Thursday, July 30

Hearthstone - Whoa Whoa Whoa, It's Magic

          Magic: the Gathering is an extremely popular trading card game that began in 1993. It’s gone through some substantial rules changes, and new ones are getting introduced all the time. What’s weird is that no game has ever taken it over. There have been a ton a of trading card games since, like Bakugan, Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Pokemon Trading Card Game, and today’s subject: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.
          Don’t worry if you don’t know Warcraft, Hearthstone is simple and has a good tutorial, you probably won’t get lost. I’d recommend playing it, because it’s fun and shiny and new and deep.
          But is Hearthstone a better game than Magic? I’ve invested more than a couple hours in both (although only money in one), and there’s really only one major change Hearthstone makes to the Magic formula. There are minor things it does, like using persistent creature health that end up as memory problems in games like Magic.
          Magic is based on two concepts: 1) There are five colours of cards, each with unique abilities, flavour, and philosophies, and 2) You can only play cards of a colour if you have the correct resources available. Each colour of card requires different resources, so you can’t generally play a deck with all five colours, because you won’t have access to the right resources at the right times.
          This principle is the most major element of the game. Benefits include a strong sense of identity in the mechanics and colours, and opening design space for fixing and accelerating your acquisition of resources. The biggest negative is that sometimes, from no fault of your own, even a deck built as well as possible, with all the right ratios and nicely mapped curve, will draw too many resources and too little action, or the reverse. These events are known as Mana Flood, Mana Screw, and Godammit, again?! Really?!
          Most games that ape the Magic formula try to remove this problem by incorporating resources into other cards. In Yu-Gi-Oh!, you play bigger monsters by discarding smaller ones. In some other games, every card is an action and a resource, and can be played either way.
          There are some interesting arguments for keeping this problem in Magic. I think one of the more important ones, or at least the main argument for why Mana Flood and Screw are good things, is that it’s very helpful for newer players. It’s not fun for them to have it happen to them, but every so often, when I newer player is playing a veteran, the veteran will lose because of it. It’s rare; veterans know what hands to keep, what resources they need when, and just can generally outplay newer players. But, that one time it does happen, when that new player beats someone they look up to, it feels great. This is actually a really important part of multiplayer design. It’s the reason characters like Ike exist in Super Smash Bros., or weapons like the Noob Tube in Call of Duty. These are not the best strategies in any of those games, in fact they’re often some of the worst. But when they work, they work well.
          If every time you stepped into a new multiplayer experience, you just got wrecked by every better player, the game would lose its charm very quickly.
          There are always random elements in games. In Hearthstone, the game I swear I’m talking about, your deck is always shuffled, who goes first is random, and because it’s digital, it can do some random things with greater ease than paper games can. And those all help the balance in a variety of ways. But it does change the resource management. Not as much as other games, but instead of asking players to build a base of resources with cards designed around increasing its efficiency, Hearthstone loses a lot of really interesting design space.
          There are a lot of great things about Hearthstone: it uses small numbers, like most games should, the animations and characters have lots of flavour, the pool of cards is huge, and the player base is varied enough that you can find casual and challenging fun at all levels.  Is it a better game than Magic?  Couldn't say.  Give it a shot, and see what you think.

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