‘Hearthstone Mercenaries’ preview: a new mode that’s fiendishly simple

Assemble your mercenaries for brutal, RPG-like combat

Tank beats DPS. DPS beats caster. Caster beats Tank. Simple, right? But when you throw in a bunch of unique spells, skills, equipment and synergies, Hearthstone Mercenaries becomes a lot more complex than it looks. The good news? It’s a hell of a lot of fun, too.

I’ve played Hearthstone on and off since it first launched in 2014, so when I picked it up again recently, a lot had changed. There was a new expansion, a crazy new meta and a lot of very broken quests. But one of the big upcoming changes I couldn’t wait to try out was the Mercenaries game mode – a new RPG-like mode pitting teams of mercs against each other in simulated, number-crunching combat.

I thought I knew what to expect – surely it was more of the same, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Hearthstone
Hearthstone. Credit: Blizzard.

Blizzard has created a whole new kind of game in Hearthstone Mercenaries – more akin to a particularly complicated Tavern Brawl than the usual Hearthstone gameplay. Your favourite deck is no use to you here. Instead, you build a team of six mercenaries to take on epic new challenges, such as the expansive PvE campaign. Or you can smush the faces of your friends and foes in the Fighting Pits – Mercenaries’ very own PvP setting.

“It’s a hero-builder RPG within Hearthstone,” said associate game designer Ates Bayraktaroglu in an interview with NME. “You collect heroes, you level them up, you put them on an awesome team of your favourite characters and then you go complete bounties and beat up bad guys!”

It’s a simple premise made even simpler with the “weakness triangle” – a simple rule that tells you which kind of mercenaries are strongest against which others. It’s easy enough to remember – Protectors (red) do double damage to Fighters (green), Fighters do double damage to Casters (blue), while Casters do double damage to Protectors.

Hearthstone
Hearthstone. Credit: Blizzard.

If you’ve ever played Pokémon, you’ll get the idea – fire beats grass, grass beats water, water beats fire. But when you bring each mercenary’s stats and skills into the equation, it’s thankfully not quite that simple. Team synergies mean that certain skills play well with others – a skill which buff nature spells, for instance, works well with nature-based casters. There’s a lot more going on under the hood than you first realise, and while at first glance it seems a lot simpler than Hearthstone, I can’t help thinking Mercenaries is going to spawn some equally clever, meta-breaking team comps.

“There’s always going to be challenges balancing a game,” said Bayraktaroglu. But Blizzard hopes to avoid the likes of Hearthstone’s recent Warlock quest shenanigans due to the fact that Mercenaries is far more streamlined.

“In traditional Hearthstone there are so many factors that can contribute to something being incredibly powerful. By having this more meat and potatoes version that we have in Mercenaries – if something is problematic it’s a little more blatant.”

Hearthstone
Hearthstone. Credit: Blizzard.

Hearthstone Mercenaries is essentially a boiled-down, hero-focussed version of Hearthstone itself – with many of the characters you’ll know and love. But with all-new mechanics and an entirely different card set, you won’t be carrying over your favourites from the main game.

That’s become a bit of a contentious point among Hearthstone fans, who are now expected to plough yet more money into an entirely different game mode, for completely new cards and card packs. But Blizzard insists you don’t have to do that.

“Hearthstone is a free-to-play game, and we really want to double down on that with Mercenaries,” said Bayraktaroglu. “There’s not anything that you can’t unlock from just playing the game. If you really want Diablo… you can obtain it by playing the game.”

Unfortunately, it was unclear quite how long it would take to do that – during my hands on with Mercenaries we switched between the first stages of the PvE campaign and endgame PvP. And while the early game unlocks 8 different mercenaries for you to play with, I get the feeling unlocking more is going to take a little while.

That said, the mercenaries you get at the start give you a nice, rounded team to jump into the campaign and learn what this new game mode is all about. And it’s definitely a fun new addition to the Hearthstone we know and love. The combat is quick and decisive, while the campaign has almost puzzle-like elements when it comes to figuring out how to best each bounty. But endgame PvP is where the real game begins – diving into the Fighting Pit with your opponents and slugging it out to prove who has the best team.

At the moment, there’s a lot of opportunity to explore different team comps and find out what works and what doesn’t. After all, there’s no ranked mode – at least, not yet – so it’s the perfect time to experiment and find out what works for you.

“The goal is to make all the mercenaries viable,” explained lead game producer Gloria Zhang. “We’re not planning for any mercenaries to be super powerful while others are less powerful. We want every mercenary to be fun to play and viable for different team comps.”

Still, there are definitely some favourites among those who’ve managed to get their hands on Mercenaries. Diablo is a definite winner with some really strong abilities across the board while comps focussing on Guff make for a really strong choice.

Hearthstone Mercenaries makes an excellent addition to Hearthstone – opening up a whole new way to play. The combat is quick, the skills feel powerful and punchy, and the skirmish style PvP matches are great fun.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long to grind out the perfect mercenaries. Or at the very least, that it won’t take too many card packs.

Hearthstone Mercenaries will release on October 12 for Android, iOS and PC.

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