The Grand Tournament on 50 Gold a Day

In case you hadn't heard because you're not a total Hearthstone nerd like I am, Hearthstone's second expansion is coming out sometime in August. This is the first expansion that's come out since I started playing the game seriously, so I'm pretty excited. There is, of course, the issue of the economics of playing the game at the time that a new expansion with a lot of new cards comes out. Given that I've made the decision to play Hearthstone as a free player, having gone through a period of hyperfocus on Magic the Gathering that had me sink the majority of my after-school job in high school into booster packs, I've been thinking about how to approach acquiring cards from the new expansion quite a bit. So I was interested to see an editorial on that exact subject in Polygon today. That said, I was a bit disappointed that it was written not by someone who is playing Hearthstone as a free player, but rather by someone who has spent a non-trivial amount of money on packs of cards, and extrapolates that experience to his perception of what a free player wants from the game:

When [Gnomes vs Goblins] launched, I spent the 12,500 in-game gold I’d been saving for about eight months to buy packs. Out of 128 packs of cards, I got all the commons and rares I needed, and most of the epics, but only six different legendaries, one legendary duplicate, and enough other duplicate cards and golden cards to craft about three more legendaries using the game’s disenchanting system.

That was only about half the legendaries in the set. Arguably, this was enough; about half the legendary cards in GvG are considered “highly situational,” aka bad. There’s no particularly pressing need to keep buying packs to get cards like Mekgineer Thermaplugg, Mogor the Ogre and Flame Leviathan once you secure Dr. Boom, Sneed’s Old Shredder, Mal’Ganis, Vol’Jin and Neptulon. But I ended up buying another 60 packs for $70.

There's nothing wrong with trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes or see things from a perspective other than your own, of course. However, that also can lead to some incorrect assumptions when you try to apply your own perspective to that of someone who isn't willing or able to pay for cards beyond those they earn through in-game gold. For instance, the author puts a lot of emphasis on legendary cards, which makes sense coming from the perspective of someone who has paid for a large number of packs of cards:

Players on the ranked ladder will encounter decks stuffed with those legendaries very early in their climb; now that Hearthstone has been out for around 18 months, there are a lot of players with extensive collections.

This is absolutely true. There are certainly plenty of decks in the rank 20-15 range that have tons of legendary cards that a free player may not have access to. That said, while these may not be optional at the higher level of Ranked play, when playing as a free player there's a bit of a different attitude toward them. Obviously, one accepts some trade offs when making the decision to only buy cards at the pace that earning in-game gold allows. One is that losing to that kind of deck occasionally is inevitable, and the cost of doing business. I've had plenty of losses to decks that drop legendary after legendary, and I just shrugged and went on to the next match because there was nothing I could do about it. That said, having the legendary cards is only part of the equation; you need to determine what decks they fit into, and you need to play them correctly in matches. I've won just as many games against decks full of legendaries as I've lost, because the legendaries are more powerful, but they are also often very specialized cards that require skill to use properly. You can pay money to gain those cards and give yourself an advantage, sure, but a skilled player can still overcome that advantage with careful play. I'm generally way more intimidated by a player with a golden hero power (meaning they have won 500 games with that class) than a handful of legendary cards.

What's more, I feel like earning the cards slowly has made me a better player. I can't rely on the fact that I can just hang on long enough to drop Ragnaros the Firelord and immediately turn the tide of the match. I've had to make do with less, and that's taught me how to make the most from what I have, and appreciate the value of the cards that fit into my decks when I do acquire them. Hearthstone is ultimately about exactly just that skill: Every turn in a match and every choice made while deck building is about evaluating and maximizing value with a limited card set. Someone who drops $100 on cards right off the bat may be able to copy a deck recipe they find on the internet, but they won't necessarily know why those cards are included or in which situations to use them.

(By the way, when you do beat one of those players with a deck made of cards you've scrounged together with just the gold you've earned, that's one of the most satisfying feelings ever. Just saying.)

The author then goes on to discuss the importance of the single-player Adventures, which cost $25 or 3500 in-game gold apiece, in terms of a player's ability to be competitive in the current metagame:

That means getting those Adventures is pretty much the first step for a new player, so they’ll have to lay out $50 or collect 7,000 gold before they even start buying packs. A daily quest is only worth 50 gold on average, so that’s a pretty big hill to climb.

