I have never played World of Warcraft and I don't think I ever will. But on a recent Saturday morning, I played six hours of Blizzard Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, and I have absolutely no regrets. Hearthstone is a fun and free digital card game set in the Warcraft universe. It deftly combines excellent gameplay, lush designs, and addictive collectibility in a surprisingly strategic game. It's an Editors' Choice for iPad games, and I have to finish this review quickly so I can get back to playing.
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You Meet at an Inn...
Have you partaken in a Blizzard game in the last decade or so? Then you already have the Battle.net account required to play Hearthstone. After logging in, you'll drop right into a highly informative, if somewhat long, tutorial. New players will have to create an account with Blizzard before proceeding.
A great thing about Hearthstone is that it's available on so many platforms. I started playing at home on a desktop computer, and then I moved to an iPad Air 2. Hearthstone has excellent cross-platform compatibility, so I now play on my iPhone 6, as well as a Google Nexus 9. Hearthstone is a hefty download, however. It's best to set aside some time before your first game, and definitely download it over Wi-Fi.
Taking a game as lushly designed as Hearthstone from tablets to handsets is no mean feat, but Blizzard handled it well and employs only a few subtle real-estate saving strategies. Your hand, for example, is minimized down at the bottom of the screen until you need to take a peek at your cards. Other menus are artfully compressed, and I never felt like my experience was reduced because I was playing on a smaller screen. Of course, older phones may struggle with the game.
Because Hearthstone uses your Battle.net account, you're not represented in the game by an avatar or custom icon. Instead, the hero of whatever deck you are playing appears opposite your opponent. This is actually kind of annoying, since you're locked into Blizzard's very limited options. If you don't want your avatar to be a white man, you can choose to play as a lady from a straight male sexual power fantasy, or barring that, a monster. Blizzard has introduced additional $9.99 heroes and card backs from the in-game store, but they do little to address the limited slate of available heroes. I'd like Blizzard to provide a few more appearance options for each class, similar to Diablo III. Scrolls, the online collectible card game from Minecraft developer Mojang, also overlooked people of color in their more-nuanced character-creation feature.
The Game, in Brief
The goal of the game is simple: Defeat your opponent by depleting his or her supply of 30 life points. To that end, you have a deck of 30 cards representing magic spells, creatures (called Minions), and other fantastical paraphernalia. Cards are divided between Neutral cards, which can be used by anyone, and cards specific to heroes. If you want to use Arcane Missiles, you'll have to be a mage.
There's a physicality to Hearthstone that I really appreciate. Each card is played as a physical object, and each is covered with stylistic 3D flourishes. In the Arena or in Adventures, you receive keys which unlock hidden drawers and rewards. Even the game board is interactive and filled with tappable Easter eggs. While Hearthstone might not be on the same scale as Overwatch, it's clear Blizzard put a lot of thought into every aspect of the game.
Every action in the game has an associated cost, measured in mana crystals. You start with one mana crystal and gain an additional crystal to spend each turn. All the crystals you spend in a turn refresh the next turn, so choose your cards carefully. If you've ever played Magic: The Gathering, this should all sound pretty familiar. There's even a version of "summoning sickness," which prevents (most) Minions from attacking on their first turn.
This is all very simple, but the cards are what make the difference. Many have unique abilities that augment the core rules of the game. Some Minions have Charge, which allows them to attack the same turn they enter combat. Heroes can equip weapons, which let them directly attack their opponents. Each hero also has a unique ability that he or she can use for two mana crystals. The Hunter, for instance, can shoot an arrow at the opposing hero for two damage points. The hero's ability, along with its specific cards, help form the strategies for each deck.
Hearthstone games are made to be quick and fun, but that doesn't mean they can't be strategic. Scrolls, by comparison, had more elements—including a game board—which provided more avenues for inventive play. But Hearthstone's strength is the growing collection of available cards and abilities. Whatever your style of play, you'll probably be able to create a deck to match. Of course, that deck might not win against certain players with opposing strategies.
Note that you will need an Internet connection to start the game. You cannot play a single-player game, or even browse through your card collection unless you're online. I'd really like Blizzard to consider adding an offline mode, or perhaps a companion app for exploring cards and creating decks.
The Heart of the Cards
Your collection of cards is safely tucked away in an enormous tome within the My Collection section. Building a new deck is as easy as tapping and dragging, and a text-search feature makes finding the right card a heck of a lot easier than sorting through actual three-ring binders filled with cards.
You probably won't get very far with just one deck—even if it's a really good deck. It's also not fun, since you'll see impressive cards and tactics used by other players that you'll want to try yourself right after they mop the floor with you. But designing and managing decks is my least favorite part of Hearthstone, as it is with all collectible card games. Magic: The Gathering had preconstructed decks and a similar feature has come to Hearthstone. Heroes now have deck recipes; tap one and you'll see the full deck list with the cards you lack highlighted. Tap each one, and you'll be prompted to choose between two similar cards. It's an easy and painless way for even novice players to get into the game fast.
