I received access to the hearthstone beta the other day and decided to give it a shot. As an old school M:TG player it seemed like something I might be able to sink my teeth into. I was right. It is fun even if incredibly simplistic compared to what I remember magic being like. From the initial game play I can tell this is marketed toward a younger audience, much younger audience. Didn't change the fact I liked it however.
Being I started to play magic when it was first released and know that card game well because of the many years spent playing it and the countless hours spent making deck and all the tournaments I attended and the few I won it was only safe to assume that I would end up comparing hearthstone to magic and that is exactly what happened.
If you do not know of magic or never played it most of my review might be like reading a foreign language to you because I refer to the differences between the two, but I hope it still helps.
Hearthstone is Magic: The Gathering.
There are no ifs, ands or butts about it. All the card games that have come after magic have mimicked magic in one way or another. Usually they would take aspects of magic and try to make them better. Hearthstone however did something a little different. It took the concept and decided to water it down.
If anything this is one of the big plus factors for me, an ex magic
player. I felt the old feel of a game I once loved but in a simple way
that was just different enough to once again raise my interest. While
playing it there were a few times I thought to myself, self, this is
different, I wonder how I can make this work for me. It was that old
deck builder in me. I would spend hours, days even, with pen and paper
and going over the exact perfect deck. It was a science and I loved
doing it. I often think I liked the art of deck building as much if not more than actual playing.
Before I get to the things that are comparing, let me go over the things that are hearthstone original.
I really got a kick out of the voice acting. The dwarf announcing the matches is fun, have to love the dwarf accent, how can it not make you smile. The things the game says when you play an ability or a card are nice but they do move quickly into the "shut up already" category. I think the game should not have cards say the same thing every single time. Not saying they should say something different, but that they should say nothing at all.
When you first get a card it is cool to see what it says when you play it. When you play it for the 30th time you start to think shut up already. Having a card say its line say once out of every 5 times you play it would be better. It would be like a little bonus that means nothing to hear it, instead of hearing it all the time.
I've already found a few cards that annoy me and will most likely not get played with because they are annoying. Not that the cards are not good, the sounds are what aren't good. I could play without sound, but I like having it on. If only they did not make the voice acting so over bearing and constant it would be better.
As for music, that was fine. So much so that I can not even tell you if there actually was music. Not kidding. It just blended in as if it belong there, and as background sounds go, that is exactly the way it should be.
One of the things that lead me to believe that hearthstone is aimed at a younger audience is the fact that all the graphics are childish. Yes, I know warcraft is cartoonish in itself and I love it, but there is a huge difference between cartoonish and childish.
Everything is big and bubbly. I've never been a fan of art of preschoolers, and this really comes across as that. Really easy on the eyes and not at all distracting from the actual game play. While the art work might seem childish, it does not ever come close to taking away from the actual game play.
If you do not know what I mean about childish art, just take a look at the playing board and then go look at the artwork on a box for any fisher price childs toy and you will understand exactly what I mean.
While the art is something that would never attract me to the game it is also something that would not turn me off to it. In the end I am all about functionality, if it works and I enjoy it, who cares what it looks like. So I really can not complain about the art and it does really fit the mood of the game, as a lighthearted thing to play. So perhaps childish works. Heck, when even I can't point out anything to complain about when it comes to the art work other than it looks like it was made for a children's toy, you can figure it really is not bad at all.
The cards on the other hand seem to have a mix and match of art work from various artists. Some are really nice, some are gosh darn awful, but again, art does not matter, functionality does. Over all the cards look a lot better than the playing boards do. You might even find a few in there that make you go wow that is nice. I know I found a few I really liked in the cards.
Not sure I would really call the starter quests a tutorial but more a throw you to the wolves. I had no issues with any of the battles and really kicked butt on them but then again I already knew how to play, like I said, this is just a version of magic: the gathering after all.
You start off slow, which is good, and your opening opponents are all really weak. Each fight gets progressively harder and teaches you more things. Like you start with just a few things then learn about charge and learn about taunts and learn about your special ability and learn about mobs with secondary abilities. So I guess it could be called a tutorial but not a complete hand holding one, just a pop up window "hey this is the first time you used this or saw this so why don't I tell you what it does" sort of thing. I think it was a very good non intrusive way of teaching.
The last beginner quest I read a few people say they had fits with on the forums. I can see why actually. Illidan starts off saying "you are not prepared" which I assure you most people will not be. When he said it I laughed and said to the screen, "no, you are not prepared".
