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.
Beta Impressions: Scrolls
I tried out Scrolls the other day, mainly due to this video. My initial impression is… mixed. Which is not good for a game that requires $20 to buy-in into a beta state.
For those who may have forgotten, Scrolls is the TCG follow-up project to Mojang’s genre-defining Minecraft. It is essentially Magic-lite with a few extra tactical considerations. Each player has five 10-HP totems at the end of five lanes, and take turns placing creatures or structures or casting spells/enchantments in an effort to reduce three of those five totems down to zero health. Creatures will attack down their lanes when their timer reaches zero, damage is persistent, and creatures can also be moved usually one “hex” each turn.
What I enjoy about Scrolls so far is its rather ingenious, nested card mechanics. At the start of the match, you draw five cards and thereafter draw one card per turn. Each turn, you have the opportunity to discard a card to increase your resources by 1 permanently (e.g. turning it into a MtG “land” essentially) or discarding a card to draw two new cards. As you can only have three copies of a given card in your deck, this immediately makes the early game exceedingly complex on a strategic level. Should you turn that high-cost card into resources now, or save it for later? Now that you’re at 5 resources, should you discard in order to draw two new cards or continue pumping up resources to allow you more options each turn? I doubt that Scrolls is the first card game to feature a system like this, but I am finding it extremely… delicious.
Now that I think about it, my mixed reaction basically comes down to the Store aspect. After you purchase the game, you unlock one of the three Starter decks to play with. Thereafter, you are stuck purchasing new cards in awkward increments using in-game gold earned from winning matches (either against AI or people). I made the unfortunate mistake of purchasing the Order deck and realizing that I don’t actually like its gameplay – a high emphasis on maneuverability and defense and so on. I am getting around ~300g for winning Trial matches (e.g. scenarios), but the other Starter decks are 6500g total. I started with 2000g, but foolishly purchased the 10-card booster packs at 1000g apiece.
So, essentially, I am stuck with a deck I don’t particularly enjoy playing while having to grind out dozens of games with no hope of actually seeing any new cards for that entire duration. Technically, I can also purchase things in the store for Shards, which is the RMT currency. However, the thought of spending more money on top of the $20 I already paid to play the game in the first place is repulsive. Scrolls is not a F2P game. Finding myself confronted with a payslope after the initial paywall is incredibly frustrating, especially with there being no way to undo the designer trap (having to choose a Starter deck with zero information) I fell into to begin with. This is a TCG, sure, but if your Starter deck isn’t fun to play, most rational people won’t be playing for long.
I am going to continue playing in the hopes that things improve, but at the moment I couldn’t really recommend Scrolls to anyone just yet.
Speaking of TCGs…
…hey, Scrolls is apparently still a thing. You know, the card game from Mojang, aka the company that made Minecraft, that was sued by Bethesda due to “Scrolls” being too close to that part of the name no one uses when talking about Bethesda games. Although I suppose with The Elder Scrolls Online coming out, that could conceivably change.
The open beta for Scrolls starts June 3rd. Poking around on the site reveals that the game proper will cost $20, and while there is a RMT currency (“Shards”), according to Mojang (emphasis added):
Shards are now enabled
- Shards are completely optional. We’re never going to force you to spend in order to progress
- Every item can also be bought for in-game Gold
- A limited selection of items can be purchased using Shards
- You can now buy Shards – our secondary currency – with real-life cash
- Shards and Gold only have an in-game value
- You can’t cash out
In other words, it does not appear as though cash shop currency is required to purchase the equivalent of booster packs. In fact, aside from the cards themselves, I’m starting to wonder how like a TCG this game is even supposed to be. Scrolls isn’t being marketed as a F2P game for starters, so it’s possible that its constructed in a fashion that allows reasonable card progression just from play, e.g. it’s a normal damn game that doesn’t require goddamn graphing calculators to plot entertainment per dollar ratios. We’ll see how that all shakes out.
It is kind of amusing, how often things release is apparently independent cycles. Deep Impact came out just months before Armageddon. Dante’s Peak came out two months before Volcano. And now we have Hex, Scrolls, and Hearthstone all either releasing or hitting Open Beta in 2013. I would count Cardhunter among them, but the stingy bastards have yet to give me a Beta invite.
Games as Services
Posted by Azuriel
If you have forgotten, Scrolls is that one card game from Mojang that no one ever played. And after July 2016, no one else ever will.
I actually had a Beta review up of Scrolls nearly two years ago, and that more or less marked the last time I spent any serious amount of time with it. I did pick it up again for a hot minute last year (I think), but the structural problems I already talked about were still present, so I stopped again. Probably because of Hearthstone. But, the CCG genre is not a genre one can go in half-assed anyway- it is strictly full-ass or bust.
While Scrolls getting an expiration date is not even remotely similar of an impact as an MMO shutting down, it is example #1765783 of the dangers of Games as Services. This is a game that I paid $20 for (two years ago, admittedly) that I will not be allowed to play in another year. Do you know what I played last month? Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines, an RPG that came out in 2004. And while it certainly costs money to keep an MMO server running each month, Scrolls had a perfectly fine single-player experience against the AI. Hell, I’m not even sure what the cost of running Scrolls matchmaking software would even be. Surely not that much?
Alas, it is not meant to be. While we can question whether it was Microsoft swinging the ax or normal market forces, the fact remains that the ax was always there. A veritable Sword of Damocles hanging over every game-turned-service, not threatening mere removal, but extinction. Will there even be a museum where these games could be played in the future? Or will these orphaned blog posts be all that exists, a Google search result that becomes less relevant with each passing year?
Nothing is permanent. But clearly some things are more impermanent than others.
Posted in Commentary
Tags: Games As Services, Impermanent, Microsoft, Mojang, Scrolls, Sword of Damocles