Hearthstone is a spellbinding contest of wits and strategy that costs absolutely nothing for tens of hours.
It is an exquisite, endless, enchanting time-sink that demands to be devoured as quickly as possible. There are no excuses. Download it now.
Obsessive types will obsess. At its best, this collectable card game is a virtual kilo of heroin steadily trickling into the bloodstream; a low-lying, drawn-out euphoria constantly bubbles under the surface. This is bliss.
Fear not the immense complexities. Granted, a card game hinged on near-limitless possibilities is a little daunting to explain in detail (see the slideshow below, 'How to Play Hearthstone', for our best attempt), but learning the ropes is pain-free. Rules and strategies unfold harmoniously during the opening hours, step by step, arming players with the essentials before skills are tested online.
It sounds absurd, but Hearthstone's closest relative is probably Football Manager. Granted, one is dwarf-deep in fantasy and the other recreates a real-life sport, but both are immensely gripping for the same reasons.
"A low-lying, drawn-out euphoria constantly bubbles under the surface"
Both titles offer bottomless strategic depth by tasking players to scout for the best characters, then playing them in their most effective arrangement, whilst continually assessing their quality and potential.
Players must pick a squad of thirty cards (representing different combatants, powers and spells) from a global collection of more than 350. Some are prohibitively expensive, some are undervalued, some are complementary and others conflict.
If the old theory is true, that boredom only comes when the brain stops learning, then Hearthstone is arguably impossible to tire of. New ideas and lessons come flooding even after 50 hours. Packs of cards are perpetually perfected and tinkered with. They are traded, sacrificed, trialled, sold and re-used. They are also unlocked, by the way, in the most magical manner possible.
Visualised: How to Play Hearthstone (and lose badly)
Poker also plays its part. Each match begins with both players holding several cards randomly pulled from their deck of thirty, closed hand, with a new random card taken at each turn. As players' skills develop, they will be able to deduce some of the cards their opponent is holding, and know when they will be able to play them, and thus make anticipatory moves to gain control.
Divine knowledge is unattainable, however. Even at high skill levels, just enough of Hearthstone is left to chance, and rapidly reacting to sudden swings becomes crucial.
Most surprising of all, Hearthstone also carries some key traits of professional boxing. In the midst of battle, combatants must continuously balance their attack with defence, inevitably sacrificing one over the other. Bouts begin with players picking away at their foes, poking for openings, and exploiting mistakes and weaknesses with untamed severity. This is about landing that perfect, game-changing shot. Recovering from a massive blow is famously difficult.
It is a remarkable accomplishment that Hearthstone incorporates what people love about so many games and sports, yet still adds its own ideas and feels distinct.
The other major triumph is a technical one. Hearthstone is a masterstroke on PC, but on the iPad it is a miracle. At risk of sounding like Jony Ive, never has something so profoundly deep managed to work on a device so thin.
"It sounds absurd, but Hearthstone's closest relative is probably Football Manager"
This is an uncompromising, full-blooded Blizzard experience relinquished from its desktop shackles. An intricate, battery-busting always-online multiplayer gauntlet now available on the sofa, in bed, in the bathroom, at work and even in the garden (highly recommended if your Wi-Fi can reach it).
That's not to imply the PC version has been undermined. Blizzard has demonstrated an unrivalled focus on both the tablet and desktop editions when making its most crucial decisions on design, aesthetic and interface. The result is a game that is near-identical on both platforms yet, almost paradoxically, seems ideally suited for each.
Mouse drags work as flawlessly as finger swipes, while the visuals are plush and premium, yet run smoothly even on an iPad 2. The online service, reinforced by Blizzard's priceless experience with server infrastructure, is smoother than anyone could expect for a title that's proving so popular.
As a testament to Hearthstone's mastery of platform agnosticism, both PC and iPad players can duel against each other for dozens of hours without knowing who's playing on what device. Matchmaking is flawless, fast, and kept in the background. Just press play.
That simplicity is key to why Hearthstone is so gripping. Setting up a game requires just a couple of finger prods or mouse clicks, whilst putting it down demands heroic levels of self-discipline.
"Hearthstone is a bigger disappointment than other free-to-play monstrosities because it has so much more to lose"
What a shame this perfect harmony of ideas, further down the line, is eventually tainted by the game's own monetisation model.
Play Hearthstone long enough and the pay-to-win element will uncloak itself. The most influential expert cards require hundreds of hours to attain, or remarkable luck, but can also be obtained if the player pours enough money into their account.