One thing I love about Hearthstone is that you can use the same card in multiple decks. That means you only ever need to collect two of any given card, since you can only have two of any card in any deck (unless it is a particularly powerful card). You might not be able to trade cards with friends, but at least you won't have piles of extraneous one sitting around either.
You get more cards by purchasing packs for in-game gold or real money. A single pack of five cards will run you 100 gold, or two packs for $2.99, seven packs for $9.99, all the way up to 40 packs for $49.99. Unfortunately, you can only use gold to purchase single packs, locking you out of the prorated pricing structure. You can also earn additional packs for unlocking achievements or as part of in-game promotions.
If purchasing cards blind isn't your style, you can also destroy cards from your collection in exchange for Arcane Dust, which can be used to craft specific cards. Because you get cards in random packs, you'll eventually wind up with plenty of cards that can be safely discarded. It's not an efficient exchange, but it neatly sidesteps the most irritating aspect of collectible card games—other collectors.
I normally despise multiplayer gaming, but I highly recommend trying out your skills against other Hearthstone players. You can either play a casual game or a ranked game that can earn you status in Hearthstone's monthly "seasons."
I also really, really appreciate that Hearthstone has no chat system, just a selection of canned "emote" phrases you can deploy. It keeps interactions civil, which is a rarity online. Only your Battle.net friends can send you unscripted messages through Blizzard's in-game chat. You can also challenge your friends to Hearthstone games through the same system. This feature alone was what convinced me to even try Hearthstone in the first place.
One-on-one battles aren't the only way to play. You can also pay 150 gold (or $1.99) to build a new deck from randomly selected cards in the Arena, if you're a fan of draft-style games. Once you get any hero up to level 20, you get access to the Tavern Brawl. These are matches where players face off while using special, often silly, rules that change on a weekly basis. Combatants may be required to use premade decks or forbidden from specific types of cards. A recent event prompted players to select two cards and play using a deck with 15 copies of each card. Unlike other Hearthstone events, you can challenge your friends to a Tavern Brawl, and best of all they're free and a lot of fun.
For those looking for a more structured challenge, Hearthstone offers single-player Adventures. These are truly challenging campaigns consisting of several AI opponents, each with a different gimmick. As you progress, you'll earn special cards and other goodies. That said, the new Adventures aren't cheap; each section costs 700 gold or $6.99. The entire adventure can be purchased for $24.99. That's steep, but my sticker shock was tempered by the fact that the core game is still free. Seek these out if you're itching for new challenges and new cards.
Spawn More Overlords
I had a blast the first few times I played Hearthstone, but I knew that what would determine the game's success wasn't the core mechanics. Blizzard has demonstrated, time and time again, that even when they make a lackluster game, it fundamentally works. Rather, Hearthstone's challenge was remaining as fun and tightly constructed on day 1,000 as it was on day one.
In order to keep things fresh, Blizzard releases new cards and whole expansions as part of special events. Expansion packs can be preordered, or bought in the store with real money or gold. But odds are that you'll get lots of free packs at the beginning of each new expansion.
After several expansions, Blizzard cleaved all of Hearthstone in two by introducing new play styles. The first is Wild, which allows any type of card from any expansion. The second is Standard, which uses only the last two years of cards, plus the basic cards from launch. You can play either type of game, and build any kind of deck you choose, but Standard is the official way forward.
This is always frustrating for players, but I know it's a smart move. Keeping a game balanced and a few years is hard, and over a decade it's impossible. Wild will become more and more insane, and that will be fun. Meanwhile, Standard will hopefully deliver an excellent balanced and cohesive experience.
Note also that Blizzard has begun tweaking some of the Hearthstone cards. It's mostly small changes, a higher cost here, less damage there. The aim is to keep the game interesting and break combos that become so popular as to become necessary to win. Again, players more interested in winning than fun will dislike this. Personally, I am revelling in Blizzard's efforts to make sure the game continues to work as a game and marvelling at the advantages a digital card game allows.
Deal Me In!
Hearthstone was a surprising hit when it first launched, and I'm happy to see how well it has aged. Blizzard rolled out smart new game types that provide near-endless variation, and the new sets of cards continue to surprise and challenge. Best of all, Blizzard took a proactive position by rebalancing older cards and designating the Standard set to keep the game balanced overall.
Though it still sorely lacks an offline mode of any kind, Hearthstone remains fast, fun, and more approachable than ever with premade deck lists. I recently came back to the game after an extended hiatus, and I am hooked harder than ever. The future looks bright for this excellent game, and it's an easy Editors' Choice winner.