11 May 2015

A Hearthstone Adventure

I've been playing Hearthstone off and on since about August of last year. I resisted at first: Blizzard, as an entity, makes me uncomfortable. This, I realize, is mostly my own fault. I gave far too much of my life to World of Warcraft for about a year and the result left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Interestingly, the same sickness crept into my Hearthstone experience.

You see, the launch of World of Warcraft was like an A-bomb dropping onto the Nagasaki of the 1940s Japan of gaming (poor analogy?). It left decimated lives and bank accounts in its wake. I knew this before the game was launched, when the early development screenshots were released. Were I to tangle with this beast I would lose. And I did. Very quickly after starting the game my time within Azeroth went from fun, casual exploration and wonder to a grim desperation. I had to hit the level cap and I had to get really, really good at PVP. I had to be a champion. I spent real money on gold, even on power-levelers for the last big push to 50. I spent hours in battlegrounds only to realize that if I really wished to achieve the dream of unprecedented domination on the battlefield it would cost me everything. Kind of like EVE.

Hearthstone started much the same way. Here was a cool looking card game that I could play on my iPad without all the fuss and fidgeting with, you know, actual, physical cards. Moreover it had a very lighthearted tone, a great amount of humor, and a ridiculously polished, streamlined design. I was hooked pretty much immediately. My dislike for certain classes (holdovers from my WOW days -- I still hate you, Paladins!) quickly fell away. I enjoyed myself without even diving into the meta or buying card. But then that competitive side came out. If I was losing I was angry. If I was not improving my ladder rank each month it wasn't worth it. Could I not get at least 5 wins in Arena? Well damn that 150 gold I just lost. And I couldn't even beat my friends in casual matches!! I quickly grew frustrated and even put it down for most of December and the entire month of January (missing a cool card back in the interim).

Then something shifted and I can pinpoint it to one thing. Many factors tie in, of course: I found local friends who were playing and had folks to talk to about the game in person. I started watching some YouTubers which helped me udnerstand the game better. But really it comes down to Blackrock Mountain. First, the trailer helped me get back to what attracted me to the game in the first place, a silliness and fun that is absent from most competitive online games. I bought it (with real money) and played it through, unlocking cool cards and feeling 'current' with some of the recent decks. Because Blackrock was so enjoyable, I shelled out real money for Naxxrammas, realizing that some seriously good cards had been waiting for me. Because the experience was so polished and fun, rather than a $20 excuse to get the cards one must to get anywhere with the game, I got over the 'pay to win' dumpiness I had been leaning on as my excuse for why the game was just so unfair and why I couldn't win a game.

This is, of course, not true; Blizzard aren't greedy bastards, they're just the Starbucks of gaming. They make a few products really well, targeted at a large market, and so they're everywhere.

With this out of the way I built up some gold to spend on more packs (not Adventures) and got lucky with some legendaries. I became willing to try out things I hadn't done for the sake of *gasp* fun! I am now okay with ending a season at rank 20!

Would I like to hit legendary rank? Certainly. That's a sweet card back. But watching quite a few streamers, I realize that hitting that rank is less about which cards you have and more about 1) card knowledge, 2) playing consistently with a bonifide system, and most importantly 3) putting in the time. The sheer number of games you have to play to even hit single digits on the ladder takes up a lot of your time, more time than I realistically have being employed and having a family and other hobbies and so on. The time you put in also gets you the experience against other classes which informs the decisions you make and thusly forms you into a better player. It's scary but hopeful to see just how regularly some Legendary streamers predict their opponents next move, and it all comes from playing so very much.

On a final note, the interconnected web of strategy (let's call them gaming skills) has only deepened my appreciation for board and card games. The things I learn from, say, The Lord of the Rings carry over into Hearthstone, vice versa and beyond. But when all the minions splatter and the dust gets spent, though, it's all about having fun.


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