As it turns out, neither of us were. It is a steep increase in difficulty from the other starting duels. He started off hard and strong and fast and I saw myself low in life before I even knew it. But because of my past experiences playing the game I slowly took control of the board and then beat him like a red headed step child. Turns out he really wasn't prepared for someone that already knew how to play the game, but for someone that doesn't, he is the perfect battle to get a real grasp of the game. Not hard enough to road block anyone, but hard enough that you will need to use your brain to beat him.
Over all, as far as tutorials go, this one does a fine job even if it is not really a full on tutorial. I'd say it was good design on blizzard part but my judgement might be clouded because I knew how to play before I started. Maybe someone that had no clue what was going on would not have picked it up as quick as I did. Maybe that is why so many are on the forums crying about our old buddy illidan. I'd like to hear from some people that never played one of these games and ask them how the starting battles worked for them, if it was as good as I think it was.
The game play was different from what I was used to with magic as you will see after this when I start comparing the two with various factors. However, its differences were appealing and make for a very simple form of game play.
Even if you are new to the entire concept the game will tell you when there is nothing left for you to do. If you do the wrong thing it will tell you that you can not do that, and it will tell you why you can not do that which is a huge plus. Lets face it, we all played games that tell us you can not do that but how often do they tell us why. Like, you can not attack because there is a mob with taunt out. Ah, thanks, forgot that.
Some other things that make the game play very simple and quite smooth are the fact that your turn is your turn. Nothing can be done except for what you do during it. Your cards are all displayed, your mana is displayed, and everything has hover over tooltips that are easy to read and they all explain themselves. This lead to making it easier to get a feel for things as well as not having to worry that someone is going to kill you when you are thinking about what move to make next.
The first time you see something new that your opponent does you might be taken aback but with the tooltips, as I mentioned, and the ability to take the time and read them, it makes for a less stressful learning process for new players.
While the game still has many levels of complexity to it, the actual game play portion of it without thinking of techniques, it quite simple and actually refreshingly relaxed for something that could actually end up being very competitive. The game has very smooth game play.
The Physical Connection:
Now lets go to comparing things to magic: the gathering. Of course my previous experiences in another game of this type, this games forefather if you will, will have some impact on my impressions of this game. I would not be human if it didn't. Make that I would not be elf if it didn't, yeah, that's the ticket.
So while I must say I have been liking hearthstone this brings me to my first little bit of dislike about it. Not enough of something I dislike to make me not play it, but enough to basically assure I probably won't feel connected to it like I did with Magic. They are pixels, not real items.
The cards, the collecting, the deck making, are all digital. No shit Sherlock. But I don't think you fully understand the impact of holding an actual item in your flesh and blood hands if you are questioning that there is a huge difference between collecting the real cards and something just being pixels on the screen.
The power of having the cards in front of you while you shift them around and page through them. The fact that you could carry your deck with you anywhere. Walk into a coffee shop and sit down and play or go to the pub with a few friends for a few beers and whip out your deck. The fact you could sit there and handle the cards, physically, in your hands, and show them, trade them, play with them. That actually connection to owning the cards is what attached me to the game originally.
Having the cards be a digital item seems to have a little bit of a disconnect, at least for me.
A second part of physical cards vs digital cards is the feeling opening packs. I purchased 2 pack for 2.99, did not really want to spend much money but I did what to see the packs. I ended up getting 2 more packs over the course of my play time and I am sure I will get more if I play more, but with that all said I opened four packs.
Not sure if it is just me but opening packs online just feels rather blah. By the time I was a full on magic player and and trying to make competitive decks I was buying cases of cards as soon as they came out, not boxes, not packs, cases. I've easily opened thousands of packs of magic cards. Even after opening all of them and it becoming more second nature just looking for that one rare that came per pack hoping for one of the really rare ones I needed for my new dream deck and basically considering the rest garbage, it was still more exciting than opening a pack online. Digital pack fever just can not compare to real life pack fever in my opinion.
5 cards and no guaranteed rare when you are spending real life money, and the packs are not cheap, for a digital product, is just not worth it. Saying not worth it is actually being generous because I am enjoying the game, a complete and total rip off would be a more appropriate term for the packs. At least magic cards assured you one rare a pack and three uncommons. At least you actually physically owned something, you saw something for your money spent.
For me buying packs online is not quite something that would give me pack fever like I got with magic. Make it 15 cards a pack, make it guarantee at least one rare, make is 1 dollar a pack, and then maybe just maybe I can forgive the lack of physical ownership of the cards and buy a few more packs. As it is now the packs are an incredible rip off and I would not suggest anyone buy them. Only 5 cards and most likely you will get junk, not exactly a winning proposition if you ask me.
