Preview: Hearthstone – Blizzard’s Card Game Enters the Digital Realm

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Hearthstone
Played On: PC
What we played: The entire 6-match tutorial, unlocked all 9 Basic Starter Decks, took one character to Level 20, Custom Deck Building, Arena Matches, Unranked and Ranked Open Play and Tested the Hearthstone Store  (About 3 days total played).

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AN AUSPICIOUS START

For many World of Warcraft players in late 2005, when Blizzard announced it’s first foray into a non-video game enterprise, the World of Warcraft: Trading Card Game (WoW:TCG), fans were quietly divided.  Some saw it as an enterprise that ultimately would fail as the genre was already established and held by the likes of the decades old Magic: The Gathering and some saw it as a brilliant expanse on the Warcraft universe that would allow fans something to play with when taking a break from the daily virtual grind.  When the game launched in 2006, I was one of those players who dove in headfirst and never looked back, drawn mostly by the ever popular Loot Cards (extremely rare cards that rewarded in-game items for your characters).  I dropped a small fortune on the game and I loved almost every minute of it. 

But in the end, the game began to lose it’s draw for me (and many others)  through an over-complication of the rules, amazingly poor tournament managing, rampant unscrupulous judging, and the reality that you could never really be the best without dropping as much money as possible to procure the strongest and rarest cards.  With the Upper Deck scandal of 2010, continuous loss of local support, and a growing disparity between the rich and poor, a fate on par with VS. and scores of other TCG’s seemed very apparent for the WoW: TCG.  But as evidenced by our experience with Hearthstone, Blizzard seems to have taken note of the errors of the past and the results are palpable.  Here we’ll breakdown our time with the game and unveil the raw details of Blizzard’s newest expansion upon their legendary franchise.

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BREAKING OLD GROUND

Hearthstone is best described as “slipping into an old pair of shoes”.  You may remember why you stopped wearing them, but you’ll never forget why you never let them go.  There is an intense familiarity to the game that any TCG fan will immediately recognize and that familiarity will serve them well.  Knowledge of the MMO itself will also serve the player, less in strategy and more in pure entertainment value.

You begin in one of the most detailed tutorials I’ve ever played.  Everything you need to know is laid out before you, however, instead of being driven by the pace of the tutorial, the player decides upon this.  Don’t expect a step-by-step linear introduction to the game.  This time, the player gets to dive into the pool and make their way to the deep-end, learning as they play at the pace they’re comfortable with.  Gone is the need to continually return to an instruction manual to figure out what ability does what or what can be done each turn and in what order.  Gone is the extremely irritating trope of having to remember specific turn phases.  Gone are the agonizing details that so often separate the casual from the hardcore.  This division has always been apparent in games and while it’s nice to reward the individuals who play the most, ultimately it alienates the individuals who don’t have the time to pathologically dedicate themselves to the game. 

With Hearthstone however, everyone starts on equal footing and that in itself is a breath of fresh air the TCG genre desperately needed.  Players no longer have to locate vendors who sell the products they want, no longer have to wait for items to come in shipments, no longer have to deal with the deplorable behavior so often seen in the tournament circuits.  All in all, it begins to seem that the digital realm should have been the home for the TCG all along (or at least this TCG)..

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WELCOME TO FIGHT CLUB

When you start to play, you choose a Class Hero and receive a basic deck of 30 cards (the deck limit) to enter the tutorial with.  Set up like a table game played in a raucous Dwarven Tavern (complete with the background noise you’d expect to find in a raucous Dwarven Tavern), you sit down and begin your fight through 6 opening contenders, each getting stronger as you progress.

Hogger
Millhouse Manastorm
Lorewalker Cho
King Mukla
Hemet Nesingwary
Illidan Stormrage

As you make your way through each fight, you’ll be introduced to the basic cards in the set, ones with no specific rarity and no real flash.  Each game is a 1v1, turn-based match and each player begins with a mana pool of 1 indicating how much mana you have to perform actions with.

At the start, a coin is flipped which decides who will go first, and who will get an extra card to their hand.  What this does is ensure that no one begins a match with card advantage.  However, there is a chance in any deck to draw a card called The Coin which can give you Mana advantage by adding 1 mana crystal to your pool for that turn.  This works on occasion and is the first smattering of strategy you will encounter.

As each turn passes, your mana pool grows by 1 allowing you to perform more actions and summon larger minions to the battlefield.  Damage is done to each Hero through minions, direct spell damage, or Hero to Hero weapon damage.  The first to 0 loses.  As you defeat each boss, you will unlock another card, adding 2 copies of that card to your collection.

