Hearthstone Review: Heroes of Digital Cardboard

Talk about your major coincidences: when I entered the Hearthstone beta I also resumed playing Magic: the Gathering. To make an incredibly long story short, I’ve played far, far more Magic than Hearthstone these past few months. I’ve enjoyed playing with old friends, making new ones, and getting into the competitive scene. Does this mean that I haven’t enjoyed Hearthstone? Far from it; it’s a high quality digital card game that also happens to be missing a few key features to help push it over the top.

Let’s immediately state the obvious: the most accessible part regarding any tabletop game, not just Magic, is the social community around it. Most local game stores are always welcoming and helpful to newcomers, making the jump into a complex and sometimes complicated meta-game easier. Natively, Hearthstone has zero support for that. Sure, there are resources such as Hearthpwn and r/Hearthstone, but they’re not in the game. Plus, if you’re looking to access them as you play, you’re out of luck: Hearthstone won’t let you alt+tab out of the game.

No, I’m not kidding. Hope you have a second monitor/laptop/phone nearby.

Combine the lack of native support with gimped social features and no card trading system and you have a meta-game that can be somewhat inaccessible. This is a damn shame due to the strong gameplay Hearthstone offers. Each of the nine available classes (original World of Warcraft classes; Death Knights and Monks are currently not available) have their own identity shine through. Whether it’s the staying power of the Priest, the over-the-top damage of the Mage, the rush of the Warlock, or the swarm of the Paladin, class personality shines through.

Equally important is the fact that classes are able to keep their personality while still digging into the basic card pool. The days of wishing “hey, I really wish I had that creature card without any type of color/class flair” are over and it’s about time.

It’s just an ironic shame that the only way to get the cards that you covert so much is either by opening them in packs or crafting them. What’s crafting, you say? I’ll tell you right now.

When you open packs, chances are you’ll get cards you don’t have an interest in. Instead of having them sit in your collection and collect virtual dust, you can disenchant them for materials. You can then use these materials to craft cards you’re interested in. As you can imagine, the more powerful the card the higher the crafting cost. In a nutshell, it’s exactly like enchanting in World of Warcraft, which helps make the experience feel incredibly familiar. The issue with this, though, is that it can take a somewhat lengthy time to get the super powerful cards you need to make those decks you see across the internet.

Hold on there, how do you get those booster packs? I’m glad you asked. The easiest way to obtain them is through completing Arena runs, Hearthstone’s limited format. You’ll gain entry for either 150 in-game cold or a few bucks.  

Hearthstone Review – Heroes of Digital Cardboard

Arena works as follows: you’ll pick one of three random classes and then pick one of three random cards until you complete a deck of 30. In theory, everyone is on a level playing field: no pre-constructed deck filled with combos and power cards. The issue, though, is that if you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck with three low-tiered classes, you’re at a disadvantage. Inversely, if you’re a mage and come across four Fireballs and a ton of crowd control, you should probably pick up a lottery ticket you lucky son of a gun. So much for that level playing field; it’s one thing when someone gets amazing pulls in a Magic draft, but everyone starts out on the same foot there. Just because fellow GameZone writer Austin Wood was able to play a Mage or Priest in Arena doesn’t necessarily mean I could.

“Hey wait a second, Jake” you may be asking. “I thought you liked Hearthstone!” Truth be told, I did. In a way, I still do. But my appreciation for the game has dropped as I dive deeper and deeper into competitive Magic: the Gathering. I’m attending a Grand Prix in the very near future and I’ve been trading and buying cards as I tinker with my constructed deck. I can’t do that in Hearthstone; I’d have to grind and grind in order to get access to the cards I’d love to see in my deck. Sure, the Arena is an absolute blast (random luck and chance as you draft aside), but it becomes frustrating when that luck isn’t on your side.

When the decks are all shuffled and the cards are dealt, Hearthstone shines as a fantastic casual free-to-play digital card game. If you’re looking for a bit more substance, though, you might want to go elsewhere.

But not Magic: the Gathering Online. That UI is awful and Hearthstone’s blows it away.