The year is 1993. Bullfrog has released the fantastic original version of the strategy game Syndicate. Not to be outdone, id Software releases Doom, and first-person shooters will never be the same again. Away from the screen, geeks everywhere are putting aside their dice and Dungeons & Dragons player manuals to do battle with, of all things, packs of cards.

Magic: The Gathering was a new craze that was just picking up steam when I found myself swept up in it. The premise is simple enough, purchase or swap cards with others and use those cards to make a powerful deck to defeat opponents. It was nerdtastic fun.

But it was also expensive. I recall my mother thinking that the “five-dollar” starter decks were an appalling waste of money - they actually cost twenty dollars. My first foray into gainful employment was solely to sustain my Magic habit. Soon after, I also discovered girls, and subsequently I haven't thought much about Magic for twenty years.

Hearthstone beta hands-on
Hearthstone beta hands-on
Hearthstone beta hands-on

We've come a long way since Doom and Syndicate. Blizzard doesn’t appear to have noticed, however – their new title is a digital free-to-play card game called Hearthstone.

Set in the Warcraft universe and replete with many of its famous characters, denizens, and spells, Hearthstone will be instantly recognisable to players of both the MMO, and the real-time strategy games. Even so, there is no need to be familiar with Warcraft or any of its aspects to be able to easily learn Hearthstone.

Players aren’t able to trade cards, and chat is strictly limited to a preset collection of sporting greetings, taunts, concessions and congratulations. These might seem like some fairly serious omissions to a game of this type but the intention is to eliminate fraudulent activity, in-game abuse and other miscellaneous jerky behaviour.

As in Magic, the objective is to defeat your heroic opponent in a one-on-one duel. Hearthstone has been designed to be a fast paced, easy-to-learn card game that still draws on the strategic depth that gives these kinds of games their long-term appeal.

Each class in the game has access to class-specific cards, including minions, spells and weapons, which promotes a specific playstyle to each class, and Warcraft players will quickly recognise the personality of each class represented. The Priest class, for example, have numerous healing spells, while the Warlock class has a strong focus on summoning demons – powerful minions that can hurt the player as well as his or her adversary. The mechanics imbue the Warlock that certain suicidal power-at-any-cost flavour.

Firstly, even deep in beta, the level of polish is quite extraordinary. The presentation is beautifully refined, the UI is intuitive and the tools are comprehensive without being unwieldy.

The game itself begins with a scripted set of duels that serve as a tutorial and introduction to the game’s concepts.

As a card game, the player’s options are limited by the hand dealt, but at the start of each round, players are able to return to their deck redraw before the match begins.

The resource system for all classes in Hearthstone is mana, starting at one and increasing by one each turn to a maximum of 10. The acceleration in power for all classes is essentially static and equal as a game progresses.

Hearthstone beta hands-on
Hearthstone beta hands-on
Hearthstone beta hands-on

Minion cards fight for the player on the battlefield. They have attack and defense statistics showing how much damage they can do on each time they attack and how much damage they can absorb before they’re destroyed. Minions can also have additional abilities that occur when they enter the battlefield, when they die, when they attack, and so on.

Spell cards are more versatile, and and are cast to casue direct damage, buff and debuff minions, and have other utility effects. Many of these spells will be clearly recognisable to Warcraft players. A weapon card equips a weapon directly to the hero, giving it the option to carry out a physical attack itself. There's something oddly nostalgic about equipping the warrior, Garrosh Hellscream, with Arcanite Reaper and survey the battlefield for something to hit with it.

Finally, each hero has a specific hero power that they can use for a modest mana cost each turn. This tidy addition lends even more flavour to the playstyle to each class hero. They are fairly simple abilities, the Priest hero may use their hero power to cast a small heal on themselves or a minion each turn.

With the tutorial and a series of practice bouts against the AI out of the way, players are free to set about tackling any of the game modes: Practice, Arena and Play.

In Practice mode, players can continue to train against the AI. It’s useful for building familiarity with a new class, or deck, and for levelling up each hero and unlocking their free “Basic” cards.

Play mode and Arena are the competitive modes in Hearthstone.

In Play mode, players use a custom-built deck to play opponents in rated or unrated matchmaking. These games all feature player- constructed decks, and each deck tends to follow a very specific theme, full of cards with powers that compliment one another, and strategies for countering opposition play. They can be brutal and end abruptly if a powerful combo falls into place.

The Arena is Hearthstone’s representation of what is known as a "sealed deck competition" in tradable card game circles. Players construct a deck from a limited selection of cards and compete against others doing the same. It's highly entertaining and in this format card selection during deckbuilding makes all the difference. The play continues until one player accumulates either nine wins or three losses, and prizes are awarded based on performance.

The Arena also requires an entry fee of 100 in-game gold coins, earned by completing daily “quests”, or US$2, but the reward always includes at least one pack of Expert cards.

Hearthstone beta hands-on
Hearthstone beta hands-on

Expert cards only come from cards packs and are only gained as purchases from the in-game store with gold or real money, or as rewards from the Arena.

Anyone wanting to scratch that collectible card game itch should absolutely play Hearthstone. It's a huge deal of fun and worth a look even if it's just to try something a little different from the usual modern gaming fare. But player be warned: while it’s technically possibly to collect all the cards without spending a cent, it would take an extraordinary amount of time. It would take the steeliest of constitutions to resist the urge to buy Expert cards, and paying the Arena entry fee with real money.

Sign-ups to playtest the beta are open, and applications can be submitted on

Hearthstone is currently in beta on Mac and PC, and will be available on iPad after launch.

Want to start playing Hearthstone now? Enter Gameplanet's beta key giveaway!