After a lengthy public beta, a general release on PC and Mac and then an agonizingly long one week delay following a “soft launch”, Blizzard’s much-ballyhooed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has finally hit the platform that could potentially make this free-to-play collectible card game a phenomenon. Hearthstone on iPad is a masterful implementation of a masterfully designed game rich with the kind of polish, refinement and attention to detail that has qualified Blizzard’s best work reaching back to the very first Warcraft. Bar none, Hearthstone is the best card game available on IOS and it may just be one of the most significant examples of video games finally repaying all of that debt they’ve had to tabletop games for all of these years.
Like most of Blizzard’s work, Hearthstone is built on a rock-solid design that is immediately approachable by the noobest of the noob, yet the myriad fine points of the design open the doors to tremendous depth and avenues for thoughtful gameplay. The rules are so simple and straightforward that many naysayers and hardline tabletoppers might decry it as a “dumbed down” version of Magic: The Gathering. However, as I always say, those who declare designs that are streamlined and accessible as “dumbed down” are the dumb ones.
There is virtually nothing mechanically fussy or procedurally complicated about the game from the deckbuilding to the highest level of online play. You either take out a stock deck or build a deck of 30 cards from your collection. Each deck corresponds to one of nine Warcraft character types, and each has a unique special ability. Because the deckbuilding limits you to 30 cards, you’re forced to keep decks lean and focused, selecting from class-specific cards as well as neutral options available to all. Those intimidated by selecting cards have some help on hand via a suggestion tool. With deck in hand, you can head out to practice games against fairly competent AI opponents, online casual or ranked games , or an Arena mode that is effectively a sort of sealed deck endurance mode.
Once you’re in a game, it’s about as cut and dried as CCGs get. Every turn you add a mana crystal to your supply- there are no resource cards, no “mana curve”, and you will never be screwed because you didn’t draw the right card. This mechanic keeps players on an even footing in terms of resources while also setting an escalating tempo for the game. Each card, of course, has a mana cost and you’ll be playing Minions, various spells that buff or debuff other cards, direct effect spells and Secrets that remain hidden until the opponent does something that triggers its effect, like immediately killing a summoned Minion.
Creatures have an attack and a defense value, can’t attack on the turn they were summoned, et cetera et cetera. The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent’s life from 30 to zero with Minion attacks or direct damage, blah blah blah. This is all very basic stuff, really, and anyone who has ever played a CCG will feel like they’re putting on a favorite pair of sneakers. Anyone who hasn’t will be playing with some degree of competency within an hour, even though they may not quite yet grasp the subtleties of when to play or not play a card, when to trigger an effect or when to use the extra Mana Crystal card the second player gets as a balancing handicap. Regardless of a small handful of keywords and the inherent intricacies of limitless card interactions, it ain’t rocket science.
But let’s be clear about it- Hearthstone, as a design, is not particularly innovative. It doesn’t break the CCG mold and it will not forever change the way we look at card games. It’s not a quantum shift like Magic: The Gathering was, at least in terms of its white papers. Hearthstone’s greatness doesn’t like in that direction. Where Hearthstone earns its greatness is in how Blizzard’s developers have dismantled the core CCG model and thrown out all of those rocket science elements that sometimes put off game players from more hobby-oriented tabletop games or “hardcore” video games. Blizzard has stripped everything down, wrapping it in a package that looks expensive, complete and inviting with completely intuitive controls and gameplay that is perfectly positioned for all audiences. Ease of play counts for a lot. Ease of play plus a virtually flawless, immaculately balanced and meticulously crafted game design that welcomes players of all skill levels counts for everything.
This game could be huge, as if it didn’t already have a enormous player base. Everyone with an iPad now has free access to one of the best card games in recent years, and it’s absolutely free-to-play so there’s no excuse to not at least check it out if you are at all interested in using your iPad as a gaming device. Hold on, I just hit the brakes there with “free-to-play”, didn’t I?
We’ve all seen abusive, exploitative and utterly repulsive free-to-play schemes in digital CCGs and everything from match-3s to AAA disasters like Dungeon Keeper. We’ve seen games that use “free-to-play” as a leverage point for psychological shenanigans like making players wait hours or even days to build something unless you pay some kind of scrip currency bought with real money. We’ve seen games where you are actually locked out of playing because you’ve run out of “energy”- but oh look, you can buy energy gems with your credit card! Hearthstone has none of that kind of nonsense, and it should serve as a shining example of how to monetize a free-to-play game in a way that respects the consumer and encourages players to spend money because the game is actually worth it.
I’ve spent about ten dollars total on the game, playing it on the PC since February (don’t worry, all of your progress from the PC/Mac version ports right over). And I’ve spent that money not because Blizzard has bamboozled me into paying for wilfully excluded content, features or any kind of “pay to win” con game- but because I love the game and I’ve wanted to spend a couple of bucks on it just for the spur-of-the-moment fun of opening a couple of booster packs. The incentive to spend money in this game is primarily because it is a quality product that earned my money, not because of pernicious design decisions.
A booster pack (five cards) costs 100 in-game gold, earned fairly easily by just playing online games. You can also buy two for $2.99, seven for $9.99 and so forth. In true CCG fashion, what you get is random so you might spend your way into the poor house and never get a particular card. So you can grind these cards into crafting dust if you’d like and use it to buy that card (and somehow validate your poor life decision). These boosters are the only real cost of the game, and it’s pretty easy even playing casually to earn enough gold to get a booster a day- particularly if you play the daily quests that give bonus gold for completing certain objectives. The sealed deck-style Arena mode has a 150 gold/$1.99 entry fee, but the rewards for surviving are the best payout in the game.
So yes, you can literally play Hearthstone for free, no strings attached. The core decks are great and if you prune your collection carefully you can make them very competitive. Sure, the “Johnny Suitcase” mentality is there and folks that spend hundreds of dollars on boosters will have a much larger card pool to draw from but it really doesn’t matter- if you’re playing casually or even in the ranked games, the likelihood that you’ll feel outspent rather than outplayed is extremely low. You might never even encounter someone that’s spent more than any reasonable person should on electronic cards.
If there’s anything to complain about regarding Hearthstone at this stage, it’s that it feels like there could have been another round of optimization before the general release. On my iPad 2, it plays fine but with a few seconds here and there of sluggishness. At first, it was very noticeable coming from the PC version but after a day of playing it whenever I had ten minutes (or three hours) to catch a game it doesn’t really bother me. The good news is that this is a game that will be broadly supported with technical fixes and additional content- it literally has nowhere to go but up, especially with an iPhone port coming later this year.
In the meantime, if anybody wants to take on my bad ass Hunter deck, I’m Zurenarrh on Battle.net.