Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Open Beta Review

Playing the cards right.

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Now Playing: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Open Beta Review

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GameSpot's open beta reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available to the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote time and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.

I enjoy playing Hearthstone partly because I enjoy losing at it. Losing devastates your soul in most contemporary online games; bungle your first few matches in Dota 2 or League of Legends, for instance, and there's a good chance you'll be subjected to calls for suicide and wild, frothy epithets directed at your supposed race or sexual preference. No wonder the creator of Flappy Bird jumped ship. Hearthstone permits none of that against random players. It limits interaction to a handful of friendly preset responses and one "threaten," and you can even disable that if you wish. It gives you room to learn from your mistakes with dignity, and its great strength is that matches fly by so quickly that there's no reason to rage if you lose. Better luck next time, Hearthstone seems to say, and it means it.

Hearthstone is the kind of game that leaves you eager for that next time. Its enormous appeal springs not only from the inviting aesthetic and the catchy background tavern music, but also from the way it handles the conventions of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, which has never been among the most accessible of experiences. This is Magic stripped of all the clutter that scares off newcomers and pushes matches to drag on for an hour or more. It plays snack to Magic's meals, thriving on one-on-one, 15-minute battles that will likely occupy scores of lunch breaks once it makes the inevitable leap to tablets.

The best matches go down to the wire.
The best matches go down to the wire.

What's most remarkable is that Blizzard manages to retain much of the feel of Magic while peeling it like a banana.It simplifies the mechanics of games like Magic considerably, but avoids losing their corresponding depth. The depth isn't immediately apparent in the compact 30-card deck, however, or in the way it discards Magic's complex resource requirements for a single mana state that automatically ticks up to 10 each round. If you've spent months learning Magic's subtleties, Hearthstone initially feels simplistic, but then few developers are so adept at stripping complex concepts down to their essentials as Blizzard.

In a characteristic Blizzard touch, not all of the fun comes from the play. In the idle moments when you're waiting for your opponent to sift through his or her cards, you might bang a gong on an inn nestled in the screen's corner or fiddle with a water mill and watch as the water comes pouring out. This interaction carries over to the cards themselves. The most powerful of them thump onto the playing field with the force of rhinos, and the chorus of orcs, dwarves, and pandaren in the background oohs and aahs as if awed by the new development. Hearthstone never eases back on the atmosphere, even in a match's final moments. When recognizable Warcraft characters such as Jaina Proudmoore die, you hear the agony. It's kind of tragic.

It ain't easy being green.
It ain't easy being green.

Don't worry if you don't know who Jaina Proudmoore is. A familiarity with Blizzard's Warcraft series isn't required to enjoy Hearthstone, but it's nevertheless astonishing to witness how effortlessly Blizzard managed to correlate the characteristics of each deck with World of Warcraft's classes. I played a hunter in WOW, and so I naturally gravitated toward the hunter deck in Hearthstone. Its vocabulary of snake traps and beast mastery was immediately apparent, and I liked the way that firing off an arcane shot pierced the enemy's portrait with a satisfying twang. The little effects give the decks some personality that's missing in Magic's own video game series, and thus coming across a player using one of the different decks always has the semblance of a duel.

You get some idea of what you're up against once Hearthstone boots you out of the short but effective tutorial campaign with the starter mage deck and into the larger world. To unlock the other classes, you have to fight the warriors that use them, whether they be AI or random players, and there's a frustrating sense of rock-paper-scissors mechanics in place as you combat the baddies. I found beating a warrior with the bare-bones mage deck all but impossible, for instance (in stark contrast to how things go in WOW), but I found I could at least hold my own against the shaman, thus unlocking his deck. From there, unlocking all the classes involved a zigzag of clicking on different AI decks and testing the waters until I found a deck I felt sufficiently comfortable with to level and thus gain more cards.

Hearthstone: easy to get into, hard to get away from.
Hearthstone: easy to get into, hard to get away from.

