Hearthstone: Your new obsession

The world of Collectible Card Games (CCG) was changed forever in 1993 when Magic: The Gathering was introduced to the world. Over twenty years later, the game still has millions of players, and its iPad version has made a  successful leap where countless other real-world games flounder. Since its birth, there have been countless attempts at copying or improving Magic: The Gathering's success. (In my early adolescence I became obsessed with the Harry Potter Trading Card Game which basically utilised the same mechanics.) But these copy-cats have slowly faded away. Until now.

Hearthstone, a PC-basd collectible card game, was released by Blizzard Entertainment into open Beta only a few months ago. The free-to-play, online model is exquisitely designed. Gameplay moves quickly and decisively. The amount of free content is sublime. You can have many hours of fun without dropping a single cent. Blizzard are adept at creating addictive, life-ruining games. Previous creations have included World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo, all of which have taken up news headlines in the past for eating up teenagers lives to the point of severe malnutrition. Hearthstone has the same potential for devastation within it.

The game mechanics, while similar to Magic, are a refinement of them. Magic's downfall is its complex system of rules. It can take many hands before you feel as though you really have a grip on the game, and in twenty years of play and new card releases, dozens of new rules have been invented. As such, finding a bunch of old cards can suddenly make you feel as though you're playing an entirely different game. In Magic, you never stop learning how to play the game. Its the secret to its success, and its greatest downfall.

Magic is also continually troubled by a single point of failure: mana. To do anything in Magic you need to lay out mana cards. These power your attacks, spells and creatures. You're advised to keep a third of your sixty-card deck up for mana. Even with this addition, a game can be completely devastated very early on if a player's random hand is cursed with no mana, or high-mana cost attack cards, and the other player has a more equal distribution. 

Hearthstone's most ingenious operation is to reduce the challenges of mana down to its simplest form. The aim of mana is to create a game with build. You can't do a massive attack in your first turn, instead you need to build up enough mana that you can pay for that attack. As such, ideal games have a predictable arc that moves from low attacks to high. Hearthstone has taken an extra step to ensure this. Mana doesn't exist in cards but in crystals, and at the start of each of your turns you're awarded one mana crystal. This simple mechanic has massive consequences.

First of all, it means every game will have that same desirable arc for both players. First turn, I can only spend one crystal. The same is true for my opponent. By the fifth turn, we're both on five crystals, and so on. Therefore, the challenge is reliant less on how much more mana you have over your opponent, but rather on your ability to choose the right attack card at the right time. The lack of mana also means you no longer have to worry about mana in your hand or deck. Hearthstone's decks are half the size of Magic. You have just thirty cards. And your average hand rarely exceeds four cards. This makes gameplay and deck-building easier to get your head around. Gameplay is quick and easy to pick up. 

Plus, Hearthstone does a very good job of making it all very fun and easy. The tutorial's are a beautifully designed introduction to the game. Within fifteen minutes, you have everything you need to know, and you've had fun while learning. The deck-builder is also an exquisite piece of engineering. For the hardcore nerds, there's potential hours lost in building 'the perfect deck'. For the rest of us, the simple 'card suggestion' button makes it easy to assemble a deck that you had some autonomy over in less than three minutes. 

Hearthstone is not a threat to Magic, although it clearly could not exist without it. Hearthstone offers an entirely digital experience. This is its real downfall in the face of the card classic. Where Magic offers friendships, weekly communities and trading opportunities, Hearthstone is simply unable to compete in this realm. Hearthstone's playing style makes it criminally easy to do something that Magic can never do: find an opponent of similar skill in less than thirty seconds, pair you up, and you can have a quick game at any time of the day.

Hearthstone is downloadable here, and if you have a few hours, I suggest you look into it.