In March of 2014, Blizzard Entertainment, the creative minds behind World of Warcraft and StarCraft officially released their newest endeavor: “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.”
Better known simply as “Hearthstone,” Blizzard’s newest game soon swept across the globe, spawning millions of players in a short stint of time. By the end of 2015, Blizzard announced it had over 40 million users. Almost overnight, professional circuits began appearing, and many players began devoting themselves to Hearthstone professionally in an attempt to be crowned the greatest in the world at this new eSport. Prizes for the largest of tournaments this year will top out at $250,000, an incredible amount of money for such a young eSport.
I first discovered Hearthstone in December of 2014, and was immediately a huge fan. As my interest grew, I began playing more competitively, joined a team, began coaching, and eventually starting writing about the game. Recently, my family and friends, having seen my writing, have asked me many questions about Hearthstone. Most notably, my brother, who I grew up playing card games with, has decided to dip his water into the massively deep pond that is Hearthstone. He, like most beginners, have very few resources to turn to to learn the basics. A few weeks ago he asked me if I could write an article on “Hearthstone 101.”
Therefore, what follows is a basic primer on the game of Hearthstone for those who either have not previously tried the game, or those who are just beginning and could use some helpful tips and pointers. I hope that you find this useful as you begin your Hearthstone experience.
What is Hearthstone?
Hearthstone is a digital-based collectable card game (CCG). If you are familiar with Magic: The Gathering (MTG), Yu-Gi-Oh, or Pokémon, you understand the basic concept already. For those of you who have never played a CCG before, the concept is simple enough: both you and your opponent start the game with a certain amount of life / health / HP. You both have created a deck of 30 cards from the overall card set in the game. You each take turns playing those cards in an attempt to do damage to your opponent, thereby bring your opponent’s life total to zero. If you run out of cards, you are penalized by taking damage yourself. The fun behind the game is figuring out how to create a deck to kill your opponent while preventing your opponent from executing his or her game plan.
On what platform is Hearthstone played?
Hearthstone, unlike MTG or most other CCG, exists entirely in the digital realm – there are no physical or tangible cards to play with. Users must create an account through Blizzards battle.net system. Users can play on both Windows and OS X systems. Hearthstone is also available on all Android and iOS devices through the app store.
How much does it cost?
Hearthstone is technically free to play for as long as you wish. There are plenty of people who have never spent a dime playing. In fact, I played Hearthstone for almost a year before spending any money whatsoever on it. While you probably cannot compete with the professionals on a free to play account, it is surely possible to have a lot of fun and do quite well.
Why is it different / better than other CCGs?
While there are many CCGs out there, the most popular for years, without question, has been Magic: The Gathering. As such, much of my comparisons here will be direct comparisons to MTG.
The gameplay of Hearthstone is based on, but still substantially different from a game like MTG. Both games have two basic categories of cards (yes, I know this is an oversimplification for those experts reading this): Minions and Spells. Think of minions as creatures that you send into battle as your soldiers to protect you. They can attack your opponent or your opponent’s minions, and even sometimes block your opponent’s minions from attacking you! Spells, on the other hand, typically interact with the minions already in play. They can kill other minions, do damage to your opponent, heal your life total, and many other things. Most often, the key to creating a good deck is putting together a good collection of minions and spells that work together.
The way that you play these cards is by expending your resources. More powerful minions and spells cost more resources, and once you use up your resources for a turn, your turn is over. In MTG your resources are land cards. These are separate cards in your deck that you must draw and play before playing minions and spells. During all of my time playing MTG, I often found games decided in the first few turns if one player drew no land cards (or only land cards). This was one of the most frustrating elements of MTG to me, and one of the reasons I was so intrigued by Hearthstone.
In Hearthstone, your resources are called mana crystals (typically just called mana). Mana, unlike MTG’s land, are not cards. Each player begins the game with one mana crystal. Each turn, you gain one more mana crystal. You stop gaining mana crystals after your tenth turn. This makes the game less reliant on drawing land cards, and more reliant on proper ordering and sequencing of the cards in your deck.
The Hearthstone game board. From http://hearthstone.gamepedia.com/Battlefield
The one other significant gameplay difference between MTG and Hearthstone is the players’ decks. While MTG utilizes large 60-card decks (and allows for up to four copies of a single card in each deck), Hearthstone cuts that in half. In Hearthstone you may only have 30 cards in your deck. Individual cards may not appear more than two times in a deck (and some special cards may only appear once per deck).
