Blizzard has done such a terrific job with Hearthstone that almost anyone who tries this collectible card game will be hooked in a matter of minutes.
Just like World of Warcraft introduced the massively multiplayer online genre to millions of casual video game players, Hearthstone tries to do the same with trading card games, a genre that’s always had a lot of potential, but is usually considered punishing or inaccessible. Until now. Blizzard has done such a terrific job with this free-to-play collectible card game that almost anyone who tries it will be hooked in a matter of minutes.
Anyone who has ever played a trading card game before (that includes Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh) will immediately recognize some familiar elements as soon as they start playing this game. There are monsters and spell cards and to be able to play them, you need to use a source of energy from your mana pool. The main change is that mana increases by one each turn to a maximum of ten and all your energy you use in one turn is replenished in the next one. This makes Hearthstone dynamic and fast-paced so the longest matches rarely take more than 10 or 15 minutes.
To defeat your opponents, you need to decrease their hero’s life to zero and to do so, you attack them with your creatures. Some monsters have additional abilities and while the rules are extremely simple, combining cards and abilities in creative new ways is a must if you want to have some sort of advantage over your opponent. As of this article, there are almost 800 cards available, but unlocking most of them will take you some time. To purchase cards, you have two options: you can use an in-game currency that you obtain by completing daily quests and playing the game or use real money. Although I never felt the need to use money to get new cards, if you don’t play Hearthstone every day, unlocking new cards becomes an endless grind, since you can only have three active daily quests at any given time.
Cards revolve around specific themes and there are nine classes available (which were taken from World of Warcraft.) Each class has specific cards associated to it and a hero power you can use by paying mana, such as dealing direct damage to the enemy hero, summoning a small creature, restoring health or gaining armor. The available heroes include Mage, Priest, Warlock, Paladin, Warrior, Druid, Hunter, Rogue and Shaman. Although most players will probably have a favorite class, I’ve always found reasons to alternate between them and they are all fun to play.
Once you familiarize yourself with the main mechanics (which should only take you a few minutes thanks to the fantastic tutorial,) you can start competing against other players in both regular and ranked matches. The game does a great job of pairing you with people of a similar skill level and while there were definitely instances where I encountered players who have spent too much time and money on their decks, I rarely felt like the challenges in front of me were insurmountable. Apart from the competitive modes, there are some single-player missions that came out in the form of expansions. Again, to unlock them, you can pay in game-currency or money. These missions are certainly one of the game’s highlights, since you need to face some bosses to unlock some rare cards.
Finally, there’s Arena mode. Here you need to choose the cards you want to create a deck from a pool. Once you’ve completed a desired deck, you face a series of human opponents who have done the same and you keep playing until you lose or until you win the series of matches. This is certainly a mode where seasoned players will have an advantage over newcomers, mainly because you need to have a grasp of the mechanics and understand which are some of the best cards and which ones work well together. Although there were cases where some players drafted some legendary cards and I was eliminated in a few minutes, I found myself on the opposite situation a few times. To a certain extent, this is a problem that’s pervasive in this game: there are occasions where luck plays a major role in the matches and when things don’t go according to plan, it can be frustrating.
Since there are so many cards to get and some of them can be quite hard to come by, the game offers a virtual place where you can craft cards. This was one of the most convoluted parts about the game, since I couldn’t figure out how it worked. I ended up reading some guides online, but even then, I didn’t understand this part of the game in its entirety. This is a shame because anyone with duplicates or useless cards wants to know exactly how crafting works, but the game does a poor job of explaining it. As a consequence newcomers may waste cards or worse, destroy their most valuable ones on a mode they don’t understand.
Most of the modes are entertaining, but they wouldn’t work if they weren’t presented in an accessible and inviting manner. The user interface is amazing because it has everything you need to know about the match, as well as some details that are pleasant to look at. Although there’s no voice chat, the game doesn’t really need it, since you can click on your character and “emote” different phrases. The board displays all the information you need, as well as some simple yet charming visual details like doors that open when you click on them or spiders that come out of caves.
By the way, the iPod Touch version, which is the one I played for the purposes of this review, has some technical issues. It crashes randomly and unexpectedly, it suffers from framerate issues from time to time and the UI isn’t as responsive as the one in other versions. I assume some of these stability problems will be solved in upcoming patches, but if you want to commit to playing this game long term, check out the iPad or PC versions instead which seem to be more stable.
With new content coming out on a regular basis, hundreds of cards and several modes to play, Hearthstone is a game where you can spend hundreds of hours and still be surprised with what it has to offer. There are some wrinkles to iron out here and there: getting new cards and unlocking expansions with in-game currency requires you to play dozens upon dozens of matches, crafting mode is poorly explained and luck tends to play a major role in some matches. But despite these missteps, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is the trading card that everyone has been waiting for. Regardless if you’ve been playing collectible card games your entire life or if you’re new to the genre, Hearthstone offers enough exciting changes to make collectible card games refreshing and entertaining.