 for each class. Leveling a class to level 10 (relatively painless, since you gain a level when you win, and half that when you lose) will reward an additional 5 cards. That’s…it. The other ~400 neutral + class-specific cards are rewarded in packs – 5 cards in a pack. (Note: the Basic Set gives you card 2-packs, but cards earned from packs/crafting are singletons.)
Now, you get a couple one-time packs and some starter gold, but after that, the only realistic way to make gold is by a once-per-day quest, which rewards 40-100 gold. Winning a match against another player rewards a measly ~3 gold. (10 per 3 wins.) You can also make gold from success in the Arena, the other Hearthstone play mode which features randomized card drafting. It costs 150 gold to enter the Arena, but you receive a free pack when you finish, so the actual cost is about 50 gold…and if you can consistently go at least 4-3, you’ll make back that 50.
If you can’t, though, you’ll quickly find yourself gold-poor. At this point, you have two options. You can either pay real money ($3 for 2 card packs with quantity discounts for buying more, or $2 for 1 Arena entry + 1 card pack). Failing that, you can also do the single daily quest for 40-60 gold, grind out some play-mode wins, and slowly pick up new packs. It’s a pretty fair model, I find, and much less expensive then other online CCG’s.
Thoughts on Classes
Druid – Focused on high-cost cards; minor themes include mana acceleration and “choose one” cards, where you can pick between one of two choices. Arguably best late-game class.
Hunter – Focused on beasts and traps (aka secrets). Very much a rush-type deck; currently underpowered due to some overzealous nerfs.
Mage – Focused on direct-damage cards and spells. Strongest all-round class in the game.
Paladin – Focused on buffs and pumping up creatures minions, with a little bit of healing and direct damage. Very solid class.
Priest – Focused on healing, obviously. Was once very strong, but has fallen back significantly after the nerf to Mind Control.
Rogue – Focused on using LOTS of low-damage minions and abilities, with card abilities called “combos” that trigger if another card is played before it.
Shaman – Focused on “overload” cycles; cards that are overpowered for their cost, but hit the mana pool over 2 successive turns.
Warlock – Focused on an odd niche – cards and abilities with both benefits and drawbacks. Very strong rush deck at the moment due to Warlock’s hero ability, which draws a card for 2 mana/2 health.
Warrior – Focused on weapons and minions that charge (activate immediately without requiring a turn), not terribly subtle class.
Overall, I’d say Rogue/Mage/
Hunter seem to be the strongest at the moment, though it’s beta so who the hell knows what’ll happen tomorrow. Fun game, and I’ll likely be getting in a few matches a day.