Trading card games terrify me. I’ve played Magic: The Gathering, MLB Showdown, Pokémon (Yes it’s a card game too) and others, and my experience always ended in disaster. With any collectible card game, there is a pay wall between being good and being bad, and I just can’t get behind anything that follows that model.
My attempts at competitive play nearly always end in a better-equipped player using a delicately constructed deck to crush me in three or four turns, using cards specifically picked to synergize into a fearsome Megazord of cards more powerful than anything I could put together. Before long, without the funds to keep up with expansions and sets or to purchase giant booster boxes of cards in the hopes of finding what I needed, my collections were gathering dust under my bed.
Three weeks into the open beta of Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone, I was having horrible flashbacks to braces, school dances, and losing at card games. The decks I built with the basic cards didn’t stand a chance against the rares and legendaries that provide more value and sucker punch your hero before you can get a decent minion on the board. I emailed a friend who was better at these types of things, and his advice was simple: go into the arena.
The Arena in Hearthstone is similar to a live draft tournament for other card games, except you don’t pick against other players. The game gives you a choice of three heroes, or types of deck, and then puts you through 30 rounds of choosing one card out of three. What results is a crash course in card value. You learn what is subjectively good and what is horribly, noobishly bad. Is four mana for a 3-2 minion better than four mana for six direct damage? (The answer is no.)
Deck built, you play other players who went through the same process, playing matches until you lose three times. Depending on how many wins you achieve, your reward scales upwards. These rewards include gold (which you can put toward booster packs, or other trips to the arena), booster packs of six cards each, or enchanting dust.
Dust is what puts Hearthstone head and shoulders above other card games I’ve played in the past. Blizzard embraced the digital media as their canvas, and understood that the malleability of computer software opened doors forever closed to physical card games. If I got a card in M:TG that I was never going to use, I had to find someone to trade with me, or who would be willing to buy it so I could go buy different cards. It was a long process. In Hearthstone, I can disenchant that card into dust, and use that dust to make different card. Better cards require more dust, so there is an exchange rate, but I can better my collection without spending a dime.
What used to be an exercise in gamer class warfare has become an uplifting “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” narrative that allows gamers without deep pockets or endless hours to grind away at cards to craft competitive decks and work their way up the ladder. If your win percentage in Arena is only .500, you can play that mode indefinitely, and work your way toward a better collection. Cards are not cards here: they’re pixels, and pixels can be turned into other pixels easily.
Finally there is a card game where I don’t have to spend hundreds for a decent experience. Those who do spend money get their flashy cards; I don’t have a single legendary, but I’ve beaten everyone who played one against me in Play Mode. The parity is still there between the haves and the have-nots, and that makes the genre playable.