Blizzard has recently released Hearthstone into open beta, inviting every hooligan with a Blizzard account, to run roughshod over its tender interfaces. I am one of those hooligans and after months of waiting I finally managed to make it into that hallowed tavern in which the game is set.
That was nearly two weeks ago. Just today, I decided to uninstall it. Here’s why.
Back when I was younger, I was obsessed with the Harry Potter Trading Card Game. Essentially a repainted Magic: The Gathering, the HPTCG was nevertheless quite entertaining to play, and I remember spending hours playing against my brother, gloating and griping in equal shares as the wheel of fortune turned. Hearthstone is a paler imitation, one that enjoys making cards flash and glow but doesn’t seem overly concerned with strategy.
Of course, you can craft complex gambits once you lay your hands on some high-tier rare or epic cards, but for the average newbie who isn’t sure if they want to spend money on Hearthstone yet, that doesn’t really apply. They, and I, must contend with class-specific cards and a selection of standard cards, available to everyone from the get-go. As far as I can tell, the only really effective strategy is to load your side with minions and beat your opponent to death with them. Without high-tier cards, any other strategy gets overrun quickly, and even with them there’s no guarantee you won’t get rushed down before you get a chance to set your plans into action.
Take the Priest, for example. Priests are all about healing and buffing the health of their minions until they have great fat tanks sitting around that are nigh impossible to defeat by conventional means. It’s rare that I lose a game to a Priest while playing as almost any other class, because their strategy just takes too many turns and too many cards to implement. If I have to wait an average of five turns to get my strategy rolling, what do I do against a Hunter or a Paladin that spams the board with low-cost minions and starts pecking at my health?
Or what about the Shaman? A typical Shaman strategy is to lay down a few Taunt cards (which force your opponent and their minions to only attack them) and summon totems that heal all your minions, give them each +1 attack, and other beneficial buffs. However, since most totems are relatively weak, and some cannot attack at all, an aggressive enemy player can pick off your totems as soon as you summon them, leaving your grand strategy in tatters. This is compounded by the fact that you cannot customize your deck after you realize who your opponent is, or even switch to a different one. You must lock in the single deck and the single champion you will use before you even step into matchmaking. This oversimplification forces every deck to be “one size fits all,” and shuts down niche strategies before they even begin.
The most confounding part about this system is that the core game of Hearthstone seems well-suited to niche strategies. One mana crystal is doled out to each player at the start of their turn, and all previously emptied crystals are filled. This is also a simplification from the rules of Magic: The Gathering, but in this case it should work out well: the player knows how much mana they will have next turn no matter what cards they draw. This can allow for interesting delayed-action starts, where a player saves up cards until they have enough mana for the big reveal of their strategy. But if barefaced aggression is just as effective as (or more effective than) a slow-cooking gambit, there’s no tactical reason to favor the latter.
At first, Hearthstone seems to make up for these deficiencies with its graphical appeal. Buttons chunk and click satisfyingly, and the backdrops that make up the battlefield are fully interactive – you can splash pools of water, pry out the jewelled eye from the jungle totem, and smash the windows of a church while waiting for your opponent to finish their turn already. Even the matchmaking wait, a typical lull in entertainment value for most games, manages to make itself interesting, representing itself as a slot machine through which you “win” a Worthy Opponent.
However, as in all games, the graphics quickly lose their appeal once you buckle down and start playing, and once again the core issues of the game start to bubble to the surface.
It can be enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, and while writing this review I’ve considered reinstalling it several times. Ultimately, though, the game suffers from its lack of strategic depth. Perhaps once it struggles out of the murky swamps of Open Beta, I’ll reinstall it. But for now, Hearthstone is almost – but not quite – fun.
Rating: Give It Time