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I have a Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft problem.

The online collectible card battler from Blizzard Entertainment has grabbed me in a manner no game has in some time. I play several matches — and frequently more — a day, trying to scale the rankings (and doing a rather crappy job of it), earn enough gold to enter the challenging and potentially profitable Arena mode, and unlock more cards. My Instapaper queue brims with articles about deck construction, Arena tips, and card values. I’ve even started watching matches on Twitch — and I’ve never watched the gaming-livestreaming service for anything in the past.

And the most telling sign of how much I play — and how good — Hearthstone is: I haven’t touched Civilization V, a game in which I have played 369 hours, since I got into the card game’s beta.

Here’s why Hearthstone hooked me and how I think it may hook you as well.

What you’ll like

Easy to learn …

Hearthstone Minion Attacks

I hadn’t played a collectible card game in two decades, and I’d never played a digital one before. Yet it didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable.

The tutorials do an excellent job of teaching you the basic mechanics for constructed-deck play, where you build a deck from the cards you have and fight in battles (ranked or casual) to accomplish quests that give you gold and unlock cards.


Hearthstone is coming to iPad and tablets soon — but this trick helps you play it on a slate now.


Your character’s and your opponent’s faces are on each side of the board. Both start with 30 health, and you attack these “faces,” either with abilities, Minions, or spells, until you bring your foe to 0 health or you die. You play your cards on the board and use your mouse to make them attack either Minions (which are characters and monsters that can attach, defend, or use abilities) or cast spells. You can play defense as well with cards that have Taunt, which forces the other player to attack that card before all others (though they may use spells or abilities on other Minions or your character). And its tutorials give you rewards as well that you can use for buying card packs, entering the Arena, or crafting cards.

That sounds easy, but Hearthstone holds an amazing amount of strategy in how you use these cards and how you get around their powers.

… And a bastard to master

Hearthstone Mana Curve

To build an effective deck, you need to balance the cost of your cards. This is the “mana curve,” and you want one that’s balanced and looks like an arc (where the low- and high-cost cards are low and the middle stands out like a hill). But this is more of a challenge than it appears. Some cards work so well with classes that you sometimes throw off that curve, favoring more lower-cost cards, as I do with my Warlock and Shaman, two classes that I have found benefit from having lots of smaller Minions (or the opposite, leaning toward higher cost spells and troops). Another popular Warlock deck features a host of sometimes expensive Giants, whose cost could be high or low depending on certain board conditions. And some players focus on using their high-value Legendaries, throwing off mana curves in the hopes of powerful troops that overwhelm opponents’ decks.

Each class also has a power that costs 2 mana per turn that you should also take into account with deck construction. Shamans summon totems that can provide low-value attacking and Taunt Minions, but it also calls in totems that boost health and spell power. The Paladin can call in 1/1 recruits every turn, and Priests can heal. The Warlock can draw an extra card — at a cost of 2 health as well as 2 mana. Well-built decks take advantage of all these hero powers.

Then come the synergies inside decks. Many Minions and spells work well together, and skilled players not only know how to layer these on top of each other but also have strategies to keep others from doing so. Each of the nine classes have these synergies (the easiest to pick up are Mage and Priest, with Warlock and Shaman being on the difficult side). The Paladin has a lot of buffing cards, so even if you don’t draw a good troop, you can summon and then buff a 1 attack, 1 health recruit (1/1 for short, and attack/health will appear like this throughout the rest of this review). Priests have cards that give you bonuses for healing.

And since Hearthstone has been in beta for months, you’ll find a flood of websites with tips and term definitions, deck construction guides and lists, card rankings, and even a site that ranks the card values for what you get in the Arena.

The Arena

Hearthstone Choosing Arena Hero

This is the best — and the most frustrating — part of Hearthstone. The Arena is a mode in which you build a 30-card deck from random draws (with three choices per set). You then take that deck into battles against random foes. The goal is to get as many wins as you can before you lose three bouts. The number of victories determine your rewards. Even if you go winless, you get a deck of cards and either a common card or a small amount of Dust (a magical element you use to craft cards you don’t have in your deck) or gold. But the more matches you win, the better the rewards — including chances to get Epic and Legendary cards. Win seven, and you get enough gold for another Arena run.

Deck-building strategy, through, is different in the Arena than in standard play. Minions are much more important because you’re not sure what synergies you’ll be able to take advantage of — two of my best runs were playing Hunter decks with just one or two Beasts, the backbone of that class’s deck. So you want to take the most powerful troops that you can — though this doesn’t necessarily mean those with the biggest mana. A 2-mana Bloodfen Raptor has 3 attack and 2 health with no special ability, but it’s frequently a better play than a 3-mana Minion with a special ability but lower health because that Raptor stands a better chance of surviving the round, especially if your foe only has one with 1 attack on the board. (This is called “the Vanilla” test.)

It takes time to grow used to this, and oddly enough, I’ve found that Arena matches have only become more difficult, not less, as the new players filtered in.

You don’t need to ‘pay to win’

Hearthstone Buying Cards

I didn’t pay for a single pack or Arena run until I decided I wanted to review Hearthstone, and then I only did just so I could test how these work. I bought 15 packs for $20 and five Arena runs for $2 a pop. I didn’t actually reel in that many rare cards that I hadn’t already earned. I did bag one rather useful Legendary, the Bloodmage Thalnos, who grants all your spells +1 damage and a card for your hand when he dies. He’s not an overpowering card but certainly more useful than many of the other Legendaries.

