Thoughts on Hearthstone (it’s not bad!)

First, a quick update on the mobile release of Four//Four — it’ll come, but not as soon as you’d think. Right now I’m preparing for my grad school applications and doing some job searching in the mean time, and I haven’t had a chance to work on the game seriously since its release online, but that will change in a couple weeks, so expect more from me then! I’m sorry it’s taken so long, and the game is REALLY meant to be played on a touch screen, so it’s going to be a priority after I get through all this other stuff.

Anyway — Hearthstone. My initial evaluation of the game after seeing it in action a couple times were basically “M:tG with Warcraft card art.” It was admittedly a harsh conception of the game, but one that I felt was warranted, based on Blizzard’s recent output. But after getting into a couple boardgames and being unable to find a group to play them with every day (again, unreasonable, I know), I decided to get into Hearthstone as a way to temper my desire to play other board games/CCGs until I could play with my regular group, and I actually found it pretty enjoyable!

There’s a disclaimer to be made though: it seems like I got into this game with the perfect mindset to enjoy it, namely, someone who wants to play a TCG/CCG but doesn’t have the time or money to invest hours into learning the metagame and buying cards, but wants to feel like the game could support that, but is totally fine with picking a fun, subpar play style. Lots of buts there. Anyway, I won’t get too much into detail about the game itself. I just wanted to go over a couple mechanics that I feel make the M:tG formula palatable for a casual TCG/CCG player, but leaves enough room for depth open so that the play/skill cap isn’t reached too quickly.

Last thing to mention — it seems like the designers at Blizzard REALLY intended this game to be a streamlining of M:tG, and as such, most of the mechanics that I’m going to mention are in service of that streamlining, so make sure you keep that in mind when reading 🙂

1. Resource Mechanics

The Land mechanic is often cited as the single worst thing about playing Magic, and I’ll admit to being a proponent of that criticism. I’ve often thought of my days playing Magic in high school, and wondering why I didn’t get into it more, and I think I came up with the reasoning of the Land mechanic. Basically, Magic’s main resource for playing cards is Mana, which is most commonly generated by Land cards. These cards can only be played once a turn, but remain on the board unless removed by other cards, and can be “tapped” once a turn to generate mana of its color. Cards can only be played if a player has the correct amount of mana to pay for it, taking into account the colors of mana created. Different Lands generate different kinds of mana, and much of the deckbuilding strategy in Magic involves the “mana base”, or how easily a player can guarantee that they’ll have enough resources to play the cards they need to.

However, this mechanic backfires when you play a game and draw card after card, none of which generate mana. Or you draw card after card, ALL of which generate mana. Either scenario leads to you being unable to play the game that was intended, simply because you had bad luck. I realize that luck is a part of most, if not all card games, but having bad luck in Magic just feels so much worse than it does when you’re playing any other card game, because it takes the feeling of playing something super cool and powerful and amazing, and tells you to stuff it because you had bad luck, rather than allowing you to DO something about it. And to top it all off, you probably spent hours finetuning your deck to make it so that you didn’t get land-screwed or land-flooded, and it STILL happened.

In Hearthstone, the resource mechanic is mana crystals. They regenerate, and you also get an additional one to use every turn, up until 10 mana crystals. So on turn one, you have one mana to use. On turn two, you have two, etc.

I was thinking about how I’d fix the land mechanic in Magic, and I definitely considered the idea of just getting resources every turn, but I always thought that a game built to support that resource mechanic would be super boring. Hearthstone does exactly what I thought about but managed to make the game pretty good, and that’s because they embraced the mechanic and didn’t let the potential simplicity of resource gathering scare them off — instead, they made everything else around the game more interesting, creating a streamlined version of Magic where you’re not scared to play a deck because you won’t get to play the cards in it.

The design ramifications of this change are pretty huge — first off, it let them bring the deck size limit down to 30 cards, which makes deckbuilding much quicker and easier, further streamlining the Magic experience. It removes the need for designing each Magic color around interacting with each other in the same deck, allowing the designers to focus on how each class interacts with each other in play (streamlined Magic), which Blizzard already has experience with in WoW and Diablo. There’s no need to design cards around resource engines, so designers can spend their time focusing on card interactions instead (you know what I’m going to say here). Essentially, the change in resource mechanic is a REALLY GOOD example of how to change a game’s design so that the actual design process matches is 1. easier and 2. matches your strengths as designers. The fact that it allowed Magic-esque play to happen is just icing on the cake.