Now that I got the "bad" out of the way, the lack of physical connection that is offered by a real life game over a digital one, lets go over some of the differences I noticed from playing hearthstone and its inspiration, magic.
True Turn Based:
Magic was turn based too but in magic just because it was not your turn didn't mean you just sat there and watched. You could do a lot of things when it was your opponents turn which included using tap abilities on creatures, artifacts and lands to draw mana so you could cast spells, yes actually cast during the opponents turn as long as the spells were labeled as instant or interrupt.
Hearthstone is true turned based. If is it not your turn you are at the complete and total mercy of what the other player has in mind for you. At first I disliked this idea. I wanted to have some control over my part of the playing field while it was the opponents turn. But as I played a little more I noticed that this just brings a completely different aspect to game play.
Sure, you are at the mercy of the opponent on their turn but they are at your mercy on your turn. ~wicked evil grin~
I quickly learned the true power of this after a few open play games against other people. Playing a warrior that was basically owning me early on until I was able to level the playing field some and start doing some damage felt he had the game won, but I had an ace up my sleeve, or two actually.
Next turn I was dead, he had more than enough mobs on the field to take my 4 life away three times over. He had 11 life and I needed to do all that damage this turn or it was over. I attacked with what I could, a 2/3 create and a 3/2 creature bringing his life to 6. At this point he no doubt figured he had won. He was wrong. I dropped two 3/1 charge mobs and took away the victory.
I could have dropped the 3/1 guy earlier but if I had he might have attacked my attackers instead of me because he would realize that my attackers could take him out the next turn. But waiting until I could drop both at the same time for a huge hit and making him comfortable enough to think that my attackers could not kill him on my next turn he went for me instead of taking out my creatures, knowing that if I did not kill him on my next turn, which looked like it would be the case, then he would win. I used the can't do anything when it is not your turn against him. Something I never had the luxury of in magic. There is a good and bad to this of course.
Saving stuff to use during the opponents turn, those instants in magic, was a huge difference between the good player and the average or lesser player. In this, making yourself appear weak, as bait if you will, will cause people to make mistakes and because they can not react on their turn so you can basically force them into ensuring their own death, as that warrior did.
So hearthstone is true turn based as in you can only move when it is your turn and never any other time. At first I disliked this but I noticed, this too could be really fun, if you plan accordingly.
Attackers / Defenders:
This is a four part change from magic.
1) Creature attacking:
First part is that in magic your creatures are your first line of defense. The opponent needs to beat your creatures to get to you. In hearthstone this is not so. If your opponent chooses they can completely ignore your creatures and just come right after you. What? Yes, you can zerg in hearthstone and ignore the opponents defensive completely. At first I did not like this. What are the use of creatures of they do not protect you?
As I played I noticed that the creatures are more there as tools in hearthstone than as defense. When you want someones creatures to be sure to attack you you need a creature with taunt. The creatures you summon seem to follow warcraft rules, they can attack whoever they want but if there is a tank there taunting them, they will go for that first. Nice touch.
The more games I got under my belt the more I realized the power of a taunting mob. A taunting mob sort of makes it like magic where you need to kill the mobs first to get to the person. If you want a more magic feeling you would need to go with an all taunt creature deck.
Over all this brings a new level of strategy to it, one I am not used to with magic. Now the decision is to attack the person or the mobs. Not as complex as magic where you were attack and try to get through the forces the opponent had up, which bring us to the next part.
2) Creature tapping:
Another difference, huge one if you ask me, between magic battle and hearthstone battle is that attacking in hearthstone does not leave you with a lack of defense. In magic if I were to use a mob to attack it became tapped, meaning it could not be used for anything until the start of my next turn when I would untap it.
Hearthstone has no tapping which means I can feel free to attack with my 4/5 taunt mob and do 4 damage and it will still be there to defend me. If I had attacked in magic with it that mob would be tapped and no longer able to defend me.
This is just another case of making the game just a little easier because the whole who to attack with and who to leave for defense was a huge factor in your success or failure in magic. It still matter here, but not like in magic. Because if you attack with a mob it can still defend. Every mob is a serra angel. ( I think they later made more characters like that, as an ability, but that was after I had quit)
3) Creature defending:
In magic when you attacked it was up to the opponent to decide what to defend with. You could not attack a specific target like you can in hearthstone. That is why attacking in magic was much more complex and involved than it is here. You could only design your attack, you had no control over how the opponent defended against it.
