My first encounter with card games was sometime in the mid-90’s at the age of eight or nine. A friend of mine in elementary school showed me his set of Magic the Gathering cards and told me about them, but I just didn’t really get it.
My limited experience with TCGs remained limited until the most unlikely of CCGs grabbed my attention. As someone who generally loathes the Warcraft IP (yeah, yeah), I would have never in a thousand years expected that the one CCG that would hook me would be Hearthstone, the Warcraft themed card game developed by Blizzard. That’s the thing, though. Hearthstone was made for the type of player my friend was all those years ago as well as neophytes like me who’ve never been hooked.
In Hearthstone, you’ll select from one of nine classes based on the classes of World of Warcraft (e.g. Mage, Warlock, Hunter) with each class represented by an iconic hero. For the Mage, it’s Jaina, while the Shaman is represented by the Warcraft character Thrall. These classes also feature their own class restricted cards and a unique hero power that can have a dramatic effect on the sorts of things you’re able to do with the decks you build. For example, the Warlock can spend two mana to hurt himself for two health and draw a card. The Shaman, on the other hand, can spend two mana to summon a number of different totems.
Each hero power and set of class cards serve to encourage a certain style of play, similar to the color cards found in Magic the Gathering. The Warlock’s cheap minions and inherent card draw ability make it great for aggressive play. The Rogue features board removal options that are second to none, which makes it great for fielding a deck based on cheaper to mid-range creatures. That’s not to say you can’t play classes differently—there are all sorts of different decks out there—but the classes do lend themselves better to certain styles of play. It’s a bit more restrictive than what you’d find in MTG, but it’s also less confusing.
For a couple more MTG comparisons, Hearthstone’s decks are comprised of 30 cards vs. the standard 60 found in Magic. As a result, games go a bit faster. Mana is also granted every turn instead of being tapped from cards, which simplifies things since you don’t have to worry about drawing enough mana. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for variation in mana available on any given turn. The Druid class can use the spell card Innervate to grant itself additional mana for a single turn, while the Shaman utilizes an Overload mechanic, allowing him to play cards that are generally more powerful than you’d find at the card’s mana cost, but you’ll have less mana available the next turn.
Deck building is one of the most fun aspects of Hearthstone, but the notion of ‘netdecking’, or copying other players’ decks that you find online, is an even greater issue in a purely digital card game. Tapping into the player community to find decks that work great or are interesting ends up being a double-edged sword as the best decks can often quickly become the only decks you see online until the next ‘best deck’ for a given class or meta emerges. Going into any particular match, I can already predict what most players are going to play on a given turn and if they do, I already know what deck they’re running. Some classes, like the Warlock, have a number of decks viable at high levels of competition, so you may be kept guessing for a turn or two, but it’s generally easy to tell what your opponent is playing early on. Again, this is an issue for card games overall, but it’s just that much worse in an online game where trends propagate that much faster.
All card games feature a certain level of randomness to them, but if there’s one fault in Blizzard’s implementation with Hearthstone, it’s the developer’s emphasis on randomness. There are a ton of cards with random effects and while these effects can sometimes create great moments, the trend towards random effects is often more frustrating than it is exciting. Playing a ranked match the other night, my opponent had me dead to rights with four creatures on the board and my hand full of junk and the legendary card, Ragnaros. Ragnaros cannot be used to attack, but at the end of your turn he will deal eight damage to a random enemy target. My opponent had 7 HP remaining (to my 1) and for that game RNGesus was a generous god and of all five potential targets (four creatures and the player) Ragnaros selected the player for a fireball to the face, winning the match for me. Sometimes you just let RNGesus take the wheel and it works out. I let out a yelp and then a huge sigh of relief. It felt great for me. But for the other guy? Probably not so much.
It’s big swings like that that can be both exciting and frustrating at the same time. But you’ll also find this in cards like the cheap Mad Bomber who will toss out three bomb barrels at random targets when played. It’s entirely possible for him to just toss three barrels right at your own face for playing him, which doesn’t feel so great. Of course, no one forces you to play Mad Bomber, but if you go through the cards available in Hearthstone, you’ll probably be surprised with how many cards feature effects that are left to random chance.
Another issue with Hearthstone is its scant few modes of play. You can practice vs. AI, play constructed matches in casual or ranked play, and play in the Arena, where you pick from three heroes selected at random and draft a deck from all the cards available in the game. What’s amazing about Hearthstone is that these limitations don’t really hold the game back at all. The accessible yet deep card game is so fun to play that you can quickly lose hours playing match after match. Oh, and it’s coming to mobile, too. Goodbye, productivity!