Duelling In The Digital Age: Hearthstone And Online TCGs

This feature was originally written for One Hit Pixel, found here.

Throughout my years, I’ve been a big fan of trading card games. From playing Pokémon in primary school though to drunken nights of Magic: the Gathering at university; it’s something that tickles my gaming senses of collection and customisation. Though admittedly it’s possibly one of the dorkiest past-times this side of LARPing.

Even if you wouldn’t be caught dead at the gaming table of your local hobby store, it’s very likely you’ll soon be encountering decks and duels in your gaming future – trading card games (TCGs) fit astoundingly well into today’s video game market, and developers are starting to take notice.

In a world where some of the biggest player bases are dedicated to ‘freemium’ games, the basic concepts behind TCGs fit incredibly well. Booster packs are deceptively cheap, but are easy to buy in bulk; the people looking for something specific will always be back for more.

It doesn’t take much to use that sales philosophy in an evil way. Rage of Bahamut is almost Farmville-like in its endless clicking; design and strategy replaced with a cash shop. It may have cards to trade, but there’s no game to speak of.

Aces of the TCG

What has made Magic: the Gathering and its contemporaries last for so long is the craftsmanship behind the mechanics, in addition to having a lot of pretty artwork to collect. It’s a huge challenge – providing a wide range of customisation but still making most of the tools available balanced is the kind of design challenge you’d be more inclined to see in fighting games or MOBAs.

For companies already in the business of trading cards, the jump to video games is very straightforward. Magic: the Gathering Online has been around since 2002, but they don’t make much of an effort to rope in new players, or have an easy way to connect physical players to digital ones. Instead, it’s the Pokémon TCG that has gone the extra mile to get a crossover of players.

Pokémon TCG Online, presently in open Beta, is very rudimentary. However, it uses both an in-game cash shop and the real world cards as usable stock. In every booster pack and deck that you can purchase in physical shops, there is a redeem code for that same type of booster pack for online use.

There’s nothing forcing you to purchase real cards; there’s a simple but enjoyable campaign mode that steadily gives you booster packs and shop tokens as you progress. However, the acquisition of free cards is just slow enough, and the call towards primary school nostalgia is just strong enough – at least for me – that I was willing to shell out for a few real world cards.

A Newcomer Apporaches the Table

To make a game that compelling from scratch is daunting – but Blizzard have been trying their hand at it with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Publicly announced as being in development way back in March (though it’s been in development for two years), it’s now gathering some serious steam as Blizzard’s first free-to-play project.

Being known for terminally tactical affairs like Starcraft, it’s no doubt that the strategy and balance work is significant, but what stands out against other digital TCGs is the incredible dedication to skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism, in addition to being fun to say, is a graphics concept where objects are designed to look like a different texture. Before the iOS7 update Apple were the reigning kings of this when it came to interfaces, with address books in stitched leather and calendars with replicated paper tears.

With Hearthstone, everything is given a thick, carved look. Everything looks as though it has been forged from metal, or chiselled out of wood and stone – even the cards themselves. Moving cards around has weight to it, with each action resulting in a hefty click or thunk.

In the absence of being able to handle physical cards, Hearthstone goes above and beyond to make playing feel ‘chunky’. A sensible decision, considering Hearthstone is also designed to be playable on iPad, which lacks any kind of tactile feedback. Games of this genre are usually content with having the game take place in a near featureless void – so the additional colour and character is welcomed.

Approachability is Key

Playing the game is simpler than most TCGs, and intentionally so. Playing as various major World of Warcraft characters (none of whom I recognise), you summon minions to deal damage to your opponent, while playing additional spells and your hero’s special ability to strengthen your chances. Minions have persistent health and the resource pool used to play cards replenishes and increases by itself.

This results in a system where it’s hard to build a deck that’s completely unusable. If you’re not confident in building your own deck, there’s a suggestion system that will offer you cards in sets of three for you to pick.

The game’s lead designer, Eric Dodds, plays Magic himself – and is aware of how the game can become insanely complex. The target audience is as broad as World of Warcraft’s demographics, and Blizzard are looking to hook in more than just the hardcore Magic veterans.

The way it handles the cash shop side of things is strangely stingy. There are nine different heroes available, each with a basic deck you get for free. As you play with a hero they level up and gain additional cards to their deck, elevating them from ‘easily beaten by the CPU’ to ‘vaguely functional’. After that, the only new cards you can obtain are from the shop or a ‘Challenge Mode’, both of which cost tokens or real money to participate in.

Earning the tokens from beating human is a slow process, but they try to balance it out by having relatively cheap purchases. Spending £20 feels reasonable when it’s in £2-5 increments.

Interestingly, I’ve been hesitant to purchase cards from Hearthstone, compared to Pokémon TCG. Maybe it’s because of the branding (I’m not especially knowledgeable of the Warcraft franchise, whereas I can identify any Pokémon by name); maybe it’s because Hearthstone makes an active attempt to pair me up with players who have a similar card collection and win rate to me, so I never feel especially outmatched.

Blizzard’s approach to the digital TCG is definitely novel, and an easier approach to the genre for new players – but it still has a rocky path ahead. It still feels a touch too much like ‘pay to win’, and some of the heroes have far more practical strategies or more interesting cards than others. I’m hesitant to throw money down just yet, but if they stay on top of tweaking mechanics and the variety of content available to free players I may still open up my wallet.

Or ArenaNet could make a Guild Wars card game and I’d throw all my money at them. Just sayin’.