But like I said, hearthstone is made for a younger audience and there are no advanced tactics like "taking a chance" attacking. There is never any chance involved in the game. You attack who you want to attack (unless a mob with taunt is out) which basically means, there is no defending at all in hearthstone. This is a completely missing component of the game and I think it is better that way, at least for how it is currently designed.
Having people decide their own defense would mean going back and forth between turns and it would take much longer than it does in magic and online games are not supposed to be marathon sessions that the card game was. Removing the person choosing the defensive was a risk and I think it was handled really well with the addition of taunt cards but feel it makes taunt cards really over valued. It will take some more time to figure out if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but either way, it was handled well.
4) Creature health:
Another huge difference between magic and hearthstone battle when it comes to creatures is their health. With magic a creature healed on turn switching. Which means if you attacked a 2/2 creature with you 2/3 creature you would kill the opponents creature and be left a 2/1 until the end of your turn. As soon as the opponents turn began your creature returned to its full 2/3 health.
In hearthstone there is no turn heal like that. Sure there are cards and abilities that will heal your creatures but without using one of them that creature is effectively a 2/1 creature now, it is no longer a 2/3 creature.
With a change from magic to hearthstone like that there are of course other changes to how it is played and they seem to have worked it out rather nicely.
So while it took me a turn or two to get used to creatures health being a constant and not refreshing on each turn it became part of the strategy. There are abilities that only effect creatures that have taken damage. So it would make sense, if you had one of those abilities, to even do 1 damage to that large 6/7 creature now because whittling it down could mean getting rid of it easier later. Like with a 6 point fireball you might draw in 2 turns or a spell that removes any creature that has taken damage. So while in magic you would never sacrifice a 1/1 creature to the 6/7 creature unless you planned to immediately follow it up with 6 additional points of damage in hearthstone there could be some advantage to working it down slowly a little at a time.
It brings a whole different level of strategy that never existed when creatures could heal.
Another difference is deck size. Hearthstone is closer to what magic was when it first came out, magic was 40 cards and hearthstone is 30. In time the deck size got larger in magic and it might be safe to say that in hearthstone that could very well happen if the game is a success and goes on for a while. More on decks later.
Another huge difference with hearthstone and magic is their respective resource systems. Where magic was the world of land and mox for mana when it first came out hearthstone is a steady growth system. Your first turn you have 1 mana, second turn you have 2 mana, third turn you have 3 mana, and so forth up to 10.
This makes deck building a slight bit different as well because there will never be a chance to get that big boost to mana right off the bat. Nothing like getting a hand with a land and two mox on the draw in magic and starting off with something that cost 3 mana. Sure, there are a few 0 cost cards and one that gives you and extra mana for that turn only, but nothing like there was for quick mana in magic. Can anyone remember the black lotus and the game hinging on if you got that dealt to you or not?
My early days of the channel fireball deck and first turn wins before they started to put in all the restrictions to the game was really fun but also sometimes frustrating. The game often came down to who got the most mana first and maybe that is why moxes and their black lotus friend were banned from game play at one point, and as far as I know being I have not been around magic in years, they were never allowed to return.
Hearthstone is taking a little bit of a lesson from the game they are trying to mimic and that is one of them. The mana generation is a lesson well learned that it can greatly change the flow of the game if one person has more luck with packs getting the rare card or hands drawing the best cards than another. It is a great thing to learn from your mistakes, it is an even better thing to learn from the mistakes of others so you do not have to make the same mistakes.
Blizzard is learning by not allowing the quick mana burst in heartstone. They also have another change to their system with concern to resources. Where magic had multiple types and multiple sources, it seems that hearthstone only has one type from mostly one source.
I must say as someone who always ended up with all swamps when I had all red cards in my hand with my black/red deck, a single resource idea would have been nice sometimes in magic. It made magic more complex, sure, but it also added an extra level to luck. If you were lucky enough to not only get land, but the right land. Like I said, this game is being made easier for the younger crowd and it is noticeable, and really there is nothing wrong with it.
The way mana builds up and you being guaranteed to always get one more each round has two effects that I have noticed so far. It speeds up the game to the point where eventually people will be flowing in so much mana that they can throw the bigger numbers at each other and end the games faster. It is like building up to the explosion and while I do not like the idea that I can not make those draw it out forever type of decks like I did in magic, I do like the idea that battles can be done in quick bite sized portions. That is one of the strengths of this game in my opinion.
