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Cracked LCD- Hearthstone (IOS) in Review


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.

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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.

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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.

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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


Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of as well as His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

14 thoughts to “Cracked LCD- Hearthstone (IOS) in Review”

  1. I would say you can for-sure get a pack every two days, or play arena every two to three days. A pack a day requires either a lot of wins or consistent high-gold quests, like the 60s and occasional 100s, because the majority of quests are 40 gold.

    That said, it never feels like you’re being trumped by anything, or that the game is unfairly rewarding those who pay, as said in the article. A smart player with bad cards still wrecks a bad player with good cards, in general. A huge timesink and a well-deserved one.

    1. I’ve been able to get a pack most days when I’m really playing it, but you are right that you’ve got to win consistently and complete the quests…really, if you want to play this game for free AND you care about building a collection (which is actually not necessary at all), you’ve got to play to the quests.

      Which does introduce sort of interesting wrinkle…today, it’s got the “kill 40 minions” quest…which changes the way you play. You’ll off minions rather than play to win, because you want that payout. I’m actually not sure how I feel about that. I think the “win X games as Y or Z character” ones are much better, they encourage you to play with all of the decks instead of just the ones you’re most comfortable with.

      Can not play Warlock to save my life…or Warrior for some reason.

  2. Love this game….been playing it on my Mac for a little while now. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game that has such a “just one more match” factor..which of course ends up being several matches. I was struggling in ranked matches at first, but I’ve got a bad ass Priest deck now that I’ve been hammering people with pretty consistently…and I haven’t spent a dime.

  3. All right, you convinced me to try out this game, Mr. Barnes, where many others had failed. I have a fair amount of CCG experience, and after playing through the intro, gotten a couple of classes to level 10 through Practice games, and used my one free Arena entry (2 wins, 3 losses in that Arena run) I consider myself solidly in the “smart noob” stratum of Hearthstone. I am giving it a provisional thumbs up and an enthusiastic “check this thing out, for crying out loud” to other folks with iPads.

    As stated in the review, this game has polish on its polish. The art, design, sound effects, animation, and attention to detail are exemplary. I played World of Warcraft for a few years, so the settings, abilities, and characters are a welcome aspect of the game. I may be shallow, but I have to admit that the same game mechanics but with a generic setting and less-than-excellent presentation just would not appeal to me as much.

    I haven’t played enough to have learned any of the subtler strategies. Every game I see opponents play cards I have never seen before. I don’t think I’ll even contemplate crafting for a good long time. Heck, I don’t even know in what order I should be playing this thing! Get every class to level 10? Focus on one class and play unranked matches to get those dailies in? I don’t know.

    Some aspects to the game require unlearning things from other games. For example, there’s a minion that copies another minion already in play. And they really do mean copies: if the other minion has a Divine Shield on it and has two buffs for +2 attack and +2 health then your copy will get those too.

    On the other hand, Hearthstone is not completely devoid of Magic: The Gathering linguistic precision. My mage has a “secret” spell that copies the next minion that my opponent summons. I discovered to my dismay just how precise the language for the Battlecry minion trait is: the minion triggers the bonus effect when played from your hand, not when the minion enters play. Sorry, secret minion copying spell, better luck next time!

    The lack of any sort of glossary or rules within the game itself is probably a negative only to an old fogey like me. Even the game’s website seems a bit spare in this department, but I’m sure there are plenty of sites set up by enthusiasts.

    In my handful of games against human opponents I’ve seen very little in the way of emoting, and as far as I know those emotes are pretty much the only way to communicate with other players during a match. I did get a friend request after an arena match, but that was just so that the guy I’d beaten could complain at length about how lucky I had been, how much better his arena deck was than mine, how devastating was the sodomy I was experiencing until the random number generator took pity on me, etc. I took screenshots to look back on later, after I’ve become a certified middle-of-the-pack player. (I really did get lucky in that game–I have to admit.)

    Speaking of the Arena, is that where you end up doing most of your playing once you’ve settled into the game? It seems like that must be the most “efficient” way to play in terms of gold-per-minute, but on the other hand you’ll want to actually use those wonderful decks that you’re spending that gold on. How does it all work? Arena to earn gold for cards, then ranked games for fun?

  4. I actually think the Warcraft setting is pretty important…at this point, Warcraft is almost (if not completely) as recognizable as Dungeons and Dragons is to the general public. It’s an identifiable brand, and most people under the age of, what, 50 have an idea of what Warcraft is and what it looks like. So I don’t think it’s shallow at all that the setting/art/atmosphere is signifiant to you!

    I haven’t even touched the crafting yet…but I would recommend that you play the solo matches and get everybody leveled up to 10 so you can have all of their class cards available.

    It definitely required me to do some un-learning as well…I was never a creature-heavy Magic player, I liked the more infuriating kinds of black/blue decks that did things like basically kill the opponent for just following the process of the game. And I had to work out that taunt (Lure, you heathens!) is incredibly important in most cases. Sequencing is really important, especially with battlecry abilities and working out ways to keep your minions on the board beyond an alpha strike from the other side is too.

