Blizzard has a real knack for making addictive video games, and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is certainly no exception. Having dived into the beta a couple weeks ago, and dropping far more hours into the game than I anticipated, I think Blizzard has a really solid, diverse digital card game that feels remarkably polished for something still in its beta phase.
The basic mechanics behind Hearthstone will be familiar to anyone that’s played a game of Magic: The Gathering or numerous other collectible or trading card games over the years. You’ll face off against an opponent, either A.I. controlled or a player paired up in online matchmaking, and attempt to whittle away at their 30 life points turn after turn.
To do so, you’ll be able to deploy minions, spells, and equipment, all of which come with a variety of effects attached. Spells consist of instant play cards cast on your turn that grant functions like extra card draws or direct damage to the enemy hero. Minions make up the bread and butter of every deck, culled from the annals of Warcraft lore that can directly attack your opponent and any minions they currently have on the field. Equipment, generally consisting of weapons, gives your own hero character the opportunity to attack or defend, granting damage points not typically possessed or additional armor.
At the onset of the game you’ll have 9 different hero classes to choose from. These consist of class archetypes from Warcraft with Mage, Rogue, Druid, Warrior, Paladin, Priest, Shaman, Warlock, and Hunter. There’s pre-built decks to choose from for each class at the start, but as you play with any given class, you’ll gain experience for wins and losses that will unlock more starter cards for each class. There are also neutral cards that can be included in any deck regardless of class, and you’ll gain access to more class and neutral cards by purchasing Expert Packs, bought either with in-game gold earned for completing quests or with real-world money.
Expert Packs consist of five cards, with one guaranteed to be rare or better. One thing that really stands out is how well Blizzard nails the anticipation of opening up a new pack of cards and rummaging through that freshly ripped foil to see what sort of rare you’ve found. When you go to open a new pack in Hearthstone, there’s a whole procedure involved, wherein you’ll drag the pack over to slot on the screen, the pack will explode open and the five cards will pour out face down. Then you’ll flip each card over one at a time to reveal what you’ve just bought. It’s about as close as you’ll likely get to the sensation of opening up a physical pack of cards.
As far as purchasing packs, prices set in the beta do not seem overly exorbitant. Real world pricing starts at $1.99 a pack, with the option to buy multiple packs leading to larger discounts. Of course, with this being a beta, there’s thought given to the fact that progress will be wiped at some point for every player. When that occurs, there’s a program in place to reimburse purchased content with in-game gold so that players can simply rebuy new packs. Of course, in-game gold can also be used for purchases now, but you’ll earn gold at a snail’s pace. Gold comes from completing daily quests, but you’ll typically only see one quest per day. You can also earn gold by earning a number of wins in ranked or unranked online play, but again the amount earned is currently pretty small.
For available modes during the beta there are three to choose from. The beginning mode you’ll likely start with is Practice, which pits you against the A.I. using either the pre-built decks or custom decks you’ve put together. You’ll battle it out against each of the nine classes, and this serves as your only way of unlocking the additional pre-built decks and hero cards for those decks, since you’ll start the game with only one unlocked from the start. Once you’ve unlocked all the decks, you can opt to play against expert versions of those decks, which provide a sizeable challenge in comparison to the normal variations.
The second mode is called Play, and that matches you up with other random players for one on one games. There are ranked and unranked games available here, with wins tracked for ranked play. The process for matchmaking isn’t very transparent here; I couldn’t tell if I was being matched against players of similar skill or what algorithm is being used. There’s also no communication options during a match, no voice or chat function, which quite frankly I’m actually O.K. with. To help prevent griefing, there’s a turn timer in place that forces players to make a move within a certain timeframe. If you’re stuck playing with someone that’s essentially AFK, once they run out of time on a single round, the next round timer will be significantly decreased to speed things along. The initial waiting period seems a little slow, but with this being a beta I’m sure that’ll be ironed out over time.
The final mode, Arena, is a little more unique. This mode forces you to use random cards from a pool to build a deck. The concept here is a little similar to “Sealed Deck” matches that you might have participated in with local card game tournaments. The cards available are not culled from the cards you’ve won or purchased in the other two modes. You’ll also need to choose between one of three hero characters at the onset of this mode to build your deck around. Decks in all modes consist of 30 cards, and in Arena you’ll have a few selections to choose from for each slot in your deck, until you’ve successfully mashed together 30 cards to play with.
Once your Arena deck is built, you’ll go through random matchmaking to play against other opponents. There’s a three strike rule in place with Arena, and if you lose three times you’ll end the mode and collect your reward. The idea here is to get a number of wins before running out what basically equates to lives. The rewards can be substantial, and even the base reward will net you at least one Expert Pack of cards and additional items. The catch is that it costs either gold or actual money to play in Arena, the price of which is just slightly higher than that of a single Expert Pack.
There’s some other interesting concepts found in Hearthstone to make it stand out as unique. You can disenchant cards down to dust, and use that dust to buy single cards you don’t currently own. The cost for doing so is generally high, but it’s a neat concession to help players gain particular cards without having to rely on the random earnings of Expert Packs. I’d also praise the general layout and deck building options, it’s very easy to search through cards by class, pull cards out of your current deck, and replace them.
Of course with this being a beta there’s some issues here and there, I’ve run into minor things like artist descriptions missing for cards in my collection, and I’ve seen talk of balance issues on numerous message boards. But by and large this is a pretty polished experience so far, and I’m really looking forward to playing more of the game over the coming weeks. This is definitely shaping up to being one of the better digital card games I’ve had the opportunity to play, and it certainly feels like Blizzard has a potential hit on their hands with this.