I’ve been playing quite a bit of Hearthstone recently and it’s gotten me to thinking about the Free to Play model of the game. Free to Play in a CCG (Collectible Card Game) is an interesting concept which is a huge change from more classic paper CCGs & TCGs like Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh.
I got really into Magic about a year ago, around the time of the Gatecrash expansion release. Just starting off, I was happy to just be able to play, but it quickly became apparent that if I wanted to play in any kind of competitive capacity that it would be a serious investment of time and money.
Terms like ‘Pay to Win’ are often used when describing games like Magic, and while they’re not entirely wrong, I’d like to think that things aren’t that black and white. Casual play is an often underestimated format in many games, especially for a game like Magic where large tournaments are held and hundreds of thousands of dollars given away every year to the best of the best.
Hearthstone is able to avoid some of the troubles that physical games like Magic run into such as demand for certain cards. As with most games, the competitive metagame is usually a driving force in deck construction. Certain archetypes will be stronger than others and certain linchpin cards will be in high demand. For example, in the current Magic metagame deck archetypes such as Mono-Blue Devotion, Mono-Black Devotion, and Esper Control are all seeing high placings in tournaments and the cost for some of these decks can easily be several hundred dollars.
While Hearthstone doesn’t suffer from the same problem of supply and demand that physical CCGs like Magic do, it’s by no means a perfect system. As with Magic, Hearthstone has a metagame and certain archetypes that have proven more successful in competitive play. Because Hearthstone is fully digital (and still in beta) it’s receiving balance updates when Blizzard deems them necessary, but no matter what changes are made there will always be two or three archetypes that stand out as stronger.
The model that Hearthstone uses for crafting cards is extremely unforgiving if you find yourself wanting to play several different types of decks though. Disenchanting cards gives you at the very best a 25% return on the value of the disenchanted card, meaning you’re not able to simply trade for an equal value card, as you would be able to with paper Magic. As I generally play a Mage in Hearthstone, I’ll us Pyroblast as an example here.
Cards in Hearthstone are given different rarity values depending on their power and situational usefulness and are: Common, Rare, Epic, and Legendary. Pyroblast is an Epic level card, which means it’s more difficult to come by. In every Hearthstone Expert Level pack (aka Booster pack) you are only guaranteed four Common cards and One Rare card. An Epic level card requires you have 400 Arcane Dust in order to craft, which is the equivalent of 80 Common cards or 20 Rare cards (or a combination of both). Pyroblast is an extremely powerful card (some may say too powerful) and is a key card in some Mage decks, requiring you have two copies to increase the odds of drawing it.
Arcane Dust can be very difficult to come by. Daily quests reward you with anywhere from 40 to 100 gold, which, on average, is enough for you to buy a booster pack (which costs 100 gold) every other day. There’s also a small bonus of 10 gold for every 3 games you win, but as this has recently been capped to pay out 100 gold at most a day, it’s unlikely that this will be a stable income unless you are able to play Hearthstone for several hours every day.
Assuming you were able to open a bunch of booster packs and got all normal Commons and Rares, you would need to open a minimum of 10 packs in order to get the dust you needed to craft a single Pyroblast. Of course this is assuming you have the worst of luck with opening packs, but even if you were to open a different Epic card, you would still only get 100 arcane dust for it.
The card crafting system also means that buying cards can be much more of a gamble. You may end up with 40 packs worth of cards for classes you don’t like playing. This is similar to the problem in Magic of opening a pack and getting a rare card that isn’t a color you normally play, except you don’t have the luxury of being able to trade cards with your buddies like you would with Magic. In Hearthstone you’re stuck with a bunch of cards you probably won’t use and which will very likely end up as a small pile of Arcane Dust.
Purchasing booster packs in Hearthstone only serves to speed up the process of grinding out daily quests and saving up Arcane Dust one common at a time until you’re finally able to afford a shiny new Pyroblast. While this obviously isn’t a form of ‘Pay to Win’ (and therefore not inherently evil) it still kinda sucks.
Player trading in Hearthstone would be a welcome addition, though I expect it would be quite the undertaking to add in such a system. A more straightforward solution would be an increase in the Arcane Dust gained from disenchanting card, although an in-game card trader may also be a possibility. For example: If you were able to take any card and trade that in along with a bit of gold and get a random card of the same rarity level for a specific class, this would at the very least give you more cards to play with, rather than ending up with cards from classes you dislike.
Hearthstone is an absolute blast but I feel that the business model still needs a bit of work before I’ll be happy with it. With an open beta just around the corner, it’s likely that we’ll see a number of changes to the game before it’s finally released and I hope very much that we see a reformation of the crafting system before that time.