Or is it a beta review? Or impressions? The nomenclature for these things is a mess! Anyway, I've been playing a lot of Hearthstone recently, starting with the US beta a few weeks ago that Blizzard very kindly gave us access to, and I thought I'd share some thoughts on it.
First off, my credentials - I've been around the world of card games for quite a long time, obviously starting in RL with Magic and dabbling in all manner of other ones. More recently I've tried out quite a few online ones, mainly SolForge, Scrolls, Card Hunter and the probably best one out there at the moment, Duel of Champions. Having these and more under my belt makes me fairly confident I can competently speak about Hearthstone - so let's get to it.
Is it any good?
Yes. Very much so. It's probably the closest Blizzard have gotten to making a true Blizzard game since WoW (or, if you want to get technical, WotLK). It's pure, it's polished, and it achieves its main theme quite easily - and that theme is fun. There's basically no reason everyone shouldn't try it out, and very few reasons everyone won't love it. There is only 1 major and 1 minor problem, and then there's the financial model. The big problem might really threaten the game's longevity and might turn a lot of people off after a certain time, and the financial model is currently in flux but could end up a bit of an issue, and I'll get to all that later.
The Core Elements
I'm not going to detail everything here, just the important parts that stand out and comment on their interesting aspects. Also, obviously this is all based on experience from the beta and I haven't fully studied all the cards, but I feel I have a pretty good grasp on the game as a whole.
There are 9 classes, each with a Hero ability you can play each turn for 2 mana. These range from abilities you build your deck around, that are very tactical and require difficult decisions to be made (Shaman, Warlock, Paladin, Rogue) to always useful ones that give you more tactical options but won't turn a game around that often (Priest, Druid, Mage) and simply boring ones with little or no decision making necessary that you simply use whenever you have spare mana (Warrior, Hunter). Each class also has its own set of cards and then there's a set of neutral ones that can be used by any class. You unlock all the basic cards by level 10 (which can be reached in an hour or so) and the expert ones come from boosters or the crafting system (which I'll discuss more later).
The class system brings a lot of variety to the table and pretty much every class has a really recognizable style, but there are still plenty of possibilities to build unique decks within a class that are very different from each other. The best thing about them is that the game encourages/forces you to play almost all of them eventually, with daily quests requiring 2 wins by a specific class - meaning you'll play with your basic cards, get a feel for the class until you win 2 games, and then you'll usually end up liking it and making a custom deck for the class yourself. This way you're constantly pulled in and want to see more and play more.
The Financial Model
This was a bit of a sticking point at first, but it's very much in flux at the moment. Basically your only real source of gold, and with it progression, are daily quests. Let me just break down the costs and gains quickly:
1 booster (5 cards) = 100 gold = 1.5$
1 arena ticket (guaranteed to get at least 1 booster and 20ish gold) = 150 gold = 2$
1 daily quest = 40 gold
1 win = 1 gold
So, as you can see, playing the game to earn gold to get new cards or enter the arena is completely pointless after you finish the daily quests. Now, there's a bit of an issue here since Blizzard have been experimenting with this - at the start it was only 1 daily quest per day, then a few days ago it was 2 and now it's back to 1. Put simply, if they decide that it will be 1 quest a day you're going to have a very hard time getting new cards without spending real money. So let's all hope they settle on the more humane 2 quests a day which actually works very well as far as progression goes and at least gets it into a comparable position with other CCGs out there.
A big issue here will be achievements, which aren't implemented in the game yet. It will have an achievement system and there will be rewards associated with them but not much else is known. If they manage to put in enough of them and give them at least some gold rewards then the progression system will work just fine. Even the most basic ones like "Win 5 games in a row" or "Play/win x games" with relatively small gold rewards would make progression much more dynamic.
