The Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft beta made it on a few GotY lists in 2013, but I guarantee the final release will be widely celebrated this year. Other titles may have more innovative gameplay, heart-wrenching narratives, or unrivaled character development, but Hearthstone makes up for it with pure, polished mechanics. I was quick to find myself playing this game more than any other last year– hell, it’s already been referred to as the “only game you’ll ever need.” Conceived by Blizzard’s skunkworks team, Hearthstone is a free-to-play, online collectible card game that allows two players to construct 30 card decks in order to outplay and destroy each other.
A variety of strategies are available as the game features nine separate classes, armed with their own distinct playstyles, mechanics, and exclusive cards to use to achieve victory. Enjoy summoning hordes of beasts quickly to overwhelm your opponent? Try out the Hunter. Or would you rather cast damage-dealing spells, using area-of-effect cards to control the board as a Mage? Each of the nine heroes, as well as the creatures and spells, hail directly from the lore of the WarCraft universe.
The allure of this game is unrivaled, appealing to casual and hardcore gamers alike. It’s one of the best examples of “easy to learn, hard to master.” Even if you’ve never played a WarCraft game (or a trading card game for that matter), you’ll feel right at home after wading through the simple and effective tutorial. I recognized instantly that this game is as accessible as they come with its turn-based gameplay, fair free-to-play model, a friendly and welcoming user-interface, and matches that seem to last no longer than fifteen minutes. Blizzard has even taken a step to prevent some of the toxicity online gaming communities seem to foster by disabling in-game chat, opting instead for a limited dialog wheel to greet and taunt your foes.
Shivering from the sterile cobalt screens of StarCraft II, I was quickly comforted by the warm, charming aesthetic of Hearthstone. Battles are extremely satisfying. Slick yet simple attack animations carry out during combat, with more powerful creatures slamming the virtual table with their weight. Minions crack and explode when destroyed as the ambient conversations are traded in for gasps and cheerful laughter. Victory is rewarded with celebratory applause while fireworks explode on screen as your enemy shatters- it’s cute and exciting to win.
Blizzard really pulled off the virtual tabletop battle at a bustling inn, surrounded by comrades and onlookers alike. Although the final release isn’t out yet, it’s already a tight package- clean, easy to use, and downright fun.
Hearthstone is already wildly popular, and it sort of always was. People were starving, begging on Twitter and forums for keys in the early days of the closed beta. Now that anyone can access this game, communities have sprung up discussing the merits of deck builds, arguing over card/class balance, or simply watching their favorite Hearthstone streamer on Twitch.tv, where it (more often than not) sits comfortably as the second most watched title.
Not only can you build custom decks to use in Casual or Ranked Play mode, but (if you’re willing to pay 150 in-game gold) you can try your hand at the Arena, where the true depth of the game emerges. Here, after selecting a class, players are presented with a group of three cards and may only pick one, a process which repeats itself until a 30 card deck is made. This play mode is somewhat more balanced since both players are crafting new decks instantly, rather than relying on cards they have previously unlocked in their personal collection.
Once three losses or twelve wins are accrued, the player is awarded a key which opens a chest of rewards, ranging anywhere from some crafting dust (used to craft specific cards), virtual booster packs, and even rare cards.
During my trials in Casual, Ranked, and Arena, I started to think more about Hearthstone as a postmodern cultural product. One concept pertaining to such artifacts is that they are less and less original, instead opting to recycle rather than innovate. This of course applies to anyone who has played a WarCraft game, but is also immediately apparent to anyone who has played Magic: The Gathering. Nearly all of the card mechanics used in Hearthstone are adopted and renamed from MTG. In essence, it’s a simplified version of MTG: 30 card decks instead of 60, mana simplification with a guaranteed mana per turn, no “Instant” spells, etc. They’re both distinct games I enjoy immensely, but it’s interesting to note that Blizzard went with the familiar and built upon well-established tropes instead of developing their own mechanics from the ground up.
Fredric Jameson has written extensively on postmodernism, building on Braudrillard’s foundation, but one pertinent concept is that products in postmodern capitalist states tend to “replicate and reproduce the logic of consumer capitalism.” Once I got the hang of the Arena, I started to notice I was constantly trying to maximize my profits to make the most out of playing. Each day, there are “quests” to achieve, goals to reach in order to obtain a gold reward. Gold (or real money) may be used to purchase new booster packs, or Arena runs, which yield crafting dust and more booster packs depending on how well you do. Quests must be completed for newer ones to arrive, so it benefits the player to play efficiently.
Farming gold never becomes more important than the game itself, but gold acquisition is a constant goal- trading cards is not an option in Hearthstone, and would completely undermine the free-to-play model. It’s F2P games like this that seem to manage our leisure time the same way work is managed: if you’re not playing/working as efficiently as possible, then you’re missing out on profits. This doesn’t detract significantly from the gameplay experience, but you’ll definitely be driven to obtain new cards as fast as possible once you get your ass handed to you in Casual or Ranked mode- some of those legendary cards are just so damn cool.
Blizzard is still working out card balance and new features are going to be added in the future, such as an observer mode or an adventure mode with additional quests. A survey distributed to Hearthstone players may hint at what’s in store for the future. With the potential for new card sets and mechanics to be added, and possible iOS and Android support, it’s easy to see how Hearthstone is going to be the must play game of 2014.
Check out Hearthstone for yourself here.
If you’re familiar with the game, but need some tips check out TrumpSC’s guide to Arena commons here.
See you at the Inn traveler!