The Bestest Best CCG Of 2014: Hearthstone

2014 saw the release of three or four interesting and excellent card games, but it was Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft that most captured our attention and drew us back for match after match.

Alec: I’ve shied away from multiplayer in the last couple of years. Partly it’s self-consciousness, and partly because the constant background sound of bloodcurdling screaming* whenever my microphone was turned on didn’t seem fair on everyone else. Hearthstone was very much a way back, and not simply because it worked pretty well on my Surface Pro’s touchscreen (though that was very much a factor). Given it comes from a developer which once thought that making its players’ real names public was a good idea, the way Hearthstone strips everything back to anonymity is impressive. It’s about the deck you face, not the player you face. I needn’t worry about being scrutinised or humiliated – win or lose, I’d be out of there and never seen again by my opponent. And I don’t care about them, either. I just care about the cards.

That’s not why I picked up a brief Hearthstone habit, though. The thing about Hearthstone is that the learning is fun, rather than a chore. A combination of experience and research sees strategies unfold, and the pay-off is killer combos whose effects stretch far beyond those of any individual card. The sense of understanding, even mastering, is potent. I feel like I’m achieving something, even when I lose. And I feel so damned excited when it looks like I’m winning. Body flooded with chemicals, heart pounding, fingers trembling, playing with pretend cardboard. All the good stuff.

Blizzard tend towards game-design-by-science, but usually it’s swaddled with a need for a discipline I don’t have or a degree of repetition that bores me. Hearthstone is the balance, because it’s so simple, because it doesn’t exist beyond its cards, because it’s a two player / five minute game. Bar some annoyance around the acquisition of new cards, the science is unfettered by grind or athleticism. Am I saying Hearthstone is the best competitive game for lazy and/or cowardly people? I think I am.

* My one-year-old is rather… intense. Also I keep a load of people chained up in my basement.

Pip: I thought I’d stopped playing Hearthstone because it turned out to be not particularly satisfying but now it’s 3am and I’m trying to work out the most humiliating way to defeat a stranger at wizard cards. Stupid free tempt-you-in expansion packs and stupid mages and stupid random number generators which clearly aren’t random and clearly hate me for some reason I can’t even begin to fathom…

The thing is, I’d decided I didn’t need more than one CCG in my life and that the CCG was going to be Netrunner because Netrunner involved getting out of the house and going to the pub. Then those meet-ups moved further away so I stopped going and didn’t invest in the expansions and now I don’t even recognise half the cards anymore AND there are no pub trips.

Instead, I have returned to Blizzard and their shiny free-to-play behemoth. I don’t recognise half the cards at the moment thanks to my prolonged absence and the launch of Goblins vs Gnomes but I’m gradually digging into it, building increasingly useful decks and getting back into the habit of calculating how to make the best of my hand. It’s turned out the be annoyingly compelling.

Matches are pretty short which means you can fit a game in at odd moments during the day or while you wait for dinner to cook – I’ve got it on my PC but am finding the iPad version gets far more use. A greater number of matches means I’ve quickly started to get to grips with the current card lineups and meta. I’m not a great Hearthstone player, but I’m an improving one, and Hearthstone is a game where those improvements feel pretty obvious – it’s a good feeling.

The last thing I’m fond of is how much emotion and nuance you can read into the pre-set emote options. There’s the ultra-sarcastic “Well done”, the genuine “Well done”, the sympathetic “Oops”, the futile “Threaten” spammed when you’re mathematically fucked, the jubilant “Sorry” which you suspect will come back to bite you horribly when you realise success hinges on a particular card draw…

I would say that I’ve gone through phases with the game. At points I’ve found it dull or repetitive, but at its best it’s a neat game. I mean that both in terms of the pleasing production and in the sense of there being that pared-down efficiency when you or your opponent is working with a strong deck.

Back to the complete bestest best PC games of 2014.

71 Comments

  1. Unknown says:

    Best Game contenders?

