Hearthstone is the digital version of Blizzard’s Warcraft trading card game (TCG), set in the same universe as its Warcraft and World of Warcraft game series. It features gameplay that is in many ways similar to TGC-giant Magic: the Gathering but tends to be a bit simpler and more forgiving – whilst at the same time, makes full use of the fact that it’s digital by introducing many random elements that wouldn’t work on the tabletop.
First off, I’m writing my review at the time of the Forged in the Barrens-expansion, and have to admit that I haven’t logged into my account in over a year (I quit the day I started my current job). However, I was a free-to-play player from vanilla in 2014 all the way up to Saviours of Uldum in 2019. I’ve kept up with the game mostly through streams so I feel I’m at least a bit qualified to give an opinion on its current state.
First off, in short, Hearthstone is a game that allows you to collect cards, build decks out of them, and take on the AI or other players with the decks you’ve designed. Cards are mostly obtained through packs, which can be earned in-game or bought with real-world money.
It is a bright, colourful, happy (if not to say: kiddy) TCG, and it embraces it’s silly nature in its art, voice lines, by introducing meme-cards every set, and by not shying away from random elements that might give games an insane twist. Of course, these elements mean that some games are decided by luck rather than skill – but then, that goes for every card game, since the order in which cards are drawn from the randomly shuffled decks is often a deciding factor. And despite the elements of luck, Hearthstone has a large e-sports/competitive scene.
I think compared to other TCGs, Hearthstone offers a somewhat lower barrier to entry, a lot of fun silliness at lower levels, and significant and enjoyable single-player content.
At its core it remains a relatively straightforward deck-building trading card game. Whilst there is a fair amount of new-player content, the meat of the game is supposed to be battling other players and climbing the ranked play ladder. However, the difference in power level between the first deck you designed and the well-honed decks that dominate the metagame is vast. Sadly, net-decking (i.e., copying other people’s decks from the internet) is very prevalent even at lower levels, so very soon, you’ll need to find yourself a real deck to compete. That means either grinding or shilling for cards, and once you start climbing the ladder, you’ll find you face up against one of three, maybe four relatively similar decks almost every game. Here, it is you’ll either (i) find the gameplay repetitive and unnecessarily competitive, and lose interest quickly; or (ii) find you love the challenge of memorising what cards your opponent played, researching the meta and the stats published online, finding that few extra percentage point win rates, fine-tuning your deck against your most common opponents, etc. There is a third option, since Hearthstone offers a number of other game modes – so you might find solace in one of those. But in general, to truly enjoy Hearthstone beyond the new player content, you’ll need to commit.
Three and a half stars might seem a somewhat mellow rating for a game that I’ve put hundreds of hours in over five years without ever spending a single euro. However, since I’ve stopped playing, I’ve realised that whilst I enjoyed the game, it was a huge time sink in the time that I played it – and I needed to keep playing it daily so as not to fall behind the paying players too far. I could have paid, of course, but to be honest I think the model where you buy packs containing random cards with a slim chance of a card you actually want for real world money to be exploitative. I was a student, I had the time then – but Hearthstone is not something I would generally recommend to someone that values their free time highly. At the same time, it is fun and if you are looking for something that is somehow both laid back and competitive, Hearthstone is the game for you.
I’ll add that now is probably the best time ever to start as a new player – there are a lot of single player adventures and there are a lot of rewards for trying things out and climbing through the apprentice ranks. And because there is a bunch of single player content, you can find a good few hours of enjoyment even without ever touching the ranked ladder.