A noob review of Hearthstone

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Well look who it is!

So you’re greeted by, I’m assuming, a friendly dwarf in the tavern where heroes are busy pummeling each other in this easy-to-learn-hard-to-master card-battle gem from Blizzard.

I tried out Hearthstone on my iPad 2 when it launched but unfortunately, with iOS 8 installed, performance was terrible. The 512MB RAM of the device to blame and not the game. Sluggish performance meant I never really got into it, but, over December 2014 I installed the title on my MacBook Pro and played a few games during the holidays. For some reason, I still didn’t get into it but was intrigued enough to keep the title in the back of my mind, wishing Blizzard would launch an iPhone version…

Be careful what you wish for, much? Productivity disappeared as soon as I installed the game on my iPhone 6 Plus. If you in any way enjoy collecting, ranked matches or casual online play, enjoy more single player oriented stories and are a bit of a completionist, be warned. Hearthstone will suck up your time like few other games. In my case, I was spending most of my time over the last few months playing Madden Mobile (a perfectly crafted mobile American football sport simulation) cranking levels, winning Super Bowls and crafting a team of elite players. I haven’t played a single head-to-head game in Madden Mobile for weeks.

If you’ve played Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (another excellent card-battle game for iOS), you’ll have a very good idea of how Hearthstone plays. Based on the lore and characters of Blizzard’s other money printing behemoth, World of Warcraft, in Hearthstone you collect cards that represent minions summoned on a game board that each boast unique abilities. Cards can then be grouped in decks for each of the 9 hero classes and you then take your deck into battle (against the CPU Inn Keeper or online against other players or against your friends) and try to whittle down your opponent’s health from 30 points to zero by playing your cards right.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Heroes also boast their own Hero Abilities which differ from class to class and can be offensive, defensive or supplementary in nature.

Starting your journey through all that Hearthstone presents, your lowest barrier to entry point would be the Practice mode in the Solo Adventures menu. Here you can play with all 9 classes with card decks provided by the game to get a feel for what each class plays like, and as important, how each class plays against. Starting this mode, you’ll be given the challenge of leveling up each of the 9 classes up to level 10. Through this learning process you’ll unlock more cards either usable by all 9 classes or cards that are class specific. The classes are Hunter, Warrior, Mage, Paladin, Priest, Warlock, Shaman, Rogue and Druid.

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Before we get into the details, first a few basics on how the game plays. Once you’ve selected which kind of game you want to play (casual, ranked, practice etc) you will be given the option to choose a class from where you’ll be inserted into a game. Players alternate turns and there are pros and cons in going first or second (more on that in a second). Cards are given a mana designation, starting at 0 mana cost all the way up to 12 mana cost. Players start off with 1 mana on their first turn and your mana increase automatically by 1 with each subsequent turn, thus enabling you to play cards with higher mana costs each turn, or playing multiple lower mana cost cards in one turn. Going first obviously allows that player to populate the game board first or play spell cards (such as secrets or offensive spell cards) to gain an advantage. The con is that the player going first only draws three cards at the start of the game. Going second, nets you an extra card as well as the Coin card, a card that allows you to add 1 mana to any turn, for that turn only, enabling you to ply higher mana cards in a turn where you might not have been able to. At the start of every turn you’ll draw a card from your deck to your hand (the cards at the bottom right on the images below) and cards in your hand represent the cards you are able to play in a turn. You can have a maximum of 10 cards in your hand and your deck starts with 30 cards less the cards drawn upon the first turn. Players alternate playing cards from their hands with the aim of reducing the opponent’s hero’s health (starting at 30 health points as per the number next to the hero portrait) to zero. When a hero’s health reaches zero, it explodes with a satisfying display of fireworks and a shuddering of the screen. Gives you the warm and fuzzies every time.

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That’s it really, as I said, easy to learn but hard to master. The hard to master part refers to the challenge of building a card deck able to withstand any combination of cards that your opponent might have assembled. Cards have a myriad of different attributes, buffs, offensive and defensive capabilities, special actions based on circumstances etc, while certain cards are specific to certain classes (and can only be used by that class) while other cards are available to all classes. While the game is mostly skill based, think card based chess, a little luck does come into it because the cards drawn from your deck to your hand are randomised, meaning you’ll never know what cards gets added to your hand next. A deck consist of 30 cards in total per match (certain cards can increase that number after the start of play) and you’re only ever allowed a maximum of 2 copies of a card in your deck. The skill comes in to mitigate the luck factor and play any situation, no matter what order your cards were drawn. Highly skilled players can get out of any situation. Just recently I played a match against a player sporting a gold Rogue (meaning this player has won more than 500 matches in ranked play). By turn 7 I had whittled down his/her health to 1 while I was sitting dandy on 27. 4 turns later I was dead. Experience and a good understanding of your deck, as well as what cards are available to other classes, is key to victory.

