Hearthstone, originally known as Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, is a free-to-play online collectible card video game developed and published by Blizzard Entertainment. Having been released worldwide on March 11, 2014, Hearthstone builds upon the already existing lore of the Warcraft series by using the same elements, characters, and relics. It was first released for Microsoft Windows and macOS, with support for iOS and Android devices being added later. The game features cross-platform play, allowing players on any device to compete with each other, restricted only by geographical region account limits.
The game is a turn-based card game between two opponents, using constructed decks of thirty cards along with a selected hero with a unique power. Players use their limited mana crystals to cast spells or summon minions to attack the opponent, with the goal to reduce the opponent’s health to zero. Winning matches can earn in-game gold, rewards in the form of new cards, and other in-game prizes. Players can then buy packs of new cards through gold or micro transactions to customize and improve their decks. The game features several modes of play, including casual and ranked matches, as well as daily quests to help players earn gold and cards. New content for the game involves the addition of new card sets and gameplay, taking the form of either expansion packs or single-player adventures that reward the player with collectible cards upon completion.
In contrast to other games developed by Blizzard, Hearthstone was an experimental game developed by a smaller team based on the appreciation of collectible card games at the company. The game was designed to avoid pitfalls of other digital collectible card games by eliminating any possible plays from an opponent during a player’s turn and by replicating the feel of a physical card game within the game’s user interface. Many of the concepts as well as art assets were based on those previously published in the physical World of Warcraft Trading Card Game.
The game has been favorably reviewed by critics and is financially successful for Blizzard, making as much as $40 million per month as of August 2017. As of May 2017, Blizzard has reported more than 70 million Hearthstone players. The game has become popular as an eSport, with cash prize tournaments hosted by Blizzard and other organizers.
An example of gameplay in Hearthstone. Players use cards from their hand, such as minions and spells, to interact with the game board
Hearthstone is a digital-only collectible card game that revolves around turn-based matches between two opponents (player vs. player or player vs. computer opponent) using pre-made decks of cards from their collection. In matches, players use their card deck, representing summon able minions, spells, and other actions, along with their selected Hero’s unique power, to try to defeat their opponent by reducing their health to zero before the opponent can do the same to them. Players can choose from a number of game modes, with each offering a slightly different experience. Players start the free-to-play game with a limited collection of basic cards but can gain rarer and more powerful cards through purchasing packs of cards through micropayments or as rewards from specific game modes. Blizzard has added new cards sets through Expansions and Adventures, roughly three times a year, to increase the pool of available cards. To help newer players remain competitive with experienced ones while also keeping the metagame dynamic, Blizzard has implemented two different styles of gameplay; Standard which uses only the basic set of cards plus those of the most recent expansions, and Wild, which allows any cards to be used.
Hearthstone is set within the Warcraft universe, with its characters, spells and locations drawing from existing lore. Each player is represented by a ‘hero’, a character from Warcraft lore representing one of nine specific classes. The classes are defined by their unique hero power that can be used during a player’s turn, and the selection of class-specific cards that the player uses to construct the hero’s deck.
The game features several modes of gameplay. The standard Play mode allows players to challenge other players or computer opponents. Players can compete with other players or the computer in casual matches, or in ranked play against human opponents to rise up a tier-ladder system within each month-long season, earning in-game rewards for higher placement. Solo Adventures allow players to complete challenges against computer opponents, often with unique conditions, cards, or powers, to earn cards. The boss encounters feature unique dialogue elements. Arena mode allows the player to draft a deck, selecting one of three random cards until they reach thirty, and then challenge other players until either they lose three times or win twelve times, earning in-game rewards based on the win-loss record. Tavern Brawls are challenges that change weekly, that may offer unique heroes, cards, rules, or limits on deck construction; winning a weekly challenge also earns the player in-game rewards. Atop these modes in the game there are up to three randomly-selected quests which generally can only be completed within Play or Arena modes against human opponents; completing these quests earns the player in-game gold or other rewards; a random quest is added daily.
