Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hearthstone Paladins Need Bubblehearth

So the day after I started my new gaming blog, I finally got my opt-in invite to Hearthstone. Coincidence? Probably, given the number of other friends who also got in the past couple of days. But perhaps I can be forgiven for pretending it made a difference. But to be fair, I also opted in the second I saw the booth at PAX East, where I actually got a chance to play the game and promptly got my ass handed to me.

I’ve played a fair bit since Monday, put in a good 10 hours so far and haven’t run into too many crippling bugs. The only ones I’ve seen were already reported, so can’t do my due diligence to Blizzard and actually report something myself.

I’ve been super impressed by the game so far. I cut my teeth on Magic: The Gathering nearly twenty years ago, way back during 4th Edition/Mirage/Ice Age, so I’ve got a lot of experience with CCGs/TCGs. That experience has translated pretty well into my forays in Hearthstone so far. I’ve managed to pull off some interesting feats with the basic decks, though they really do pale in comparison to a friend’s deck that he wandered in and slaughtered me with, going to show what in Magic is called the “metagame” -- building decks, countering decks with other decks, etc. -- will be alive and well.

Totems, Totems, Totems
Each game is relatively quick. Ten to fourteen turns each seems to be around average, making each game about fifteen to twenty minutes, compared to Magic: The Gathering Online, where a game could easily take forty+ minutes easily because every action could have a reaction, and you’d have to wait for other players to click “No, I don’t want to take an action” after each card you played, or each phase you passed. The fact that there’s no interrupts at all besides secrets, which are automatic, is a huge boon to both making it easy to learn and speed of play. That loss of complexity does have a downside in that interactions tend to be a lot simpler. Magic you could have some awesome chains of spells and do cool things with them, and you can’t really do that in Hearthstone.

I’ve played against AI characters, who do some really strange things sometimes, like the Shaman who buffed his mob needlessly because he had enough attack power to kill my mob, wasting his buff card -- oh, I guess that’s a bug I could report -- but they’re pretty decent practice for feeling how a newly constructed deck will play.

I’ve played other people in Constructed play -- where you make your own deck from cards in your collection. Some folks trounced me quite thoroughly (the Paladin deck which had nothing but mobs that had Divine Shield can go DIAF, thank you), others not so much. The matchmaking seems a bit hit or miss, but that could be because there's not a large enough population yet, or because I just haven't played enough games; it’s really hard to tell.

The Arena I’ve done twice. Here you end up getting a choice of three classes, then construct a deck by choosing one card from three randomly selected cards, repeat thirty times. Then you play until you lose three times and get things based on how many games you won. My first run sucked. I barely knew what I was doing, put together a terrible deck, and got obliterated three times with no wins. Then I played a lot more constructed and AI matches, and went back a second time. Thrall’s my guy, because I achieved eight wins on that run and won me some cards, dust, and moolah.

Thrall, you are a beast!
Love me some Shaman decks.

There are game mechanic issues that need to be adjusted, in my opinion: “card advantage” -- that is, cards that allow you to draw more cards -- is insanely powerful in Hearthstone thanks to the tiny starting hand size. Magic you start with seven cards in your hand, though you’d expect two to three of them to be mana, whereas in Hearthstone you automatically get more mana every turn, but you only start with three cards (or four if you go second). I think bumping up the initial handsize by one or two would go wonders in making card advantage not be absolutely required. Right now if you don’t include a bunch of gnomes in your deck to draw more cards, you’re doing it wrong because you’ll be “topdecking” -- having no cards in hand, allowing you to only play whatever card you happen to draw -- by turn six or seven, and that usually ends up with you being defeated because you have no options left.

I haven’t played enough to say whether some decks or classes are more powerful than others. Blizzard has the data on that though, and we know they’re looking at it carefully, so I trust that they’ll make good decisions based on it. As much as the forum populace complains, Blizzard is actually pretty good at balancing mechanics, sometimes to the point where they’re so balanced it’s boring (I could write an entire philosophical blog post about how I think the quest for perfect balance has killed the soul of gaming. Maybe I will!).

Overall, I’ve been having a blast. I think the perfect thing will be if they can get this working on my iPad and allow it to be connected to the same account I use for the PC version, and I will give them lots and lots of my money.

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