Once you’ve unlocked all the classes and class specific cards contained in the basic deck provided in-game, you have one of two choices: drop a few bucks on the 2 single player adventures (Curse of Naxxramas and Blackrock Mountain, $25 each) or mosey on over to the Play menu where you can battle against other players in casual or ranked matches. Although the game itself is free and the basic deck (consisting of around 200 cards) can be had by leveling up and accruing coins through online matches (casual or ranked), I would suggest buying the single player adventures as they contain cards that you would need to be competitive against veteran players. In these single player adventures you’ll face off against a number of bosses in a specific order, beating one after the other to challenge the final boss. Each victory will snag you another card that’s added to your collection. Once you’ve completed the story mode, you can enter the class challenges where you will be required to beat all the previous bosses with a specific class and deck assigned by the game, no using your own preferred class and deck. Victories here will net you one more card per victory. Finally, once you’ve cleared these challenges you can enter the Heroic challenges, be warned, these matches are super hard and you’ll need a good deck and in-depth understanding of the strategy each boss employs.

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As mentioned, cards can be earned through leveling up your hero, but, you can also purchase card packs from the store (100 coins for 1 pack and then, real money is required, starting at $2.99 for 3 packs all the way to $49.99 for 40 packs.) You’ll feel like a kid at Christmas while opening those 40 packs, try it at least once! Throughout playing the game and collecting cards, you’ll start seeing duplicates in your collection. As mentioned, you can use only up to 2 copies of a card per deck (this does not accumulate across all your hero decks, meaning you can have 2 duplicates of a card across all 9 hero class decks or any combination of hero decks you build), as soon as you have more than 2 copies of a card, you can disenchant the duplicates for Dust, another currency in the game used for crafting cards.  Believe me, you’re gonna wanna collect all the cards! Once you tap the Crafting button at the top of the screen, you’ll see grayed-out cards as well as opaque blue cards show up between the cards you’ve already unlocked. Opaque blue cards are ones you have enough dust to craft, the grayed-out ones you’ll need to collect more dust to create. Cards are classified into 4 tiers based on the colour of the gem in the center of the card: white for common, blue for rare, purple for epic and orange for legendary. Based on the cards’ status, cost for crafting can be as little 40 dust, all the up to 1600 dust for legendary cards! Some cards also have an alternate version of the card called a gold card. These cards have the portrait animated and look really cool, they don’t however alter the stats of the card in any way. What does make these cards really valuable is that they can be disenchanted for a lot more dust than the regular version of the card. Also note that basic cards (these cards have no gems on them) cannot be disenchanted, only those cards with gems.

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Do me a favour, don’t concede when you’re losing, it takes away from the player that has earned the win

Once you’ve unlocked and leveled all the classes to level 10, finished off all the single player adventures, you’re ready to engage in online battle. Here your choices are between playing against a friend that you’ve added on your friend list, playing a casual online match against a randomly selected player (you’ll be paired on your current skill level), in the highly competitive ranked matches and lastly…. Dum-dum-dum… The Arena! While playing practice matches (up to level 10) and the single player adventures will net you XP for your hero that levels up your hero, these single player XP rewards are small. Playing against friends or online casual or ranked matches will net you bonus XP and help you level up your hero that much faster. Every few levels you’ll unlock more cards that are added to your collection. All three these modes follow the same system as the single player matches, although, within the ranked matches you’ll climb in rank as you win. Each victory earns you a star, win streaks net you additional stars and each star helps you climb the ranks, starting at rank 25 to 1, and above that, the coveted Legend rank. Casual matches are exactly that, once-off matches against a random opponent and will net you XP and a notch on your Play matches win-counter, but not much more than that. Ranked matches are a different story. Through the first few ranks up to rank 20, when you win you get stars and when you lose you don’t lose stars. Climbing to rank 20 is therefore fairly risk free. Once you’ve gotten to rank 19 you will lose stars for matches lost and thus the competitiveness from this rank and up is much higher. You’ll see fewer players concede (you can choose to concede a match in any online matches, although this does count as a loss) and thus in ranked matches will lose you a star when conceding. On that note: do me a favour, don’t concede when you’re losing, it takes away from the player that has earned the win. Take the final blow on the chin and move on to the next match.

