Jun 12 2014 - 1:00 pm

Stop calling Hearthstone 'pay-to-win'

Blizzard has a new hit on their hands
Dot Esports

Blizzard has a new hit on their hands. Digital card game Hearthstone has grown at a rocket-like pace since its release earlier in the year. More than 10 million users had already registered to play the game on their computers by the time the game's iPad app dropped in April. It's since become one of the most popular games in the app store.

But despite its popularity, Hearthstone has been targeted with one nagging criticism: It's a "pay to win" game.

The charge is understandable. As a free game, Hearthstone has to make money for Blizzard in some way. So of the game's 382 total cards, you'll have to get a majority by either doing things the free way—winning lots of online matches—or opening your wallet.

But while it’s true that players can shell out hard cash to improve their decks, the fact is that Hearthstone isn't a pay-to-win game. Like a rich golfer who spends thousands on state-of-the-art clubs, Hearthstone players who spend money on the game can gain a temporary advantage over players who don't. But no amount of cash can turn a fundamentally poor Hearthstone player into a good one.

You can buy card packs with the in-game currency, "gold," which you can get by winning or completing certain challenges, or with increments of real money: $3, $10, and $50. Like decks of baseball cards, Hearthstone's packs aren't a sure bet. You could get some cards you already have, or you could get one of the best cards in the game, dubbed "legendaries." What cards pops up in your deck are determined by algorithms based on rarity.

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While Blizzard has not given any official word regarding the numbers involved in these algorithms, players have aggregated significant amounts of data that paint a clear enough picture. Legendary cards tend to come up in about one out of every 20 packs. Given that there are 36 legendary cards, the odds of finding a specific one in each pack are slim.

This is where the idea of “pay-to-win” is introduced. While gold and arcane dust (another in-game item that can be used to create cards) can both be earned over time by simply playing the game, this is a deliberately slow process. But for players not interested in the required daily grind of games, there is that shortcut.

Pay for some packs and craft as you please.

So there's no arguing that Hearthstone offers players the chance to pay for some benefit to them. But is that benefit directly equitable to winning?

Some players have made a point of demonstrating the potential effectiveness of decks built through freely available cards. Popular streamer Jeffrey “Trump” Shih has notably made a point of ascending through ladder play to the top ranking classification with multiple decks built in this way.

While smart deck construction and effective decision making should be enough to help a player ascend to the upper echelon of play, it's inevitable they'll eventually run into players at the same skill level who, nevertheless, have better cards. Those who argue that the game is “pay-to-win” might suggest that this is a point beyond which a player cannot pass without offering a sufficient monetary sacrifice. But as players like Shih have shown, in Hearthstone, player skill can overcome all the way up to the highest potential ranking.

Asking players to commit lengthy amounts of time in exchange for in-game progress is nothing new for Blizzard. The company's wildly successful MMORPG World of Warcraft is based around the model of providing incentive for players to continue to spend more time playing the game. The allure of a new ability at the next level or a new piece of equipment dropped by the next boss motivates millions of players to play each month.

Progression in Hearthstone is not so different. More time spent in the game leads to the acquisition of more cards. And just as each dungeon boss in World of Warcraft may hold the promise of potential loot, each Hearthstone pack has the potential to contain the legendary card a player has been hoping for.

The option to take a shortcut with cash isn't a concept exclusive to Hearthstone. Again, there is a comparison to be made to World of Warcraft, where players are now able to pay $60 to instantly bring their character from any point of progression to level 90, the highest level attainable in the game's current iteration.

That's exactly what a Hearthstone player is paying for: progression. More cards suddenly make your deck a lot more competitive, helping you jump up the ladder.

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Spending money on cards certainly helps a new player win. But such victories are fleeting, and will only last as long as it takes for a player to arrive at a position on the ladder at which most players wield decks of a similar strength. Players will naturally tend to clump together with others whose decks are similarly strong or weak.

There are other factors involved in improving one’s chances to win in Hearthstone: optimal decision making, the ability to improvise, and intelligent deck construction given the player's available card pool. Strengthening your card pool by paying for packs plays a role, but isn't the determining factor.

And there is a limit to which money spent by a player can affect the outcome of a game. As each deck contains only 30 cards, once that particular deck has been fully optimized there is no amount of money that can be spent, or number of cards that can be collected, to further improve the player’s chances of winning with that already completed deck. This is the point at which skill and the luck of the draw are all that remain to separate players.

In fairness, that one deck won’t be enough for any player hoping to break into the competitive scene. Most tournaments require that each player bring with them at least two separate decks ready for play, while larger events may require as many as five, further multiplying the amount of time and money required to take part.

And while the more casual player faces no requirement to wield a certain number of decks, it does affect their experience playing the game. Having a greater variety of cards means being able to construct more viable decks featuring different heroes. This allows for more variety, which adds to the fun. There’s something to be said for being able to switch to a different deck after a suffering a string of stinging losses with another.

A limited pool of cards also makes it difficult to react to changes in the metagame. As some decks gain in popularity and become dominant in play, other decks better suited to countering these decks will be developed and potentially become more dominant. A player might have spent a lot time and resources crafting one specific deck, only to find its strength wanes over time.

This can be a frustrating thing for a player whose card pool isn’t broad enough to appropriately respond to such changes. These frustrations may only be compounded if a player is forced to respond to balance changes made by Blizzard.

The arena option presents an interesting alternative for players looking to progress. Rather than paying a flat rate of money or gold for a pack of new cards, they can pay slightly more to draft a new deck from a random assortment of cards and match that deck with other arena players and their similarly constructed decks.

The potential payout is much greater, as a strong run of victories can net a player multiple card packs, more gold than can be had from completing most daily quest goals, resources for card creation, and even legendary cards. But, there is risk associated with each arena run, as fewer victories equate to smaller rewards and less of them. And those victories may be harder to come by than elsewhere in the game, as it stands to reason that more skilled players would be drawn to the avenue that best rewards player skill.

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The result is another option for accelerated progress, but one that is entirely reliant on a player’s own skill and ability.

Is Hearthstone pay-to-win? Money spent undeniably provides greater resources for a player to work with, but these can be acquired without spending a dime. And with players naturally drifting together in the game’s ranking system based on the strength of their cards, choosing to invest your finances in Hearthstone is less about choosing to win than just playing with more cards against tougher competition.

Blizzard’s model for Hearthstone is clear. Make the game approachable for newcomers, allow players to invest as much or as little as they please while still being able to enjoy playing with others at a level similar to their own, and provide a high ceiling for those willing to more deeply invest and perhaps even compete.

Most importantly, Blizzard has sought to provide a clear set of options to players of Hearthstone: Either spend your time, spend your money, or spend both.

Illustration by Jason Reed