First thing to say was that before sports consumed my life I was fully in love with my nerdy pursuits. Whole weekends would be spent at my friends house, who didn’t believe that a TV was a fitting item for a household, locked into a Games Workshop binge. When we couldn’t handle the stress of arguing what was light and heavy cover anymore we’d take a break with a few card games. Magic The Gathering was, of course, a staple although this was little more than a fast paced and fun distraction. Iron Crown’s “Middle Earth: The Wizards” and the other Wizards of The Coast game “Netrunner” were far more complex than any straightforward battler and hours would evaporate as we competed, tweaked decks, then played again.
Resisting the urge to make this line “and then I lost my virginity” we did indeed grow up and put away those childish things. A combination of expanding real life possibilities, a focus on sports and peer pressure put to rest this hardcore geekery, although I would always look over at the thirty something tabletop warriors with a mix of disgust and envy.
I hadn’t thought about Collectible Card Games for some time. They felt anachronistic in a world where you didn’t need to leave your dingy man cave to actually play with people, the pleasures and horrors of the world of online gaming sucking in everyone with access to the internet and a penchant for arrested development. However, in an age of free to play and micro-transactions the idea of online CCGs has reared its head again, slowly but surely. The giddy thrill of tearing open a booster pack after handing over your cash seems tailor made for the online micro-transaction experience. It also speaks directly to the wallets of games developers everywhere and a spate of original card battlers have reared their heads with more to come.
Blizzard have got ahead of this next trend and have been developing their very own, Hearthstone, which is not only significant as it represents a genre departure for the gaming titan but also because it is their first foray into the “Free To Play” market. Their marketing strategy has been as intelligent as you’d expect… Keeping beta keys scarce makes them desirable, but handing them over to popular Twitch TV streamers to act as a form of persistent and free advertising is likely to become an industry norm. Blizzard have also enjoyed some sideways movement of the talent that made one of their flagship titles, Starcraft 2, so popular. With all the cool kids playing it, everyone will follow and that so far has been the trend.
Now the game is in open beta across all of the regions the question has to be asked “is it actually any good?” Well, the evolution process it has gone through since its initial release has mostly been about in-game checks and balances. Even the initial closed beta was as slick as anything you’re likely to see on general release, especially in an era of “early access” gaming. Like everything you’d expect from Blizzard it looks amazing, the finely tuned Warcraft aesthetic carrying right through the game both visually and aurally. The game feels like a collection of Easter Eggs, right down to the in-jokes of certain cards (Leroy Jenkins has been immortalised) to a “board” that can be interacted with while you wait for your slovenly opponent.
I’ve seen people criticising it for lacking depth, which misses the point of Hearthstone’s crowning achievement. To strip down and make accessible the concepts of the average card game to a modern gaming audience would take some effort. Like pruning a hedge, leave too much and you have something wild, shapeless, horrible to behold… Take too much off and you don’t have a hedge any more, just a pathetic shrubbery. Hearthstone has had to walk this line and has got the balance almost entirely correct. The concept of class restricted deck building ensure that people aren’t overwhelmed with choice as they learn it and each class synergises with certain strategies and card types better than others. There are class specific cards but the bulk of a deck comes from “neutral” cards that can be used by anyone.
It’s also got to be said that as free-to-play games go it’s one of the few out there that doesn’t demand you invest real money into it to get the most from it. There’s a slight element of grind to getting the cards you want but if you complete the daily quests with disciplined regularity and rack up the wins, you’ll be able to accumulate a healthy amount of gold. When you look at companies like EA taking the virtual piss at every turn when it comes to micro-transactions, Blizzard have been commendably restrained.
For me personally the high point is what it has done with the “sealed deck” tournament concept. Sealed deck, where players are given sealed booster cards and then have to make the best deck they can from their random findings, has often been a measure of which players understand the game to a superior level. With Hearthstone’s Arena this concept has been made the main competitive mode and it’s brilliant. Picking one card from a selection of three until you have your deck of thirty cards forces you to think carefully about the weight of each choice. Do you gamble and take a card that synergises well with a card that you may not get a chance to choose? Do you take that rare card at the expense of an arena staple hoping it crops up again in the cycle? There’s lots to digest and when you pit your wits against fellow players that have gone through the same process there’s a great satisfaction in victory. Win streaks lead to big rewards and Arena play is generally cost effective as long as you get one victory as you will always be given a booster pack of cards for your trouble.
The ability to balance the game through patching it is an area where online card games eclipse their tactile counterparts. When an endless mana loop or an instant victory combo was discovered in other games the agreement was simply to not use those cards. They were placed on a blacklist and would never be seen in tournament play, which was always a great shame I felt because a whole section of the game’s mechanics would be shut off as a result. Now anything that is game-breakingly overpowered can be modified accordingly without any such gentleman’s agreements being required. There’s still some balancing that needs doing – the Mage remains overpowered especially for Arena play and the Warlock class is weak by comparison to the others – but there’s plenty of time to get this tweaked.
Now to the not so great… Perhaps one of the most easily arrived at criticisms is the lack of variety in each game. For each class there are cards that are simply too good value to leave out of your deck and once they are obtained they will be a staple of any strategy. When you apply this to several cards out of the small deck sizes, a run of games can quickly become stale and the breadth of strategies is greatly reduced. Games between experienced players can quickly come down to who draws their main cards at the right time, which is especially apparent when you play against someone with the same class.
There are also some very random elements to the game that can make victory feel like a spin of a roulette wheel rather than anything that occurs through design. Cards like Arcane Missiles, which randomly distribute three points of damage between minions and your avatar, can be frustratingly benign or the key to a lucky victory. At some point you will have a surefire victory snatched away from you due to the random elements and it’s probably worth noting that in most card battlers such chance occurrences are almost ironed out entirely.
Another glaring oversight, one which would have been picked up immediately by any collectible card game aficionados, is that there is no in game trading. This is a staple in the genre, something that has helped the communities for such games thrive and persist. All the boosters you bought that led to a stack of common cards you can’t use? Well, you can give them to a friend or sell them for pennies. Managed to get multiple copies of a rare card, or have one that doesn’t fit in your deck design? Sell it to the highest bidder and enjoy the proceeds any way you see fit. If you were cynically minded you could view the lack of trading as an extension of the business model – after all, no trading means either grinding to find the cards you want or, most likely, relenting and throwing some money into your collection.
But perhaps Blizzard have overlooked the key components of the CCG’s tactile brethren because they want the game to be an almost isolated experience. Certainly that would explain the lack of in-game communication between players, reduced to nothing more than a handful of emotes, which really seems at odds with not just CCGs but online gaming as a whole. Sure, you eliminate the “get fucked you scrub” standard SC2 farewell but it also limits meeting people, accruing practice partners and – dare I say it – friends through playing the game.
These grumbles stop the game really achieving greatness but there’s no doubt that most of them can be fixed not only with updates but also the release of expansion packs. The game itself is easily the most polished beta I’ve taken part in and from the moment I installed it, the game felt complete and worth playing. There are very few free to play games that are actually worth investing serious amounts of time in. Hearthstone manages to meet the standard set by Valve and even brings something new to the table. Right now there’s no better way to reconnect with your inner nerd.