Hands-on with Hearthstone

Alex Ziebart
A. Ziebart|07.01.13

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Hands-on with Hearthstone
I possess no background in card games, whether it be TCG or CCG. I intentionally avoided scouring databases and watching the Fireside Duels specifically so I could go into my first Hearthstone play session with that perspective. There's value in that perspective: most people who play the game for the first time will have the same experience. My lack of knowledge did make me quite nervous when I sat down to play Hearthstone, though. Would I waste my entire playtest session (on-site at Blizzard Entertainment) blundering through, simply trying to learn the rules? As it turns out, yes. That's exactly what happened.

We were only able to play for about an hour, so don't take my confusion for the duration as a condemnation of the game. Rare is the strategy-based game that can teach you all of its intricacies in an hour. By the end of that hour, however, I had a grasp of the basics and understood most of the terminology. It didn't click fast enough for me to attempt much experimentation with my deck or playstyle, but simply playing put me on the right track. I felt truly lost when I first sat down, but grew more comfortable with every turn. I'm told Hearthstone does have a tutorial to guide you through that initial learning phase, but it wasn't included in our playtest. With an estimated 45 minute duration, the tutorial would have consumed nearly our entire hour. Blundering through turned out to be just as effective.

As you read on, keep those items in mind: I'm new to the CCG genre of games and playtime was extremely limited. Some of my criticisms are borne of inexperience and may evaporate once the beta appears and I have more time to become accustomed to the gameplay.
During my session, I played the rogue, paladin, mage, and shaman heroes using the stock, default decks associated with those heroes. Though the decks were named for their hero, I didn't feel that theme carried into the deck. The spell cards were all appropriate (Jaina Proudmoore's deck included Arcane Missiles, Uther's deck included Blessing of Might, and so on), but the minion cards -- the actual cards fighting on the field -- didn't represent any particular class. Jaina and Uther's minion cards appeared the same across decks, mostly composed of Alliance minions. For that reason, each game I played felt a little same-y, but I imagine filling out your card collection in the long-term and building your own custom decks might solve that problem. A cursory glance at any Hearthstone database will show that as true -- there are class-specific cards in the wild. Edwin VanCleef is a legendary rogue class card, for example.

asfhasdhsfhOne of my biggest hurdles in learning the system was one of terminology. Without any sort of written guide or gameplay tutorial, I had very little idea what the cards in my hand actually did. My first game, playing the rogue deck with hero Valeera Sanguinar, my opening hand included the Elven Archer. With no prior knowledge of the game's mechanics (or the mechanics of the genre as a whole), I found myself wondering the following:
  • What do the three numbers on the card mean? There's a blue crystal in the upper left, a yellow orb in the bottom left, and a blood drop in the bottom right.
  • What is a "Battlecry"?
  • How do I actually play the card?
That third question should be obvious and I figured it out quite easily, but my first instinct told me that simply clicking on the card would play it. Not quite the case. You need to click and drag it onto the playing field. It gave me pause, but I solved the problem in a matter of seconds. Dragging cards to play them rather than clicking them makes sense with mobile play in mind -- hovering over a card to see its description wouldn't work on an iPad where your only options are tapping or dragging.

I also had no real problem discerning the meaning of the blood drop -- that's health. Basic logic kicked in from that point, telling me the yellow orb is the minion's strength/damage. The blue crystal remained a mystery. Throwing cards around willy-nilly to see what would happen, I discovered the mana mechanic. The Elven Archer costs 1 mana to play. That's the blue crystal: mana cost. In your first round of play, you have 2 total mana. That number increases by 1 additional mana each turn, up to a maximum of 8, the entire bar refilling each turn.

I learned the meaning of Battlecry as soon as my Elven Archer entered the field. A Battlecry is an ability that is used immediately upon playing the card. The Elven Archer, upon entering play, deals 1 damage to a target of your choice. Simple.
Handson with Hearthstone
After my first turn, I understood all of those things, but my lack of knowledge about the mana mechanic ensured my doom. When you start a game, you're given three cards. You can choose to shuffle those cards back into your deck in exchange for a new draw. Not understanding the purpose of that decision, I didn't take the opportunity to do so. While the Elven Archer in my hand only required 1 mana, my other two cards were Stormwind Knight with a mana cost of 4 and Lord of the Arena with a mana cost of 6. It would be a few turns before I could play either of them and I found myself with a useless hand for the early stage of the game.

I took that as an opportunity to learn how to use my hero -- each hero has a unique ability that costs 2 mana. So begins another round of confusion: the rogue hero's unique ability utilizes the Weapon mechanic.

Dagger Mastery: Equip a 1/2 Dagger; or Give your weapon +1 Attack this turn.

In the first turn of the rogue game, I attempted to attack my opponent with Valeera herself. It didn't work -- heroes can't attack. After using Dagger Mastery, I had no idea what it actually did. A new icon appeared on my side of the gameboard, but its purpose was lost on me. Later in the game, I tried it again and noticed the damage value on the new icon increased. Still, I had no idea what it actually did.


Only when I moved on to the paladin deck and drew Light's Justice did I come to understand. Community Manager Lore happened to be observing over my shoulder at the time and explained the Weapon mechanic. Weapons are equipped to your hero directly, and when a hero has a weapon equipped, then they are able to attack. Weapons also have a durability mechanic. Light's Justice has 4 durability, represented as a shield icon where the health indicator is found on minion cards. After 4 uses, the weapon breaks. I couldn't use Valeera to attack my opponent in the first round of my rogue game, but if I tried again after the weapon icon appeared, I could have. Unlike the other mechanical details I had to figure out on my own, this one likely would not have clicked without Lore's coaching, though the tutorial would have prevented the problem altogether.

With Lore's guiding hand, I managed to win the game I played with the paladin deck. Fox Van Allen and I were seated next to each other during the playtest, so at this point we both figured we knew the basics of the game well enough to try playing each other. We queued for a matched game simultaneously, hoping we would be matched against one another. Instead, we were matched with others who were playing at the time -- employees of Blizzard Entertainment, most likely. I lost. Fox lost, too. We may have cried a little.

The utter devastation my opponent laid down felt a little demoralizing, but enlightening at the same time. The sheer speed with which I was slaughtered showed me there is depth to the game, real elements of strategy to be learned and to refine. That loss, as crushing as it was, made me want to play even more. I can't wait to get my hands on the beta, whenever it rolls around, and dig deeper into the system. Of course, there is a possibility my opponent wasn't a Blizzard employee, but someone from another fansite sitting on the opposite end of the room playing that shaman deck. In that case, they were obviously cheating. Obviously. I demand a rematch.

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