Hearthstone is, in its essence, Magic: The Gathering played on a computer. It was developed by Blizzard in the World of Warcraft Universe. Players have a deck of cards, which contain minions and spells, and they seek to destroy the other player before he or she destroys them. Sound like Magic: The Gathering? Yep, except this time creatures are called minions. Same difference, right?
Hearthstone is naturally going to be compared to Magic which in my mind is one of the most influential games in modern gaming, only surpassed by Dungeons and Dragons. Hearthstone is, like Magic, a collectible card game. This means that players make their own deck of cards and use that deck to play another player who has done the same thing. The biggest difference is that Magic is a physical game, while Hearthstone is online.
Hearthstone is free to download, and players don’t need to spend any money in order to have a competitive deck. However, there are super rare cards and if you want to get those quicker, you can shell out money to buy packs. Two packs can be bought for $1.99 or a single pack for 100 in-game gold; every day there is a way to get at least 40 gold for free. You can see how this works: spend 2 days getting the gold to buy 1 pack, or pay the $1.99 for instant gratification. I personally have spent no money on Hearthstone but I still feel competitive playing, as I will explain later.
The Game Itself
I am going to assume that the reader understands the nature of a CCG for this review. In Hearthstone there are 9 different classes of decks controlled by a hero. Each player chooses one of these classes and has a deck comprised of 30 cards that are either specific to that class or are neutral cards. Each class comes with a hero power, which is a special power that can be used for 2 mana once per turn.
Magic players are well accustomed to the idea of mana. Every card costs a certain number of mana to play. If a player does not have enough mana to play a card, that card cannot be played. What Hearthstone does with mana is genius. Each turn, players get 1 more mana than the turn before up to 10 mana. In Magic: The Gathering, a player must play specific mana cards in order to provide the mana needed to pay for cards. Hearthstone just completely gets rid of this, thus the decks can be smaller. Most importantly, there is no such thing as being “mana screwed” meaning not getting enough mana or drawing nothing but mana.
In Hearthstone all cards are either minions, spells, or weapons. Minions are played onto the battlefield and can be used to attack. Every minion has an attack value and a health value. If a minion ever has 0 health, he is killed. Each minion can attack once per turn, either attacking the hero or another minion. Minions cannot attack the turn they are played unless they have “charge” much like in Magic except in Magic it is called “haste.”
Each Hero starts with 30 health and can never be more than 30. When your hero has 0 or less life, you lose. Players can use minions, spells and weapons to attack the opposing hero. I already talked about minions, so let me speak on the other two.
Spells are one time effects that can alter the game considerably. They come in all ranges of power, with the more powerful spells costing more mana, naturally. Many popular spells can be used to get rid of minions that are causing problems. Some spells are as simple as “Destroy a minion.” Others specify a certain amount of damage to be done (i.e. “Deal 3 damage”). Other spells alter a minion attack or health (i.e. “Give a minion +4/+4).
Weapons are neat as they are attached to a hero and then the hero itself is an attacker, much like a minion. Weapons have an attack value, just like a minion, but they have durability so they only remain equipped to a hero for a certain number of uses.
I want to pivot to general game flow. So on a turn the player draws a card first. Then, players can do the following in any order: attack, play cards, or equip weapons. Unlike Magic, there is no specific main phase or attack phase. You can play a card, attack with one minion, play another card, and attack again with a different minion. Each minion can attack only once a turn (unless they have Windfury, which is a special ability that allows 2 attacks per turn).
The game ends when one hero has 0 health.
Hearthstone is a great game. It takes all the great things about Magic: The Gathering and really streamlines it into an online CCG. Like Magic, you can create your own deck in constructed play. My favorite way to play it is in Arena, which is a semi-random drafting format. In arena, every person pays either $1.49 or 150 gold. Then you are given 30 decisions, one at a time. Players decide between 1 of 3 cards to have in their decks. After a deck is created, you play with it until you lose 3 times.
I supposed that Magic is a bit more nuanced. In Hearthstone, there is no such thing as an instant. You only play cards when it is your turn. There are a few “secret” cards, which you play on your turn and only trigger when some game event happens. In Magic, players choose who they are attacking with, and the opponent can block with as few or as many players as he wants. In Hearthstone, the attacking player decides who attacks who and the defender deals his attack thereafter.
This mechanic makes the game very fast. Yet, at the same time, the game has a very good, natural arc. In the early game you only have a few mana, so weaker characters get played. Later in the game you have a lot the heavy hitters who have the chance to come in. Like Magic, the game is often about board control and card advantage. I don’t want to call Hearthstone a better game than Magic, but I will say that it is more inviting.
Hearthstone scratches my CCG itch. It is a streamlined, online version of Magic: The Gathering. If you are trying to scratch that itch, you can do it with Hearthstone without breaking your wallet.