I hate beta invites. Passionately. I never ever get given beta keys, I get my knickers in a twist and then I have to wait for everybody else to parade their fortune in gameplay videos. Half my battle.net friends list have keys. My mother probably has a key. Does somebody have a vendetta against my email address?
Randomly generated good fortune aside, I have spent almost all of my free time over the past four days playing Blizzard’s new turn-based strat, and I love it to pieces. Hearthstone is based on the titanic World of Warcraft series, and lets players duel one another with card decks of their choosing. Each player can play one of nine classes which appear in WoW, each with a character relating to the class, and construct decks from a mixture of general cards and class-specific cards. As you play more and complete certain quests, you can earn gold which can then buy you new cards from the in-game store, or you can pay money directly for a number of random packs.
Aside from the natural attraction of a Warcraft-themed game for a player of five years, Hearthstone is showing all the characteristics of being a great success. While I found Starcraft II, Blizzard’s second instalment of the popular real-time strategy series, to have a steep learning curve going from story to online play, the balance seems to have been struck well here. The ‘tutorial’, if you like, pits you against an AI player for each different class so that you can get a feel for your deck and your opponent’s. As you figure out the mechanics of each turn, you start to figure out what works best for you. Starting with the Mage, I was rather spell-based and was keen to bolster my spell damage rating, whereas now I like to roll with lots of buffed minions with my Shaman deck – the choice is yours.
Stepping online was scary at first, until you realise that a lot of people are in the same boat as you – finding their feet. I was tentative; I played the AI until I hit level 10, then leapt into the fray in Play mode and was actually reasonably prepared for what people threw at me. Mages have got some mean deck-clearing capabilities, meaning they can wipe out relatively weak minions with certain cards. Flamestrike, for example, deals four damage to every enemy minion on the board – perfect for scarpering enemy players’ attempts to overwhelm you.
Quests are simple and give you a bit of direction with your play. Win a certain amount of games today, get 40 coins. Destroy 100 minions, get 30 coins. You even get encouraged to try out different class decks that you might not have played much, but in the end it boils down to playing lots. Getting coins is a repetitive grind at the moment, but then again it is only beta – it’s a given that there won’t be too much variation, but at least the foundations are there.
After a lucrative 19 levels with Jaina Proudmoore, I have now opted to layeth the smack down with the Arch-shaman Thrall. I had read about the power of a minion-heavy Shaman deck and the havoc it can wreak when you cast Bloodlust (+3 damage for all minions for one turn), but it was only when I was thoroughly annihilated by it that I came to appreciate how absurd it is. With a good hand, some low-cost minions and the occasional taunting character, you can easily deal absurd amounts of damage for that turn. Factor in Rockbiter Weapon (+3 damage for a minion) and Windfury (Minion can attack twice) and you are quite literally laughing.
I am yet to encounter certain classes online, but overall there has not been a great amount of class dominance. Rogues, as I understand, needed a bit of a nerf and I can see why – some of the combination moves are ridiculous and can stack hefty amounts of damage even with counters. Shaman, Mages and Hunters, in my experience, seem to be the most prolific classes, but as the beta invites go out again and certainly on release, I’m sure niche class-deck combinations will rear their heads.
Overall, I can’t really recommend it as such since you need a beta key, but I wholly recommend those with a battle.net account opt in for the invites. Hearthstone is endearing, addictive and great fun. The learning curve is gentle and even in beta there are a bunch of different decks to make so, if you do happen to get lucky, dive right in.