Hearthstone Review: A Whole New (Card Slinging) World

Let me start by making a confession: I love collectible/trading card games. In the early years, when it was Magic or bust, I played Magic until I burned an incredible hole in my wallet. I was with the game from right around when third edition morphed into fourth, Fallen Empires came out and the tournament scene started properly flourishing.

The problem with Magic – though I love it dearly – is it’s forced march. See, along with the tournaments came deck building stipulations. And one of the earliest stipulations was “you can only use cards from the last two years or so.” And they released cards on a yearly schedule. Can you see the problem here?

So, the card pool stayed about the same size, but different cards rotated in and out of the meta-game. The bigger problem was that they could basically reprint cards with different names. So, say you had a small, vanilla creature that did a little bit of damage and had a little bit of health, well, at any time, Wizards of the Coast could re-make that creature, in the same colour, with the same stats and pass it off as a “new version” of the creature by giving it a different name.

This turned Magic – a basically fun game – into a money sink. A huge, all-consuming money sink. I don’t like to think about it now, but I probably spent in excess of $2000, maybe more on cards way back when. Every bit of money I got was poured into buying singles or boosters or whole boxes. It was nuts.

I love card games. I just don’t like the obscene price tag associated with them.

So, imagine my surprise when along comes Blizzard with a crazy-for-them concept for a collectible card game: you can play for free. No costs at all.  Either you choose sink a lot of money into Hearthstone, or, if you prefer, you can spend time.

This seems like a “fair” trade-off to me. And the cost of Hearthstone is decided by me. Not by the tournament meta-game.

Naturally, as soon as I got my beta invite, I got in and started playing. And to this day, I still do. The base game is well presented, fun and has a little bit of nuance that can be quite engaging, but Hearthstone, at its core, has some basic flaws that I have had to come to terms with.

So, let’s talk about what Hearthstone is: Hearthstone is a collectible card game for two players where you take an avatar [a representation of a World of Warcraft class] and do battle with those cards. Cards come in two flavours: they can be creatures – the most common way of dealing damage – or they can be spells. The object of the game is to reduce your opponent’s life points to zero.

Looking at it from this perspective, it is very much like every collectible card game, but there are some key differences. Where Magic included lands to fuel spells, Hearthstone has no resource cards. Instead, your resources are auto-generated and capped at ten.  Flaw: want to cast two cards with a cost-value of 6 and 5 gems respectively? You can’t. You have to pick. Arguably, you can say the same about Magic. You can only cast as many spells as you have the mana for, but the difference is that with Magic, you can add far more lands to your deck [and far different mana sources] than simply gems. In fact, if you do it right, there’s the possibility in Magic of creating infinite mana engines.

Now, admittedly, Hearthstone’s developers probably view this as a “design choice” and that’s fair enough, but it’s coupled with other “arbitrary” design choices that make the game feel simplistic. And that’s part of my biggest problem with Hearthstone. I think there is nuance there – and certainly, there’s a lot of internal maths going on for the math-inclined, but the results of these design choices make me yearn for a “similarly footed” Magic client and that’s kind of a problem.

In Hearthstone, part of the idea was that the player would "attach value" to their cards and the game.  This is done by making everything look tasteful.
Hearthstone’s “main menu.” It’s all gold and wood. It’s /so/ tasteful.

There’s no doubt that the presentation isn’t fantastic, because it is: each card comes into play with – sometimes – a little animation but usually they’re all accompanied by a sound bite. The animations are artfully done, with crowds making “ooh” and “aah” noises, should you do a significant amount of damage to your opponent. The “box” model that they’re using is wonderfully evocative, too, with that hint of finery given the choices of gold and wood they’ve splashed all over everything.

It’s also quite easy to control with just the mouse – with the exception of the deck builder. That’s a minor nitpick of mine, but it’s only very minor. I do wish more of these card games would bind keyboard controls to everything, because sometimes, that’s just faster.

The deck builder has reasonable features:  you can search for cards, look through cards by rarity and elect to see only cards of a certain cost.  It's a little spartan, but it does the trick.
The deck builder. I want to use my keyboard for something other than search!

Speaking of the deck builder, here’s another rather large annoyance I have with Hearthstone. Remember how I kept calling it a collectible card game and not a trading card game? Well, that’s because you can’t trade. Again: this is a design choice made because of the payment model that Blizzard are using [free to play with optional payments in the form of buying card packs] which is OK, but makes the game feel overly simplistic again. Certainly, you can craft the cards you desire, and that kind of takes the sting out of having no trading, but once more – the payment model sort of hobbles this feature by forcing you to spend exorbitant amounts of dust to craft any of the cards that aren’t common.

But my biggest problem with Hearthstone is the deck building constraints. In Magic, for the most part, you can have four of a card in any given deck and the deck size is sixty cards. Blizzard doesn’t want that. It’s complicated. And the watch-word with Hearthstone is “make it simple.” So, we’ve effectively traded simplicity for [as the maths folks would have it] diversity. But herein lies the problem: Hearthstone’s primary objective is “use guys to kill your opponent.” – so 99% of every deck you ever see a) uses the same base and b) is a collection of small, cheap-to-cast units that kill you quickly unless you can find a response to the horde.

Hearthstone has fantastic looking boards.  Each board comes with it's own unique animations and sound effects for those.  It really is a pleasure to look at.
Beating up on the AI. At least it doesn’t play weenie aggro.

It’s just not very fun to play against [or to pilot.]

So, ultimately? Hearthstone isn’t bad. It lacks complexity, but has little hints of depth every now and then through some of it’s design “quirks”/constraints. All it’s done, though, is make me wish – as I’ve mentioned – that Hasboro and Wizards of the Coast could get their butts into gear to make a non-terrible version of their Magic: Online client. Better yet? I’d /love/ a new, proper Microprose-like Shandalar. Not the silly yearly releases that are nothing but a collection of “fixed battles.”

If you’re new to CCG’s and interested, Hearthstone is well-presented, but somewhat lacking in depth. If you’ve been around the block a time or two, Hearthstone is one of the best-looking card games around, but you, like me, might end up wishing for a decent Magic experience after playing this.

I did a “getting started in Hearthstone” video series and you can watch it here.