One of the most contentious topics of debate among players of Hearthstone, Blizzard’s free-to-play collectible card game, is the question of whether the game is "pay to win." People have been arguing about this since the closed beta and, while ultimately the question is hard to resolve, we can come to some conclusions.
The argument that Hearthstone is a pay-to-win game is straightforward: Blizzard sells Hearthstone cards for real money. Players who are willing to spend lots of money on the game can amass arsenals of powerful cards to use in their decks, and steamroll players who have more limited resources.
However, the game gives you lots of opportunities to win cards for free, and some of the most powerful decks in the competitive game use only easily-obtained cards.
So, while there’s no objective answer to whether the game is a fair one or a "pay to win" title, there are some facts that can describe the extent of the advantage a player can purchase, and the competitive viability of free-players.
If you start playing Hearthstone today, you will begin with a basic set of cards and enough in-game currency to purchase a few "expert packs," each of which contains five randomly selected cards from the "expert set."
Some of the starter cards are efficient, powerful staples like the Chillwind Yeti, a hard-hitting, resilient monster you can summon early in the game. But if you build your deck from only basic cards, you’ll get trounced by players who have lots of expert cards. This will happen very early in your Hearthstone experience, because the game pushes you into multiplayer matches almost immediately after you finish the introductory tutorial.
The intertwined goals of the game are to climb the 25 ranks of the competitive ladder and to collect the cards in the expert set, particularly legendary cards, which represent the most powerful figures in the Warcraft franchise. You’ll need to open a lot of packs if you want to get these goodies; about 70 percent of the cards you’ll get will be of common quality. At least one card in every pack will be rare quality or better, and you’ll see an epic card once every five packs. You’ll get a legendary card maybe once in twenty packs.
Like the basic cards, some of the common cards are very potent: the Harvest Golem, which summons a smaller version of itself when it dies, is considered one of the most efficient cards in the game, and a common Hunter card called Unleash The Hounds is so powerful that Blizzard increased its mana cost in a recent patch.
But if you lack epic cards, you won’t have key assets like the Warrior’s Gorehowl axe that can rip through enemy minions, or the Paladin’s Lay On Hands, a powerful spell that heals the player and reloads his hand with cards. And the coveted legendary cards include Ragnaros, a fire-god who deals heavy damage each turn to a randomly-chosen enemy target, and Ysera, a huge dragon who summons special cards for you from a nightmare dimension.
If you’re trying to play certain decks that optimally use these cards, and you don’t have them, you’re at a disadvantage. If you’re playing with the very limited pool of resources that you start with, and someone uses this stuff against you, you’re probably not going to have much of an answer to it.
Getting the cards
There are two ways to acquire more expert packs: The first is to get out your credit card; you can have as many packs as you want immediately for about $1.50 each; or a little less if you buy packs in lots of 15 or 40.
If you’re averse to spending real money, you can earn game currency to buy the packs in the game. You get 10 gold for every three games you win, up to a maximum of 100 gold per day and, on top of that, you get a daily quest which is usually worth either 40 or 60 gold. You can save up to three daily quests at once, so you can complete all your daily quests even if you don’t have time to play every day. Expert packs cost 100 gold each.
It’s theoretically possible to earn 4500 gold a month, if you do your quests and win 30 games every single day. That’s not really plausible for most players; if your games take only five minutes each, and you win a very admirable 60 percent of your games, you’ll still have to play for four hours a day, every day of the month, to earn that much gold.
So, for our model of a reasonable free-to-play card acquisition rate, we’re going to look at a hypothetical player who plays about forty-five minutes per day, does all his dailies, and wins an average of five games per day, earning about 450 gold, or four and a half packs each week. This player will earn 18 packs per month, and 216 if he keeps it up for a year, which will give him a huge arsenal of cards.
Hearthstone launched very recently on iPad, but the PC version was actually in closed beta since last summer, so some players have been accumulating free card rewards for more than six months. You don't have to grind that long to build a formidable deck.
The Crafting System
If you don’t get the cards you want from your packs you can disenchant your unwanted cards to get arcane dust, which can be used to craft other cards. You can destroy a common card to get 5 dust, and you can craft any common card for 40 dust. A rare card disenchants for 20 dust and costs 100 to craft. Epic cards give you 100 dust, and cost 400 to make, and legendaries yield 400 dust and cost 1600.
Some cards you’ll find will be cosmetically-shiny "golden" variants, which perform the same as the regular versions in the game, but can be disenchanted for bonus dust. All told, the average value of a pack of Hearthstone cards is about 100 dust.
