Blizzard’s Hearthstone beta review

A couple of weeks ago I received an invite from Blizzard as a late birthday present to participate in the closed beta test of their upcoming game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. For those of you not familiar with it, it is Blizzard’s entry to the collectible card game genre in the form of a free-to-play online game. It will be available for Windows and Mac, as well as Android and iOS mobile devices.

Even though I had my doubts, it turned out to be a pretty solid and addictive game, which you’ll probably end up spending money on if you get hooked. Same business model as giving away free drugs at school gates.

The Warcraft universe

I was always a great fan of Blizzard games and most of its franchises, but the Warcraft universe seems like a bastard child of theirs. Some fans might argue, but StarCraft and Diablo mostly stayed true to their concept from their inception to their recently released titles. Warcraft: Orcs & Humans marked the beginning of the RTS genre for me, and even with its complete mirror match-ups, it was highly enjoyable at the time. Warcraft II further improved the concept and added more subtle differences to the races, but both sides were still very similar to one another, which was the easiest way to keep them balanced.

With the success of StarCraft and its three distinct races, it became clear that for the next Warcraft RTS title they had to spice things up a bit to keep it popular. I wasn’t a big fan of WarCraft III and its hero based gameplay, then with the release of the subscription based World of Warcraft MMORPG which was immensely popular for a decade, for me the whole franchise rode straight into hell with both its concept, gameplay and art direction.

Even though I didn’t get the coveted invite to the upcoming expansion Diablo III: Reaper of Souls that’s currently in early beta, I installed Hearthstone with the best intentions and hoped that it would not disappoint. Thankfully it didn’t, and to me it is the best title in the franchise since Warcraft II.

The basics

At first you only have the Mage unlocked from Hearthstone’s 9 character classes, but you can unlock the other classes to play by defeating them once in battle. The game automatically bumps you into a short series of heavily scipted tutorial matches to introduce key concepts and strategies of the game. Each class can be levelled up separately via earning XP by winning (and to a lesser extent even by losing) matches, and you will easily earn your first few levels during these literally impossible-to-lose introductory missions.

The basic concept of the game is quite simple. Two heroes battle it out at the table using two decks of 30 cards, taking turns. Your aim is to destroy your opponent’s hero. Cards you play either summon a minion to the battlefield or cast a spell. In your turn you can play any card from your hand if you have enough mana, and you can use your own minions to attack the enemy hero or its summoned beasts on the battlefield. Spawned minions usually cannot attack before your next turn.

Mana is the only resource in the game, which replenishes completely at the start of your turn. At the start of a match each player has 1 mana crystal, automatically gaining +1 in each turn, up to a total of 10. This makes sure that the battle escalates gradually as higher level cards come into play. Each match-up starts with a coin flip with the winner taking the first turn. To make up for the disadvantage, the loser draws an extra card from his/her deck and gets a special card that can be played free at any time to get +1 mana crystal for a single turn. Before the game starts you have the chance to put any of your starting cards back to your deck and draw again, a good idea if you only get high level cards which are useless at the start and could leave you exposed early game.

It is important to remember that your goal is to destroy your opponent’s 30 HP hero, so if you have a chance to hit him hard, take it. If there are no enemy minions posing a serious threat, it’s better to ignore them and concentrate on hitting your enemy directly rather that sweeping up lesser beings on the battlefield wasting your damage output.

Some minions have an ability called Taunt, which to my low level experience is vital to play them at the right time. When there is one or more of these on the battlefield, the enemy has to destroy them before he can attack any of your other minions or your hero itself. Use them as meat shields to protect your heavy hitters, to buy time when you’re low on health, or to force your opponent to play out their special cards. This doesn’t protect you against spells though, as they can still target any of your units directly.

When a minion attacks another, both take damage. If you both have minions with taunt, sometimes it’s better to wait for your opponent to attack, rather than getting your taunter killed in your own turn leaving you defenseless against all attacks.

You do need skill to choose which cards to put in your deck and to know when and how to play them, but even if you think you’re prepared for everything, a lot of luck is involved in the outcome of the match. If by chance you only get higher level cards which you can’t play until your 5th or 6th turn, you’re left with only your class’ minor hero ability that can be used once per turn for 2 mana. I remember one mage vs mage match where we both only fired 1 damage fireblasts until turn 5. This inherent randomness can work out in your favour and it feels good to defeat enemies with superior cards, but in case it makes you lose, it’s time to remember not to take the game too seriously.