The other part of that is that mana is no longer luck based like it was in magic. Like I mentioned the bad luck of not getting the right land there was also the bad luck of not getting any land. Everything is a constant resource build up based on the turn number in hearthstone. You will never be stuck with not getting enough resources.
As I mentioned earlier I loved deck building in magic. In this, no so much yet. It might be because I really do not have anything worth building with yet or it just might be because I am winning with the basic deck at a better than 90% clip against other players so I do not feel the pressure of building one so I can do better because I am already doing well.
But deck building in hearthstone is completely different from magic and it is not just because of the lack of a physical card in your hands like I mentioned. While the deck only needs 30 compared to 40 (when magic was first released) or 60 (currently) the absence of the need for mana generating cards makes it nearly the same.
Because of all the differences to the game between the magic I was used to playing the hearthstone I am playing now there are a lot of things I need to take into consideration.
While talking to a few friends also in beta and playing them, with their more hearthstone experience, and me thoroughly beating the ever living crap out of them, perhaps because of my magic experience, I can offer a few initial conclusions I have come to for deck building, when I do finally get around to building one.
First and foremost and the reason I beat them so easily is to not get enthralled by the high power cards. Mana builds up slowly, one per turn, if you only stack your deck with cards that are big you will be dead before you can start to lay them down.
Secondly, learn how things work together. Some creatures seem like natural matches for others. Take advantage of that and use it. If you want to make a beast deck with the creatures that buff beasts, make sure to only have beasts. If you are going for a charge deck, no need to add cards that give your creatures charge. If you want to use a lot of high power / low defense creatures, have taunt creatures with them or they are easy pickings for 1 mana 1/1 creastures that the opponent would not mind sacrficing to get rid of that 5/1 you placed down. Things like that.
I might have not put in a lot of play time and I surely have not seen all the decks yet, but so far it seems to follow the same pattern as magic and as such many of the same basic deck building strategies will be the same. Sure, nothing in hearthstone will ever have the complexity of magic, but that is because it is not supposed to. It is supposed to just be something fun and quick, and for that, it does the job. But that doesn't mean you can't always try to win because I know I will and a well designed deck will be the key to doing just that, winning.
After just a short time playing I can see the attraction this game will have for many. It is a call back to the days of magic but in a much simpler format. I think it is more player friendly than magic was because that could be very overwhelming to learn whereas this seemed very simple.
I can see myself playing this with friends and sometimes when I am bored just for something to do. However, with the cost of packs and the minimal number of cards you get I can't see it as something that would sucker me in to throw money at it.
So while the game does not seem like something worth paying money for as a free activity and something you can do with your friends, it really seems like it has some great potential in my limited time playing around with it.
If you get an invite give it a try, it is worth it. And if you ever liked magic in the years that passed or any of the other card games that have copied the format and tried to capitalize on it, then you just might like hearthstone. Even if you never played any of those games you might like hearthstone. Like I said, it seems very player friendly and it tries to keep it simple. I think anyone could get a hang of it relatively quickly.
If you are a lore person there is most definitely something there for you as well. All the characters you have come to know and love or hate have voices there and I am sure they will add more. Even if they do not have a lot to say, it is kind of fun to play the game and see the faces tied to the game I play most, warcraft.
As betas go, it seemed like a finished product to me. I experienced no error or issues of any sort but then again I did not do too much. Either way, experiencing no errors or issues is more than I can say for basically any game I have ever played before. So it is well on its way to release and maybe well on its way on to your desktop where you will stop by and play a few rounds. And, of course, lose to me in the process. ;)
A trip down memory lane:
I want to end this with a memory on how I first started playing magic. I walked into a comic shop and there were four guys sitting around a piece of plywood that had been laid out on top of some comic book boxes. I looked over their shoulder to see they were playing a card game and asked the shop keeper what it was. He said it was this new card game that just came out called magic the gathering.
I said, let me get two packs as I left and I opened them outside. You know how the sense of smell can be powerful? Well, there was a smell that came from the pack when I first opened it, I can never explain it, but there was something about it. I actually stopped and sniffed at the cards, as funny as that sounds, and I said to a friend next to me, check out how the cards smell.
Not sure why, but before I even looked at the cards, before I even knew how to play, I was hooked on the game. The smell, as odd as this sounds, reeled me in like a fish on a hook. I was a magic player from that point on.
I got a lord of the pit as my rare in my first pack and a badlands as my rare in my second pack. Needless to say I had a red black deck within a week and played for years, all thanks to that smell.
The Queue: Alex invades the weekend
4 hours ago