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Compared to most popular collectible card games, Blizzard's Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is relatively straightforward. Simple rules make it incredibly welcoming to new players, but they also allow for elegant strategies and varied tactical possibilities. Unfortunately, as a free-to-play game, Hearthstone runs into the same problems that have long plagued tabletop card games: it's hard to get worthwhile new cards without breaking the bank.
Based in the same universe as World of Warcraft and the real-time strategy entries, Hearthstone's battles see two opponents square off, each armed with a deck of 30 cards and 30 hit points. During each turn, you'll draw a card from your deck, play an attacking creature (called a minion), and gain a mana crystal. Eventually, someone runs out of hit points and the match is over. It's a pretty basic premise, but it creates a nice balance between short-term tactics and long-term planning—the cards you draw may be unpredictable, but your mana rate is steady.
Some cards have special abilities, too: "Taunt" forces the opposing player to focus on one minion until it dies, while "Charge" lets a minion attack faster than usual—and some spells can raise and lower your minions’ health and attack stats. Hearthstone boils down to trading blows back and forth, but complexity and strategy are derived from how these special powers interact with each other. Eventually, you’ll unlock enough cards to start building your own decks, full of cards that play well together.
Hearthstone is primarily a multiplayer game, broken into two modes. There's ranked play, which uses a matchmaking system to pair you with an opponent of roughly equal skill, and the Arena, which allows you to build a deck from a randomized supply of cards. Ranked play encourages deep knowledge of one character and one deck, while the Arena focuses more on breadth and flexibility. A turn in the Arena lasts until you've lost three matches, at which point prizes—usually a card pack or two—are doled out based on your performance. Arena is easily Hearthstone's better mode: it exposes players to a wide range of cards and play styles and encourages quick thinking, whereas using the same deck over and over can begin to feel rote eventually.
There's a tension between these two modes, however. To build a competitive deck for ranked play, you’ll need plenty of powerful cards, which Blizzard is happy to sell: two packs of five Expert cards cost $2.99. A more cost-effective route is the Arena, which is also hidden behind a paywall: 150 in-game gold, or $1.99 in real cash. Here's the catch-22: you'll need plenty of high-level experience before an Arena run becomes profitable, but you'll need plenty of cards to build a deck strong enough to climb the ranked ladder to get that experience. Hearthstone's crafting system lets you create particular cards using another currency called Arcane Dust; unfortunately, Dust is usually obtained by dismantling other cards in your collection. Any way you slice it, you'll need to spend hard-earned resources to become a competitive player.
The bottom line. Beginners and mid-range players will find that Hearthstone provides a wealth of easy-to-learn tactical card battling for free, though high-level play isn't cheap.
Mac OS X 10.8, Intel Core i3 or better, 4 GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M or ATI Radeon HD 5670 or better, broadband connection, Battle.net account
Turn-by-turn gameplay is tense and tactical. Plenty of options for customized decks and strategies. Very generous learning curve for new players.
Paying for card packs is one thing, but paying for access to the game's best mode is galling. Skimps on some game modes that other collectible card games offer.