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Hearthstone sets the bar high for digital CCGs

Blizzard's Hearthstone is already making noise in closed beta.
Blizzard's Hearthstone is already making noise in closed beta.
2013 Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard’s Hearthstone is currently in closed beta. Those lucky enough to have a key are experiencing something right now that may be cause for concern for the huge crop of digital trading card games hitting the market. Hearthstone has achieved, in traditional Blizzard fashion, a slick and stylized accessible version of the modern card game in digital, mobile-friendly form.

It’s also experimenting with an attractive “digital goods only” price point that makes it much easier on the wallet than a traditional physical CCG. A caveat – Everything is still in beta, so be aware that things are subject to change.

There’s been some clamoring about the price point from the typical free-to-play PC crowd, but genre veterans that are used to purchasing physical product will find the current pricing model incredibly mild. While players cannot trade with one another, all cards are available to break down and craft, allowing players to break down all extra cards for materials to create decks they really need.

In practice, this works out extremely well – Use your initial resources to create a deck around the class you like, and then branch out by using acquired resources to craft things for another. Crafting essentials like commons, uncommons, and rares isn’t hard, but crafting epics and legendaries can definitely be a time-consuming challenge and hefty resource sink.

The game itself is streamlined to facilitate play with an early, mid, and late game for all characters and decks. There’s no resource system outside of the acquisition of one more maximum per turn, so players work up to larger threats and combos at relatively the same rate.

Each character class provides a variety of archetypal backdrops to build around, such as a combo-rogue stacking spell power to get the most out of a flurry of backstabs and knife throws or a priest loading up on creatures that benefit from healing. It’s all rooted in World of Warcraft themes and sound effects, but that sort of thing is all extra – Knowledge of the Warcraft universe is not essential for enjoyment of the game at all.

Gameplay pacing is one of the strongest points of Hearthstone. Some recent titles like Mojang’s Scrolls have the tendency to turn into slow-paced strategy stalls – Hearthstone matches rarely go over 10 minutes. While the deck archetypes in constructed play are fairly limited, there are a good number of different classes to explore. And things get real interesting when we look at Hearthstone’s limited format, Arena.

The Arena is similar to a TCG draft except that the player isn’t fighting with other players for the same card pool, and that they’ll receive class specific options in some of the “you pick one out of three card” offerings. Players pick the card they want out of a selection of three cards thirty times and play with each and every card drafted. These cards do are not retained on the account and vanish after the tournment ends and prizes are collected. The price of a draft however, is only 50 gold more than the price of a single pack (100 gold). Since players are guaranteed a pack of cards with their prizes at the end of an Arena, this makes it an economical choice, especially once some knowledge and skill are acquired.

Players that achieve 7 or more wins are guaranteed at least 150 gold in the prize pot at the end along with everything else, making “going infinite” a very real possibility. Arena currently caps players and pays them out at 9 wins.

Unlike a traditional limited event, Arena players can draft a deck and then play whenever they feel like it until either reaching the cap of 9 wins or a total of three losses. This allows for a great deal of flexibility, as players can draft up a deck before breakfast, play a game at lunch, and come home after work and finish off a series or play through an entire Arena.

All-in-all it’s a slick package that really shines even in closed beta. The focus on polish, accessibility, and competitive price point will all help Hearthstone compete in what is quickly becoming an incredibly congested online card game environment.