Some things just go together; cat photos and Instagram, coffee and Wellington, aioli and literally anything else. Be it by chance, circumstance, or design, these seemingly disparate ideas came together and something special was born.
The same could be said of Warcraft lore and collectible card games (CCGs.) With its broad range of characters, monsters, spells and armaments, Warcraft would seem a perfect fit for the CCG treatment. So Hearthstone’s announcement at last year’s PAX East shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Still, it was a bit out of left field. This wasn’t Blizzard’s first attempt at a Warcraft CCG, with the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game launching in 2006. But that game had flown under the radar for the last few years and was discontinued in 2013. Blizzard hadn’t indicated plans for any other card game attempts, so when Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a free-to-play, digital-only CCG was announced, it was an unexpected pleasure for fans of the genre.
Though Hearthstone uses some of the artwork and ideas from its physical predecessor, it is for the most part, a new and original game. It takes a much more simplistic approach as far as rules go, and bears a striking resemblance to Magic: The Gathering. Fans of the latter will be instantly familiar with Hearthstone, but it won’t take completely new players long to get up to speed.
When you first load up the game, you’re presented with a series of quests to teach you the basics. There are nine heroes in the game which you can play as, one for each of the original World of Warcraft classes. Your choice of hero determines everything about the way you will approach the game; each one has their own class-specific cards and an unique ability that can be used once per turn, all of which will lead a particular deck towards one play-style or another. Paladin decks, for example, have a stalling focus which fills the board with tank-like minions and slowly wears down opponents; while a Hunter deck goes for a quick kill by unleashing all manner of beasts to overrun the enemy.
Cards come in a variety of forms: Minions are creatures which can be used to attack or defend; Spells come in all manner of forms with various effects; Secrets are hidden cards that activate when certain conditions are met, and Weapons may be equipped by your hero to attack directly.
Without boring you with the gritty details, let me say that the ruleset works incredibly well. It’s simple enough on the surface even for a first-time card player to wrap their head around with ease, but it doesn’t suffer in the depth and tactical departments as a result. Indeed, as soon as you stop playing practice games against the computer and go out to face real foes, you’re likely to get a sudden and unpleasant introduction to just how tactically complex Hearthstone can get.
Depending on your perspective, this could be one of the the best or worst things about the game. The tutorial covers the rules of the game, but doesn’t really go much into tactics, so you’re pretty much on your own after the brief introduction. Unless you’re a card game veteran, much of your first few hours will likely be spent getting stomped by better players. Some will thrive on this challenge and enjoy the opportunity to explore strategy in situ, but others will find this “thrown-in-the-deep-end” approach very disengaging.
This isn’t aided by the fact that the game isn’t the most balanced. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses, which is to be expected, but more concerning is the way the game courts a “pay-to-win” mentality, particularly around a handful of aptly named Legendary cards.
These cards are particularly rare, and brutally powerful, yet you don’t need a high rank before you start running into decks stacked with them. If you’re willing to shell out the cash, you can get a decent collection of Legendary cards fairly quickly, thanks to the game’s ability to “craft” cards using resources obtained by disenchanting other cards. Legendaries require a lot of said resources, but you can obtain them almost instantly if you’re willing to throw money at the screen.
That’s not to say that Legendary cards are game breaking, and they can be obtained without spending a cent (as everything purchasable with money can be bought with in-game currency as well). But you’re at a significant disadvantage going up against a deck stacked with Legendaries using one that isn’t, and the ease with which it is possible to buy those powerful cards is somewhat concerning.
As far as features go, Hearthstone is rather light, but further content updates will almost certainly add new game modes. Currently, though, you have three ways to play - practice matches against the computer, real games against other players (either casual or ranked), and the interesting Arena mode. The latter of those is rather unique, letting you run through a gauntlet of opponents with a more-or-less random deck, with bigger rewards for the more wins you rack up before getting knocked out. If you’re like me - as interested in the trading and collecting aspect of card games as you are the game itself - you’ll be disappointed to find that there is no trading feature at all, at least for now.
In terms of presentation, Hearthstone really excels. The visuals are simple, but absolutely gorgeous and some of the card art will have you in awe. Even the handful of different game boards, or backdrops channel the Warcraft franchise spectacularly. There’s a lot of attention to detail, too - clicking on elements of the boards will make them react in various ways, like opening doors or making a gryphon flap its wings, and the music and minimal dialogue do a great job of making it feel like you’re really in a tavern playing cards with a bunch of Orcs, Trolls, and Gnomes.
Overall, Hearthstone is a well-executed and fun card game, one which lives the “easy to learn, hard to master” mantra to the utmost. If you like either card games or Warcraft, this is definitely worth checking out. And if you - like me - are a fan of both, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. The only negatives are some balance issues within the game, particularly around the free-to-play model, which are likely to alienate some of the more casual players.
Update: Hearthstone was announced at PAX East, not Blizzcon. The review has been changed to reflect that.