Until the 10th of August 2015, I had never played a game of Hearthstone. I'd made a point of never going anywhere near it, in fact - not because I wasn't interested, but because I feel like I can only commit to one card-based metagame at a time.
At present, I'm heavily invested in Doomtown: Reloaded, an Expandable Card Game that pits different factions of cowboys (with some supernatural elements thrown in) against one another as they vie to control the town of Gomorra, California. An Expandable Card Game, for any greenhorns reading, is one that works on a different business model to games like Hearthstone; doing away with card rarity, all players have access to the same card pool. If you buy a base set or expansion, you get multiple copies of every card available. No need for booster packs or trading. If you'd like to find out more about how Doomtown: Reloaded works, I've done my level best to explain the game with an illustrative video. If not, read on - I promise I won't deep dive on Doomtown specifics in this article.
My love of Doomtown means I play regularly against friends and (less frequently) attend official tournaments across London. I placed in the top five at the last tournament I attended, which is a more impressive-sounding way of saying I came fifth.
To play at a competitive level in games like these, a good knowledge of the card pool and the metagame that goes with it is essential. While daunting, this is actually the main reason collectible card games are so compelling. With a good CCG, the time spent just thinking about the game is (almost) as enjoyable as actually playing it. Seeing a new set of cards for the first time is a strangely exhilarating experience as your perception of the game (and your personal strategic approach) changes in the few seconds it takes to read a bit of text beneath the card art. As you absorb this new information, you can almost feel the balance of the game shifting - presenting you with new opportunities even as it makes other avenues of play less viable or desirable. Doomtown: Reloaded is honestly the best game I've ever played; it also kept me from feeling any significant urge to take up Hearthstone. Until I started working at Eurogamer, that is.
Over the first seven months of my employment at Eurogamer, I heard enough intriguing talk of minions, heroes, deck builds and mana costs to break my resolve and let Hearthstone sidle its way onto my computer. But, I found myself wondering, is Hearthstone too far along for me to start playing now? Is it possible to catch up with the card pool and start playing at the same level I do with Doomtown, especially now the Grand Tournament has landed? Setting my fears aside, I decided to at least give it a go - eschewing deck lists and guides for at least the first few days - to see how far my card game chops could carry me in Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.
The answer, at first, seemed a resounding 'not very'. The basics of Hearthstone were a delight to pick up and I quickly got a feel for how my very basic mage deck worked, but a constant stream of opponents left me bewildered, embarrassed and, most importantly, defeated.
I'd be lying if I said I found these early defeats easy to bear. I was having fun, but my victories felt more like flukes than hard won triumphs. I knew I was going wrong, but at first it was tricky to determine exactly where (or even remotely where, come to think of it). I had practically no knowledge of the cards on offer and access to a very limited number. This was a sobering reality after so long playing Doomtown, which eschews card rarity and random booster packs in favour of giving everyone a standardised set of cards. Moreover, if I'm playing Doomtown and lose, I'm at least knowledgeable enough to see where I went wrong. One opponent honestly apologised halfway through a game of Hearthstone because I was playing so poorly.
Slowly but surely, however, I began to gather momentum. My knowledge of the card pool, though still decidedly modest, began to increase. Buying a few card packs gave me more tactical options and the confidence to deploy them. In turn, my victories became more frequent and I began to learn from my mistakes. Hearthstone's gameplay is far more tit-for-tat than that of Doomtown, making it a considerably faster-paced experience in which timing is key, not positioning. It took a while to adjust, but I began feeling pretty good about my Hearthstone skills. This, in turn, led me to suspect I was getting a little too big for my boots.
In the name of finding out exactly how little I knew about Hearthstone's card pool, I began issuing challenges to some of the experienced Hearthstone players of my acquaintance. I asked them not to hold back but to choose one of their regular deck builds and I lost, hard, to every single one of them. While they were (mostly) complimentary about my skill level, my decks simply weren't up to scratch. I could hold my own in the early stages, but I found my deck lacking in late-game punch - a problem compounded by my inexperience. Nonetheless, fighting these losing battles was a lovely experience as it let me glimpse what Hearthstone could be if I put in enough time. The flashes I got of these elegant card combinations and engines working in harmony to dominate the arena convinced me there's real beauty to be found in Hearthstone. It also made me realise just how far I am from reaching it.
It was clear I could no longer rely on my own abilities. I started reading guides and consulting decklists, starting with the basics and slowly working my way toward something vaguely resembling a strategy. I now have greater confidence playing Hearthstone, I know where I want to go with it and have a vague idea of how to get there; the only problem is the distance.
Is it possible to immerse yourself in Hearthstone and start playing at a serious level this far down the line? Absolutely, but you're going to need to commit wholesale. I suppose it's the sign of a game with a healthy meta, but reaching a decent level in Hearthstone as a brand new player is going to require a lot of time and homework. Undoubtedly some cash, too, unless you're utterly opposed to throwing some money at the experience. To my delight, I'm rather tempted. The beautiful, cerebral sense of immersion that comes from committing to a collectible card game is obviously ingrained in Hearthstone. It's something I long to chase, to acquire, to belong to. Will I continue in my quest? I'm not sure. I might go shoot some rival cowboys while I think about it.