PREVIEW: Hearthstone deals an exciting twist on computerised trading card games

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Gamer Thumb’s Chris Trott shares his impressions of Blizzard’s Hearthstone Trading Card Game, currently in beta.

BLIZZARD’S newest contribution to the world of gaming comes in the form of a Trading Card Game (TCG) called Hearthstone.

For the uninitiated, a trading card game consists of collecting various cards to build your deck of spells and creatures, which you can then take into battle against other players and their own deck of cards.

While Hearthstone follows the TCG formula very closely and does not really deviate from the core concept, like all Blizzard games it is very well thought-out and polished to a sheen, even in beta.

Hearthstone starts you off with some battles versus computer opponents to get you started. Starting out with the mage unlocked, I was put through a series of tutorial levels that introduce you to the basics concepts of the game.

The final tutorial battle was quite clever in forcing you to think before letting you progress, with quite a few players on the forums having to make several attempts at beating the mission. This is a good preparation for the rest of your time with Hearthstone, as you should expect to lose about as much as you win. While this can be frustrating, it is a fact of life when playing against other human opponents, and the sooner you come to grips with it, the sooner you can start having fun with Hearthstone.

The other beautiful thing about the human element in Hearthstone is that the only communication with your opponent is through emotes made by your Hero. Although I did find myself wishing for a few more emotes, not having immature abuse spammed at you in half your games is a relief.

After the tutorials, it is possible to jump straight in and play against human opponents. Although you can technically win by doing this, I would advise a few bouts in the Practice area first so you are a little more familiar with the range of cards and abilities you will be up against.

As you beat each of the computer-controlled opponents, you will unlock that Hero for play, along with the Hero’s starting deck of cards. Each Hero also has an ability that you can use, consuming mana crystals (the ability points that allow you to play Minions and Spells). Each of the Hero’s abilities speaks to the nature of their deck and how they could be played.

Each battle you play out to completion (be it against a computer or human player), will earn you experience towards levels for the Hero you have used. As you level up with a Hero you will unlock more cards to use with that Hero. The cards that are unlocked via this method are ‘Basic Cards’. You can also unlock more advanced cards by opening packs, obtained by completing Quests (such as playing 3 games against human opponents, or getting to level 10 with a Hero), or they can be purchased with currency (both in-game currency and real money transactions).

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Blizzard has also implemented a way for excess or unwanted cards to be re-used in the form of their card Crafting system. On this crafting screen, you can break (non-basic) cards down into their essence, and then use that essence to create new cards. This adds a way to deal with the inevitable disappointment at getting a boring or already obtained allocation of cards when you open a pack.

With that said, this shouldn’t happen too much as each pack opened is guaranteed to come with at least 1 rare card, so there is usually something interesting you can use within.

There is also an arena mode where players can put their coins/currency on the line in a series of matches against other human players, with a random card allocation and to build your deck (clearly meant to emulate the Sealed Deck events popular in Magic: The Gathering).

If you win enough games with your deck, you will unlock some rare cards for you collection. The catch here is, if you lose 3 games, your deck is wiped, and you will need to start again, re-entering the Arena. It is an interesting addition and I’m sure plenty of people will enjoy the thrill of betting on their skills in the Arena.

As far as the actual battles themselves, while comparisons to a game like Magic are inevitable, Blizzard have made a few key tweaks to the formula that makes the strategy very different.

For starters, in a game like magic, it is up to luck as to how much land (play-enabling resources) you get at the start of a game. In Hearthstone, you gradually gain one extra mana stone per turn automatically. There are some Heroes that are able to accelerate this with specific cards, but generally speaking, you can count on this being consistent through all the games you play, and there is no chance of being unable to play for three turns because you don’t have any resources.

This makes the game more accessible to the masses. The same gestures permeate the entire experience, with taking your turn simplified to the point of playing any moves you want to make, and in any order, as long as you have the mana crystals to do so, adding an extra layer of strategy into the mix.

Heroes can equip weapons themselves and deal damage directly to either minions, or the other hero. Some minions have a taunt ability which causes it to act like a wall, blocking damage to other minions and the hero, but in all other ways, they act like a standard minion.

In its current state, Hearthstone provides something that is not very prevalent, and that is an electronic TCG with a solid IP behind it.

Though the yearly iterations of Magic The Gathering provide somewhat of an interesting experience, they are emulating a physical card game, and as such do not cater to the differences between the mediums.

Where Hearthstone excels is in simplifying the mechanics to cater to a broader audience, and providing TCG veterans with a few new concepts to exercise their strategic muscle. Blizzard has said they will be moving towards opening up the servers to more users “soon”.

As with most Blizzard things, it could be at least a few months before everybody can jump in and get a hit of tasty Azeroth TCG goodness, and when that day comes I look forward to engaging you all in a battle of wits and luck.

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