Hearthstone Hands-On Preview: Blizzard Deals a New Hand

Friday morning at PAX East, Blizzard caught everyone who isn’t employed there off guard when they announced Hearthstone – a digital collectible card game. The uproar from the internet was loud and immediate, but what that uproar missed was that Hearthstone is actually a pretty solid game. After the presentation, I got a chance to play Hearthstone and to chat with a couple of the developers working on it, Eric Dodds (Lead Designer) and Jason Chayes (Production Director).

Hearthstone is a departure for Blizzard. Instead of making a huge, epic game with a huge team of developers, they decided to make a free-to-play card game with a relatively small group of about 15 developers. According to what Rob Pardo said in Friday’s reveal, they wanted to see if they could return to those garage programming days, when Blizzard was still a small developer struggling to make ends meet. Did they succeed? Well, here’s the opening cinematic:

It’s definitely got a Blizzard feel to it, as you can see from the cinematics.

After getting my hands on Hearthstone, I can say that I am struck by how much like Magic the Gathering it seems, while still having a very different feel. Yes, it’s a trading card game, and so comparisons to Magic are inevitable, but those comparisons are only skin deep. Blizzard has done a lot to make this card game their own.

As gameplay begins, players select a hero from a list of familiar World of Warcraft classes. Warrior, Priest, Paladin, Shaman, Mage, Warlock, Hunter, Rogue, and Druid are all represented here. While the classes don’t seem super deep right now, each class has a hero power that WoW players will recognize. Hunters have a direct damage ability called “Steady Shot,” for example. Cards are shared between classes, but each class has exclusive cards as well, and they’re familiar. Mages have Fireball and Paladins have Hammer of Justice, to name a couple.

Building a deck is straightforward and simple. You can use a pre-generated deck, construct your own completely from scratch, or you do a little of both. Pick out a few cards that you really want in your deck, and then ask the game to fill out the deck for you, and it will. You can name your deck and save it, so you can always pull it up quickly.

You can also play in the Forge, a game mode in which you build a deck by making choices from groups of three cards. Once the deck is done, you’re matched against someone who has also built their deck the same way. Not only can you win booster packs playing in the Forge, but you’ll also get to keep the cards you selected for your deck.

Finally, there’s also a practice mode that lets you play against a normal or expert AI to test your skills, hone your deck, or just get a little more familiar with playing the game before you dive into ranked matches. You’ll also be able to unlock eight playable heroes through practice mode.

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