How Hearthstone succeeded where others failed

I started playing Star Wars CCG when I was ten years old, and played pretty much constantly for the next 12 or 13 years. I devoted thousands of hours to deck-building, playtesting, casual play, tournament competition, cross-country driving, and thinking about the game (often during class). I still believe that it was the best CCG ever designed—possibly the best game ever designed. I can’t speak highly enough of it.

swccg-table

Over the years, I played other CCGs as well; Lord of the Rings, WarsVS System.hackPokemonYoung JediJedi Knights . . . and I learned others along the way as well, even if I didn’t play them regularly. So I have a lot of experience in (and love for) the CCG world.

After a hiatus of a few years, I started playing some digital CCGs, and what I found was very interesting. You might think that the popularity of Magic and Star Wars would have led to a significant investment in and community around digital CCGs, but the scene has been surprisingly small (at least until recently). And for a while, that surprised me. But then I realized that digital CCG makers had made some big mistakes.

Where digital CCGs fell short

A number of the earlier digital CCGs fell prey to the same inclination—instead of bringing the traditional CCG experience to mobile devices, they made games that primarily drew on popular mobile game tropes, and were only secondarily influenced by traditional CCGs.

heavenstrike

Take Heavenstrike Rivals as an example; it gets a number of things right about CCGs, including some really fun deck-building possibilities. But the gameplay wasn’t especially exciting. The lane-based combat, while not overly simplistic, doesn’t give players as much freedom as most traditional CCGs. It’s not a bad game, but there’s just not a huge amount of depth. It felt a little too pay-to-win, as well.

solforge-iphone

Solforge was developed by Stoneblade, the guys behind the phenomenal deck-building game Ascension, so I was really excited for this game. It was designed to be digital-only, so it does some cool things that no physical card game does; the leveling-up of cards is an innovative idea, and makes for unique gameplay. Again, though, the game just lacks depth. The deck-building aspect is decent, but gameplay just doesn’t feel strategic enough. And the new interface, while it’s very easy to use, isn’t very aesthetically pleasing . . . which doesn’t help the overall experience.

(Don’t get me wrong; Solforge is one of the best digital CCGs out there, possibly right behind Hearthstone, and I’ve spent a lot of time playing it. It just falls a bit short of what digital CCGs could be.)

Then there are games like Clash Royale, which tries to blend card-collecting with short match times and tower defense, two big components of a lot of successful mobile games. As you can probably imagine, there’s just not enough to this one, either. It’s good for what it is, but it’s not a CCG, and it doesn’t do anything really cool with digital capabilities.

magic-duels

The digital Magic games are really interesting, but only having limited play time with them, I’m not sure I can put forth a solid opinion. They definitely have the depth of MtG, but they don’t take advantage of the digital medium, which means they’re always going to be less fun than actual in-person Magic. With a pretty large entry cost and pressure to invest more cash, a lot of people aren’t sold on this. If you have experience with this one, leave a shout in the comments below; I’d love to hear about it.

How Hearthstone succeeds

It’s really interesting that Blizzard would do better in this space than both Wizards of the Coast and Stoneblade, who have experience with successful card games. But they nailed it, and Hearthstone now absolutely dominates the digital CCG scene. With 40 million registered players, competitive and casual tournaments, a huge number of dedicated websites, and a hell of a lot of press, none of the above games hold a candle to Hearthstone.

But why has it become so much more successful? What sets it apart from the other digital CCGs that have come before it? I’ve given it some thought, and I think there are 5 things that are crucial to its success.

Play is more like traditional CCGs.

Hearthstone was obviously strongly influenced by Magic, and the gameplay has really benefitted from this. The combination of open-field combat (as opposed to lane-based) and the addition of more tactical options (hero powers, hero weapons, attacking minions or direct damage to enemy heroes, choosing between minions and spells, and so on) makes a highly strategic game that can be won in a number of ways.

hs-play

Whether you rush early game or control until the end, aim for board control or straight-to-the-face damage, swarm or build up huge tanks, you can win this game, at least at lower levels. All of the heroes are viable in low- and mid-level play, and you can use a huge variety of cards successfully. This makes for a more richly varied game, much like traditional CCGs.

