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Who can still afford to keep up with Hearthstone?

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There are signs that the cost of Hearthstone is slowly strangling the game

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Hearthstone: Rise of Shadows - characters looking at candles Blizzard Entertainment

At what point will players lose patience with Hearthstone?

Hearthstone’s next expansion, Rise of Shadows, will be released April 9. Blizzard will retire three full expansions — Journey to Un’Goro, Knights of the Frozen Throne, and Kobolds and Catacombs — from the Standard format at the same time. This is the largest single shifting of cards out of the main format in the game’s history.

Hearthstone has always been a business, and Blizzard needs to sell cards for that business to make money. But it also needs a healthy community of players who feel like they’re getting a good value from the game when they spend that money, and there are signs that the high cost of staying competitive in Hearthstone may be driving players away.

A high cost of entry

Blizzard’s Standard format includes only the current year’s set and the sets released in the previous year. Cards released in 2016 rotated out in April 2017, and this year, 2017’s cards will follow. There will soon be more cards exiled to the poorly balanced and barely supported Wild format than are allowed in Standard.

Key pieces of many competitive decks will be banned from the main format when the 2017 sets rotate out. That will force many players to either pay for more cards from recent expansions to build decks for the new meta, or fall back into inexpensive staple decks like the Warlock zoo or the face Hunter. Decks without rare, powerful cards can be competitive, but they’re also boring to play.

And Standard mode is where all the action is. The Wild format includes every card ever printed, so it is dominated by the most degenerate and broken interactions possible, including some using cards that have never been Standard-legal at the same time. Its meta is frequently dominated by relatively non-interactive one-turn-kill combo decks, and balance changes to Wild cards are rare. If you’re willing to play against these decks, you can climb the ladder and get Legend in Wild, but Standard is by far the most popular format, and the format used in nearly all pro events and tournaments.

This is why the card rotation matters so much, and why the pricing has become such an issue. You need to keep buying if you want to play in the most popular format. And that can get expensive.

Blizzard is launching the new Rise of Shadows expansion with two bundles:

  • The first bundle costs $79.99. It contains 80 packs; an alternate hero character for the priest class, which is a cosmetic item; a card back, which is also cosmetic; and a golden random legendary card from the new set.
  • The second bundle costs $49.99. It contains 50 packs, the same card back, and a random, standard legendary from the new set.

Outside of the launch bundles, which you can only buy once per account, Blizzard’s current best price is 40 packs for $50. Most heavy Hearthstone spenders will pay 15 to 20 percent off the sticker price by using discounted iTunes credits or Amazon Coins to buy their cards, so they pay 80-85 cents per pack in launch bundles and then about $1 per pack if they want to buy more cards beyond that.

If you keep up with your daily quests, you can also earn enough in-game currency over the course of the four months between expansions to buy 60-70 extra packs. So a player will spend $105 if they earn 70 free packs and buy both bundles for 20 percent off using discounted App Store or Amazon credit. That gets them 200 packs, plus the two legendary cards. Blizzard usually gives everybody a random legendary from the new set for logging in during the expansion launch window, and a legendary drops roughly every 20 packs.

The precise way the odds work is that each of the five cards in every pack has a 1 percent chance of being legendary, and there is a pity timer mechanic that guarantees you a legendary card every 40 packs you open. That means you’ll get an average of 10 legendaries from opening 200 packs, with the absolute worst-case scenario yielding only five.

A modern Hearthstone set has a total of 23 legendaries: two for each class and five neutral cards. If you get 10 legendaries from your 200 packs, one for the launch giveaway, and two from your bundles, you’ll still be missing 10 legendaries after spending a hundred bucks on the expansion. You’ll likely get enough duplicate commons, rares, and epics to craft two or three more, and hopefully that will be enough to get everything you need. But you’ll still be missing some cards, despite the amount of money you’ve spent.

Blizzard now releases three expansions per year. The Rise of Shadows bundles, which allow you to buy 130 discounted packs, are actually a better deal than the launch discounts for many previous sets. Blizzard offered 130 packs with the bonus legendaries for July 2018’s Boomsday Project, but there was only one 70-pack bundle available for $49.99 for April 2018’s Witchwood set, and December 2018’s Rastakhan’s Rumble set only offered players 67 packs for $69.99, with no extra legendaries.

