Annoyingly, Hearthstone is still really good

Prince Renathal from Hearthstone
(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

I used to be a massive Hearthstone fan. I spent years and a fair amount of money on honing my skills in the collectable card game. From sitting at the back of select university lectures, waiting for my opponent to take their turn while my laptop screen was conveniently turned away from my tutor, to taking long train journeys around the country, I played all the time. And then I burned out on it. 

Upon reflecting about how nerfs have affected my gaming experiences over the years, I remembered how hard it was to keep up with Hearthstone's set rotations—especially as a university student. The game required enough dedication that you knew the new meta enough to anticipate opponent's moves, as well as having the money to build your own competitive decks. 

I've been reassured that the economy has got a bit better with the introduction of stuff like duplicate protection, but at the time when I was growing sick of Hearthstone, the arms race was exhausting. I loved the gameplay, but couldn't afford the financial and mental upkeep. 

I stopped entirely a couple of years ago, after the Battlegrounds mode appeared. I loved that update but was still ready to move on. Until yesterday, when brand director Tim Clark kindly sent me a code for the newest expansion that released on August 2nd and oh boy.

Suddenly Hearthstone feels great again. 

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Decked out

I even got a little smug as everything flooded back

There is a lot to be said about loot box systems and their harmful effects but the reason they work is because opening them feels so good. And I had forgotten just how good opening packs in Hearthstone felt. Hearing the cheery Innkeeper Harth Stonebrew (heh, I didn't know his name until now), exclaim in surprise at every rare, epic, and legendary card is still a pleasure. I am genuinely quite annoyed that after all these years of leaving Hearthstone to sit in my hard drive I came back and felt so at home. Why does this damn card game feel so good?

Having opened just shy of a hundred packs, it was time to put them to good use. Expecting to be entirely out of the loop. Trying to build a deck using just the latest expansion and the Standard set was a little bit of a challenge as I was missing many key cards, but I cobbled together a chunky Warrior deck and set out to be taught how to play the game once again. And then proceeded to win not one but two games back-to-back with no hassle at all. 

I even got a little smug as everything flooded back. Admittedly I wasn't playing at a high level, I'm in bronze as I've been away so long, but gosh getting stuck in and feeling almost no resistance to knocking my opponents on their asses with a deck made in a few minutes was pretty cool. 

(Image credit: Blizzard)

And I smiled, knowing I still had it. And Hearthstone, apparently, still had me too.

The first game was against a rogue who just couldn't keep up with my minions. Buffs upon buffs, and dealing damage to my own team to reap even more buffs created an unstoppable board before too long, and so the Rogue gave up. Then I played against a Warlock which sacrificed health back-and-forth but not fast enough. Though he held me off for a while by healing with bullshit Battlecry effects, he didn't have any taunts on the board to prevent me from picking off his most vulnerable cards. Tut tut tut, Gul'dan. He too fell to my constant swarm enraged minions. And I smiled, knowing I still had it. And Hearthstone, apparently, still had me too.

I'm not sure how much Hearthstone has exactly changed in the years I wasn't playing but this new expansion titled, Murder at Castle Nathria has a murder mystery theme. Sire Denathrius has been found dead and the great Murloc Holmes is on the case. In terms of gameplay, the main consequence are the new Cluedo-style Location cards. These are played on the board and for the most part targeted. As with weapons, they have a durability value which refers to how many times their effect can be procced. Oh, and there's also a single-turn cooldown between uses.

In my Warrior deck, Sanguine Depths allowed me to buff a minion's attack by one after hitting it for one health. The synergy being that a lot of my cards trigger a benefit from taking damage. 

(Image credit: Blizzard)

There's also the new Infuse Keyword, which encourages you to keep cards in your hand until a certain number of friendly minions have died on the board, after which the card transforms into a more powerful version. Figuring out these new tactics and weighing the pros and cons of the cards I'd been dealt felt so familiar. Adapting and learning on the fly, alongside other players who were undoubtedly doing the same on the first day of the expansion was like stepping into an old pair of shoes. And yet old cards like the Acolyte of Pain, which fits perfectly into my self-damage Warrior deck, held my hand and reassured me that somethings were still familiar in this new world. 

I think there is another layer to my surprise. Live service games are famously, um, live. If you stop playing they don't just pause in time, they continue marching on for the players that are still active. And so, live service games can be particularly difficult to dip back into. Valorant, my current obsession, is very hard to reenter after just six months away because new agents, their abilities, buffs, nerfs, and maps can completely alter the meta and flow of the game. You're going to be bad before being good once again. The same goes for the majority of live service games these days.

But Hearthstone doesn't have that problem. Because rounds give you a certain amount of time to read and absorb the state of the board, it gave me room to find my feet, making those two games a comfortable way to remember how good the game feels, rather than how out of practice I was. So, I'm just annoyed that I'm once again craving Hearthstone. I want to build more decks, open more card packs, and beat more players although I thought I was done. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Imogen has been playing games for as long as she can remember but finally decided games were her passion when she got her hands on Portal 2. Ever since then she’s bounced between hero shooters, RPGs, and indies looking for her next fixation, searching for great puzzles or a sniper build to master. When she’s not working for PC Gamer, she’s entertaining her community live on Twitch, hosting an event like GDC, or in a field shooting her Olympic recurve bow.