Blizzard has been steadily releasing Hearthstone updates and expansions for years, but it's fair to say at this point that the card game, once an explosive and surprise success, is now catering to its most loyal audience. Changes that feel massive within the community, like the recent trend of bringing in special or retired cards between expansions to mix up the meta, haven't done much to reach outside its established player base.
It's in this environment that Blizzard has developed and prepared an all-new mode that seems aimed at reaching outside the traditional Hearthstone audience. Hearthstone Battlegrounds is the studio's take on the popular auto-battler genre, all within the familiar framework of the CCG mechanics. But while it could be a familiar and friendly introduction to auto-chess for Hearthstone veterans, it may not reach outside the core audience.
Auto-battlers, sometimes referred to as auto-chess, have exploded in popularity over the last year, starting with the advent of the Dota 2 Auto-Chess mod. It's fundamentally a genre that's about investment, as you plan your purchases of armies to take part in automated battles. The strategy takes place entirely in the periods between the actual battle rounds, but the complexity of buying strategies and positioning can be daunting in high-level play.
Hearthstone made its name on being an accessible, easy-to-learn collectible card game. The mechanics and UI were all clearly signposted, and after a lifetime of being CCG-curious, I finally found one that gently introduced me to the genre. Years later, the game has become second nature. Mechanics have stacked and built upon themselves, but I've been there since the foundation, and so it all makes sense. Battlegrounds appears primed to do the same for auto-battlers, and like CCGs I've been interested in learning the ropes of the emerging genre.
Blizzard has a way of making clear and simple UI and that talent is on full display in Battlegrounds. Even watching the debut presentation at BlizzCon felt daunting, with a messy hodgepodge of keywords and mechanics that I simply had no point of reference for. The in-game experience, on the other hand, is perfectly friendly. After a brief tutorial explaining the rhythm of a match, I felt perfectly equipped to jump into a live game against human opponents.
Like any auto-battler, Battlegrounds is a value game, as you buy and sell minions or upgrade your tavern using in-game currency to maximize your strength on the board. Just as Hearthstone capped Mana cost at 10, Battlegrounds keeps the number of coins in play and available tavern upgrades manageably low. You'll never be managing an ebb and flow of more than 10 Gold in any given purchasing round.
You're pitted against seven other opponents, each doing the same, and rounds consist of your minions fighting the other side until only one team has any minions left. Whichever side breaks through does damage to the opponent, and then everyone heads back to the store to try it again. This repeats until only one of the eight players remains. This rhythm makes the focus less on play-order or deciding whether to attack an opponent's face as in traditional Hearthstone, and more about minion placement and purchase strategy.
For the time being, the meta feels relatively limited. There are 24 heroes to choose from, but most of them have similar powers--namely, some method to buff a particular minion tribe. Those tribes, too, are limited. Right now there are only a handful of minions in the Mech, Beast, Demon, and Murloc tribes, and after a handful of games you'll learn how to maximize your synergy for each. Already there are almost foolproof strategies emerging, especially around Mech synergy. Other heroes encourage aggressive buying and selling, and any hero can be viable--but some are obvious favorites and nerfs seem inevitable.
In beta, at least, the Battlegrounds mode doesn't have much of an incentive structure--as opposed to the other non-standard mode, Arena, which requires an entry fee and offers potentially big rewards for great performance. Battlegrounds has no such entry fee, and simply offers you a rank that raises or lowers after each match. Blizzard hasn't detailed if it will offer rewards at all. That makes the mode feel slight, like playing a Tavern Brawl after you've already claimed your weekly reward. Since the heroes don't count as class selections, they're ineligible for daily quest completion too.
The reward structure may change after the beta period. At least for now, the experience is slightly enhanced by having purchased packs from the latest expansion (for the beta, this is counted as the upcoming expansion Descent of Dragons). You could get detailed stat tracking, a selection of three heroes instead of two, and emotes depending on the number of packs purchased, but none of these features feel strictly necessary.
Ultimately, Battlegrounds did help introduce me to auto-battlers. I feel more capable and prepared to try others with the foundation this one has built. But I can't help but wonder if that experience would be the same for someone less familiar with Hearthstone. The mode introduces a handful of new units that are custom-built for the mode, but for the most part it relies on minions and mechanics that longtime Hearthstone players understand at a glance. If someone entered without that foundation, I'm concerned that trying to read and grasp each unit's information while under strict time constraints could be frustrating. If so, Battlegrounds may be another move that pleasantly caters to the Hearthstone community, without reaching very far outside of it.
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