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The greatest CCG Of 2014: Hearthstone

Shame about the name, eh?

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.

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