Hands-On With The Hearthstone Beta

Ragar tries his hand at Blizzard's new digital CCG

Last Friday a wave of beta invites went out for Blizzard's new digital collectible card game, Hearthstone. A few of those invites made their way to various ZAM writers including me, so I've spent some time this weekend trying out everything I can find in the game. I'll be playing more as time goes on, but I have enough playtime in now that I can talk about the game's mechanics and other systems.

Where Are All My Land Cards?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of card mechanics, let's start with the basics: resources. Hearthstone uses a mana resource system like you would expect from games like Magic the Gathering, Shadow Era, and others, but there's one key difference: it's separate from the cards themselves. MtG expects you to dedicate 20+ of your 60-card deck to lands for mana generation. Shadow Era doesn't use lands, but instead requires you to sacrifice a card from your hand to be used as a resource generator. In both of these cases, cards from your deck are used solely for mana generation and you have to balance your cards around this. With Hearthstone your resources are simply tied to the turn count; each player has access to one mana on turn 1, two mana on turn 2, etc. all the way up to a maximum of ten mana. There are a few specific cards to allow for temporary bonus mana, but, for the most part, you and your opponent will be on an equal footing with mana resources.

With resources being on equal footing between players, how does that affect deck construction? To begin with your Hearthstone deck caps out at 30 cards - most of which is to account for the removal of resource cards, but the rest I would imagine comes from the cap for individual cards. All cards in Hearthstone have a cap on how many may be used in a player's deck. Common, rare and epic cards are restricted to two copies per deck. Legendary cards are limited to a single copy in your 30-card deck. This means that even with a deck cap of half what many CCG players are accustomed to, you're still going to have to pick a variety of cards to fill out your deck with those hard limits of 1-2 copies of a card. With the restrictions out of the way, let's move on to what makes up your deck, starting with the centerpiece of your deck: the Hero.

If you've played the World of Warcraft TCG or Shadow Era, you probably have some idea what to expect for a deck's hero; this determines what class-specific cards you can use in your deck as well as having some special properties of its own. In Hearthstone (at least so far), all hero choices start on an equal footing of 30 health - their difference lies in their Hero Power. This is an ability that lets you spend two mana (possibly different for some heroes, but I only saw a two-cost ability in my duels) to perform some effect once per turn. For my Jaina Mage deck, this ability let me do a single point of damage to any target I chose. The Rexxar decks I fought could do two points of damage for the same mana cost, but it was restricted to the enemy hero only - no using the ability to finish off wounded minions. For the Garrosh Warrior deck, this ability would give him two armor every time he used it, requiring me to waste two points of damage to burn through that shield before making progress on whittling him down. Other heroes offered abilities like totem summons, temporary weapons, calling forth a minion, burning health for a card draw, etc.

These hero powers not only give you a power to use when you have some spare mana to burn, but also a core mechanic to build your cards around. For example, Valeera Sanguinar, the rogue starter deck's hero, has a dual-use power. For two mana, it will either summon a 1 Attack weapon that will break after two uses or it will buff the damage of a weapon Valeera has equipped by one. By itself this means that for four mana (two per turn), you can do three damage over two turns to the enemy hero. A respectable start, but you'll need more than that to win. It's when you combine this power with Rogue cards like Blade Flurry and Deadly Poison or stronger weapons like Assassin's Blade that things start to get more interesting. It's more complicated than that, but this does illustrate my point - your hero is just as much a part of your deck as the 30 cards you chose, so ignore your hero at your own risk. That's part of the reason why you'll be unlocking all of the starter decks - better to see what the other heroes can do in a simple AI match than to find out in the Arena where each match is important.

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Looks great, but no thanks
# Aug 22 2013 at 12:32 PM Rating: Decent
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20 posts
A well written article and it's always great to hear more news on how Hearthstone is turning out. However, as a long time MtG player, the lack of fully customizable decks will keep me from picking up Hearthstone. Less customization = less strategy IMO.
Looks great, but no thanks
# Aug 22 2013 at 12:55 PM Rating: Excellent
6 posts
If I remember correctly (can't look at the client since I'm on my phone), there may have been an option to fully customize your deck. I'll look later tonight to verify, but I believe I had to specifically hit a Suggest A Card button when making my custom deck. If that's what you're looking for, then you'll still be able to do that once Ranked Play Mode is available; it said Unranked near the top of the screen and was greyed out, so I assume that's one of those "we'll add this later on" features.

As for the Arena, I believe that's restricted to Suggest A Card decks right now. Whether that's a balance feature for competitive play or just something that's disabled for the moment, I can't say for certain.

To defend the Suggest A Card system though, it works quite well. I can think of some deck concepts it might hurt like ones that stack mostly cheap minions, direct damage spells, etc., but most of those would be restricted by the limits on card copies per deck. When I used it, the suggestions were generally good ideas and on a few occasions kept me from doing something stupid like running too few cheap minions for early game.
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