I’ve played a lot of Magic: The Gathering, and I’ve played a lot of Hearthstone. I have mainly played Magic on Xbox and PC, as well as very occasionally in person on paper, and I’ve played Hearthstone on PC and iPad. To understand what I’m about to talk about, it would help to at least have a cursory understanding of what these games are about. Here’s an Intro to Magic, and here’s an Intro to Hearthstone.
It is my opinion, after playing hundreds and hundreds of hours of both Magic and Hearthstone, that Magic is the better game. I’m not saying one game is objectively good, or objectively bad, this is merely my own subjective opinion about these games and why I think the way I do. If you like Hearthstone more than Magic, that’s great, I respect that opinion, I just don’t agree with it. To keep this comparison simple, I will mainly be comparing the Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers video game series to Hearthstone. Paper Magic is a whole different world on its own, with multiple game types and thousands and thousands of cards to choose from, and it’s not really appropriate to compare that to Hearthstone, which has only several hundred cards and exists exclusively in a digital setting.
My reasons for liking Magic more have to do with overall game design, card and meta variety, and gameplay depth. These obviously overlap some, but I’ve divided it this way to keep this from turning into one long stream of consciousness rant. Let’s dig in.
There are a few factors worth considering here when I think about game design. I’m only going to highlight the main issues here because I could write a book about the differences in game design between these two games.
First, some background. Hearthstone has 30 cards in a deck, Magic typically has 60. Hearthstone gives you guaranteed mana every turn, going from 1 on the first turn to 10 on the 10th turn, and stopping there. In magic your mana comes from lands in your deck, and you have to draw them, starting with your opening hand. There’s no limits to the number of lands you can play. In Hearthstone your opening hand has 3 or 4 cards, and in Magic your opening hand has 7. In Hearthstone, you can play a maximum of 7 minions on your board, while in Magic there is no limit to the number of creatures you can control.
In terms of game design, clearly Magic gives me more options. You can play roughly 34 to 38 cards of any type in my deck along with lands (which sometimes have abilities or effects themselves) to give yourself a multitude of options. In Hearthstone the 30 card limit means you have fewer options to work with, so you have to choose the strongest cards as much as possible. The resulting effect of this is many players end up playing identical decks, because they can’t afford to play weaker cards than their opponent.
The difference in hand size means if you draw 3 late game drops in your opening hands in Hearthstone, you may have no early game play for the first 3 turns, falling so far behind you are guaranteed to lose the game at that point. In Magic, drawing 3 late game drops is not as bad of a disadvantage since you have 4 other cards to choose from.
In terms of mana, I appreciate Hearthstone’s decision to give players guaranteed mana. It solves the problem in Magic of drawing no lands in your opening hand, or drawing too many. Magic accounts for the problem of drawing too few lands with land fetching or mana acceleration strategies. Hearthstone’s decision to give guaranteed mana, however, has a negative implication as well, and it has to do with who plays first.
In both games, the player going first has an advantage. In Hearthstone, however, going first is a much bigger deal. Board control is more important in Hearthstone, and the first person to get a minion on the board can have a distinct advantage. To make matters worse, every turn up to turn 10, the player going first has the opportunity to play a bigger card each turn. On turn 2 the player going first gets to play with 2 mana crystals before the opponent does. This means he can play bigger creatures or spells first each turn, and then next turn he has an opportunity to clear the opponents later, slower minions. Since board position is so important, a player can regularly lose the game in the first 3 turns because of this, since the first players bigger threats get to act on the board first. The second player is given The Coin, which allows an extra mana crystal for one turn, but in many cases it’s not enough to catch up to a superior board position. By comparison, in Magic going first, while still an advantage, is not as big of an advantage because the opponent can have a chance to play removal, or play mana acceleration and get ahead of the player who went first.
