When it comes to Hearthstone, a collectible card game you play online, I am a helpless addict. I battle late into the night and squeeze in a game or two over breakfast. Several times over the past year and a half I deleted the game from my computer, tablet, and mobile phone, vowing to devote those hours to work and family, read a goddamn novel, or finish that long suffering book proposal which had been gestating in Google Docs. But I would always relapse. One more game. A peek at the newest expansion. Just a taste to get me through this long airplane flight.
The mechanics of Hearthstone are familiar to anyone who has played Magic: The Gathering. You build a deck of 30 cards comprised of creatures and spells. Each turn you draw a card and add one point of resources you can spend to put cards from your hand into play. Creatures and spells can do damage to other creatures or players, who each begin with 30 points of life. It has elements of chess and poker with the flavor of a fantasy novel and the added narcotic of a collectible like baseball cards. The combination, for me at least, is too potent to resist.
Get 'em young, keep 'em loyal
Hearthstone is made by Blizzard and set in the world of Warcraft, a gaming universe that Blizzard began back in 1994, and which gave me my first taste of game addiction. I have a vivid memory of a weekend when I was perhaps 13 or 14 years old; my parents were going out of town for 24 hours visiting friends, and I was left to my own devices. I had just purchased Warcraft II for $60 from J&R Computers with several months of saved allowance. Get ‘em young and keep ‘em loyal.
From the moment my parents left, I was playing. I did not sleep, or finish my homework, or stop much to eat. I played with the single-minded focus of a junkie deep into a session until, abruptly, my computer crashed. I stumbled out of the dream to realize that my folks would be home in less than two hours. I was shocked. I had never before experienced a complete loss in my sense of time. The hours had felt like minutes. I was still hungry for more.
I tell myself it's under control
Hearthstone has never treated me to quite such a brutal binge. My relationship with the game is closer to that of a chain smoker who tells himself that one or two couldn’t hurt and ends up finishing the whole pack. Occasionally it gets to a level that irritates or concerns my wife, but it hasn’t damaged our relationship. I spend lots of time with my kids, and I manage to write big feature stories for a well-respected website. I tell myself I’ve got everything under control. Instead of playing at work, I keep a Twitch stream of other people enjoying Hearthstone running in the background. It’s my patch, my piece of gum, close enough to keep me from breaking the rules but also maintaining the presence of the addictive chemical in my system at all times.
Why do I find Hearthstone so pleasurable and irresistible? I’ve thought about this a lot, hell this whole piece is an attempt to pin down an answer. Getting lost in a video game isn’t exclusive to Hearthstone for me, it’s part of my overall personality. But I cannot remember any other computer game I played for more than a year without eventually getting bored and setting it aside, at least temporarily in favor of something new.
Revisiting an old mistress
The game is based on the collectible card game format made popular by Magic: The Gathering, which I also played obsessively as a kid. I recently tried out the new online offerings from Magic and the differences with Hearthstone helped to sharpen my understanding of what makes Blizzard’s game so special and so addictive.
Hearthstone is equal parts skill and luck. Like poker, the best players will win more often. But even an idiot can draw the perfect hand. I find that this makes for matches which are supremely frustrating, exhilarating, and on many occasions, laugh out loud hilarious. The advantage can swing back and forth in an instant, something that, at least in my experience is not true of most competitive video games. There is none of the persistent grinding and tactical precision of CounterStrike or League of Legends here.
As I played through Magic: The Gathering’s new digital game earlier this month, it became clear that no matter how well the game is adapted for a digital format, it will never work as well as a native like Hearthstone. The key difference is that Hearthstone can include an element of random selection, in which cards that neither player has in their deck enter the field of play. Cards can appear that suddenly provide you the winning boost or accidentally undermine a carefully laid plan.
Lady luck deals in dopamine
On Monday, Hearthstone released a new expansion, The Grand Tournament, setting off a debate within the community that occurs anytime the substance or structure of a game is tweaked, especially one with a competitive element where players can earn millions in prize money. Some felt that too many of the new cards were bad, others that too many of the new cards were too powerful. Some wished that old cards had been introduced instead of new versions that were identical in resource cost but higher in power.
Digital tweaks have heightened the potency
This is a natural part of the ecosystem around competitive card games. But what struck me was the realization that while many cards were too "bad" to see any play in a competitive setting, the random elements of the game ensure that they will still make their way onto the field. When that happens, players are faced with a sudden boon or unintentional handicap that they will need to play around. A "bad" card becomes an interesting challenge.
Hearthstone includes two other formats, Arena and Tavern brawl, where players are given a random selection of cards or a wacky format that changes each week. Both eliminate the need for players to have any cards in their collections. This solves another big problem in Magic, which is that you need to invest a lot of time and money into the game before you can become competitive and play with the rarest and most interesting cards.
I’ve digressed from writing about my addiction to a lengthy explanation of why I love this game so much, and if you think I wasn’t playing quick games of Hearthstone while writing this piece, you might be on your own drug of choice. Still, I hope there was some genuine catharsis that will come out of publicly discussing my struggle. If you want to share your story, please do in the comments. And if you feel like playing a quick game of Hearthstone, I’m always around.