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By: gwyned, gwyned
Jun 27 2014 12:00pm
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I. Introduction
After a short and successful beta, Blizzard launched their online collectible card game Hearthstone in March of this year. It has enjoyed a very positive reception and has been praised for its simplicity, attention to detail, and pacing. At its heart, Hearthstone is a direct competitor to Magic Online, offering players a very similar product - a collectible card game played online that features both Limited and Constructed formats. Given its popularity and wide appeal, this is a great opportunity for Wizards of the Coast to take a look at what might account for its success and see what might be applicable to Magic Online. That's what my article today is all about. I want to discuss how these two games are different, brainstorm on what lessons Wizards might apply to their own product, and offer my thoughts on why this would be a wise investment of precious development resources.

II. How is Hearthstone Different?
While Hearthstone and Magic Online are quite similar in concept, there are fundamental differences between them. Before discussing what lessons Wizards could learn from this game, it's important to understand these differences.

1. Hearthstone is simpler. In almost every aspect of the game, Hearthstone is much simpler than Magic. Where Magic has at least seven major card types, Hearthstone has three. Where Magic has multiple Limited and Constructed formats, Hearthstone only has one of each. Where Magic typically involves a game match with Sideboarding, Hearthstone is always just a single game. Where Magic allows players to play cards even when it's not their turn, in Hearthstone you can only play when it's your turn. Where a tournament legal Constructed deck in Magic consists of 60 cards (and could be more), Hearthstone decks are always 30 cards. Finally, Hearthstone only has the equivalent of a single Core set, compared with the large number of Magic sets over its history.
2. Hearthstone eliminates the land mechanic. One of the reasons that Hearthstone decks are smaller is that despite using a similar mana system to Magic, there are no lands in Hearthstone. Instead, players start with access to a single mana crystal, and usually gain another one each turn, until they reach the maximum of ten. Certain cards can also interact with this system. For example, the Druid hero allows the player to get access to mana faster, while the Shaman hero can spend mana in advance, effectively reducing the amount available on the subsequent round. As a result, there are also no color considerations in Hearthstone, and thus, "mana-screw" and "color-screw" are impossible.

3. Hearthstone diversifies by hero rather than by color. In Magic, the reason a deck can't play ever card is due to the color requirements. Hearthstone instead diversifies by using nine different iconic heroes, including Druid, Hunter, Mage, Paladin, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, Warlock, and Warrior. Each deck is built around a particular hero, and that hero gives the player access to cards that no other hero can cast and that are themed around that particular hero. However, there are also a much larger pool of cards that can be cast by any hero. These heroes also give the player access to a particular minor ability that is unique to that hero and can be used independently of the cards in your deck. In practice, this system mimics the way that color distinctions work themselves out in Magic.

4. Hearthstone eliminates trading and purchasing cards. Hearthstone does not offer any means to trade cards with other players, and does not individually sell cards. Thus, there is no secondary market such as exists on Magic Online. However, Hearthstone does allow you to convert unwanted cards into a resource called dust, which can then be used to create a new card. Currently, the only other way to get dust is to compete in the Arena (which is the equivalent of Limited play).

5. Hearthstone is designed around a different economy. Magic Online asks players to routinely spend $10-15 to participate in various tournaments and events. Hearthstone, on the other hand, asks players to spend around $1.50 for a pack, and around $2.00 to participate in Arena events. Additionally, players always have the option of spending gold (the in-game currency) instead of real money. In fact, I would argue that the Hearthstone economy takes its cue from the world of social media games, where players are encouraged to make micro-transactions to speed up their progression, but can instead opt to grind it out through daily gameplay.

In my estimation, Blizzard clearly studied the way that Magic Online functions and did its best to maximize what Magic Online did well while minimizing its shortcomings. But turnabout is fair play, and so Wizards should take a look at what Hearthstone does well and see how it can apply those lessons to Magic Online.

III. What Should Wizards Learn from Hearthstone?
Hearthstone excels in a lot of ways. It was clearly designed from the ground-up for online play, and that certainly gives it an advantage when it comes to Magic Online, since the latter is constrained by the realities of physical play. Nonetheless, there are five lessons that Wizards of the Coast should learn from Hearthstone.

  1. Pay attention to detail. The designers of Hearthstone paid fantastic attention to detail when it came to creating the game. The interface is clean, simple, and easy to understand. The visuals are aesthetically pleasing without being distracting, and everything functions exactly the way it's supposed to. Even the backgrounds in the duel scenes respond to the players clicking on them! While Wizards has made some clear progress with the new client, there are still many niggling details that bother players, especially as they transition from the old to the new. Wizards needs to do a better job of paying attention to the smallest little details of their product.
  2. Everything walks the talk. Hearthstone's theme is of two tavern patrons playing a game on a large table while the crowd looks on. This theme is written large over every aspect of the game. The color scheme evokes the worn wood finishes of an inn, the crowd gasps when you deal a large sum of damage, the music is appropriate to the setting, and upon entry the innkeeper greets you warmly. In a way, Hearthstone aims to give you not just a game, but an experience. Wizards should spend more time thinking about what they want the overall experience of playing Magic Online to be, and focus the client better around that experience.
  3. Incentivize new players. Hearthstone is 100% free to play. There are no fees to create an account, and you begin immediately in a tutorial that teaches you how to play. The tutorial consists of several progressively hard challenges against the AI, immediately giving a new player a good feel for how the game and interface work. Once the tutorial is complete, you are given cards that you can use to construct a deck right away, or continue to play with any of the preconstructed decks. And these are not just 'new player' cards that can only be used against other new players, but cards that are immediately useful in Constructed play. Furthermore, there are a host of one-time challenges that allow these new players to earn gold and additional cards, all without spending any money. By the time a player is asked to put down their first dollar, they've already experienced several hours of gameplay, and most of them are hooked.