Again, "have to" is strong language here. Are some of the cards in single player good, and used across a number of popular decks? Sure. Do you need them? If you care about reaching Legend status in Ranked mode, then probably. But, if that's your goal, you're probably invested in the game enough to spend some money on the single player Adventures. I've gotten two wings of Naxxramus and one wing of Blackrock Mountain via gold, and the cards I've earned are useful, to be sure; I've looked at the rest and I haven't reached a point where the cards are useful enough to spend more gold on them. I'd also debate whether the single player adventures are really the first step for a new player; clearing the single player Adventures typically requires building very specific decks, which a new player won't have the cards to build.

It's also worth mentioning that Arena mode, where each player drafts a deck of random cards, does exist. That's where I spent the bulk of my time early on, because it provides a mostly level playing field regardless of how many packs of cards each player has opened. It also gives a new player a chance to try out cards they may not have access to otherwise and learn how they can create synergies with other cards. Arena was crucial to my early weeks in the game and is a mode I still enjoy immensely, more so than constructed deck play, for the most part. The author does mention Arena (and Tavern Brawl, which is fun for free players for similar reasons) briefly, but I don't think it's possible to overstate how much more significant Arena play can be for a new or free player, especially considering that the reward for completing an Arena run always includes at least one pack of cards even without winning a single match.

The author does offer one suggestion for improving the Ranked experience for new players:

Blizzard could create a restricted ladder mode for Hearthstone so that newer players could jump into constructed without having to worry about collecting old expansions or old Adventures.

This is something Magic: The Gathering did in the early days to make competition more fair, but the reasons for that were very different. When Magic implemented multiple formats with different card set restrictions for competitions, that was a necessity because of the physical scarcity of a number of rare cards like Black Lotus and Mox jewels that were discontinued because they were so powerful that they were essentially broken; a player with those cards had a significant advantage over someone who lacked them, and the only way Wizards of the Coast could fix that imbalance was to stop printing those cards. The split was a way to allow players who had those cards to continue to use them without dominating over newer players. Hearthstone has no such problems, because it is an entirely digital game. In fact, some cards have already been adjusted since release to make them more balanced. As a result, if a certain card or set of cards become overpowered, Blizzard can just issue a patch and correct the issue without splitting the player base. (It's also worth mentioning that Magic has the additional complication of the secondary market for individual cards; reprinting discontinued cards could affect their prices and anger long time players by driving down the value of their collection, so they need different formats to balance that with fair competition for newer players. Since the only way to acquire cards in Hearthstone is from within the app directly, this isn't something Blizzard needs to concern itself with.)

All of this is to say that this piece brings up a lot of good points about the limitations of playing Hearthstone for free, but the fact of the matter is that those limitations are already there now, before the expansion has even released, and free players are already managing despite them. When I made the decision to pursue the completely free route, I accepted the fact that there was going to be a point beyond which I wasn't going to be able to improve without ultimately spending some money, and the choice at that point is to either accept that or to break down and buy some cards. That said, placing the majority of the value on the cards and discounting the skill of the person playing those cards misses the point of exactly why Hearthstone has been so successful as a free to play game. Hearthstone is popular precisely because it is not pay-to-win; a better player with fewer cards will still beat a poor player with every card available more often than not. In fact, the next month may actually be more interesting for a skilled free player; a skilled player with a well tuned deck will face a number of lesser skilled players trying to figure out how to use all the new cards they just paid for, and that will work to the skilled player's benefit.

Personally, while I've been tempted by the deal to pre-purchase 50 Grand Tournament packs for a discount, I'm leaning toward just continuing to approach Hearthstone as I have up to this point, earning what cards I can through in-game rewards. Ultimately, even though I could rationalize the purchase as a special one-time thing, I'm worried that it would change my relationship with the game, and given my experiences with spending money on Magic, it's better for me to not take that chance. I'll just keep playing the way I have, which means a lot of time in Arena, and accepting the rank that I can achieve with the decks I have the cards to build. Given that I'm rank 14 as of this writing, which puts me in the top 25% of ranked players, I'm perfectly content with that for now.

So I'm looking forward to the new expansion, and I'm not at all nervous about it. It may take me a while to take advantage of all the new deck types in constructed play, but I have more than enough gold saved up to be happy in Arena for a while until the constructed metagame shakes out. By then there will be plenty of recipes for cheap decks that I'll be able to use to give me a fighting chance against those scary legendary cards that all the paying players will have stockpiled. As long as none of the new legendaries has a card effect that says "You win the game!", I think I'll be just fine.