For those of you living under a rock this last year, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a digital collectible card game (CCG) from Blizzard. Free-to-play, your account gives you a large number of free cards from the start. You build decks by choosing a hero class, each of which bring their own unique cards and abilities to the game, and selecting 30 cards from your collection of minions, spells, and weapons.
Playing the game earns you gold, which you can use to buy packs of cards to add to your collection or to play in The Arena, a closed format where you draft a deck of cards and play against other Arena players. Of course, it wouldn’t be a collectible card game if there wasn’t a rarity system. Players can look forward to all the card-collecting fun of a CCG with rarities matching the same nomenclature from World of Warcraft.
Having recently hit its first birthday, Hearthstone is continuing to grow, adding more features and content in the form of cards and single-player adventures. Due to its ladder system, it’s always a good time to start playing. So, what’s so great about the game?
Sure it’s free, but is it free free? Yes, it really is free. If you’ve had bad experiences with the free-to-play model in the past you’re in for a very pleasant surprise. Hearthstone allows you to purchase additional packs of cards using in-game gold you earn just by completing quests, such as winning two matches as a Warrior or Mage. A new quest is given daily, encouraging you to play a little every day to keep that gold coming in. To really stretch your fun, instead of buying packs with gold, purchase Arena runs. The prize always includes a pack of cards no matter your results, and if you get just a few wins you’ll actually be ahead on the gold you paid for your entry fee. Even the single-player adventures that Blizzard released can be purchased with in-game gold, and at a reasonable price point.
It’s Not Pay-to-Win
Free-to-play often also means pay-to-win. Blizzard has set up Hearthstone competition as a ladder. The upshot here is that you advance as high as your cards, deck, and ability take you until you hit a roughly 50% success rate. Even very good players will hit a point where they lose about as many games as they win with a given deck. Irrespective of this built-in-balance, the starting cards are quite competitive as shown when players have used the free cards to advance to the Legend ranks.
Whether you enjoy the experience of theorycrafting to build your decks or just take one from the net and enjoy the competition of a single match, Hearthstone is a blast. Finely balanced, matches often come down to a single card, and small mistakes can have a large impact.
Collecting cards comes with all the normal fun of a CCG. Pack openings have an accompanying animation that builds excitement, with the in-game narrator gleefully yelling out “Epic” and “Legendary” when you find exceptional cards. Shiny cards give extra flair with animated art to pimp out your deck. Don’t like what you have? You can disenchant cards for another in-game commodity called “dust” and craft the cards you really want.
The game also has a clear sense of humor, making jokes in the cards’ flavor text with pop culture references and World of Warcraft in-jokes further adding to the hijinks. The animation and sounds are also a delight with many stand-out characters having highly distinctive attack cries that never get old.
It’s CCG Methadone for Magic: The Gathering Addicts
It would be an exaggeration to say that Hearthstone has the same depth that Magic has established in the CCG arena. But it scratches many of the right itches without requiring you to keep up with an expensive metagame. Not being burdened by mana or physical cards has also allowed the game to explore new creative space that Magic veterans may find refreshing. Continuing status effects, cards that transform, and not having to keep physical tokens on cards every time you buff them are huge boons to the game experience, allowing for a game that is satisfyingly deep while providing streamlined play.
No organizers. No binders. No reams of cards flooding the recycling bin. Just fast searching, sorting, and deck building. Being digital also means that Blizzard can nerf cards that escape their testing and come to dominate the metagame, offering a refund in dust to affected players.
Despite its pleasing art, animations, and interface, Hearthstone doesn’t require a beefy PC – it would be difficult to have a computer in your household for browsing the web that couldn’t play it. Moreover, the game runs on iOS and Android tablets, meaning you can play on your bed, couch, or even in the bathroom.
It Has a Vibrant Community
With Blizzard declaring over 20 million players as far back as September 2014 there is always someone to play, no matter the time of day. Many players stream their games, giving you the chance to learn how to play from Legend-caliber players. If you’re interested in even more competitive play, there is a Hearthstone world championship in the works. And if you just want to see how your buddies are doing, Blizzard has recently added the ability to watch people on your friends list play the game from their perspective, in real-time.
No In-Game Chat
This may not seem like a great idea at first glance, but my experience with League of Legends has taught me otherwise. Blizzard has kept interaction with opponents to a handful of pre-canned statements, eliminating the vitriol evident in many online games. The worst a player can do to you here is to say “Thank you” or “Sorry” repeatedly, and even that can be squelched if it gets on your nerves, leaving you free to concentrate on the game and enjoy the strategy.
Blizzard Has Parental Controls
Blizzard supports accounts for your children, allowing you to set play-time limits, schedules, and restrictions on in-game purchases. This is a big step up from games that require you to lie about the age of your children just so they can play with their own account. And with the limitation on in-game chatting you don’t need to worry about someone vomiting verbal poison on your eight-year-old.
There’s a Lot Here for Kids
As games for children go, you could do a lot worse than Hearthstone. There’s strategy, the creative process of deck building, and math (counting damage to determine if you have “lethal” is not usually trivial). Other benefits include AI opponents for when they’re learning, a non-toxic play environment online, and, because it’s a free game, you don’t have to shell out for additional copies for each member of your family. You can even challenge players on your friends list, allowing you to play with your junior geeks.
Wait, you’re still reading? Why aren’t you playing Hearthstone right now?