Hearthstone – it’s the wacky free to play World Of Warcraft spin-off with microtransactions that likes to do its own thing and not take itself so seriously. It’s the Deadpool to WoW’s X-Men, the Airplane to their Zero Hour. The happy honking kazoo to Warcraft’s wheezy school clarinet.
Yes, Hearthstone kicks its heels at authority and plays it fast and loose with the rules… As long as those rules are a somewhat simplified version of Magic: The Gathering. Ooh, burn!
You couldn’t write a true critique of Hearthstone without considering Magic: The Gathering and its place in the development of the card game genre. It’s one of the most significant and well-executed games of its type on the market though somehow has never made a perfect transition to digital media. Perhaps the goal here is to fill the gap that games like Duels Of The Planeswalkers failed to satiate, which basically makes Hearthstone gaming’s answer to the cuckoo.
Despite that, there is a certain spice to the idea. I like Magic: The Gathering as much as the next nerd, but it was never perfect and did suffer from being overcomplicated at times. Not to mention that recently it had the kind of power creep to rival Hitler’s Germany, and collecting the cards cost an amount equivalent to a minor oil rig.
Hearthstone skips some of these problems, but not all of them, and comes with a new batch to call its own. I confess, I do like that it’s more streamlined than Magic: The Gathering, ramping up the mana available to the player over time rather than leaving you to draw the right cards throughout the game. But this tighter focus on control also means that Hearthstone is significantly less diverse, with fewer ideas and strategies to beef it up. I suspect that this is a balancing act in all strategy games, one that can never be resolved perfectly, but it doesn’t take too long in Hearthstone before you’ve seen most of the tactics open to you. After that, it can’t help but just be the same thing, repeated over and over.
This isn’t too much of an issue because Hearthstone itself is rather fun. On your turn, you throw out minions to clash with each other, fire off single-use spells to keep your opponents on the ropes whilst trying to chip away at health bars like a Tim Robbins chipping on his cell wall. You do this until you run out of mana, at which point you grudgingly conclude your turn and watch in horror as your opponent pulls your strategy to pieces with absolute ease. There’s a fast-paced, responsive, back-and-forth bounciness to the whole thing that can make the best matches fly by. Not to mention that the fact that it’s all computerised which means that it can pull off calculations and tricks that a physical version never could.
I also like that the cards themselves are fairly well designed in terms of their aesthetic. Sure, some of them are boring, stock-fantasy fare, but others make me laugh just to see them. The mechs and murlocs in particular feel like the Blizzard writing team trying to out-silly each other, in some booze-fuelled drinking game. “Wha’? A fish perzonridin’ onna frog an’wearin’ a helmet? Pfft, wha’ever. I just made a gun tha’ turns bad guyz into chickensh (hic). Suck on that, Frank, ya big loser. Alzo, where’z my kebab?”
But it’s not all funny flavour text and dynamic, spell-slinging action. As mentioned in a previous article, the fact that certain cards are overpowered and that Hearthstone couldn’t care less to pair you up with a suitable opponent means that all beginners (and some unlucky medium-level players) will get kicked around like the world’s most hated football, at least until they can scrape together a deck that’s more dangerous than an asthmatic hummingbird.
But its faults like these that can be ignored in the Arena and Tavern Brawl modes. The former is a game type you can gain entrance to over time (or pay to jump into regularly), in which you create a deck from a random pool of cards,and get thrown into matches to see how you do. It’s a nice equaliser that brings the game back down to the level of skill, which just it makes it a shame that you can’t play it consistently. You might as well dangle a box of sweets over the player, only dropping one every couple of days.
Tavern Brawl, on the other hand, is a regular game mode that gets a kick out of being all “ker-razy,” as I believe it’s currently known. Once every now and then, Blizzard put a completely random spin on the rules and dare you to deal with their weirdness.
I quite like it as an idea, especially when it shakes things up really significantly, but it’s got the same problem as Arena mode – why is this not open to us all the time? Tavern Brawl might be the most fun thing about Hearthstone but only feels consent to hang around every other week. It’s all the excitement of an approaching ice cream truck, with the same sense of disappointment when it leaves. And don’t tell me that the people who made World Of Warcraft don’t have the cash to keep this permanently running because I won’t believe you for an instant.
And finally, we have the collectable aspect. As bonkers as it seems not to have the option to trade cards between players, Blizzard does seem determined to stick with that train of thought. Instead, you can complete challenges for gold and use that to buy little packs of random cards. Of course, you could always cough up real money for those same packs, if you’ve got no sense of perspective on what deserves payment. And I’m sure you bought a strategy guide when you were playing casual games of Smash Bros. with friends too, you big killjoy.
Any cards you get this way are picked blindly from a hat, but there is a way to get specific ones. Burn up the cards you already have to get a tiny pile of magic dust, then use the dust for crafting the spell or minion of your choice. Yes, even free-to-play card games have to include a crafting mechanic in them these days.
The danger with this is the same one that threatens all free-to-play multiplayer games – namely, that a huge advantage is given to those who pay with cash. Buy enough booster packs to bury yourself, then disintegrate them into so much powder that you could excite a whole room of 1980s Miami businessmen. So who can stop you then? Just build every card you’d ever need and create a deck with a bigger array of weaponry than China.
At the end of the day, I can’t say Hearthstone isn’t good fun. It’s hampered by a few things that do annoy me, but very few free games are this entertaining, and even less are willing to step back and just let the player mess around without hammering them with microtransactions and other DLC practices. It’s not worthy of love, but it certainly deserves applause. Consider this a thumbs up, and not just because I’m a closet Murloc. Mrglrglmrglmrrrlggg!
• Fluid, engaging gameplay
• Card aesthetic is fun and light-hearted
• Arena and Tavern Brawl modes are always a laugh
• It’s free, and yet doesn’t hassle you for micropayments all the time
• Balancing issues for certain cards
• Matchmaking needs to pull itself together and think about what it’s doing
• Micropayments skew the game in favour of the wealthy and boring