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. Low-level 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.