Hands on with Hearthstone

Blizzard's World of Warcraft spin-off collectible card game is gearing up for a release sometime "very soon". We go hands on with the alpha.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
5 min read

Blizzard's World of Warcraft (WoW) spin-off collectible card game (CCG) is gearing up for a release sometime "very soon". We go hands on with the alpha.

(Credit: Blizzard)

Blizzard has made a foray into a CCG spin-off for World of Warcraft in the past, with 2006's World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, but its popularity was more or less confined to dedicated card gamers.

Hearthstone, first revealed at PAX East in March, looks to blow the genre wide open.

For players of World of Warcraft, the game will be instantly familiar. Each of the nine classes has a different style based on class abilities; the game boards are settings from World of Warcraft; even some of the audio has been ported across from the MMORPG, with recognisable phrases and ambient sounds.

The nine classes are all from the original game, and each Hero is a major character from the WoW storyline.

(Credit: Blizzard)
  • The Warrior is orc Garrosh Hellscream, with a play style based around damage and armour

  • The Paladin is human Uther Lightbringer, with a play style based around healing and minions

  • The Hunter is half-or, half-ogre Rexxar, with a play style based around damage

  • The Rogue is Blood Elf Valeera Sanguinar, with a play style based around stealth and stabbing

  • The Priest is human Anduin Wrynn, with a play style based around healing

  • The Shaman is orc Thrall, with a play style based around totems and magic

  • The Mage is human Jaina Proudmoore, with a play style based around magic and damage

  • The Warlock is orc Gul'dan, with a play style based around magic and minions

  • The Druid is Night Elf Malfurion Stormrage, with a play style based around shapeshifting and magic

Each of these classes has its own specific cards that can only be used by that class, but there are also plenty of cards available that can be used by any class — which means each character can bring a different play experience — while keeping some of your old faithful cards on the table.

When you boot up for the first time, you can engage in a tutorial that shows you the ropes, but gameplay is pretty easy to get the hang of. Cards cost mana crystals to play. Each turn, you get a new mana crystal added to your pool and your previous mana crystals refilled. For example, for the first turn, you have one mana crystal, which means you can only play low-level cards. The next turn, you get another crystal, so you can play higher-level cards. Toward the end of the game (you can have 10 crystals maximum, but cards don't cost more than seven crystals, from what we saw), you can really pull out some spectacularly heavy moves.

Just like in WoW, there are several types of cards you can play — minions, which, arrayed on the board, help you attack your opponent (and their own minions); attack and defence, both physical and magical; buffs to health and attack; and, of course, healing. The game ends when your opponent's hero dies, but it's not as simple as throwing all your might into chipping away at their HP. In our first game, we went up against AI Thrall and chucked everything we got straight at him. We had him down to seven HP, and he hadn't touched us — and then he pulled out every trick in his inventory and wiped us out in two turns flat.

It was glorious.

Of course, that was just a "practice" match. Although these can form the bulk of your gameplay if that's what you prefer, the game is intended to be played against other players, and, as such, can't be played offline.

Antsy players can click on the board decorations while waiting for their opponent to make a play, lighting the fire in the lower right, prising out the eye in the upper left. We'll leave the rest for you to discover. (Credit: Blizzard)

Cards come in five tiers of rarity — Green (basic, given to you when you start a new class); Common (white); Rare (blue); Epic (purple); and Legendary (orange). Yeah. You know how that goes.

When you boot up the game for the first time, you start with the Mage class, and each of the other classes become available as you level up. Levelling up doesn't bring you the traditional rewards you might expect — higher character stats, such as health and power. Instead, each time you level up, you get cards, and the higher you go, the better the cards.

In fact, it's in obtaining new cards where the game gets interesting. Hearthstone has eschewed the traditional "trading" mechanism of CCGs. Blizzard made this choice very consciously, not wanting its players to get screwed over in bad trades with other players. However, it did leave a problem: how to get new cards in exchange for duplicates that would otherwise clutter up your deck.

To solve this, the game implements a crafting system. Players can disenchant cards (except for the soulbound Basic decks, of which you can never have more than you can use) to create Arcane Dust. This Dust is then used to craft new cards — although it costs a lot more Dust to create a card than you get for just destroying one. When you disenchant a common card, you get five Arcane Dust; to make a common card, you need 40. To create a Legendary card, you need 1600.

(Credit: Blizzard)

Cards can also be obtained by completing quests, such as "Win three matches!" And, of course, there's Booster Packs of five cards, each with a guaranteed Rare or higher card, that can be purchased via IAP — the only monetisation in the otherwise completely free-to-play game. Pricing has yet to be confirmed on these, although a Blizzard spokesperson told CNET Australia that it would probably be around the 99-cent ballpark.

The company also wanted to replicate the excitement of opening a foil pack of cards, and the experience of opening a new Booster Pack is genuinely delightful. You drag the packet into the collection box and it explodes open in array of fireworks, the five cards arrayed in a circle, facing away from you. You can mouse over each one; if it generates a blue, purple or orange halo, you know where the rare cards are, so you can flip them first or last, depending on your preference (we like last, because it makes the anticipation so much more fun).

Overall, it looks set to be tremendous fun, tapping into the "easy to learn, hard to master" ethos, with plenty of incentive to keep coming back for more — but we think it has massive potential elsewhere, within World of Warcraft itself. If both games are tied to your Battle.net account, we imagine it would be a relatively simple matter to provide Hearthstone cards as, say, quest rewards, or as rewards for the recently implemented pet battles.

This would do two things: provide an influx of players for Hearthstone as WoW players look to make use of these rewards; and rejuvenate the World of Warcraft player base with players lured in from the more accessible, free-to-play Hearthstone.

Blizzard couldn't tell us when the game will launch (coming to PC, Mac and later iPad); just that it will be soon. Real-life soon, not Blizzard soon, it was careful to note. Very soon. We can't wait.

You can sign up for the beta here.