Life at the Low End: Finding Success as a Free-To-Player

The very basics of getting started with your Free-to-Play climb up through Ranked Play in Hearthstone.


It can be a sad and lonely life, trying to be a Free-To-Play Hearthstone player. You try to move up in Ranked play, and find yourself permanently stuck at Rank 20. You enter the Arena, only to have a horrible card draw and get your head handed to you, 0 – 3. You try a new deck design or two in Casual play, only to find the Casual area filled with Handlocks, Secret Paladins and Patron Warriors. The entire game, it seems, is designed to force you to spend LOTS of money, just to keep up.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Blizzard’s first experiment in microtransaction gameplay. It seems to be working for them: The company generated over 2 Billion dollars in Digital Sales in 2014. A substantial portion of that money was being spent by Hearthstone’s 25 million+ players. With that kind of revenue flowing in, surely there is no place left for those of us at the bottom of the income pyramid, right? Success in Hearthstone must be purely Pay-to-Win, how can those of us with limited resources get any enjoyment out of the game?

I am here to tell you that there is hope for those of us with limited resources. Though age, low income, disability or other factors of Real Life may prevent us from spending freely on Hearthstone, we can still find enjoyment and competition within the game. But, I must warn you, the solutions may not be what you are expecting…

Let’s take a look at some potential solutions. Maybe we should go look at some deck designs online?

Economics of Crafting

So, where do we get our info on deck design? Most of us start off by looking around at sites like Hearthstone Players, hoping to find some insight or inspiration. But, once we get past the “Basic” decks that can be built with nothing more than free cards, we can get discouraged in a big hurry:

“Try this cheap Druid Ramp deck that only costs 2,660 Dust to build!”

“Get started with this Basic Mech Mage deck for a mere 1,960 Dust!”

“Everyone’s favorite for Ranked Climbing, the Face Hunter, now only 2,620 Dust!”

First off, let’s get real here – there are hidden costs in just about every “Cheap” deck you will find online. The great majority of them require components from either the Naxxramas or Blackrock Mountain adventures within Hearthstone. These adventures are most certainly not free – they can be unlocked for 700 Gold or $6.99 per “wing”, with each adventure containing 5 wings. Those spending Real Money can save themselves a little by buying each adventure for $24.99 as a whole, knocking $10 off the price of each adventure. Those of us going F2P are going to have to come up with 7,000 Gold to get these totally unlocked. If you are diligently playing to complete 1 Daily quest (worth a minimum of 40 Gold) and 3 Wins (worth 10 Gold) every day, that works out to (worst-case scenario) 140 days of constant activity before these cards are available to you. THEN we can start worrying about Dust.

So, then, let’s talk about the price of Dust for a moment, shall we? Dust is created by destroying (“disenchanting”) cards in our library that we have no immediate plans to use, in order to create cards that we can use right away. The trick is, we need to have cards to Disenchant in the first place.  Every Common card we have can be blown away in exchange for 5 Arcane Dust. Every Rare can be turned into 20 Dust, and every Epic earns us 100 Dust. (Legendary cards can technically be turned into 400 Dust, but I totally don’t recommend that decision in most cases. Do I really want 400 Dust instead of Dr. Boom?)

Armed with this information, we can figure out what it is going to cost us, in Real Life currency or In-Game coins, to build one of these “Cheap” decks. The Basic Mech Mage deck above, for example, lists at 1,960 Dust. This is the equivalent of blowing away 392 Common cards – 78.4 Booster packs worth.

But, it isn’t as bad as all that, right? Because each Booster is guaranteed to have a Rare or better card in it, so that should be factored in. The true numbers are not revealed to us by Blizzard, but the general consensus is that a Booster will contain a Rare 75-ish % of the time, an Epic 20%-ish of the time, and a Legendary around 5% of the time. We are ignoring Legendaries for the purposes of our calculations here (since we probably won’t blow them away), so we’ll focus on the rest of the potential Boosters. This means that 3/4 of the time, we’ll get 40 Arcane Dust from a booster (4 Commons + 1 Rare), and the remaining 25% of the time we’ll get 120 Dust (4 Commons + 1 Epic). This means every 4 Boosters should, on average, work out to 240 Dust total – basically 60 Dust for each fully Disenchanted Booster pack.

(To our Math Purists: For this “Back of an Envelope” equation we are ignoring the potential for multiple Rares and Epics in a Booster pack, and focusing on worst-case scenarios.)

Our example Basic Mech Mage is now requiring us to obtain and blow away 100% of the contents of 32.67 Booster packs.

This equates to $40 in Real Life currency, or 66 days of diligent Daily Quest activity – all this for cards that will be destroyed. This, of course, all taking place after we’ve spent 140 days or $50 unlocking Blackrock Mountain and Naxxramas.

And that, my friends, does not sound like a whole lot of fun for a nominally Free To Play player.

The Light at the End of the Arena Tunnel

I, for one, would not be happy about waiting two-thirds of a year and reducing my card collection to slag in order to have one “playable deck.” So, the answer must lie somewhere else, yes? And the answer is actually hidden somewhere inside those Booster Packs that you were going to have to disenchant to make a “cheap” deck. So, let’s go about getting a few boosters and seeing what is inside them.

