Hearthstone Preview: The WoW of CCGs?

Despite that accessibility for WoW players that could have kept Heartstone simpler, the game retains an ample helping of strategic complexity in the right hands. Block and counter cards exist, for instance, adding a layer of options that can disrupt a player’s moves and plans. However, they’re usually wrapped up in rarer “epic” cards, such as the mage’s Ice Barrier ability, which piles eight armor points on the mage’s health after the opposing player attempts to whittle it down. Meanwhile, Hunters have the ability to play Snake Trap, which spawns three snakes with one attack and one health when one of the hunter’s minion cards are attacked. As with so many collectible card games, your best hopes for success lie in the 30 cards you choose to bring with you into each round, as well as in knowing when to use them.

But Hearthstone isn’t just about building cookie-cutter decks; there’s also the Arena mode, which randomizes the gameplay by forcing you to choose from three heroes (or core decks) and then having you choose 30 cards to bring into battle along with them. Therein lies Hearthstone’s true potential for tournament greatness: if the normal “Play” options against prearranged decks represent WoW’s dungeons, the Arena matches are Hearthstone’s hardcore raids.

The reward system may need some tweaking as the payout for Arena wins currently seems a little shallow, but Hearthstone delivers few greater pleasures than handily winning three matches with a deck you made up on the fly. And just to keep everyone happy, Blizzard even lets you walk away from a three-game loss with some small consolation prizes (such as arcane dust for crafting new cards). Much as with World of Warcraft, all of Hearthstone seems designed to keep you coming back for more.

All those trimmings bring with them another benefit — most matches in Hearthstone take no more than 10 minutes. That’s especially good news for players who want to pick it up once it makes its eventual debut on tablets, but it’s also good for those of us who don’t like to endure the long, tense waits between plays you sometimes find in a game like Magic. Instead, Hearthstone manages to retain the ambiance of the friendly, fireside duels depicted in its promotional art throughout the whole experience. There’s always a card or an ability you can play, and the constant buildup of mana sidesteps the pain of rounds in other collectible card games when the resource-generating “land” cards just don’t come.

But all those accessible features would mean little if the wider audience Blizzard seeks to capture had to endure the brand of douchebaggery you find in games like League of Legends — or, indeed, in World of Warcraft’s own trade and general chat channels. Hearthstone takes a novel approach to avoiding this — it ignores player communication entirely outside of your Battle.net friends, aside from six emotes you can trigger by clicking on your hero’s avatar.

None of the emotes aside from “Threaten” is particularly vicious, and even that one is limited to lore-based taunts like the Druid Malfurion Stormrage’s cry of “Nature will rise against you!” I’d much rather endure that any day over baseless accusations about my mother and barely decipherable adjectives piled before words like “scrub,” and I suspect that’ll ring true for most of Hearthstone’s playerbase. It’s probably Blizzard’s smartest decision for widespread adoption, and one that will allow relative rookies to battle seasoned veterans with little fear.

Accessibility is but one of the reasons why Hearthstone will likely receive a positive reception at launch. There’s a more powerful force at play here: Hearthstone simply doesn’t require the kind of pocket-draining investments demanded from a game like Magic. Through daily quests, regular matches, and even a crafting system that lets you destroy cards to make new ones, it’s perfectly possible to build a competent deck in Hearthstone through free play alone. Even my modest investment of 20 bucks for 14-card packs has already produced an astonishing amount of epic cards, scattered though they be among multiple decks. That, indeed, may be one of the reasons for Blizzard’s sudden abandonment of its popular trading card game produced with Cryptozoic Entertainment; with Hearthstone (much to the dismay of the WoW TCG’s fans): Blizzard has likely found near-perfect midpoint between enjoyable free-to-play gameplay and revenue generation.

After spending many hours with Hearthstone, I believe it’s safe to say that Blizzard’s on the verge of something great here. With its simplified gameplay and engaging presentation, Hearthstone achieves the same accessible appeal that Scrolls wants to deliver, but with such mastery as to make the development process seem effortless. If Blizzard manages to play its cards right — and with a few tweaks, Hearthstone is all but ready for launch — we could be looking at something with the potential to popularize CCGs much as Blizzard popularized the MMORPG almost a decade ago.

And who knows? Maybe it’s even good enough to get Alyssa Bereznak interested in the genre.

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