The following table lists the card releases by their type or expansion name, their North American date of release (with the release in other regions typically within a day afterward), the date of the expansion’s transfer to the Wild format, and the distribution of cards within that release. Blizzard has announced there will be three expansions of about 130 cards each in 2017.
Blizzard has adopted a “Year” moniker to identify when expansions have been retired from Standard format; the first, “Year of the Kraken”, lasting from April 2016 to March 2017, retired the Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins vs. Gnomes expansions, while the “Year of the Mammoth”, starting in April 2017, retired the Blackrock Mountain, The Grand Tournament and League of Explorers sets. Initially, retired expansions were not available to purchase, but in July 2017, players were able to purchase these and all future expansions that are retired from Standard on Blizzard’s website. In the “Year of the Mammoth”, Standard moved some Classic cards to the “Hall of Fame” set that is not playable in Standard but still can be obtained and available to play in Wild format.
Collectible Cards Breakdown:
Development and Conception
Hearthstone interface designer Derek Sakamoto presents at GDC 2015
Development of Hearthstone at Blizzard was inspired by two directions, according to developer Eric Dodds: a desire for Blizzard to develop something more experimental with a smaller team in contrast to their larger projects, and the shared love of collectible card games throughout the company. Blizzard executives, around 2008, had considered that their revenue was primarily sustained on three well-established properties (the Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo series), but saw the rise of small independent developers with highly successful projects, representing a shift in the traditional video game model. To explore this new direction, Blizzard brought a number of people into “Team 5”, named after being the fifth development team formed at Blizzard. Initially, the team had between 12 and 15 members, in contrast to other Blizzard games with teams in excess of 60 members. By November 2015, the team had 47 members.
Of the game types they explored, Team 5 soon focused on the collectible card game approach, given that many on the team and in Blizzard had played such games since their introduction. The team found it natural to build the card game around the existing Warcraft lore; according to production director Jason Chayes, Warcraft was already a well-known property, and the depth of characters and locations created for other games in that series made it easy to create cards inspired by those. They also saw that new players to Warcraft may be drawn into the other games through playing Hearthstone. The team was able to pull concepts and art from the pre-existing World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, first published in 2006 by Upper Deck and later by Cryptozoic Entertainment; when Hearthstone was near completion, in 2013, Blizzard terminated its license with Cryptozoic as to favor their pending digital card game. The addition of heroes, an aspect from the previous trading card game, was found to help personalize the game for the player to allow players to discover useful combinations of cards for each hero.
Game design and programming
After about a year of starting development, the team had produced an Adobe Flash prototype of the game that offered the core card game mechanics and the unique heroes. At this point, several on Team 5 were temporarily moved into other teams to complete the release of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. This 10-to-11 month period was considered fortuitous by the team, according to Chayes. Principal designers Dodds and Ben Brode remained developing Hearthstone, and the two were able to quickly iterate many ideas using both the prototype and physical replicas to fine-tune the game mechanics. Secondly, those that were put on StarCraft II came back with ideas based on StarCraft‘s asymmetric gameplay to help balance the various heroes while still creating a unique characterization and play-style for each.
Further development on the game’s user interface began using the principle that the game needed to be both accessible and charming, being able to draw in new players and to be clear how to play the game. Unity is used as the game engine in the interest of speed and to make the game run smoother since the server is where all of the rules exist and calculations happen then the server tells the client what happened. Dodds stated that “it’s important that you don’t have to spend a lot of time understanding the rules to play the game, the depth grows as you go.” Gameplay elements such as pre-made decks for each hero, deck building helps, and visual cues on which cards could be played were used to guide new players. Card text was written in a way so that a new player should be able to immediately understand the effects.
From the beginning, the game was designed to be played solely online and to mimic the feel of physical cards to make it more accessible to new players. Dodds found that past attempts to digitize physical card games by other companies left areas they felt were lacking, and wanted to improve on that experience. One particular example are card games where players have the ability to react to other players; Dodds noted that when playing in the same room as another player, these types of interactions are straightforward, but consume a great deal of time in a virtual space. Hearthstone was designed to eliminate any gameplay from the opponent during the player’s turn, streamlining the game.