There is quite a bit of low-hanging fruit existing in the first few hours of the game – free boosters and free currency being handed out just for learning the ropes of the game. But if, for the sake of argument, you are already past that point, have made some bad disenchanting decisions and have what you feel is a useless library, let’s try something else – let’s take a week and get ourselves a couple of new boosters from participation in the Arena.

My first hard and fast rule is this: Never use gold to buy Boosters. If you happen to get a gift card, or some Amazon credit from, or some other external source of Booster buying power, awesome – buy to your heart’s content. But never, ever go to the in-game store and click that “1 Booster @ 100 Coins” button. Always wait the extra day of Daily questing, then buy yourself an entry into the Arena.

Why, you ask? Three reasons:

  1. If you are struggling in Ranked, you need the practice. The Arena gives you a chance to go up against opponents on what is, theoretically, an even playing field – they are using the very same card draw system that you are to build their decks, also out of a blind pool of cards. There are no Flavor Of The Month decks here, simply skill vs. skill – both in card usage AND in card selection.
  2. You will get exposure to cards outside your comfort zone. We all have decks we feel comfortable with. I, for example, tend to gravitate towards Paladin and Mage decks. Playing in the Arena forces me to become familiar with cards and effects from other classes that I might not see otherwise until they are smacking me in the face in Ranked play. This effectively equates to “free” usage of these cards – I am in the Arena to expand my Library anyway, right?
  3. Because the Arena can very easily be turned into a profit center. At a mere 3 wins – a .500 average – you will be getting the Booster pack you wanted and 50 Gold back in your pocket: the exact amount you would have had after 3 days of dailies and the purchase of a pack through the store. And, you have the chance to earn even greater prizes: at 7 wins, you will get the Booster pack and all 150 Gold you spent in the first place, leaving you 100 Gold ahead of where you started. As the wins go up, so do the rewards.

Always, always, stick with the Arena. There are tons of guides out there on how to prevail at Arena play, but I have found that following 3 guidelines in card selection can get me to the .500 mark pretty consistently:

  • Always value Health over Offense on your Minions. Your minions will be your primary source of damage in Arena, make sure they stick around long enough to get multiple uses or favorable card trades.
  • Always take direct removal when it is offered to you. In the minion-heavy context of Arena, being able to direct external damage or removal is Pure Gold – A Hex, a Frostbolt, an Assassins-Blade and the like all give you the opportunity to remove your opponent’s offensive tools (i.e., their minions) while protecting your own. In the same vein, only use direct damage against your opponent’s face when doing so will close out the game.
  • Make sure at least 10 of your cards are playable on Turn 3 or earlier. Arena is not home to well thought out Control-style decks. It is a slug-fest from Turn 1 onward, and an early lead generally leads to victory. Have enough cards in your deck that you can gain early momentum with.

Also, never select Warrior as your Arena class. Warrior decks are extremely combo-centric, and blind drawing the cards you need almost never happens. Any other deck is a safer choice.

I am Victorious – Now What?

Having spent a couple rounds in the Arena, you’ve earned a couple of Booster packs (And potentially more!). Here is where you begin your journey up the Ranked ladder. Open your packs and see what you have added to your collection. Now, ask yourself some questions:

Are a large number of these cards for one class? Obviously, some of the cards go with any deck, and others are class-specific. Have you gotten 3 or more cards for one class? If so, consider building your first Ranked-tackling deck with that class, incorporating those cards.

Do any of these cards synergize with Hero abilities? Since The Grand Tournament’s release and the addition of the Inspire mechanic this is much more common, but cards that tie into your Class ability are excellent choices to start building a deck around. Why? Because that class ability will ALWAYS be available, no matter what other cards are in the deck. Weapon-enhancing Rogue cards, Demon-enhancing or -producing Warlock cards, and Totem-generating and -buffing cards for Shamans are all great ways to start building and focusing decks. Identify these strengths and start building around them.

Are any of these cards show-stoppers? Some cards can dictate development all on their own due to their powerful nature. These cards are usually of Rare quality or better, though not always. (I am looking at you, murloc-knight.) velens-chosen for Priests, the doomhammer for Shamans, varian-wrynn for Warriors – these are cards that, in and of themselves, are worth building a deck around, because they change the very nature of duels they are dropped into. If you are lucky enough to grab one of these, make it the cornerstone of your deck, and don’t look back.

Don’t forget to shop generic.  Once you’ve identified the strongest or most interesting cards from your boosters and picked a class, don’t forget to fill out your deck with the standards of “Basic” deck building. Two expansions and two adventures worth of cards later, things like the shattered-sun-cleric, chillwind-yeti, and boulderfist-ogre remain part of the meta because they consistently work. Don’t be afraid to fall back on old standbys as you are developing your new deck. Making “pretty” decks is accorded solely to those with extra resources. Those of us shooting for Free To Play success must choose function over form, every time.


Hopefully this will get you started on your path up the Ranked ladder. Remember – Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you will probably not reach Legend status based on the contents of a couple of Booster packs. Just keep on sticking to your dailies, expanding your knowledge of the game in the Arena, improving your deck where you can, and developing new decks as you gain more resources. Soon, you too will be able to go up against those that went straight to “Disenchant-To-Win”. I hope to see you soon, on the Ladder or in the Arena!

– Hawkwind

Want More in the Life at The Low End series? Article #2 can be found here!