[30 January 2014]
The tabletop gaming of my younger years was defined by Magic: The Gathering. Indeed, Richard Garfield’s amazingly successful collectible card game (CCG) started a fiery craze and for good reason. The game was drenched in lore and backed by a wonderfully sharp play system. It survives to this day because even after all these years Magic: The Gathering still offers an expertly crafted play experience.
Even so, Magic has never been the most accessible game on the market. Garfield, ever committed to the theme, gave esoteric names to some of Magic’s features. Those willing to learn eventually adapted and naturalized things like Sorcery, Instants, Interrupts, and Libraries, but teaching the uninitiated has always been a chore. Since its release in 1993, entry into the franchise has become even more perilous. While Wizards of the Coast smartly faded out some particularly complex systems and concepts, they continue to add new mechanics and an ever-growing number of cards. Familiarity is hard enough, let alone mastery. Keeping up with Magic: The Gathering remains a time consuming and expensive effort.
Despite a dry period in the ‘90s, a series of modern resurgences have reignited a card game fervor, the most recent star of which is Blizzard’s own Hearthstone. Like the immensely popular Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! CCGs, Hearthstone stems directly from a well known brand with its own widely recognized norms and vocabulary. It’s hard to throw a rock and not hit someone who once played World of Warcraft, and these veteran players will find a comforting and largely accessible experience in Hearthstone.
Blizzard’s current foray into the card game world is not their first. Upper Deck, and eventually Cryptozoic, published the aptly named World of Warcraft Trading Card Game (WoW TCG) until just last year. The first version of Azeroth in card-form pitted groups of heroes with their own decks against each other or against a single raid boss. Like Magic, each player tracked their own health and could fall in battle. Only this time, the terms and concepts were wrapped in familiar Warcraft apparel. Warriors and Mages with access to a suite of class cards could cooperate against enemies that literally drop loot in the form of treasure packs. For fans of Warcraft, the TCG was an extension of that play experience.
As of August 2013, Blizzard shut down the WoW TCG, presumably in hopes of transitioning those players into Hearthstone. Just like the TCG, Hearthstone has players build class-theme decks using abilities and powers inspired directly by World of Warcraft. For many players, the CCG format is more familiar with a healthy splash of Warcraft.
More significant for the sake of making the card game space accessible is the extreme simplification of some of the genre’s more traditional elements. Gone are the land/mana concerns of Magic and numerous games like it. While players cast spells using “Mana”, this is a resource that is freely granted and grows by one each turn. Players need not worry about maximizing their mana-to-card ratio in the deck building process. Similarly, when building a deck in Hearthstone, class limitations significantly constrain a player’s options. If they were to play a Warrior, for example, than only Warrior and Neutral cards are available. As such, the process of building decks and understanding the tricks opponents may have has become far more manageable.
Blizzard has also greatly increased the speed of play. Matches rarely last even fifteen minutes, partially due to the low deck size of thirty cards and partially due to a mix of resource and health management. Whereas games of Magic could become tedious engagements between two decks featuring impenetrable defenses, Hearthstone speeds things along to get players into the action. Likewise, the game features few opportunities for players to interrupt each other, meaning play moves along at a relatively steady pace without a lot of distraction between turns. Hearthstone is a sleeker and faster experience for players than something like Magic.
Android Netrunner and Fantasy Flight’s other so-called “Living Card games” also diverge from the CCG norm, offering card players more accessible alternatives to the random booster pack model solidified by Wizards of the Coast. Like Hearthstone, they too simplify play in a way, minimizing interruptions and constraining the deck building experience. They offer welcoming alternatives for those interested in cards games but cautious about the immense time commitment.
Perhaps we could even include Blizzards foray into MOBAs another case of game designers taking a proven model and lowering the barriers of entry for players. Heroes of the Storm seems to be their offer of the highly competitive League of Legends experience for the less, well, competitive.
All of the above games distill something enjoyable from their genre counterparts and make it their own. If quick and simple games are often discarded as candy (bite-sized morsels with no real nutritious value), these games are hors d’oeuvres. They whet the palate and open up their respective genres for those too cautious to come in. Trust me, I adore Magic the Gathering, even today, but I am hard pressed to find new players. Meanwhile, games like Hearthstone are opening their arms wide and letting in those new to the card game experience with a hint of tabletop flare. I, for one, welcome newcomers in hopes that they stay awhile and explore the possibilities.