Hearthstone: Fansite Mixer, Developer Q&A

by JR Cook on         follow @Eldorian

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Last week I had a pretty amazing opportunity to be invited out to the Blizzard Campus by the Community Team. The World of Warcraft, Diablo, and Hearthstone teams each invited 5 fansites per game. We were selected as one of the 5 fansites to check out Hearthstone which I was more than happy about because I’m really excited about this game and I’ve been really itching to get my hands on it. The other fansites being represented there were HearthPwn, Hearthstone Players, Happy Hearthstone Podcast, and WoWHead.

Our day was divided up into a few different segments that included getting to play Hearthstone on the PC, having a developer Q&A about the game, going on a quick (and shortened) Blizzard Campus Tour, talking to the community team about improvements to the fansite program, and finally getting to hang out with the Blizzard folks at Dave and Busters. In this article I’m primarily going to focus on the demo we got to play and the developer Q&A and end it with some pictures I managed to take on the Blizzard Tour.

Game Play

The first thing that happened after we arrived to the Blizzard Campus was getting put into a room with PCs to get to play an internal alpha build of Hearthstone for 2 hours. What was cool about this is it’s the same build Blizzard employees were playing so you could easily do the match making and be paired up with a random Blizzard employee that was also playing the game at the same time.

Now I’ve been playing Collectible Card Games since around 1995 when I was first introduced to Magic: The Gathering and I still play the game occasionally and at one time used to play the game competitively, once even being one turn away from qualifying for the US Nationals. With that said, Hearthstone was extremely easy for me to pick up and play and felt very natural to me from a UI sense. Things I wanted to do made sense with how you drag the cards out onto the field or choose how to attack.

So the game is really easy to jump into as someone who understands these kind of games, but that’s not to say it’s not really easy to jump into for someone who doesn’t understand CCGs. In fact there were a couple people there who had never had much experience with them and were able to jump right in. I know Alex from WoW Insider said he was able to get right into it without knowing much about CCGs and even our own Miaari was able to jump in and play at PAX East without ever playing a CCG in her life. This is pretty important to remember as Blizzard is really making this game easy to access but adding enough strategy to make it hard to master. For those that are new to the genre there will be a tutorial mode for the game and the starting deck you have will be the Mage deck (Jaina). I didn’t get an opportunity to play the tutorial but I would imagine it will be everything a new player will need to get rolling straight away.

One of the things that really surprised me about this game was I able to go 8-0 in my matches. I didn’t have all the cards available and just ended up playing the basic decks you were given as well as a warrior deck that I threw together. The reason why going 8-0 surprised me is because I didn’t have any super powerful cards and I was going up against Blizzard employees who have had months of building up their collections. This is something that should put the whiners who claim this game is “Pay2win” to rest. If I can take a basic deck and win 2-0 against one Blizzard employee who was playing her deck she’s been playing that was filled with some pretty good rares, then that shows that the cards are fairly balanced throughout and Blizzard is taking care in not having “crappy cards”. I believe it was my experience, strategy, and skill that helped me win those games. This is a sharp contrast to Magic: The Gathering where if I had come in with a basic starter deck and played someone with a top tier deck I would have gotten demolished. So it’s definitely pretty cool that this game seems to reward skill a bit more than what cards you own.

Something that was a bit surprising was that they changed how they tried balancing the player who goes 2nd in the match. Before they would beef up the class to 5 more hit points, but in this build that was no more. Instead you get an extra card that costs 0 mana called “Gold Coin” and it has the ability of adding one extra mana crystal on the turn you play it. Not super powerful, but I find it to be rather effective and being able to play a 2 cost card on turn one as opposed to 1.

One of the things you really have to get used to when playing Hearthstone is knowing when to attack the other player versus attacking their minions – as well as setting up your defenses for next turn. Since you can’t play on your opponents turn you really have to be prepared before you end your turn. You have to think ahead on what they can do to you and also making sure you have minions out there with the taunt ability (which forces them to attack them instead of you) is pretty important. You also want to make sure you don’t get to the point where you’re “top decking”, which basically means no cards in your hand and you’re just relying on what random card you drawn next, instead you want to make sure you have a few cards you can use to your advantage when they are needed because they might be more important to you later in the game rather than right now. That’s really the whole strategy behind Hearthstone that will make you a good player is simply understanding the board, what the other player might be able to do, setting up your defenses, and knowing when is the right time to play your cards so they have the maximum amount of effect for you in the game.

Deck Building

I didn’t get too much into deck building because I really wanted to maximize the amount of time I got to play the game. However, the deck building UI is pretty interesting. You can pick what kind of hero deck you want to make and then the cards will be available based on which ones you own and which cards you can put into that deck. You can also search for specific cards or you can have the AI suggest 3 cards for you if you’re not sure what to do.

