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Hands-On with Hearthstone

Posted Tue, Mar 26, 2013 by Sardu

There was a lot of anticipation building up heading into PAX East this year for the big Blizzard announcement that helped kick off the show. As we now know, the grand unveiling was for the latest Warcraft game, only this time it’s taken the form of a collectable card game.

I still find it interesting that the Big B chose to perpetuate one of the Big Three (Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo) rather than opting to begin laying the groundwork for a new IP, but I’m also not exactly surprised by it either. At this point I think that if Blizzard were to establish a new IP or franchise it would create a form of antimatter or black hole that would cause a thousand suns to do the electric slide into oblivion.

Or, you know, explode.

Team Hammer was fortunate enough to get our hands on Hearthstone to take the game for a test run. In one corner was Phil (forevermore known simply as “Fell”) who opted to play a mage, while I stuck with the blissfully demonic power of the warlock. There are actually a lot of characters to choose from, and I suspect that over time piles more will be added from the extended Warcraft universe. The fact that I knew immediately which one of them I wanted to play helps solve at least one part of the IP riddle: accessibility.

In a lot of ways, Hearthstone is to CCGs as WoW is to MMOs. It takes an established genre, lops off anything that might be a bit too confusing for anyone not already deeply familiar with gameplay staples, and makes a highly polished, familiar experience out of it.

Since I wasn’t able to mess around with the deck building aspects of the game, it’s hard to say if the game will have enough depth to really stick in the long term, but at the same time it might not really even need to be a deep game to appeal to a broad audience. Just look at the proliferation of mobile and social games, or even how many formerly non-gaming households adopted the Wii, and that’s all you need to know about why Blizzard chose to keep things simple with Hearthstone.

At the start of our match I took a few minutes to familiarize myself with the cards in my hand, ultimately needing to immediately pass since I didn’t have anything I could play. Cards all have a mana cost, so even if you seed your deck with lots of low cost minions, you’re at the mercy of the random draw early on.

Hearthstone Screenshot

In fact, the flow of the game is a bit different than I expected. It starts out sheepish and you end up spending more time pondering the late game strengths of your opponent more than you do your own hand. For example, knowing I was up against a mage, I expected that Fell would no doubt have some minor minions to harass me early on while he built up enough mana each round to eventually unleash a ton of direct damage.

Meanwhile, my warlock was less about massive damage throughout but was able to play a game of attrition thanks to a number of minions or abilities that would heal my character. By mid-game I took a gamble and began holding my most damaging cards – those that did X damage to everything on the board – paired with one larger heal. The idea here was that I’d give Fell a false sense of security by allowing him to take my health dangerously low, before pulling out the big guns in two devastating rounds.

That strategy almost worked, but the match had progressed long enough that Fell was able to smack me in the face with two fireballs, each one doing 6 points of direct damage to my avatar. Even though Fell walked away victorious, he also had that “crap, that was a close match!” look on his face as we stepped back from our demo stations.

And therein lies the true magic of Hearthstone. It is a deceptively simple game, but even in the span of a single match it had me pondering what I’d do differently in a rematch, or wanting to dig through my deck to see if there might have been better minions to use. In a word, it had me hooked.

Mind you, that’s not to say there weren’t a few things that left me wrinkling my brow. For example, unless a minion had the ability to taunt, all attacks could be made directly to the opponent’s avatar. In that sense, most low cost minions were little more than harassment rather than a means of protection from larger attacks. The result was I found little reason to wipe them out most of the time, unless one of them had a particularly nasty ability that I didn’t want to deal with.

Hearthstone CCG

Another thing that made me squint a bit was that Fell could ‘sheep’ one of my minions, then destroy it with little effort. While not nearly as annoying as being CC’d in a battleground or arena, I still wasn’t really a fan of losing control over a portion of my side of the battlefield all the same.

If I had to guess, I’d say that’s the kind of stuff currently being watched and tweaked, and will continue to be refined as the game goes into beta this summer. Otherwise Fell and I both agreed that Hearthstone looked and played like a highly polished live game, so walked away somewhat surprised that it isn’t already out in the wild.

So even though we were a bit bummed that the big announcement wasn’t anything to do with Titan, I’m certainly not disappointed with the fun little game Blizzard unveiled this past weekend.


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