Card and Meta Variety
This can be a bit of a tricky issue, but in terms of sheer numbers, Magic has more cards. The Hearthstone game currently has 681 playable cards, and these cards are divided between minions, spells, weapons and secrets. Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 has over 1,000 cards to choose from, along with multiple land types. Hearthstone has 9 classes, each with their own unique hero power, along with class-specific cards to choose from. Players can add generic non-class cards to complete their decks. In Magic, there are 5 colors, and the different color cards are played with the appropriate color of lands. Each color has a roughly equal number of cards to choose from. This for me is merely a matter of personal preference. In Hearthstone the different classes can only play their own class cards and use their hero powers, the only thing the classes share are the common and legendary minion cards that are not class specific. Spells are all class specific. In Magic, you have the option of playing one color’s cards, or a combination of colors, or all colors. In Magic, there is greater variety of card types as well. There are creatures, enchantments, artifacts, sorcery spells and instant spells as well as lands which can have abilities in addition to providing mana. The difference in variety means Magic provides more options, and doesn’t limit cards to one class. I can choose any combination of cards that I desire.
This difference in card variety has implications for the meta. The meta simply means which decks are most effective and popular in the game. It also means which deck types and strategies people think are in general most successful. In Hearthstone, because of the comparative lack of card variety and the differences in classes, the meta has generally meant there are between 1 and 3 most effective decks for each class. The result of this is that the most effective deck for each class is what gets played by most players most of the time. Some classes have a deck that is a bad matchup for another class, so you know before the game even starts in some cases that you don’t have a good chance of winning. For long stretches in Hearthstone, the best deck is so overpowered that over half of all players end up playing the exact same deck, in my experience. This mean that half of all my opponents for stretches when I played Hearthstone were all playing the same identical Hunter class deck. I think the word for the meta here is stale. Even with the introduction of two new cards sets while I played, eventually a small group of decks rose to the top, and predictably everyone played them, since no one wants to lose, obviously.
In Magic it’s a bit different. There is not necessarily a best deck for any color because of the larger variety of cards, and because colors can be combined, there are a much wider variety of decks to choose from. The larger deck size also means there is a better chance to include answers in your own deck for more popular deck types, such as goblin aggro, for example. Even with a limited card pool in Magic Duels 2015 there are still more cards than Hearthstone, and in all the hours I’ve played it there’s not one truly dominant deck used by more people. There are popular deck archetypes, to be sure, but there are also reliable answers to all the most popular decks. I find the unpredictability of what my opponent might be running to be one of the most fun aspects of Magic compared to Hearthstone.
Due to the differences in game design and card and meta variety, I feel that Magic has much better gameplay depth. There are more archetypes available in Magic, and therefore more ways for players to interact with each other’s boards. In Magic if a player tries to play a powerful creature, enchantment, or artifact, I can counter it, preventing it from being played, or I can remove it after it has been played, sending it to the graveyard or removing it from the game entirely. If they play a burn spell to lower my life total, I can counter it, or I can gain a lot of life to mitigate the damage. If they play a threatening board, I can build up my own board, or clear theirs. If they draw a lot of cards quickly, I can force them to discard. If a player relies on a multiple color land strategy to play big threats, I can destroy key lands to prevent that.
In Hearthstone the only way to win is to reduce the opponent’s life total to 0. In Magic, I can win that way as well, or I can use one of several different alternate win conditions. All of these factors make Magic a more unpredictable, and deeper experience in terms of gameplay. The design and card variety in Hearthstone means once the meta solidifies, most matchups become pretty predictable, with very few win conditions to choose from.
To wrap up, I still think Hearthstone is a great game, and its meteoric rise in popularity is certainly evidence of that. Personally, however, I feel that Magic is the better game. I have much more fun playing it, for the reasons I mentioned above. I feel that the differences in game design and card and meta variety lead to an overall more fun and deep gameplay experience. For the sake of brevity I didn’t even get into the differences between funding models and other game design decisions, perhaps I’ll dig into that later. In the meantime, I recommend either game if you’ve been thinking about trying a digital CCG, but my personal preference is for Magic.