One of the more interesting features someone came across was being able to build completely random decks. You pick your hero and grab 1 card to put in that deck. Then you simply let the AI build the rest of the deck for you. It will pick cards to give you a decent mana curve (a solid mix of early playable cards with 0-2 mana cost and then ramp up to larger mana cost cards). This way you can have decent cards to play early as well as powerful cards in the mid and late game. I actually played one deck I set up this way and it was kind of fun – I didn’t bother looking to see what the deck had in it so I got to play completely blind. It could be a fun mode for people to try in the future. Also, if you went this route you can easily remove cards and add new cards if you don’t like what the AI built for you – this is really a great way for those players who just want to build something quickly with the cards they have available to be able to jump into the game as fast as possible.

One of the things I really didn’t like is that you are only limited to 9 decks that you can save. This means you can have 1 deck per hero basically. As someone who routinely walks around with 20-25 Magic: The Gathering decks (the actual physical ones) I find it a bit goofy that I have a limit so small for a digital game. I’m hoping in the future they increase this, and they probably will, but it will probably be in the form of micro transactions of buying more deck slots. With a free to play game like this I guess that is to be expected.

Developer Q&A

The developer Q&A was really more of a conversation than anything. It wasn’t a formal interview process but more of the lead designers getting our thoughts on the game itself and talking back and forth about various things. However, there were several things that were learned that I think were interesting enough to share with the community.

Game Progression

I think the biggest thing I took away from the Q&A is that the designers are very interested in listening to the community and doing what the community is asking for. The big topic that came off almost right off the bat was eSports and having some kind of observer mode. Right now they are entirely focused on launching the game, but they have a laundry list of things they would like to see added to the game and observer mode is definitely on that list.

Some other ideas that popped around are possibly having raid decks, more multiplayer options (like 2v2, two headed giant, etc.), and when and how often more sets will be coming out. As of right now none of these have real answers as they’re focused on releasing the game and then listening to player feedback on what they should focus on for additional features. With them being a small team (12 developers I believe) it really allows them to be agile in how quickly they can develop and quickly change directions if needed.

Forge

For those not familiar with CCGs, the Forge is similar to drafting in Magic: The Gathering. Basically it’s a small tournament that you bring an X amount of packs of cards, open the pack, choose a card from it and then pass the rest of the cards to the person sitting next to you. They choose a card and then pass it and it keeps going until all cards are dealt out. You then build your deck on the cards you got and play against the others in your pool of cards to see who built the better deck basically.

Unfortunately the Forge wasn’t available in the internal alpha build we got to play and that seems to be because they are reworking how the Forge works. Because of that not much information was really given on the Forge. We know that you will be able to buy into the Forge using the new gold currency, this is a change in using your packs of cards to enter the Forge. One of the reasons for this change is because players were saving their packs for Forge use instead of opening their packs and since they made opening packs a really fun thing they didn’t like that players were kind of being pushed away from that experience.

Another issue that is being discussed is what exactly you get when you compete in the Forge. It sounds like you won’t get the cards you picked because they don’t want players to have to decide between picking a card they need in their collection vs. picking a card that will help them win. It also stops people from “rare hoarding” where they jump in and grab all the rarest cards they can even if it means they build a crappy deck in the process. Because of this it is very likely players will not get to keep the cards they choose and will probably get some random cards at the end or some other system.

This is likely one of the systems that is currently keeping this game from entering beta right this minute.

Gold

I asked how gold was going to work, and as of right now there are no real details. In fact one of the designers said it’s something he was actually working on the morning that we arrived. We did however learn that gold will be earned primarily through completing the various daily quests you can do as well as expert packs being earned that way as well. Like the Forge it seems this is one of the things keeping the game from entering beta.

Mobile

We had a chance to play one game each on the iPad version and it’s very polished as well. The iPad version however will not be available for beta and will release sometime after the PC/Mac version. The iPad versions they are supporting is the iPad 2 and up which also includes the iPad Mini.

As of right now they are solely focused on support for the iPad but they are looking into other platforms as well. One of the roadblocks they are focusing on is making sure if you are logged into your account on the PC version that your cards persist over to the mobile version as well. I think once they figure that out they will start looking into other platforms but keep in mind that Android is a completely different beast than iOS with all of the different devices, resolutions, and versions that plague the Android system which is one of the benefits as well as downfalls on being an open platform as opposed to the strict and locked down iOS.

The primary focus right now though is making a dynamic backend with battle.net so that porting over to other devices will be easier.

When is Beta?

We don’t know yet – we weren’t given a date. However, from my own personal experience and how well the polished game is, unless the gold, daily quests, and overhaul to the forge causes some unforeseen problems – my best guess is we’ll see beta in the next 2-4 weeks.

Want to Learn More?

Want to learn more and hear about my overall thoughts? Tonight on TwizzCast at 9 PM CST I will be on the show and we’ll primarily be talking about the trip and about Hearthstone. Also joining us will be Liam from Hearthstone Players who also attended the event. If you miss the live show tonight we will have it available for download on Monday.

I would definitely like to thank the Blizzard community team and the Hearthstone development team for inviting us out to this event. I went in with huge expectations on Hearthstone and walked away even more excited about this game than I was before. Seriously, I’m actively going through Hearthstone withdrawals right now and can’t wait to really dig more into this game when it releases in beta.

Speaking of which, pay attention to us and those other fansites that were at the event. The potential at beta key giveaways from us and them is pretty high.

I will leave you with some fun photos I was able to take while on campus.