Editor’s note: Chris actually wrote this impressions piece a long while back. Unfortunately, he submitted it during The Dark Times, and its existence was forgotten when the forces of Magazine Deadline and Freelancer Trials clashed bitterly on the unforgiving plains of Howthehelleven. Which is to say that shit got impossibly busy, and I’ve not had time to publish it. Until now. If the text below excites you, be sure to check out Miklós’ excellent video preview as well.

You may have seen the Hearthstone contests going on around here, and the legion of loyal readers rabidly clamouring for beta keys.

As is the case with all Blizzard games, the amount of hype around this closed beta is insane. There are multiple dedicated Hearthstone websites, streamers, YouTube channels and even huge eSports organisations like Team Liquid and Major League Gaming are running tournaments.

I’m a huge fan of nerdy card games and all things Blizzard, so naturally I extorted a key out of Dane to see what all the fuss is about.

Starting out

Unlike most games of this type, Hearthstone is incredibly easy to learn. The game starts you off with the Mage, one of nine character classes all taken from the World of Warcraft realm. You then go through a helpful tutorial which serves to teach you the mechanics of the game by matching you against increasingly difficult opponents.

The battles themselves are scripted, which means you’ll draw the same cards every time and your opponents will make the same plays every time. They make consistently bad decisions, so it’s up to you to use your cards more efficiently to win the games.

Once you get into the game proper, you can start playing matches against real people or, if you prefer, against AI. You unlock the various classes by beating them, so playing AI is a relatively simple way of doing this as you get to choose your opponent.

One thing which I loved about the game is how easy it is to get started immediately. Every class has a pre-built deck you can play with straight away, so you don’t have to fool around with building your own until you feel comfortable.

Blizzard also gives you a ton of cards for free, and as you level up a class through playing it you unlock more powerful (and free) cards for that class. All the cards for a class are unlocked at level ten, which can be reached fairly easily. The game has both neutral cards, which can be used by all classes, as well as class-exclusive cards which complement that particular class’ playstyle.

World of Warcraft players should recognise these classes.

Gameplay

Hearthstone doesn’t stray too far from the CCG formula, with creature and spell cards with various abilities and effects.

Unlike games like Magic: The Gathering, there are no resource cards; each player gains an additional mana crystal every turn which allows them to play increasingly more powerful cards. This means every card in your deck is a spell or a creature, which removes the disappointment of drawing too many or too few resource cards as in other games.

The other major difference is that every class has a unique hero power, which can be used once per turn at a cost of two mana. These differ depending on class; for example the Hunter can deal two damage to an opponent, while the Shaman can summon a random totem.

Everything else is pretty straightforward: get the opposing player’s health to 0, draw a card every turn, and control the game with creatures and spells.

There are many ways to play the game; you can go for all out aggression, or a more controlling style which attempts to remove threats and win in the late game, or something in between.

It always lands on worthy opponent. Sometimes that’s a lie.

The game client

Despite only being a beta, the game client feels very, very polished. When your creatures attack an opponent or another creature, they bash violently into them. Larger creatures produce a larger bash, shaking the screen and eliciting cheers from an unseen audience.

The various spells have different animations as well. Enormous fireballs explode across the screen and a green beam of energy turns your opponent’s minion into a frog, eliciting a defiant croak.

The game has a very tactile feel; you can even see your opponent’s cards lift up and down in his/her hand as they mouse over them, considering what to play.

Economy

Setting aside the option to use real money, the game works entirely on gold. Gold can be earned through playing against other people (10 gold per 3 wins) and by completing daily quests. The quests generally give the best return for your time, as they’re usually something like “win 2 games with warlock or paladin” and award 40 gold. What I really liked was that you can store up to 3 daily quests in your quest log, so you can still complete Friday’s quest on Monday.

There are also various achievements which award more significant amounts of gold, such as winning 100 games or levelling up all the classes to level ten.

Gold can be used to buy packs at 100 gold apiece, or enter Arena for 150 gold, but more on that later. You can of course use real money to buy either packs or entries into Arena.

I wanted to show you the defeat screen, but I wasn’t able to lose.

Game modes

And by later, I of course mean right NOW. There are two distinct game modes at the moment, Arena and Ranked Constructed. Constructed let’s you play against real people with a deck of your own creation, and as you beat more and more skilled opponents you’ll move up the ladder, starting in the lowly Copper leagues and working your way up to Master.

Arena is quite different – you spend 150 gold to enter, upon which you’re asked to choose one of three randomly selected classes. After that you’ll be repeatedly given a choice of three cards, of which you must choose one. This happens thirty times, until you’ve essentially built yourself a thirty card deck to take into battle.

The Arena ends when you achieve either nine wins or three losses, whichever comes first. The more you win, the better your prizes will be. The great thing about Arena is that even if you go 0-3, you’ll still get a pack, which makes the 150 gold entry far better value than spending your 100 gold on just a pack.

You can come back later and finish your Arena games any time, you don’t have to play it in one go.

Crafting cards

Hearthstone is a CCG (Collectible Card Game), distinct from a TCG (Trading Card Game), which means there’s no trading of cards, and more popular cards aren’t more valuable.

Since there’s no trading, and you can’t buy cards, you might be wondering how you get exactly what you need for your decks. To this end, Blizzard has included crafting.

Basically, any unwanted cards can be ground into Arcane Dust, which can then be used to buy whatever card you want. It’s at a premium of course; you’ll have to grind five unwanted rares to craft one of your choosing.

There are also Epic and Legendary cards, which are even more expensive, and golden cards, if you’re the kind of person who likes a bit of unnecessary bling.

It seems like a bit of a mission, but getting gold from daily quests and good Arena finishes gets you a lot of packs rather quickly, and I haven’t had much trouble getting the cards I want without putting in actual money.

On the right there you can see the entirely free Paladin deck I used, which I found online.

Pay to win?

I just have to climb on my soapbox here and clear this up. I’ve seen a lot of posts online about the game being “pay to win”; that the people cramming their decks with Epic and Legendary cards can’t be stopped.

However, that’s merely an excuse used by people who would rather blame the power of the cards than their own ability. The truth is, Hearthstone is the least pay to win CCG/TCG I’ve ever played. The high rarity cards are good, but they’re also very beatable if you build your deck properly.

Blizzard actually gives you a fantastic card pool to use completely free. Using a deck constructed entirely out of free cards (not even a common had to be crafted), I made it to Master 3-star in a couple of days, the highest possible rank.

This isn’t some kind of brag post, it’s just to illustrate that you absolutely can compete at the higher levels without investing a ton of money. This is a game of strategy and good decision-making, not diameter of wallet. It’s also a really fantastic game, and I absolutely recommend trying it out when you get a chance, even if you’ve never played a CCG in your life.