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.
After becoming increasingly disenchanted with Scrolls while still craving a card-game experience, I found out that SolForge was in Open Beta as a F2P game. On Steam, no less. Score!
SolForge plays a lot differently than many other CCGs (there is no trading that I’m aware of): it has the most distilled, fast-paced card gameplay that I have ever seen, outside of maybe Dominion. The basic premise is that you build a 30-card deck with the goal of reducing your opponent from 100 HP to zero. There are four “factions” that roughly correspond with certain card themes, and your deck is limited to having cards from only two factions. Each player draws five cards, someone is selected to play first, and then you see this screen:
The first big twist is that there are no resources to manage. On your turn, you can play two cards from your hand, be they creatures or spells. When you play any card, an upgraded version of that card is shuffled back into your deck. There is a combat step where all creatures attack, and you can trigger it at any point during your turn (before, in the middle of, or after you played your cards). At the end of your turn, any leftover cards in your hand are also shuffled back into your deck and you draw a new hand of five cards. Every four turns or so, your avatar “levels up” and then you are able to start actually drawing the upgraded versions of the cards you played previously (even if the original is still on the board).
A quick note about the leveled-up cards: it is way more strategic than you think. A lot of cards might have an especially weak Level 1 form, only to ramp up in power with Level 2 and Level 3. Others are strong Level 1 contenders, but feature a definite lack of scaling that almost make them dead-draws in the endgame. Still others sort of force you to use them early to keep them relevant at all. An example of the latter is Cull the Weak, a removal card which destroys a creature with 4 Attack or less, which ramps up to 7 or less and finally 14 or less at Level 3. Played early, Cull will serve you immensely well into the late stages of the game; drawing into a Level 1 Cull around Turn 15 though, and it may as well be a blank card.
Examples of the first two types of cards (late vs early game focus) can be seen here:
Where things really get (further) mind-bending is combat. Creatures you play
have Summoning Sickness are “On Defensive” until the start of your next turn, meaning they won’t initiate combat. Creatures will also stay in the lane you played them in (unless they have the Mobility trait), attacking anything directly across from them. Once creatures are “On the Offensive,” they will attack every turn. As in, creatures will attack on your turn, and then attack again on your opponent’s turn. Damage a creature takes is permanent, as are most boosts and the like. As you might imagine, creatures die pretty quick; conversely, this means that any creature that does stick around (especially if they have a nice ability) start becoming increasingly dangerous.
What I am failing to get across in words is this: the tempo is SolForge is insane. And addicting. Let’s say that I play a 5/5 creature and my opponent then plays a 7/7 across from it. If I do nothing, my 5/5 will automatically run to its death, and my opponent will begin dealing 7 damage a turn with the now 7/2 creature. Before the attack phase, I might cast a spell that gives one creature +3 attack and another creature -3 attack, making the match-up a 8/5 versus a 4/7. On my opponent’s turn, if he/she doesn’t kill the creature with a spell or throw another creature in front of my now 8/1, it will attack again on his/her turn.
Goddammit, words aren’t working. Here was board position of the closest fight I have ever seen:
It is my opponent’s turn, late in the endgame. His creatures are the 6/10 Savant that let’s him give a creature -3/-3 whenever he casts a Level 1 spell, and “just” a 24/7 wurm. Mine are all just vanilla creatures aside from the Dryad, which gets +1/+1 each time a creature comes into play on my side. He just cast the +3 Attack/-3 Attack spell I mentioned earlier, targeting his wurm and my dryad, taking out one of my 2/3 Ether Hounds with the -3/-3 trigger. He then plays his own Ether Hounds, providing blockers for my Dryad and Marrow Fiend, using the Savant’s trigger to kill my last Ether Hound. He attacks, creatures die, and we go down to 7 and 4 HP respectfully.
What are my options on my upcoming turn? Well… the 6/5 is just a vanilla creature; the 4/6 will spawn a 1/1 creature in its space after it dies; the 14/14 creature has Mobility and gets +6/+6 when a creature dies across from it; the card Enrage gives a creature +5/+5; and the last card gives a creature -3/-3. Hmm. After I make my moves, the board looks like this:
I had tossed my 14/14 in front of the Savant because the -3/-3 triggers were generating insane card advantage, and would basically negate my center lane gambit. Said gambit was tossing in the 4/6 creature in the path of the 24/7, and relying on the 1/1 that spawned after its death to give me the reprieve I needed to win. And, in fact, I would have won on his turn, but he managed to cast either another Savant or perhaps a Gloomreaper Witch (kills a 1-power creature when it comes into play) to remove my 1/1 and block my 20/14, and then some other throwaway creature to stand in front of my 17/11. The wurm, unopposed, kills me. GG.
Whether all of that sounds like gobbledygook or a smashing good time probably depends on how familiar you are with card games, or with Magic specifically. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Richard fucking Garfield had a hand in SolForge’s development, along with the guys who made Ascension, who were already pro Magic players. Now that I think about it, Richard fucking Garfield worked on Card Hunter too. Dude gets around. Considering how everything he touches seems to directly trigger my nucleus accumbens, I’m going to say that this is a Good Thing.
Less so for my wallet.