Other aspects of the game’s interface were set to replicate the feel of a physical game being watched by an audience: Hearthstone starts with the player opening a box, during gameplay the cards waver and move while in their hand, and cards when played slam down on the board. When attacking, cards leap across the board to strike the target; when a massive spike of damage is dealt, the board shakes; when a massive creature is summoned, an unseen audience gasps in awe. Hearthstone also offers interactive boards. The boards on which the cards are played can be interacted with in various ways, such as virtually petting a dragon, although the feature is purely for entertainment and has no effect on gameplay. This idea came out from the movie Jumanji in which a board game comes to life, and also mimics how physical card players would often toy with their cards while waiting on their opponent.
The game’s name, Hearthstone, was meant to imply to a close gathering of friends by a hearth, a goal of what they want players to feel. According to Chayes, they had experimented with other constructs of where these card games would take place, and only about halfway through development came onto the idea of using a pub’s hearth as the theme; Chayes stated that with that concept, “this is a great way to play, it works with all our values, it has a lot of charm”. To maintain a friendly environment around this construct, they added in the ability to trigger one of a few friendly compliments that can be said by a hero, so that players could still emote to their opponent without having to worry about any vitriol.
The soundtrack was composed by Peter McConnell; with trailer music by Jason Hayes. According to McConnell and Dodds, who oversaw the music direction, they wanted to create a soundtrack that would reflect the tavern setting they had established for the game, but they did not want to overwhelm this theme. McConnell came upon the idea of mixing Celtic music with blues rock—pondering the idea of “what if ZZ Top or Golden Earring had been transported back in time to the Middle Ages?”—and working in other previous Warcraft themes among the new songs with help from Hayes. Hayes also worked with Glenn Stafford to create short “stingers” of music used when players summon Legendary cards.
Promotion and release
Internal beta testing of the game within Blizzard began in 2012. A closed beta was launched in August 2013, while the game was put into open beta in January 2014. These beta testing periods were used to evaluate the game’s balance, adjusting cards they found to be too powerful or too weak, and making sure no single Hero or deck type dominated the game. As they approached the game’s release in March 2014, Blizzard found that it was hard to generate interest in getting people to try the game, believing that once they tried it they would be drawn into the game; those they asked to try the game felt that Hearthstone wasn’t the type of game they would be interested in playing. At this point, Blizzard opted to make Hearthstone free to play supported by micro transactions for less patient players. This helped to significantly boost the game’s popularity on release.
Blizzard provides regular bug fixes, updates, and expansions for Hearthstone. Hamilton Chu, the executive producer for Hearthstone, stated that Blizzard intends to support the game for ten to twenty years, similar to Blizzard’s other titles, though they have no long-term plan of how they would continue to introduce cards. The principle means that additional cards have been introduced to the game are through either themed Expansions or Adventures. Expansions are new card sets, containing between 100-200 new cards, that become available to buy or win, as well introducing new mechanics to the gameplay. Adventures feature smaller number of cards, between 20-45, which can only be earned by completing multiple tiers of story-based challenges and boss fights in single player mode. Blizzard had originally envisioned to release Expansions in a staged approach as to not drastically jar the player community, creating the Adventure concept for the first post-release addition with Curse of Naxxramas. By the meta-game remained unpredictable both during and for several months, helping to keep the playing community interested in the game and validating their approaches. The solo challenges on Adventure mode also served as a means to help players understand some of the stronger archetypes of card decks and learn strategies to defeat them, helping them become better players against human opponents. Going forward in 2017 in the “Year of the Mammoth”, future expansions will principally be around the new cards sets, forgoing Adventures. Blizzard recognized that players do enjoy the single-player narrative events and will work in quests and missions around the new card sets for those players.
