It's been over five years since Blizzard first release Hearthstone, its take on the digital card game genre. The core game has undergone a lot of changes since then. Most of those changes have revolved around the meta through the addition of new cards and the introduction of new mechanics. But there have been few, if any, additions in terms of actual game modes. That's about to change with the introduction of Hearthstone: Battlegrounds, Blizzard's take on the auto chess phenomenon.
For full disclosure, I am not well-versed in auto chess or auto battling games of any sort. However, I am well-versed in the world of Hearthstone, so I was more than willing to give this a shot. And I did indeed go hands-on at this year's BlizzCon. My big takeaway is that Hearthstone: Battlegrounds has a lot of potential and feels like a totally different way to enjoy what, at its core, is still a uniquely Hearthstone experience.
The first thing that's worth noting is that Battlegrounds does appear to operate under many of the rules of traditional auto chess. There's a Recruit period where players can purchase, upgrade, or fire minions from across all of Wild. Purchasing a minion costs three Gold, refreshing the minion list costs one Gold, and there's a rising cost to continue upgrading the minion pool. As the pool get upgraded, higher-cost minions, more powerful minions, and even some minions that appear to be designed exclusively for Battlegrounds will be made available. If there's one critique to be had here, it's that the Recruit phase is 90 seconds and it feels way too long. While strategy is important, here's hoping that Blizzard skips that timer down to zero as soon as everybody's already made their selections.
It's the Combat phase where things start to get a little bit different. Yes, minions will automatically attack, going from left to right. However, the main rules of Hearthstone still apply. That means Taunt minions must be attacked first, Deathrattles can have a huge effect on the board, Divine Shield minions can wreak all sorts of havoc, and all sorts of other craziness can unfold. The Combat phase continues until only one side's minions remain standing, at which point the remaining minions lend their power to their Hero for a one-way attack.
After watching the Combat phases unfold, it's easy to get a sense of how the Recruit phase works, especially when applying the rules of normal Hearthsotne. You'll want to create lineups of various tribes, like Murlocs, Mechs, and Beasts. The Recruit phase is where you can take advantage of Battlecries or keywords like Magnetic. And in a unique Battlegrounds mechanic, if you recruit three of the exact same minion, they'll comebine to create a Golden minion with increased stats.
Once the tribal synergies start to come into play, especially in the later turns, it's much easier to see the skill at work. More interestingly, it's where you can see certain minions do some real work that they wouldn't normally get to do in a normal game of Hearthstone. For example, nobody in their right mind is playing Junkbot. Nobody was playing Junkbot even when it was in Standard. However, in Battlegrounds, when Junkbot is in a lineup full of Mechs, where other Mechs are automatically attacking and frequently dying, Junkbot becomes an absolute behemoth. I often watched helplessly as 1/1 bots left behind by destroyed Replicating Menaces kept trading into other minions, killing themselves off and powering Junkbot up to obscene levels. Now that's just Battlegrounds in its infancy. Imagine the sorts of strategies that get employed after some time passes, especially as new Hearthstone expansions are introduced.
While regular Hearthstone has nine heroes, Battlegrounds will utilize 24, many of which are pulled from the world of the game's Solo Adventures. They all have their own Hero Powers, which cost one Gold, that can be used to help turn the tide in the Combat phase. Or if you have full confidence in your minion selection prowess, you can opt for someone with a Passive Hero Power, like Patchwork, who packs 20 extra health. Heroes are selected Arena-style, with players picking between a select few at the start of each game. Eight players all match together and everyone will face a different play in each round until only one remains standing.
As somebody who's had my butt handed to me repeatedly in Ranked mode, Battlegrounds is looking like a whole new, really cool way to have my butt handed to me. While it follows many of the usual Hearthstone rules, it's different enough that it wildly stands out from the run-of-the-mill one-on-one play. I'm not sure if it can reach the popular heights of something like Teamfight Tactics, but if nothing else, this will serve as a fun distraction for a little while.
Hearthstone: Battlegrounds will be available for early access this Monday, November 5 for anyone who pre-orders Hearthstone: Descent of Dragons. If you'd rather not place a pre-order, the open beta is set to begin the very next week.