Escapist EditorialsHearthstone is Not Magic, But I Love It All the SameEscapist Editorials - RSS 2.0
It's been almost twenty years now since I first picked up a Magic: the Gathering booster pack, and roughly the same time since I first played a Blizzard game. I started with Ice Age for Magic, and WarCraft II from Blizzard's burgeoning stable of games, both circa 1995. Almost two decades later I'm still playing Magic avidly, I wrote The Escapist's Hexproof column on Magic for nearly a year, and you'll rarely find an evening in my household that doesn't involve one Blizzard game or another. Naturally, when I first heard about Hearthstone I was cautiously excited. It's a virtual card game developed by one of my longest-standing favorites in gaming. I love card games, and I love Blizzard, so there was no way they could go wrong conceptually, but nearly twenty years of Magic knock-offs have trained me to be a little wary. When I got into the Hearthstone beta and got a few games in, I realized that this wasn't trying to be, much less beat Magic. Hearthstone is certainly no Magic: the Gathering, but I love it all the same.
Hearthstone is a much simpler game than Magic. Just look at Magic's Comprehensive Rules. It's almost 200 pages of legal-style documentation, describing practically every imaginable interaction between over ten thousand different cards.. Magic has had 20 years to evolve, and has grown wildly complicated since its creation. Hearthstone, on the other hand, is brand new, and has only very simple rules and abilities, and a very limited selection of cards to choose from - just shy of 500 cards, according to this Hearthstone wiki. Let's talk about some of the distinctions, those things that make Hearthstone simpler than Magic, and hence more accessible to a wider audience.
Instants and Secrets
Magic: the Gathering allows players to respond to an opponent's actions during their turn via Instant spells, and instant-speed abilities. Counterspell is a great example of a truly reactive spell. You hold your counter in hand, keep mana available during your opponent's turn, and whenever they try to cast the game-winning spell, you counter it and interrupt their game plan. It's simple, yet effective. It allows for bluffing when you don't have the counterspell in hand, but leave the mana open to represent a counter. Playing spells and abilities on your opponent's turn adds a new layer of strategic depth to Magic which simply doesn't exist in Hearthstone.
Secrets in Hearthstone are the only way to interact with your opponent on their turn. You cast a Secret during your turn, like Mirror Entity, which copies the next minion your opponent summons. It's a clever implementation, certainly, but it lacks the complexity of strategy that Instants offer Magic. You can never bluff a Secret. Either you cast it or you don't. You can play around Secrets the same way you play around Counterspells, so I'm not suggesting that it lacks strategy, only that it's less intensive thinking and planning.
The benefit of the Secret approach is that playing across from a Control deck in Magic can be endlessly frustrating. When the opponent is countering every spell you try to cast, the game gets dull very fast. This can drive newer players away, and make for very long, very boring games of Magic at the casual and competitive level. Hearthstone's implementation of Secrets keeps the game moving along steadily. I've never found myself locked out of a game of Hearthstone because of Secrets. So, while Secrets require a bit less strategy to play with, they keep the game interesting and accessible to new players.