    The Banner Saga (probably not, WIT was mixed)
    Wasteland 2 (probably not, WIT was mixed)
    Shovel Knight (probably not, too purely retro)
    Kentucky Route Zero Act III / Here and There Along the Echo (probably not, KRZ won last year)
    This War of Mine (probably not, WIT was mixed)
    Shadowrun Dragonfall (probably not, I doubt DLC would win GOTY)
    Nidhogg (maybe)
    Naissancee (probably not, WIT was mixed)
    Goat Simulator (…maybe?)
    The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (probably not, WIT was mixed)
    Super Time Force (probably not, was never reviewed)

    • dahools says:

      Stick of truth? They Liked that, unless it’s a AAA I don’t know what they will pick.

      • airmikee says:

        Huh? Of the 23 games announced so far, only nine of them are AAA titles. RPS has never ignored indie games.

        • dahools says:

          I think you are mis interpreting what I put wrote. My game of the year has already been picked as 4X what I meant was I have no idea what they will pick if it’s lesser known. My predictions would be AAA ‘s.

          • airmikee says:

            My apologies. I just picked up Endless Legend and have to agree it’s worthy of serious awardage. :)

      • Unknown says:

        Stick of Truth’s WIT was mixed also. They had qualms with South Park’s to-be-expected offensiveness and described the first few hours as a slog. I doubt it would get GOTY.

        I see Shovel Knight and Goat Simulator made it into Games Wot Got Away so they’re out, which is a bummer because I was secretly hoping Goat Simulator would take the prize.

        Maybe Dungeon of the Endless?

    • oafish-oaf says:

      The Long Dark. They recently added tea.

    • Steve Catens says:

      I fear another Farcry GOTY award.

      • Cockie says:

        Far cry was bestest coop already.

        • Steve Catens says:

          Have they stated that a game can’t win a category award and also the overall?

          • Cockie says:

            Yes, because they first picked the games and then invented a category for each, including “bestest best game”.

          • Steve Catens says:

            In that case, I fear a Titanfall GOTY.

            Just kidding, I hope. I’m sure it will be Elite: Dangerous.

          • Cockie says:

            Elite is not an unlikely choice, but I know a lot of people who aren’t happy with it yet because most of the mechanics except for combat are still seriously lacking in depth. Could become a great game, they say, but it needs a lot of work first.
            (Didn’t play it myself)

          • Steve Catens says:

            It’s just a conspicuous omission to this point. Even though they haven’t officially reviewed it yet, it’s an important game with a lot of hype, it’s on their mind *right now*, and it won’t qualify for a strict 2015 list. As far as other people not liking a game that RPS likes, what else is new.

          • Cockie says:

            RPS lists are never strict. If next year they decide that 2015 was the year Elite really came together, they would happily throw it in. ;)
            I would also say it’s a likely candidate, but I’m still puzzeled by the fact there was a “Best Space” category that suddenly got replaced by that procedural art game. :/

          • Steve Catens says:

            RPS lists are never strict. If next year they decide that 2015 was the year Elite really came together, they would happily throw it in.

            Chaos. Dogs and Cats living together. Mass Hysteria.

            I won’t have it.

    • Cockie says:

      Cloudbuilt! (Probably not)

    • Laurentius says:

      If we are beting, my bet for RPS GOTY is going to be Thief4.

    • brat-sampson says:

      *sits back and hopes for Rebirth…*

      The only negatives in the WIT are a couple of stylistic choices and personally it’s my second longest played game of the year at about fifty hours. The longest was persona 4 on vita as that took seventy to complete and had an eight month head start…

    • cannonballsimp says:

      The Talos Principle? It was well thinked of

    • Skull says:

      I hope for Nidhogg as that was a super cool fighting game that seems to have been forgotten about since its release. I know there is not much to it but the design and gameplay have been lovingly crafted and I much prefer that to the bloat that fills Far Cry / Ass Creed.

      Also, surprised not to see Jazzpunk on your list? Another stand out game which was genuinely funny (more than South Park I would say) and off beat and unusual. Were RPS not fond of it? I shall have to dig out the WIT…

      • Unknown says:

        Ah, I forgot about Jazzpunk. I haven’t played it yet myself, but if I remember correctly, RPS thought it was less than the sum of its parts.

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Dungeons of The Endless
      The Evil Within

      [edit] Just realized it could be Eidolon.

