Full disclosure: I worked in Blizzard’s customer service department for almost five years.  That didn’t render me incapable of looking at Blizzard products without objectivity, however.  Point of fact, I found Diablo III hard to recommend at launch, for a number of reasons.  (Those reasons have since been corrected, but that’s a whole other article)

I wanted to get that information out of the way before I said that Blizzard’s newest release, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, is a free-to-play game that’s better than most games you’re required to pay for..

Hearthstone is a continuation of what appears to be Blizzard’s ongoing goal in game design, which is creating games that are easy enough to pick up for the casual gamer, but deep enough to reward the diehards who want to sink a ton of time and effort into it.  You see this strategy in almost everything they do, taking a particular genre, stripping it down to its basest and best components and then loading it with subtle depth and intricacies.   They did it with the MMORPG in World of Warcraft, the RTS in Starcraft II, and now they’ve done it with Magic: The Gathering-style card combat in Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.

Now, I was never really big on M:TG myself.  I could never put my finger on why, it just never pushed the right button for me.  I had slightly more experience with the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, which I enjoyed on some level, but again, it didn’t sink its teeth into me like some people I know.  So that fact that I’ve invested 142 hours into Hearthstone throughout the course of its beta and recent release is a welcome surprise indeed.

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If you’ve ever played a card-based dueling game before you’ll have an idea of what to expect.  If not, there’s an excellent tutorial that will walk you through everything you need to know.  Essentially though, it boils down to one and one other player, each with a finite health pool.  Each participant plays randomly drawn cards from a pre-constructed deck, most commonly summoned minions or one-off spells, in an effort to whittle down the other player’s health.  The game is deceptively simple on its face, and how Blizzard is clearly hoping to appeal to those ever-elusive casual gamers.

It’s when you dig below that casual surface that you begin to see the true hooks of Hearthstone’s wildly addictive gameplay.  First, there are ten selectable classes, each one with their own unique play-style.  Hunter decks tend to have a lot of ranged attacks and beast-type minions that play off of one another.  Warrior decks usually emphasize fast and furious attacks combined with defense.  Priests have a lot of healing abilities that focus on a long-game strategy, and so on.  All of these classes are pulled from World of Warcraft, and you don’t need to be familiar with them in order to get a sense of how they work, but if you happen to be a fan, the familiar feel is a nice bonus.

The meat of the customization though, is found in deck-building, through which players create there own 30-card decks out of all of the cards they have available to them.  Finding different combinations of cards that play off one another in order to maximize damage-dealing or prevention is key to climbing the game’s player-ranking ladder.  That said, if you don’t want to invest a ton of time into deck-building, the match-making systems seems pretty good about pitting you against players of a similar skill-level so you should never feel terribly out-of-your-depth.

In fact, it’s Blizzard’s player-ranking system that arguably makes Hearthstone work as well as it does.  One of the biggest problems a free-to-play game can face is the perception of “pay-to-win,” or the idea that, while a game is free-to-play, spending stacks of cash on it will give a player a distinct advantage over their more frugal counterparts.  In Hearthstone, players can spend money to buy decks of digital cards to add to their collection, but it doesn’t guarantee easy wins by any means.  Because cards are rewarded randomly through card packs, a player who doesn’t spend anything could theoretically  pick up just the right card almost immediately, while someone who buys ten new packs outright could end up with streams of common duplicates.  And even if a big spender player picked up a great card, it still doesn’t mean that they’ll have spent enough time with the game to know how to use it to its fullest potential.  All of this is to say that Blizzard seems to have done an extremely effective job of creating game-balance in a space where that doesn’t always happen.

As interesting as the play mechanics are, the whole package would only be half-as-stimulating without the game’s visual and audio aesthetics.  The artwork is of course directly pulled from World of Warcraft, which is of course world-class quality by any scale.  Much of the audio, from creature-noises to spell flourishes, is also pulled from WoW and together they give everything taking place on the game-board a sense of substance that you wouldn’t have if the graphics and sound were Solitare minimal.

So, Hearthstone.  It’s simple.  It’s deep.  It’s insanely addictive with a high “just one more game” factor.  Best of all, it’s free.  Truth be told, I don’t know why you’re still here reading this.  You should already be playing.

Hearthstone is rated T-for-Teen and currently available on Windows, Mac, and iPad 2 and up.