It’s impossible to be a fan of collectable card games without reading the name “Hearthstone” a couple of times a day – on a Discord server, maybe, or a Twitch streamer’s chat. Released worldwide in 2014, Blizzards tyrant of a CCG has brought joy to over 70 million players and last year broke the Daily Active User record. But how did what can often be mocked as a “children’s card game” become so dominant? Well, after winning various awards and even a BAFTA for Best Multiplayer Game, its rise to the top was no RNG – the mixture of top notch visual design, regularly expanding card library and first-mover advantage hooked many a player and kept them engaged. The big question, however, is can it be toppled, or is its iron fist simply too OP?
Many will know me as a fan of The Witcher franchise and its own CCG, Gwent: The Witcher Card Game. Not only that, but before that I was more of a Texas Hold-em man than a Heroes of Warcraft nerd. It was CDPR’s own take on the genre that spiked my interest. And the more I learned about CCGs, the more I could see Hearthstone’s influence on the genre.
The Reno Jackson Effect
As part of the Temple of Orsis adventure, Hearthstone players can earn a unique legendary, the infamous Reno Jackson. At the cost of running no duplicates, its Battlecry would fully heal your hero. At first glance, this sounds powerful; boosting your health from 1 to 30 in a close match could win you the game. It was its deck building restriction, however, that put many players off. But that didn’t prevent its 15 minutes of meta-fame.
Reno Jackson was the first card of its kind in Hearthstone to require no-duplicates, and its design has inspired similar cards in other CCGs. Recently, Gwent: The Witcher Card Game introduced a new legendary, Ciri: Nova, with a strict deck building requirement. Initially a 1 point gold, Ciri: Nova will strengthen to 22 if your deck runs only 2 of every bronze card. Gwent is a game of deck efficiency and no mana system. Players can play their cards in any order and almost always run 3 of each bronze unit. When this card was revealed, it became known as “Ciri Jackson” and, like its Hero healing ancestor, stormed the meta.
As they say, “imitation is the best form of flattery”. But will introducing more strict deck building cards like Ciri: Nova and Shupe’s Day Off allow Gwent to be a true Assassin of Kings and knock Hearthstone off its throne? Even with its growing e-sports scene and A list player base – Hearthstone veterans Lifecoach and Noxious clashed in the first Gwent Challenger – Gwent is still in beta. And that’s not forgetting a limited card pool, compared to Hearthstone’s 1000+. Also, playing without mana restrictions is no doubt refreshing but not without its balance issues.
The Eternal Throne
On the other hand, Eternal Card Game has a large card pool despite its young age and recently added 280+ new cards with the Dusk Road expansion. It features many mechanics that CCG fans will recognise, like forcing two units to fight and utilising weapons to buff your tokens. To ensure informed balancing, the developers, Dire Wolf Digital, also consult a group of professional Magic: the Gathering players before patching. It sports a mana system, day and night cycles, and individual factions that make it complex but approachable.
Eternal is one of my personal favourite CCGs, utilising the intense, fast-paced action of Hearthstone with the deep, outplay potential of Magic. And if you’re not a fan of grinding ranked, that’s fine too. Its Arena mode is fun, well-designed and even sports its own leader board that rewards multiple runs. Despite a niche player base, the community is growing every day, with weekly and open tournaments in full swing. Players can join the Eternal Tournament Series and compete for Series Points to join upcoming invitational events. But it’s a long way from competing with Hearthstone’s popularity.
The CCG Next Door
Speaking of popularity, Magic: the Gathering has been around since 1993 and, despite a recent 40% fall in numbers, is probably the only card game to match Hearthstone’s player base and colossal card pool. Featuring satellite qualifiers for national tournaments and the weekly, worldwide get together known as “Friday Night Magic”, MtG has been a household name long before Blizzard had even launched World of Warcraft. It’s only drawback is a lack of a decent online client, which Magic Duels failed to provide. Fortunately, the NDA for the MtG: Arena beta is soon to be lifted, and we hope this incarnation will introduce a new generation of CCG gamers to the original king of card games.
A New Challenger Steps Up
Let’s face it: currently, there is no CCG currently in existence capable of toppling our Hearthstone overlord. Some hope is offered, however, by Valve’s Artifact, which is still in development but should launch year.
Now, when Valve announced their upcoming DOTA 2 card game last summer, the internet’s response wasn’t exactly positive. But since then, speculation and teasers have begun to win over the CCG world. The Artifact subreddit, for example, is growing daily. Some frustrated Gwent players are even making cheeky jests like “Gwent: The Artifact Waiting Room”.
And even though we haven’t received the release date yet, Valve have already been consulting esports teams, which suggest they are serious about setting up a competitive scene. We don’t know much about gameplay, but multi-lane interactions have been promised alongside a selling and trading system for players. This is something that Hearthstone, Gwent and Eternal all lack.
Waiting for Artifact is like bracing yourself for an earthquake you’re already expecting. You don’t know when it will finally happen, but even if it’s a mere ripple, it’s going to leave its mark no matter what. Hearthstone better hold on to their crown, because we’ve seen video game monarchs fall from their thrones before. After all, DOTA 2 was the rebel resistance to League of Legends MOBA dictatorship. And let’s not forget Blizzards love for creating RNG heavy cards to appeal to a casual audience. If Valve focus on building a skill oriented card game with an in-game tournament interface, then many Hearthstone players could be tempted to abscond.