Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft preview

“Wait. The new Blizzard reveal is a card game ?” I squawk aloud. A few people in the adjacent line shrug helplessly. It's a huge revelation. Like a lot of others, I had been expecting Blizzard All-Stars. I had been anticipating a triumphant entrance into the ARTS/MOBA scene. I had been prepared for anything but a pair of orcs and a gnome emblazoned under the Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft logo, a panoply of cards scattered in the air around them.

Being an ardent Magic: The Gathering player, I'll admit to a certain level of elitism when it comes to card games, especially those meant to be bite-sized alternatives to the old classics. I was skeptical, but when I finally got a turn at Blizzard's collectible card game, it turned out to be a pleasant—if not world-changing—surprise.

Now, here's the run-down. In the beginning, you'll get to pick one of a variety of decks, each based on one of the many classes available in the franchise. I ended up going with the Warlock; six years as a dispenser of afflictions leaves you with certain loyalties. The game begins by handing you a random series of cards, all of which can be kept or exchanged for a new hand. Once both players have made their decision, the match begins in earnest.

Unlike most traditional card games, Hearthstone isn't big on resource management. Each turn, your mana pool will be entirely replenished and increased by one. What this basically means is that by the eighth turn or so, players will have enough mana to play anything they want from their hand—sudden death inevitably follows soon after in the wake of gargantuan core hounds.

Each deck or 'hero class,' essentially, also comes with a thematically appropriate ability that is unique to them. For example, my Warlock had Life Tap: the ability to pay two health in exchange for an additional card. And contrary to standard protocol, Hearthstone will have your 'hero' serving as more than a repository of life points. If you get an appropriate 'weapon' card (or are playing a Hero like the Druid), you'll be able to attack the opposing faction on your own. Just keep in mind that this isn't a risk-free maneuver. If you take on a creature that does nine damage, you will receive nine damage. (Unless you have some form of armor, but armor is often scarce.)

Speaking of going on the offensive, Hearthstone won't let you block—it's part of Blizzard's endeavor to streamline and speed up what can be an exceedingly time-consuming genre. Based on what I've seen of Hearthstone so far, only a critter with Taunt—which coerces enemy creatures into attacking it whenever they attempt to do anything—is capable of upsetting this master plan. Coupled with the easy access to mana, this inability to divert assaults is one of the reasons that Hearthstone is so disarmingly brutal. Action here won't stutter to a crawl because someone has twenty Circles of Protection. It's like a snowball rolling down an incline. At one point or another, someone is going to get flattened.

Cards in Hearthstone come in the usual flavors; creatures, enchantments, spells and items are all potential variables in your armament. Unfortunately for those who enjoy flavor text, cards here generally come with one, relatively uncomplicated ability. Interestingly, however, Hearthstone will also purportedly let you dismantle existing cards in order to create bigger, better ones—an aspect that the demo on the PAX East show floor sadly did not include.

Nitty-gritty details of the system aside, Hearthstone looks like it'd be a fantastic diversion—the kind of 'just one more turn' game that will keep you going even when it's three in the morning and you really, really should sleep. While I was at the Blizzard booth, I ended up squeezing four games instead of just that one match I had planned—it's easy to get sucked in.

It helps that Hearthstone is so delightfully easy on the eyes. Bright, stereotypically World of Warcraft-like visuals and lavish spell effects make Hearthstone highly attractive and less intimidating than other card games. Coupled with occasional quips, subtle-but-effective use of physics, and elegant tool-tipping, Blizzard's entrance into collectible card games may well be the gateway drug hard-core players have been hoping for: if you can't get that one stubborn person in your life to play a card game with Hearthstone, it may never happen.