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Hearthstone has become a $400 a year game

Don’t expect costs to come down for hardcore players

Hearthstone Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard released Kobolds and Catacombs, its latest expansion for Hearthstone, on Dec. 7. The expansion adds 135 new cards to the game, and brings some interesting deck possibilities into the mix, but players are getting frustrated with the increasing cost of keeping up with the game’s competitive scene.

Both the games media and prominent community voices have started talking about how incredibly expensive this game has become, and the data supports their unease. It has never been more expensive to play Hearthstone competitively.

Hearthstone got much pricier in 2017

Blizzard used to release a new batch of Hearthstone cards every four months. Those releases alternated between expansion sets, which included about 135 cards that you got from randomized packs of five cards, and smaller “adventure” releases, that added between 30 and 45 new cards to the game.

Players did not have to buy packs to get the cards from adventures, which were priced between $20 to $25. Players who bought the adventures received all the new cards as long as they completed fairly trivial single-player puzzle battles.

Blizzard has since stopped releasing adventures, opting instead to release a 135-card expansion every four months.

Expansions cost much more than adventures, because players have to get their expansion cards out of randomized packs. Trying to figure out the actual cost of staying current with your cards isn’t an easy task, and there a number of variables to consider.

Hearthstone cards can be common, rare, epic or legendary. You’re guaranteed to get one rare or better in each pack, and a legendary card will appear in every 20 packs or so on average, according to Blizzard’s Chinese regulatory disclosures.

The three 2017 Expansion sets have each had 23 legendaries per set, including two legendaries for each of the nine classes and five neutral legendaries. This means there are more of the rarest cards to collect than there were in the older sets, which all had one class legendary and 11 neutrals, for a total of 20.

Blizzard has provided one significant measure of relief for collectors, starting with August’s Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion: You no longer get duplicate legendaries from random packs.

This is a bigger economic deal than it may sound at first. The only use for duplicate cards in Hearthstone is to destroy them to create dust, a currency that is used to craft new cards. The amount of dust you get from destroying a duplicate is only a fraction of the cost to craft a new card of the same rarity. It costs 1,600 dust to craft a legendary card, but a duplicate only yields 400 dust when destroyed.

That means that, previously, if you already had ten legendaries from a set, and you bought a pack, you had about a 5 percent chance to get a legendary, but then a 50 percent chance that any legendary you got would be a duplicate. That duplicate was only good for getting you 25 percent of the dust you needed to craft a card you lack.

The new system means that you’ll get a new legendary roughly every 20 packs until you have all of them. That’s a nice improvement, but the cost of staying current has still gone up. You can blame the loss of the adventure releases and the rise of the expansions that require you to purchase many packs to get all the cards you need.

You don’t need every card, however

You don’t need to collect all the cards to play Hearthstone or be competitive. You don’t need a bunch of legendary cards, either. The most efficient decks for climbing the Hearthstone ladder are usually straightforward aggro decks.

New expansions sometimes add new legendary tools to these lists, like Patches the Pirate or Prince Keleseth. But players can craft these cards using dust, and players who run these kinds of decks can ignore Death Knights, quest cards and other legendary mechanics.

Later on, when I describe certain deck archetypes, like most of the Un’Goro quests, as never becoming competitive, what I mean is that they weren’t good enough to hold their own against basic aggro decklists. There has never been a time in Hearthstone when basic no-frills decklists weren’t competitive.

So you don’t have to chase every card, but the game is still aimed at making sure you spend more money than you have in the past. I’m also not that interested in running the same Warlock Zoo or Tempo Rogue decks that have been around since 2014, even if those decks still get the job done. I want to play with the fancy new toys, and acquiring those toys has become much more expensive in the last year. Blizzard is banking that you feel the same way.

The real cost of each expansion

It costs about $150 plus all the gold you earn from four months of playing to get most of the good stuff in a Hearthstone expansion, and probably about $200 to get everything in a new set without breaking down your golden cards for dust.