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Do you really want to get the blood pumping? Enter The Arena! For 150 coins (or $1.99) you battle it out against other players with a class of your choice with the big difference being that you cannot use your own deck, but have to build a deck from a preselected set of cards. The goal here is to win as many matches in a row, up to a maximum of 12, to win great prizes ranging between coins and cards. Now I have not even come close to 12 wins in a row, but from what I could gather from forums, the prizes are epic! 3 losses however (not in a row, just 3 losses total while in The Arena) will get you booted and based on your performance you will get awarded a prize. Note that you don’t have to compete in the Arena in one go, you can play matches, exit and return later and continue where you left off. The structure of the Arena is also different from from constructed play in casual or ranked modes, in that you can build your deck with more than 2 copies of a specific card. It is therefore very important to know how different cards from different classes enhance and complement each other. You’ll need a very solid understanding of the game to do well in the Arena. For more information on the Arena, visit the Hearthstone Wiki.

The Arena
The Arena, not for the faint of hearth, I mean heart

I’ve mentioned coins a few times in this review, how do you get them? Well, there a few ways and one of them is not by paying real world money! Coins are earned by winning 3 matches in play mode (ranked or casual or a mix of the two) which will give you 10 coins. Completing some of the daily quests (they can stack up to 3 at a time if you didn’t complete one every day over 3 days for a maximum of 3 available quests at a time) which will net you 40 coins. It is therefore possible to earn up to 50 coins per day through winning the 3 matches and completing the daily quest. The daily quests range from winning 2 matches with a specific class, dealing a certain amount of damage to opponent heroes or destroying a certain number of minions or casting a certain of number of spells. Therefor you could earn 100 coins every second day to buy a card pack or save up over 3 days and enter the Arena.

Daily quests
Quest away! You’ll need the coins!

Finally, some tips and resources to speed up your progress. The meta in Hearthstone is very deep and you’ll need to at least do the following:

  • Level up each class in Practice mode to level 10. This will help to start your understanding of how the various classes play, the types of cards each class has access to and how the cards synergise with each other (including the All Class cards) and then start deciding on your strategy based on your favoured class and the cards you have available to you.
  • Play through the 2 story missions. That includes both the tiered boss missions as well as the class challenges. Although the cost might be steep for some, it is worth it as you’ll unlock powerful and useful cards for each class and across classes. Even if this is the only real world money you spend, you won’t regret it. Playing through these missions will further enhance your understanding of the classes and help you choose a class you most enjoy playing.
  • Once you’ve completed these, practice against real opponents in casual mode. Get a feel for how the game plays against other players, you’ll experience different strategies and see cards you might need to craft to get better. Even though better cards will help you climb the ranked ladder, they will not guarantee wins! Luck and card play a part, but skill will still triumph. Once you’re comfortable with the flow of matches and you’ve tested your deck against other players, try the ranked mode. The additional pressure of having to win to climb the ranks will test your skills and your deck, exposing where your deck might come up short or how your strategies and skills need to be honed to get better.
  • Only once you’re comfortable with how all the classes play, your deck has been tested and proven worthy, then go to The Arena. On your first visit to the Arena you will be allowed to enter for free (if you’re curiosity gets the better of you, as it did me, early on you can go try it out) but be warned, the Arena is populated by very skilled players chasing those elusive 12 wins!
  • Lastly, the web is full of forums and sites dedicated to Hearthstone. Many of them will answer any questions you might have. I’ve found that this Reddit Hearthstone deck building guide thread was a great way to learn how to construct your deck for each class and how to think about how cards enhance and complement each other within a given strategy. You can also visit their main site, Hearthstoneplayers.com for loads more resources, this link specifically being a card crafting guide, giving tips on which cards will strengthen your deck.

The joy of the game lays in experimenting, testing out various combinations of cards and different strategies and this is where the game shines. Blizzard have crafted an insanely well-balanced game that pits veterans against noobs, and sometimes with a little luck, lets the noob win!