Comfort Food Games: Hearthstone

Comfort Food Games: Hearthstone

Blizzard's easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master card game is perfect digital escapism.

I've been hooked on Hearthstone for over a year now, and while I've played it plenty during that time, it's only recently that it's truly become a comfort food game for me. The reason for this is because I'm going through a series of pretty serious life changes at the moment – the sort of challenges most people face with family and relationships at some points during their lives – and what Hearthstone does for me is help me forget about them for a while.

Yeah, Hearthstone is perfect for a little escapism when things are getting on top of me, and I need to relax and de-stress. In many respects, it does to me now what Magic the Gathering did for me about 20 years ago when I was going through my first divorce – it's an incredibly absorbing game on many levels that requires one's full attention to play. I find most games leave me with too much mental bandwidth that lets in stress and worries while I'm playing, and I end up getting distracted. Not so Hearthstone. Whether it's playing Ranked games at a decent level, which requires my full concentration to plan moves and contingencies for a win, or building new decks – again, requiring a lot of attention to detail as you continually assess things like mana curves, card combos and synergies – I find that my engagement with the game puts me into a "Hearthstone zone" where I am fully transfixed, time becomes suspended, and my worries diminish to the levels of background galactic radiation.

What I love about Heathstone is that it's been continually developed over the last year to become a surprisingly deep game. If you don't feel like battling against another player, there are two very creative solo adventure expansions to play. I've beaten Naxxramas on normal and heroic, and am slowly working my way through Blackrock Mountain's monstrous heroic mode, which is taking me more time than I care to mention because it's particularly challenging. But it's fun, too. I'm building my own decks to beat the game, and that's proving to be a great time sink – if occasionally frustrating as I battle the evil Random Number Generator to get the right mulligans to secure the exact cards I need to facilitate the perfect draw.

Building decks from a selection of random cards in Arena is an aspect of the game that still befuddles me somewhat. So far my best performance has given me a run of five games before I was finally beaten – not the greatest result it must be said. Even though I say so myself, I'm a pretty good deck builder with my own cards, but there's something about creating decent Arena decks that eludes me. I can never quite get the mana curve perfectly weighted, and my usual tactic of grinding out card advantage until I can wear my opponent down just doesn't quite seem to gel. But in a way, this is another aspect of Hearthstone that makes it that much more engaging to me. Knowing I'm not that adept at this particular aspect of the game keeps me interested; it's a challenge that I am determined to master, and without spending any money. Instead I do the daily quests and earn enough gold through winning in casual and ranked play to fund my Arena play. Plus it keeps new cards flowing in at a decent enough rate so that I can work towards crafting the gaps in my collection. At the moment I'm saving up for one particular card that has eluded me for months – Dr Boom.

The newest area of the game that I think is absolutely brilliant is the Tavern Brawl. This is a PvP mode that has a specific set of rules that change from week to week. The latest Brawl, which I'm having a blast playing, basically summons a creature for free every time you cast a spell. It's kept me very busy building different class decks to see what works best. So far it seems Mages are the no-brainer. They have so many tricky spell cards that you can use to gain a nice card advantage, plus a highly useful hero power to clear pesky critters off the board. But rather than play a Mage deck, I've instead been experimenting with the other classes and seeing how they do in the new mini-meta Tavern environment. Rogues and Hunters seem to be the most challenging to play, and I've had by far the most fun with Priest and Druid decks, which enable you to play an entertaining control-type game. Ultimately, Tavern Brawl is a very clever way of mixing up the gameplay, and throws down a weekly challenge that is yet another way Hearthstone can suck you into its world, and away from the one outside.

Then of course there's straight-up casual and ranked play. It's here where I run into my one big Hearthstone bugbear, and that's the limited amount of decks that you can save. I understand the elegant simplicity of having just nine custom decks – essentially one for each class – but I do find it rather limiting. I have numerous decks per character that I'd love to be able to save, but I just don't have room. So instead I tend to rotate through them. On the upside, it's a great time sink and something that keeps me at my iPad as I switch out decks and build new ones, but I'd prefer to be able to save a bunch of them and use that time for playing. Perhaps sometime Blizzard will create multiple tabs of decks that we can use. I'd love that.

While there are several different ways to play Hearthstone, it's the mechanics of the game that ultimately keep me occupied. Whether I'm away from the game, and am thinking of new decks, combos and synergies, or whether I'm deep into a game, trying to think several moves ahead and planning contingencies based on what I believe my opponent has up his or her sleeve, I just find the game exceptionally absorbing. It's brain gum – something that my intellect just loves to chew on. That's exactly what I want from a game right now - and Hearthstone does it so well. If you haven't played it, you should really give it a go sometime. Just be warned - it's seriously, seriously addictive.

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