The final substantial gameplay difference is the amount of control players have over who or what their minions attack. In MTG, the attacking player simply indicates which of his or her minions will be attacking. The default is that the minions will attack the opponent directly. At that point, it becomes the defending player’s decision as to whether those minions should be blocked by the defending player’s minions, thereby preventing damage directly to the defending player. However, in Hearthstone, the control is given largely to the attacking player. With some exceptions, the attacking player always gets to decide if he or she wishes to attack the defending player directly, or a specific minion of the defending player.
Digital vs Physical Game
Some people who I have spoken to have expressed animosity toward Hearthstone for existing entirely in the digital realm. Those people like the tangible aspect of CCGs. They like having show boxes and binders and closets full of cards. They like being able to trade cards they don’t like, and hoard valuable cards. I chose not to look at Hearthstone under such a dark filter. I actually revel in the digital aspect of the game. In Hearthstone, every player can gain access to all the cards. There is no trading, or black market for rare or overpowered cards. If I want a card, I don’t have to spend hours on eBay tracking it down. It already exists within the game system for me to “buy.”
In addition, not having physical cards means that I can take all of my Hearthstone cards with me wherever I go. While my MTG friends must carry around deck boxes and binders for the specific cards they wish to travel with, I can just bring along my laptop or my phone with my entire card collection already available.
Finally, Hearthstone’s design as a digital-only game allows for easier gameplay, less paper and pen work, and more creative mechanics. For example, in MTG, when a minion or creature gets additional health or attach (called a “buff”), players will often place a die or token on the card. These tokens, in long games, can get difficult to keep track of, and result in confusion and debate. By contrast, when a minion in Hearthstone receives a buff, the buff is calculated automatically by the game, and the minion’s stats literally change on the game board, showing both players the effect of the buff.
The Golden Monkey
As I mentioned previously, the digital space also opens the door for Hearthstone developers to create cards and mechanics that just simply are not possible in a physical CCG like MTG. My favorite example of this idea is the card the “Golden Monkey.”
This card, when you play it, turns every single other card in your hand and your deck into a randomly generated legendary minion. That means that you can end up with cards in your deck that weren’t in your deck. In fact, you don’t even have to own the card for it to be randomly generated and appear in your deck! A similar mechanic not possible in a physical card game is called “Discover.” When you play a card with a discover mechanic, you then select one card from three randomly generated cards that appear before you. That selected card then gets placed into your hand. Again, these discovered cards do not have to be a part of your deck or your collection to end up as an option for you to select.
Who are these Heroes of Warcraft?
Just like MTG has different “colors” for its decks with different themes, Hearthstone has nine different heroes that you can select before making a deck.
While there are over 700 cards in the game, many are hero-specific. Each hero comes with not only specific cards for his or her class, but also an individual “hero power.” This hero power costs two mana. Each hero power does something very different, and often defines the type of play style of the deck. For instance, the hero power for Rexxar the Hunter does two damage to your opponent, often resulting in decks that try to kill the opponent very quickly. In contrast, the hero power for Anduin the Priest allows you to heal for two health, often promoting a deck that tries to create a very long game, eventually just outlasting the other player.
What are these different game modes?
Hearthstone comes with a number of different game modes for users to enjoy. If you’re new to the game, you definitely want to try them all out and see which style of the game you enjoy most. The play mode is considered the most competitive. Each player creates a deck from their card collection and attempts to “rank up,” eventually reaching the rank of “Legendary.” The Solo Adventures allow players to play against a computer opponent in an attempt to eventually win new cards specific to that solo adventure. The adventures always have an interesting theme and story to them, so make sure to turn your sound on as you play through this mode! The arena is perhaps my favorite mode, but is also very difficult for beginners. The arena allows you to draft a deck from scratch. After initially selecting a hero, you are presented with three cards. You select one, and it becomes the first card in our arena deck. After doing this 29 more times with 29 new sets of randomly generated cards, you will have yourself a deck! The object is to win 12 times with this deck before you lose three times. The more wins you get, the better reward at the end (although no matter what you will always get a card pack). Finally, Tavern Brawls is a style that changes from week-to-week. Each week there is a new set of odd and interesting rules. Sometimes you will be given a pre-made deck, and sometimes you will be left on your own to create one just for your Tavern Brawl.
How do I get new cards?
There are many ways to get new cards in Hearthstone. The simplest is by buying them through the in-game store. Each pack costs 100 “gold” (the in-game currency). Alternatively, if you play an arena run (which costs 150 gold), you will automatically get a reward pack. Additionally, your first win each week in the Tavern Brawl game mode will result in a free card pack. Finally, there are also cards that you can get only by completing the solo adventures.
It should be noted that it is entirely possible to collect a large amount of cards without spending money by completing your daily quests. Each day, a new quest or challenge will appear for you (you can have up to three at once). If you complete these challenges (for example, win three games using the Hunter hero), you will be awarded gold. If you save up, you can use this gold to buy packs, enter the arena, or even pay for solo adventures.