My favorite feature of the game, the arena is a draft style mode where you buy in, pick one of three random classes and then get to make a deck by picking 1 of 3 cards that are presented to you. You do this 30 times and then your deck is done and you can play against others in the arena - until you either lose 3 matches or win 9. Rewards get better the more you win, obviously, and at 9 wins you get around 300 gold, a booster and some arcane dust (for crafting).
This is the one you're really going to want to play - there is no advantage given to people that buy a ton of cards - although you can still get lucky while opening these mini-boosters of 3 cards and get to pick 1 from 3 legendaries or epics etc. (card qualities are common, rare, epic and legendary). You don't get to keep the cards you play with, obviously.
This was another of my favorite things about the game when it was announced, but I've since changed my mind. Basically you can disenchant any card into arcane dust and craft ANY card in the game. The ratio is variable, 4:1 for epics and legendaries, 5:1 for rares and 8:1 for commons - so you'll need to dis 4 epics to craft 1 epic or 8 commons to craft 1 common, etc.
This brings us to the first problem with the game.
Crafting and the grind
Continuing directly from the core elements - the crafting system could be a problem. When the game was announced it seemed like a great idea. You can throw away your excess cards and make whatever you want. The problem is that the nature of collectible card games is, well, collecting. The crafting system turns opening a new booster, something that is supposed to be exciting and interesting - because you either get to see new cards or are desperately hoping for one of the few cards you don't have yet - into a "already seen all those, in total this booster has gotten me 70 arcane dust" type of attitude. Let me explain: in the first 2 boosters I got in the beta I got a legendary card. It was pretty great and all, but then I toyed around the crafting system and noticed that I could disenchant it for 1600 dust. To give you some perspective, common cards cost 40, rare 100, epic 400 and legendary 1600 to craft. Now this was probably an error and currently you get 400 for dissing a legendary, but that's not the point. After dissing it I went over a TON of cards to see what would be best for the several decks I had. I realize some people will read all the cards immediately anyway and even know them all by heart before they ever see them in their collection, but it still bugged me. After you craft a few cards that sense of "whoah, what the hell is that card my opponent just played or i just opened in a booster" immediately goes away and you are in a different mindset, you'll look over all viable cards for your deck so you can spend your dust wisely. Even at the current rate, if I get a legendary in a booster I'm definitely going to disenchant it because I can make 10 commons or 4 rares with it - and at this early stage that's a LOT better than 1 card, however powerful it may be.
But the real issue with the system is that it turns collecting into grinding. Other games allow you to give away extra cards, but there you get the game's main currency, so you buy more boosters and keep hoping for those specific cards you want. In Hearthstone it could feel like you're just grinding away, you need 20 more commons of any sort for that 1 rare you need or 5 rares of any kind for that 1 rare you need. This may not be an actual problem for some people, in fact they may prefer this system - I certainly thought I would until I got a chance to think about it for a while. I suppose it's really just about whether you like that feeling of opening a booster and FINALLY getting that damn card you've been looking for for so long, or when you're just starting out, that feeling of discovery as you turn each card around to see what it is in a booster. As I said, this one is minor and may even be a plus for some people, but the next one...isn't.
Do you like games of chance?
Randomness. It's one of the things I hate most about card games. You plan your deck, think about the metagame, get ready to play, and then draw the biggest pile of crap of a hand you've ever seen while your opponent gets the perfect start. Or: you positioned yourself perfectly, played amazingly, you're winning in the next turn and your opponent has no cards in hand and none on the board. Then he top-decks the 1 card in his deck that can beat you. If you enjoy things like the above then you'll LOVE Hearthstone. Now, the above isn't the issue here at all - those things are inseparable from card games as a concept, they come with the territory and you have to accept them in order to play.
