If you’ve been around the Hearthstone community, you’ve often heard players incessantly whining about Wallet Warriors and whatever other expensive, popular, and effective deck is beating them to a pulp this week. From time to time the cries of Pay-to-Win (P2W) rise in forms of angry fan articles, youtube videos, and forum posts, all united in complaint.
But is P2W a sad reality, or are those fans just bitter that they aren’t able to reach the top of the ladder? Are we using the Pay-to-Win term as a excuse to justify our shortcomings, or is this game just stacked against you if don’t pay up?
Join me as I try to unravel the myths about Hearthstone’s business model and present you with the facts that will define whether Hearthstone is a fair game or not.
Pay-to-Win isn’t something that it’s strictly defined. You can’t look at it at a dictionary, and you won’t find a reliable source that tells you where the lines are drawn. The P2W label is usually put on games which allow an unfair advantage to paid users, but what is an unfair advantage?
If you look at the most blatant of P2W titles, you’ll find that real money allows you to buy things that you couldn’t obtain otherwise. Paid users will have a power level absurdly beyond those who are playing for free, to the point that it’s nearly impossible that a free user is able to beat a paid user one on one. In my humble and personal opinion, this is where the heart of P2W lies is. Of course, your mileage may vary. Technically you could say that any sort of advantage offered by a real money transaction would qualify as P2W. We could even try to classify games on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is absolute F2P where every transaction has purely cosmetic effects and 10 is Chinese Style Pay-to-Win where just about everything can be upgraded if you are willing to pay, pay, and pay some more.
In a hardcore Pay-to-Win scenario, golden cards would have better stats than their normal counterparts. Also they couldn’t be crafted and wouldn’t appear in packs unless you paid real money for them.
Where does Hearthstone Fit in?
So we’ve established that the P2W label isn’t something that’s set in stone. In fact, you could say that buying real money packs offers enough of an advantage, which in turn would be enough to call Blizzard’s Online Collectible Card Game a P2W title. But that wouldn’t really be a meaningful analysis, so it is time to dig deeper! How does Hearthstone compare with other games within it’s genre? How big are the advantages that can be achieved by giving Blizzard your hard earned money?
How Powerful Are Paid Users in Hearthstone?
Consider that all of the existing cards can be acquired using the in-game currency. No matter how much you pay, you could find a free user that has a comparable card collection; a collection forged by playing games, doing quests, and conquering the arena. The cards that come out of real money packs are the exact same that come out of gold packs; all users have the same starting life and hand size, regardless of how much they’ve paid; everyone gets the same amount of stars after a win in ladder. Hearthstone paid users don’t have any kind of quality advantage, but there’s not denying that they might indeed have a rarity and quantity advantage.
While real money packs give you the same cards that a gold pack does, you can buy packs faster. This means that by injecting dollars into the game you are more likely to have a bigger collection, you are more likely to have a wider array of Epics and Legendaries, and you are likely be able to copy all the fancy decks that the pros are using this week. With a bigger collection you can play a more diverse array of decks, and you will be able to better adapt to the ever changing metagame. If the last few sentences sound a bit familiar to you, it’s likely because that proves true for probably every competitive Collectible or Trading Card Game in history. (CCG/TCG)
Hearthstone and Other Card Games
If you’ve played Magic the Gathering, Yu-gi-oh, the Pokemon Card Game, or just about anything with this Card Game genre, you know that cards are worth money, and good cards are worth even more money. One could even say that the entire genre of card games has a Pay-to-Win element rooted deep into its core. But since card games predate the P2W denomination, and Hearthstone doesn’t really offers any kind of advantage besides the standard Card Game card acquisition rate, it’s much more accurate to describe Hearthstone as a CCG, rather than calling it a P2W Game.
But Hearthstone is not just a Card Game, it is an online card game. In non-virtual card games you actually have a physical copy of your card, that card can be traded, re-sold, or simply kept as a collector’s item. Many people put a lot of value on their physical cards, which in some way makes them think that virtual cards are less valuable and maybe not even worth real money. This line of thinking puts card selling as a greed based move, or worse, a pay-to-win mechanic. You can easily see the flaws with this argument, even if the cards aren’t physical, the advantage that players can get out of buying cards is just the same as any physical game, or is it?
Physical games can’t afford to give you free cards, the print and delivery costs makes it so you have to pay for every single card you get. There’s no quests on physical card games, there’s no gold bonus from winning 3 games on play mode, and there’s definitely not an arena mode. In fact, the Arena is one of the biggest anti-P2W arguments for Hearthstone.
Crafting vs. Trading
Unlike other card games where you have to trade for the cards you want, Hearthstone allows you to disenchant your unwanted cards and craft the ones you need. You are no longer dependent on a fluctuating market where a card can go up and down in price depending on how good it is at a particular moment. When you open useless Epics like Kidnapper and Bestial Wrath, they are worth the same Dust than power cards such as Preparation and Shield Block. You don’t have to spend insane amounts of money to get those very rare cards that everyone wants to use, you just craft whatever you feel like playing.
Now you could argue that you get too little dust from disenchanting cards compared with what you need to have in order to craft them. You could also argue that Epics and Legendary cost way too much compared to Commons and Rares. That is certainly an interesting subject, but something that I would like to look at in detail in the future.
There are many different draft modes and even draft tournaments in other card games, but most require buying the cards that will be drafted. You can always pool unused cards with your friends and do your own drafts for fun, but unless somebody sponsors the prize pool, card rewards won’t be going your way. Hearthstone Arena serves as a way for free user to generate infinite gold and cards at a much faster rate than just normal games.
The real beauty of the Hearthstone Arena is that once you get inside it, it doesn’t matter how many cards you’ve bought, all that matters is your skill. (And by skill I refer to getting the right cards on the draft, top decking like a god, and being an RNG god).
This makes Hearthstone Arena a perfect 1 on the theoretical P2W scale, and that’s before taking into consideration the rewards that it offers.
GIVE BLIZZARD ALL THE MONEYZ!
On a more serious note, Hearthstone offers a lot of options and in my opinion does a decent job mitigating the inherent P2W aspect of Card Games. Sure, it sucks when you are starting up and you just get wrecked by someone with a superior collection but things could be A LOT worse.
It isn’t a perfect scenario, but it might be just good enough.
How would you make things better? Let me know using the comment section, but remember that you still need to make some moneys 😉