I actually destroyed a number of cards from those packs for Dust, using it to craft two Argent Commanders (a rare 6-mana card that has both Charge and Divine Shield). But I don’t consider the money I spent, which at $30 is half of a standard game, to be that much of a game-changer. Maybe I had poor luck with my packs? Maybe others pulling 15 packs nab more Rares and Legendaries than I did.

I even tested this with $40 worth of cards — 40 packs, with five in a pack. That’s 200 cards. And what did I get? I got two new Legendaries — Ysera, a powerful dragon, and King Mulka, an 3-mana card with 5/5 — two Giants, and 149 duplicate cards. And of those 47 “new cards,” 11 were Golden versions of commons I already had. A significant portion of the others were from classes I never use (hence, cards I hadn’t either unlocked or created yet). I did get 1,045 Dust from disenchanting the dupes, and that’s not even enough to craft a single Legendary.

While this is a one-test example, it shows that you just simply can’t “pay to win” unless you throw in gobs of money. I doubt Hearthstone would attract the same “whales” (that tiny slice of players who pay big bucks in free-to-play games) that you find in more casual games, where you know that money you spend on items isn’t tied to randomness. You need lots of practice and study to succeed at Hearthstone, not a fat wallet.

Fantastic artwork, animations, and sound

Hearthstone Lightning Bolt

I still snicker at some of the noises and sequences some cards set off when you drop them on the board. Just about every card has something that adds flavor. When Shamans summon Totems, a blue ghost image drops from the sky as it lands on the board. Many Beasts roar. The Knife Juggler throws a blade that launches from his card to a random enemy target when you play another troop. Fireballs and Pyroblasts burst in flames. Frost cards and spells encase their targets in ice. Legendaries enter with a flourish, and some, such as Ragnaros the Firelord, arrive with a blast of flame. The Warrior’s Brawl card throws all Minions into a cartoony fight, and only one survives.

But the most special card might be Leroy Jenkins. Based on the now infamous World of Warcraft incident, this Legendary shouts out his name — LEROOOOYYYY JENKINS!!!! — just as the player did in the original raid that made dear Leroy a meme. A musical flourish joins his triumphant charge onto the board.

Little bits like this add a great deal of character and make Hearthstone more fun than many standard card games.

What you won’t like

Legendaries can unbalance

Hearthstone Crafting Card

It can be frustrating dealing with a player that throws down a deck stacked with Epics and Legendaries. I came across a few who had five or more Legendary cards, and one Warlock player with five Legendaries and six Epic cards — my poor Shaman deck, one with which I win more often than I lose, just couldn’t remove the steady flow of Giants and Dragons that spewed from this deck.

But most of the time, I found that decks were balanced, and some of the best players, I noticed, where those whose decks weren’t built around throwing out a Legendary or two but just good, consistent plays. In fact, skilled players can feast on those who build decks around one Legendary and have no clear strategy for when someone kills that card.

Frequent nerfs

For a couple of months, two of my favorite cards were the Novice Engineer and the Defender of Argus. These were powerful Neutral cards that worked in any deck. For 2 mana, the 1/2 engineer also gave you a card when played on the board. Not every Minion that would find itself played on turns 1 or 2 could remove it. And the 4-mana Defender of Argus may look like a bad deal at 3/3, but it added 1 attack and 1 health and Taunt to adjacent Minions. But a patch in January made both of these weaker, dropping Novice Engineer to 1/1 and Defender of Argus to 2/3. Now the Engineer would die to almost any card, including the Mage’s class ability to throw a small fireball.

Blizzard frequently adjusts the power of cards. Not every update makes cards weaker — one of my favorite Hunter cards, Unleash the Hounds (which summons a 1/1 Hound for every enemy on the board, and it can attack immediately), went from 4 mana to 2 mana. This made it a must-add card to every Hunter deck, and since it syncs up to several of that class’s other Minions well, the update made it more powerful as well.

Whether an update leaves you with better cards or weakens them, regular players must pay close attention to what Blizzard does to address the balance and tinker with their decks to absorb the changes.

A few technical issues

Hearthstone is always-online, but I’ve had few issues with lag or connecting to Battle.net, Blizzard’s multiplayer servers. The problems I have seen have been with effects — sometimes, cards “hover” in your hand or on the board or block others in your hand for no reason. The sound effects stutter as well every now and then.

Conclusion

Hearthstone Area of Effect Spell

As someone who hasn’t touched collectible card games since the mid-1990s — and hasn’t played Warcraft since it was still a real-time strategy game — I’m amazed at not only how quickly I picked up Hearthstone but also how much I’ve played it. It’s easy to learn, easy to get into matches and play, and it’s fun. It’s led me to check out other digital card games — and I’m again surprised at how much I enjoy these.

My only concern lies in how quickly Blizzard adds expansion packs and different quests to keep its first F2P venture fresh. Such games need regular updates in order to remain interesting to players, and while Hearthstone’s depth could keep some players interested for months with just its current content, it’s going to need more than just artistic touches to become a long-lasting game.

Expect more Murloc cards. Everyone hates Murlocs.

Score: 95/100

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is out now for PC and Mac. It’s coming “soon” to tablets as well. Blizzard provided GamesBeat with early beta-test access, but the reviewer used his own money for microtransactions since he plans on playing the game far into the future and feels using anything he didn’t pay for wouldn’t be fair to other players. 

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Activision (Activision Blizzard) is an American video game developer and publisher headquartered in Santa Monica, CA, but now operating worldwide. It was the first independent developer and distributor of video games for gaming console... read more »

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