Hands-on with Hearthstone for iPad

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|04.17.14

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While I was part of the early beta crowd for Hearthstone last year, I haven't played it in quite some time. It wasn't because I became disenfranchised with the game but rather because I felt it truly belonged on a tablet -- and playing it on a PC just felt wrong somehow. So I've been waiting for Hearthstone to finally make the leap to the iPad, and when that happened yesterday, I was all over it like a murloc swarm on a noobie.

In many ways, Hearthstone is absolutely tailor-fit for mobile gaming. It requires minimal manipulation; poking, holding, and the occasional swipe is about as complex as the physical mechanics get. It's a turn-based thinker's game that gives you ample time to plot your strategy and get a few other things done between moves. On an iPad, that's pretty easy; I would read a book while my opponent took his/her/its turn.

The game actually kept me up past my bedtime because of the "just one more match" temptation, which tells me that the magic that fueled my interest in this game in beta is roaring more now than ever. But how does it actually handle on Apple's devices?

The clunky side

Probably the most damning report that I can bring back to you is that, oddly enough, the menus are very clunky. There is noticable lag and general pokey-puppyness while you're trying to navigate through the simple menu options and fiddle with deck building. It's not a massive deal-breaker, but I was surprised to see it. Even though I'm playing it on a first-generation iPad mini, I've never experienced similar slow-downs in much more technically demanding titles. I've heard a couple of reports from friends that Hearthstone's menus are laggy for them as well.

The really strange thing is that this problem doesn't seem to extend into the actual game. Once I got a match going, it was smooth sailing with nary a lag monster to be seen. I hope this is a simple optimization issue that can be patched up sooner rather than later.

The only other complaint I have is the slightly awkward press-and-hold command that's needed to bring up tooltips and previous moves. Sometimes my opponent played combinations too quickly and I had no idea what happened and why. While there are teeny-tiny icons on the left side of the screen that can be pressed to provide a step-by-step report, I would actually rather have a chat scroll that would relay the moves back to me in plain English. And while we're wishing for more features, how about some actual socialization past your friends list? It's like ChatRoulette with fewer private parts and more Hunters. I don't like feeling so distant from other players all of the time.

Returning to the magic

Everything that I enjoyed on the PC version of Hearthstone is more or less here. Games are a leisurely back-and-forth between you and a mostly anonymous opponent, with the cards talking more than your six emotes. I like to psych my foe out by saying "oops!" after every turn. Let him think me incompetent; that's when I'll hit him with my awesome combo!

One thing that I love about Hearthstone is how low-stress it is for a card game. I used to play a lot of Magic back in the day, and even though I liked it, I would get so tense and anxious during those matches. That anxiety just isn't here, and I think it's because I don't have to worry about overly long matches, playing interrupts on the opponent's turn, or card combinations that are far beyond my understanding. It's streamlined just enough to cut out a lot of the extraneous fat from other CCGs while retaining quite a bit of strategy and depth.

Each of the six or so matches that I played yesterday on the iPad took a little under 20 minutes to complete, depending on how quick my opponents were to make their choices. I ran a Mage deck that I call David Copperfield, and while it wasn't unbeatable, I racked up a few wins using it very aggressively. I'm quite out of the loop as to the meta game, but I don't necessarily feel as though I need to read up on that to be competitive. Each match is a lesson in and of itself, and even if I lose, I usually learn a new trick or two.

Blizzard definitely made the return to the game welcoming. I racked up not only a mount for World of Warcraft (which is nice although I'm not playing that game) but a free pack of cards. There's a really good balance between the effort required to earn free packs in this game and the temptation of just buying them outright, and while I have yet to open my wallet, I can see the allure of skipping those daily quests in order to beef up my collection.

Android tablet owners are rightfully grinding their teeth waiting for Hearthstone to land on their devices as well, and after seeing the great fit of platform and game with the iPad, I don't blame them for their frustration. In the meanwhile, it looks as though Blizz's small but addictive title has a welcome home and another frontier to conquer.

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