That isn’t guesswork, here is how I arrived at my numbers:

Players who spend a lot of money on Hearthstone cards generally don’t pay retail price. iTunes credit is frequently available for 15 percent off, and the Amazon coin currency is frequently available for at least 20 percent off its face value if bought in $100 increments. Amazon always sells $500 worth of coins for $375, or 25 percent off if you’re willing to basically pre-pay for several expansions.

This is why it’s fair to treat Hearthstone cards as costing about $1 per pack, even though Blizzard’s own retail price is $50 for 40 packs or $1.25 per pack. You just have to be willing the game the system a bit and find a way to buy your cards on an Android device if you want to save the most money in the most reliable manner.

The new guarantee against duplicate legendaries means you’d need to buy around 400 packs of cards to get everything in the expansion. You should get every single legendary without having to craft any of them in that number of decks.

You’ll also get hundreds of duplicate common, rare and epic cards, which will break down into more than 20,000 excess dust. 20,000 dust is a dozen legendaries, so 400 packs is actually a full set plus more than half the next set. You can finish your collection a lot sooner if you’re willing to spend your dust as you go.

For reference, I opened 175 packs of the new Kobolds and Catacombs expansion at launch. You can watch the process below.

That’s a 50-pack pre-order, two 40-pack bundles, 40 packs I bought with gold I’d saved up, three free packs for logging in during the launch window and a few packs awarded from Tavern Brawls and quests.

I ended up with 12 legendaries and, with the free legendary weapon Blizzard gave players for logging in combined the free Marin the Fox neutral legendary that Blizzard gave everybody after BlizzCon, I was only missing nine legendaries with about 5,500 dust worth of duplicates to craft into three more legendaries.

I was, however, missing a bunch of the epic quality cards after buying this many packs and, while some epic cards are highly situational or are simply bad cards, I will need to spend at least some of my dust to craft those cards.

I’ve got a big enough stash of dust that I can just craft what I am missing (at least for this expansion), but players with less would have to either live without some of the cards or spend more money. And I could have done much worse on my pack openings; I only got eight legendaries when I opened 180 packs of Grand Tournament cards in 2015.

However, since major expansions were spaced further apart back then, I always had over 12,000 gold ready for each new release — enough to buy 120 packs without spending actual money — so picking up a 50-pack pre-order and a single 40-pack bundle used to be enough to get me 200 packs to open. I only had enough gold ready to buy 40 packs this time.

Some of the more extreme estimates for Hearthstone’s cost fail to factor in serious players who will buy a significant percentage of their cards with gold, and that many will buy their cards at a discount. No matter how you break it down, however, the real-money cost of Hearthstone has more than doubled for players who want to get all the cards now that Blizzard is releasing three expansions per year and there are no more adventures that include all the cards being released.

Is the game better as a result?

Hearthstone players used to be offered about 180 new cards every eight months, and about 25 legendaries under the old system of expansions and adventures. We’re now getting 270 new cards in the same period; 46 of those are legendaries.

Each expansion focuses on a central concept or new mechanic, but what we’ve seen is that the firehose of new cards and mechanics, along with the power creep that is intrinsic to collectible card games, tends to blast most of the previous set’s cards and decks out of competition just a few months after players spend a bunch of money or dust to acquire or craft them.

With so many new cards to put out, the designers tend to abandon old or underperforming cards in favor of entirely new concepts instead of building out those existing archetypes that many players have invested in collecting. The “meta” shifts between flavor of the month decks, depending on what comes out on top after a new card release or a round of card nerfs.

So, for example, Dec 2016’s Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion focused on three warring gangs, the Grimy Goons, the Kabal and the Jade Lotus. Each gang had a set of multi-class cards that were shared by three classes; the Goons got Hunters, Warriors and Paladins, the Kabal got Warlocks, Mages and Priests and the Jades got Druids, Rogues and Shaman.

And each gang’s identity was focused around a central mechanic; the Goons buffed minions in your hand, the Kabal gave special bonuses to decks that did not contain more than one of any card, and the Jades summoned Jade Golems, token creatures that grew progressively more powerful as you summoned more of them.

