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As of January 1st, 2014 the HearthStone Beta entered its open phase meaning you could be playing right now(as long as you reside in North America). I was invited into the beta in early October, but I’ve only recently installed it and committed some time to learning the ropes. My timing is less than fantastic considering I have recently acquired Playstation 4, Xbox One and the Wii U. With that kind of temptation constantly available it should tell you something that 75% of my current gaming time is going to the beta version of a digital card game. This game rocks.
A Little Background
I always shied away from playing the card game Magic: The Gathering. Why? If I’m being honest with myself it’s probably because Magic might carry the largest and most embarrassing stigma of all things nerdy. When I thought of people playing Magic I pictured a table of outcasts rolling 20-sided dice fueled by Mountain Dew and Funyuns. While the reality of that imaging is debatable, the fun-factor of Magic is not.
My friend and I took the the dip last summer and, hundreds of dollars later, I have quite the collection of cards, binders and carrying cases. There are two main problems that we discovered. The first is organizing your cards. As you build your collection, organization becomes incredibly time consuming. You have to have binders to arrange cards by mana cost or you’ll never find anything and, as releases become no longer in standard play, you have to remove those cards which creates a confusing mess. The second problem is the face to face nature of the game. While I dearly miss the days of playing board games and video games face to face, it’s not as practical as an adult with responsibilities. The game is awesome in person, but we found ourselves playing less and less.
Why not play the online versions you ask? The tablet/pc game series Duels of the Planeswalkers is a great teaching tool, but lacks the basics of fully customizable decks as well as a full library of card releases. The more official game Magic Online is much closer to ideal where you pay for card packs just like real life and can build and maintain a collection. This makes organization much easier, but alas it isn’t perfect. Magic is an incredibly complex game and building an online platform to play is difficult. The program is unwieldy and not very user friendly. You won’t find many casual gamers on there and you have to build an entire new library from scratch. (Pro-tip Magic: Include a QR code inside every pack that lets you automatically add your new cards to your online game as a way to sync your collections. Of course, this would be destroyed when you trade with friends.) I’m not sure if a perfect version of Magic Online is possible, but until they put more money into the software we’ll never know.
Why HearthStone Rocks
Card games are fun. It’s why I fell in love with Magic and it’s why I gave HearthStone a shot. For those that have never played one I’ll use the rules of HearthStone’s system as a primer since they are all fairly similar. Though, slight variations in rules can make wildly different games. HearthStone and Magic are similar on the surface, but there is a lot to differentiate them as well. This isn’t about Magic, though, so let’s get into it.
There are eight classes (called heroes) in HearthStone: Warlock, Hunter, Mage, Warrior, Druid, Shaman, Priest and Paladin. Your hero determines two things. First, each hero has a unique power that ranges from adding armor to delivering a small damage spell. Second, there is a subset of class specific cards that only the related hero can use in their decks. There is also a general pool of cards to fill out your deck. Your hero has 30 life and your deck has 30 cards. Whoever kills the other hero wins. Cards have a mana value assigned to them and each turn you have more mana to spend. (Turn 1: 1 mana, turn 2: 2 mana, etc.) Those are the basics, though there are plenty of cards and mechanisms that add many layers of depth.
Choosing a hero that fits your play style is very important. Do you like to equip powerful weapons and burn your opponent to death? Warrior. Do you like to use spells and kill opponents’ minions to maintain board control? Mage. Blizzard does a brilliant job balancing and differentiating the heroes in such a way that you want to play them all. The true joy of this game comes from planning and testing decks. They even give you a “suggest a card” system to make your first few decks fairly competitive even with limited knowledge of the game. There are diverse variations of play styles even within a class depending on the mix of hero specific and general cards you combine. You can go for a low mana curve and attempt to burn the opponent before they have a chance to think or you can try and use small creatures and buff them to mighty heights as you go. Sometimes a veteran beats me with a combination of two obscure cards that play well off each other that leaves me thinking… “You pooped in the refrigerator? And you ate a whole wheel of cheese? How’d you do that? I’m not even mad… that’s amazing.”
This seemingly limitless deck building is what keeps your mind on the game even when you’re away. You’ll be brainstorming about strategies as you go to sleep. If you’ve ever played a card game like this you know how addicting the deck building can be. “I want my Murlock deck to be perfect!!” Every time I’m defeated with a neat strategy I immediately try and build a deck around that hero or specific set of cards. Heroes are shiny objects by which I’m easily distracted. Thus, I have serious play time with every hero and I think that’s kind of awesome. Unlike MMO’s, getting variety in your gameplay is immediate and easy. Sure, you need to get to level 10 of each hero to unlock the core cards, but that takes no time and every pack you unlock or buy has random cards so you’re building all your collections simultaneously. Speaking of packs and purchasing…
HearthStone and Real Money
How do you feel about micro-transactions? If you listen to my podcast (8bit Bourbon) then you know I’m not a fan. However, when the game is free-to-play and you are able to compete without spending a dime… well that’s a model I can get behind. Since this game is still in beta it’s hard to predict how the system will work in the retail game. They could change it fundamentally at any time so all I can comment on is the current one.
Packs of five cards can be bought for 100 in-game gold or real money ranging from $2.99 for 2 packs to $49.99 for 40 packs. Packs include a guaranteed rare card and can have multiple rares or even higher rarity cards. Gold is earned through achievements. Achievements can be “win x games with this class” or “kill x enemy minions” etc. and are constantly changing day to day. At first you will be making it rain, but the gold rush slows down as you progress. If you are looking for a specific card you can create them with Arcane Dust which is earned by disenchanting good cards that you have or through the arena. The arena is the best way to earn gold, cards and Arcane Dust.
The Arena has a playoff atmosphere and, if you are familiar with these types of card games, is a play on drafting tournaments. It costs $1.99 to enter or 150 gold. First, you choose from one of three heroes that are randomly selected. You then choose one of three cards 30 times in a row to choose your deck that you will compete with. Drafting a deck is a skill unto itself. This is especially fun at the beginning because you’ll get to play with some cards that you might not obtain for your collection for a long time. Sometimes you’ll just get a few rares and others you’ll multiple legendaries. Then you’re ready to enter the Arena!
In the Arena you get three deaths to get as many wins as you can. The more wins you get the better (and larger number of) prizes. Prizes can be decks, gold and/or Arcane Dust. If you are consistently in the 6+ win range you will be earning enough gold to play Arena almost non-stop. You will also be getting multiple card packs to boost your regular play decks. The Arena is exhilarating because every game means so much. It’s easily my favorite part of the game and I would argue the best. It also allows for some parity between players that spend money and those that don’t in a free-to-play game.
Too Long/Didn’t Read
Go get HearthStone. It’s in open Beta now so you can have it today and it’s free so you don’t have any excuses. It has a fair system of spending real money and I actually enjoy buying things every once in a while. If you love strategy and competition then you will love this game. Don’t be afraid to look up a guide for your favorite hero, but figuring it out is part of the fun. I’ll see you online and I can’t wait for you to boost my Arena win streaks. Look for HearthStone to be on tablets eventually as well.
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