2. Classes as opposed to Colors

I won’t go into the color explanation in depth too much here, mostly because if you’ve made it this far you’ve probably played a LITTLE Magic. What made the Color mechanic so interesting was that it allowed players to differentiate themselves even before the card interactions occurred, creating player “roles” and allowing a broader and more interesting narrative played out through a game. However, the Land mechanic made deckbuilding tough when dealing with multiple colors, as players had to prepare a mana base that accommodated the colors in the deck. The designers of Hearthstone realized that the change in their resource mechanic also facilitated a change in the way these player “roles” manifested themselves, because removing Land for individual colors and making a resource that any card could be played with essentially removes these broader “roles” from the game. Hearthstone again streamlines the Magic experience by simply creating a set of 9 classes that a player must choose from, and having each class dictate how the player plays the game in a different way.

Essentially, each class has a set of class-only cards that make up the spells that a player can put into his/her deck, with a set of “colorless” creatures that can be put into any deck. Obviously this makes deckbuilding options much smaller, but it also allows the designers to focus the role of each class, making it easier for them to design the interactions between the classes. This is, again, an example of Blizzard making it easier for them to design their own game. Instead of balancing every card against every other card, Blizzard can “chunk” card design into creature cards and class cards. Then the designers can have a pretty stable creature card base, and design the class cards around that status quo.

It also helps that each class has its own distinct flavor, but gives players room to build decks around different shades of each role. The Hunter, for instance, seems to be conceived of as a minion (think Creatures in Magic) heavy class with some pretty good direct-damage and board removal options. Until recently, however, the main way to play the Hunter class was to build a one-turn-kill deck that would stall using these board removal options until the player had the correct cards in hand, and then unleash a group of minions that were all buffed to super-high stats, dealing lethal damage. There have also been some rushdown Hunter decks with large amounts of Beast minions and buffs to the Beast type. The great thing about all of this is that it all feels very thematic, despite the different approaches to deckbuilding. And this is for a class that is widely considered one of the weakest as far as deckbuilding options go — Warlocks, Mages, Warriors, and Paladins all have a big range of deck options.

It’s interesting to note the similarities to World of Warcraft — classes that bind the player to a specific “shade” of deck while allowing room within that shade to try different options is pretty close to how the class + talent tree worked in that MMO. While this may seem like lazy design, I’d argue that it’s just another way for Blizzard to reorient the systems design and give them the ability to draw on their experience developing these classes and roles for almost a decade.

3. Class skills

I’m labeling this separately because I think it’s important enough to warrant it’s own section.

Each class has its own unique skill that costs 2 mana to cast. The abilities range from equipping a weapon (allowing the hero him/herself to act as a minion and attack) to healing to summoning new little 1/1 soldiers. A lot has been said about how these skills add to the flavor of each class, but I want to talk about how these class skills help bad hands and draws not feel so bad, and to do that, I need to talk about Netrunner.

Netrunner is an asymmetrical CCG developed by Garfield (who designed Magic, coincidentally) and it features a unique system that allows both players to decide what they want to do. Each player gets a number of “clicks” each turn, and these clicks represent units of time. The player can spend a click to draw a card, gain a credit (mana, essentially), play a card, and do other various things related to the game. Players aren’t restricted in what order to do these actions in, and they can even do the same action multiple times in one turn.

What this does for that game is it frees the player to approach each turn in a more dynamic manner. Instead of thinking about each turn as a sequence of events that happen one-by-one and requiring players to play within those confines, players can instead do what they need to do, when they need to do it. In Magic, it’s entirely conceivable to have a turn where you draw a card and pass the turn, because the sequence of events and the cards in your hand completely disallow your interaction with the board. In Netrunner (and to a lesser extent Hearthstone), your bad luck can be assuaged by spending a turn drawing more cards, or spending a turn gaining credits. In short, these mechanics allow you to ACT on your bad luck, rather than passively submit yourself to it.

