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Hearthstone is getting very expensive, and complicated, for a casual game

On July 22, Blizzard announced the second expansion set for Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, its popular online collectible-card game.

This expansion, called The Grand Tournament, will add another 132 cards to the existing pool of about 560.

On one hand, a new expansion is exciting for Hearthstone fans. New cards shake up the metagame and alter the settled deck archetypes in interesting and unpredictable ways. But on the other hand, if you want to play with all those new cards in your constructed decks anytime soon, you'll probably have to spend a lot of money.

And if you're a new or occasional player starting out with Hearthstone or returning after a hiatus, you'll find that this ostensibly casual game has become pretty complex and intimidating, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of collecting cards.

How much will The Grand Tournament cost?

The Grand Tournament expansion will be of similar size to the Goblins vs. Gnomes expansion, which launched last December. That means it will have about 20 legendary cards, and you'll only get one legendary for every 15 to 20 packs you open.

When GvG launched, I spent the 12,500 in-game gold I'd been saving for about eight months to buy packs. Out of 128 packs of cards, I got all the commons and rares I needed, and most of the epics, but only six different legendaries, one legendary duplicate, and enough other duplicate cards and golden cards to craft about three more legendaries using the game's disenchanting system.

That was only about half the legendaries in the set. Arguably, this was enough; about half the legendary cards in GvG are considered "highly situational," aka bad. There's no particularly pressing need to keep buying packs to get cards like Mekgineer Thermaplugg, Mogor the Ogre and Flame Leviathan once you secure Dr. Boom, Sneed's Old Shredder, Mal'Ganis, Vol'Jin and Neptulon. But I ended up buying another 60 packs for $70.

I've saved up another 12,000 gold since December, but I am still planning to go ahead and buy Blizzard's 50-packs-for-$50 pre-order bundle for The Grand Tournament, in addition to liquidating my gold reserves again. Based on my experience with past sets, I am expecting to get about 10 legendaries, and most of the epics, rares and commons I need, with enough dust to get most of the other essentials. But even after 175 packs, I won't get all the cards in the set.

The game is becoming less friendly to new and free players

In May 2014, when only the basic Hearthstone set was available, I assessed the ability of going free-to-play in the game and concluded that path was pretty viable. There were a number of cheap, competitive decks that were performing strongly in the game's ranked mode, and if you kept up with your dailies and disenchanted any card that wasn't on your list, you could construct even the most expensive decks over the course of a few months.

A lot of that year-old analysis still holds true: A Hearthstone deck is still capped at 30 cards, and there are still plenty of ladder decks that avoid using any legendary cards and can be crafted for under 2,000 dust, or the equivalent of about 20 packs. Expansions like GvG and The Grand Tournament won't change that, because all the cards you can get from any kind of pack can be crafted with the dust you get from disenchanting other cards.

However, a limited collection still restricts your options, and that's even more of a problem now, since veteran players and big spenders have access to a larger and increasing pool of cards. Many people are playing aggro Hunter decks not because they like that deck or that play style, but because they have to try to end games quickly since they don't have the tools to compete against mid- to late-game legendary cards like Sylvanas Windrunner, Dr. Boom and Ragnaros.

Players on the ranked ladder will encounter decks stuffed with those legendaries very early in their climb; now that Hearthstone has been out for around 18 months, there are a lot of players with extensive collections.

Blizzard's currency rewards for completing daily quests in Hearthstone are relatively generous compared to other free-to-play games, which inspires engagement and loyalty from veteran players. But the fact that Blizzard gives you enough gold to buy $300 worth of cards per year suggests that somebody starting today has to spend an extra $300 to catch up to someone who started a year ago. As a result of this, a lot of lapsed Hearthstone players feel they've fallen so far behind that it's pointless to try to return to the game.

And the "Adventure Mode" updates Blizzard drops between major expansions add an additional complication for new players or free players. These releases each contain 30 cards, and cost $25 or 3,500 gold. Blizzard designs these to alter the metagame, which means a lot of the cards in them are necessary for anyone planning to be competitive in constructed play.

For example, the current incarnation of the cheap aggro Hunter deck requires Webspinners, Haunted Creepers and Mad Scientists from the Naxxramas Adventure and Quick Shots from the Blackrock Mountain Adventure. That means getting those Adventures is pretty much the first step for a new player, so they'll have to lay out $50 or collect 7,000 gold before they even start buying packs. A daily quest is only worth 50 gold on average, so that's a pretty big hill to climb.

Hearthstone has also grown more complex, and demands that new players become familiar with a much larger pool of cards in order to anticipate what their opponents might throw at them. It was relatively easy to understand how a warrior or a mage was going to play when only the classic set was available, but there are now at least two or three very different competitive strategies for almost every class. A paladin might be going for a Call-to-arms/Quartermaster combo, or he might be running dragons. A warrior might be playing the venerable control deck, or he might be playing a go-for-the-face aggro strategy, or he might be running a deck built around combos involving Warsong Commander and Grim Patron.

