TLDR: Last Wednesday, I filmed a short how-to-play Magic the Gathering video with Youtubers SneakyZebra for their 161K subscriber audience (Watch here). This experience reminded me of how far back it’s been since card games have been an integral part of my life . This article is a reflection of my extensive past history in a plethora of card games from Uno and Pokémon to Magic and Hearthstone – and why I’m still playing Hearthstone now.
It’s very rare to meet a Hearthstone player who tells you that Hearthstone was their very first card game – and I’m no exception. As a kid, I used to play Uno and Texas Hold’em casually with my brothers and cousins at family reunions. We also played other fringe Vietnamese card games such as Tiến lên (Thirteen) and Cắt tê (Six Cards). There was nothing more satisfying than winning money off of the adults.
Moving past games which used simply the traditional 52 deck of playing cards, on the childhood school grounds life-changing types of sci-fi monster-based card games such as Pokémon, Digimon, and Yugioh emerged. It was terribly easy to get lost in these fantasy worlds of mythical creatures. Collecting and battling friends at lunchtime (in secret from the strict teachers) became a way of life.
As we got older and the friends around us started to grow out of these TCGs, I found an interesting card game which used tiles instead of paper. It was rooted in ancient Chinese and Japanese history and had generated fortunes for some individuals while riddling others in debt. This game was called Mahjong 🀄️, and it wasn’t the kind that came preinstalled on your Windows XP. As a westerner, it was hard to play since the game requires exactly 4 players to play, and due to the foreign rules, complex scoring, and the need to learn Chinese characters… beginners were naturally scared away.
To get my fix, I managed to find online spaces where playing virtually was possible. Over the course of a few years playing for at least 8 hours a day, I mastered two Chinese styles (Hong Kong 香港麻將 and Chinese Official 中国官方麻将) in addition to the Japanese style of Rīchi マージャン. I won a bit of money here and there in online tournaments and was highly ranked on Mahjong Time as well as some other sites. I was so mesmerised by this game that at one point I nearly moved to China to teach English just so that I could play more Mahjong.
Eventually (as usual) I grew bored of the game, though I was still unsure to why exactly that was so. One day, my brothers asked me to try a card game that they were playing… of which I had always avoided since I thought that it looked absolutely hideous and outrageously geeky. This game was Magic the Gathering.
Long story short, the moment they introduced me to it, I was HOOKED 🎣. The endless combinations of deck possibilities and the ability to express oneself through deckbuilding and playstyle felt like it was everything I’ve ever wanted. In the past card games I played, the potential to be cheeky and the room to innovate was small. In Chinese Official Mahjong, for example, I was notoriously known for using a mischievous strategy called ‘Chicken Hand’ which is made by forming a legally completed hand with exactly 0 points, which awarded you with 8 points instead. It was a difficult strategy (as random points are easy to obtain) and it was flashy because not many players knew how to do it. This was the extent of being creative in Mahjong.
It was at this point where I realised that the easily bored nature of my character required a game which was constantly evolving… a game where new cards and realities were constantly being added where the concept of a changing ‘meta’ existed.
I fell hopelessly in love with Magic the Gathering and often played at my local game store, Bad Wolf Trading (rest in peace), from around dinner time to sometimes 6am. I was voluntarily swallowed by Magic for years. Throughout this time, I had various tournament wins, about 6 Grand Prix Trial (GPT) top 4’s, and more recently a 71st place finish (out of 2000 players) at Grand Prix Liverpool 2015.
As fun as it was, only until around 2013 when I moved to England did I realise how important the friends of whom I played Magic with were to my overall love for the game. Playing just wasn’t as fun anymore for me once that part was lost. When I did well, I couldn’t brag to my friends. When I did poorly, there wasn’t anyone to complain to either. Yeah, I know. I’ve become a needy bastard as the list of my requirements for a card game grew… and it gradually crept to demand an extensive variety of needs. And to be honest, I had never really stepped back from the tides of life to reflect on any of this.
It wasn’t until last Wednesday, after I had filmed a short how-to-play Magic video in a cat cafe with Sneaky Zebra, that the nostalgia of all these games that I’ve left behind hit me like a truck… or maybe it was my allergies from breathing in cat hair at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, who knows.
So sometime after my Grand Prix Liverpool finish and as I was getting bored of Magic, I was in Austin, TX on university holiday visiting my brothers where they introduced me to… yet another card game. It was an online title that I had ALWAYS avoided due to my stuck-up attitude of perceiving it as an inferior, simplified knockoff of Magic the Gathering. To no one’s surprise, this game was Hearthstone… and obviously, again I was instantly HOOKED 🎣.
(In another life, I swear my brothers could have been the world’s best drug dealers as apparently they have the latent potential to get people chronically hooked on stuff 😂)
Anyways, from the start I was playing Hearthstone close to 18 hours a day and I spent about $70 in the first 3 days on Arena runs alone (obviously I lost a lot). And that leads us to the present day now two years later where I’m still riding on this addictive ‘virtual cocaine train’ of Hearthstone 🚂.
Now since Hearthstone and Magic are often described as similar, I know what you’re thinking. Why stick with Hearthstone?
Hearthstone is smooth when it comes to both the wording of cards and the gameplay. In Magic, mechanics such as ‘the stack’, ‘priority’, and ‘phases’ added wonderful complexity to the game, however it suffered the cost of being outrageously clunky. Hearthstone is by no means perfect though. Expansions in Hearthstone are slooow and minuscule in size compared to Magic expansions. My addiction to a changing meta isn’t satisfied by Hearthstone and I normally get bored a few weeks into a new set because the meta can get stale and diversity is lost. For example, in Magic you don’t even know what your opponent is playing until the first few turns as you gain information from their lands, cards, and pace of play. There’s more mystery there than in Hearthstone where when you see your opponent’s class, immediately you can narrow down what they’re playing out of no more than three possible decks. And since Hearthstone is a game that’s more popularly streamed than Magic, information travels way faster and good decks are figured out quickly. In Magic, you had to wait until a big Grand Prix to see new decks and only then does the meta shift.
One of the biggest points is that the online client of Hearthstone is vastly superior compared to Magic’s. In all honesty, if ever Magic hopes to become an esport and to stay competitive in terms of global reach and accessibility, they must somehow destroy the value system of cards on their Magic Online client and rebuild it from the ground up with a cheaper model for the players… which may be an impossibility.
Due to this entirely virtual reality of Hearthstone, the scene is widespread and international; and more importantly is that the friendship groups are ironically closer and vaster since playing the game is not bounded by physicality. Hearthstone makes me more mad than in ANYTHING ever has in my life (let alone card games), but being able to see your friends at physical events worldwide and the accessibility of the game keeps me moving forward.
Is Hearthstone the be-all end-all? Probably not
Is Hearthstone perfect? Far from it
But it’s better than Magic when taking the full picture into account… and until another card game which more suitably satisfies my needs comes along, I’ll keep on flipping my coins and rolling my dice playing Hearthstone. And who knows? There’s always hope for a small, indie company like Blizzard to improve Hearthstone to be a better game.