Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Hands-On Preview

Blizzard’s free-to-play card battling game Hearthstone is due out soon on iOS, and some players have already snagged an early copy through international App Stores. To prepare you for this highly-anticipated game, we’ll walk you through the first hour of gameplay, which barely scratches the surface of Hearthstone’s combat and characters.

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The game starts with a six-part tutorial, where you play as the mage Jaina Proudmoore. A Scottish-accented dwarf (who sounds a bit like Mike Meyers’ Shrek) narrates the action as Jaina first faces Hogger, a snarling wolf-like beast.

To play, you draw cards one by one, placing them either in front of you (for minions like murlocs and raptors) or casting them right away (a fireball spell that causes catastrophic damage). Like in many other card combat games, your minions have to wait a turn after you first play them — in Magic the Gathering, it’s referred to as summoning sickness. When your opponent runs out of health, you win the round.

It won’t take long for you to beat the Hogger and earn your first reward cards, after which you’ll face a gnome named Millhouse Manastorm. Millhouse has a high-pitched, taunting voice, which makes him extra fun to fight. In this second battle, you’ll learn how to manage your mana crystals, which limit which cards you can play. Mana crystals are added each round, allowing you to bring out stronger cards later in the round.

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At this point, we should note that each action you take in Hearthstone feels vibrant and alive. Your minions growl and hiss as you summon them, spell cards glow with magical runes, and the playing field explodes with fireworks when you vanquish a foe. Cards constantly spin and fly around, so nothing feels static.

Your third opponent is Lorewalker Cho, a kung-fu panda who regards Jaina respectfully. He’ll summon a steady stream of panda monks and ogres, who can heal and protect him. This is also where you learn about battle cries, the special action that certain cards will take when you play them for the first time.

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Next up is King Mukla, a silverback gorilla with an army of monkeys throwing bananas. Thrown bananas end up in your card stack, giving you a health bonus you can use on your own cards. Mukla will also throw barrels at you, Donkey Kong-style. Eventually Mukla will summon his big brother, a huge red gorilla who you have to distract by playing a minion with the taunt ability, which makes it the prime target.

The fifth opponent in the tutorial is Hemet Nesingwary, a dwarf. Hemet has a hero power, a special attack that requires mana to use, but doesn’t require any other cards. Hemet has a shotgun blast, and you have a fireball attack. However, if you rely just on the hero powers, you’ll leave yourself defenseless against minion attacks. At this point, you’ll also receive the polymorph card, which transforms even the toughest enemy cards into a weak little sheep (a favorite attack of World of Warcraft mages).

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Finally, you’ll face Illidan Stormrage, a powerful opponent that the game tells you is unfairly tough (and to blame the developers). Illidan can summon flame minions and attack on his own, and he is relentless. However, he’s not impossible to beat if you use all of the skills you picked up from the first five opponents.

With the tutorial behind you, you’ll be able to log in to Battle.net and head to the main menu. From here, you can buy new card packs with in-game currency, customize your deck, and fight in either practice or online mode. Your heroes will level up with each online match, earning you new cards and abilities.

We can tell that Hearthstone is going to be very appealing to fans of Blizzard’s other games, or card combat games like Magic the Gathering. It has active animations, lots of charm in the form of voice-acting and artwork, and a well-balanced battle system. It’s no surprise that Blizzard, well-known for their polished PC games, has taken its time to make Hearthstone shine. For more background on Hearthstone, listen to our 2013 interview with the game’s executive producer and lead designer.