You'd need 8,360 dust to craft every card in the Druid "ramp" deck a pro-gamer named Gaara used to smash the competition at the April 2014 Dreamhack tournament in Bucharest. The most expensive competitive deck I am aware of, a "wallet Warrior" control deck designed to stall the opponent in the early game and then overwhelm them with a bunch of huge legendary cards, costs about 12,000 dust.
But you don’t necessarily need an expensive deck; the popular Twitch streamer Kolento climbed to Rank 1 in both the North American and European regions using a Hunter deck with no epic or legendary cards, valued at only 880 dust.
That means that, even if our hypothetical player earning 450 gold per week gets none of the cards he needs from his packs, he can still craft Kolento’s hunter deck in less than three weeks by disenchanting his other cards. Or, he can make the complete druid deck within about four months, or the outrageously expensive warrior deck in six months.
These are lengthy timelines, but pursuing long-term goals in persistent online video games is a familiar concept to veterans of Blizzard games like World of Warcraft; the timelines for building legendary Hearthstone decks aren’t dissimilar to the pace at which one might assemble a tiered set of raiding or arena gear in WoW. The key caveat here is that players in WoW don’t have the option of spending a hundred bucks to get their tier set instantly.
However, besides the budget hunter deck, there are a lot of competitive ladder decks that our hypothetical player can earn in six weeks of moderate play, without spending any money. If he gets some of the cards he needs for the deck he is building in his packs, he can finish his decklist even faster, and most of these decks can still function pretty well using cheaper substitute cards for some of the legendaries.
The Limitations of the Paid Advantage
Suppose two players start playing Hearthstone today. One of them spends $200 immediately to buy 160 packs of cards, while the other spends nothing. The player who spends the money will have a huge advantage on the first day; he’ll probably have a full set of commons and most of the rares he needs, along with several dozen epic cards and 10-12 legendaries.
But if they both accumulate cards from daily quests and gold over the next six months, the paid player’s advantage will be greatly diminished, even though he will still have a lot more cards. This will happen for several reasons.
The 30 Card Deck Limit
Every Hearthstone deck must have exactly 30 cards. So it doesn’t really matter how many cards you have in your collection; the only cards that matter in any individual game are the 30 cards in the deck you are playing.
If your deck calls for a Ragnaros card, and you’re running a basic Boulderfist Ogre in that slot because you haven’t got the legendary, you’re going to be at a disadvantage against someone who has access to all the cards they want for their deck-list.
But once you complete your deck, you’ve leveled the playing field. By definition, additional cards can no longer augment a complete deck. All you can do with those cards is build other decks. Having a variety of decks is a luxury, and being able to switch decks and play-styles offers a little bit of protection against the possibility of an unfavorable matchup to your deck becoming popular on the ladder. But, once you have completed your deck, any advantage another player can gain by having a larger collection than you is slight.
If you focus on crafting the key cards to complete the deck you’re building, you can go toe-to-toe with anyone and feel confident that, if you lose the game, it’s not because of your cards. You can become competitive quickly by simply focusing on one well-constructed deck of 30 cards.
Diminishing marginal value of additional cards
You can only use two of any card in your deck, and only one of each legendary. So the first two Harvest Golems you get are staple cards that can be used in a variety of decks. Your third Harvest Golem is useless, and you will destroy it for five dust. Similarly, your first Ragnaros is a huge upgrade, but your second Ragnaros is just 400 dust.
Since most of the cards in expert packs are of common quality, players quickly reach the point where most of the cards they get are worth nothing but dust and, at that point, the benefit they get from obtaining packs diminishes significantly.
As we’ve already discussed, completing your second good deck doesn’t confer as big an advantage as finishing your first good deck, and since the second deck gives you some insurance against shifts in the metagame, completing a third deck provides less benefit than completing a second.
The result of this tendency is that, even if players who bought a lot of cards continue to buy more cards or acquire more cards with gold, players who are steadily progressing for free will eventually catch up. After a few months, the paid advantage all but disappears.
If you are a new Hearthstone player and you want to try to push for the top of the ladder this month, you will probably have a difficult time of it unless you’re willing to spend some money. But if you want to play for free, and you’re willing to work toward your goals over a period of a few months, it’s possible to build even the most extravagant decks without paying a dime.
Spending money in Hearthstone is unquestionably the quickest way to acquire a competitive deck. Even moderate play, however, allows free players to eventually grind the paid advantage down to almost nothing.