    • Carra says:

      My miney was on Shadows of Mordor. Now i have no idea.

    • Unknown says:

      Heh… maybe GOTY will be Depression Quest, even though it first came out last year. That would be pretty rad and hilarious actually.

    • Flavour Beans says:

      The game I’d be most shocked to see not make the list (which means I’m considering a dark horse for Best Game) is Battleblock Theater. If I recall, they loved it, and it was start-to-finish an expertly assembled, endlessly funny little wonder from a promising developer.

    • Flavour Beans says:

      “Kentucky Route Zero Act III / Here and There Along the Echo (probably not, KRZ won last year)”

      If I recall, they did say in the GOTY article for KRZ that they could see giving it the award again if the subsequent acts were still good.

    • Paul.Power says:

      Roundabout, perhaps? ;)

    • Mako says:

      GUARANTEED to be Dungeon Of The Endless. Read the Endless Legend advent calendar entry if you don’t believe me…

  2. Steve Catens says:

    I didn’t play enough digital CCGs in 2014 to speak with any confidence as to “the best”. I did, however, find Infinity Wars to be much more interesting in terms of mechanics, presentation, and faction/lore than Hearthstone, which I quickly grew bored with and uninstalled.

    • Vandelay says:

      I liked Infinity War too. But I got a sense that card builds might be a bit limited. Each race seemed to have their strategy and, naturally, there would be the ideal cards to complete the strategy. I played through most of the single player and a couple of online matches and wasn’t sure if there really was much more to see. I know they recently released a new set of cards, so perhaps that has improved.

      I would quite like to put £15-20 into a card game in the new year, as it is a genre that I discovered I really liked in 2014 (mainly thanks to Hearthstone, which is why I don’t begrudge its inclusion here, despite it probably being the weakest gameplay-wise.) I am mostly torn between Infinity War and Hex. However, I have felt that the later of these doesn’t give you a good feel for the game before require money, whilst I’m uncertain on how much mileage I would get from Infinity War.

      • Steve Catens says:

        That wasn’t my experience. I saw many mixed faction decks, and they were much more effective, adding unpleasant wrinkles to factions you thought you had good counters for. It’s likely I was just really bad at the game, though.

  3. Horg says:

    I knew this was going to win when the category was announced. I also knew i’d be inevitably disappointed when it did. Choosing Hearthstone as best CCG is analogous to choosing a paddling pool as best water sports venue. It’s a game I can’t justify spending much time with as mechanically its a victim of its own simplicity. As a game based on probability and chance, its a victim of its small numbers.I can’t justify spending money on it as the FTP rate of card acquisition is painfully slow, and I don’t like rewarding the pay to avoid the grind model. I’m sure its been said before, but if Hearthstone didn’t have Blizzard behind it, or the Warcraft license, it would have gone largely unnoticed.

    • SuddenSight says:

      I agree with you, but I think Blizzard’s hand in this game is what makes it so special. It feels easy and welcoming in a way no other online CCG does. There are so many little touches – from the way the game welcomes you, to all the little bits of useless interactivity, that make it feel more “real.” It’s that Blizzard polish that has been applied to every aspect of the game’s presentation and makes it feel approachable.

      In terms of mechanics, it isn’t particularly new. There are dozens of other CCGs that are deeper, better designed, more interesting, etc… But for the best CCG *on a computer*, I feel Hearthstone deserves this simply on account of presentation.

      • Steve Catens says:

        “There are dozens of other CCGs that are deeper, better designed, more interesting, etc… But for the best CCG *on a computer*, I feel Hearthstone deserves this simply on account of presentation.”

        Hmm.

      • australopithecus says:

        It’s the “little touches” that annoy the shit out of me.

        I just want to start playing the game. I don’t want to hear the hollow enthusiasm of a soulless computer that has been programmed to “welcome” me.

        I just want to want to see what cards I’ve won after an Arena run and convert the duplicates to dust. I don’t want to have to go back to the deck screen, click on the card pack, click on every single card, go to the “my collection” screen, click on crafting, click on disenchant all, click on disenchant, and then watch yet another pointless animation of dust swirling around the screen.

