FreePlay: Hearthstone Preview

The first wave of Hearthstone closed beta invites were sent out on Friday, in typical Blizzard style, with no announcement whatsoever. Thankfully, although beta access remains closed for the time being, several prominent streamers including Sean ‘Day[9]‘ Plott, Mike ‘Husky’ Lamond and John ‘TotalBiscuit’ Bain have spent time playing Hearthstone on air, giving us an insight into Blizzards latest work.
Hearthstone is a collectable card game (CCG) from industry giant Blizzard. As its name implies it’s a part of the Warcraft franchise and many elements of the the game will be familiar to World of Warcraft players.

Hearthstone is Blizzard’s first foray into the land of collectable card games, albeit a digtal one, and also their first free-to-play game. It’s slated to be released on PC and Mac later this year, with an iPad version to follow and with the possibility of other platform releases afterwards, although there’s no promises.
Hearthstone has clearly been designed to be much faster than a traditional CCG, with games lasting about ten minutes. One of the starkest differences between Hearthstone and Magic: the Gathering is the complete lack of any turn phases. You can play any card at any time within your turn as long as you have the mana. This opens up a lot of options for interesting gameplay and tactical play. Unfortunately, a lot of the tactical play that makes Magic fun, the instant cards which can be played out of turn, as long as you have the mana, don’t exist in Hearthstone. This is part of what makes Hearthstone so fast-paced however, and so seems an even trade.
The way in which players generate mana also differs from the traditional CCG. Rather than playing land cards from your hand to generate mana, you simply gain one mana per turn, starting with one mana on turn one, two on turn two etc. This removes the feeling of unfairness and randomness which feels so unpleasant when you fail to draw any land cards in other card games.
Hearthstone lives up to the expected Blizzard standards in terms of polish, both the sound and animation design is fantastic, with many of the sounds being lifted straight from World of Warcraft. Hearthstone is clearly designed to be a much more whimsical game, from the official trailer to the interactive gameboard which reacts when you click on the scenic border.
Rather than the ‘colored’ decks of more familiar CCG Magic: the Gathering, players choose one of nine classes from the original World of Warcraft. Each class is represented by a Hero from the Warcraft mythos,  those being Garrosh Hellscream for the Warrior deck, Uther Lightbringer for the Paladin deck, Thrall for the Shaman deck, Rexxar for the Hunter deck, Malfurion Stormrage for the Druid deck, Valeera Sanguinar for the Rogue deck, Jaina Proudmoore for the Mage deck, Gul’dan for the Warlock deck and Anduin Wrynn for the Priest deck.

These hero’s are locked in for each deck, you cannot change the icon for Garrosh if you want to play the Warrior deck, even if you don’t like him very much (who does?). However, each hero has a unique ability which helps determine the character and feel of the deck, and greatly affects the way the deck plays. Uther’s ability summons a 1/1 Silver Hand Recruit to the battlefield, whereas Jaina’s ability is to deal 1 damage to a minion or hero of your choosing each turn.
The hero abilities work well in helping define the differences of each deck, and that they are playable every turn for 2 mana means you always have something you can spend your mana on which keeps the game flowing nicely. Like other CCG’s, cards have special abilities and rules which improve the depth of the game, such as Battlecry, which causes an additional effect when the minion is summoned, and Divine Intervention which causes the minion to ignore the next damage dealt to it.

I do wish that there was an opportunity for more player interaction though. While clicking on your hero gives you a list of preset interactions to use, there’s no chat function which, while an effective way to stop trolls and griefers, it is slightly akin to smashing a nut with a sledgehammer.
In terms of actual gameplay, Hearthstone has three game modes. Normal play versus other players, practice play against computers, which is required to unlock the decks initially, and contains an expert mode for extra longevity, and the Arena.
The arena has an admission fee of either in-game gold or real money, whichever you prefer. Once you’re in the arena, you are presented with three random heroes, once you’ve chosen one, you must build a 30 card deck for that hero from a series of choices between three random cards.
After you have your deck you jump into battle against other arena players. You play until you accrue a total of three losses and then receive a reward based on how well you did. This seems like a fun system and a great challenge as far as deck building goes, but at a potential $3 every time you enter, it seems maybe a little pricey.
Overall, Hearthstone seems like a great CCG that will be even better once it’s released on tablets. I can easily imagine myself playing Hearthstone in between lectures at university. Unfortunately I can just as easily imagine myself being frustrated by the expense of the extra card packs and arena entry fee.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have beta access, here’s the official trailer to tide you over:

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