Hearthstone has its own method of doing this in those aforementioned class skills. I like to think of them as a way for players to do SOMETHING even when their hand contains cards that can’t be played for various reasons. It can be likened to the roll in Ocarina of Time, where you’d roll all over the place just because you could, even if it wasn’t faster than walking. This is similar, and even if it puts you at a disadvantage if you can’t play anything from your hand, you’re still doing something.

4. Lack of blocking/Taunt mechanic

With Magic, creatures interact primarily by attacking and blocking. If a creature attacks, it can be blocked and the damage can be prevented. Much of the interaction between players relies on this push and pull between attacking and blocking, and the strategy often revolves around making a creature that was previously blockable un-blockable, and vice versa. Hearthstone removes the blocking mechanic entirely, which means that if you have a creature on the board, it can attack the enemy player regardless of how many minions they have. Instead, the game introduces the Taunt mechanic, which forces opposing minions to attack the creature with the ability.

This subtle mechanic changes the way players think when it comes to approaching minion combat. Rather than using cards to change the blockable/un-blockable status of a certain creature, players can just play a creature to change up the interactions. This makes playing around these interactions much more “active”, in a sense, because playing a creature is very much encouraged, ESPECIALLY if that creature has a Taunt ability. This skews the metagame toward aggressive, minion-heavy decks, but it also forces interactions to happen on the board. This also makes control decks skew more toward board control decks, rather than pure control decks that make players scared to play cards at all; rather than keeping cards in your hand because you’re scared that they will get countered, you’ll play the cards and hope that the other player doesn’t have something that can kill it.

If you noticed, all of this is in service of getting cards out of your hand and into play, which is Blizzard’s focus as stated by them. Again, the change streamlines the primary interactions between players, allowing games to run much quicker than they do in Magic. Blizzard has highlighted the key components of Magic, changed a few rules to make these components more prevalent, and then designed the rest of the game around highlighting these mechanics.


So yeah — Hearthstone ain’t bad! It’s definitely worth a shot if you’re in the same boat I’m in, where you’d like a CCG-like card game to play and feel competent at without the huge time/money commitment required to do so in others like Magic. I haven’t mentioned other things that facilitate this feeling, but they’re there, and it just feels like a nice, cozy card game to play with people. The fact that the game contains any depth at all is just icing on the cake, and that the depth is engaging and dynamic is even better.

If you’re worried about the lack of depth compared to Magic, again, it’s better to think of Hearthstone as a refinement of Magic rather than another version of it, and that’s honestly all I need at this point to play a game. Patrick Miller wrote about refining mechanics in his top 10 list in 2012, which I largely agree with: “Starcraft 2 is an ‘e-sport’, but we can kind of zoom in and isolate one particular game dynamic which could be a ‘minimalist e-sport’ of its own. For Terran players, Marines, Siege Tanks, and Medevacs tend to be the backbone of your army. Marines are cheap, but fragile; Siege Tanks are expensive and have a long-range attack with splash damage, but they have to be stationary to perform that attack and are rather fragile; Medevacs can heal Marines, which comes in handy (especially after they use Stim to sacrifice some health for faster walk/attack speeds), spot for Siege Tanks (since Tanks can shoot farther than they can see on their own), and drop both Marines and Tanks into areas that give them a tactical advantage. Marines are good at killing isolated Tanks, but bunches of Tanks will kill innumerable Marines.

Well, when one Marine/Tank/Medevac army goes up against another Marine/Tank/Medevac army, you get a really interesting game, because each player needs to find ways to bait the enemy army into running into their tank line, upon which the enemy army will almost certainly be vaporized. So you feint manuevers to make your opponent think you’re leaving when you’re not, you find ways to take the high ground, and so on. That interaction right there, between those three units: That could be a minimalist e-sport. That’s what I want to play. So why do we bother with stuff like an economy, or three races, or other units? And why stick with an input system that dates back to the creation of the original GUI?”

Long quote, but it illustrates what I think Hearthstone does really well.

And yeah, that’s it for this. Thanks for reading, and also thanks for putting up with me for like 2500 words :/

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