Ahead of today’s release of Hearthstone’s new mode, Mercenaries, I was able to go hands-on and get to grips with this brand-new way to play Blizzard’s CCG. Right off the bat, I have to say, calling Mercenaries a new mode is something of a misnomer. It’s more like an entirely different game contained within Hearthstone. In fact, Blizzard has been slowly nudging Hearthstone towards being a ‘platform’ rather than a game for some time.
Battlegrounds, while bearing many similarities with Hearthstone proper, is still wildly different from the main game/mode. Similarly, Duels, while arguably staying the truest to vanilla Hearthstone, is another departure.
Mercenaries is the wildest deviation yet. And it’s a revelation.
Like vanilla Heartstone, Mercenaries pits two players, or one player and the AI, against each other. Units face-off, cast spells, attack, use abilities and deal damage but that’s where the similarities end. There’s no champion to protect, no mana to spend and only three units per team on the board at any given time. Instead of dealing damage to a champion, the aim of Mercenaries is to defeat all of the opponent’s units and instead of spending mana, the abilities used by the Mercenary cards have a speed rating; the lower the speed, the earlier they’re played.
During each turn, players are able to choose one ability from each of their Mercenaries, while their opponent does the same and once both players are ready, the action unfolds. It quickly becomes apparent that Mercenaries is a game of risk versus reward. If you play the slower, but much more powerful ability, will your unit survive long enough to use it? Should you play the fast ability, is it doing enough to help your side win? Better yet, there are dozens of synergies to uncover and utilise to your advantage.
Many of the abilities buff your other units (or debuff the enemy) in some way so figuring out the best order to play your abilities in is key. Should you play multiple abilities with the same speed, they’ll occur in the order you played them, however, if you and your opponent play an ability with the same speed, a coin toss will decide who goes first.
If that was all there was to Mercenaries, it’d still be a good addition to Hearthstone but, of course, there’s far more to it. There are three classes of cards — Fighters, Casters and Protectors — and they fit into a damage triangle.
- Fighters deal double damage to Casters;
- Casters deal double damage to Protectors;
- Protectors deal double damage to Fighters.
This adds yet another layer of strategy to battles and frankly, I often forgot about the damage triangle and swiftly lost many units in the process. Thankfully, when you hover over one of your own units, it will highlight which of the enemies Mercenaries are weak to its damage. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go the other way, so you’ll have to remember which ones are which.
Adding yet another layer to the strategy are the creature types. Like Hearthstone, units can be demons, elves, humans and so on. There are tonnes of different types and plenty of abilities that target those specifically. For example, attacking with Rokara’s Tribal Warrior ability will grant her +1 attack if another Orc is in your party. That’s probably the most basic example, but they become very complex and powerful. There are also keywords like Deathblow, Taunt and more. Thankfully, when you first start playing, Blizzard eases you into Mercenaries with a tutorial that does a great job of explaining the basic concepts and mechanics.
The tutorial and the PvE experience is designed to demonstrate to players who Mercenaries is a battle-puzzler. You’ll need to figure out the correct combination and order or abilities in order to move on. It also does a great job at teaching players what they should and shouldn’t do before they dive into PvP.
PvP in Mercenaries is incredibly good fun. While playing during the hands-on period I was able to access a powerful endgame account with levelled up Mercenaries and the battles were intense. PvP is like a chess match with both players attempting to corner the other until their last unit falls. There were too many instances to count where I fully believed I had the win in the bag, only for my opponent to pull out some incredible combination of abilities and destroy me. This early in Mercenaries run I wasn’t annoyed, more interested in how I could do something similar or prevent the same from occurring next time. I learned pretty rapidly that knowledge is the best path forward to victory in Mercenaries.
In my hands-on I jumped straight from a low-level, early PvE account to an endgame PvP one and the gap in my knowledge was what held me back from being able to take advantage of the units to their fullest. Players who play through the PvE campaign, learn the abilities of all the Mercs and discover synergies will understand how best to utilise them and counter their opponents. I am very much looking forward to seeing the loadouts and teams players come up with in the future.
Playing through the campaign is integral to knowing how to play Mercenaries in more ways than just knowledge though. As players complete battles, bounties and missions, they’ll earn experience and coins for their Mercs. Experience levels them up and unlocks new abilities, while coins can be spent to upgrade those abilities. Coins are also used to craft unowned Mercenaries, but the cost is high. Thankfully, it’s quite easy to earn coins so it won’t take too much grinding. Some, but the grind is fun so it’s worth it.
Outside of battles, players will spend their time in the Mercenaries Village, here, you build various locations, Tavern, Bounty Board, Mailbox and more. Each location offers a different utility. The Tavern is where players can create parties and upgrade their Mercs while the Fighters Pit is the gateway to PvP. Selecting the travel point takes you to the campaign menu where you’re able to select missions and battle the AI. Unlocking Heroic mode provides a tougher challenge, but rewards you with more XP and more coins.
Honestly, there is so much to Mercenaries that, as I said in the beginning, calling it a mode isn’t quite right. It really is an entirely different game, contained within Hearthstone. Part Pokémon, part old-school Final Fantasy, part rogue-lite and part Hearthstone there seems to be an almost endless amount of gameplay in Mercenaries even now. As more players take part and start to craft parties it’s going to be very interesting to see where the ‘mode’ goes.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s already my latest addiction and it’s going to be very, very difficult to pull me away from it anytime soon.
Hearthstone Mercenaries is now live.