Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is Blizzard’s entry in the suddenly-ascendant collectible card game genre, over which Magic: The Gathering rules with an iron deck. However, while rule complexity and the intimidating number of alternate decks that have accumulated over Magic’s two-decade history make it the choice for the hardcore, those same attributes mean there is room in the genre for a faster, more accessible game to flourish. Despite fierce competition, in all likelihood Hearthstone will be that game for the foreseeable future.
A head-to-head fight against an AI or human opponent, Hearthstone has players choose a class of hero, construct a deck from a pool of cards, and attempt to use them smartly to whittle the enemy’s health down to zero. A hero’s class influences its play style as all 10 have access to a number of unique cards that allow for abilities or creatures to be unleashed. In general, attacks may be directed at an opponent’s played cards or their hero, the utility of which hinges on the cards in play, and how far through their deck each player is.
While a player knows the contents of his or her deck prior to battle, cards are drawn at random each turn, so the art is in identifying which cards an opponent may be holding, and therefore when to play which card for maximum impact. When to hold, when to fold, and all that. In keeping with popular role-playing tropes, the cards in Hearthstone come in several varieties separated by rarity. Rare cards are more powerful and therefore more desirable of course, and they elicit an endorphin rush when acquired that will keep players hooked and on the hunt for more.
Extra cards are nabbed using in-game currency earned through gameplay, or – as Hearthstone is free-to-play – purchased using actual cash. Fortunately, just as it is on the PC version, the balance of free versus paid play styles is pretty good. For example, you can’t outright pay for a specific powerful card, but instead pay for the chance to unlock one by buying packs of random cards, in a system that operates much in the same way as real-world trading card games.
Yes, those who buy lots of cards will be exposed to the chance of acquiring neat things more often than non-paying players, but Hearthstone's player ranking system and deck build limits make it far from “pay to win”. There’s also an Arena mode where players select cards to use from a random deck rather than their own pool, which is a great playing field leveller. Hearthstone is no quick and dirty hack like many of its competitors.
Broadly, the above system is typical of the collectible card genre, but Blizzard’s familiar IP and art style, slick interface design, and its commitment to balance and accessibility raise Hearthstone above most others. Crucially, the iPad version of the game is also more polished than that of Magic: The Gathering.
In fact, Hearthstone on the iPad is a spectacularly impressive port that plays exactly like the PC version, albeit with a finger in place of a mouse. It’s arguably more natural to play in this way, too, as finger control gives players a more tangible connection to the card playing experience. Those on iPad can even play against players on other platforms thanks to Blizzard’s Battle.net service, which also gives access to friends lists, your pre-made decks from the PC version, and so forth.
As it is on PC, Hearthstone is a fun translation of Blizzard’s Warcraft universe into trading card form, and it’s packed full of the developer’s signature wit, as well as copious levels of fan-service. Its strategic depth is immense, and the fact that planning is compounded by more than a sprinkle of luck ensures that while skill is important, anything can happen, which definitely adds to the game’s already abundant appeal.
Games are quick enough to complete easily in under 10 minutes, there’s a massive community already, and also plenty of in-depth discussion about optimal strategy and ways to build your deck. Blizzard are proving themselves active in managing balance in the game too, and this has been reflected in the game's immediate popularity. You’ll never wait long for a match.
The only issue we struck was on the original iPad mini, where performance is acceptable, but noticeable pauses and framerate issues rear up from time to time. But in all other respects Hearthstone is as terrific a title on iPad as PC, a shining example of both free-to-play and digital trading cards done right.