Development of the themes and mechanics for each Expansion and Adventure are often based on the current atmosphere around the Hearthstone community, according to senior designer Mike Donais. While early expansions were based on the Warcraft franchise, the developers have been able to move away from staying with that narrative and are free to create new aspects not established by Warcraft. This idea was reflected by the dropping of the “Heroes of Warcraft” subtitle from the game’s name around December 2016 to demonstrate to new players that the game was no longer tied to Warcraft.
In addition to new cards and mechanics, Blizzard has also worked to add new features to Hearthstone itself. The Tavern Brawl mode was in development for over a year before it was released in June 2015; the feature went through many iterations before the team was satisfied. Dodds equated the Tavern Brawl mode as a place to try experimental mechanics that may later be introduced to the game, as well as to offer gameplay that varies significantly from other areas of play within Hearthstone. Blizzard experimented with cross-platform play during development, having successfully played a game on PC against a player using an iPad; however, it was not a feature at launch. Cross-platform play was added in April 2014.
The introduction of the Standard vs. Wild formats in April 2016 was an issue that the developers knew since Hearthstone‘s initial release that they would need to address; according to Brode, as new cards were introduced to the game, they recognized that new players would start to find the game inaccessible, while adjusting the balance of the meta-game of which cards from previous expansions had proven over- or underused. The ideas for how to actually implement Standard mode started about a year before its introduction. Though they will continue to design the game to maintain the appropriate balance for the Standard format, they will also monitor how future cards will impact the Wild format and make necessary changes to keep that mode entertaining. With the Year of the Mammoth changes to Standard, the designers opted to move some Classic cards to a new “Hall of Fame” set that is not usable in Standard. They found that these cards were often “auto-includes” for certain deck types, and created a stagnant metagame around those decks, and opted to move them out of Standard. As compensation, those that own these Hall of Fame cards received the arcane dust value of the cards they possess while still being able to use those cards in Wild. The “Hall of Fame” format also allows Blizzard to move Classic cards that have been nerfed (purposely weakened) previously to be un-nerfed and moved into the “Hall of Fame”; Blizzard found that players using Wild decks were impacted significantly by these nerfs and this approach would allow those deck formats to still thrive without disrupting Standard. To make up for cards moving out of Classic, Blizzard may consider bringing in individual cards from retired sets into the Classic set that they believe would be suitable for Standard. The associated switch of Arena mode from Wild to Standard with modified card rarity distributions with the “Year of the Mammoth” update was aimed to keep the pool of cards available to draft smaller, increasing the chances of drafting cards that they had intended to be used in synergistic combinations from the individual expansions.
Hearthstone was first announced at Penny Arcade Expo in March 2013 for Windows, Mac, and iPad, with an expected release date in the same year. In August 2013, the game went into closed beta, to which over one million players had been invited as of November 8, 2013, with plans to enter open beta in December. Blizzard continued closed beta into mid-January 2014 despite their original estimation. Blizzard announced open beta for North America on January 21, 2014. Open beta was announced for Europe on January 22, 2014 and on January 23, 2014 open beta was made available in all regions.
The game was released on March 11, 2014, available on Microsoft Windows and macOS operating systems. By the end of March 2014, the game had more than 10 million player accounts registered worldwide. On April 2, 2014, the game was released for iPad in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. On April 16, 2014 it was released globally, supporting all iPads except the first iPad. On August 6, 2014, support for Windows 8 touchscreen devices was added to the game, although not for Windows RT devices. On December 15, 2014, the game was released for Android tablets 6″ or larger in Australia, Canada and New Zealand and on December 16, 2014 it was widely released for Android tablets. On April 14, 2015, the game was released for iPhone and Android smartphones worldwide. The smartphone version of the game includes new UI elements that place the player’s hand on the bottom right but only half visible, so players must tap on their hand to zoom in and play cards. Single cards can also be viewed full screen by tapping and holding on a specific card, which is useful to read all the card details while using a smartphone display.
To mark the release of Hearthstone, Blizzard released the Hearthsteed mount for World of Warcraft players that is obtained by winning three games in Arena or Play mode. Widely advertised on various World of Warcraft websites, this promotion encourages World of Warcraft players to try Hearthstone, and marked the first significant crossover implemented between Blizzard games.
