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Hearthstone Battlegrounds is the strangest auto battler we’ve played

It really is just Hearthstone as an auto battler

Hearthstone: Battlegrounds Vs logo Blizzard Entertainment
Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

During the opening ceremony for BlizzCon 2019, Blizzard announced a new mode for Hearthstone called Battlegrounds. Battlegrounds is Blizzard’s take on the auto battler genre — games like DOTA Auto Chess, Underlords, and Teamfight Tactics.

While much of Battlegrounds has features that auto battler players have grown to love, it maintains a surprising amount of Hearthstone as well. The result is the weirdest auto battler we’ve seen yet — in a good way, probably.

My match starts with me selecting a hero from a group of three. This is my hero for the entire game, and their special ability could alter my playstyle completely.

One character I played buffed minions in the shop if I sold a minion off my board first. Naturally, I spent the game replacing units rather than investing in them. Another let me spend one of my precious gold pieces to enrage one of my minions, giving it bonus attack power the next round.

In combat, my units work more logically than other auto battlers. Instead of living pieces hopping around a board, punching each other like in Star Wars, I have cards in a straight line. It’s certainly less interesting to watch, but the battle does play out a bit more mathematically.

My cards attack left to right, as do my opponent’s. Our units take turns attacking random enemies until each minion is gone. Then it starts with the leftmost minion again, until one side has no cards left. The winner adds up their cards, and deals damage to the loser.

The buying phase is similar to other auto battlers. But instead of upgrading the number of units I can put out at once, I can instead invest in the shopkeeper. With each new level, the shopkeeper will offer more cards or higher level cards for me to buy. And every unit — regardless of how good it is — costs three gold.

Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds economy is one of the changes I’m not sold on, however. Instead of allowing players to amass a ton of gold, players can hold a max of 10 pieces each round — starting at round seven or so. And whether I spent it all or spent nothing the round before, I still end up with 10 gold the next round.

The economy is simpler, but it doesn’t promote that deep, decision-based gameplay many players come to the genre for. In that way, Hearthstone Battlegrounds seems a bit at odds with itself. It embraces the genre in a lot of key places, but spins out to something completely different in others.

The good news is most of those alterations are fun and interesting. The way Hearthstone effects like Taunt or Battlecry play into the match allows for a lot of build synergy. In my matches, I never used the same hero twice, and never had a remotely similar board. With every turn, I watched my cards get stronger through passive bonuses or my own devilish plays. It’s a mode less about hunting the shop for duplicates, and more about pairing cards together in the most broken way possible.

Of all the demos at BlizzCon, Battlegrounds was the one I couldn’t wrap my head around. On one hand, it’s actively fun to create powerful builds, and it’s unique — something that’s nice to see in a genre that’s ballooned rapidly in less than a year. But Battlegrounds economy left me a little concerned for the long-term strategy — as did the potential balancing nightmare that is the random hero selection at the start of each game.

As someone who hasn’t invested time in Hearthstone in years, Battlegrounds is the first offering in a long time that’s peaked my interest. I can’t say if Battlegrounds will be good or interesting in a month, but I spent my entire BlizzCon thinking about playing one more match in the press room — even with giants like Diablo 4, Overwatch 2, and World of Warcraft: Shadowlands readily available.

I don’t know if I like Battlegrounds, but I’m intrigued by it. And that has to count for something.