When the game began, I was able to choose from nine possible decks, each one centered around a different major Warcraft character representing a given class. Malfurion Stormrage filled the slot for the Druid class, for instance, but since I'm all about the sneaky and stabby, I chose the Blood Elf Rogue, Valeera Sanguinar.
When the game begins, a virtual coin is tossed to determine who goes first, and each player draws three cards. Both players are given the chance to discard any number of those cards in order to draw the same number of new cards from their decks, but they must keep their second draw. The player who goes second draws an extra card as compensation for being at the turn disadvantage.
Now, here's where things get a bit weird (if you have a Magic: The Gathering pedigree, anyway): On each player's first turn, he will have a single mana point that can be spent to play cards from his hand, with the mana granted increasing by one on each successive turn. That is to say, players have one mana point on turn one, two points on turn two, and so forth. There's no way for either player to have a mana advantage on the other, even if you choose not to spend mana from a previous turn. You will always have an amount of mana equal to the current turn number -- no more, no less.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this, to be honest. On the one hand, it prevents the epidemic known as getting mana-screwed, which is exactly what it sounds like. Anyone who has ever played MTG and ended up with only two lands on turn 10 knows that it's not a fun experience, and I can't say that I'll miss it. On the other hand, it takes a bit of the complexity out of deckbuilding as you're no longer required to strike a balance between mana/resources and creatures/spells/etc., and instead players only need to worry about ensuring that their decks adhere to a reasonable mana curve. It should certainly help to make the game more accessible to new players (which, to be fair, is something that many CCGs desperately need), but I worry about how much impact it will have on deckbuilding strategies.
At any rate, gameplay from that point progresses about how you'd expect. Players take turns playing cards from their hands, with the cards representing iconic creatures and abilities from the Warcraft universe. My deck included the bread-and-butter Rogue ability Sinister Strike, some Deadly Poison, some Stranglethorn Raptors, and so forth.
The objective of the game, of course, is to reduce the enemy hero's HP to zero while defending your hero from attacks, making it very important to make the most of your spells and minion special abilities. Some of said abilities include Taunt, which forces enemy minions to attack the minion with the Taunt ability, and Charge, which allows a minion to attack on the same turn that it's played, which can be incredibly useful for launching unexpected assaults on a defenseless opponent.
One last thing I wanna mention is kind of silly, but it made me smile. Since my character was a Horde character, the game's play area was Horde-themed, with an Orcish hut in one corner, a catapult in another, and so forth. To my surprise, these turned out to be interactable objects, and I could actually drag a rock into the catapult and then fling it at my opponent, or I could poke the Orcish hut and cause it to belch fire from its chimney stack. I don't know whether my opponent could see it, and it had no effect on the game at all, but it was silly and fun. I appreciate things that are silly and fun.
And that, ladies and gents, is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft in a nutshell. The whole match lasted something like 10 or 15 minutes, so it seems as if it'll be a perfect game to squeeze in on your lunch break or to kill some time in the airport (did I mention that there's an iPad version?) while you're waiting on your flight, but considering how much Blizzard has simplified the CCG format in Hearthstone, I'm hesitant to remark on how much depth the game will have. Let's also not forget that you can buy packs of cards with real money, so take that as you will.
Overall, I found Hearthstone to be pleasant enough, and since it's free-to-play, I can't imagine I won't at least dabble in it, but there was certainly nothing on display that really blew me away. It is, as best as I can tell, a casual CCG tailored to fans of the Warcraft universe. If that sounds like something that would interest you, then head on over to the game's official site and sign up for the beta. And if it doesn't? Well, there's always Magic Online.
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