Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Review Context: I’ve played Hearthstone completely free-to-play since 2013 at different frequencies, starting from everyday to a couple times a week. I used to play Magic: The Gathering in the 1990s, and I’m generally attracted to games in the card genres, giving most of them a try.
Date of Playthrough: October 2013 – June 2015
PC Specs Game Played on:
OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Processor: Intel(R) Core(TM) i3 CPU 540 @ 3.07GHz
RAM: 8 GB
Video Card: AMD Radeon 7700 1GB DDR5
Although Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has been out for over a year, the game has changed a lot since the version of the game from 2013. Blizzard Entertainment’s venture into the CCG (Collectable Card Game) genre was met with much skepticism by Blizzard fans when it was announced at PAX East 2013; I was one of them. There was also a little birdie in my head that kept telling me, “money grab.” After all, in 2012 Blizzard implemented an auction house system in Diablo 3 that turned out to be such a debacle that Blizzard did a complete 180 degree turn and removed it from the game. Although the auction house was removed from the game, Blizzard’s intent was clear, money. Despite the birdie in my head giving me mixed signals, as soon as I started watching Twitch streams of early closed beta testers of Hearthstone, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw and couldn’t wait to play it. The 2015 version, Hearthstone: Goblins vs. Gnomes is much different than the vanilla release version in 2013. Not only has Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft evolved as a game, but my opinion of it has as well. This is a very difficult game to judge, but now I feel a proper judgement can be made based off of Blizzard’s decision-making over the past couple years.
Some Hearthstone Basics
Before my experience of playing a Hearthstone match or watching a stream of the game, my concern was how hard the game would be to understand . As a former Magic: The Gathering player, I would best describe Hearthstone as being a “Fisher-Price” version of Magic: The Gathering. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The card mechanics of Hearthstone are very easy to understand, but the complexity of the game is designed around the combination of the cards with the nine different hero classes (Warrior, Rogue, Paladin, Priest, Mage, Warlock, Hunter, Shaman, Druid) and their hero powers. Certain cards only work with certain heross, but a large percentage of the cards can be used with every class, just maybe not as best strategically with every class. For a example, a card that adds spell damage would be more effective with the mage instead of the warrior.
Besides the standard attack/health values that used in most card games, Hearthstone cards can have special attributes which enhance the value of the card. A few examples are charge, divine shield, and taunt; charge allows the card to attack the same turn it was played, divine shield protects the card from damage against the first attack, and taunt forces the opposing player to attack the taunt card before anything else, but taunt excludes spells and certain hero powers. The resource system used is mana crystals, which starts at one and increases by one each turn until the maximum limit of ten is reached. This is a much more player friendly resource system compared to Magic: The Gathering, where a player could find themselves fishing for land cards in order to play cards. The general rules are pretty standard, with each player drawing a card each turn. The number of cards per deck is thirty, but various playstyles or long games can give player’s ‘fatigue’ if their deck of cards run out before either player’s hero health of thirty is taken down to zero to end the game. Fatigue damages that player’s hero, with increased damage each turn until the game ends.
Hearthstone has various card rarity types; common, rare, epic, and legendary. The main way cards can be acquired is by either paying one hundred gold per pack, or paying money starting at $2.99 for two packs. In the beginning, players will be able to fill their ‘basic’ decks for each hero by leveling up the heroes to level ten. Leveling up heroes doesn’t do much, except giving a gold portrait at level fifty and bragging rights. The other way to get packs is to play the arena mode that costs one hundred fifty gold or $1.99. In ‘The Arena’ players are randomly given three hero classes to choose one, and from there, three cards are randomly shown on the screen for players to pick one at a time until a full deck of thirty cards is selected. Players play with the deck they put together against other players until they either win twelve games or lose three games. The way matchmaking works is players are matched by record; for example, a three win/two loss player is matched against a player with that same record. Players are randomly rewarded for their efforts at the end of the run by receiving a card pack, plus a random combination of gold, dust, and/or cards based on the number of wins. The positive in arena is that everyone is on an even playing field of randomness, where cards you own (or don’t own) have no effect on the experience. The other positive is you are always guaranteed a pack of cards.
As I mentioned earlier, cards have various attributes, but one of the more controversial types of card attributes do random effects (RNG = Random Number Generation), that can change the tide of a game. For example, a card can randomly attack any minion on the board beyond a player’s control. There is a card called “Ragnaros,” that does an eight damage fireball after each turn and the random factor is that the card either hits a minion or the hero. Players have zero control over where Ragnaros can attack, but a player on the opposite side can put more minions on the board to increase the odds of Ragnaros attacking a minion, but the randomness is still there. Ragnaros is the most popular example of RNG in Hearthstone, but far from the only one, where a random event can change the tide of game. There are many other cards with RNG factors that can negatively affect the experience.
The pack opening experience is always something that needs to be discussed when dealing with a card game. This is one of the few areas where Hearthstone excels to perfection. When opening a pack, there is a cool animation of the cards opening, but even before finding out what cards you receive there are various borders surrounding unflipped cards which giveaway the value of the cards. For example, if the card has a purple border that means epic, but if there is a golden border that means legendary. This adds a minor level of excitement and suspense to the Hearthstone experience, and if you don’t believe me, just search YouTube for the many videos of people screaming in excitement before the card flip.