Once you’ve bested the 6 contenders in the tutorial, each one teaching you a little bit more and introducing new card mechanics, you will walk out with a very strong understanding of the game foundation.  The absolute best part of this experience was learning the cards abilities themselves.  That complicated reference guide we spoke of earlier has been replaced with the simplicity of mousing over a card to get a quick layman’s text box of what exactly a card can do. No muss, no fuss.

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PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

From here, you will be introduced to the 9 Class Starter Decks:

Malfurion Stormrage – Druid
Garrosh Hellscream – Warrior
Valeera Sanguinar – Rogue
Jaina Proudmoore – Mage
Rexxar – Hunter
Thrall – Shaman
Anduin Wrynn – Priest
Gul’dan – Warlock
Uther Lightbringer – Paladin

Each Class has it’s own base set of cards and each Hero begins at level 1.  As you battle and defeat the other 9 Heroes you will unlock the ability to play as that defeated Hero and more cards for your chosen Hero’s basic card set, 20 in total. 

Each fighter is pleasantly reminiscent of the Classes in the MMO; the individual playstyles being inherent to each class.  The Warrior builds armor to soak damage, striking hard and relentlessly.  The Hunter fills the battlefield with minions and keeps the opponent at bay with a barrage of slow damage.  The Mage controls the flow of minions into the battle while the Rogue nickel-and-dimes the opponent while building up to unleash a combo of devastating damage.  This makes entering the game somewhat easier for intermediate level players as that basic familiarity will make the game far more engrossing at the start.

THE QUEST CONTINUES

Once each Class Deck is unlocked in Practice Mode, you will have access to Open Play and The Arena.

In Open Play the game utilizes Blizzard’s Battle.net to find players of comparable level, the choice in opponent determined by your win-loss ratios in Open Play, Arena, and Practice Modes.  This was a major highlight of playing as I knew that no matter what, I would never be faced with an opponent who sorely outscaled me in terms of play experience or, even worse, card access.  As you defeat each player (or are defeated) your Hero will still gain experience, unlocking even more cards.

In The Arena you choose a Hero and then Quick-Build a deck of 30 cards.  Using that deck, you will take on opponents one after another and try to survive as long as possible.  The longer you survive, the greater the accolades will be such as Expert Booster Packs, Gold, and Arcane Dust.  Once you’ve suffered 3 defeats though, your deck is retired and you return to the drawing board after collecting your rewards.  As Hearthstone is currently in Beta Test, there are no Arena rankings yet, but this area promises to be brimming with possibilities in the future.  For Open Play combat there are “ranked” matches where you are rewarded with medals for your wins: Journeyman, Apprentice, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Diamond, etc.

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CHOOSE THE PATH TO YOUR ARMY

Everything up until now has been roses.  Every aspect of the game has left us both pleasantly surprised and greatly entertained.  But now we come to a crossroads in our journey that will certainly divide many players: Microtransactions. 

Biting the bullet we ventured into the Hearthstone Store, a specialty store much like the Blizzard Online Store but dedicated solely to Hearthstone.  From here you can purchase Expert Booster Packs in varying amounts.  These packs hold cards outside of the Basic 20 for each class.  For 100 gold you can get 1 Booster and since gold can be earned in game through playing there is no necessity to spend money yet. 

If you like though, you can spend real money for access to more Packs.  We settled on dropping $20 (plus tax) for 15 packs.  This amount is easily paid through your existing Battle.net balance or through the method of payment you use to pay for your gametime in WoW each month.

Containing 5 cards each with at least 1 rare in each pack, you will add to your virtual collection, sometimes even landing Golden versions of cards, Epic, or even Legendary Cards.  These cards can be added to your decks, with a maximum of 2 of each, with the one caveat that you can only have 1 of a Legendary in your deck.  The suspense of opening packs is exquisitely drawn out as you open the packs one at a time and turn over each card to see what you’ve earned.

As you progress through battles, you will also attain access to Quests such as “Deal 40 Damage to Opponent Heroes” or “Destory 100 Minions” that upon completion will reward gold which in turn will allow you to purchase more Boosters or access The Arena (beyond your first attempt which is free).

Lastly, just as in the MMO, players can disenchant and craft cards.  In the absence of trading cards between players, this is a very interesting concept but one that won’t require alot of thought in the end.  As players can only have 2 copies of one card in a deck, having more than 2 in a set proves a waste of resources. 

