Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
So I had to look up what Warcraft actually was, as opposed to being that MMORPG you play if you're not still putting around Ultima Online and too invested to quit. I wanted to feel like I was at least a little qualified to even look at Blizzard Entertainment's card-based strategy game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, available free for iPad, Windows, and Mac. (Free account registration required.) With the release of their new single-player expansion, The Curse of Naxxramas, it seemed like a good time to dive in and see what all the fuss has been about, though I was more than a little apprehensive about it. Though the first act of the new expansion is free, you'll need to pay for the others, but even if you aren't willing to crack open your wallet, you can still play practice missions or against other players online without paying a penny. Any game that offers multiplayer with microtransactions is automatically a little suspicious... free-to-play can easily turn into pay-to-win, after all. Fortunately, Hearthstone manages to provide some seriously addictive and strategic gameplay without ever feeling like it's leaning on your wallet. Unlike other free-to-play games, there are no timers or other restrictions placed on how often you play, either against others or by yourself, so you can play the game as much as you want.
The basics of Hearthstone are actually pretty simple, as you'll discover in the tutorial. You and your opponents take turns drawing cards and placing them on the board, trying to get each others' health down to zero first and win. Minions are cards that can help attack and defend, though they can only do either after they've been deployed for one round. You can typically choose to attack either your enemy or their Minions to attempt to remove those cards from play. If you direct your Minion to attack one of your enemy's Minions, both of them will take damage. Each card has a cost of blue mana crystals you need to have in order to use its abilities during your turn, and after each round, you'll have your mana replenished, plus gain an extra point up to a total of ten. Minions, of course, are just one of the card types you can find and use, and as you play you'll gain access to Spells, Secrets, Weapons, Hero Powers, and more. Likewise, Minions themselves can offer more beyond simple muscle, including increases to the strength or health of other cards in play, or even special effects to enemies or yourself, so with a bit of strategy, you can turn even the lowliest Murloc into... uh... a less junky Murloc, anyway.
There are nine different "classes" of card types available, each bound to a specific type of character such as Mage or Paladin (though some cards can be used by anyone), and all of them have different abilities. Many can be unlocked by completing quests or winning battles against them, and as you duel with them, they'll level up and grant you more cards as a reward. You gain experience even if you lose a battle, so you don't feel like you have to flip the table over quite as much if you're a sore loser. You can buy packs of five random Expert cards with Gold, which is awarded at ten pieces for every three battles up to one hundred pieces daily fought in Play mode (or from Quests or the Arena), or you can pay $2.99USD for two packs or more. During Play mode, even if you're not playing a ranked match, you're always playing against another person. While the game does try to match you against someone who is close to your level of skill based on your current ranking, you do of course run the risk that you might be matched up with someone who is more than comfortable makin' it rain all over the in-game purchases to get more cards. I chose to pay to compare the decks received for free during play to those you receive for cash, however, and found that there was no difference whatsoever in the caliber or variety of cards offered. In fact, since the cards are distributed to random classes, paying means you might fork over money only to find yourself saddled with a bunch of cards for classes you don't use. Luckily, if that happens, you can always choose to reduce those cards to "Arcane Dust", which can then be spent towards crafting cards you actually want.
It's hard to make a card battle game that offers enough depth and complexity to draw in the hardcore crowd while not scare off the casual newcomers peering anxiously from the sidelines, but Hearthstone is amazingly accessible regardless of whether you've ever laid hands on a deck in your life. The tutorial stages do a great job of walking you through the basics without feeling like they're swamping you in information too fast, or condescendingly holding your hands like your a toddler who keeps banging your head on the table edge. The huge variety of cards and powers keeps things challenging and interesting no matter who you're playing against or as, and careful deck planning and game strategy means clever players needn't be pushed against the wall by someone with money in their pocket. Deck building can make an enormous difference if you're struggling, allowing you to balance out your cards much more carefully with useful bonuses and effects to bolster comparatively weaker Minions, or just turn your heavy hitters into terrifying powerhouses.
All of this makes Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft one of those rare free-to-play games that actually feels like it rewards you for simply playing rather than shelling out to keep doing so. Everything in the game is available free to earn with patience or careful deck crafting, and I didn't see so much as a peep out of the game to try to convince me to open my wallet. The lack of in-game chat means players (or their parents) don't have to worry about being exposed to potential nastiness, and since someone quitting a battle counts as a win for you, others can't just leave matches to preserve their dignity/ranking if they're losing. It's also a gorgeous little game, from its smooth animations to the stunning artwork, making it easy on the eyes in addition to dangerously easy to keep playing over and over. It's sort of a good thing it took me so long to get around to playing Hearthstone because once you start, its simple pick-up-and-play style is hard to pull yourself away from.
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