It’s not that they won’t shut up about it – it’s just that whenever I pop up the social pane, there they are. Both factions’ worth. Collecting and Carding and Gaming like their little hearts depend on it. I held out for a while – I only have room for one CCG in my life, really – but when someone said Hearthstone was actually free-to-play and meant it (you pay real money to get MORE cards and into the arena, but at the kitchen-table level I CCG at, that seems strictly optional) I downloaded it and promptly lost about eighteen hours of my weekend.
As one of m’colleagues puts it, “if you know Magic you’ll recognise this”, and in truth, it does remind me a great deal of Magic, in that there are life counters and creatures and the creatures have a damage-dealing and damage-receiving stat and there are key words with generic effects.
Now, I am very fond of Magic: the Gathering, don’t get me wrong, but when particular control decks start playing with themselves for minutes on end, or when the stack becomes tottering and convoluted (the same player described the stacking of four Snapcaster Mages on various counterspell effects as “taking ten minutes to ensure that nothing happened”), or when planeswalkers show up and suddenly there’s loyalty tokens and two possible destinations for attack and checking all your removal very carefully… Magic occasionally spikes in ways that make the kitchen-table play I prefer rather more thorny than I would like.
Hearthstone, by contrast, feels like Magic with a great deal of the fidgy-widgyness stripped out. Gone are the colours of mana and the risk of mana-screw; you tick along nicely gaining one renewable mana crystal every turn, and that same mana pays for everything you could actually want. If you’re going second, you gain an extra card in hand and a bonus ‘coin’ good for one extra mana in one turn once per game, to counteract the loss of tempo and risk of alpha-strikery. Decks are smaller, at thirty cards each, and spam is more limited with only one or two of each card available per deck.
The game regains any ‘lost’ complexity – and yes, I am tracing a direct developmental line from Magic to Hearthstone, because have you seen what Blizzard did to Warhammer? – through classes. The nine original classes form the archetypes for the decks, as colours do in Magic; each has its Hero, a lore character assigned to it, and each Hero is levelled up through play, with additional cards being added to your collection every few levels in a way and at a rate that’s very reminiscent of the parent game (thick and fast at first with some dead levels later on). Each class has a batch of signature abilities and styles; of the ones I’ve played so far, Warlock seems to be self-destructive aggro fun, Paladin a highly resilient ‘take a few lumps then smack back’, and Priest… Priest is for dickheads who want to steal your mechanics and combine them with excellent direct damage and creature removal. Each has a filler ‘hero ability’, something to do with those odd two mana; some of these, like the Warlock’s ‘trade two life for one card’ can be the heart of a deck (the aforementioned colleague has spoken to me of ‘handlock’, which spends a few turns building up a giant hand and then smacks out big cards which become cheaper based on hand size), while some are more ‘let’s see what happens’, like the Shaman’s two mana for a random totem in their collection. Each must, of course, be levelled up independently.
In terms of its actual gameplay, there’s none of the fiddly stuff – no phases, no interrupts (although there are Secrets, played on your own turn to take effect when triggered by enemy action). Attacking and casting can happen in any order, in any combination. It’s a very open turn, with a lot of subtleties – use a spell on this minion to kill it and buff that one of yours so it can remove this one which has Taunt, and that frees up your hero to smack theirs without sustaining damage. Also gone is the ‘assign attackers/blockers’ bit – you choose what to attack, either opposing hero or opposing creatures, unless one or more opposing creatures have Taunt, in which case those die first.
I haven’t quite figured out the grand strategy yet – it’s easy and high-handed to say “it’s simple arithmetic” and to seasoned number-crunchers that’s probably true. Lacking the ability to count my fingers twice and get the same answer, I’m trying to learn patterns and procedures, which is resulting in a limited playstyle that I know isn’t going to make me a great player. I’m also disappointed to note that two days in I’ve already made the schoolboy error of levelling classes by playing against the AI – experience has taught me that it’s never worth arguing with the early adopters of Blizzard games, so despite my feelings that I’d rather approach real live players with all my basic cards available I’ll say ‘just do what every other casual does in Blizzardland, i.e. what the guides tell you to’. As is usual with me, the game is a combination of ‘whee, this is fun’ and ‘I’m so stupid I shouldn’t be allowed to interact with other people at all’. Something I’m not good at is shutting the fuck up and just doing what better people tell me to do – I think it’s because I’m convinced I’m intelligent or something.
What impresses me about Hearthstone so far is that it is actually genuinely free to play… with caveats. Completing daily quests earns you in-game gold which can be spent on booster packs. Cards can be disenchanted into dust which can be used to make more cards. There’s one free trip to the Arena, Hearthstone’s equivalent of the draft format, which I presume builds up collections exactly as a real draft would. Spending real money unlocks further arena trips, or buys more booster packs at a faster rate. The time-honoured mantra ‘free to play means pay to win’ seems applicable, although it should perhaps be more accurately phrased as ‘pay to lose less‘. Since there are ways to create your own cards (disenchanting and creating) and ways to earn boosters without spending real money, it seems like you’ll get somewhere eventually – the real money just speeds things up if you’re serious about your Hearthing and Stones.
The in-game matchmaking stalls between the pretty decent and the frustrating. On my first couple of days I generally drew players who had similar quality collections to mine, on the third there seems to have been a spike in which I’m suddenly drawing much more competent folks, but – like WoW’s Arena teams of yesteryear – losing a few games mean you eventually draw someone you can beat. Alas, there is the usual problem of seeded systems where a run of good games leads to promotion above your level of competence, and a round of cockslappings while you wait to be knocked down into your own bracket again.
As is usual with these things, a certain amount of resilience and focus is required for the casual player on the limited budget. Level up all the classes to unlock their basic cards, find a few you like, and roll with them; disenchant what cards you can from the others, and create cards in your own archetype. Complete dailies if you have the gumption, and buy the odd booster when you can afford it. Prepare for runs of bad games and runs of good ones, and if you can cope with the rollercoaster, it should be quite good fun. I’m sinking into Warlock, Paladin, and trying to settle on a third class; possibly Shaman, possibly Warrior, definitely not Mage or Priest. Priests are dicks.
The things that’s slightly souring me, so far, is the usual hurtful truth. Sometimes you have to accept that people you like are simply not of the same calibre as players, and that you are not going to have a positive experience if you play together. This goes doubly so given that Hearthstone is both competitive and collectible – your friends are also your opponents and it’s very possible that, if they’re early adopters, experienced players, and have had time and money on their hands to get cards and get good, you simply won’t have fun playing Hearthstone with them, or necessarily even hearing about their Hearthstone experiences. At this stage, all your friends are better at Hearthstone than you are. You’re a late adopter and by the time you are where they are, they’ll still be further ahead. You’ll have to learn to live with that.