Hearthstone is pay-to-win, and we’re actually totally cool with that
Since the beta released in August, Blizzard’s new collectible card video game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has received a fair amount of flack from a vocal minority of players who have pegged Hearthstone as pay-to-win. Others have rallied to its defense to claim it's not pay-to-win at all.
While their heart is in the right place, Hearthstone is definitely pay-to-win. There’s not really much room to debate that. If you pay more money, your deck will be better, faster. Full stop. You can gain the cards you need directly through buying booster packs, which sell for $3 for two five card packs. The more packs purchased, of course, the better the value.
Or you can also compete in “The Arena” which costs $2. In the Arena, players build decks on-the-fly and compete against others for rewards like booster packs, in-game gold, and arcane dust which can be used to craft any card in the game.
Both boosters and Arena fights can be purchased with in-game gold earned through competing in online fights, but that takes significant grinding. Earned naturally, you’ll probably earn a single booster pack every few days, and only if you’re specifically going after the game’s quests, which award gold for things like destroying many creatures and winning games as a specific class.
Beyond that, booster packs only give one card per class, and not every class is represented in each booster. There are 10 classes, one of which is a “general” group of cards that can go in any deck, and only 5 cards per deck. This is great for building a wide-range of neat decks, but utterly terrible for trying to build one in particular that will be competitive at the top level of play.
Hearthstone is a great free-to-play game in that you can have an amazing time without paying a single cent, but don’t have any illusions about competing without paying. It would take months of non-stop play to create one perfect deck that is viable at the top levels.
The card above is one example. This card is amazing, and it’s better than anything a new player has at their disposal, by far. It's also very rare and very expensive to craft. A deck with several cards like this has a statistical advantage over a new player’s deck, and that one card could potentially end the game unless you have some fancy ways of kidnapping or weakening it.
What critics of this type of model seem to be ignoring is that this is the way collectible card games have worked since the dawn of time. Magic: The Gathering is hugely popular, and has used a much more costly monetization model for twenty years.
Consider that the alternative to Hearthstone is Magic Online which is both pay-to-play and pay-to-win. It costs $10 just to register an account and get a basic set of cards, and then you’ll still have to spend significant amounts of time and money to build a competitive deck. With that in mind, Hearthstone is a step forward in the genre, regardless of what you happen to think about the monetization.
But beyond that, Blizzard has also done a spectacular job of segregating the different groups away from each other so casual players don’t have their time wasted by big spenders. In the online matchmaking system the main leagues are Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Masters, and Grandmasters. Even in the beta with a limited pool of candidates the matchmaking has done a great job of always giving players similarly skilled opponents.
If you don’t want to pay money in Hearthstone you’re simply not going to be playing in the Master and Grandmaster leagues for a very long time. Especially once the beta ends and millions more players flood the ranks. That’s fine though, because the game won’t change for you. You won’t be at the forefront of the community, but you’ll still be playing a great game on a level playing field.
If that’s not enough, you also have the option of competing in the Arena. Upon purchasing a round in the Arena, players are asked to select from three heroes as the basis for the new deck they’re about to create. From there, they are asked to pick between 3 mostly-random cards to decide which card will go into their new deck. They do that 30 times until they have a full deck.
The cards you draw in the Arena are not based on the cards you have already acquired, so you may be able to draw special legendary cards you don't yet have. Because the drawing process is entirely random no player has any advantage.
In essence, what Blizzard has done is create a tiered system where basically anyone will find the game that supports the style of play they’re looking for.
Don’t want to pay any money or devote much time? Enjoy Bronze/Silver ranked modes or the offline AI fights. Want to devote a medium amount of time/money? Enjoy Gold/Platinum. Want to devote significant amounts of cash to fine-tuning the best possible deck? Then you’ll be competing at the top level in Masters and Grandmasters with other players who feel the same way.
Even players who don’t want to deal with even the idea of other players potentially having a deck advantage over them have the option of skipping that and playing in the Arena where the playing field is leveled and strategy is king.
Calling Hearthstone a pay-to-win game makes Blizzard sound greedy and soulless thanks to the ominous associations it draws to Facebook games where players essentially buy the right to be listed at the top of the leaderboard. It’s an unfair association as Hearthstone is actually a highly generous game. The fun-to-money ratio I’ve found in Hearthstone (read: lots of fun, $0) is higher than most games of 2013 so far. This is both a pay-to-win game and a free-to-play game of the best kind.
Hearthstone is very enjoyable, and it’s doing collectible card games a favor by moving it further away from pay-to-play, while giving casual players a wonderful game to play potentially for years before deciding if they want to pay to move up to the top competitive levels.
You can call Hearthstone pay-to-win if you want, but competitive Magic: The Gathering players who have dropped $6,000 on a Black Lotus are laughing at you.