Sunday, May 4

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Review (iPad/PC): The allure of digital cardboard

I've tried my hand at a few Collectible Card Games (CCGs) over the course of my thirty years. I don't think I've ever played any in strict accordance with their respective rules though. Whether it was the first Star Wars CCG with my older brother, Beau or the Pokemon game with my brother from another mother, Matt, I was more enamoured with the idea of drawing a hand full of my favourite heroes rather than learning the mechanics of these games and building up to the perfect turn. A short order of friends and acquaintances willing to invest in these expensive pursuits was the main reason my collections were relegated to folders in my parents' shed, but I still feel a nostalgic pluck on my heartstrings when I see packs of nerds hovering over loose cards at my local comic book shop.

Enter the digital age. Folders worth of cards can now be accessed anywhere, there's no shortage of or problems in accessing competition, and there's no temptation to trade or otherwise lose valuable cards if my competitive side were to take hold. Sure, the thrill of tearing foil can't be recreated faithfully on a screen, but I'll be damned if Blizzard don't come close with Hearthstone

It's weird too, as I've had little to no investment in the characters, races, spells and lore of the Warcraft universe prior to now. I mean, I played Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness pretty heavily in my teens as well as my fair share of Warcraft III multiplayer, but all I can remember in terms of narrative is that one or more of these games may or may not have been set in Azeroth. I haven't ever played World of Warcraft, though I did enjoy watching my younger brother, Reuben's adventures as a dress-making Druid. The squeal I let out upon unwrapping Archmage Antonidas had everything to do with the card's obvious strategic value and rarity, rather than for any sentimental reasons. There's no reason why expanding my collection should be a thrilling proposition, but here I am, battling the temptation to spend more dough on virtual pieces of cardboard.

In terms of the actual game of cards, Hearthstone is deceptively simple. You pick a hero that represents one of nine different classes and jump into the action with a pre-built deck or build your own comprised of both class-specific and neutral cards. Heroes each have a different power which can be used once per turn and include the ability to craft weapons, summon minions, heal, or deal damage to specific characters. Matches are fast-paced with the ultimate objective of defeating the enemy hero. You can damage the enemy hero through direct attacks with hero powers, weapons and spells, or by deploying and attacking with minions. Each card and power costs mana, your pool of which builds (to a maximum of ten) with each turn. As a rule, attacks and minions that deal big damage generally require a lot of mana, so the tension escalates as the match progresses.

Classes are surprisingly-well balanced, with only a few Legendary (the highest category of rarity) cards undermining competitive match-ups. I was also pleasantly-surprised to see that each class plays substantially differently to the next. The Warlock deck is all about risk and reward, with a hero power and cards that, more often than not, hurt the holder as well as the opponent. The Paladin's spells focus on strengthening or neutralising the minions in play. The Warrior has command of fearsome weapons and can fortify itself with near-impenetrable shields if an opponent is too preoccupied with the distractions on the board. The Shaman... well, to be honest, I have no fucking idea how to use that deck but that's not to say that I haven't come up against some powerful, totem-wielding opponents. I've played hundreds of matches now and am staggered at the ingenuity of my opponents in using cards and powers that I had once thought useless.  

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is free-to-play with microtransaction support to buy new packs and embark on Arena runs. The Arena tasks players with selecting from a sample of three classes and then building a deck of random cards. Once you've composed your deck, you'll take on other combatants and try to amass as many wins as possible. After three losses you'll be given a key to access a modest cache of prizes (keep in mind that I'm not terribly good at the Arena format, so I can't confirm or deny what a bananas run would net you). You can purchase packs and Arena runs without investing real money, but you'll need to complete a few daily challenges to foot the bill with virtual currency.

For those of you thinking that high fantasy, tabletop nerdery may not be for you, I urge you to give it a shot. My lovely wife, Carly has not been known to love either of these things, but found herself battling in the Arena for hours during school holidays while I slaved away at work. We've had a few clashes in local multiplayer and it's here that you see the advantage in dropping a few bucks on Expert packs. I'd like to think that my wins were primarily on account of skill, but I know those few Legendary cards I'd come across were swinging matches in my favour.

I can't see my addiction to Hearthstone fading anytime soon. There's a single player expansion on the horizon and I'm obsessed with continuously tweaking my Warlock and Mage decks. While it's simple enough to pick up and play, there's a wealth of mechanics with which to experiment. It also bears mentioning that it's an immaculately presented CCG experience with beautiful artwork, a diverse colour pallette, delightful score, and more charm than your average AAA blockbuster. The buzz around this game is entirely justified; download it now so I can challenge you to a few rounds by the hearth.