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Matt Miller: My Time with Hearthstone

Column By Matthew Miller on September 17, 2013

“Welcome Back!”

Is what I hear now when I fire up the Hearthstone beta for a couple of games. I’ve by no means invested a ton of time in it, but I’d like to give you all my impressions of what I think of the game so far.

For those who don’t know, Hearthstone is a digital CCG (Collectible Card Game) from the fine folks at Blizzard. Much like a variant of the classic “Magic: the Gathering” (I feel really old calling Magic classic now. I remember buying the game when it first came out.), two players face off against each other with a HP rating and summon creatures and cast spells to damage and eventually kill their opponent.

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Now it isn’t exactly the same as Magic, there are some rule changes that completely change the game. You can never react to what an opponent does on their turn, and unless an opponent’s creature (called Minions) has Taunt, you can safely ignore them and attack your opponent directly. Yes, that’s one other difference, the attacker chooses what he fights. Again, you don’t get to react to what your opponent is doing.


On a polish level, it is definitely a Blizzard game. The animations are smooth and fluid, keeping the World of Warcraft art style we have all become so accustomed to. The cards have a 3D feel to them, with the art popping off them when they are tilted as they are slung around the board, and there are particle effects, screen shakes, and incredible sound work (cribbing lots of familiar sounds from World of Warcraft). Overall I love the presentation. When I compare it to what we’ve seen so far of the upcoming Hex: Shards of Fate, Hearthstone looks a thousand times more polished.

But let’s discuss the game for a minute. There are nine classes (sadly no Deathknight or Monk), and you must unlock all but one of them. Fortunately unlocking them is easy, just beat the AI playing that class and then you can make a deck as that class. Each class has a pool of cards specific to itself, and a 2-cost ability themed for the class. The Rogue creates a dagger that lets the player themselves attack, Hunters can shoot their opponent for 2 damage, Mages can inflict 1 damage on anything on the board, Warlocks can deal 2 damage to themselves to draw a card, etc.

This is great, however it does expose a flaw in the game that has begun to grate on me. You see each class has unlockable cards. Cards you earn as you level that class up to level 10. At first I thought I would simply “just play a Rogue and get good at that.” Something I can easily do in a normal CCG, but that’s not the case in Hearthstone. All too often you are encouraged to play other classes (I originally wanted to say forced, but that’s not exactly the case). You can earn XP for classes and unlock their cards in the Practice mode, but only up to level 10. But that’s all you need to do to earn all the unlockable cards. Unfortunately Practice mode doesn’t count for things like the Quests you get, which have requirements like “Win 2 games as a Warrior”.

Seriously, I don’t like playing as the Warrior. This quest will remain in my log until I complete it. My level in Warrior is 1, I have unlocked NO extra cards for him, so I am at a huge disadvantage in games against other live opponents who have unlocked all the class cards for whatever they are playing. (I thought the matchmaking might take deck strength into account, but I’ve gone up against some pretty uber decks while I am using the Starter Deck so I figured it doesn’t).

I still enjoy the game though. Your opponent not being able to react to you on your turn makes the “puzzle” part of the game far simpler than Magic. Sure there are “secrets” that act sort of like contingencies. Your opponent plays them on their turn , but they go off when you do something specific on your turn. However, if not for the fact that I choose where my attacks go, the puzzles would be almost non-existent.

And the game is “Free to Play”, so you don’t need to spend money, but you will want to. You can buy extra cards with either real money or in-game Gold. 100 gold buys you a pack. You get 1 gold per win, but you get larger amounts for completing quests or when you wash out in the Arena (a sort of deckbuilding-quasi-draft-ironman mode that costs 150 gold or $1.99 to enter). So far I have not spent any money in the game, and I think that I am doing OK, but that’s mostly because I’ve played Magic before 99% of the rest of the world. I can definitely see myself doing better at the game if I would just invest some money in buying some packs of cards. Right now I am judiciously using the game’s “crafting system” which involves disenchanting cards you don’t want to make cards you do in order to get some of the key common cards I need for decks. I don’t think I can sustain that method of card acquisition much longer though.

All in all this game has whet my whistle while I anxiously await the beta for Hex: Shards of Fate to hit alpha at the end of September. I can only hope that the Hex team is looking at the polish level of Hearthstone as something to achieve with their own game.

If play Hearthstone and you want to add me, my Battle.net ID is Positron#1411.

Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner.

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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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