When Blizzard pulled the plug on the paper-based World of Warcraft trading card game, it didn't come as much of a surprise. The game quickly fell behind its competition (Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, and YuGiOh) in both sales and its reception. The bitter taste left after the trading card game's cancellation made many fans skeptical that Blizzard could pull off an all-digital card game when the developer announced Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft in early 2013. Despite all the skepticism and bad press, just a year after its initial launch, Hearthstone is one of the most successful and addictive digital card games ever.
Hearthstone is a digital collectible card game that offers players the chance to face off in head-to-head battles against either AI or other live players. Opponents throw down in turn-based card combat in a number of game modes that each offer slight variations. In a nutshell, players build a deck of 30 cards containing minions and spells that are used to reduce their opponent's life total from 30 to zero. The game takes place around a table in Azeroth, so all the cards consist of familiar faces to World of Warcraft veterans. From Leeroy Jenkins to Deathwing, there are plenty of nods to the inspiration to keep lore-heads geeking out.
Regardless of your experience with collectible card games, Hearthstone has a mode that is right for you. Introductory levels teach players the basics of the game, while walking them through a few duels to unlock cards. One of the unique mechanics in Hearthstone, is that players choose a class (just like in WoW) when building each deck. Depending on the chosen character class, each player will have a special ability associated with their class and access to special class-specific cards. For example, the Mage is able to deal one damage to a minion or player with its Fireblast spell every turn by spending two mana crystals. Shamans, on the other hand, can always cash in two crystals to cast Totemic Call and summon a random totem to the battlefield. Other spells are drawn at random from each players' deck.
The hero powers may scream balance issues to experienced card players at first, but the unique spells actually offer great challenges and opportunities within the game. Experienced players will likely turn to the game's Arena mode often to win packs, cards, and in-game Gold (which we'll talk about shortly). In an Arena run, players get the choice between one of three random characters and then build a deck by selecting cards that are randomly populated. This is the equivalent of drafting in a game like Magic: The Gathering. The Arena runs are a great way to face off against other players if you haven't had a chance to build a competitive Constructed deck. Because players are only presented with three class options, nobody can just choose the same class every time until they've mastered it.
To enter an Arena run, players need to spend some Gold. Gold can be purchased with real dollars at the in-game store, but it can also be accumulated by completing daily quests in Hearthstone. Quests vary, but are usually things like 'Kill 30 minions' or 'Win 5 games with the hunter class.' One of Hearthstone's biggest selling points is that players can earn enough gold with quests to avoid dumping real money into the experience (unlike Magic Online which becomes quickly becomes expensive for most players). Hearthstone's quests motivate fans to log in daily for a chance to earn resources to buy Arena entries or just splurge on some packs of new cards in the store. Thanks to the recent Goblins Vs. Gnomes expansion, there are plenty of new cards to open and start building decks around.
Once players have won, unlocked, and purchased enough cards to make a decent deck, they can really start to have some fun. Hearthstone offers both casual and ranked matches for players to complete their quests in. Casual matches are a lot of fun and some players will never feel the need to leave this low-stakes mode to enjoy the game. If you are more of a leaderboard grinder though, you'll find yourself dumping hours into the ranked matches. Ranked seasons are about a month long and in them, players can battle their way through the 26-level rankings. The best players unlock medals, special card backings, and other prizes for sticking to the grind.
In addition to the game's low cost of entry and variety of play modes for different styles of players, Hearthstone's slick, intuitive interface is really what makes it a step above the rest. Hearthstone was clearly designed with the tablet in mind and the drag and drop mechanic successfully induces the felling of holding a grip of cards while during play. Bugs are rare and broken cards are fixed in patches very quickly, making it a much smoother experience than a lot of the competition. Although Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft feels most at home on an iPad or an Android tablet, playing on a computer (where it originally released) is still a great experience. Jumping back and forth from tablet to home computer and having full access to your collection of cards on both is a great convenience and makes it as easy as possible to log in for a quick quest no matter where you might be.
The first major card expansion to Hearthstone, Goblins Vs. Gnomes, was initially met with some concerns from the community. The expansion's mechanics seemed luck and chance heavy, and fans were worried that the new cards would lower the game's focus on strategy. Despite the initial concerns, the expansion was met with positive reviews and many of the new cards have become staples in competitive constructed decks. It would be great to see Hearthstone offer more frequent expansions, considering this was the first we've seen after a full year (the single-player Naxxramas content excluded). Many other collectible card games offer three or four expansions per year and in order to keep the community excited and engaged, Blizzard will need to pick up the pace despite their historical tendency to take a long time with all of their releases.
If our biggest complaint is that we want more DLC, Blizzard is doing something right. Have you been enjoying the first year of Hearthstone? Let us know in the comments.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is currently available on Android and iOS tablets, and PC. It arrives on Android and iOS phones later in 2015.