After a brief Blizzcon showing and early access period, Hearthstone‘s entry into the auto battler genre will go live to all players this week. The free new mode is accessible without having played any prior Hearthstone, and while there’s a couple of bonuses for existing players or those who buy packs from the latest set, Battlegrounds is good enough as-is that it’s worth picking Hearthstone back up again.
My main issue with Battlegrounds, Blizzard’s first crack at the auto battler genre, was that the Blizzcon build needed a UI pass and some basic player onboarding. The first public version of the game, which went live last week for anyone who pre-ordered the new Descent of Dragons set, immediately fixed all of those issues.
Battle royales were the flavour of the month, and now it's auto battlers. Blizzard's digital CCG Hearthstone announced it was jumping on the trend with Hearthstone Battlegrounds, a new game mode dedicated to 8-player round-by-round drafting, and while it's still early days the build on the Blizzcon floor shows that the auto battler format can definitely work with cards.Read more
When you fire up Battlegrounds now, you’re immediately sent into a tutorial that takes you through the initial recruitment, upgrading of minions, basic order of operations, upgrading the vendor shop, and anything else you need. It’s smooth, well explained and relatively quick. It’s also just as readable if you’re going through the tutorial on mobile instead of desktop, which you’d expect from Hearthstone, but is still nice to see.
Because Battlegrounds is all about juicing up your current roster, and maximising what you get out of every card while its on the board, your investment and relationship with each minion is vastly different. A single four or five star won’t have quite the same impact as a two star minion that’s had the benefit of six or seven buffs over time. But you can’t just max out your board straight away either, because you won’t have room to maximise the potential of Battlecry buffs, or other cards that have positional benefits.
It means some strategies from other auto-battlers go out the window. You can’t store up gold over turns, so you’re in a much better position buying minions every turn. And those strategies have to change from match to match, because your choice of hero power can either be a purely defensive mechanism, totally useless, or something that plays right into your hands.
Something like Giantfin and the other Murloc-themed heroes I’m not a huge fan of: you can fill the board with Murlocs fairly quickly, but they never have much sustainability, and you’ll hit a wall as soon as people start getting more divine shields and board clears. That’s especially true if one of the other 7 enemy heroes can damage all or some of your creatures before the turn begins.
There’s a good mix of powers among the 24 heroes. One character reduces the cost of upgrading Bob’s Tavern, which makes an upgrade-centric strategy a little more interesting (but only if you get a good start to begin with). King Mukla gets a free banana — 1+/1+ to any minion — every time you sell a Beast. The Lich King’s power only costs 1, and you can use it to save one creature or get a creature’s Deathrattle to fire twice. Millificent Manastorm gives +1/+1 to all Mechs before they’re recruited, which obviously plays into a Mech-basted strategy, and Gallywix’s power adds a Gold Coin to your hand (letting you save a coin for later if you need another re-roll, or if you want to upgrade a little earlier). I still like Nefarian, only because it has the most utility at the end of the game: doing 1 damage to all enemy minions means you can basically remove all enemy divine shields before the turn starts, which is a massive deal.
Of course, it’s easier if you have three heroes to choose from at the outset. If you’re not buying or unlocking any cards from Dance with Dragons, then you’ll only have two heroes to pick from:
Players who acquire Descent of Dragons card packs, including free packs and those purchased using in-game gold or real money, will receive cool Battlegrounds bonuses. At 10 packs, players unlock comprehensive stat-tracking in Hearthstone: Battlegrounds (slated for release following beta testing); at 20 they can choose from three different Bosses instead of two at the start of each match; and at 30, players unlock the ability to taunt or playfully communicate with their opponents using a visual emote system.
Not having that third hero has a huge effect on your strategic choices, but for a mode that’s free you can still roll with it and have fun nonetheless. I’ve found matches of Battlegrounds to top out at around the 15 minute mark, sometimes ending a fraction earlier. That’s a nice respite from the fairly lengthy games of Teamfight Tactics and Dota Underlords, and it makes the game a lot more palatable for casual settings, especially on mobile.
It’s worth adding that Battlegrounds does become a fraction harder, initially, on mobile. Because the board state becomes so complex so quickly, and success is dependent on managing a massive snowball of card interactions, proceedings are a lot easier to pass on desktop than mobile. I tried playing several rounds on the Galaxy Fold, which I thought might help the visibility issue a little, but you’re still dealing with the traditional mobile interface there (and the game doesn’t even take up the full width of the Fold, sadly).
Hearthstone fans are still working their way through the complexities and the current meta, and there’s undoubtedly some balance issues that’ll need to be ironed out. The lack of power among some of the heroes is especially problematic, particularly if you’re only drawing from two, and some players will bounce off the naturally higher RNG present in Hearthstone.
But if you approach the mode as a quicker, low stakes way of enjoying an auto battler, Battlegrounds is really, really good. It retains the soul of Hearthstone and applies the auto battler formula in a way that makes total sense for Blizzard’s creative universe. It’s also a great option for people who haven’t played Hearthstone in ages, because there’s no barrier to entry and you can start having fun without needing the same level of knowledge or skill that you would for a regular Arena draft.
Blizzard will need to keep Battlegrounds fresh with new cards, balance passes and heroes, of course. But for something that costs nothing, added to a game that still has no upfront cost, the new mode is off to a good start.