        I just want to have all my constructed decks available to me and be able to tweak them, swap between them and try them out without being limited to an arbitrary nine decks that means I am constantly deleting and recreating the same decks as I try to fit the ones I want in.

        Blizzard try to make this simple game feel like it has more to it by putting a deliberately inefficient interface between me and what I want to do. But making it take five times as long as it should to do common, repetitve tasks doesn’t make it feel more significant. It just makes it feel like I’m wasting my limited recreational time clicking through needless screens and animations, and listening to imaginary dwarves with Scottish accents telling me just how happy they are to be wasting my time yet again.

        • blastaz says:

          I think you need to put a little more joy in your play…

          • australopithecus says:

            I have plenty of joy in my play, thanks. I don’t have joy in wrestling with an inefficient interface. If the interface was better, I would have more time playing with my real friends, and less time listening to the fake friendship of an imaginary dwarf.

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      Honestly it is the Warcraft theme that first captured me and a lot of other people. The cards are instantly recognisable and it really helps ease you into the otherwise fairly daunting task of trying to understand and decipher hundreds of cards, what they do and how they work together.
      The other big plus point is the sound and animation of it all, which is objectively way ahead of anything else in the genre and makes the Hearthstone board a pleasure to be around where other CCGs fail.

      People were talking about Infinity Wars, I played quite a bit of this, the game mechanics were interesting but the whole thing felt so nondescript compared to Hearthstone. The theme is kinda like a cutprice Warhammer 40k variant, it just does not draw you in, in the same way that Hearthstone does.

  4. neoncat says:

    Meh, I’m still sad that Card Hunter got stiffed last year (and again this year, if you count expansions). It’s so much more than Hearthstone ever tried to be.

  5. Guran says:

    DayZ tomorrow then?

  6. Kemuel says:

    I decided a while ago that Netrunner and Hearthstone are the two card games I have room in my life for and I’ve been really happy now worrying about Magic or any others since. Netrunner’s the deep, social one which I can go to the pub to play, and think about at work whilst reading decklists and card spoilers for, and Hearthstone’s the quick, lightweight one I can tinker with for half an hour every day before work or over dinner without investing too heavily in or caring much about. It’s the perfect filler game for playing whilst waiting for people to come online, or whilst watching TV, grinding through the crappy matchups against farmers and meta decks until you find someone fun and interesting to play.

  7. electroLux says:

    To mention Netrunner as a -CG that you stopped playing because of Hearthstone seems to me like saying that you don’t have the time to listen to Bowie, because you’re too busy with the new Britney Spears album.

    • Chris D says:

      I read that section as being more along the lines of “I can’t make it to Bowie gigs as as often as I’d like but at least I have this Britney Spears CD I can listen to in the car.”

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      Philippa Warr says:

      The Netrunner evenings involve over an hour of travel each way which means if I finish work late I can only get maybe one or two matches in. It also costs the best part of a tenner, then factor in other costs like expansions and occasionally buying drinks or food in a London pub so we aren’t taking the piss using their venue. I never said I stopped playing Netrunner because of Hearthstone I said I can’t play Netrunner regularly. Hearthstone scratches some of the same itches and is still accessible to me.

      • technoir says:

        I know next to nothing about CCGs so this might be a dumb question, but why are there so few online versions of major CCGs like Netrunner? Seems to me they would go a long way in preventing situations like that, and I struggle to think of any reason why retaining and expanding their games’ player base wouldn’t be beneficial for the publishers.

        (Of course, playing against strangers on the internet isn’t quite the same as with your buddies in a pub, but you get my point)

        • SuddenSight says:

          My guess? Production difficulties. From a production standpoint (meaning: investment and publishing aspects in particular) board games and computer games are completely different. Most big board and card game publishing houses have really struggled with it.

          The biggest pushes have been Wizards of the Coast, who have licensed many of their IPs for often middling games but also produce some computer games like the consistently mediocre Magic games, Games Workshop, who always license their IPs with varying results, and Days of Wonder, who have produced some of their own more faithful adaptations to mixed reviews, including Ticket to Ride.

