I’ve been playing the beta for Hearthstone, Blizzard Entertainment’s upcoming online collectable card game. It’s actually difficult for me to justify this as time well spent. It’s not that it’s a bad game – quite the opposite, in fact. I am extraordinarily impressed by how elegantly they’ve streamlined the mechanics of a game similar to Magic: The Gathering while still allowing for a wide range of nuanced options. I’m completely engrossed while playing it, often playing for several subsequent hours in a day, which is unusual to my recent gaming habits.
And, afterwards, it feels like a waste of time.
That’s what’s interesting to me: I play a lot of Team Fortress 2, and after playing I sometimes feel angry and frustrated, sometimes feel rejuvenated and energized, but I never feel like that time was a complete blank. In fact, the last game I felt this way about was FTL, after spending 40 hours mastering all of the systems, which implies something very strongly: My brain is no longer learning anything from Hearthstone.
This is not as damning as it may sound, coming after less than 10 hours of Hearthstone play. I knew a fair amount about the game going into it: I’d watched coverage of it on Youtube channels, read an article or two about theories of optimal play – and, most importantly, I had hundreds of hours of experience playing Magic, which is in many respects a very similar game. I basically had the entire deck stacked in my favor going into this, so to speak.
Now, I don’t mean I never lose a game or anything like that. Nor do I mean to imply that I have reached the theoretical maximum level of skill. What I do mean, however, is that when I am playing the game, I rarely feel challenged: Either I draw the resources I need to win or I do not. I make occasional misplays, but recognize them quickly after the fact – this happens sparsely enough that I do not perceive myself to be learning.
The component of the game I would find most interesting, I suspect, is deck construction – formulating strategies, rather than merely executing them. This is still a path which is largely blocked off to me due to limited amounts of cards. Even if I could build my deck without obstruction, I can’t help but suspect that it would quickly become tedious testing it against the few statistically determined ‘best’ decks that must inevitably dominate the higher leagues of the game.
Looking back on what I’ve written here, this is apparently a review. I had no intention of writing one, but that appears to be what I have written. So let me sum up this review: If you want a game that’s like Magic, but formulated to work particularly well online in real-time, this is probably about as good as you’re going to get. If you are tired of Magic because it has become tedious for you, you will probably find this game tedious as well.
Not bad, perhaps – just not exciting.
… All that being said, I’m probably going to continue playing for a while yet. Arena, a mode which forces the player to construct a deck from a pool of random cards, keeps the strategic game fresh and interesting for me, and it’s always cool to learn how to play the deck you found yourself tied to. Given how not-great I tend to feel after playing, I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with it, but…
Well, I’ll say this for Blizzard. They sure know how to make it painless to keep on playing a game.