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What I learned making, and spending, a fortune in Hearthstone

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I have 125 "free" packs of Goblins vs. Gnomes Hearthstone cards.

There wasn’t any weird trick to doing this. I’ve just been playing the game regularly for nearly a year.

Hearthstone gives you a daily quest that rewards in-game currency, or gold, for accomplishing tasks like winning games with different classes, dealing damage to enemies or killing minions. You can also reroll a quest to try to get one that awards more gold, or one that requires a class you’d rather play, but you can only do so once a day.

You can save up to three quests at a time and, if the objectives overlap — if you have a quest to cast 40 spells and a quest to win two games as a mage — you can complete both objectives simultaneously.

I amassed over 12,500 gold between April and December

You can use this gold to buy packs of cards or tickets to the arena, or to pay for content expansions like the Curse of Naxxramas solo adventure that Blizzard released in July. Or, you can do what I did, and hoard a bigass mountain of gold.

I spent $220 on cards during the first couple of months I played Hearthstone, from January, when I was invited to the closed beta, until around April. That’s a fairly significant amount to spend on a free-to-play game, but I played Magic: The Gathering in high school and by collectible card standards Hearthstone is pretty cheap.

Those purchases, coupled with the free cards I got from playing arena, allowed me to get everything I needed from the game’s base set. Then I stopped spending gold, save for the occasional arena run.

I also paid cash for the Curse of Naxxramas expansion. Blizzard offered players the option to unlock the various wings of the dungeon for $6.99 or 700 gold each, or to purchase the entire thing as a bundle for $20. There were five wings, but the first wing was free, so the total gold cost was 2800 for the expansion.

Hearthstone packs ordinarily cost 100 gold, and the most discounted real-money bundle you can get is 40 packs for $50, or $1.25 per pack. That means that the 28 packs you could buy with the gold you’d spend for Naxxramas would cost at least $35 ordinarily. So, either Naxxramas was a great deal if you paid cash for the bundle, or it was a rip-off if you paid with gold.

I thought $20 was about fair for that expansion, so my assessment was the latter.  Based on the diminished value of gold relative to real money for Naxxramas purchases, I was concerned Blizzard was planning to devalue the in-game currency relative to real money on all future products, but I decided to pay the $20 in hopes that a future card set, sold in packs rather than as an "adventure," would stick to the original pricing model.  I kept the gold where it belonged: In a big pile, and luckily, I was right.

The pile grew

I amassed over 12,500 gold between April in December. I would guess that I earned around $1.50 worth of Hearthstone cards for every hour I played the game.

In those terms, it’s not an attractive prospect. Despite the significant volume of free cards the game kicks back to me, I’ve still spent more on Hearthstone than I have on AAA games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, which almost certainly required far more development resources to create. In terms of pure value Blizzard has gotten significantly more cash out of me for significantly less development investment than AAA games.

I’m also aware that the "daily reward" is a psychological trick used to keep players engaged with the game over a period of months. World of Warcraft has daily quests to keep subscribers hooked, and Blizzard also uses a daily quest mechanic in its upcoming MOBA game, Heroes of the Storm. League of Legends, similarly, awards extra currency for the first win of the day. The point is to keep the player base engaged and checking in every 24 hours. It works well.

I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Hearthstone as I used to be. Early in the year, when I was still using my gold for packs and arena runs, I’d try to game my rerolls maximize the gold yield from my quests. Recently, I’ve been strategizing, instead, to try to complete my quests in as few games as possible.

I get my daily wins in the unranked mode most of the time, and I haven’t cared enough to make a ladder push since April, when I got to rank 5. And for the last few months, I haven’t bothered with tweaking my decks to adapt to the shifting metagame. On days when I have three quests queued up, sometimes I feel like I have to play Hearthstone to clear them, even if I don’t particularly want to.

But even on days when clearing dailies feels like a chore, Hearthstone is a compelling and engaging game.  And there’s nothing really analogous to the farming or grinding that characterizes progression in most other free-to-play games and many traditionally-priced ones. You get your Hearthstone gold doing the only thing there is to do in Hearthstone: Battling other players online.

