Hearthstone Beta Preview (PC)

Isn’t a hearthstone just a stone in your hearth? What’s so special about it?

Hearthstone Logo

Hearthstone is the latest game to come out of the hallowed halls of Blizzard. Everything they release is treated with a kind of reverance because all the games they put out are polished to a ridiculously high degree. Yes there are questionable design decisions in games like Diablo 3, but it’s undeniably an AAA title. Hearthstone is less of a blockbuster game, and much more niche, it’s a card game.

We’re talking about card-games in the vein of tabletop cards like Magic:The Gathering or Blizzards own World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, so you build up a deck of cards from a certain class and then use them to fight battle against the AI or other players. It might not sound particularly exciting but these games have a huge following and an incredible amount of depth, they also make a huge amount of money and Blizzard will be releasing Hearthstone as a free-to-play game with booster packs that can be bought from an in-game shop (they can also be earnt from coins that you earn as you play).

The cards you get all belong to either a specific class or to a neutral pack which can be used by anyone. When you start to build a desk you pick the class (unlocked by beating AI versions of that calls) and then you choose 30 cards from your collection to be included. Most cards can be included twice and you want to try and get a range of different cards for different situations, all the time bearing in mind that you’ve got no idea what order your cards are going to come out in.

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When the game begins you’re given three cards and then the player who goes first is selected. Since going first is such a huge advantage, the other player gets given an extra card, giving them an extra 33% chance of getting a good opening card. On the first turn, you have one mana and so can play cards that cost a single mana, and then you must end your turn. Each turn you get one more mana, until eventually you get ten per turn – the mana is spent on using cards from your hand, which includes the ability to summon minions, cast direct spells and use other modifiers to change the battle in some way. There’s no different types of mana so it’s all fairly simple and the increasing amounts mean each game starts off relatively slowly but escalates quickly.

Once you’ve used some cards to get minions out on the field, you’ll see they each have an attack rating and a certain number of hit points. Many also have other abilities such as a taunt that means the enemy has to attack that unit first. At the end of every turn after the first, the units get to attack a unit of their choice or the enemy hero, and once the enemy hero loses all of their hit points, you win the game. It sounds simple and in reality it is incredibly accessible, but the sheer range of cards and abilities mean battles can turn on a dime with a lucky draw, or if an opponent is skilled and plans well ahead. It’s not unusual to be seemingly winning by a mile with the enemy only having a few hit points left only to see everything turn around as they wipe out your units with a combination of spells and then field their own hugely powerful units that crush you almost instantly. If you’re not careful all your planning and hard work can be dismantled and it never feels like anyone else’s fault. Despite the luck involved, nine times out of ten the more skilled player will win with good card and mana management. The original sets of cards are quite simple but as you work up higher through the ranks you start to come across more exotic cards with incredibly powerful powers when they are used correctly.

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The battlefield (or table) changes between games with various scenes from World of Warcraft and small interactive features like gongs that can be hit and a statue’s gemstone that can be removed. They don’t serve as anymore than distractions but they are welcome as you’re waiting for something to happen. The overall presentation is spot-on with everything being clear and accessible while retaining the charm that World of Warcraft has kept over the years. It helps that all of the cards are units or mobs from World of Warcraft and the abilities are surprisingly faithful to their MMO counterparts. it helps that much of the game has a commentary and the characters occasionally smack talk each other in battles. Through the tutorial you’ll go up against foes like Hogger and Illidan, each teaching you basics of the game while letting you play and entertaining you with banter.

All in all Hearthstone is shaping up to be an incredibly addictive card game that manages to remain faithful to World of Warcraft while standing on its own as a compelling experience. Within half an hour we’d bought our first booster pack for £1.99 and managed to get a legendary, epic and bunch of rare cards within it. Opening the packs on the screen is just as exciting as opening a pack in real life, except you’re able to buy more packs online very easily which is possible dangerous. Even in the beta Blizzard have managed to streamline the payment system so it’s incredibly painless, but just encourages you to spend more.

Currently the beta is closed, but within it there’s crafting (you can scavenge cards you don’t want to make new ones), an arena mode (where you build a deck out of pre-selected cards) and ranking with leagues etc so it feels like an incredibly polished game. Everything will be wiped before launch but it’s hard not to get carried away as it stands. Anything you pay for before the wipe will be returned to you in the form of coins to spend on new packs at launch, that means you get to open brand new packs!

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Despite not being hugely into collectible card games we’ve fallen in love with Hearthstone because it’s so easy to play. Hopping on for 10 minutes to play a match or two or spending hours selecting cards for your deck, everything about this game is appealing. Hopefully the game will launch before the end of the year and you can all get in on the fun!

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