Players who purchased the Diablo III: Reaper of Souls expansion pack received Classic packs, with the deluxe and collector’s editions granting additional packs. Players who purchased World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor Collector’s or Digital Deluxe Edition received an Orc handiwork themed card back. Heroes of the Storm players who reach level 12 receive a Heroes of the Storm themed card back and after winning 100 Play mode matches receive a Heroes of the Storm mount that looks like a flying card. Players who purchase the StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void deluxe or collector’s editions receive a Protoss themed card back. Players who purchased either Overwatch Collector’s or Origins Edition receive an Overwatch themed card back. Starting on March 11, 2016, players who level a character to 20 in World of Warcraft, which can be completed with the free starter edition, earn the alternate Paladin hero Lady Liadrin. An alternate hero for Shaman, Morgle the Oracle, is available through Hearthstone’s “Recruit A Friend” program after the recruited friend reaches level 20. Players that connected their Amazon Prime subscription to Twitch Prime in late 2016 earned the alternate Priest hero Tyrande Whisperwind.
Players that pre-ordered with real money the Blackrock Mountain adventure received a card back, and players that pre-ordered 50 card packs of The Grand Tournament, Whispers of the Old Gods, Knights of the Frozen Throne or Kobolds and Catacombs received an exclusive card back. Players that purchased the One Night in Karazhan adventure with real money within the first week of release received an exclusive card back.
To promote the Journey to Un’Goro set, Blizzard made a web series called “Wonders Of Un’Goro” starring Danny Pudi as an adventurer. Before releasing the Knights of the Frozen Throne set, Blizzard worked with Dark Horse Comics to publish a three issue comic book series based on the set.
Despite the designers’ focus on accessibility and fast-paced gameplay, Hearthstone has been the focus of a number of tournaments. Blizzard hosted an exhibition tournament in November 2013 called “The Innkeeper’s Invitational” with three decks each of a different class, featuring several well-known gamers such as Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski, Octavian “Kripparrian” Morosan, Jeffrey “TrumpSC” Shih and World of Warcraft multiple Arena season winner Byron “Reckful” Bernstein. Artosis won the best-of-five tournament. In December 2013, 2P Entertainment hosted a tournament with a prize pool US$4,841 featuring the best players of the Chinese region versus the best players of the American region. Hearthstone was the focus of a number of other tournaments during its closed beta, including those hosted by Major League Gaming and ESL. In March 2014, The eSports Association TeSPA announced the Collegiate Hearthstone Open, a free-to-enter tournament open to all North American college students, featuring $5,000 in scholarships. Major League Gaming, ESL and the ZOTAC Cup all continue to regularly host minor Hearthstone leagues in the North American and European territories with small or no prize pools aimed at everyday players. Blizzard staff “were a little surprised, in a good way” with the game’s success as an eSport during its closed beta.
In April 2014, Blizzard announced the first Hearthstone World Championship would be held at BlizzCon on November 7–8. The tournament featured players from each of the game’s four regions, with each region holding its own regional qualifying tournament. The Americas and Europe regions’ qualifiers featured 160 players each, and determined half of those players from actual in-game performance in Ranked play during the April–August seasons. The four most successful participants of each region’s qualifiers went to the World Championship, for a total of 16 players. The Hearthstone World Championship 2014 featured a total prize pool of $250,000, and the American winner, James “Firebat” Kostesich, received $100,000.
The second Hearthstone World Championship was held at BlizzCon 2015 on November 7 with players selected in a similar way in the previous year and it was played in the best-of-five conquest format; the Swedish winner, Sebastian “Ostkaka” Engwall, received $100,000.
The third Hearthstone World Championship was held at BlizzCon 2016 on November 5 and the winner was Russian Pavel “Pavel” Beltiukov, who earned $250,000. It was played in a Swiss tournament format and one class could be banned from use by the opponent.
