Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hooked on Hearthstone

So yeah, I got it bad.  When I find myself completely eschewing some of my favorite MMO's to spend time trying to figure out how to get one more win with a priest deck, I know I'm in trouble.  I suspected Hearthstone would, indeed, scratch that dormant CCG itch that rides in the primitive part of my cerebral cortex, and I was spot on.  Here's a few of the reasons why I'm spending so much time pouring over shiny virtual cards like the nerd I am.

The Basics
In case you aren't familiar yet, Hearthstone is Blizzard's online, virtual collectible card game that is currently in closed beta.  And though they are in closed beta, they are apparently more than happy for you to talk about it and share information on it. It is essentially a streamlined, more approachable version of the World of Warcraft collectible card game that came out a few years ago, so if you're familiar with the mechanics of that game, you'll be familiar with this one.   One of things I like most about it is that it's a traditional CCG, in that you play with a constructed deck, you don't construct the deck through play.  This comes along with the caveats of constructed play, though, in that you will most definitely be facing opponents with superior cards than yours.  It is the nature of the beast.

Presentation & Play
One thing Blizzard has always excelled at is presenting a polished experience, and they hit all the marks in Hearthstone.  From the way every card effect is satisfyingly displayed across the board when it is played, to the process of opening and revealing your purchased cards, every single bit of the gameplay is a gratifying experience.

The game starts you off in a tutorial, which is essentially you playing a series of carefully constructed and narrated duals with Jaina Proudmoor, in which key gameplay mechanics such as Battlecry, Taunt, and Charge are explained.  Once you finish the tutorial, you're given a bit of in-game gold, and two of the game's three modes of play are then made available - Practice and Play.  In Practice mode, you can face off against AI opponents, and they come in two difficulty levels - Basic, and Expert.  The Expert opponents are unlocked only after you have defeated all of the AI opponents in Basic mode though.   Play mode is where you face off against human opponents, whom are selected through a matchmaking system based on your rank - more on that later.  The third style of play is the Arena, which is a sealed deck tournament kind of thing.  Many players prefer the Arena, as it's theoretically a more fair medium - players can't bring  their precious legendary cards to the arena - but it's still subject somewhat to the random dice roll.  You're still quite likely to face someone that gets a better draw than you.

Deck Construction
A huge part of the appeal in any CCG is the metagame - the time you spend pouring over your inventory, constructing that perfect killer deck out of your meager collection of commons, rares, and sole epic.  Again, Hearthstone provides a decent interface to accomplish this that is good, if not perfect.  I really like the way your inventory is displayed, and there are a healthy number of ways to filter your selection.  You can limit your view to certain cost cards, search for key words (ie., show me all cards that say "draw a card"), and rarity.  Your inventory is already split up by class, so it's easy to construct decks for each individual hero.  And as you're constructing a deck, mousing over the hero image at the top will show you the deck's curve - which is extremely useful.  The only part that I find a bit lacking is the display of the deck itself, which is shown as a narrow column on the right side of the screen, with each collection of card as a narrow band - making the view of the deck itself a bit limited and hard to parse.  Additionally, I'd really prefer if they'd allow you to put more than the allowed 30 cards per deck into the deck, and allow you to trim down from there.

One of the things that has to happen in a game like this, for it to have any hope of longevity at all, is for you to be matched against opponents of roughly equal skill, and hopefully, deck strength.  In that regard, on a scale of poor to excellent, I would say Hearthstone only merits a "fair" rating - somewhat less than good but not terrible.  Here's how it's supposed to work.

In Play mode, you can choose to play either ranked or unranked games.  In ranked games, you're assigned a skill rank, and as you play, and win, your skill rank increases.  Additionally, as you play, you earn medals - such as Copper, Silver, etc, and each medal has star ranking.  Your current medal is the rough equivalent of your ranking.  So for instance, I'm a one-star silver player, and I should (again, theoretically) be matched against other silver players.

In unranked mode, you also have a skill rating, which is hidden, and supposedly separate from your ranked skill level, and it matches you against other unranked players of your approximate skill level.  The key difference being that winning or losing doesn't affect your official rank - and doesn't earn you medals.

In actuality, it's really hard to say how well of a job it's doing in matching players.  In general, the unranked games seem to be a bit less onerous than the ranked ones, but only maybe at the broadest of levels.  In both modes, I regularly face opponents that have significantly superior decks to mine, so if you're hoping for a mode in which "no legendaries or epics" are allowed, currently there's nothing like that.