All of these problems are going to grow more severe as Hearthstone continues to mature; how will new players get a foothold a year from now, if there are four different Adventure modes they'll need to acquire, each containing several staple cards?

What has Blizzard done about this?

There are several systems already in place to mitigate the burdens of getting into constructed Hearthstone. First, there are a couple of modes that let everyone play on an even field, regardless of their collections. The popular Arena draft mode has been around since before the game officially launched, though each ticket to the Arena costs 150 gold.

Blizzard also recently added the Tavern Brawl mode, which invites players to play under a different rule set each week. About half of these challenges so far have given players pre-selected decks rather than requiring them to use cards from their collections. Players can usually complete their daily quests in Tavern Brawl mode, so they can now take care of most daily quests without going into constructed at all.

The Brawl also awards a free pack of the classic set for the first win of the week, and Blizzard added a daily quest to the rotation a few months back that awards a classic pack for watching a friend win a game in spectator mode. These items improve the rate of free card rewards by about 20 percent, and are especially beneficial to newer players, since veterans are likely to only get dust from most classic packs at this point.

As long as Hearthstone is a cash cow for Blizzard and new players are willing to put in the time or open their wallets to get into the game, this may be all Blizzard needs to do. But, in the past we've seen Blizzard make changes to World of Warcraft to make it easier for former players to return and new players to get a foothold. If Hearthstone's player acquisition and retention start to slide, similar steps might be justified for the card game. There are several things Blizzard can do that might mitigate the impact of the game's sprawl on new players.

Give players alternate ways to get old Adventure cards

Forcing new players to buy older Adventure mode sets is really burdensome, and buying wings is the only way to get the cards, since — unlike cards from the classic and expansion sets — Adventure Mode cards cannot be crafted with dust.

Allowing players to craft cards from adventures older than the most recent set with their dust would at least allow budget players to get staple cards like Haunted Creepers and Sludge Belchers for their decks without buying the expensive Adventure wings. There would still be an incentive for most players to buy the wings, since crafting the Adventure-exclusive legendary cards like Kel'Thuzad and Chromaggus would never be more efficient than buying the wings.

Other alternatives, for further in the future when there are more Adventures, would be to combine the cards from older adventures into their own set, so newer players could get those cards by buying relatively cheaper packs.

Add cards from older sets to the existing "basic" set

There are about 150 Hearthstone cards that you get for free just for playing through the tutorial mode and leveling up your heroes. Blizzard could make the prospect of collecting Hearthstone cards less daunting by adding cards, possibly including some legendaries, from the classic and GvG sets to this free, automatic set and then combining what's left of those older sets into a single, new core set. Older players who collected these cards from packs might not love this, but Blizzard could compensate them with the dust value of the converted cards.

Create a constructed mode similar to Magic: The Gathering's "restricted" format

Magic: The Gathering has been around for over 20 years, and has thousands of cards. In a format where all of these are available, it is very difficult for players to learn every possible card they might potentially come up against, and it's very difficult for designers to predict every potentially broken interaction between a new card and the thousands of existing cards.

As a result, Magic's premier Tournament mode is its "restricted" format, in which players may only use cards from the current iteration of the game's core set and the most recent cycle of expansions. Blizzard could create a restricted ladder mode for Hearthstone so that newer players could jump into constructed without having to worry about collecting old expansions or old Adventures.

However, dividing the player base this way would likely make the unrestricted ladder extremely cutthroat, since the new mode would lure away most of the players who form the base of the current ladder's pyramid structure. And if the restricted mode became the primary mode for eSports and tournaments, older players might feel like their cards and therefore their investment in the game had been devalued.

Price cuts for old cards

One way to make it easier to collect older sets is simply to cut the gold and real-money prices of the packs. However, all cards of the same rarity can currently be disenchanted for the same amount of dust, regardless of the set they come from, so a price cut for old sets could create a situation where the most efficient way to get legendaries from new expansions would be to buy old packs and dust the contents to craft the new cards.

Price cuts for older Adventure modes will make a lot of sense, however, as Blizzard adds more of them to the game.

Sooner or later, Blizzard will have to do something

Going into the Grand Tournament expansion, Hearthstone remains a huge success and a thriving game. But it faces the problem that challenges all collectible-card games; the challenge of an ever-expanding card library. Hearthstone also has to figure out how to be a competitive game that is rewarding to its big spenders and its veteran players who remain consistently engaged, without new or occasional players feeling overwhelmed by having to face those power users' superior collections.

And, with this launch, there will be three different kinds of packs for sale in the store, as well as the two Adventures. In another year or so, there will probably be five kinds of packs and four expansions. That will prove to be a confusing array of choices for new players of a game whose designers have worried that players would be too intimidated by the prospect of having more than nine deck slots.

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