It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve had quite the mixture of utter delight and abject horror as I did this morning when I found out that Hearthstone is now available to play on iPad. Great! I can now play my favorite game any time, anywhere. Oh crap! I'll be wanting to play my favorite game all the time, everywhere.
Hearthstone, if you’ve been living under one for the last year, is Blizzard’s finely crafted digital collectible card game. It’s inspired by the physical collectible card game Magic the Gathering, which I consider to be one of the greatest games ever conceived. Them might be fightin' words, but I’ve spent the last two decades playing the game, and have never become tired of it. And that's because it's an absolute masterpiece of strategy, bluffing, timing, gamesmanship, and luck that you can sometimes manipulate.
Both Hearthstone and MTG play the same way: two players duke it out by summoning creatures and casting spells to beat the snot out of one another, while craftily deploying disruptive magic to thwart their opponent's strategy while advancing their own. Needless to say, the person who runs out of health first doesn’t emerge the victor.
I’ve been hooked on Hearthstone since late last year. The process of getting into the game took me back to when I first saw Magic the Gathering in early ’94. I was a regular at a particularly awesome local comic book store that also stocked a huge variety of games. I’d gotten to know the storeowner Steve very well, and we used to chat regularly - usually about video games. Early one evening when I’d stopped by, he showed me a stack of cards and explained that it was a new game called Magic the Gathering, and that I absolutely had to play it - right now.
The salesman who’d sold Steve the cards had taught him how to play, and in between serving sporadic customers, Steve taught me. It didn’t take long to get the basics, and then we started playing proper. At 9:00 pm he closed the shop, and we continued to play – until very early the following morning. The following day, I went back to the store and bought everything he had - except the two boxes of boosters he wanted to hang onto - and that evening I took my cards to my game-a-holic friend's house and showed him how to play. We played through until the early morning, and the following day – mercifully a Saturday – we drove to all the comic and game stores we knew so we could buy more cards. We were absolutely addicted
What I just loved about the game was the sense of discovery. I’d see a new card, and would have a sudden revelation. Oh! This card can combine with another card that I have to create a whole new strategy. But then I can combine the effect of those two cards with this other card, and holy crap - I could totally melt my opponent’s face. I constantly thought about these combos and strategies, and whenever my friend and I were together, all we’d do is talk about deck design. It drove people nuts.
The reason why I’m regaling you with this tale from yore is that it’s the easiest way to explain why Hearthstone is so addictive. It does to me exactly what Magic did to me back in 1994, only this time around it simply grafted itself onto my slightly rusty Magic-processing skills like some kind of gaming parasitoid and immediately started filling my head with cards, decks, combos, hypothetical situations, bluffs, counters and counter-counters. I can feel my cerebral CPU heating up as I process endless Hearthstone data, running numbers and odds. Attacking moves and possible counters. Balancing a deck to deal with everything. Or calculating the odds of winning with a super-focused, all-out offensive build with no defensive fallback.
In a way, Hearthstone is the ultimate brain chew-toy. You can noodle on decks and theorycraft until the cows come home – because there’s no perfect deck. No matter what you do, someone will always be able to beat you, and sometimes even the best decks will flounder due to sheer bad luck. But it doesn’t stop you trying to come up with the strongest possible decks for each of your characters.
Hearthstone’s environment and metagame is still relatively small and well controlled. It reminds me of Magic’s early days when there were hundreds of cards, rather than the many thousands there are now. But I can also see just how Hearthstone will grow in depth and sophistication as new cards are added. This is a game with a bright future, and I’m sure it’ll still have a following ten years from now.
Hearthstone is basically a cloud game that up until now has only been playable via Mac or PC. I've already sunk more hours into it than I care to mention, and now the damn thing is available on iOS, it’s going to be incredibly hard not to resist playing every spare moment. It's basically identical to the PC/Mac versions, but playing on a touch screen is a far better experience than using a mouse. Moving cards and tapping on targets is intuitive and simple, and everything works flawlessly. It's a brilliant game made even more fun, and even more convenient to play.
If Hearthstone sounds interesting, you can sign up for free and give it a whirl. You’ll earn plenty cards enough to know whether you like the game or not – and if you do, you’ll very likely be happy to throw money at the screen to buy more cards. Some have been put off by this business model, but to me, it's just par for the course. I’ve been buying packs of Magic the Gathering cards for two decades, and buying cards online doesn’t feel any different.
I’m not going to admit exactly how much I’ve already spent on Hearthstone, but it’s more than the cost of an average “premium-priced” game. But then, the incredible amount of playtime and enjoyment I'm getting out of it makes what I've spent more than justifiable. It's easy to pick up, but its strategic possibilities just boggle the mind. It’s the ultimate rock-paper-scissors game: utterly absorbing, wickedly addictive, and phenomenal to play.
Try it if only to see what the fuss is all about.