Each card (beyond the basic starter cards) has a Disenchant and Create cost.  Arcane Dust is used as the currency and the exchange is roughly 1 to 4,  i.e. you get 100 Dust from Disenchanting a card, but it will cost 400 to create it.  The one bonus to Golden Cards is that they disenchant for a higher than normal amount of Dust.  This becomes a nice way to round out card sets and combos without having to spend hard-won gold or real money to find the cards you need.

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DETAILS ARE EVERYTHING

Having torn through our opponents with both precision and strength (and gotten our butts handed to us on a few occasions), built our personal collection up, pulled some nice Legendary cards, forged a pretty decent Hunter deck, and seen everything the game has to offer, it becomes time to really evaluate the strength and longevity of Hearthstone from every perspective.

Graphically speaking Hearthstone is gorgeous.  For only 1.5 GB you get a wonderfully visual experience that hearkens back to the animated battles in Chessmaster.  Hearthstone is very easy on any system, the animations flowing with virtually no discernable chop or jag, even in the Beta.  Lens flare, sprite burst, and indicating animations are all flawless and add a real sense of depth to what could have been a very simple experience.  Nothing is left to chance and Blizzard’s dedication to serving only the best of visual feasts will satisfy any craving.

The real experience however comes in the Sound Design.  Everything from background sound to the battle effects are brilliantly rendered.  The titanic achievement however is in the voice work.  Each character from the tutorial to the main stage has their own personality just as in the MMO.  And even better, every voice actor used in the MMO has been brought back in to record lines for Hearthstone.  The end result is a true Warcraft experience with no expense spared in terms of entertaining the player.

The learning curve for the basic game is very low allowing anyone to sit down and start playing, then only adjusting upwards as you embrace more strategy in your deck building.  This design aspect was sincerely appreciated as it allows the player to feel more in control of the game instead of constantly running to catch up.  Poor pacing proved to be a detriment for many gamers in the tabletop game and Blizzard has found a proper way around it.

Every player will bring their own level of experience and desire and that will ultimately determine the fate of the game.  Here we break down what each level of player can experience when it comes to Hearthstone:

Novice: Rudimentary to no knowledge of World of Warcraft or Trading Card Games
Intermediate: Basic knowledge or experience with World of Warcraft or Trading Card Games
Veteran: Extensive experience with World of Warcraft and Trading Card Games

Novice gamers will find the potential strategy of the game to be the highest allure.  Graphically the game will provide strong enough visuals to keep these gamers interested and the sound work will also provide a fun time.  The call to spend real currency in the store will most likely fall on deaf ears and Hearthstone will probably be relegated to the ranks of Tetris, Minesweeper, and Solitaire: games played solely to kill time and have a little fun.  Druid and Rogue decks may be the best for those looking for a little challenge in their spare time.

Intermediate gamers will most likely find the extreme attention to detail to be the strongest draw in Hearthstone.  Gamers over the years have truly come to see the attention paid to the smallest things in a game as a cornerstone of the developer’s respect for the consumer’s attention and business.  The graphics and sound will certainly aid the overall enjoyment factor allowing Hearthstone to earn a place in their game collections. Warrior, Mage, and Shaman decks may see plenty of play here for their versatility and strength of options in gameplay.

Veteran players need not worry as Hearthstone delivers on every front.  Fans of Warcraft will feel immersed in the game through the graphics and especially the sound work.  Collecting cards will appeal to the collectors of mounts and companion pets.  The Arena, Online rankings and winning medals will stand out for those who love PVP combat.  Open Play will appeal to the social aspect in spite of the occasional ragequitter.  Deckbuilding for the strategists, and Questing for the adventurers.  Hearthstone will see it’s core audience in these players and through them it will see it’s longevity.

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THE AFTERMATH

In the end, Hearthstone is an exciting chapter in Blizzard’s epic story of Warcraft, adding a revamped perspective to an old chapter.  This is the way the WoW: TCG should have been incorporated.  Once again I feel an ocean of possibility at my fingertips but without the fear of being left behind by the monetarily elite or pulled out of control by the riptide.

I truly enjoyed my time with Hearthstone and I will continue to play if only to see the future of the game.  My ties to World of Warcraft do enhance that experience.  Not every game can be curtailed to cater to every gamer, but you can come close, which I believe Blizzard has done.  Once again, the designer who seems to be unstoppable continues its slow and steady pace in delivering only the best of options to its core players.  And with a wealth of cards to be created and years of possible patches in the future, this is one card game I really look forward to.

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[Editor’s Note: Remember this is still a preview and the score presented here is reflective of the beta preview Blizzard provided us with.  Upon the game’s release, if the score needs to be updated, a full review will be provided.]