    Given how successful this approach has proven, Wizards needs to revamp their process for how they attract and keep new players. Account creation should be free. Players should be able to earn rewards by trying out various gameplay options - like avatars of each of the iconic Planeswalkers, or all of the Commons in the most recent Core set, or even additional Phantom or Cube tickets. Wow a new player, get them used to the client, and only then ask them to start paying for their experience. While Wizards has made some changes in this area, there is certainly a lot of room for improvement.
  4. Create AI play with difficulty settings. As soon as a new player completes the tutorial, he or she is encouraged to play against an AI opponent. The AI opponent allows the player to choose which hero both sides will play, and comes in both a Normal and Expert difficulty. This is by far the best way to learn all you need to know to start being competitive in the game. You get to experiment with all the different heroes, get exposure to a wide variety of cards, and even test out your first Constructed decks against the AI. And this option is always available to you at any time. This sort of AI play would be a fantastic addition to Magic Online. It would give new players another option to become familiar with the game, could be linked to new player incentives, and would give players of all skill levels an environment to test their latest decklists. Given that this feature already exists in Duels of the Planeswalkers, Wizards should add this feature to Magic Online as well.
  5. Award daily play. One of my personal favorite features of Hearthstone is the daily quest. Each and every day, a player receives a new challenge that awards a small quantity of gold upon completion. These quests accumulate (whether a player actually logs in or not) until a player has three unfinished quests. Once per day, you can also reject a quest and receive a random replacement. There is a considerable amount of variety among the quests, and while all require gameplay, some of them don't even require you to actually win a game to make progress on your quest. This is a fantastic way to encourage players to log in each and every day. Given the amazing diversity in Magic the Gathering, there would be tremendous design space to create a similar database of quests that players could complete for a small reward - perhaps a ticket, or a Phantom Point, or some other small prize. Wizards would be wise to create a similar system to encourage players to login each and every day.

IV. Why Would These Changes be a Wise Investment?
In light of all the work that Wizards of the Coast is undertaking to create a new and functional client, why should they devote any resources to the issues I have identified? My answer is simple. As the number of direct competitors to Magic Online increases, Wizards will need to grow in their ability to attract and retain new customers. Too often, I fear, people who are otherwise enthusiastic about Magic the Gathering find themselves disappointed or frustrated with the Magic Online experience, and sign off, never to return. Additionally, I know from personal experience that there are many others who regularly make use of Magic Online but simply do not have the time or financial resources to actively participate in a meaningful way in most of the offered formats and events. Giving these players lower entry costs and suitable rewards could actually increase revenues in a meaningful way while at the same time giving new players an easier learning curve that ensures they stay for the long haul. In other words, Wizards should make these changes because the investment will ultimately increase revenues by attracting and retaining new players.

V. Conclusion
As I close, let me remind you that you can check out all of my previous articles here on PureMTGO by clicking here. I also publish over on my blog on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and encourage you to keep up with all my projects there. You can get a sneak peek at any of my videos before they go live here at over on Simply search for "gwyned42," select one of my videocasts, and click the Subscribe button. You can keep up with everything I'm doing on Twitter at the username gwyned42; check out my profile here and click on Follow. Finally, I am the host of Monday Pauper Deck Challenge, which is a weekly PRE featuring a Swiss tournament in the Standard Pauper format, with prizes awarded for the Top 8 finishers thanks to the sponsorship of MTGOTraders. As always, if you've never checked out MPDC, I encourage you to browse over to for all the information and then come join us at 2:00pm EST / 6:00pm GMT in the /join MPDC room.


The one thing that will keep by TheKidsArentAlright at Sat, 06/28/2014 - 05:29
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The one thing that will keep people coming back to MODO is simple: it's Magic. No other CCG out there, digital or otherwise, offers the depth and complexity that this one does. I've tried Hearthstone as well. The interface is just head and shoulders above anything that WotC has ever tried to do in pretty much every conceivable way. The gameplay, however, I could only describe as "Magic for Dummies". It felt like My opponent and I were just flinging creatures at each other and hoping for the best. There are no combat tricks, no mana denial, no permission, and very little removal or direct damage. Basically, it lacks the meaningful interactions that make Magic fun.

Hearthstone vs Magic by vaultboyhunter at Sat, 06/28/2014 - 10:00
vaultboyhunter's picture

First off great article Gwyned as usual! Thank you for all you do for Pauper and the community!
Second I think Hearthstones interface while nice and smooth actually distracts from being able to take the game seriously. It seems so cartoonist and goofy.
Plus the oversimplification of the mechanics seems dull to me. I'm sure it's a fun game, and people are perhaps more willing to try a new game in the face of V.4 going wide, it just seems nuts and bolts less then Magic in every way.
Sure the interface is better, but the most popular version of Magical interface is a folder up table in a game store. Sure Hearthstone is Freeish, but you are putting in more time to get cards for a vastly simplified game.
TL:DR Hearthstone is cheaper and Prettier but Magic is still the best game out there.