Bafflingly, Hearthsone decides to add another layer of randomness on top of that. This, I fear, might be the death knell of the game for me after I've played it for a large enough amount of time. But what am I even talking about? Well, it's very simple - there are many, many cards with random effects. Deal 1 damage to 3 random targets. Deal 2-3 damage to all minions and each minion gets a separate roll. Summon a random beast. And on and on. Now, a few of this type of card are actually fine - there is flavor to them and they just "feel" right. Arcane Missiles is a good example, as it really carries over the spell's look and feel from WoW. The Shaman's hero ability is another good example - he summons a random totem and each has its own advantages. Those work, but only when they're very limited in number. Unfortunately this isn't the case. The best example I have is playing an Arena match: my opponent basically had me dead next turn with 2 minions that had 7 health combined. I played a card that does 1 damage to 8 random targets (including the hero) and I managed to kill both of his minions, winning the game. I didn't feel good about that win, in fact I was pissed, but nowhere near as pissed as when I'm on the receiving end of the random bat. Another example is the Shaman spell that does 2-3 damage to all minions - but then inexplicably rolls that range for each minion individually. So you have four enemy minions, two have 3 life and two have 1 life. And then your spell does 2 damage to the 3 life ones and 3 damage to the 1 life ones and you proceed to lose the match and, subsequently, break your keyboard. How can that be good design? How can adding completely arbitrary outcomes that the player has no control over be interesting or fun? And it's not like you can simply choose to not play with these random cards yourself, as your opponent will always have some and a lot of them are fairly important and too powerful to simply pass up.
Adding even more randomness to a card game is simply a terrible idea. The only reason I can think of for them including it is that they ran out of ideas to vary the cards without making them more complex. For now it's tolerable, but the more these stupid random insta losses happen, the more I hate the game and eventually I'm sure I'll have to give it up.
The Longevity Issue
After a while it dawned on me the game is specifically designed to be played a fairly short amount each day. With the daily quest system in place and very little progression options outside it (for now) the game basically tells you you shouldn't ever really play it more than 1-2 hours a day. But I realized that's on purpose. With games as short as 5 minutes and the longest taking around 15 it was built to be a quick fix, a burst of fun whenever you have a few spare minutes. Smaller deck sizes, only 2 of the same card per deck, everything is pushing players towards a quick, enjoyable session: play a few games, get your dailies done and then come back tomorrow. And it works. It works really, really well.
Given the limitations of "easy to learn", "accessible" and "not as complex as other card games" they've put in place for themselves there might be some concern about longevity. With 30 card decks there isn't that much you can experiment with compared to other CCGs, and it's possible the game might get stale after a while. The crafting system certainly doesn't help any, and people that like to just make their perfect deck and then stick to it for a long time will get to that deck far too quickly. On the other hand, there are measures in place to prevent this - the class system is very efficient in diversifying your interests, especially with the daily quests constantly pushing you to try new things. The Arena also keeps things interesting in the long run, as you'll always be playing with a different deck in there and you won't be able to predict any kind of metagame.
The big question, however, is whether Blizzard will be adding complexity over time. When new expansions come out, will the game get more complicated and require more of its players? It seems like a very difficult proposition to keep adding the same relatively simple level of cards over a longer period of time, but that's way in the future, and I have to say that the game as it is now is plenty complex.
Hearthstone is definitely the best online card game available. Even with it's intentional lack of complexity and focus on accessibility it still manages to keep you coming back and it still manages to be interesting and varied. Blizzard's usual polish is all over it and even though I'm not much of a style over substance guy, it just works. Colorful is what the style is constantly called, and it's intended to be something of an insult in certain circles but if a fairly cranky, old-school, hardcore gamer like myself finds it actually charming, then colorful can't be such a bad thing.
From the cheery unique sound effect each card has when played that lets you know exactly what card it is without even looking at the screen, to the meaty effects when attacking with a minion with 7+ attack, the feeling of the game is just right. There is simply no reason not to give it a try and even if you think it looks like a kiddie game or have given up on Blizzard recently, I have to urge you to try it out when it's out - the Arena is almost worth the price of admission alone (and considering the price of admission is 0 there are even less reasons not to give it a try).