The Grimy Goon hand-buff mechanic was a failure, and cards using it never made a dent in the metagame. The Kabal decks flourished for a couple of months, but those decks vanished when one of their key cards, Reno Jackson, rotated out of the standard format in April 2017. Kabal leader Kazakus and his priest henchman Raza the Chained would see a return to competitive viability with the launch of Knights of the Frozen Throne, due to Raza’s powerful synergy with Anduin Wrynn’s Death Knight form, but Kabal Mage and Warlock never recovered from the loss of Reno. Only the Jades, particularly the Jade Druid, managed to stick around all year. Blizzard hasn’t returned to the concept of multi-class cards since Gadgetzan.

April 2017’s Journey to Un’Goro brought a new kind of card, the quest. Quests always start in your hand at the beginning of the game, and cost one mana to activate. They give you an objective to accomplish, such as discarding six cards or summoning five minions with attack stats greater than five. You get a powerful card that gives you a huge advantage once you manage to complete the quest in that round.

Every class got a legendary quest, and a lot of the quests do things that seem like a lot of fun, but most of the decks built around these cards were not competitive. The trouble with quests was that they require you to start off with one fewer card, because the quest takes up one of the card spots in the starting hand, and you fall behind when you spend your first turn activating the quest. Patches the Pirate then comes and eats your face while you are busy setting up your little dungeon master screen. You rarely see any of the quests on the ladder these days.

August 2017’s Knights of the Frozen Throne gave every class a powerful death knight card, which triggers an on-board effect when activated, and upgrades the class hero in some way. These were mostly successful, because they are very strong and most of them fit into and reinforce viable existing archetypes, rather than needing new decks built around them.

But resurgent Death Knight lists like Highlander Priest and a Jade Druid that had been supercharged Malfurion’s new Death Knight form and other powerful Frozen Throne cards blew almost all the remaining quest decks off the ladder. So, if you spent a lot of money on Un’Goro cards, you probably feel like a chump. And even more so if you also invested in Grimy Goons decks or something like a Kazakus Warlock.

With Kobolds and Catacombs, it seems like Blizzard is at least willing to revisit some of those Un’Goro concepts and augment them with some new cards. The new Mage weapon, for example, seems like it might help the borderline-viable quest mage deck put together its complicated infinite-damage combo. But who, at this point, wants to invest dust to see if a new legendary card can somehow resurrect the Paladin quest?

It seems like the rising cost of this game is pushing more players to the sidelines during the period after a new launch. Instead of getting a bunch of new cards and building new decks, most players wait for the new metagame to shake out, and then spend their limited dust to only build the most powerful decks after the pros have “solved” the meta.

Strong decks become ubiquitous because so many players will wait until they see what comes out on top, and then fully commit their resources to building that list. Playing any other way has become much too expensive for most players.

Relief is unlikely anytime soon

Blizzard doesn’t need the community or the media to tell it if its strategy is working or not. It has its own internal metrics of player engagement, player churn and player spend.

And Blizzard seems to think Hearthstone’s current direction is fine. Blizzard reported record-breaking revenue for the release of Knights of the Frozen Throne, which isn’t surprising since that set included a bunch of strong cards based on popular characters from the Wrath of the Lich King era of World of Warcraft.

Hearthstone’s lead artist, Ben Thompson, recently told Metabomb that the team intends to do three more pack-based expansion releases in 2018 instead of returning to adventures. Blizzard’s spin on this decision is that packs are more accessible to more casual players, because the adventure modes gated the new cards behind single-player adventure missions. Some players never managed to unlock the cards.

I’m all for inclusivity, but I don’t see how a $50 expansion pack pre-order containing around three legendary cards and maybe a third of the total number of new cards in a seasonal release is more inclusive than a $20 adventure mode that includes five legendaries and 100 percent of the season’s new cards.

But Blizzard is unlikely to change anything until the data shows that the players’ frustration with rising costs is hurting the game’s bottom line.