I actually used to play Guild Wars, not World of Warcraft. I liked the pay model on Guild Wars – buy the software once, play forever, no monthly tithe to the server gods needed. A lot of my friends in college played Guild Wars, the character models were really nice looking, I preferred the instanced gameplay, and I really enjoyed the skill-collecting aspect. I had a max level Death Magic Necromancer with Animate Flesh Golem as my Elite Skill.
…That sentence kind of makes me sound like a douchebag, but I was really into Guild Wars.
I stopped playing after the computer I owned that could run it broke and switched to NeoSteam for a while, a surprisingly decent free-to-play MMO published by Atlus of all companies. I got bored with that game eventually, as much as I enjoyed playing my little summoner girl, and I hear the servers shut down two years ago anyway.
I didn’t play WoW at all until Thanksgiving of 2012, when my fabulously gay and nerdy godfather-in-law bought me and my husband all of the expansions during a Black Friday deal. I tried it out, I really did. And I have a level 43 Nightelf Restoration Druid to show for my efforts.
I know it says Balance there, but that’s my secondary talent specialization. I spend most of my time as a Restoration Druid. Healers, represent!
I really wanted to like World of Warcraft. I have several friends who play it pretty obsessively, and they’d love it if I played more. And I can play a Druid, the exact class I longed for in both Guild Wars and NeoSteam. But it just wasn’t that much fun. The grind is relatively boring, the plot is huge, confusing, and only related through dense quest text, and every time I ran a dungeon with other people, I felt like a complete newb and people bitched at me for not healing them fast enough. I think much of the problem is that my gaming time is relatively limited at this point in my life, and World of Warcraft is one of those games that you need to be able to sink hours into on a regular basis in order to get any payoff. I am so rarely able to play it that I still haven’t really mastered the controls, and I tend to run into things a lot. And if you’re going to be paying $15 a month for a game, you’d better be able to play it regularly, or you’re just throwing your money down Bilzzard’s gaping maw. Since my gaming budget is equally limited, I’d rather spend it elsewhere.
Hearthstone, however, is free.
I like free.
I have been hearing a lot about Hearthstone for a while. Penny Arcade did a lot of coverage on the Beta back in August, and my interest was definitely piqued. The game had its full release last month, and after Tycho commented that Hearthstone was “strictly Schedule One – no known medical use, high potential for abuse,” I laughed a lot and decided I needed to try out the game. My husband actually ended up trying it first, and he’s completely, hopelessly addicted now. Last night, I took over the desktop to try it out for myself.
This game is really slick. It’s got really great visual design. It’s super clean and bright and shiny, and the game boards have different themes with little moving bits like griffins perched on towers and bugs flying around streetlamps.
Blizzard did a wonderful job of graphically designing this game. That’s the first thing I noticed.
I’ve played Magic the Gathering since I was a kid, so I have a really good handle on how CCGs work. I even played the online version of MtG for a little while, but I was unenthusiastic about the idea of purchasing digital cards for around the same price as physical ones. So I went through the first few tutorial missions, somewhat bored, but noting the little tweaks Blizzard had made to the CCG formula.
You play one classic WoW hero facing off against another. There are ten classes to choose from, and each class has its own cards in addition to a large base of “neutral” cards that any class can use. Cards can summon minion creatures that you can command to attack, cast spells on opponents, or grant beneficial effects to your hero and minions. Decks are much smaller than in MtG – quick-paced, 30-card affairs with a max of two of the same card in each deck. Mana cards are swapped out for renewable mana “crystals.” You get another crystal every turn, and old ones refresh each turn. This means you start out with one mana on your first turn, two on your second, up to a maximum of ten mana by your tenth turn (sooner, if you have cards that grant you more crystals, but you get the idea). This is an ingenious way to handle mana. My main gripe with MtG is that in at least 50% of the games you play, one (or both!) players will get mana screwed. There’s nothing more frustrating than having an awesome deck that just isn’t working because you shuffled all your mana to the bottom of the deck. And no matter how well your deck is constructed, you will get mana screwed sometimes. That’s just how shuffling works.
The physical World of Warcraft CCG tried to eliminate some of that problem by allowing you to use any card as mana, flipping it over to represent a “resource,” then tapping it to exhaust it, just like traditional mana in MtG. Hearthstone just simplifies the process and makes it so that no one has to worry about mana. Instead, you worry about balancing your deck so that there’s a good mix of low-cost cards that you can throw down quickly and awesome high-cost cards to build up to.
Blizzard clearly took a lot of inspiration from their seven-year WoW CCG experiment to build Hearthstone. Although the physical CCG is now discontinued, Hearthstone seems pretty clearly to be a more streamlined and polished spiritual successor to the game.
After I got through the tutorial levels, I decided to concentrate on the Mage class. I’m usually a Druid or Priest girl, myself, but in Hearthstone, both of those classes are represented by muscle-y dudes, so I went with the Mage, one of ONLY TWO female characters (grr, mutter, grumble – would it have been so hard to let us pick genders on the classes, Blizzard?). The other, vastly more important reason I went with Mage is that Mages get the Polymorph card, and there is literally nothing I like better in a game than turning things into sheep.
My favorite Magic the Gathering card of all time is the Ovinomancer, but you have to take three lands back into your hand to play him, so it was always a pain in the ass to incorporate him into a deck.
You get the Polymorph spell in Hearthstone in one of the really early training levels, so I was getting to sheep things from the very beginning. It’s very satisfying.
After getting through the tutorials, Hearthstone assigns you daily quests that you can complete in return for gold and card packs. The gold is only used to buy more card packs, though, so it’s really more like fractions of card packs than currency. You can play against AI characters or real people, and every battle you participate nets your hero experience points, win or lose. Leveling up nets you more cards.
I appreciate how Blizzard worked to make getting a digital card pack such an exciting affair. You don’t just click a button and open a card pack, oh no.
You have to grab that fucker with your mouse, drag it over to what basically looks like a specially designed card pack altar, which causes the card pack to become infused with magical energy and literally explode open, revealing five cards which you must then flip over, one by one. (Ignore the bug in that video, I’ve not yet encountered any problems with the game, that was just the nicest-looking opening video I could find on YouTube). It really captures the feeling of anticipation that opening a physical card pack gives you when you do it in the real world, and it’s just another example of Blizzard’s dedication to making an exceptionally well-designed and polished game.
The opponent matching is really stellar, too. I always felt appropriately challenged, winning about as often as I lost, even with my basic card set. The Penny Arcade report does a great job in this article laying out how Blizzard designed the matching system so that everyone, regardless of financial commitment, can enjoy playing against other people. I haven’t unlocked the Arena mode yet, something that sounds akin to a Magic the Gathering Draft Tournament, and I look forward to trying it once or twice, although at $2 a pop, I won’t be doing it often.
I can really see Tycho’s point – this is some Schedule One shit. It’s so easy to just keep playing one more round… I leveled my Mage hero to 10 last night before I ran out of quests and stopped playing, but I’ll be back for more. My stand-out match of the night ended when I turned my opponent’s carefully buffed 14/14 minion into a sheep and he conceded the game in disgust.
Ovinomancy for the win!