Hearthstone and the Heart

I’ve been, shall we say, “out of comission” when it comes to difficult action games. Wrist braces and stretched tendons, far as I can tell, don’t match well with hyper-kinetic, intense combat scenarios. Thus, my attempts to play through Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge went on hold for the forseeable future.

Still, I had an urge to play SOMETHING, at the very least, At the same time, I felt a little pang of regret over the lack of World of WarCraft in my life – not enough to make me return to a game that hasn’t been updated in eight months (probably nine, but I’m being generous), but more the nostalgic feel of it. Hearthstone, which we could call the Online World of WarCraft Trading Card Games, is similar and free, so why not?

Most people describe it as Magic: The Gathering with 30 cards instead of 60, and I think that’s a perfectly valid assessment. Modern Blizzard isn’t much of an innovator so much as it refines and polishes previously designed concepts, and Hearthstone represents a fusion of ease-of-use plus an incredibly efficient online platform. I mean, how many games of this type existed and lasted? Sure, there’s been plenty of trading card games on PC and console, but I think this one might take the cake.

Of course, the game itself is really just a string of numerical calculations and choice moves with a fun tavern aesthetic overlay. Hearthstone often plays like a glorified version of a Dragon Quest random battle as you play against an active opponent. More often than not, each turn becomes a battle of efficiency as you figure out how to make the best trades with your opponent’s options to reduce their card advantage (in other word, blow up their hand by any means necessary). For example, playing a whole lot of low health creatures may be a poor option against any deck that can wipe out a huge number of creatures with a single spell – a Warlock’s Hellfire, a Paladin’s Consecration, and a Mage’s Firestorm will certainly do that. Hold off on the massive assault to use cards against those decks in the most effective way.

At the same time, the random draws from your deck and your lack of knowledge regarding your foe’s card choices (at least in the beginning) means you need to take risks and make educated guess. You must trade cards for information, and not play your optimal hand too quickly. There’s a lot of calculations happening, and you do well to think about what you’re doing with what options present themselves before you.  Playing creatures against a Priest is a test of what cards they’ve got in store. Shadow Word: Pain eliminates creatures of 3 attack or less, while Shadow Word: Death eliminates those with 5 or more attack. This almost explains while Chillwind Yeti seems like such a fixture in so many decks, with its cheap 4 mana cost and its 4/5 stats avoiding so many of these answer cards.

Hearthstone gameplay

And “answer cards” seem to form the majority of plays. Do you know most of the cards and what they do? Good! You can pretty much guess the gameplan just from the class they pick; some cards are just too good NOT to use. For me, playing a Druid a whole lot, Innervate is pretty amazing for plopping a 8/8 creature with Taunt on turn four. Still, there’s plenty of counters to that, so you need to make a situation that an opponent will gladly use their answer card on a lesser threat. The constant push-pull of each turn really works just like an exaggerated version of Tug of War: if you let your opponent get ahead, it’s Game Over.

I find Hearthstone quite rewarding for the most part. Even decks filled with basic cards will defeat those with Legendaries if you employ the right strategies (quite satisfying, to say the least). Much of the game lies in a combination of preparation through either constructed decks or just a general knowledge of card attributes, and you learn the flow of the game as you play more and more. Playing more also provides more cards, and hence it always provides incentives to keep playing, and improving, your deck and its potential. You could just buy them, but that looks like no fun to me at all.

Still, what I find weird is just how ephemeral all the graphical elements are. Yes, this technically holds the “WarCraft” name, but I would call it “generic fantasy for card game”. The cards look cool, and they have voice clips and graphical flourishes for in-game moves, but all of it just gives a fancy shine to an otherwise numbers-based game. I played quite a lot of WarCraft games, so I can tell you that THIS is just a trading card game. Yes, Hearthstone may play incredibly well, but there’s nothing necessarily special about a trading card game necessarily. Brand names help games from a financial standpoint, but Hearthstone fits WarCraft into its design as little more than fluff for diehard Blizzard fans. Most people playing, I wager, care little whether Sylvana Windrunner’s in the game or not.

350px-Sylvanas_Raneman

Obligatory Sylvanas art.

And they say graphics don’t matter, right? Depends on the game, I suppose. The problem, then, isn’t that Hearthstone’s a bad game; rather, it does nothing to justify its existence as a video game, which sounds like rather damning criticism. Even a game like Etherlords, or Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, or Lost Kingdoms, or Culdcept, or Phantasy Star Online Episode III tried to enhance the “card game” basics with music, graphical enhancements, and a boatload of other cool stuff. The pacing on Hearthstone makes up for it somewhat, given the snappiness, but that still means nothing if this seems just like a TCG port to PC and smart devices.

Hearthstone presents an excellent case for that ever-present divide between “graphics” and “gameplay”. A bad game, even if it’s the prettiest thing in the whole world, falters if it merely copies old ideas and just regurgitates them with a new theme (hey, Watch_Dogs!). Design the actual systems underneath first, and let the visuals enhance the experience, however slight their contribution. I imagine that’s why the Bible often maligns appearance as a distraction, temptation, or even pure vanity (the favorite word of all Ecclesiastes lovers, heh). Rather, it focuses on the heart. No, not the blood pumping kind.

In Biblical language, the “heart” (as translated in just about every English translation that I encountered so far) refers to the center of the the human spirit from which spring all our emotions, thoughts, motivations, states of being (like courage) and actions. Psalm 4 shows us a particularly good example of that anthropology:

Many are saying, “Who will show us any good?”
Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!
You have put gladness in my heart,
More than when their grain and new wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep,
For You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety.

When we see this in the text, we often just think of it as our Western rationalistic mindset would make us suspect – the heart equals a poetic means of demonstrating emotion. Unfortunately, that’s a gross simplification. Jewish thought takes the whole and does not care to separate the heart, mind, body, and soul into seperate components; they often come together, loaded as common baggage, and I can’t see a single writer in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible that care to separate them.

Actually, this turns out true for most metaphorical references to the body and its functions in the Bible – “breath” denotes a person’s inner being (hence why translators use “soul” or “spirit”), “neck” or “throat” gets rendered as “life” (because breath, as the source of life, comes in and out of it) and organs like the stomach, kidneys, intestines, etc., indicate the seat of emotions in a similar sense. The writers of the Bible, and the religious texts of the Israelites, took care not to divide these components up intentionally. They’re one and the same whole, and to separate them made no sense in their perspective.

Hence, while I will continue to play Hearthstone, I will complain about how much potential still exists to make it better. Even NES games showed more varied and interesting visual design; this just copies an established formula and does nothing amazingly new with it. A shame, really.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.