Hearth­stone: He­roes Of Warcraft

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Few stu­dios could take a niche genre that in­spires any­thing from ap­a­thy to re­vile­ment out­side of its fan­base, pair it with a busi­ness model that a cadre of play­ers finds ac­tively of­fen­sive, and meld them into an in­sanely pop­u­lar game. F2P card bat­tler Hearth­stone sees Blizzard do pre­cisely that. In this un­der­fed space, it is a rev­e­la­tion, a sys­tem­i­cally rich and charm­ingly pre­sented won­der that can trans­mute a spare 15 min­utes into an ad­dic­tion that de­vours whole evenings.

Ev­ery match is an es­ca­lat­ing duel be­tween two he­roes, each in pos­ses­sion of a 30-card deck and 30HP. There is only one ob­jec­tive: re­duce your op­po­nent to zero life be­fore they can do like­wise to you. It’s a fa­mil­iar goal from the likes of Magic: The Gath­er­ing, but Blizzard’s keen re­fine­ments set Hearth­stone apart. Gone are the be­fud­dling stacks of counters and to­kens, swept away into the dig­i­tal ether. Gone, too, is the need for a rule­book, with clear sym­bols and ef­fects ex­plain­ing ev­ery buff and de­buff, and a gen­tle ramp to in­duct new­com­ers into the game’s in­tri­ca­cies. In their place is a read­abil­ity suf­fused with an­i­mated charm. Your min­ions thud onto the board with a hefty tac­til­ity, and may come wreathed in smoke, iron shields or whirl­winds to de­note their pow­ers. Spells trace bright paths to their tar­gets. It’s rarely sub­tle, but nor are you ever con­fused as to what card has which ef­fect. On iPad, the flour­ishes are even bet­ter, in­vok­ing a won­der­ful link be­tween your fin­ger and the world be­yond the screen.

The pol­ish is more than pre­sen­ta­tional, with ev­ery sys­tem el­e­gantly honed. The myr­iad min­ion pow­ers – draw­ing cards; buffs when at­tacked; Taunt, which draws phys­i­cal strikes onto the power’s bearer – mesh to­gether in care­ful bat­tles of move and coun­ter­move. Build a deck, mean­while, and you can ask for the com­puter’s sug­ges­tions to fill its weakspots. The hero pow­ers are subtly trans­for­ma­tive, too, pro­vid­ing op­tions even when luck fails you. Asym­met­ric matchups will al­ways call bal­ance into ques­tion, but our ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing since open beta is that the only ad­van­tage that mat­ters lies in find­ing a hero that suits your playstyle. On the card side, an evolv­ing metagame should pro­vide checks to any dom­i­nant strate­gies that emerge, and you’ll learn new tac­tics from ev­ery lost match.

Mana crys­tals, the cur­rency by which you play cards, rep­re­sent our favourite of the re­bal­anc­ing acts. In­stead of ty­ing buy­ing power to yet more cards, Hearth­stone ups the ante by adding a crys­tal to your sup­ply each turn, to a limit of ten. This pre­vents ‘mana screw’, in Magic par­lance, where you fall be­hind sim­ply be­cause you’re de­nied re­sources by luck. Mean­while, the sec­ond player will be granted a card called The Coin, played for free to pro­vide a one-use boost to their crys­tal stash – an un­pre­dictable way to mit­i­gate first player ad­van­tage. Cards with the Over­load key­word are over­pow­ered for their ini­tial cost, but deny you mana crys­tals next turn. We could go on. This is what Hearth­stone does best: pre­sent­ing a clear sys­tem and then al­low­ing many tac­ti­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties to spring up from it. It’s up to your skill, and your deck, to make the most of them. Here’s where we get to the messy part: money. Hearth­stone is gen­er­ous with all that you need, so it’s vi­able to play for free, but you’ll want a deck brim­ming with cards that work syn­er­gis­ti­cally to crack through the ech­e­lons of ranked play. The early hours are flush with bonuses: work­ing through the com­pre­hen­sive Prac­tice mode will un­lock the game’s nine he­roes and their ini­tial set of Ba­sic cards, with many more cards gained through lev­el­ling. You’re also given a wealth of neu­tral cards to toy with, more than enough to build your first decks and find your pre­ferred strate­gies.

It’s the switch from AI to hu­man spar­ring part­ners that makes buy­ing blind Ex­pert packs at­trac­tive. Again, the bal­anc­ing is great – no one card we’ve en­coun­tered is so pow­er­ful as to be in­sur­mount­able – so you’re not strong-armed into spend­ing. Chains of com­ple­men­tary pow­ers can be dif­fi­cult to over­come and are tempt­ing to em­u­late, how­ever. You can buy more cards with real money or in-game cur­rency, but since Ex­pert packs cost 100 gold, and do­ing your daily quest earns you 40, it’s a fair old grind to a new set of five cards af­ter the free­bies dry up. Card craft­ing at least en­sures ev­ery penny you do send Blizzard’s way is worth­while, re­cy­cling your un­wanted ex­tras, and packs are far from ex­tor­tion­ate.

The di­vi­sive Arena mode rounds out the pack­age. It’s a pay-to-en­ter chal­lenge (150 gold, or £1.49) where the skil­ful and the lucky can reap prizes far in ex­cess of the in­vest­ment. It asks you to con­struct a deck from the game’s broader card pool by re­peat­edly choos­ing one card from a se­lec­tion of three. Af­ter that, you at­tempt to notch up as many wins as pos­si­ble be­fore you lose three games. While some may find its pay­wall blas­phe­mous, it’s more than a gam­ble for big prizes, of­fer­ing a fresh chal­lenge from as­cend­ing the ranks. If you don’t like the pric­ing, it’s iso­lated from the rest of Hearth­stone, so it ru­ins noth­ing. Play it or not: the choice is yours.

What isn’t op­tional is an In­ter­net con­nec­tion, which you’ll need even against the AI. When you do play other hu­mans, the match­mak­ing’s good enough to keep you from get­ting tram­pled reg­u­larly, but it’s not per­fect. Lowlevel play­ers may be stung in the wake of league re­sets, and some­times you’re pit­ted against a player many lev­els your se­nior, or with an ob­vi­ously su­pe­rior deck.

Such small de­trac­tions can­not over­shadow Blizzard’s achieve­ment here. It has, through painstak­ing ef­fort, up­graded the card duel into a thor­oughly mod­ern form. It has re­sisted the dark lures of free-to-play, and has made deep sys­tems sim­ple to parse with­out neu­ter­ing them. In short, Hearth­stone is bor­der­line alchemy, turn­ing phys­i­cal sys­tems into dig­i­tal gold.

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