          Seeing as moving to an online structure often requires a different payment model, not to mention all the non-trivial interface work required to make a board game actually feel “natural” to play on a computer, most board game publishers don’t bother.

        • MisterFurious says:

          There are some ways to play a lot of card games online, like OCTGN, which does have Netrunner. I’ve never messed with them myself, but I’ve looked into them. They aren’t licensed or very professional and, thus, can be very daunting to use, but they’re there.

      • electroLux says:

        Fair enough! That makes sense.

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      Philippa Warr says:

      (I’d also say I really like Britney Spears so perhaps you meant your comment as a compliment. If that’s the case then I apologise for misinterpreting your tone ;))

  8. Commander Gun says:

    This is the least surprise, both because there aren;t any (realistic) alternatives and because i am having a blast playing it. Heathstone is an ideal game for the magic player of yesteryear who had to move on in a real life, where time is on the essence. It is casual enough to play in those 1/2 hours between coming back from work and having a family life and (at least for me) has some strategy enough to stil be interesting.

    • Lamb Chop says:

      It’s casual and short-term enough to hook me into playing far more than I would any serious game, all the while justifying it by saying I don’t have time for a more in-depth enterprise. Scratches exactly the same itch as FTL and Binding of Isaac except I can also play it in the pauses while I’m doing laundry or cooking dinner. Push those happy buttons!

      Also, the playful randomness of the Goblins and Gnomes cards adds a ton to the feel of the game as something to screw around with while adding another layer of probability to your in-game judgment calls.

  9. Pantalaimon says:

    I had a lot of fun with Infinity Wars. Solid mechanics, more complex deck building than Hearthstone, with a slightly less polished interface (although the card art is great). I don’t really agree when people say there’s no alternative because it’s a real alternative.

    And in the real world, Magic’s Khans block looks like being an absolute gaming classic. Already had one pretty exemplar autumn set that has stood the test of months of drafting and shaken up established metas.

    Hearthstone just has a very long way to go to match the level of set design on offer there. Their individual cards are sometimes neat, but the sets don’t really do much more than add a bunch of cards. This is pretty much the formula WotC ran with for years before they focused more on sets and block based design.

    • Martel says:

      This would be my choice as well. I’m curious if most people only played hearthstone and none of the alternatives. Nothing wrong with that, but after playing Infinity Wars a few times I uninstalled Hearthstone and I can’t see myself ever playing it again.

  10. Dawngreeter says:

    I came here from 1981 to say this one thing:

    SCROOOOOOOOOOOOOOLS!!!

    (I love Hearthstone a lot, though)

    • LTK says:

      A friend convinced me to try scrolls just this week. It has a trial mode that’s incredibly feature-rich and very suitable to learn the game (all the easy custom challenges, unranked multiplayer, and easy and medium AI matches) and build up a collection (you can buy all the packs with random scrolls but not premade decks). A more friendly business model that also makes you want to pay for the game I haven’t yet seen.

      I’m enjoying it already, there’s a ton of tactical depth that I am totally not grasping and I look forward to learning more. I really miss some of the quality-of-life features that Hearthstone does have like an overview of all existing cards and a history bar that shows you what just happened in that crazy chain-reaction explosion last turn.

      • Dawngreeter says:

        Also, the existence of Black Market means you can earn and buy any card you need very, very easily. As of right now, the most expensive card for the Decay faction (Anima Conduit) can be earned in a couple of hours of play. Vast majority of cards cost less than what you get for completing a medium daily challenge.

        And that’s extremely refreshing compared to Hearthstone. Although, yeah, a lot of quality of life features would be very welcome and that’s something Hearthstone has in spades.

    • MisterFurious says:

      I started playing Scrolls a couple of days ago and it blows Hearthstone out of the water. It’s so much better on all levels. I’m on the fence about paying the $5 for the full deal, but I love the fact that that’s all I’ll ever have to pay if I want to keep playing the game, unlike Hearthstone were you can dump over a hundred dollars into it and still not get any good cards.

  11. Pace says:

    Er, let’s see: CCG = ‘computer card game’? Is that right?
    Gaming has way too many acronyms.

