Every time Hearthstone launches the first thing you see is a box. The camera lingers on the bevelled edges of the lid, gaining height before tilting to settle on a top-down view. The inset stone glows with restive energy, clunks backwards and spins – in a surprise twist, the lid doesn't flip open but splits vertically. Hearthstone's roots are in the real-world, and a big part of the joy in card games is the physical pleasure of playing with them. This lovingly-crafted box is the opening volley in answering one question; can Blizzard make a digital card game that feels like a real one?
Blizzard themselves have been keen to downplay expectations, but Hearthstone is a product of rare quality, the foundations of a game that could have decades of life. Players have been slamming down cards in closed beta for around six months and the game has now entered 'open beta' (sign up here) – though as a free-to-play game the distinction between this and a full release is somewhat subtle. It's fair to say, at the least, that Hearthstone today is the functionally complete product, with all nine of its heroes and multiple hundreds of cards long in-place.
Hearthstone is a competitive game of one-on-one matches, turn-based and with thirty cards each. Each player starts with one mana crystal, and on subsequent turns draws a card and gains another mana crystal to a limit of ten – the player who goes second is granted 'The Coin' as a leveller, a 0 cost card worth one extra mana point. Each player controls a hero with 30HP, and a 'hero ability', and the goal is to get them before they get you.
What happens within these confines could be anything: a Hunter deck crammed with low-cost beasts and buffs, tearing away at opponents and minions from turn 1 and wearing down the enemy's HP with the 'sure shot' ability; a Druid that rips minions off the board with brutal AOE and direct damage, before planting giant trees for a beatdown endgame; a Mage of ice that freezes entire armies before unleashing waves of dragons and flame, finishing you up with a Pyroblast to the face; or a Paladin with the Sword of Justice, summoning orderly lines of Silver Knights that shoonk into place with a shudder, +1/+1, like clockwork toys. "Rreporting for duty," each new one says, the nasal tone never altering whether they face murlocs, knights or legendary monsters.
My beloved silver knights are the Paladin's hero ability, which lets him summon in a 1/1 minion for 2 mana once per turn. Each hero has their own special trick (equipping daggers, or armouring up, or shooting a fireball) but your choice also dictates most of the cards you'll be able to select. Hearthstone's cards are in nine categories themed around the nine heroes, plus a huge pool of 'neutral' minions that can be used by any class. These cards can be further divided into categories like Pirates, Murlocs, and Demons that work well together, but the vast majority sync beautifully across multiple styles. The Mage, for example, has a tonne of exclusive spell cards dealing AOE damage and effects – as well as minions like the Sorceror's Apprentice, who reduces the cost of spells, and 'secrets' like Counter-spell.
Secrets are an interesting part of Hearthstone's system, because they exist to mask over a part of CCGs that's been removed, namely mid-turn interplay. When you're with another human and playing MTG, it is easy, as long as you have the right card, to interrupt someone in the act of casting a spell and counter it. In Hearthstone this is impossible, because it's not face-to-face and Blizzard clearly don't want these kind of floating decision points where players can intrude on another player's turn.
So Secrets exist. These are classed as spells but once cast stay dormant on your hero until an enemy action triggers their card text – it could trigger when an enemy plays a minion, or attacks, or casts a spell. This is Hearthstone's way of mitigating some of the flexibility lost by so clearly demarcating player turns. Does it work? Not really kinda maybe it's OK most of the time. The problem with the Secrets method, and the reason I don't use Counter-spell in my Mage decks, is that I want to pick a target rather than leaving things up to Lady Luck.
The secrets, though, deserve to be considered in context as part of an overall streamlining of mechanics. Hearthstone has many obvious antecedents, but in the service of a fast and accessible style of match simplifies or removes CCG staples – there's no graveyard here, for example.
The clearest impact of this is that Hearthstone is easier to pick up than any other card-battler I've played, and Blizzard also do the right thing in using Warcraft as a tongue-in-cheek flavour rather than a stodgy base – you need no prior knowledge or love for the series to enjoy the cartoony and superbly-voiced minions.
By being accessible in this way Hearthstone opens itself up for the kind of sneer that's already darkening plenty of online discussion. 'Shallow.' This is the kind of hard-to-substantiate but serious-sounding accusation that sticks around. Depth in card games like Hearthstone comes from the surprises baked into rock-solid fundamentals, the potential in its combinations which players are constantly excavating but never fully uncover. In other words, everything depends on how often Hearthstone's cards can keep surprising players.
I've been playing Hearthstone for around four months now, and in that time have seen the rise and fall of countless 'unbeatable' decks – some of which, like the Hunter's 'Unleash the Hounds' one-move kill on turn 6 or 7, were nerfed by Blizzard and some of which, like the Warlock's Murloc deck, stick around as strong but beatable archetypes. Things have come and gone: the super-passive Druids that bleed out your deck, the Mages dependent on low-cost freezing spells into Alexstraza then Pyroblast, or the Priests and their silly Mind Control nonsense.
I had a Mage Pyroblast deck, and how Blizzard dealt with its sudden popularity was simple. The Mage has several spells that freeze all enemy minions, which blocks them all for attacking for a turn. With multiple of these, plus a few flamestrikes, the mage could keep the board clear and then in the endgame slam down Alexstraza - a card that reduces one player's health to 15 (in this case your opponent). Next turn the Mage would unleash super high-damage magic and do 15+ damage to win.
All that Blizzard did here was make the freezing spells more expensive. That might not sound like much but, considering each spell's mana cost is separate and the original plan depended entirely on freezing enemy minions in the earlygame, it makes the decks super-vulnerable early and clunky to transition out of and into the big endgame. That brutal combo of Alexstraza followed by nasty magic is still open, unchanged, but getting there without taking big damage or wasting key spells is a lot tougher. I still have a deck like this, but let's just say it's changed.
This type of call-and-response has always been the lifeblood of card games but Hearthstone's position as one of the first potentially mass-market CCGs with an excellent online infrastructure makes things exciting. As for the 'free-to-play' tag, this is one of the few games that will make Western players love the business model. It's as simple as that. I've been playing Hearthstone for a while now and, at the start, had a few issues with the way the in-game currency Gold trickled in. Happily the Arena has been majorly tweaked in subsequent updates, and the win cap is now a dozen games (and a potential 250 Gold), which goes hand-in-hand with the new ranking system for competitive play (and its irresistible 'winstreak' booster). With the Daily Quests topping up your Gold, you won't ever have to put a penny in to have an enormous amount of fun with Hearthstone. Yes you might not have all the cards you want quite as quickly as you want, and it's a long road even if you're sticking a few quid in here or there, but that's part of the pleasure with CCGs – and the basic game is incredible value for nothing. A special mention, too, for the incredible pack-opening animation, which verily splits them asunder, and the Scottish dwarf who flips out when you score a big card: "O-OA-EPPECCKK!!"
One of the many little perfections in Hearthstone is its matchmaking carousel – perhaps because you spend so many small chunks of time with it. As you click 'Go' the apparatus slams down with a rocky thunk, and nameplates whizz past two arrows making sparks fly with the friction. The machine slows, hovers for a delicious instant over fake-outs like 'Blizzard Developer' or 'Fiscally-responsible mime', but never fails to settle on a Worthy Opponent. Is a matchmaking screen subsidiary to a game itself? Here it is polished to a shine, because Hearthstone is not just content to be a wonderful game; it wants to hold your attention and imagination, to feel almost real. At times you blink, check the in-game clock, and two hours have passed. Well played.