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So, let me tell you about Hearthstone.

As a long-term Magic: The Gathering geek, I have sort of a strong opinion about this game. It takes many of Magic‘s core mechanics: mana, creatures, spells, planeswalkers, enchantments, and keyword effects, and simplifies them into a game that is fast-paced, streamlined, and internally consistent within the properties of its universe. Wizards of the Coast tried to do this with their Duels of the Planeswalkers (hereafter, “DotP”). I’d argue that Blizzard managed this better.

For those of you that have never played Hearthstone (but have possibly played Magic), here is a very quick summary of its standard rules at this writing:

  1. Each game contains exactly two players in competitive 1 vs. 1.
  2. Each player selects a hero to represent themself. These heroes have cards and abilities associated with them. More on this later.
  3. Each hero starts the game with 30 life.
  4. Each deck contains exactly 30 cards.
  5. The hand size limit is 10. Any cards drawn over this limit are immediately discarded.
  6. Players take turns, with the first player being selected randomly.
  7. The first player receives three cards from their deck, any of which they can choose to replace with another random card from their deck. The second player receives four cards and the same mulligan opportunity.
  8. Once both players finish selecting their hands, the second player receives “The Coin”, a 0-cost card that gives them one extra mana crystal for a turn of their choosing.
  9. Every turn, a player draws a card and receives one permanent mana crystal that they can “use” each turn, up to a limit of 10. This is the primary currency used to pay the “mana” costs of playing each card.
  10. A player, on their turn, may choose to play a minion, a spell, or a weapon from their hand, or use their hero power. Usually, these cost some number of mana. Occasionally, other costs (such as life) are included.
  11. Play continues until one hero reaches zero or fewer life after all actions are resolved. If this happens to both heroes simultaneously, the game ends in a draw for both players. Otherwise, the surviving player is deemed the winner.

In practice, it’s actually fairly straightforward. Turns and gameplay happen rapidly. Gameplay is well thought out and documented on its wikis. Each card is readable at a glance for its cost, strength, and durability (when applicable).

Most of the complexities of Magic, even DotP, have been streamlined or removed in some way. Examples:

  • There are no turn “phases” to consider, other than beginning and end of turn.
  • There are no “resource” cards other than those which give you additional mana crystals.
  • For patent reasons, there is no concept of “tapping”. Creatures that can attack are directly highlighted by the game with an aura.
  • All elements on the “stack” resolve in gameplay order. Card effects are simplified to accommodate this.
  • The maximum number of minions a player can have at a time is seven, which fits neatly into short-term memory. Extra creatures over this limit simply do not spawn.
  • The attacker chooses which creatures (or players) to attack unless stated otherwise, even in combat.
  • Players only act on their respective turns. There are no interrupts or instants, but there are counterspells and surprises in the form of “Secrets”, spells that are played face down and revealed when a condition is met.

One of the biggest draws of Magic is the concept of different colors of mana and their archetypes. In Hearthstone, these are replaced by classes that are defined by your hero. These give access to (and conversely, restrict) some of the cards that you can place into your deck.

Each class fits a particular theme that is ostensibly balanced for gameplay, with some classes forming deliberate rock-paper-scissors relationships. In no particular order:

  • The Mage focuses on spell damage and board control. Their hero power deals 1 damage to any character (minion or hero).
  • The Paladin focuses on protection. Their hero power summons a 1/1 minion token.
  • The Warrior focuses on combat damage. Their hero power adds 2 armor, which are essentially bonus health.
  • The Warlock focuses on manipulating life essence. Their hero power draws a card at a cost of two health (plus the mana cost).
  • The Priest focuses on healing and keeping minions alive. Their hero power heals a character for 2 health.
  • The Hunter focuses on creatures and combo engines. Their hero power deals 2 damage to the enemy hero.
  • The Rogue focuses on evasion and board control. Their hero power equips a 1 damage, 2 durability dagger for direct combat.
  • The Druid focuses on ramping and creature enhancement. Their hero power gives their adds 1 attack and 1 armor.
  • The Shaman focuses on defensive lines of powerful creatures. Their hero power summons a random totem, usually 0/2 with an ability.

The idea here is that these pre-defined “classes” would substitute for the flexibility of Magic‘s archetypes in two colors. However, this falls somewhat flat: because the class-specific cards are so good, each class becomes very predictable to play against. This holds especially because all “unaligned” cards (cards usable by any class) are creatures only. This unfortunately gives a fairly accurate picture of how a match-up will go the moment you see whom your opponent is playing.

There is also a significant advantage to players who have paid into the game. Such “pay-to-win” mechanics are not unheard of, but they are especially relevant in Hearthstone: because of the stability of cards in the set, many paid, class-specific cards are strictly better than others. This feels unfortunate in online matchups, when my “free” deck fails to survive against decks at strictly higher power levels.

There is an option to alleviate this, forming sort of an analog to Magic limited play. In Arena mode, you select a class, then select one of three randomly generated cards until you have a deck of 30. These cards are “virtual”: they are yours until you win twelve games or lose three with that deck, whichever comes first. However, class selection once again determines which cards are in the pool, and this leads to games that are still predictable (if a bit more random) in practice.

In summary, I like what Blizzard has done here. They’ve constructed a game that appeals to an audience interested in light strategy, without mucking too much into the details. I will be preferring Magic over this only because Hearthstone isn’t exceptionally deep at this writing: it holds attention primarily through random rewards and the promise of chase rares that are required for optimal deck construction in a very stable metagame. Fun for a few days, but not something I want to invest significant time into.

Still, I recommend giving it a spin, especially once the iPad build comes to your region.