What lingo should I know?
CCG – Collectable card game.
Face – “Face” is the term often uses as a synonym for your opponent. You will often hear players saying that you should “go face,” or “hit him in the face.” That simply means attacking your opponent directly instead of one of your opponent’s minions.
SMOrc – “SMOrc” is a term used to describe the strategy of hitting your opponent in the face with reckless disregard for your opponent’s minions.
On Curve – When a player is playing “on curve” it means that they are most efficiently using all of their resources. In Hearthstone, that most often means that the player has used all of their available mana for the turn.
Aggro – “Aggro” is the term used to describe aggressive decks. These decks are almost always the aggressor in the game. They typically tend to flood the board with smaller minions and like to finish off the opponent quickly. If the game drags on for too long, typically these agro decks will run out of steam and won’t be able to generate the required damage to kill their opponent.
Control – “Control” is the term used to describe slower, more reactionary decks. These decks prefer to drag the game on, hoping to run their opponents out of threats. Many control decks do not even make an attempt to do damage to their opponent, and instead, just try to survive until their opponent cannot continue to do damage.
Ladder – The “Ladder” is the ranked system of play in Hearthstone. Players start off at rank 25, and through defeating their opponents, climb higher on the ladder (causing their numerical rank to go down).
Legend / Legendary – A player who climbs the ladder past rank 1 achieves the rank of “Legendary.” These players are now given a single numerical rank that stack ranks them among all of the current Legendary players. Only .25% of players achieve the rank of Legendary.
Meta – If you hear somebody talking about the “meta,” that person is just using a fancy word to describe what type of decks are popular right now in Hearthstone. The best and most popular decks are always changing as new cards are released, and so that is why you will often hear somebody discussing how the meta is changing, etc.
Rope – Each player’s turn is normally 90 seconds long in Hearthstone. During the waining seconds of a player’s turn, a rope appears on the game board and gets shorter and shorter (like a fuse on a stick of dynamite). When the rope runs out, the turn is automatically over. So if you hear somebody talking about “roping” during a turn, it typically means that person is taking all 90 seconds of their turn or has run out of time. If a player does not make any move for an entire turn, their next turn begins with the rope already on the board, and their turn is only 15 seconds long (unless they play a card).
Mill – A player may only have 10 cards in his or her hand at a time. If a player is forced to draw a card while already having 10 in hand, that drawn card is discarded form the game. This discard is known as “milling a card.” To “mill” your opponent means to force them to draw too many cards, thus discarding some of their cards.
Coin – At the beginning of the game, the computer decides randomly who will go first and second. The play who goes second, obviously at a disadvantage, is awarded an extra card called “The Coin.” The Coin, when played, grants the player one extra mana crystal for that turn.
RNG – RNG stands for random number generator. RNG is a term used to describe the random effects of the game. Sometimes the random elements of Hearthstone result in incredibly wacky and amazing games. Because of the huge swing that can sometimes occur due to the random effects of certain cards, you will often hear players who are far behind in the game hoping for good luck by “praying to RNGesus” (pronounced R-N-Jesus).
How can I learn more about Hearthstone?
Hearthstone has a burgeoning community online. There are an incredible amount of resources available to new players. What follows are just a small sample size of suggestions:
Popular professional players often post daily videos talking about various cards, or highlighting interesting games and strategies. Some of my favorites include Kripp, Kibler, and StrifeCro.
Professional players are often playing Hearthstone 10 hours or more a day. It really is a full-time job for these guys. One of the ways they make money is by broadcasting their playing on Twitch.com and receiving sponsorship money or donations from viewers. For competitive Hearthstone action, check out twitch.com/playhearthstone.
Hearthstone / eSports Websites
Many of the professional teams have sites that provide in-depth Hearthstone content for readers. My go-tos are tempostorm.com and liquidhearth.com. In addition, many sites post popular and powerful deck lists. If you are new to Hearthstone and want to see some of the best decks around, check out hearthstonetopdecks.com, hearthpwn.com, hearthstoneplayers.com, or hearthstone.metabomb.net.
Finally, what would our modern world be if I didn’t mention Reddit, the front page of the internet. There are a few Hearthstone related sub-Reddits. Some focus on tournament play, some on coaching. The two most popular are /r/hearthstone and /r/CompetitiveHS.
How can I get started?
Getting started is incredibly simple. Just go to http://us.battle.net/hearthstone/en to create your free battle.net account.
As always, I encourage your comments and questions below. If you want to send me a question directly, or you want some help in-game, feel free to email aPurpleTrain@gmail.com. Until next time, good hunting!