Last week I put up my analysis of Hearthstone: The F2P CCG title from Blizzard. In my piece, I talked about Hearthstone’s monetization of buying and crafting new cards for your deck. Since then, I’ve played more and while I still don’t see the game as pay to win, I find that the model is sapping my enthusiasm for a different reason.

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Tiering Up:

Like any CCG before it, Hearthstone is all about the cards and this is an example where time/money does trump skill. Being a master player with a deck of nothing but basic cards, won’t stand a chance against a deck of rare and up cards.

The rarity system in Hearthstone goes free, common, rare, epic and legendary with cards of varying mana costs spread throughout the different qualities. As you go up the rarity, higher tier cards will have higher stats or special abilities like silencing minions, adding taunts and more. Class specific cards also become more specialized and can give you new strategies to play. And while you can only have one copy of each legendary in your deck, in the right hands they can be game changers or game enders.

In other words, someone starting out playing Hearthstone vs. someone who has unlocked a lot cards will be at a major disadvantage no matter what their skill level at CCGs is at. And that is okay, no one should expect to become a master by using the starter deck, but it’s how you get cards that is rubbing me the wrong way.

Crafting to Victory:

Hearthstone features a crafting system where you break down cards that you don’t want for arcane dust, which can then be used to craft ANY card in the game. To get cards to break down, you need to either spend gold or money on booster packs or earn them through the arena which is a 150 gold per trip cost (or a 1.50 in real money.)

The different rarity tiers have escalating arcane dust cost to craft but I think you see where the problem lies. The issue with this form of monetization is that it not only gives paying customers an absolute advantage over everyone else, but it also removes one of the biggest motivators to play CCGs: card collecting.

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The crafting system lets anyone get access to any card they want without the fuss of actually playing the game.

Like discovering loot in an ARPG, not knowing what’s around the corner is just as exciting as finding that legendary item in a chest.

But giving players the ability to just “buy” the cards they want, ruins the mystique in my opinion. This also removes a lot of the actual playing of the game where your mixed bag deck evolves with every card you find.

There are already a lot of decks available online with min/max strategies for winning and their associated arcane dust cost. Because a CCG is about hard rules, it becomes that much easier to find optimal strategies and break the game.

In previous CCG titles, that problem was negated by the fact that no one could just pick and choose cards at will to find the best combo; they had to earn them slowly over time. So a super optimal strategy may never be discovered or by the time it is found, new cards would have superseded it.

But in Hearthstone, anyone with enough money can basically buy premade decks that will let them beat the crap out of anyone of the same rank. And what’s worse is that for new players making use of the crafting system, they won’t have a clue as to what cards to craft without going to the as mentioned deck sites which takes a lot of the fun out of deck building.

During my time learning Hearthstone, I was up against a priest who for 8 turns in a row, placed cards that had either something to do with healing, holy shields and taunting, or in other words everything a priest strategy would have. At this point in the ranking there was no way they could have gotten a deck like that other than spending money to get all the cards to make this explicit strategy work.

And it’s not a case of getting better, someone using a patchwork deck even with a few higher rarity cards, is still at a huge disadvantage against someone with a deck that has been optimized down to the very last card. And Hearthstone is one the easiest CCGs out there to do that as all you need is an internet connection and enough money.

As I mentioned in the analysis, Hearthstone isn’t pay to win by the fact that anyone, including me can eventually get all those cards to make a powerhouse deck. But the thought of either reading deck guides or wasting time and money on cards that aren’t the best choice, is not how I like to spend my time.

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The rarity tiers showcase just how much of a difference there is between cards of the same mana cost.

At this point the simplest solution of altering the crafting system from choosing specific cards wouldn’t be possible.

As the outcry from players who have used the system would pretty much kill the community overnight. And just giving new players easier access to dust and gold doesn’t fix the problem of just relying on pre-made deck strategies to win.

The only thing I can think of would be to make crafting only work for the first three tiers but that would still upset the fan-base. I really can’t see a valid solution other than to grin and bear it or pony up the cash, neither of which is a good thing. In one week, my desire to keep playing Hearthstone has plummeted and there is no way in hell that I’m spending one cent on Hearthstone, not on cards or content.

Blizzard’s desire to make a casual experience has in some sense backfired on them; they have effectively left the keys in the car and the hardcore players are going on a joyride. And they are taking anyone with enough money with them.

(Update: After talking about Hearthstone more on the podcast, we generally agreed that the early to mid stages of learning Hearthstone, the crafting and monetization doesn’t impact it too much. However the lack of new cards has made it so that there are objectively superior decks for expert play, which in term makes the crafting system very powerful. And this will remain an issue until enough new cards are released to shake up the late game.)

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