I was unhappy with the Naxxramas pricing, but it’s both smart and decent of Blizzard not to introduce new currencies to prevent players from using their existing stockpiles to get free cards.

Many developers would definitely have devalued the in-game currency in order to try to squeeze more day-one cash out of the "whales," but Blizzard seems to be valuing the trust and goodwill of those players over short-term profits. lt’s nice to feel like you’re being rewarded for loyalty to a game, rather than treated like a sucker for paying into it. So far my pile of gold seems like a good investment.

One game, one currency

If Blizzard had used the expansion to devalue existing gold and dust, or required new currencies to purchase and craft Goblins vs. Gnomes cards, I probably would have quit playing Hearthstone.

By delivering strong game mechanics and straightforward monetization schemes and treating players fairly, Hearthstone and MOBA games like League of Legends and Dota 2 have been able to attract and maintain large audiences of dedicated core gamers, while shallower, scammier games like Candy Crush and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood have relied on short-term, nearly predatory engagement. I know what I’m spending and why. It’s easy to track and I’m paying money for entertainment. It feels like a fair exchange.

I’d probably value the time I spent accumulating my Hearthstone gold far more than the $160 in real-money value I earned for playing, but I spent that time playing video games, an activity I frequently engage in with no expectation of any reward beyond achievement points. In fact, rewards for time spent playing are rarely the metric we use for measuring game value; it’s far more common to consider hours played as the unit of value to be weighed against a game’s price.

On that measure, Hearthstone is pretty good. Based on my win counter, I estimate I’ve spent at least 200 hours playing Hearthstone in the last year, not including the handful of hours I spent beating the Naxxramas single player mode on heroic difficulty, or any time I’ve spent constructing decks.

By comparison, I spent only 30 hours completing Shadows of Mordor, even though I did all of the sidequests. I will dump at least 60 hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition, and when I beat it, I’ll probably never play it again. Hell, I probably spent at least 40 hours playing Dragon Age: Origins in 2009, and when the characters in Inquisition refer to the events of Origins, I don’t even remember what they’re talking about.

And there’s something cathartic about opening up a whole bunch of Hearthstone packs.  When I paid for packs early in the year, I generally only spent about $20 at a time, so I’ve been pretty excited since the Goblins vs. Gnomes announcement about opening this many packs at once. I ended up getting seven legendaries. Two were Dr. Boom, which was unlucky, but one of them was a golden, which is very lucky. I also got Blingtron 3000, Gahzrilla, Gazlowe, Sneed’s Old Shredder and Neptulon.

Out of 120 possible cards in Goblins vs Gnomes, I got over a hundred of them out of 128 packs but, after even using my arcane dust to craft three more legendaries, I’m still missing about half of the 20 legendaries in the set. These cards require the most dust to craft and are the rarest cards to find in packs. Classic packs yielded a legendary roughly every 15 to 20 packs, so the seven I got from my 128 Goblins vs. Gnomes packs were fewer than I’d hoped for, but not out of line with the probabilities.

I got two copies of every common and almost every rare in the set and most of the epics, although I did not get a few key epic-quality cards, such as Recombobulator, Crush and Bouncing Blade. After I disenchanted my duplicates, I had around 4300 dust. Legendaries cost 1600 dust to craft.

Why did I decide to cash out? There likely won't be another major Hearthstone expansion for a year or so. By that time I'll have another pile of gold.

It’s worth noting that Hearthstone’s metagame has consistently favored cheap, aggressive decks, like the Warlock Zoo or the Hunter Undertaker deck, which do not require legendary cards.  Many of the legendaries in Hearthstone are what collectible card-gamers refer to as "Timmy" cards — big creatures or big effects that are powerful, but which are often too slow or situational to be competitive. Easily-obtained common and rare cards tend to be the key players in most top decks.

So, for those playing Hearthstone, good luck with your new packs, and pay attention to your daily quests. The gold really adds up.