What’s all the fuss about…Hearthstone: How long can the king of online card games retain its throne?

As we’ve covered previously, we’re right in the midst of something of a boom for online collectible card games; what was once a niche genre is growing with each passing month. With each new title looking to take a slice of Hearthstone’s sizeable cake.

As the competition increases and additions to the genre bring new ideas to the table, will Hearthstone’s popularity wane? Is the core gameplay offered by the world’s premier CCG robust enough to fend off this seemingly endless wave of pretenders to its crown?

Here, we’ll look at the three pillars of Hearthstone’s considerable success, assess which is most crucial to maintaining that success, and see how these tenets will stack up against the coming influx of new blood to the genre.

The License

Though many associate the Warcraft license primarily with Blizzard’s MMORPG phenomenon World of Warcraft, its origins actually go back ten years previous to that, with the 1994’s RTS classic Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. It’s undoubtedly in part due to this long history than makes the Warcraft universe feel like such a rich and developed game world.

Though it may have originated elsewhere, it’s true that World of Warcraft is the game that has truly shaped the franchise. Though some background existed before, it would be dwarfed in comparison to the masses of comprehensive lore that would be created for that archetypal MMO.

As anyone who has encountered it will testify, Warcraft has a very specific feel to it; a colorful vibrancy and sense of fun that makes the world feel comfortable to inhabit and welcoming to newcomers. There have been many attempts from other games to replicate the formula, with varying degrees of success, but in truth, there’s only one franchise that pulls it off perfectly. It’s a balancing act; veer too far into joviality, and you risk parody, resulting in players struggling to take the game world seriously. Get it just right, as Blizzard consistently has, and you end up with a universe players love spending time (and money) in.

The franchise connection was important in the early days of Hearthstone in attracting paid-up WoW players that were not necessarily CCG fans to the new property. The Warcraft association matters much less now in bringing players in, as Hearthstone is now established enough to stand on its own feet. However, the Warcraft world is still important in that it serves as a comfortable, approachable backdrop to the card-battling gameplay, and a translatable seal of quality for anyone looking to enter into the CCG world for the first time.

The Mechanics

Hearthstone is not the most obviously tactically rich CCG. I’d argue that many other games in the genre are, certainly in the early stages of learning to play, mechanically much more interesting. Elder Scrolls: Legends, for example, has its dual-lane system, while Gwent has its melee, ranged and siege ranks where only corresponding cards types can be placed. Even more, off-piste examples exist, too, like newcomer Faeria, which combines the card-battling with a hex-board and elements of traditional turn-based strategy.

Hearthstone takes a much simpler approach. Mana increases automatically each turn, dictating the pace of the game and removing the need to balance this aspect of gameplay. Cards are played, spells are cast, and minions can attack both other minions and the enemy player, with the goal to reduce their health to zero.

This straightforward approach may seem simplistic at the start, but it slowly becomes apparent that the game’s strategic depth comes from the cards themselves and how they interact with each other, rather than the game’s rule framework. In this way, accessibility at the start gives way to tactical flexibility once the simple rules are grasped. Players can then move onto thinking about deck building and tailoring their strategies sooner than in other games -- fantastic news for Blizzard, those lucrative card pack sales will likely come sooner, too.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that by trying to differentiate themselves from Hearthstone, other CCGs are adding layers of complexity that are not only unnecessary but actively dissuade newcomers to play their games. Compare this to Hearthstone which, with its simple setup and good tutorial, has a minimal barrier to entry, and you start to see why potential gamers choose Blizzard’s game over the competition, and will probably continue to do so even with new options in the mix.


The Presentation

Make no mistake; it’s the presentation that really sets Hearthstone apart. Much like WoW, Every element contributes to an environment where players feel comfortable, and want to return to time and time again. Warcraft’s colorful aesthetic is utilized to its fullest here, in the card artwork, which is, without exception, brilliant, and the also in the animations, sounds, and music, which, though minimal, add to the feeling of dynamism without making the game a system hog. This is key: although Hearthstone has been developed to look sleek, that high-quality sheen we’ve come to expect from a Blizzard production does not come at the expense of performance. The game’s stability online is unmatched, at least amongst the comparable games I’ve played.

For me, it's this presentation that is the real kicker that makes Hearthstone such a compelling experience and sets it apart from the growing CCG crowd. Personally speaking, the fact I’d had no more than a couple of hours of experience in the World of Warcraft before jumping into Hearthstone didn’t seem, to matter. I got a sense of the richness of the world, the overall vibe they were going for, and above all else the wealth of detail that seems to pour from every component of Hearthstone. Long time Warcraft devotees will no doubt take the love Blizzard puts into its crowning franchise for granted. For me, it's absolutely a reason to play this game over any other CCG, whether you have a prior connection to the franchise or not.

And I think this, most of all, will stand Hearthstone in good stead. Of the pretenders to the CCG throne, there are many that, for me, can match and, in some cases, even better Hearthstone’s basic gameplay offering. But not one can recreate that feeling of rich background, of history, of a franchise nurtured and loved for years. This, coupled with the fact that Hearthstone is now indisputably the most established game of this type out there, means that Blizzard can probably rest easy. Hearthstone may lose a little of its gigantic market share as more CCGs are released, but its overall dominance doesn’t look like coming to an end anytime soon.