I'm hopeful that this system will be refined over time, that they do eventually introduce some specific variations of constructed deck modes, and that once the game goes live, and the pool of people to match against grows deeper, that all of this will improve.  But for now, it's quite likely you will face opponents that have deeper pockets.

Card Acquisition
There is no auction house in Hearthstone, and no way to directly trade cards.  This is something for which I'm actually quite thankful.  Instead, you can acquire cards through one of two different ways.  The first, is the old tried and true booster pack.  They call them "decks" in this game, but it's the same idea.  You get five cards - one of which is guaranteed to be a rare.  Currently it costs three bucks to buy five cards, which is a bit on the pricey side, and of course there are discounts for buying more at a time.  Additionally you can buy the cards with in-game gold, which is earned by getting wins in Play mode, and accomplishing various quests, such as "Achieve 2 wins with a Priest", or "Defeat all AI opponents in Expert Mode".  The "Defeat 2 Of" quests are handed out once per day, and they do a good job of encouraging you to try other heroes and mechanics you might not otherwise attempt.  My current travails with the priest deck are motivated by my desire to complete a "Get 2 wins" quest.

Besides booster packs, they have another mechanic that allows you to pick up key cards.  Essentially, you disenchant (ie., salvage) extra cards that you don't want into card dust.  You can then use the dust to create new cards that you do want.  In theory this sounds like a fantastic idea, and I really like it.  But it's too early to tell yet if the numbers will balance out to be something reasonable. Currently you get an initial boost of dust the first time you use this mechanic, but after that I think it settles down to a ratio of about 8 to 1 - ie., you'll need to salvage 8 commons to get a single, new common, which to me seems a bit onerous.  I suspect these ratios will vary greatly over the course of beta, and even into the live game.

It's not all about the money
Having said that, I can honestly say that player skill does, however, definitely play a significant role in your win-loss ratio on this game.  For instance, I have a priest deck that has a nice collection of rich cards in it.  It contains two legendaries, an epic, and a smattering of rare and common expert cards.  I put it together with a rough attempt at building a spellpower priest, and have been getting thoroughly trounced with it just about every time I play.  After several games of getting my butt handed to me by decks that were mostly just rares with an occasional epic, I finally went to the intarnets for help.  Turns out - I just don't know how to play the priest deck.  Card synergies are extremely important in this game, and recognizing them and capitalizing on them are going to be the key to success.  Yes, some cards are just flat out more powerful than others, make no mistake.  But having a handful of powerful cards is by no means a guarantee of victory.

The Wild Wild West
Hearthstone is such a polished, complete experience already, it's sometimes difficult to remember that you're playing a beta - and a closed one at that.  But as it is beta, there's some pretty broken cards out there, and you're going to be coming across some stuff that just makes you go.. yeah.. right.  To illustrate the point, here's a short video of two guys using a combination of cards to grant a single minion close to two billion health.  That's right - two billion.  Granted, it's an orchestrated scenario, but you get what I mean.

You're going to come across plenty of combinations that, while perhaps not so absurd, are still plenty broken.  I've seen scenarios that dished out enough damage to destroy your hero two times over in a single turn, and it's not uncommon for a player to be down to 2 health, and then turn around and utterly crush his full-health opponent the very next turn.  But these are some of the same guys that have spent the last ten years balancing PvE powers and abilities in the most successful MMO in the world, so I'm confident that over time this stuff will get better.  In the mean time though, just know it's going to be a bit of a bumpy ride.

Hide your wallet
If you've ever been bitten by the CCG bug before, you know how dangerous it can be.  I still own several binders full of WoW CCG cards, and as I write this I'm looking at several suitcases full of Mechwarrior Dark Age figures stacked up over in a corner.  Some of which I sniped off of E-Bay for stupid amounts of money.  I already plopped down a $20.00 to boost my inventory some, which in turn earned me a legendary reward I'll get to keep when the game goes live, and the promise of the equivlant amount of in-game gold when the game goes live.  I look at it as a pre-order.  But this game has all the trappings - both good and bad, of a classic CCG, and as such, be prepared to weather the assault on your senses, and your wallet, as it goes live.

Personally, I can't wait!