The Hearthstone is one of those iconic World of Warcraft items that creeps into my nostalgia cortex every time I look back at those early days in Azeroth. I fondly remember cowardly spiriting away from fights as my low-level Paladin by bubble-hearthing back to Goldshire. There were times when Azeroth was a place to be reveled in, marveled at, and man I miss those days. Say what you will about what WoW is today, for a time in 2004 and 2005 it was absolutely enthralling. Blizzard’s Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is aptly named because that’s the kind of feeling it evokes. The charm of Warcraft is all there, feeling of sitting down in an Inn in Elwynn Forest is something tangible, hovering over this “game board” dueling away against other heroes from the Warcraft lore. It’s very evocative, and what’s more, it’s very fun. I hesitate to call Hearthstone a TCG, because you won’t actually trade or compete for cards, but instead will earn more cards in-game or buy them for real money. Hearthstone will be F2P when it officially launches later this year, but something tells me card game fanatics will wind up broke opening booster packs.
Blizzard has a knack for taking complex systems and dialing them down to their core to make them accessible to many. Love this ethos or hate it, Blizzard is fantastic at opening genres of gameplay up to the masses. Hearthstone seeks to take the complex and enduring fun of games like Magic: The Gathering and deliver it in a less confusing and more approachable way with the notably familiar Warcraft lore and setting. All the while, Blizzard’s offering does so in a much flashier and more emphatic way that only the artists of Blizzard are capable of achieving. I never expected to think a videogame representation of a card game was pretty, but Hearthstone is gorgeous.
The game’s pretty straightforward: you face off against a human or AI controlled opponent as a “hero” based on one of WoW’s nine classes. Jaina Proudmoore is the Mage, for example, while Hemet Nesingwary is the Hunter. Each hero’s deck is different from the next, with cards and special powers that reflect the chosen class. The Shaman Thrall has totems as a special ability, which really do come in handy later in the match, let me tell you. What’s more about the game’s combat is that it’s visually compelling. You’re not just flipping cards and knocking points off the opponent’s life, you’re watching spells charge and fire, things crumble and explode. I mean, it’s still cards on a table, but they do pretty things and the table itself is visually captivating as it represents places like Orgrimmar and Stormwind.
This is what happens when Jaina whips Hemet Nesingwary.
The goal is simple enough: knock your opponent’s life down to zero from the starting 30. Your hero has attacks they can use, and many (most) of your cards will be minions to play on the table that will also attack the other minions and the hero while defending you. You can place minions that taunt, meaning the opposition cannot attack you directly without first destroying the taunter. You can place cards like the Nightblade that immediately sneak up and stealthily attack the hero. You can even play cards that heal you, defend you, or give your hero a weapon to use. Each card costs a certain amount of mana crystals, which grow in number and refill each turn. You may start with one mana, but by the 10th round you’ve got ten to unleash and spend cards with. And of course, the more mana a card takes the stronger it usually is.
The game begins with a somewhat scripted and humorous tutorial that has you playing as Jaina against several of the game’s notable heroes... even Illidan Stormrage. These first six fights show you the ropes of the game, and then you’re set free to build your own decks, unlock the eight other heroes, and eventually challenge other players in the Arena. There’s not much more to Hearthstone than this constant competitive striving to build the best deck, and beat your friends and random opponents. It’s brilliantly simple in its execution, and I can definitely see myself spending a lot of time with Hearthstone when the iPad version is eventually released. As a PC game, I’d much rather play something more substantial, but I’m generally not one for card games. The fact that I enjoy and (gasp) am decent at this one at all should ring true that Blizzard has once again broken down the barriers of a genre. I’ll admit, after playing Hearthstone, I’m more keen to learn about HEX (Cryptozoic’s upcoming MMOTCG).
You’ll unlock cards after victories, gaining levels, or of course... buying them.
Overall, Hearthstone is almost enough to get me to resubscribe to WoW for a jaunt down memory lane. It’s fun, it’s easy to learn, and it’s got an addictive quality that I imagine is the stuff of empty wallets for card game enthusiasts. Have you played Hearthstone? What are your thoughts, so far? Let us know in the comments!
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He’s terrible at card games, but can see his bank account emptying for Hearthstone. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.