Hearthstone Preview: The WoW of CCGs?

Mere seconds into the final fight of Hearthstone‘s tutorial mission, Illidan Stormrage — the emo, corrupted Night Elf best known from World of Warcraft’s Burning Crusade expansion — blurts out from behind his cards, “You are not prepared!” To which the mage Jaina Proudmoore replies, “Well, I did just play five rounds.”

It’s funny, it’s cheesy, and most importantly, there’s truth in her snarky confidence. Hearthstone tends to dazzle through its presentation, but its true strength lies in the way it so effortlessly immerses even newcomers to the collectible card game genre into its ruleset, while delivering enough depth to keep the hardcore happy. In other words, Hearthstone is a lot like World of Warcraft itself, particularly in its earliest incarnations.

Part of the beauty of Hearthstone lies in the way it introduces key concepts so deftly that you’ll be ready to battle against other players after its six-stage tutorial. For each duel, two participants with avatars drawn from Warcraft lore face each other across a themed table, each with his or her own decks based on one of WoW’s nine core classes. (Monks and Death Knight are likely reserved for expansions.) You can only play a card if your “mana” pool is large enough to support the mana cost conveniently marked on the top left of every card, but you’ll almost always be able to play something, since your mana pool grows by one point with every round. This, more than anything else, keeps most games from dragging on for more than 20 minutes.

If they have the mana, the heroes themselves can toss weak attacks at each other with each turn, but most of the action centers on the cards. Offensive and defensive-oriented minion cards tend to make up the bulk of the decks, and each has a health and attack value in addition to the mana cost. Unless otherwise specified, you generally have to wait a turn to play a minion card, and then you can use it either to attack the hero or his or her own minions. (If a minion has a “tank” specialization, you can’t hurt the hero until it’s taken out of play.)

Attacking an enemy minion drains the attacking minion’s health by an equal amount, and if the attack value exceeds the health value, the cards disintegrate. To win the day, “all” you need to do is whittle the enemy hero’s health down from 30 to zero.

Blizzard injects so much of WoW’s personality into Hearthstone that almost every action rewards you with some visual surprise, imbuing the game with a sense of vitality that’s missing even from the popular Magic: The Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers games and Mojang’s upcoming Scrolls.

Complete your turn, and you’ll hear the orc peon from Warcraft III cry out, “Job’s done!” Elsewhere, Blizzard stuffed the corners of the gameboards with interactive objects like catapults to give you something to do while waiting on an opponent’s play. Some of the smaller touches even managed to impress me, such as how the table wobbles when you select the option to buy 40-card packs for $49.99, or how the background pub crowd of orcs and dwarves cheers when you’ve made a particularly good move.

But nowhere is Hearthstone’s affinity with WoW used so effectively than in the design of the decks themselves. Even a cursory understanding of how each class operates in WoW will help you understand what to expect here. A mage deck, for instance, may possess cards that mimic Arcane Explosions, in that they deal an equal amount of damage to all of an opponent’s minion cards, while the shaman deck sports a hero ability that lets you summon random totem cards that can heal or damage units around them.

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