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Why Hearthstone succeeded online where Magic: The Gathering failed

Why Hearthstone succeeded online where Magic: The Gathering failed


Perfecting the collectible card game format for the free-to-play digital era

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Over the last year I've fallen in love with Hearthstone, an online update to the collectible card game (CCG) genre pioneered two decades ago by Magic: the Gathering. I've invested more time and money in Hearthstone than I can really afford, and today my addiction is going to get much worse. The first major expansion for the game, Goblins vs Gnomes, is being released in the US today, and I'm shamelessly writing this article so that I can play it for hours and call it "research".

Why didn't Magic figure this out?

The game mechanics for Hearthstone are heavily in debt to Magic: the Gathering. In both you draw creatures and spells from a deck, and use resources to cast them into play. You use those cards to attack your enemy, and the first one to run out of life points loses. I fell head over heels for Magic back in elementary school, and I've since sampled some of the digital versions for desktop PC, iPad, and Xbox, hoping to rekindle that passion. But none of them stuck with me, which made me wonder, why has Hearthstone succeeded where Magic has failed?

Magic: the Gathering continues to attract legions of fans, and is in fact one of the biggest drivers of revenue growth at its parent company, Hasbro. But as my colleague TC Sottek pointed out recently, Magic has never managed to release a compelling version for online play, one that struck the right balance for veterans and beginners. In startup speak, you might say Magic has the problems of many successful incumbents, too mired in the complexity and legacy of its original blockbuster business to move nimbly into the future, too attached to its golden goose to risk making major change.

A great online collectible card game needed to start from scratch

To extend that tech metaphor, you might say Magic: the Gathering is the Microsoft of collectible card games: a relentlessly profitable behemoth who seems to have missed the boat on the latest industry shifts. A company that can't bear the idea of not charging for its core product, hobbled by debts to older form factors and a community of power-users it doesn't want to anger. That leaves a massive opportunity for a new challenger willing to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Enter Hearthstone.

A game of Magic can take just a few minutes, but it can also drag out to an hour or more. Hearthstone strips away a lot of that overhead by keeping the deck sizes smaller and turning resources into something that automatically accrue each turn. In Hearthstone, unlike Magic, you can't make new plays during your opponent's turn, a truly asynchronous structure that speeds things up greatly.

Hearthstone passed 20 million players in its first year

No doubt many experienced collectible card game players will say that Hearthstone's variation on the format removes an essential complexity and nuance. But in my year of playing, and watching many Magic devotees who have become Hearthstone fans, it seems the game has actually found just the right balance between accessibility and depth. It's that one-two punch that allowed Hearthstone to sign up over 20 million players in its first year, but also attracted lots of pro gamers, who helped make it one of the most watched titles on Twitch.

The weight of history is hard to shedOf course some of the issues with Magic that Hearthstone avoids are simply the downside of of age and success. After decades of releasing new sets, there are more than 10,000 cards in the Magic universe, and a dizzying array of rules and rule-breaking-exceptions to learn along with them. That's very intimidating for new players, especially when you're asking people to learn online with strangers, not face-to-face with another human in the comfort of a local comic or gaming shop.

Hearthstone by contrast, currently has 500-700 cards you can collect and play, depending on how you count. That makes it much easier for rookies to get their head around what they're playing, and narrows the possible gap between the haves and the have nots. With each new expansion that comes out, the entire universe of what's possible radically shifts. Today, as Hearthstone players across the country scramble like mad to obtain and test out the new Goblins vs Gnomes cards, the playing field will be momentarily leveled, and I can mix it up with the pros, knowing that they didn't have bigger monsters or better spells, that they to were still figuring out how all this new stuff worked too.

Old enough to repaint, but young enough to sell

With Magic, each new expansion adds more flavor, and there are certainly new ideas and play mechanics that have the power to shake up how the game is played. But like a downhill snowball gaining in size, each expansion has less effect on the overall trajectory, less ability to impact the direction after so much inertia has been built. The flip side, of course, is that Magic has stayed popular for 20 years, and continues to grow. It's too soon to judge, but I wonder how many free-to-play digital games will be able to maintain that build that kind of legacy. Maybe 10 years from now it's possible Hearthstone will be just as massive, that it will be frighteningly complex and too indebted to long time players like myself to make dramatic changes. By that time we'll probably be discussing how to build the best CCG for virtual reality, or neural computing, and we'll wonder why Hearthstone can't keep up with these advances.

That perfect mix of forethought, tactics, and luck

All of which is to say that it's been amazing playing a great CCG online for the last year, and watching Hearthstone become a competitive phenomenon at a global scale. Of all the video and board games I've played, CCG's have my perfect mix of forethought, tactics, and luck, with a dash of addictive collectibility thrown in to seal the deal. Magic: the Gathering lit a spark in me unlike any other game I've played. For the roughly seven years I played it as a kid — before I regrettably decided to discard it so I could "be cool" — it was one of my most abiding passions, and the source of many nights of incredible entertainment. Hearthstone has struck that same chord, but tuned in a new key, for the current era.