Blizzard is making a card game. A virtual one at that. Admittedly the cards are only data and all matches are played over the internet. But still, it's a card game. It is a long way from the world's biggest MMO, a long way from the dungeon crawler above them all, a long way from one of the best strategy games ever.
No, instead it is about gathering a lot of cards, putting the best together in a deck, and then clobbering your opponent who is trying to do the same. It is a formula that made its breakthrough with Magic: The Gathering back in the early 90s, and since then has gone from strength to strength all over the world, and has been copied countless times. Just look at Pokémon. Or the official (albeit licensed) World of Warcraft-CCGs.
And now Blizzard has embarked upon a voyage into this genre, probably because they could see the sense in not only working on projects that take 3+ years to develop. One might say that it is hardly an original idea, but then you'd be missing the point. Besides the first Diablo, and before that the first Warcraft, originality was never Blizzard's greatest strength. No, instead it has been their ability to take a familiar concept or experience, distill it down to its essence, and start to polish, streamline, test, balance and adjust until you have a product that is highly accessible, and at the same time has the depth and content to hold you captivated for a long, long time.
On that point, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is one of the most Blizzard-like things the studio has made in a long time. Let me put it like this: Between me booting up Hearthstone for the first time and then putting it down again, almost six hours had passed. And it was not because time ran away from me - no, I had regularly kept an eye on the clock down in the corner of my monitor. But I would always just have to play one game more, even though it was an hour and a half past bedtime.
The game's roots in World of Warcraft are not just obvious, they permeate all facets. Icons, art direction, names of monsters and abilities and their graphics have been reused from WoW. When Jaina Proudmoore throws Arcane Missiles, three actual arcane missiles fly across the table. Just like Arcane Intellect lets her draw two cards. Or that Thrall as a shaman can cast Bloodlust, granting all his minions +3 to attack for the rest of the turn.
If you know of Magic: The Gathering, you know that the game is divided into five colours. Hearthstone is instead divided into nine classes, all of which have their own hero, all taken from the Warcraft universe. You have the warrior, rouge, shaman, mage, priest, druid, paladin, warlock and hunter, exemplified by figures such as the aforementioned Jaina and Thrall, Garrosh Hellscream, Rexxar, Gul'dan and others.
Each class has 20 cards only they can use (initially they only have access to about half, the rest must be colllected), with different abilities and spells to suit their background. Then you have a variety of cards that all classes can use, such as animals, soldiers, monsters and so on, under the name "minions". It is these you send out on the battlefield to fight for you.
Abilities and names of cards and mechanics are picked directly from World of Warcraft. If, for example, a minion has "taunt", it means your opponent can only attack that minion as long as it is on the battlefield. If they have "stealth" you can't target them before they have made an attack. "Windfury" means they can attack twice per turn, and so on.
Each class also has its own special ability that costs two mana to activate. Jaina can shoot a fireball at any target, dealing 1 damage. The priest can heal 2 damage. The warlock can take 2 damage and draw a card. The shaman can throw a random totem (one is able to attack, for example, while another heals all friendlies at the end of the turn). It is easy to get acquainted with it all, and makes thematic sense.
But most important of all is perhaps the pace. Although Hearthstone is played in turns, the game moves fast, and you soon learn how to quickly deal out attack orders and cast your spells. If you've played the Magic: The Gathering or, perhaps, the digital edition Duels of the Planeswalkers, then you know that there are a lot of stops, pauses and waiting while the opponent assesses whether he should cast counter-spells, which of his animals should block your attacks, and more.
There is nothing like that in Hearthstone, since you can make no actions on the opponent's turn. Instead you just waiting patiently. There's no designating blockers either, and the only thing that can prevent your opponent from sending all of his minions to beat your face in is if you have one or more minions with taunt on the field.
It also means that there are no phases or other complicated subdivisions of your turn. You can attack and cast spells in the exact order you want. It ups the pace considerably.
Similarly, one can not chat with the opponent. You can get your hero to make different emotes such as "well played" or "greetings", but that's it, and in a way it's almost liberating. If you have any Battletag or RealID friends on your Battle.net account, you can of course talk to them.
Hearthstone is free to play, and that means you can buy cards for real money. We haven't, partly because we're stingy (and playing on a temporary U.S. account that is being wiped at the end of the closed beta), and to see what options you otherwise have of acquiring cards. Every time you unlock a new class (which is done by defeating them in the Practice mode against the AI), you get a stack of their cards, while you get others by levelling up (yes, there's a progression system), while you can also purchase packs of cards for gold. The gold trickles in a slow but steady stream, and you can also destroy the cards and use the resulting dust (disenchant-mechanics from WoW, basically) to craft new cards. Hunting down recipes is not required.
In short, the game is very reluctant in trying to sell stuff to the player, and the place where the pay element will probably be felt the most is in Arena, a game mode where you build a deck from random cards, and your opponents do the same. You don't keep the cards, but there are other rewards in the form of gold and card packs. We haven't tested this part thouroughly yet.
Anyway: if you ever had fun with TCG games like Magic: The Gathering, then Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft will probably get its claws into you right away. And if you have not played one of these card games, then there is still good chance that you will get hooked. Because this is, as I said, a Blizzard game that even in this beta phase oozes all the accessability and polish the studio has a reputation for. The open beta starts in the foreseeable future, and I can only recommend you to jump on.