Besides the flashy animation opening cards, certain cards have cool animations accompanied by a music or voice acting when played during a game. Most of the card animations involve cards bouncing around the board in some form. For sounds accompanying cards, there is a legendary card for the World of Warcraft YouTube sensation, Leeroy Jenkins. When Leeroy is played you will hear the famous battlecry heard by millions on YouTube, followed by his famous closing remark once he is removed from the battlefield. There are many other cards besides Leeroy with sounds or voice acting accompanying a card. Hearthstone’s soundtrack is one-dimensional, with only one or two tracks that will loop throughout the experience. Although animations are cool, the one drawback is that sometimes an animation for a card gaining attack or health based off of something happening to many other cards can lock a player waiting for the animation to finish, which can takes a chunk out of the ninety second per turn timer. Animations don’t halt the ninety second turn timer,and the player is frozen waiting for the specific card animation to finish before commanding another action. The warrior class is the biggest victim of this, with cards like Frothing Berserker, Armorsmith, Brawl, and a new card, Grim Patron. If this animation versus turn timer thing is an intentional design decision, it’s a terrible one.
Hearthstone does have a ranked mode where players can work their way ranked from twenty five all the way up to the top tier legend where all the good players are. Winning streaks will make you rank faster, and while the ranks reset on a monthly basis, you will retain some of your rank into the next ranked season so you don’t have to start at rank twenty five again. Players who reach at least rank twenty in a season can’t be demoted lower until a season reset comes. There is also a casual mode that players can queue into where their rank wont be affected.
The Goblins vs. Gnomes Effect
I should note, like World of Warcraft when expansions hit, for Hearthstone, there is no “switch” to toggle between the vanilla release version experience and the Goblins vs Gnomes experience, because everything became Goblins vs Gnomes. When the Goblins vs. Gnomes update hit Hearthstone it added many new cards with the “goblin” or “mech” class. It also introduced new legendary cards, that in my opinion, are much better than the original legendaries. The biggest change was the addition of Goblins vs. Gnomes packs of cards, where previously the the only packs available were called “Expert” packs. In order to continue receiving the original release set of cards, players have to buy expert packs with their gold/money, or they can receive an expert pack as a reward for the new spectator mode quest.
With the release of Hearthstone: Goblins vs. Gnomes also came new strategies, which the game needed because seeing the original release set of cards all the time with the same strategies over and over was starting to become stale. Previously, Blizzard did add some new cards at the end of July 2014 in a small adventure mode expansion called, “The Curse of Naxxramas,” but the cards have to be unlocked by playing the game in sections called “wings.” Wings were released a week apart up to five weeks, meaning five wings in total. Each wing unlocks some very good cards, as well as two challenge hero class quests that gave the player hero class specific cards after winning the easy challenges for those particular hero classes. Each wing also has a a normal mode and heroic mode. The big kicker for The Curse of Naxxramas is each wing either costs seven hundred gold or pay $6.99. Wings can also be bought in a bundle with money, but not gold. Although The Curse of Naxxramas added many great cards to Hearthstone, it paled in comparison to the number of cards Goblins vs. Gnomes added five months later.
In order to properly break down the effect of The Curse of Naxxramas, plus the hefty addition of Goblins vs. Gnomes, the gold acquisition system needs to be discussed. Besides doing well in arena mode, players can win gold by completing random daily quests every 24 hours, but only three quests can be held at the same time. Quests can be anything from “Play X amount of X cost minions,” to “Win X amount of games with a certain class.“ The gold rewards from quests are forty, sixty, and one hundred gold. The one hundred gold quest is very rare, so don’t expect it to pop up often. Quests can also be ‘re-rolled’ once a day. In ranked mode, players are given ten gold for every three wins, giving the feeling that ranked play is unrewarding. There are no extra gold rewards for streaks, but a player can rank up quicker.
Opinions will differ on Hearthstone: Goblins vs. Gnomes depending on how much money a player spends and the time commitment for playing. My experience up to now is 100% free-to-play, with various time commitments from release up to today. While the game presents and advertises itself as a game meant for a ‘casual’ experience due to to how simple the game is to understand and accessibility, the design and gold reward system of the game seems to conflict with that promotion. Gold acquisition is the biggest issue in the game for a ‘free-to-play’ player. While quests can be acquired and done everyday (or done in bunches of three) for more gold in order to play in the arena mode or buy packs, this involves a time commitment. When the factors of RNG in matches, being matched with players who are loaded with great legendaries (Ranked), and players who are just hovering around rank twenty in order receive the monthly card back reward are put into play; it can take from thirty minutes to one hour just to complete a single quest. If you’re lucky, some quests may overlap so multiple quests can be completed at a time.
