The New Gateway Drug: Thoughts On Blizzard’s “Hearthstone”

When it comes to Blizzard’s magnum opus, World of Warcraft, I’ve been clean about two years.

This is literally how I describe it to other gamers when the inescapable topic of MMOs comes up. And no one is surprised by the expression–few even crack a smile, though some ask the inevitable question: “Horde or Alliance?” (what do I look like–a pimple-faced twelve year old? Horde, you imbecile).

Now, to be clear–I think WoW is terrific. It’s gorgeous, it’s engaging, it has a terrific sense of humor, and it’s filled with a mythology that rivals all but the greatest fantasy in terms of imagination and scope. And I suppose that if I had had more invested in the game in terms of relationships with other players or no drive to experience other games (and presumably write about them), I suppose I’d still be working on my DPS score and speaking with a solidly racist accent.

"Ah'm still not clear on whedda or not Voodoo is a good ting or a bad ting, mon."

“Ah’m still not clear on whedda or not Voodoo is a good ting or a bad ting, mon.”

Despite all of that, I honestly had zero interest in Hearthstone at first.  Another “free” CCG based on another franchise with probably a hundred thousand different ways to microtransaction you to death–big whoop.

But like throwing toddlers down abandoned wells, this game is a lot of fun with plenty of opportunities for surprising depth.

Hearthstone is very similar to the MMO and RTS that spawned it. With gorgeous visuals and a simple rule set, I was taken aback at how quick it was to learn and get started. Like Magic: The Gathering, this game centers around card collection and deck building. The rules are simpler, however, with a more straightforward style. Your minions can attack opposing players at will, with no need to fight your way through his own beasties (assuming they aren’t drawn to them through various powers).

You also gain experience in different classes (and therefore different decks) as you progress, unlocking new abilities along the way. The ranked matches keep everything fair enough that you’ll find yourself trying out different deck combinations very regularly–something that is engaging and complex, yet simple and accessible. Simple for the time being, anyway–it’s easy to see how any number of deck styles, classes, and cards could be expanded with patches in the future.

In addition to looking and feeling slick as hell, the gameplay is nicely streamlined to encourage quicker, skirmish-style play without sacrificing a massive amount of time for strategy. Mana is measured equally for each character, getting progressively higher as the game goes on, meaning the players can focus on action. It also means the games are more evenly matched, with no instances of land or mana “drying up” due to a bad shuffle.

As you defeat opponents, you gain cards and gold (which you can use to buy booster packs), and you’re rarely addressed with the notion of actually spending money. In fact, it’s so reasonably tucked away that I started to do some math in my head–wondering how on earth Hearthstone intended to make money on this. Are they really banking on microtransactions and buying booster packs for a game with this much potential to grow?  How are they…

Oh, you evil motherfuckers.

Oh, you evil motherfuckers.

A free WoW mount.  That, my friends, is the glorious, Blizzard-perfected art of synergy. That’s right: your account fits into this iOS game with ease. Play Hearthstone to get bonuses for your World of Warcraft account. I’ve also seen promises of bonus card packs with the new Diablo expansion. Say what you want about Steam sales–Blizzard knows how to hook it’s audience in.

With free toys.

Despite that dangling carrot, I did not, in fact, reenlist in the armies of the Horde. But the offer didn’t distract me from the fun. This “scratch one game’s back, scratch another’s” strategy is actually pretty interesting, and Blizzard is definitely leading the charge. If you’re a recovering WoW addict, this might just be the bit of nostalgia that’ll get you sucked back in.  For me, however, it was just the right amount of fun with my long-standing MMO girlfriend without pushing me over the edge of going back to paying her bills.  It’s definitely worth a look–Hearthstone is a very fun, very addictive little game. Blizzard has set the groundwork for what could slowly grow into a sprawling strategy piece, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it evolves into over time.

And if you’re feeling strong, it’s even free.

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