By Christopher Withers
Free to play. Those words ring remarkably hollow in the industry today. One can never be too careful around games of this nature, as one must be ever vigilant of its much maligned cousins, free to wait, or pay to win. And while there will always be a certain element of Pay to win in any game that doesn’t require an initial investment, a good developer will mitigate this with good balancing and cheap economies that will allow all players, not just the ones that spend a ridiculous amount of money, to succeed.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, the latest in the long running series of “games that Blizzard can make instead of Warcraft IV” is an online card game, free to play with the ability to purchase booster packs of an additional five cards for in-game gold or cash. This is a classic example of how a free to play game might be structured, a simple form of game-play that is constantly expandable, a card game; that is free entry but will require payment as the game goes on. The reason that Hearthstone actually manages to be different, and by different I mean good, is partly in how much content is available in the base game, and how the game is different from other card games.
Hearthstone features nine “Heroes” around whom all of the decks are built. These nine all have different cards that are exclusive to them, as well as cards that everyone can use, and have abilities that can be triggered for two mana. Each player begins with one mana crystal and earns an additional one each turn up to ten, with each card or ability they cast/use costing a variety of mana. Each turn the mana crystals will refill allowing you to cast more spells or minions to your side. Minions can attack either other minions or your opponent, and some heroes can even gain the ability to attack.
The nine classes are all interesting in their own ways and none of them are overpowered, at least in my mind. Many of them do very similar things with a variety of restrictions. Mage, for example, can pay two in order to deal one damage to anyone, minion or player. Meanwhile Hunter can pay to deal two damage but only to players. It’s this dynamic as well as the character-specific cards that lend Hearthstone its unique style. Decks aren’t simply built around card themes, they are built around how those card themes interact with the individual abilities or class-specific cards of the chosen class.
One great example of this is the card Undertaker, he costs one mana for a creature with one attack and two health but he gains an additional +1/+1 every time that you play a creature with the ability Deathrattle. This is probably one of the best examples of how deck building in Hearthstone differs from other card games. In Magic: The Gathering, for example, one would rarely see one deck like Zoo built in two different color combinations and be equally successful. Meanwhile in Hearthstone, while one could definitely expect Hunter Taker, the most common form. One could also see examples of it in Warrior, Druid, or Priest and you could make an argument for any of those.
One admittedly unfortunate thing that currently blights Hearthstone is the Curse of Naxxramas expansion. The problem is that the only way to acquire a number of cards is through Curse, which is 24.99. This set contains several high level cards, and anyone who has bought the set can use them against those that haven’t. Now while this is obviously how things work in regular physical card games those don’t advertise themselves as Free-To-Play.
Before the Curse of Naxxramas expansion, all cards were available to get with in-game gold from playing the game and buying card packs or by “disenchanting” your cards for a different form of currency. Disenchanting a card deletes the card and in return you get “Arcane Dust”, which can be used to create other specific cards. Even though you can buy cards with real money, this game is not truly a pay-to-win game, because most, if not basically all of its content is available to all players.
Hearthstone is a very good game overall. The balancing is excellent, one of the biggest examples is that since the game is all online based, Blizzard can lower the power of cards through updates, rather than having to release hate cards or ban cards outright. However, this does lead to a stagnant metagame for the most part as decks don’t get replaced with new ones very often. Especially with such a small card base and such dedicated professional fans the metagame is fairly easy to figure out. While this could potentially be fixed with patches also increasing the power of older cards in it’s current form it’s a lot less malleable than it could be, especially once you start rising through the player ranks and start facing more experienced opponents.
Overall Hearthstone is an exceptional game particularly in how simple its overall design is, while still offering an exceptional amount of intriguing methods of deckbuilding and strategizing.