Beta Impression: Hearthstone
Yes, I made it into the beta with that ridiculous email and Press™ credentials. It just goes to show you that
with hard work and a can-do attitude Camus was right. Embrace the Absurd.
For those not following along at home, Hearthstone is a free-to-play CCG made by a small team at Blizzard, all of whom likely had an awkward conversation with their bosses as to why they were apparently hiding their goddamn genius game development and UI skills under a bushel.
Indeed, that is exactly the first thing anyone should talk about when it comes to Hearthstone: it has perhaps the best UI in any game ever made. It is both visceral and whimsical, simultaneously. You know that feeling in a pillow fight, about ten seconds in, when you are just wailing on somebody and clearly winning before Jason knocks over the lamp and your mom comes upstairs and makes everyone go to bed? It is kinda exactly like that. Or close enough that I am going to continue using this ungainly metaphor for the rest of the post.
The basic premise
of the pillow fight is that each player creates a 30-card deck, limited to 2 copies of an individual card, and then tries to reduce the opposing player from 30 life to zero in a turn-based manner. A few unique gameplay wrinkles show up immediately. First, players have to choose a Hero to represent them, corresponding to one of the original nine classes in World of Warcraft. Each class has their own unique set of cards that cannot be used by the others, although there is a large portion of “neutral” cards that can go into any class’s deck. In addition to the unique pool of class cards, each hero has a “hero power” which is an ability that costs two resources and can be used once each turn. The Paladin hero, for example, can create a 1/1 creature whereas the Warlock can pay 2 Health to draw a card (ala Life Tap).
The second gameplay wrinkle comes from the gameplay flow. Each turn, a player gains another resource point (aka Gems, Crystals, whatever), up to a maximum of 10, with them reseting at the start of each turn. While there are technically “Secret” cards with hidden triggers that can be played, there is otherwise no action possible during an opponent’s turn.
Finally, combat plays out a little differently than you might expect, coming from SolForge or Magic: the Gathering. Summoning Sickness and Haste (i.e. Charge) is all there, but there really is no concept of “blockers”; unless your opponent has a creature with Taunt, you are free to send your units to attack the player or his/her creatures at your leisure, in whatever sequence you choose. While the optimal move is sometimes obvious – sending your 1/1 into that 5/1 – the math becomes exceedingly fuzzy when you start having to compute whether it’s better to just send all the damage to their dome and hope you maintain enough initiative to win the damage race.
Here is an example of some strategery:
It’s turn 7, and the Warlock has a 7/7 mob. On my side, I have a 3/2, a 1/1, and a Young Dragonhawk (1/1 with Windfury, which lets it attack twice per turn). In my hand is Raid Leader (2/2, gives my other creatures +1 Attack), Blessing of Might (gives creature +3 Attack), Lord of the Arena (6/5 mob with Taunt), and Shattered Sun Cleric (3/3 that gives a creature +1/+1 when it comes into play). My moves? Blessing of Might on the Young Dragonhawk, Shattered Sun Cleric also targeting the Young Dragonhawk, and then playing the Raid Leader. Attack the Warlock directly with all my creatures, dealing 6 + 6 + 3 + 1 damage to the dome, bringing him to 8 life with more than lethal damage still on the board.
Why play this way? There are a few reasons I chose to, and a few more that argue for a more conservative approach. Warlocks have a lot of removal by default, including Hellfire that deals 3 damage to everything. As amazing as my 16 damage was the prior turn, a single Hellfire would have wiped my entire board and left the Warlock with a 7/4 creature wailing on me. I could have perhaps played the Lord of the Arena and then Blessing of Might on the Dragonhawk, dealing 12 damage and leaving a sort of Taunt barrier that would survive (and trade) a Hellfire. Or I could have done my big play like last time, and sent the 6/2 Dragonhawk into the 7/7 as its second attack and finishing it off with the 1/1, having dealt a total of 9 damage to the Warlock.