When I played Hearthstone prior to the Curse of Naxxramas I could generally keep up with with my quests, but with my GameReviewPad time sink and the fact I wanted to spend my time playing other games, that meant I couldn’t keep up with my quest log playing every single day. When The Curse of Naxxramas came out, I saved some gold prior to the release, but I quickly found out that it was almost impossible for me to catch up in a reasonable period of time unless I committed to playing the game everyday, in order to rack up the seven hundred gold needed to get the next wing without paying money. Almost a year later today, I only have four out of the five wings unlocked for The Curse of Naxxramas. Its important to note that The Curse of Naxxramas has quite a few good cards that are almost mandatory to have in order to be viable with certain class heroes, but also big ‘game-changers’ that will frustrate you going against. Due to the steep gold cost and time commitment involved to rack up seven hundred gold per wing, sadly, the The Curse of Naxxramas can fairly be considered a paywall by design.
When the Curse of Naxxramas is combined with the release of Goblins vs. Gnomes, new players will be at an incredible disadvantage because the ‘wallet tug’ will be huge due to how many barriers for entry the game now presents in order to be a viable player. The first big barrier for entry that Goblins vs. Gnomes adds is the new pack type, which only gives Goblins vs. Gnomes cards. As mentioned earlier, in arena mode a pack is guaranteed for each arena run, but the player only receives a Goblins vs Gnomes pack with no choice to get an ‘expert pack,’ which would help a new player catch up their collection. This was picked up by the Hearthstone community almost immediately in December, but no changes have been made to address to this arena issue.
Since this is a CCG, trading cards amongst players is not allowed. The mechanism for getting new cards is almost exclusively packs, with the possible exception of getting a card reward in arena. Since players are only allowed to use two of a card, players will no doubt be getting extra quantities of cards during their time playing Hearthstone. There is a system in Hearthstone to get a currency called “Arcane Dust,” which players are given every time they choose to ‘disenchant’ a card (usually extras). Players can use arcane dust to craft specific cards, including legendaries. The problem with the crafting system is it takes a lot of dust to craft even the decent cards. Players are also not given much dust when choosing to disenchant a card. Normally, when a player wants to disenchant a card they are given a fraction of the dust cost it would take to craft that card, but since Blizzard has a system that gives the full crafting cost of a card as the disenchant amount if that card is nerfed, this leads to players to not disenchanting until dust is needed or card nerfs are implemented. Dust acquisition is another issue that Blizzard has not addressed since release.
Since the release of Goblins vs Gnomes in December 2014, Hearthstone has added another adventure mode expansion called, “Blackrock Mountain,” which has the same pay model as The Curse of Naxxramas. Since gold acquisition is still terrible, I’ve only unlocked the first wing of Blackrock Mountain. In addition to Blackrock Mountain, at the same time, Hearthstone also added spectator mode, which is used for friends to watch friends play the game from their perspective.
Experiences playing Hearthstone may vary from player to player depending on time commitment, money investment, and just sheer knowledge of card games. As an experienced player, don’t get me wrong, when things are going right and I am winning in Hearthstone it is very fun, but because there is no ‘carot on a stick’ to keep me wanting to play, except the cardbacks at ranked at 20 and completing quests, it can be tough to want to play because there is no reward for achieving lower ranks. Furthermore, losing to ‘RNG factors’ will only demoralize you due to knowing you played everything right, only to lose to a random effect. For someone considering jumping into Hearthstone: Goblins vs Gnomes fresh, I would be nuts to recommend that; unless the person is planning on investing hundreds to thousands of dollars in packs and expansion packs. The barrier for viable entry into Hearthstone is steep, and it seems to be getting steeper by each new decision made by Blizzard. Blizzard needs to make a decision about what kind of player Hearthstone is directed towards; Is it for the casual free-to-play player? Or the player willing to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on packs and play the game everyday for two hours a day? If the game is designed for ‘casual’ play, it should not require play everyday to keep up with gold. I expect a game that is promoted as “free-to-play” and designed for ‘casuals’ to provide an experience for a “free-to-play” player and someone with limited time (casual), that is not so far apart from someone willing to spend money.
Blizzard also needs to refrain from insulting their playerbase by saying changes would be ‘confusing,’ when coming up with excuses for not implementing new features like more deck slots, which players are only given nine of currently. It doesn’t give much hope that Hearthstone got The Curse of Naxxramas, the Goblins vs Gnomes update, and Blackrock Mountain. all before addressing and fixing the most important issues Hearthstone has had since release that scares away new players, like ranked mode matchmaking, ranked mode gold gain, no new variety of quests, arena mode pack choice, no deck slots increase, and no new modes at all. It’s a troubling sign when a company has made three consecutive major design decisions sacrificing a better gaming experience in favor of profit. Don’t get me wrong, a company has to make their money, but there has to be a limit where capitalism ends, and enjoyment of a game and passion for the genre becomes the priority. Hearthstone is now the top moneymaker for Blizzard, topping World of Warcraft. Given that fact, I don’t expect any changes to help players in my position (time limitation, free-to-play), or new players anytime soon. Sadly, and unfortunately, it seems like the bird chirping in my head was right; It was always All About the Benjamins, and not a passion for the genre to begin with.
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