The fourth Hearthstone World Championship has a $1 million prize pool and will take place in January 2018. The championship was moved to January to better accommodate the timing for the Standard mode year rotation.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft received “universal acclaim” on iOS and “generally favorable” reviews for PC, according to review aggregator Metacritic. The game was praised for its simplicity, gameplay pace, and attention to detail along with being free-to-play, while the lack of actual card trading between players and any form of tournament mode were pointed out as the major shortcomings. Eurogamer gave the game the perfect score of 10 and remarked that the game is “overflowing with character and imagination, feeds off and fuels a vibrant community of players and performers, and it only stands to improve as Blizzard introduces new features, an iPad version and expansions.” IGN and Game Informer both gave the game a slightly lower grade of 9/10, with IGN’s Justin Davis praising the game for its “elegant simplicity of rules” and “impressive attention to detail and personality, and the true viability of playing completely for free make it easy to fall under its spell and get blissfully lost in the depths of its strategic possibilities.” GameSpot gave the game a score of 8/10, praising the game for its depth and complexity. The only major drawback noted was that the “absence of extra features hampers long-term appeal”.
Later Hearthstone card expansions have also been well received. Game Informer rated the Curse of Naxxramas expansion 9/10, stating “Naxxramas is an excellent addition to the core game, and an exploration of sorts to examine the potential for additional single-player Hearthstone content […] the adventure provides a substantial amount of new content that spills over into ranked, casual, and arena mode and changes how you approach the game.” PC Gamer found that “[Curse of Naxxramas is] a much-needed and fun refresher for Blizzard’s card battler”, however “the next card expansion will need to be more sizeable”, rating it 78/100. Reception for Goblins vs. Gnomes has also been positive, with Game Informer writing “the first expansion set for Hearthstone is a major step forward for the already accessible and fun game”, and awarding it a score of 9.25/10, while Eurogamer scored it an 8/10, writing “whatever happens to Hearthstone in the future, the new content has stumbled a little by strengthening certain deck archetypes that needed no such help […] it’s re-introduced a thoughtfulness to play that’s been absent for too long.”
Commentators have noted that Hearthstone can suffer from “pay to win”, that those that invest monetarily into the game to get new cards and packs have generally a better chance of winning, though it is possible to be successful without spending money. Some have observed that with some of the newer expansions, with the need for strong Legendary cards to construct good decks around, one may need to spend about $50 to $100 to get the right cards to make a successful decks in the Standard format, belying the game’s free-to-play nature.
Sales and playerbase
By September 2014, there were more than 20 million registered Hearthstone players and by January 2015, there were more than 25 million. As of June 2015, the active players were estimated to be about eight million PC players and nine million mobile device players, with some overlap between each group. Blizzard reported 30 million players in May 2015, 40 million in November 2015 and 50 million in April 2016. Blizzard reported it gains 20 million players over the following year, reaching 70 million unique players, and that they saw record numbers for simultaneous players during the launch of the “Journey to Un’Goro” expansion in April 2017.
On May 6, 2015, Activision Blizzard announced that Hearthstone and Destiny have generated nearly $US1 billion in revenue for the company. According to SuperData Research, in June 2015 Hearthstone generated about $20 million in revenue during that month.
Hearthstone has proved to be a popular game to stream and watch on services like Twitch.tv; Hearthstone-based streams overtook Dota 2 streams to become the third-most watched game on the platform in September 2015 and it was the fourth-most watched game in April 2016. In March 2017, Hearthstone was still the fourth-most watched game while nearly matching Dota 2′s hours.
Forbes awarded Hearthstone as the best digital card game of 2013. At The Game Awards 2014, Hearthstone was awarded best mobile/handheld game. In December 2014, GameSpot awarded Hearthstone with mobile game of the year. GameTrailers awarded Hearthstone with multiplayer game of the year and best overall game of 2014. At the DICE Awards 2014, Hearthstone was awarded with mobile game of the year and strategy/simulation game of the year. At the 2014 BAFTA Awards, Hearthstone won best multiplayer game. At the 2014 NAVGTR Awards Hearthstone won the Game, Strategy (Dan Elggren) award.