Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft exploded onto the digital card game scene in 2014 with its combination of fast gameplay, lovable art style, accessible strategy and a free-to-play model that rewarded rather than punished free users. It also added a whole lot of charm and humor on top with its colorful, loud, animated gameplay. Undoubtedly, in the world of digital card games, 2014 was the “Year of Hearthstone”.
Being the new kid on the block, Hearthstone invited inevitable comparisons to the mother of all trading card games, Magic: The Gathering. It is clear that Hearthstone’s core gameplay heavily borrows from Magic. Yet it simplifies and streamlines it for a faster, more accessible digital experience. Many have welcomed the game as exactly what the trading card game genre has been desperately needing for many years now, while others have decried it as a game for casual rather than serious gamers, lacking player interactivity and strategic depth.
So which is the better game?
Hearthstone’s reception was overwhelmingly positive with a Metacritic rating of 88. However, not everyone was as impressed. Brian Kibler, a world pro Magic player and game designer himself stated at the initial release that he felt Hearthstone lacked a competitive future and was inherently imbalanced due to the Class Hero powers. He was proven dead wrong about its future even just one year later, and is now a Hearthstone fanatic himself. Even the diversity of top competitive decks between Classes shows that the Hero powers are not as unbalanced as he first suggested.
When one of the world’s leading Magic players does a complete 180 turn on the game, I think that really says something. Hearthstone is a serious contender to the throne long held by Magic, and this is something we haven’t seen for quite a while in the world of TCGs, especially digital versions of TCG games.
However, it’s important to realize that there are some very fundamental differences between the two games that need to be kept in mind when attempting to answer a question such as “Which one is better?” As with most questions, context is everything – so we’ll need to come at the question from a few different angles.
One way to compare the two games is to look at the mechanics of core gameplay in each one. There are more similarities than differences, but its worth quickly going over the two to see how they compare. (Please note: Every attempt was made to ensure the accuracy of this data, but some simplification / approximation may be applied.)
|Mechanics in each||Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft||Magic: the Gathering|
|Deck size||30||60 (constructed), 40 (draft)|
|Card Types||Minions, Spells, Weapons||Creatures, Enchantments, Instants, Sorceries, Artifacts, Lands, Planeswalkers|
|Factions||9 Classes||5 Colors & ‘Colorless’|
|Card Costs||0-10 Mana, factionless||0-10+ Mana, colored and colorless|
|Resource System||Gain 1 factionless Mana per turn||Play 1 Land per turn, tap Lands for colored Mana|
|Combat||Attacker chooses targets||Attacker declares attacks, Defender chooses blockers|
|Minion / Creature Stats||Attack and Health – damage dealt stays at end of turn||Power and Toughness – damage dealt is removed at the end of turn|
|Cards Total in Game||505||13,651|
From this, we can see that Hearthstone has heavily borrowed many aspects of Magic’s gameplay while reducing the complexity and simplifying options, in most cases. It’s a whole other debate whether these changes are improvements or not, so if we leave that aside for a minute, the question becomes more about why these changes have occurred.
It’s clear that Blizzard have decided Hearthstone is meant to be a faster, shorter, and somewhat easier game to play than Magic which has a higher barrier to entry due to its complexity and arcane rules. In Hearthstone, decks are smaller and contain no resource cards (unlike Magic’s Land cards which take up a sizable chunk of each deck) so every card drawn is going to be a playable Minion, Spell or Weapon. Cards are all ‘colorless’ so you don’t have to worry about paying with different types of resources and since you reliably gain 1 per turn, you can more easily predict what you’re able to play in future turns based on what cards are in your hand.
The biggest, and by far the most important differences between the two are the player interaction aspects. In Hearthstone, your opponent can take no actions on your turn. When you attack, you choose which Minions are attacking which targets and the attack resolves immediately. This immediately cuts away a large chunk of the gameplay in Magic where the attacking player declares attackers but it is up to the defending player to choose which creatures will block each attack, giving more of an advantage to the defender as the decider of the tactical result of combat.
Furthermore, there are many steps to combat in Magic that allow for cards and abilities to be triggered along the way, adding extra layers of complexity but also strategic depth and increasing player interaction. Hearthstone is missing all of this, so it will be up to players to decide whether they feel Hearthstone’s turns are made all the better for cutting out most of the player interaction or if they’re just too non-interactive with no chance to respond to anything your opponent does in their turn.
Hearthstone doesn’t have a physical paper version, although its design mostly comes from a simplified version of the World of Warcraft TCG that predated it. Therefore Hearthstone has been designed purely as a digital experience from the ground up, with the specific design challenges and opportunities that the digital space provides. Cards can use digitally-enhanced effects that pull random cards of only a specific type from a player’s deck, or randomly create any weapon and equip a Hero with it, or deal damage between a range of numbers but chosen randomly between them. This creates variance and excitement to cards that would be otherwise static.
