Arguably the Warcraft brand has become Blizzard’s strongest IP thanks to the mega success of World of Warcraft. And now Blizzard is taking one of the most addictive brands of the last decade and making a CCG out of it. Hearthstone has gotten a lot of attention both for its design and the debate over whether it’s pay to win or not.
There’s no story in Hearthstone or a price as anyone can download the game from Battle.net. Deck design is pretty straightforward: You’ll build your deck by first choosing a hero; this determines what cards you can add as well as a specific hero power that can be used during a match.
Decks have a limit of 30 cards and you can have two copies of any card other than a legendary ranked card which you can only have one copy per deck. Each hero comes with 10 starter cards of their deck which are flavored to them, so the mage deck has spells for instance or the warlock has demons. The bulk of your cards when starting out will come from the neutral deck which represents all the various characters and creatures in the Warcraft universe.
After completing the tutorial you can either play casual or ranked matches with ranked matches the better alternative for new players as it gives you a chance of being matched with new players quicker. The rules of play are also quite simple compared to other CCGs.
Both players start with three cards and one mana crystal each. Mana is used to play cards or use your hero’s power and after each turn your mana will be refilled and you’ll gain another one, up to a total of ten in your pool. You can play as many cards from your hand as you want per turn as long as you have the mana to spend. Each creature has a mana cost, health and attack stat and when you summon something, they cannot attack for their first turn unless they have the “charge” attribute.
You can target anything on the field with your creatures including the opposing hero which both heroes start with 30 health points. Whoever runs out of health first is the loser but there are ways to regain health. Because mana always refills the next turn, there are no tactics around resource hoarding and there is a hard decision to make about what cards to include in your deck.
Lower mana cost creature cards usually have weaker stats compared to higher ones and quality or quantity strategies can be developed. Card variety wise, Hearthstone is pretty basic compared to other CCGs, each hero has unique cards but you won’t find the insane variety of card, deck or hand affecting rules that you would see in something like Magic The Gathering or YuGiOh. No ways to “equip” creatures with cards or impact the environment either.
On the other hand, this makes Hearthstone accessible to new players who don’t have to worry about learning all kinds of rules and conditions for using cards.
Because mana is always refilling, it means that you’re going to spend more time in a match with higher mana than with lower. This gives players a chance to make use of most of their cards, granted if they can draw the ones they need. And every card can be looked at during play with any unique traits or abilities explained.
As mentioned, Hearthstone is F2P and the monetization is built around getting new cards. There are two currencies in the game: Arcane Dust and Gold. Arcane Dust is used in the crafting system, where you can spend dust on crafting a specific card that you want. Each rarity tier requires more arcane dust but this is the most direct way of getting a specific card.
To get dust, you need to break down cards that you don’t need anymore and getting those cards requires the time honored tradition of CCGs of opening up booster packs. One pack can be bought for 100 gold while more packs can be bought by spending real money. Gold can be earned by completing quests which the player will have three at any given time.
The other option is playing the arena which becomes available once you’ve unlocked all the heroes and cost 150 gold per play. The arena is similar to a sealed deck tournament: you’ll create a deck exclusively for the arena from a set of cards and have a chance to earn dust, gold or cards.
With that said, it’s time to render a judgment on if Hearthstone is play to win or not. And looking at how the system works and going back to my previous definition, I would have to say it’s not pay to win.
While money can be used to buy more cards and get into the arena easier, none of that is locked behind a pay wall. Someone not spending any money can still buy packs and get into the arena by earning gold from quests. And regardless of whether you are spending money or not, you still need to unlock heroes the same way. There are no gameplay modes or unique advantages that can only be bought with real money and because of that, I’m saying Hearthstone is not pay to win.
I see it more along the lines of something like League of Legends where you’re not buying advantages but simply saving time by unlocking things quicker. Now of course since this is a Blizzard game, it means that they will continue to update it and there is already a preview for new content coming. The new content will require the player to spend real money or gold to unlock according to them but as long as premium currency can be earned in game, then that’s not a problem.
In terms of depth, I’m not a CCG expert and won’t talk about whether Hearthstone is too complex or not enough. The one area that I don’t like about Hearthstone is how simplistic it is to attack the other player. There is only one way to keep the enemy from attacking your hero and it makes things a bit too simple.
Because there is no defense phase, one thing that you need to change your thinking on is focusing on creatures as it’s better for someone to attack your creatures than it is for you to attack them unless you can kill them without losing your creature.
The use of heroes to define deck and card strategy is an interesting one as it allows the player to give their decks both a personality and a strategy. And while each hero will make use of the same pool of neutral cards, the class specific cards can greatly change how your other cards are utilized and create some synergies to make use of.
Problem wise, I have a few issues with the learning curve and how the game right now makes it hard to learn unless you are willing to pay to smooth out the curve.
The problem is twofold, first is the matchmaking which is confusing for new players. There are two options available from the start: casual and ranked for playing matches against players. Now you would assume that casual would be the first choice for newcomers, however that can put you up against players with better decks from the get go as it is unranked. Instead you want to play ranked matches as it will match you closer to players that are your skill level/strength of deck.
Second is that the game doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining the complexity of deck building. The tutorial simply covers playing and the rules but fails to give the player a deeper understanding of how to design their decks. I also would have preferred being able to choose my starting hero/deck as opposed to having one assigned to me.
Playing the mage, I found that my play style didn’t mesh well and that just added to the difficulty. You can however unlock the remaining heroes via practice mode and play to unlock class specific cards which is something that should have been stated right from the start.
Another thing is that I would have liked is some kind of single player or challenge mode for earning cards, dust or booster packs instead of just jumping into matches. The above mentioned upcoming content will fill that need but it is currently not available.
Despite having far more intrusive monetization, Marvel Puzzle Quest has a much stronger early game than Hearthstone at the moment.
This is thanks to the single player campaign providing new players with enough strong characters and resources for them to use when they start playing the PVP options.
Hearthstone really does need something for new players to start off at as I ran into many decks with a few better cards than mine at the same starting rank that were able to completely shut down any of my available strategies. And this wasn’t a case of being out played, but the other player having cards that I simply couldn’t counter as I didn’t have anything available to use or in game resources to buy new cards.
Adding to this problem is that when each season of ranked matches comes to an end, everyone resets back to the lowest rank. Meaning that level 24 or 25 may in fact have been one of the top ranking players with loads of rare and higher cards up against someone who is starting out for the first time.
This is where I can see many people argue that Hearthstone is pay to win, as new players will deal with both the learning curve at the start and the financial curve as well. Due to the small deck sizes and card limits, jack of all trade decks are really punished compared to those built around a specific strategy or set of cards. And of course you won’t be able to design specific strategies until you have a decent size pool of cards to play around with.
Hearthstone’s card design features an escalating power curve and you’ll find that the starter cards are lacking almost immediately compared to ones that you can buy/craft of similar mana cost. And until you get cards to deal with it, prepare to lose many games through no fault of your own. Maybe we can call Hearthstone’s monetization: Pay To Be Less Annoying.
Despite my issues, Hearthstone is a good game and manages to combine the thrill of deck building and CCG design without having to spend time memorizing rules or money on countless booster packs. The foundation of design set here is very strong and I could see this becoming a massive win for Blizzard if they dedicate the time and attention to it. But for that to work, Blizzard needs to lessen the gap between those with money and those without.
For more about my thoughts on Hearthstone’s monetization, here is a follow up post.