Having actually wrote all this out, it has become apparent that my original play was monstrously dumb. A single Hellfire would have wrecked me, to the point of not being able to recover. At the time, my thought process was that the Warlock had to remove my Dragonhawk or lose the next turn, so he’d send in his 7/7 targeting my 6/2, leaving it as easy picking on my next turn… which would be irrelevant because I’d have lethal damage available anyway. Shit, I was probably just too damn excited to contain myself. “Sixteen damage in one turn! Ka-Pow, right in the kisser!”
While there are moments of high excitement, there are also moments of extreme depression. Hearthstone, like many (most? all?) CCG games, forces one to become intimately acquainted with the Three Sisters: Tempo, Card Advantage, and RNG. Take a look at this screenshot which, days later, still causes me to groan:
My opponent is at 1 HP, and it’s their turn. They send their 3/3 (which makes a 2/1 at death) at my 5/5, and then the 2/2, and then send a 1-damage fireball at my 1/1 creature. Approximately 247 days or five turns later, whichever is worse, the Mage wins. Wins. I never draw a creature with
Haste Charge, or any “direct” damage (by Paladin standards), and nothing on my side of board lives long enough to attack. I created a 1/1 each turn only to have it pinged away.
You will have games like this, and it will suck. It is not quite on the same level as being Mana Screwed in Magic, but games possibly grinding to a halt is at least one problem that Scrolls solved beautifully – in Scrolls, you either turn a card into a resource or discard it to draw 2 new cards. With Hearthstone, some heroes like the Paladin have a severe problem with running out of steam. There are technically some Paladin-specific trickery to “solve” this issue – Divine Favor is a 2-cost spell that let’s you draw cards until you have as many as your opponent – but that is heavily dependent on actually having said cards in your collection, and drawing into them at the opportune moments.
Speaking of which…
The Business Side
So where are the Hearthstone F2P hooks? Well… it’s kinda weird. I mean, not really, but it sorta is. Here is how you spend money:
You can buy 5-card booster packs for 100g or at an escalating discount; they come out to be $1.50, $1.43, $1.33, and $1.25 apiece in the various quantities. Entrance into the Arena (which used to be the Forge) is 150g or $1.99. Purchasing boosters for 100g is almost always a waste of precious gold, considering that even if you go 0-3 in the Arena, you will receive a booster pack at a minimum in addition to some other prizes. Supposedly, if you win 7 or more Arena matches, you will make enough gold to purchase another entry. I went 4-3 and came out with 45g and some dust (used to create cards) in addition to the booster, so I technically “paid” a 5g premium for a series of fun games and dust instead of simply having a booster.
What are sources of gold? There are basically two: daily quests and winning matches against people. The “daily quest” is really just a random quest that asks you to win 3 matches, kill 40 creatures, play some games as a specific class, and so on, with a reward of 40g. Winning matches gives you 5g after you win a total of 5, e.g. 1g apiece. I think there might also be a gold award when you level a class up to 20.
So you can sort of see the outline of the F2P hooks. You are not going to be playing in the Arena every day without forking over some serious cash. Being competitive in the Ranked games will require Legendaries and other power cards, which come from random packs. All pretty standard for a CCG, really.
But honestly? Blizzard is pretty much doing everything wrong if their goal was pure F2P exploitation. There are no special classes of booster packs (more expensive versions that have guaranteed rare cards) like in SolForge or the upcoming Hex. You can play the equivalent of Booster drafts using in-game currency. And the biggest jaw-dropper once you think about it? You can manually create any card in the game via the dust. Including Legendaries. Yeah, it takes like 1600 dust to craft a Legendary and your sole source of dust is going to be from activities that involve money (e.g. boosters or Arena), but again, you can substitute in-game currency for the costs. So, eventually, a person that spends $0 can have a full set of all the cards in the game.
Probably around the same time a new set comes out, but hey.
Bottom line: Hearthstone has some legs. In fact, it’s about to have a few more pairs after it chops the current (and upcoming) competition off at the knees. The game is fun, the UI is a feast for the senses, and the few issues I do have with the game can easily be addressed by the end of Beta. This Impression post is already absurdly long, but you can be certain that there will be more to say about Hearthstone in the weeks and months to come.