This is one of the main criticisms of Hearthstone: that it contains too many RNG effects (standing for ‘random number generation’, a term for how computers select random values). However, defenders of Hearthstone argue that the amount of RNG is not so high that the effects are completely unpredictable or useless. RNG effects are usually appropriately Mana costed, so that higher risk comes at a cheaper cost.
Most of the risk can be controlled by when the player chooses to use the card. If a card says “Random enemy Minion” but there is only one random Minion, you’ll know that it will be the one chosen. If there are two enemy Minions and either of them being selected by the RNG effect is fine by you, then it’s a controlled risk with multiple outcomes that you desire anyway. A player’s skill level will determine how they use these kinds of effects and if they can manage them efficiently or not. Lastly, even which risk is involved, it adds an element of excitement and uncertainty to outcomes that makes the game more tense and enjoyable as a result.
Magic’s Digital Problem
Magic, on the other hand, has the disadvantage of working backwards from the paper game to the digital space which makes it difficult for Magic to change much about its initial design since the game needs to stay the same. Elements of Magic’s gameplay reproduced in the digital series Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers show that the game’s pace is much slower than Hearthstone, going through a range of phases that require timers and opportunities for the player to respond to cards that are played in either player’s turn.
While this provides a faithful representation of how a Magic game works in the physical world, it feels slow and sometimes frustrating as a digital game. Moving through the phases feels restrictive now compared to Hearthstone’s free-for-all turn where you can play a card, attack, play another card, use a hero power, attack again, etc. In this way, Hearthstone has changed expectations about the flow of a digital card game’s phases to be simpler and faster.
The main problem with Magic is that its digital versions just don’t seem to be able to capture the “magic” of the paper game. Duels of the Planeswalkers is slowly improving, but it has always been aimed at getting new players into the larger game rather than being a satisfying experience for experienced Magic players. In fact, the 2015 edition has even been criticized as being worse than 2014’s.
Magic Online, the official digital client for playing the complete Magic experience, has always been a second-rate product that infuriates and disappoints the fan base on an on-going basis. The digital versions have just never been decent enough to really capture a large digital player base in the way that Hearthstone currently is. For a product that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, it’s a shame to see Magic falling behind the curve like this.
Magic is and has always been based around the booster pack distribution model. Buying booster packs is even an entry requirement for some of its game formats, such as Limited Draft. Cards also rotate out of use, so buying cards is somewhat of a required on-going cost in order to play competitively. This makes it an expensive proposition to start playing Magic on an on-going basis.
Hearthstone however has built a very successful free-to-play model that feels rewarding rather than limiting. Mobile apps are where we usually find free-to-play models of distribution. However it always feels false in its presentation as a free way to play the game, usually by making the grind so slow and boring that players are forced to pay for premium access just to have a decent play experience.
Hearthstone bucks this trend by genuinely providing a strong gaming experience for players who do not want to put money into the game, especially through Arena runs. Earning gold to play for an Arena run may only take a few games spread out over 2 or 3 days, so you can easily afford to enter the Arena a couple of times a week with no upfront cost. Since the Arena pays out rewards of card packs, gold and crafting currency, you can feasibly access nearly all of the paid content by being a free player.
Final Thoughts – Which is Better?
“Hearthstone because it’s much less frustrating and easier to get into. I recently switched from Magic to Hearthstone and I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”
“Magic, all day every day. It’s the mother of trading card games.”
– comments on the tradingcardgames.com Facebook page
As with all questions, context is everything. Both Hearthstone and Magic provide strategic gameplay, just at different levels of expectation. Hearthstone is a child of the digital age – it is sleek, beautiful and provides instant gratification with its brightly animated, sound-filled world.
Magic is older, wiser, deeper and more complex but has a higher barrier to entry for new players and it mostly appeals to a very specific kind of strategy gamer. Not to mention, you can’t actually sit at a table and play Hearthstone face to face with real cards (yet!). Nothing beats going to your local games store and playing a sealed tournament with a new Magic set in the company of local gamers.
There is also the problem of digital implementation for Magic: its own digital game versions have just not been all that good in comparison to the paper game, and most people suspect this is because Wizards of the Coast fear that any exceptional digital version will cannibalize sales of their paper product. So those who are waiting for a truly exceptional Magic simulator may find that it is just not in the interest of Wizards/Hasbro to make such a game.
In the meantime, Blizzard are pushing upward and onward with their new challenger to the TCG throne. Arguably, they already have the throne, if we limit it to just digital TCGs. Whether you like it or not, Hearthstone has taken the gaming world by storm and it’s here to stay. If Magic is going to keep up, it’s going to have to do better – or just accept that its dominance depends on the paper game rather than any of the digital versions thus far.
If you want a deep TCG experience, nothing will beat the intricate design and core gameplay of the Magic: the Gathering. But if you’re after something snazzy, fast, and just incredibly fun to play on your tablet or computer, Hearthstone is the clear winner.