8 Sep 2013

Marking Cards: A First Look at Hearthstone

Hearthstone Announcement Art

When I was a kid, I used to play Magic: The Gathering. Every weekend, dad would drive my brother and I to a local tournament, where we’d duel other players from across the county. Sometimes I’d do well, sometimes I’d be weeping into my deck, but I’d constantly be collecting cards and refining strategies.

That is, until the Pokemon trading card game came along. With their gym badges and cartoon froth, a wave of unwashed children ravaged the reserved sanctum of our tournament grounds. At that point, I decided I was too old for that car-crash and stowed my cards for good.

And yes, I still have a chip on my shoulder about Pokemon.

With Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment have managed to do something rather clever; create a game that taps into all those retro memories, yet presented with all of the slick polish that the Irvine developer is known for.

If you’re familiar with trading card games, Hearthstone contains many popular elements and mechanics. Being new to the format won’t put you at a disadvantage though, as the robust tutorial gradually introduces the basics step-by-step.

Surprisingly, the act of playing Hearthstone is actually rather fun. Being turn-based doesn’t lessen the excitement, with each player using a mixture of minions, spells and Hero powers to try and attack their opponent. I quickly built up a strategy of using my minions to build up a line of defence, while using potent spells to deal damage that my opponent would struggle to block.

Instead of the frantic keyboard bashing and anxious mouse-twitching, I found myself plotting, theorising and strategizing. There’s the smugness as I use a Flamestrike to destroy all of my enemy’s minions before reaching in with a killer blow. There’s the fear as my opponent starts cutting down my Hero’s health to single digits, with nothing I cast slowing them down. There’s the elation as I draw a fireball, clutching fiery victory from the jaws of priestly defeat.


The ‘Heroes’ part of the name comes from 9 different Warcraft characters, each chosen to represent a particular class. Every player starts off with Jaina Proudmoore representing the Mage class, along with a basic set of class-specific cards and a small collection suitable for all classes. Once the tutorial is complete, you can then set about unlocking additional heroes and earning extra cards.

After playing for a few solid hours, I’d manage to unlock each of the various classes, although I’d only finished unlocking the basic set for the Mage. Each hero also has a level, with further basic cards being unlocked as you progress up to level 10. Although I had the choice of going into competitive play with an unfinished deck, I decided to stick in practice mode against the AI until I had the full set of basic Mage cards available.

Beyond that basic set, there’s a whole range of additional cards up for grabs. Playing competitive matches and completing daily quest challenges earns gold, which can then be spent on packs of extra cards. It’s also possible to sink real money into card packs so that you can increase the chance of getting the card that you want.

It’s the act of opening each pack that really got me though. As I opened each pack to find out what rare or epic cards lurked inside, I caught myself. I was fifteen again, sitting on a bench outside the game shop my brother and I used to visit, tearing open the foil packs and cheering each other’s good fortune. There was no ‘press button, receive cards’; the whole process in Hearthstone has a ritual and reverence of its own.

Mechanically, Blizzard’s card game is on a solid footing. The fundamentals, from resource generation to card abilities, provide enough variation to support a number of different deck options. I also think that there’s enough variation between Heroes to support those play styles, with the class-specific ones providing a definite steer in a couple of different directions.

For Warcraft veterans, there’s an added layer of entertainment whenever a card you’re familiar with is played. Spells and minions are mostly named after and behave like their MMO counterparts, with Barron Geddon earning a wry grin from me as he proceeded to incinerate everything on the board.


With the tutorial cone and basic unlocks complete, most of my time in Hearthstone is currently spent playing ranked competitive matches, where I’m trying out a number of different Mage decks in order to find out one that works for me. I’m hopping between a fire-heavy deck that’s loaded with protective minions, and a counterspell and frost-heavy one that tries to lock down my opponent. Both are good fun, but they need a bit of tuning. The great thing is, Hearthstone makes it easy to build and deploy custom decks easily.

It’s clear that the game needs tuning and, hopefully, the amount of data that beta testers are generating will give Blizzard what they need to do that. That’s the beauty of an online card game – each turn and match can be data-mined for valuable balance statistics. I’m not getting too set on my current deck builds, as I’m expecting that card values and abilities are likely to change between this early beta and the final launch.

I’m also concerned about Hearthstone’s arena mode – a form of competitive play where hero and card choices are limited, in a similar feel to the ‘sealed deck’ tournaments of traditional trading card game tournaments. Buying an arena deck is 150 gold coins – about 1 and a half card packs – and is good until you lose three matches. Considering how long it takes to earn gold coins, combined with the other competitive play options available, and I can see arena struggle as a game type.

Intrinsically though, Hearthstone is fun. It’s managed to gobble up some of my hard-earned cash in the pursuit of additional cards, and it’s provided short bursts of entertainment when I’ve fancied blowing off steam and hitting up a few games. I don’t think it’ll be the type of game that grabs me for several hours at a time, but I can see it easily becoming part of my regular gaming routine.

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