And with that, I took my first steps into the most intimidating part of the collectible card scene for newcomers. The pressures of deck building kept me away from Magic for whole years as a kid, and I only mastered it once someone was kind enough to help me through the process. In this case, the process makes you realize how much fun the game can be. Hearthstone periodically tosses new deck-specific cards your way, and in the Custom Deck panel, the Suggest a Card feature allows even the most hopelessly novice of players to craft something that at least has a fighting chance. In time, the knowledge of how to build your own deck clicks into place naturally, to the point that even using surplus cards to create new, specific decks is intuitive.

Hearthstone is at its best in those early hours, particularly in the sweet spot between PvVP ranks 10 and 30 when decks enjoy a decent semblance of balance with each other. Early on, the option to fork out a couple of bucks for the booster packs containing five random cards felt unnecessary, particularly since you can get the 100 gold needed to buy new packs by completing daily quests or, less efficiently, by earning 10 gold by winning three online matches. Powerful legendary cards occasionally pop up in decks around this time, but their appearances are usually common enough that they elicit little more than mere smiles and knowing nods. The balance works because even a "basic" deck can usually hold its own against one packed with legendaries if built properly; the better cards just speed up the already breezy matches. The bummer? Good cards get so numerous in "lucky" decks at higher levels that Hearthstone starts feeling more like roulette than strategy, and if you don't feel like grinding out the gold, hunting for new cards can get expensive.

Don't let the simplicity fool you. This stuff is enthralling.
Don't let the simplicity fool you. This stuff is enthralling.

Thankfully, Blizzard provides an alternative to any resulting frustration, even if it gets a bit pricey. That's the Arena mode, which requires either cash or gold to play (although you shouldn't expect to get into more than one or two matches per day if you grind it out). It's here that Hearthstone pushes your deck-building skills to their limits. It simply presents you with three random decks, one of which you need to whittle down to 30 cards. To stay in the Arena mode, you have to keep winning. There's little doubt that luck plays into victory--I once received three legendaries in one Arena deck--but achieving a victory delivers the satisfaction that you won the match on your own. No deck-building guides from Hearthstone strategy website Hearthhead simplify the process, and no YouTube videos ease your way; when you win, it's because you did it alone.

If there's any cause for concern, it's that so much of Hearthstone relies on the luck of the draw. Trust me, I feel the pain. My decks before the wipe in closed beta were beastly things packed with coveted cards, but I've had no such luck since the reset. I have one legendary, and it's not even for a class I like. It's a testament to the work Blizzard has done here that I don't feel as though this spoils my fun. The decks are remarkably balanced despite the potential for problems, and the small, dedicated development team removes troubling deck builds only when they prove insurmountable. In one notable example, Blizzard shattered the ability of mages to make "freeze decks," which left opponents powerless to do much else besides eat the spells.

Hearthstone is off to a good start, and I suspect that its popularity will further explode once it makes the leap to tablets. Like Blizzard's enduring juggernaut of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, it democratizes the arcane, and its atmosphere and gameplay help recapture the wonder that captivated millions in Azeroth during WOW's early years. Barring a failure of cataclysmic proportions, this is one open beta that should serve as a model for all others.

What's There?

A fun online collectible card game with nine decks modeled after well-known World of Warcraft classes.

What's to Come?Better balance, and possibly the introduction of cooperative play against non-player character "bosses."
What Does it Cost?

Hearthstone is free-to-play, although you can spend $2.99 for booster packs or $1.99 for Arena access. Both can be obtained with in-game gold, however.

When Will it be Finished?

There's currently no concrete release date, although Blizzard has stated its full release will be "later this year."

What's the Verdict?

Hearthstone has felt like a complete game for a while, and most of the time it's great fun against both the AI and other players. If Blizzard manages to iron out the kinks in the high-level gameplay, it has a clear winner on its hands.

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