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An Old School Magic Player's Thoughts on Hearthstone

I avoided Hearthstone for quite a while, but recently I caved and tried it out. I play Magic: The Gathering and I love the face-to-face gameplay and the physical cards. I played Magic Online during the beta over a decade ago and at the time it was "ok" and today the Shiny New Version still resembles something from those days, which makes it "inconceivably bad" especially compared to the new kid on the TCG block: Hearthstone.

There was even a time when I applied for jobs at Wizards in order to try and rectify their always-terrible digital strategy. Was it a conspiracy to drive people towards stores instead of their computer screens? No, they just fail. The primary reason for this is they are smack in the middle of Microsoft World (Redmond, WA), so everyone who is hired to work on digital stuff are the remnants of the braniacs who spewed Internet Explorer on the world. Phew, their websites are so, so bad, too.

When Hearthstone came out, it had behind it the force of some of the best digital artists and game designers on the planet working for Activision Blizzard, which earned $4.5 billion last year. Their game is a true example of beautiful simplicity, especially compared to the convoluted rules of Magic. It's a mobile-first game, designed with the tablet in mind. As I started to play the game, I could imagine the process of the designers... "So, what do we hate about Magic in general and what exactly is so terrible about Magic: Online?" This was their philosophy: Fix the wrong.

It was an interesting experience to be such a noob reacting for the first time to obviously overpowered cards. How could they make the game so unfair that bad players with good rares just own face? Oh, wait. That's one thing they have directly in common with Magic. The game is extremely addictive, with over-the-top reward triggers including giant bags of gold, big yellow bursts of "You Win!" and happy sparkles. That being said, I've already lost interest in the Constructed format.

There are many layers to the game, but the one thing I can't get into is the turn-based play. I am so used to being able to react to my opponents on their turn that I felt this was a design that was too dumbed down. There are genuine opportunities to be rewarded for good play, but much of the way the games play out is solely based on the decks and the sequence of drawing. It really is like Magic.

The game highlights how bad Wizards (Hasbro) is at digital. But hey, they come from a physical toy background, so I suppose we should cut them some slack. The game also highlights how complicated Magic can be. After 20 years of playing, I still have rules questions during tournaments.

One of the strangest aspects of the game is the choice to make it completely non-social. Make no mistake, it's a solo game. There is no chat. There is no trading. There are literally six things you can "say" to your opponent, which makes me feel like everyone's Hodor.

All criticism aside, both Wizards and Blizzard have done a great job of developing the competitive tournament scene. It turns out that there are "pro" level players in these silly games. In fact, you can watch the best in the world compete online at the World Championships of Hearthstone, the winner of which will receive $100,000.

The variance in Magic is much, much higher than in Hearthstone. Everything that is "wrong" about Magic doesn't exist in Hearthstone. But you know what else? The World of Magic, Dominaria, is way more interesting than the "world" of Hearthstone, which is filled with primitive rules and re-hashed characters from their universe. The game of Magic allows for many different angles of attack, whereas I see very little difference between "control" and "aggro" decks on Hearthstone. They both play a lot of the same cards.

Magic continues to evolve and their last set was one of their best ever. And it turns out they aren't ALL bad at digital... back in 1997, they came out with an awesome game that was such a blast... you wandered strange lands picking up random cards and building a better and better deck. Who knows, maybe their newest (not Magic Online) game, Magic 2015: Duels of the Planeswalkers is fun... I'll give it a shot. I promise to roll my eyes only slightly at the Redmond Gods preventing it from coming to the Playstation.

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