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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft hands-on: complex simplicity

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft can trick you with its simplicity.

Blizzard's upcoming free-to-play game is the embodiment of the old adage about a game that's easy to understand but difficult to master, as seen through the lens of a collectible card game. Hearthstone's turn-based combat expands with every round at such an easy-to-understand and measured pace that it's easy to miss how complicated the strategy has gotten until you're planning several rounds ahead.

Play your cards right, and there's a good chance you'll emerge victorious. Throw down like a novice playing 52 Pickup, and you'll walk away from the table in shame.

Polygon spent hours of hands-on time with the recently launched beta and spoke with production director Jason Chayes and lead designer Eric Dodds recently about the game, its origins and how Blizzard hopes Hearthstone's design will welcome novices and experts alike.

Boot up the Hearthstone beta from the new launcher, and it's time for the tutorial: a commendable mini-campaign that pits players against each of the game's classes while teaching them how to play the game.

"It's actually, I think, one of our biggest goals with Hearthstone: accessibility," Eric Dodds told Polygon. "Because we wanted to make a collectible card game that everybody could enjoy. We've looked very carefully at all of these different elements of the game and all of these different places where you could not understand it."

Hearthstone's "introductory experience" is the culmination of Blizzard's desire to teach while playing. And it works.

"We kind of think of our process as peeling layers back from an onion."

Hearthstone is built around one-on-one battles, and its top-down graphical view, ambient noises and minstrel music makes you feel like you're unwinding in an other-worldly tavern as a fire crackles out of sight. It's delivered in a slick package where it really does feel like you're part of the Warcraft world, fighting on a tabletop instead of a dungeon and with a quiver full of graphical flourishes that no real-world card game could ever match.

"That's been one of the big thrills for the dev team," Chayes told Polygon. "How can we take those compulsions — those things people love about physically based card games — and then sort of dial it up to 11, when you're playing it in the virtual space?"

Sitting down at the virtual table, you each begin with one mana point and three cards drawn from a customizable deck of 30. Almost every card — or "minion," in Hearthstone parlance — has three numbers, representing the Mana Points it costs to use, as well as its attack and defense. A 1/1/1 card, for example, costs one Mana Point to use, inflicts one point of damage when it attacks and will "die" and be removed form the table when it takes one point of damage. Your job is to throw down minions to attack your foe and the opposing minions while defending your character as the battle rages, turn by turn, crystal by crystal and card by card.

"Dial it up to 11."

Hearthstone features nine classes — the Mage, Shaman, Druid, Paladin, Warlock, Hunter, Warrior, Rogue and Priest — each of which has its own special class of cards. The rest are for everyone to use. Some cards also include augments, which allow them to attack when thrown down, rather than wait until the next turn like most cards, and throw wrenches into the gears of each match.

The more you play against humans or AI, the more you're rewarded by leveling up, unlocking new character classes and building out ever more perfect decks.

It may sound confusing in text form — and it can sometimes feel that way while playing, too — but making your way through the tutorial and paying attention to failed fights take the complicated and render it simple. That's a goal that Blizzard set out to achieve from the earliest development stages.

"We kind of think of our process as peeling layers back from an onion," Jason Chayes said.

It began with a small team that set out to make a card game in the spirit of those that Blizzard employees already enjoyed. They built and played it, then moved it to other development teams within Blizzard, taking feedback and tweaking the experience along the way. Then it went to the entire company before the last step: the recently launched beta.

"Now we're at that stage where we have a lot of external feedback coming in," Chayes said, "and [we're] vetting a lot of the assumptions we've been making for a while to see how successful we've been in terms of making this more accessible."

Assumptions up for changes, they said, include everything Blizzard has created in Hearthstone: from balances to classes to character taunts. Their development process has been iterative, and nothing seems to be deemed too sacred to change if it makes the game unapproachable.

"We kind of take this approach, where we go through the layers of the onion because we know that, despite our passion, and despite the experience we have with paying other games in the genre and the things that we're learning, we recognize that there's a broad set of players out there, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy the game," Chayes said. "So only through that process of iteration and putting this out progressively to larger and larger audiences [do we] really get that critical feedback."

Despite the willingness to change, Hearthstone is built on a set of foundational principles that include a "visceral" experience and virtual collectibles, all wrapped up into a game that anyone can play.

"Sometimes these principles almost feel opposed to each other, even though they aren't," Dodds said. "Another one of our principles or our steaks in the ground is to make sure that hardcore players can still really enjoy this game for months and years to come. So we have this challenge of, we want to make this game that you can jump right into, but we've got to make sure it has a lot of depth as well."

Building the game they wanted to build was the first step. Learning from others like those playing in the beta is the next. When the final game is released, it will be a game that the team at Blizzard couldn't have done without a lot of help, internally and externally.

"They've certainly guided us all through development," Dodds said.

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