Build your own deck

Your basic deck is just that. Basic. You can win some games in practice mode against the AI, but as you’re climbing the ranks and unlock extra cards, you will definitely want to put it into your custom deck and start using them before challenging your fellow human players. The sheer amount of possibilities might seem intimidating at first, but as a standard game of Hearthstone only takes around 10-20 minutes, there’s plenty of room for trial and error. Make sure your deck contains cards from all mana tiers, and don’t forget to include powerful spells to neutralise dangerous enemy minions. With a little practice, you’ll very soon have an idea of what works and what combinations to look for.

As you’re gaining levels and getting new cards, you’ll start to notice an increase in depth with which they affect gameplay. Minions can have a wide range of special abilities, for example Charge allows them to attack in the same turn they’re spawned, while Divine Shield makes them ignore the first time they take damage. Battlecry and Deathrattle abilities trigger when the minion is summoned or killed, respectively, and it can be anything, such as spawning additional beasts, dealing instant damage to the enemy hero, giving extra damage to your spells or adding extra health and damage to one or more allies.

Why would you keep playing?

As expected, Blizzard has put plenty of features in the game to get you coming back for more, time and time again. There is play mode which uses the matchmaking system of Battle.net 2.0 to pit you against fellow humans with similar skill, which worked wonderfully even when starting out with a weak deck to experiment. Chances are that there are always worse or less lucky players than you out there, you’re not going to win all your matches, but it will balance it around a healthy 50% and you won’t be constantly stomped by advanced players with legendary decks. You have a choice to just play casually for fun (recommended when trying out a new deck) or to play in ranked mode which tracks your progress and skill. You can also enter the arena for some cash or in-game gold to compete using a selection of random heroes with decks built from random cards. You can collect gold by winning matches against human opponents or by completing daily quests. Quests are usually quick challanges that can be completed fairly quickly: win 2 games with a certain class, deal 100 damage to enemy heroes, destroy 50 enemy minions, etc.

Cards you collect have 5 tiers of rarity which can be identified by the colour of the gem below the portrait: common (white), rare (blue), epic (purple), and finally legendary (orange). Free cards have no gems and are part of your basic deck, while the tiers above have increasing quality and usefulness. If you don’t get the cards you wanted, special cards can be disenchanted to gain Arcane Dust, which can be used to craft new ones.

For 100 in-game gold you can buy an expert pack, which is a selection of 5 random cards that have a chance to be of any quality (including legendary), but it’s guaranteed to contain at least one rare card. Opening these packs are the main reason for addictiveness of the game, similar to Diablo’s loot drops, you never know what you’re gonna get, and you just want to go ahead and open just one more. If you run out of in-game gold, no problem, you can easily buy up to 40 expert packs in one transaction for your hard earned cash, and next to arena entry fees this is the primary monetisation factor for Blizzard. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more buying options in the future, like specialised booster decks that are popular in physical card games.

Conclusion

The concept of the game is nothing new, there are plenty of CCGs and TCGs out there with similar, or even almost the same basic mechanics. What really makes this game stand out is the amazing Blizzard polish that oozes out of every aspect of the game. You can be sure that every sound effect and graphical feedback have been carefully designed to give you maximum satisfaction. Cards have been designed to provide good variety and they will surely keep adding new ones well after release. Classes are well thought-out and different enough to keep them interesting.

It’s also nice that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, character remarks and taunts are filled with light-hearted humour. Another good feature is the lack of in-game chat with your opponent. Communication is limited to selecting single word emotes, to which your character says a short sentence matching their personality in the spirit of the game. While it wouldn’t hurt to have some more options, you don’t have to worry about being insulted by 12-year-olds just for winning a match.

Having the infrastructure and popularity of Battle.net behind the game is definitely a must, even though it’s still in beta I never had to wait more than 30 seconds to find an opponent online. There is nothing more annoying than having to wait long minutes to play a match, which unfortunately poisons most other online card games I tried. And while some other games block your progress after a while to try to force you to spend money, Blizzard instead tickles your curiosity and desire to improve in order to do the same.

I really wanted to uncover some dirt to write about, but I failed miserably. Yes, it doesn’t support my screen’s native 1280×1024 resolution (runs in 1280×960 instead), but I’m probably the only one on the planet still using a 4:3 screen. It’s a bit annoying that the options dialog window doesn’t have an OK or close button (you have to press ESC or click outside the dialog to close it), but you’re not using it more than 10 seconds per month anyway. All other issues are related to the product being still in beta: I encountered one graphical glitch and it crashed my video card driver once, but apart from these it runs very stable with minimal loading times on my average PC.

It’s a very well put together and enjoyable game that can give you many hours of quality entertainment. You might get bored and sick of it after a few months, but by being free-to-play, there is no excuse not to try it once it’s released.

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