  12. Flavour Beans says:

    I was pleased with Hearthstone, and I came into it with a strong prejudice towards anything Warcrafty from the past decade. There are deeper games out in the genre this year, yes, and there are ones that are more serious and focused on the game itself (even I’ll admit that the dwarf narrator is a bit grating), but Hearthstone runs away with this by doing everything right in terms of presentation, accessibility, and range of dedication level needed to enjoy it.

    The mere amount of sensory detail woven into the game gives it an exciting feel. I always tell people that it manages to feel more like an all-out brawl than just a card game. The visuals of the attacks, cards flying about, the slams of impacts and the battlecries of creatures, the gasps and awe of the crowd, it all weaves together to feel like something more than it is.

    Some people can really invest some time into finding the right card combos and hammering out the right decks and going on and on in forums about efficiency and mechanic, while others can just sneak a hand or two in while waiting for a game to download or dinner to arrive. It’s easy to pop in and out of and it’s easy for those who don’t play it to follow along while watching, which has made it a common sight on game streams while the streamer waits for queues or timers.

    It manages to stay simple and clean without feeling “dumbed down”. In fact, I’d say it makes a few of its more-complex rivals feel like they’re complex for complexity’s sake, rather than out of clever design.

  13. ben_reck says:

    I don’t understand why this game is condemned as simple. Sure, it doesn’t have the legalistic quality of MtG, the tiny text with endless codicils, but it’s rich in choice and consequence and still plays blazingly fast.

    I can weight my deck to excel in early, mid, or late game — or try to balance the three. I have nine different classes with their own styles and approaches, their own cards, and their own affinities with expert cards.

    I can tell the weight of another player almost immediately. Did the pally just spend his coin to summon a recruit on his first turn? Bad move. And I struggle to stay at rank 18 of 25. And believe me, I don’t think I’m playing poorly. It’s a subtle game, with an advantage to be scratched for at every play.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      You’re right, you can’t condemn for being less complex than other games per se.. but the design of Hearthstone being more immediately playable does mean that the gameplay boils down a lot faster to ‘best deck wins, play next game’, whereas ideally it would be more about the individual match ups. Heartstone is obviously fun for a lot of people, and I guess that is what matters, but there’s just potential to do much more.

      The way that good players differentiate themselves from merely average players over the longer term is making minor deck adjustments and playing a lot of matches to see how it affects the deck’s strength. Per match, there’s just not enough complexity to support outplaying your opponent because the ‘most correct’ gameplay decisions are usually signposted or can be learnt quite quickly. It’s still enjoyable in short bursts just purely based on style and ease of play, but over the long run, because they’ve removed or greatly simplified a lot of the in-match mechanics associated with the genre, there’s not as much meat as there could be.

      The only reason I find this a little odd is that the game is obviously marketed towards the more casual end of the spectrum, in presentation, card design, being a product in the Warcraft lineage, and so on, but the most legitimate gameplay only exists outside of the matches themselves for those who put in hundreds of hours. Casual players who play a match with a dozen new cards, then swap those cards out and play with another dozen, and so on, are kind of being hoodwinked into thinking their actions had any gameplay meaning. I don’t really like that element of Blizzard’s approach, and it usually shows across all their games.

      You could say that the G&G expansion does a lot to improve upon this purely because it has card choices that increase variance, muddying the waters a bit. It also gives weaker players a lot more chances to win with underpowered decks, which is a good thing for the game. But I would say that overall it mostly just obfuscates the deck building. It makes the deck building game more grindy without adding much depth (great if your aim is to monetise a free game, but perhaps not as respectable from a game design standpoint).

      So in the end, you have a strange game torn between the hardcore deckbuilders, where the deckbuilding is not relatively as sophisticated as other games, and the match-per-match gameplay where player decisions are not given enough weight. Given this, I think I would just always expect people to either play Magic or the likes of Yugioh, respectively, which do these elements better.

  14. Shardz says:

    I’ve been done with Blizzard since Diablo ][: LoD. For my digital card fix, it’s mainly Scrolls, Ascension: Chronicles of the Godslayer, Dominion and Magic Online. I can never go back from what I have seen.