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My feelings about Hearthstone, Part 1

Posted 04-29-2014 at 10:30 PM by Spacebear

I remember being very excited about Hearthstone. Even before I got my beta key, I just kept hearing amazing things about the game and how much fun it is. Typical Blizzard fan hype, for the most part. But I was really excited about the idea of a card game actually being "hip" to play.

For those of you that don't know (aka everybody), I am a lifelong player/fanatic of Magic: The Gathering. I personally consider it the single best game of all time, though I'm sure a lot of people would have issues with that statement. Point is, I've been playing trading card games my whole life, and I have always enjoyed learning more about the design of the games, usually in the form of listening to the designers themselves talk about the process. I have a pretty good sense of how card games work, and what happens when they try and simplify or streamline certain aspects that they borrow from MTG. Let's face it- there are multiple genres of card games that MTG directly influences in many aspects.

But this is about Hearthstone, so let's talk about that.

I have some very big issues with how Hearthstone's core design works. I do not believe it is conducive to long term health/growth of the game, and I do not think it encourages variety and creativity at all levels of the game. Part of the reason is that it is actually a very conservative game design. The gameplay loop is very similar to a lot of other trading card games: You have a pool of resources that grows over time, cards have a cost to them in terms of that resource, and there is "combat" between cards. This both works in Hearthstone's favor, but also against it. Let me talk about what is positive about the design before I start tearing into it.

Hearthstone is by far the most new-player-friendly card game I can think of. All of the rules are very simple, most cards have very little text, the structure of the turns is very easy to understand. The digital nature means you don't have to keep track of little things like life totals or noting the current status of cards in play. This makes the game feel really good at the beginning. And for a lot of people, this feeling stays constant for a long time, because they aren't someone like me, who has been playing MTG for a very long time. And that is perfectly fine. I understand that games like Magic can be very intimidating to get into. You have to insert yourself into a foreign culture, and the game itself can be very complicated if you don't have someone guiding you until you get very comfortable with the basics and some more advanced ideas.

But it is that conservative design that is also the reason why I believe Hearthstone may not have a very long lifespan, at least in its current form.

These are the main issues I have with the game:

1) The mana system
2) The combat function/player interaction
3) Hero powers
4) Class versus Neutral cards

Let me go through each of these one by one.

The Mana System

Hearthstone has perhaps the most simple resource system outside of just playing cards from your hand at no cost. Each turn, the total amount of mana you have available that turn increases by one, and it stops increasing once you hit ten. Every card in the game is cast with the same type of mana; it is a "universal" mana, of sorts. This has been seen in other card games, such as Dominion and other deckbuilding board games, as well as old TCGs like WoW TCG and Versus System.

With each of these games, they all had to solve a very difficult problem, which is card differentiation within a certain casting cost. Since the designers can't make a 4 mana card more difficult or easier to cast (since the game does not have "colors" like Magic or Pokemon does), they need to either come up with other restrictions, or they have to make every single card of the same cost be on equal footing. This is not an easy problem to solve, since they also have to consider "power creep", which is the idea that over time, newer cards will be more powerful than old ones, making old cards obsolete. In general, players do not like a large amount of power creep, since it forces them to throw out their existing cards and exchange them for new ones, with very little added benefit, but a lot of punishment for not upgrading.

Depending on how Blizzard expands the game, the mana system could turn out to be either not too big of a deal, or a game killer, as it directly affects how they deal with power creep. If they decided to add many cards at a time, similar to Magic and many other paper TCGs, they may find it impossible to keep everything on equal footing. From what I can tell, Blizzard wants Hearthstone to not have a vast array of cards, but the cards that are there can fit into multiple contexts.
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