If you wanted to open 200 packs of each set, you’d need to supplement those launch deals with two extra 40-pack bundles for $49.99 each. If you used iTunes credit or Amazon Coins to save 20 percent on everything, you’d pay $120 for 150 packs of Witchwood and $138 for 147 packs of Rastakhan. Along with $105 for 130 packs of Boomsday, opening around 200 packs of each 2018 expansion at launch would’ve cost you $363.

But you don’t need all the cards to compete. In fact, many of the legendary cards don’t end up fitting into any competitive deck. But nobody wants to spend years just playing budget decks that are passable but unoriginal. Many experienced players, myself included, enjoy trying out wacky ideas in the first few weeks after an expansion launches. Once the meta settles, however, any variance from top players’ refined deck lists will likely reduce your win percentage.

Which is the whole problem: You have to spend a lot of money to have that kind of fun with Hearthstone.

The history of Hearthstone pricing

Keeping up with Hearthstone wasn’t nearly as expensive during the game’s first two years. Blizzard used to alternate between releasing “Adventure” sets, which were sold for the flat price of $20 and guaranteed that you’d get all the cards, and large expansion sets that came with random packs.

Adventure sets had fewer cards than expansion sets, but they also included fewer of the esoteric cards that didn’t have much of a use, and had no filler-type junk cards. These sets propped up decks that weren’t working, enabled some new archetypes, and shook up the meta without shaking down players for an unreasonable amount of money. It was a good time to be a fan.

In 2017, Blizzard discontinued the Adventure modes and started releasing three full expansions each year. The studio also implemented duplicate protection for legendary cards, which improved your chances of getting the legendary cards you needed in random packs. That meant that the price went up, but at least some of it was mitigated by the new rules for duplicates.

The in-game currency rewards for daily quests also rose, and Blizzard started running in-game events that awarded extra gold. I earned enough currency to buy 125 packs from nearly a year’s worth of daily quests in 2014. These days, I can rack up enough currency to buy nearly 200 packs.

However, you also need a lot more packs than you used to, now that there are three expansions per year. You may get 50 percent more free packs per year, but there are now triple the number of expansions, so you only get half as many free packs per expansion. Keeping up with the game has become more expensive.

But isn’t Hearthstone still less expensive than Magic?

Hearthstone’s business model has a venerable predecessor: the popular physical trading card game Magic: The Gathering, for which Wizards of the Coast has been selling cards in random packs since the early 1990s. When I look at a Hearthstone pack, it’s easy to think of it as a Magic booster pack instead of something like a Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot box.

Competitive Magic players can spend thousands of dollars per year on cards, and a popular tournament format involves drafting decks from sealed packs, which means you have to buy new packs to participate in the event. The draft format is actually much cheaper than constructed tournaments, where a single competitive deck can cost $500-600 to assemble by purchasing cards on the secondary market.

But Magic cards are physical objects that can be resold on the secondary market. An extremely rare Black Lotus card from the game’s earliest 1993 print run sold on eBay last year for $87,000. My own collection, which has been preserved in a binder in the closet of my childhood bedroom since Bill Clinton was president, is theoretically worth around $20,000 now if I sold each of my individual cards for its market price, which would be a time-consuming process.

My Hearthstone cards, meanwhile, are bound to my Battle.net account. They are worth whatever they are worth now based on my enjoyment of them. I can’t sell them or use them in any other way. They often lose value, in fact, as they’re retired from Standard play.

Prices go up, enthusiasm goes down

Hearthstone is doing great, according to Blizzard. In November, the company celebrated the milestone of having 100 million players.

However, some data paints a less optimistic picture of the game’s trajectory. Hearthstone’s annual revenues appear to have peaked in 2016, back when Blizzard was releasing Adventure sets. That means Hearthstone was making more money when it cost less to play, because more people were paying for it back then.

Hearthstone’s monthly active users declined in 2018, and, on its earnings call for the summer 2018 quarter, Blizzard blamed those drops on the fact that the Boomsday Project expansion was less popular than 2017’s extremely successful Knights of the Frozen Throne, which added powerful cards based around the popular Icecrown Citadel setting from World of Warcraft. In February, Hearthstone suffered a reported revenue decline of 52 percent compared to the same month in 2018.

Rise of Shadows looks like a fun concept — it involves villains from previous Hearthstone sets teaming up to pull a heist in the magical floating city of Dalaran. But this set is also an inflection point for Hearthstone. When the popular Frozen Throne cards retire to the Wild format, will players pay up to replenish their collections?