Sanity’s Other Side: Hands-on with Hearthstone (Open Beta)

Herofight Warcraft the Gathering

Hearthstone logo

Hey everyone, it’s time to duel! Blizzard’s newest online card game, Hearthstone has entered open beta. As a player of virtually every children’s card game in existence, what does Moar Powah’s Inverseman think of this new take on a household name of gaming?

Hearthstone takes favorite heroes, creatures, and characters from Warcraft and puts it into a fast paced card game. Now I never really played Warcraft myself due to not having the computer or means to, but anyone can get into this game, it’s very simple. The aim is, as most card games go, is to get your opponent’s life points down to zero. As an online card game, it looks great. Super colorful battlefields with great visual effects and art (shame the card art is so small), nice voice acting, and witty flavor text.

Hearthstone Valeera arts

Now what makes Hearthstone unique for an online card game is that it tracks your Minion’s damage and modifications for you, unlike Pokemon where you have countless dice on each of your Pokemon to mark their damage. The other boon to being an online game is that rules and random effects are handled by the unbiased computer. The last and most important benefit to being a card game is that cards can be modified by the server and receive proper buffs, nerfs, and even total rewrites whereas a traditional card game would require judge rulings for the first two cases or outright bans.

Hearthstone sample game state

Your main source of damage in this game will be from your Minions, who have attack and defense points much like Magic the Gathering. The moment I saw those two values, I knew I was right at home. In fact, experienced Magic players will find many analogues to popular Magic special abilities. Best of all, damage math is handled right for you, the game even shows which Minion(s) would die, should they battle. There are also a wide variety of spell cards and creatures exclusive to your Hero’s job class (Mage, Rogue, Paladin, etc.), Items which let you yourself take part in the battle, and unique Hero Powers that give you an ability only those of your class have. Combat however is very offense-heavy. There are no blocking mechanics unless you have a “Taunt” Minion so very aggressive plays are rewarded, even with the Taunters.

Hearthstone Jaina deck

But that’s only half of the main draw to this game, the real magic is in the mana system. Unlike Magic TCG and more like Battle Spirits TCG, there are no land cards, instead players use Mana Crystals which they gain every turn and then spend on cards. At the beginning of each new turn, the emptied crystals are refilled and the player gets a new one added to the pool. This dramatically speeds up the pace of the game, where players are guaranteed to have enough mana for the next Minion or Spell they play. No stalling because of not drawing into mana and no endless floods of mana but nothing to do with them. Some may find it more “casual” in this regard, but I find it fascinating in how it affects deck composition.

Hearthstone mana curves

Deck building itself has a very handy UI that displays your “mana curve” as Magic players will call it, so you know you have a balanced deck that will work and be able to play cards most efficiently. There are two types of cards, class cards and neutral cards. Class cards can only be used by a deck that is of that class, so Fireball, a Mage Spell Card, can only be in Mage decks under Jaina, currently the only Mage Hero in the game. Neutral cards can be played in any deck and happen to have the biggest number of Minions. The job system is both a blessing and a curse. While on one hand it limits deck construction to specific pools of cards and makes most of the best neutral minions the only ones that show up, it also balances the game by keeping certain cards out of certain job classes. Currently, Hero powers are also very limited but over time I look forward to new Heroes other than the starting nine and new Hero powers that pull from famous Warcraft characters.

Hearthstone quests

Players can currently do daily quests to get gold and purchase booster packs either with in-game gold or real currency. However, an anti-poopsocking mechanic limits the amount of gold that can be earned from winning normal matches and stalls the growth of your collection, but at least it keeps Blizzard’s revenue safe. On the bright side, unwanted cards can be destroyed and turned into Arcane Dust, which can be spent to create nearly any card given enough of it. It’s actually fantastic to know that you can get exactly what you need for your deck at any time, but on the other hand there’s no way to trade with your friends implemented at the current time. While all these moves make sense business-wise and it does indeed limit the amount of pay-to-win too often seen in more traditional card games, experienced card gamers may find them a strange mixed bag of off-putting and relieving.

Hearthstone Arena draft

Currently, outside of dueling with friends, you can choose to take on random casual and ranked matches where you pit your own homemade deck against others. Queue is rather quick and pairs you up soon enough, but it’s strange with no lobbies (a la Cockatrice or other online simulators) to find other players unless you add them to Battle.net. The other way to play is the Arena, where you actually draft random cards to make a deck and use that against opponents for prizes. The longer your win streak in the Arena is, the greater your prizes become. This is the most efficient way to get gold and dust and it’s quite enjoyable once you have a good handle on the game, and that itself comes quite quickly. That said, it’s quite easy to netdeck (where you copy someone else’s deck online) your Arena deck because you’re not drafting with other players live and there’s no time limit. Speaking of time limits, a small nitpick I have with the game is there not being a visible timer for the turn so you don’t know how long you have for your turn or how long your opponent is taking to conduct theirs. One bonus about this timer is that if your opponent timed out last turn, on their next turn the warning will play right away to make sure they have not disconnected or left the match.

Hearthstone intro art

Overall, in its current incarnation, Hearthstone feels like a more casual variant of Magic. It’s very sparkly and well-presented, paying homage like a good spin-off should, but it oddly has me craving a good old fashioned game of Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, or other card games I’m invested in. It’s a fast and easy-to-learn game that takes cues from a very novel resource system (the Mana Crystals), making duels a rush of sound and light that TCGs don’t have. Though outside of the duel the game feels more like an MMO than a TCG, removing things that feel like common sense in the card game world while giving blessings most its players would die for. Hearthstone is an interesting little game, and I’m curious as to how it will develop once out of beta. Join me next time when I awaken my Mangekyou Sharingan.

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Inverseman

The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.

Inverseman

The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.

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