A year by the Hearth: How Hearthstone plays its digital cards right

Commentary: One year, four expansions and 30 million players. Here's five reasons a World of Warcraft side-project became its own juggernaut.

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne Editor, Australia & Asia
Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.
6 min read

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This board has hidden secrets to mess about with, enhancing the fun of the game. Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone has stolen my brain. I love games, but rarely does a game push all other games aside like Hearthstone has. For more than a year this has been my go to, and with each addition developer Blizzard has made to the digital card game I've become more enamoured with the experience.

Two solo adventures and two expansions later, some might feel like they're coming to the party late and will never catch up. But that would be a mistake. Here are a few reasons why Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is worth a taste test.

Hearthstone 101

Every video game maker has been wrestling with changing business models, with both mobile and free-to-play games taking a lot of playing time away from traditional high box-price PC and console games. With Hearthstone, Blizzard Entertainment has tapped into both the mobile and free markets, while delivering a game that is still available and attractive to its traditional PC audience. And with the announcement in May that Hearthstone has crossed 30 million players worldwide, the game has now trumped even the world's most successful physical card game, Magic: The Gathering (which boasts around 20 million players).

Available for iOS, Android, Mac and Windows, Hearthstone is easy to play wherever and whenever. Blizzard Entertainment
Hearthstone is available across OS X, Windows, iOS and Android, letting you build a collection of digital playing cards available across all platforms, so you can log in to your account and play on whatever device suits best. The game is free to play, with Blizzard making money when players purchase extra packs of digital cards or other features within the game. And people are buying, with one recent analysis estimating the game earns around $20 million per month in revenues across all platforms.

Here are the basics: Pick from nine character classes (such as Hunter, Mage or Warrior, based on the classes in Blizzard's online roleplaying game World of Warcraft) to theme your deck. Then use free basic cards to complete quests, earn gold and buy more packs of cards -- or spend real money if you don't want to take the slow road -- to build more powerful and sophisticated decks.

But those are just the bare bones of the game. It's personality that really makes Hearthstone into something that anyone can enjoy. Here are the real reasons why you should have this game on your phone, your tablet or your home computer. Or all three.

1. Really, truly free

The world is full of "free to play" games these days, but most of them quickly reach a point where you feel like you need to spend money to progress any further. With Hearthstone, the game is slower to start if you avoid spending money, but as you complete daily quests and win games you start to build a collection that gives you competitive decks.

There are many websites out there offering tips of how to build free-to-play decks that give you everything you need to win, and pro-level players like to show off their skills by starting new accounts from scratch and seeing how fast they can reach the top ranks of the game without spending any money.

If you want to play free forever, this game will give you plenty of fun over the long haul without demanding you open your wallet.

2. Raw charisma

Hearthstone is fun, in a very traditional sense of the word. It's positive, it's inclusive, it's funny and all the details just slide smoothly together. The game draws on the mythology of Blizzard's Warcraft universe, but with a tongue planted firmly in its digital cheek.

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One of the cutest, silliest and most annoying cards in the game. Blizzard Entertainment
"Everyone is hanging out and having fun, kind of a big party," says Mike Donais, Senior Designer on Hearthstone. "So we find the right mix of charming. It's really flavour that is the most important. With the art, the sound, the lines they say, all that has to come together to really lift the card in the way that really makes Hearthstone."

Once you've encountered crazy creatures like an Annoy-o-tron, a Leper Gnome, or legendaries like Mogor the Ogre or the rock god Elite Tauren Chieftain, you'll see the fun inherent to the concept. Spell cards like Brawl, a card that sees all creatures on the board dogpile into the middle to leave one random creature standing, are delivered in a way that turns random rolls of the dice into tension and excitement, whether you win or lose.

3. Style

This game oozes style. The card art, the game boards, the voice over work and the music and animations are polished to a perfect shine so that you just want to slow down sometimes and click, drag and hover around to see what happens. The game features a variety of game boards that have clickable secrets hidden throughout. Have you found the brown boots in the vegetable patch? Have you launched the rocket off the launch pad? Even if it is not your turn, you have something to mess around with to keep you having fun.

Card backs are the game's "art for art's sake" collectible that adds some extra personalisation to your cards when you play. Screenshot by Seamus Byrne/CNET

Then there's the card backs. They're art for art's sake, but fans of the game can't get enough. Every month counts as a "season" of ranked play in the game, and even the most casual of players can earn the monthly card back by just winning a handful of ranked games. Other special card backs can be unlocked by participating in different events or completing solo adventures in their toughest mode. And yes, there are some you can only buy with real money.

"It's a great opportunity to try and help push the spirit of Hearthstone that much further," says Ben Thompson, Hearthstone's art director. "It's actually something gameplay can't do. It's pure aesthetics for aesthetics' sake. Card backs are like those sleeves on the backs of physical cards. A nice way to add personalisation."

4. Story moments

Even if you're losing, Hearthstone can still be fun. With what the developers have often referred to as "story moments", the game has embraced the random nature of card games to create truly digital randomness that adds to the fun.

Some cards spawn other cards completely at random, whether you own the new cards or not. Other cards create random effects, like a Firelord who blasts some random target with massive damage at the end of your turn. These moments leave you waiting in anticipation, hoping the roll of the virtual dice goes your way. Everyone who has played Hearthstone for even a little while will have their stories of the game that got away, or the game that went their way thanks to just the right effect at just the right moment.

"Those moments throughout the game, even when you lose, hopefully you'll at least do some powerful things and you really did something," says Senior Game Designer Ben Brode. "It's something we've always tried with our card designs and we've tried to preserve that feeling that is important to Hearthstone, the feeling that the game is winnable."

These moments have also made the competitive scene incredibly watchable. Hearthstone is now one of the top games streamed online, consistently top three on streaming website Twitch, with fans wanting to watch top players so they can both learn from the best and see some of those classic moments where everything just clicks...or falls apart on the turn of a single card.

5. Multiplayer without the negativity

Hearthstone may just about be the world's friendliest online multiplayer game. For a game that has spawned a thriving e-sport community, with a highly competitive multiplayer experience built into the game, Hearthstone's choice to limit in-game communication to just six predefined interactions -- Greetings, Thanks, Sorry, Oops, Well Played, Threaten -- inherently avoids the toxic attitudes found in many other multiplayer games. And if even those interactions are too much you can always "squelch" your opponent so they can't send you any messages at all.

Being able to take on the ranked ladder of competitive play, whatever your skill level, and never feel like you're being belittled or harassed by opponents, is a refreshing concept. It again brings the focus back to the fun taking place right there on the game board. The great cards, the fun animations, the crazy random effects tipping the scales either way.

This game is offering a finely distilled brand of digital fun that is easy to learn and hard to master. The tutorial phase alone is worth the free download. Even if you hate the idea of digital card games, Hearthstone is worth a try. Convince a friend to play too and it's even better. You might even find you have friends who are already playing.