Blizzard may argue that even the rarest cards are not available to buy direct, and that players can only pay for a random pack of five, which is true to a point. The central problem is that cards can be sold (at a staggering loss), which means that enough trade-in money allows players to swap their expensive collection for a game-changer.
There is nothing inherently wrong with free-to-play, if applied responsibly, but this exploit undermines Hearthstone at its core. Its appeal as a competitive online game is enfeebled from the first time an amateur opponent survives a deserved thrashing by throwing out a Messi-meets-Kasparov-meets-Bruce-Lee card.
At a certain stage later into game, such buy-out wins become far too familiar. The grind ossifies and the only meaningful way to progress is to join the paying masses.
There's nothing wrong with handsomely rewarding world-class craftsmanship, of course, but the problem is that progress eventually becomes too closely tied to investment. After all, who wouldn't pay a little extra for Ryu's ultra fireball, or the riot shield in Counter-strike, if that's what everyone else is winning with?
Another issue is where the pay ceiling lies. Certainly, to achieve a level of mastery with all characters and cards, hundreds of pounds and dollars are required. That, or thousands of hours.
Some might point to far worse offenders, like EA's Dungeon Keeper or Ubisoft's Trials Frontier, to offer a sense of perspective on how free-to-play is truly misused. But Hearthstone is a bigger disappointment, not because it's anywhere near as exploitative, but because it has so much more to lose. The magic drains away.
Hearthstone could have thrived whilst keeping money out of its progression system. It could have instead sold vanity items, like different arenas to play in, yet the existing model will undeniably yield far, far more revenue.
That's fair enough, Blizzard, it's hard to argue you don't deserve it. But the inevitable outcome is that frustration and financial concern become active elements in a game that, at first, so wondrously transported people away from those stresses of life.
Curse of Naxxramas review: Week one, Arachnid Quarters
Remember, eons ago, when Hearthstone graciously processed you through its excellent single-player tutorial?
If you crave the Curse of Naxxramas update then it's likely you've fought hundreds, perhaps thousands, of battles since that fleeting dance with Blizzard's tutorial AI.
Which is partly why the Naxxramas DLC is somewhat disappointing. You forget how mundane AI is when compared to the unpredictability and unstoppable brutality of online warfare.
Battle-hardened players won't find the Naxxramas boss battles, of which there are three, particularly challenging. Even on Heroic Mode it won't take too long to overcome.
"The sheer cruelty online, that lingering taste of death and desperation, makes Naxxramas's offensive tactics appear quaint by comparison"
In retrospect, that's perfectly understandable. Hearthstone's metagame has evolved to such a sophisticated state that even Turing-conquering AI wouldn't stand a chance.
The sheer cruelty online, that lingering taste of death and desperation, makes Naxxramas's offensive tactics appear quaint by comparison. Only the cheapest tactics (found in the Heroic Difficulty) will stretch the mind and force players to rebuild their deck.
Rewards for downing all foes are nonetheless fascinating. A Haunted Creeper (1/2) costs two mana and deathrattles a pair of Spectral Spiders (1/1 each), which optimists would view as a (3/4) card at a bargain price.
The next newcomer is equally cost-effective. The Nerubian Egg (0/2) sits quietly until killed, upon which it summons a 4/4 Nerubian. Consider it an AoE failsafe - one which is particularly effective against Consecration and Holy Nova, and one which creates a fantastic dilemma if given Taunt.
Sadly these two otherwise interesting cards have arrived at perhaps the worst time possible, as the ranked game mode is currently embroiled by rush-tactic Gul'dans who exploit the same dirty deck of low-cost cards. Haunted Creepers and Nerubian Eggs only aid their unsportsmanlike cause.
However, also at two mana is the Nerub'ar Weblord (1/4) which brings the cost of all Battlecry cards up by two mana, which can significantly slow down the rush players on many occasions.
Finally there's the Maexxna legendary card at six mana, unlocked for completing the final boss of the same name, which boasts (2/8) and kills any minion it touches. Though it can spin games on their head, it's no Cairne Bloodhoof.
Granted, this Arachnid Quarters pack is only a fifth of all the new content due to be patched in across five weeks, so perhaps there's more it can add to Blizzard's remarkable game of wits and strategy. But for your own sake, approach this with low expectations.
An essential, endless, enchanting time-sink that is pioneering on iPad, yet somewhat tainted by pay-to-win.
- Excellent online service
- Powerfully intoxicating
- Free for tens of hours
- A miracle on iPad
- Endlessly deep
- Pay-to-win model slowly unravels
- Some character balancing issues