    Arena is the most fun, IMO, but I like how it’s framed as an “event”…I generally play random ranked games for a while with a focus on accomplishing the quests. Then I’ll buy in and get stomped to pieces. But even just winning one match you usually get a booster or two and a special card. Definitely the best way to spend the gold. I really don’t ever buy the 100 gold booster, I’d rather just save up another 50 and hit the arena.

    Zurenarrh #1816 is my tag.

    1. Pharmboy23#1364 here.

      Burnt out so hard on WoW, years ago, but loving this game.

      I’m currently playing shaman and not great at it, but I do have a lot of fun.

      Arena is the total bomb. Love that. I like having an Arena profile and just going back to it occasionally, mixed with casual and Ranked matches (though I am such ass at ranked).

      This is the first, very first, F2P game I have spent money on, and the first time I felt like the experience was worthy and deserving of my cash and not trying to rip me off. I grabbed a few packs for $20, the end. Now I can get my other cards via dailies and such.

  5. I never got in on the Ascension play with other NHS fans, but I’m really enjoying Hearthstone. Look for Anewcombe#1407.

  6. Maybe I’m late to the party here but Timzania#1755 here. To my great surprise, one of Blizzard’s official gatherings this Saturday is very, very close to my house, at a place where I easily might have been anyway (Seven Mile Cafe in Denton, TX) so I guess I’ll go to that. Might bring my hipster-hat so I can pretend I’m there for coffee, just in case.

  7. I’ve been getting in a bit more Hearthstone time lately and the learning curve is really well designed. I mean, I’m still learning things about the game and interface from the random tips on loading screens, so I guess I’m still in the low-gear, high-torque part of that slope, but every match teaches me something new. I have some more observations and another question:

    * I ran into my first very tuned deck during a casual match the other night. The deck must not have been incredibly powerful because I actually came a bit close to winning the match with my two-commons-and-a-rare mage deck, but it was really focused. Murlocs and warlock tricks: basically a zerg rush. I think I ran into more epic cards in that match than all my others combined, heh. I don’t know how the fellow was all the way down at my level in the matchmaking; perhaps there just weren’t a lot of people online at the time.

    * The interface during actual matches is amazing, just so well designed. This is the first card-based computer game that I’ve played where the cards become smaller, non-card things after you’ve played them. This one design element gave them HUGE amounts of screen real estate. That plus the fact that each player can have no more than seven minions in play at a time (another thing I learned from a tip, heh) means Blizzard can really optimize the play area. For one thing they avoid the isometric perspective that so many other games endure. The top-down perspective gives great clarity but also keeps you close to the action, which is something that Summoner Wars, for example, fails at in the iOS adaptation. Heck, Blizzard has so much space available that they use the corners of the screen to give the match a setting with character. So cool!

    * It is becoming clear to me that the design just has a very specific type of game in mind, and that it is NOT half-hour MTG barn-burners (you’re just neve going to see some kind of mill vs. myr apocalypse here). No really counterspells to speak of–with the limited exception of Secrets–plus a linear and predictable mana curve combine to make short matches that pack a punch. I miss my MTG stack. Hell, I’ve missed the stack since Wiz-War invented it. But not having counterspells just gives the game so much propulsive force: on my turn I’m encouraged to use all of my mana, on my opponent’s turn I’m largely planning my own next turn instead of waiting to pounce with a timely counter or sacrifice. Now, no counters means that you do seem some straight up filthy stuff in Hearthstone. Some rogue summoned a charging minion, attacked with it, did some roguey thing that pulled it back into his hand, then resummoned it even stronger than before. I think I took like 15 damage and he had had a cleared field before that turn. But it’s Hearthstone! Tap your hero, hit the “Well Played” bubble, and move on…

    *Here’s a question for you veterans. Are there any cards that enhance hero abilities directly, or perhaps do those abilities naturally improve as the heroes level up? I’m guessing “no” to the latter, but I just don’t know about the former. And I guess a related question would be this: do hero abilities retain their usefulness as decks become stocked with nothing but epics and legendaries?

    Thanks! I’m enjoying this discussion.

    1. Geez, that’ll teach me to post while sober and/or drunk. I meant to say that I’ve LOVED the spell stack since Wiz-War, not missed it.

      Oh, and is anyone else like me in that your own hand gets in the way whenever you want to click-and-hold on a card to see its details and keywords? I wish I could set my handedness as a preference.

  8. The game is literally the WoW TCG, only digitized and a bit faster pace because of the change from Quests to Manacrystals. My hope for the future is that they’ll add some of the near gameplay stuff they had in the TCG into Hearthstone. Things like Raids and Dungeons were really fun to play with cardboard!

  9. I was surprised how disappointed I was in Hearthstone, actually. I think the problem I had, which isn’t necessarily surprising, is that the carefully removed crust resulted in a really simplistic game. I’d started playing Solforge from Gary Games about a month prior to the release of Hearthstone and I’d found the leveling mechanic of that game to be a really challenging, digital-only innovation that made the act of playing and deck-building extremely thoughtful and focused.

    The sad thing is that Solforge will never have the community of something like Hearthstone for the very same reasons I like it (it’s a really hard, complicated CCG with a community of extremely skilled people that wipe the floor with new players). But, man, Solforge managed to implement a tournament draft mode, which is pretty much the most amazing thing ever.

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