Different play modes are realized successfully.

Other digital CCGs have had campaign modes or drafts, but Hearthstone does its alternate play modes better than any of its predecessors. Its campaign mode, in the form of optional paid adventures, doesn’t just guarantee some cards you could get elsewhere—it gives you unique, adventure-only cards, making the adventures worth doing.

hs-loe

The Arena draft is an interesting elimination format that’s very addicting and encourages players to continue playing to improve their skills and rewards. A guaranteed pack and at least some dust also mean it’s worth playing, though breaking even on your gold investment requires some notable skill in drafting and playing (and you don’t get to keep the cards you draft, which sucks).

Tavern Brawl provides variety by offering weird sets of rules that change every week, and rewards players for their first win with a pack. All of these different modes supplement ranked play, which is also executed very well; monthly rankings and rewards keep players coming back and striving for just one more win (which inevitably turns into dozens more games).

Rewards are given at the perfect rate.

Some players have accused Blizzard of being stingy with their rewards, but the reward scheme was probably highly researched and tested . . . because it really works. Completing daily quests will only net you a pack once every couple days, and you’d need 30 wins in standard play to earn yourself an extra one. An Arena run will net you a single pack, plus some dust, gold, or a single.

And if you decide to spend money on packs, you’ll pay about $2 per pack, which is just enough under what you’d pay for a booster in real life to make it feel like a decent deal, even though it’s only 5 cards. Epics and legendaries are hard to get, but certainly not impossible, especially with the ability to craft almost any card from dust.

hs-packs

All of this combines to give Hearthstone cards real value; the game doesn’t throw packs at you, but neither does it constantly encourage you to buy them with real money. You have to earn them or pay a non-insignificant amount of cash, which means both cards and packs actually feel like a reward and appeal to players’ reward drive.

Free-to-play is actually viable.

In previous digital CCGs, you could remain F2P for a while, but it wouldn’t take long before you needed to start paying cash to win. Of course, any player can decide to never invest real money in a game, and there’s always the possibility of that player amassing a solid collection and a lot of wins over time. But it feels more possible in Hearthstone than elsewhere.

hs-spell

Whether or not that’s an illusion is certainly up for discussion, but it’s the perception of this possibility that’s important. By allowing players to competitively stay F2P for longer periods of time, they become more invested in the game, and that’s a proven way of keeping them coming back . . . which means they’re more likely to spend money.

This creates a win-win situation for players and the publisher. Players can find free enjoyment for longer periods of time, and Blizzard is able to hook a lot of users. It’s extremely well-designed.

It takes advantage of the digital medium—but doesn’t rely on it too heavily.

I think this is where a lot of other CCGs fall short. Heavenstrike felt too much like a quick mobile game, and lacked depth because of it. Solforge did some really cool things with the format, but didn’t quite deliver. The Magic games are just ports of the physical game, and don’t innovate.

hs-play-card

Hearthstone takes advantage of being a digital game, but doesn’t overly rely on it. There are a number of cards that rely on the game being digital; discover cards, for example, show you three random cards from any set, not just your deck. Summoning random minions or spells adds uncertainty and excitement without the amount of time it would take to enact in a physical game. C’Thun’s stat-boosting is a cool idea that would be much more awkward in physical play.

The ability to disenchant cards and use the resulting dust  to craft other cards is a poor simulation for trading, but it’s the best that can be done in this medium. Blizzard crafted it well, again making the rewards feel valuable; you can’t dust a rare card and get another rare card, just like you usually can’t find someone to make an equal trade with when you’re looking for a specific card.

Hearthstone is elementally digital, but only uses digital capabilities in limited ways—it feels familiar to traditional CCG players, but innovates enough to make it interesting to veterans and newcomers to the genre.

The top of the game

Although it might never unseat the great CCG giants, Hearthstone is here to stay. And as long as it continues to perfectly balance players’ favorite facets of traditional CCGs with innovative and convenient digital features, nothing is going to make a run for the throne. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely as close as any digital CCG has come.

Do you play Hearthstone? What do you find appealing about it? What do you think makes it stand out from other CCGs? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Image credit: SWCCG PC via Facebook.

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