HearthStone: Heroes of Warcraft

HearthStone: Heroes of Warcraft

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.

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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.

HearthStone: Heroes of Warcraft
"A great card game, some balance issues aside"
- HearthStone: Heroes of Warcraft
Follow Own it? Rating: G   Difficulty: Hard   Learning Curve: 5 Min


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Comments Comments (7)

Posted by drunk_monk
On Tuesday 8 Apr 2014 1:21 PM
Cant wait for the Android version... that I hope is coming
Posted by Coddfish
On Tuesday 8 Apr 2014 2:01 PM
8 April 2014, 01:21 PM Reply to drunk_monk
Cant wait for the Android version... that I hope is coming
It is, no date set for it yet though.
Posted by Shoel
On Tuesday 8 Apr 2014 3:53 PM
Hearthstone is actually more fun on the ipad, even though I'm a die hard pc fan. An android version would definitely be appreciated.
Posted by koyukon
On Wednesday 9 Apr 2014 9:34 AM
Played it on my windows tablet. Great game but I just stopped playing cold turkey for unknown reasons.
Posted by reavers
On Wednesday 9 Apr 2014 1:58 PM
It's fun but only problems I have with the iPad version is it is somewhat slow and it should save the match (against bots) if you switch to other stuff
Posted by Subtactrics
On Monday 14 Apr 2014 8:14 PM
Hi there, I like your review and writing but your bit about legendaries and balance reads like a cry and is factually inaccurate. You also forget a bunch of important stuff...

Quests & arena are the two main ways of getting cards and learning about them.
Both provide gold which can be used to purchase arena tickets which allow you to play a virtual tournament roughly equivalent to a draft in other CCGs.
(Something to consider is that the $20 you might spend on a Friday night Magic:TG draft will get you most of the commons in Hearthstone; 90% of the actual power cards in the game.)

Arena suits players who get bored of the meta, constantly evolving though it may be, and serves as the fastest way to get cards for free. In addition, the practice of constructing decks from random cards gives new players the opportunity to use cards they don't have and get a feel for how to play them - albeit against some tough opposition (i.e. read a guide).

Hearthstone also has an unranked mode which can be a trove of unconventional decks which are too inconsistent for ranked but make for memorable play, both for and against.

Hearthstone plays a great deal more like a traditional card game with deck construction being de-emphasised to reading the player and chance to the fore. Indeed, despite being able to pay for cards, many of the most competitive decks can be easily obtained through free play. More powerful cards such as legendaries tend to be niche picks or flavourful alternatives to more available power cards.
Personally, I've found that the card play feels like a combination of 500 per turn and poker over the whole game - which I won't explain in a comment.

The iPad and Android versions will probably make it the LoL of the touch-screen world as well.

(Regarding your tears - remember that the vast majority of players in competitive e-sports rarely get beyond silver - which will evolve to be about rank 15 in Hearthstone I think.)
Posted by Bappernz
On Wednesday 16 Apr 2014 7:02 PM
love my time spent in this game, will definitely be playing in the future