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Is Hearthstone Really Free-to-Play?

by - 6 years ago

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.

Defining Pay-to-Win

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?

Naxx Pricing

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.

Free-to Arena


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.

The Verdict


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 😉




JR Cook

JR has been writing for fan sites since 2000 and has been doing Blizzard Exclusive fansites since 2003. He helped co-found BlizzPro in 2013. You can hear JR every week talk about Hearthstone on the Well Met Podcast published on iTunes.

0 responses to “Is Hearthstone Really Free-to-Play?”

  1. Mark Davis says:

    A solution to this problem could be an additional game mode, a hybrid between regular and arena play, wherein players use pre-constructed decks with cards they don’t actually own. Blizzard could do weekly (or however long) rotations of decks with different play styles. This would also create a little walled garden within hearthstone with its own controllable meta.

    • Barrda says:

      I like your idea! Another solution would be competition rooms. Commons only, commons and rares, CRE, CREL. Could even have caps Commons and 5 Rare slots.

    • Steve Lambson says:

      Excellent idea!

    • deagle7000 says:

      The only issue there is opponents knowing what is in your deck would be kinda lame. Having areas that are just “all common/basic” or “no Legendary” would be cool though.

  2. Art White-Stagg says:

    As a former MTG (online and irl) player, I say Hearthstone is far, far, far from P2W. The only thing in the game that feels that way is in fact PvE content, such as Blackrock and Naxx, because whomever pays will get ahead and it’s not as easy to gather 700 gold in a week for a F2P player.
    I’d say this kind of mentality will only increase with time, due to the ever growing larger card pool and the arrival of new players, ’cause if (like myself) you’ve been playing for a year without dropping a dime in the shop, it’s possible to amass an enormous collection.
    Bottom line, of all the good TCG/CCG out there, Hearthstone is the only one offering a fair shot as F2P.

  3. Benjamin Corbett says:

    Hmm as a former Magic the gathering player I say all these card games are pay to win…that is the nature of the beast…I like the idea of different rules for different rooms…like no legendaries or all commons or this set and this set only. As the card pools gets larger sit will become increasingly difficult for new players not to feel like they are locked behind a paywall. This is just natural with trading card games though. I do wish I could trade cards away instead of disenchanting them. more even trades with the store would be welcome. I have to disenchant 8 commons to craft 1 that is ridiculous but only 4 legendaries to craft 1 legendary. That I just insane to me.

  4. Steve Lambson says:

    Putting a strict P2W label on Hearthstone doesn’t work. If you’re talking more like “P2WS” (Pay to win sooner – because you get cards/variety in decks faster), that’s more like it. I don’t spend money on Hearthstone, so of course I get cards much slower, but I know I have the chance to get them eventually, so I’m okay with it.

  5. deagle7000 says:

    It is like a P2W hybrid. If you have been playing for less than a month and you are winning it’s because you paid to get a ton of cards fast. Also, the solo adventures no one is going to buy with gold since it just doesn’t add up to value. So those cards are basically for cash players.

    I’ve been playing for a year. I have both solo adventures and I’ve opened more card packs than I can count but I’ve never paid real money for them. With all that I don’t have a single legendary dragon or epic giant. No Dr. Boom or really any of the good legendaries that people use to win. My best legendary is probably still the first one I pulled, a golden Hogger. I curse Lorewalker and Tinkmaster.

  6. JARose says:

    A blatant Hearthstone fanboy handwaving the overwhelming evidence that Hearthstone is P2W.

    Seems legit.

  7. Matheo Gavilano says:

    I think pay to play (competitively) is a better term to describe card games. You need good cards to compete at high levels and spending money for packs will help you get better decks faster. Non of this will ever assure you being a top tier player and let you win most of the time.

    • Mormegil says:

      There is a huge difference between normal card games and virtual card games.
      First of all in normal card games you OWN the cards and have the legal rights to do with them as you see fit.
      In Hearthstone you have absolutely ZERO leagal rights on the virtual “cards” you spend REAL money on(read the terms of service, you battle.net account is not your own…should blizzard decite to discontinue the game tomorow,all the money you spent are gone and you have no say in it what-so-ever.
      In real life card games you can even sell your cards to others.and some times one card alone can be sold for the price of a whole deck.
      (for instance a magic the gathering named “Black Lotus” can now be sold from around 3000 to 30000 usd,and even I have a few cards that alone could fetch 200+usd each more that enough to get back ALL the money I ever spent on mgt for just one card…can’t say the same for hearthstone cards)

  8. Jakkakasksk says:

    I really enjoy this game actually and have been playing every day. Paying to win will definitely give you an edge, but you dont need to spend money.

    Check out full reviews here: https://mukaking.com/Topic/Hearthstone%20-%20Heroes%20of%20Warcraft

  9. SPC says:

    A bit late replying here. The card packs are not P2W. You can do just fine playing for free with classic and GvG card packs purchased using in game gold. The expansions are what really hurt. You can’t really be competitive in constructed without some cards from Naxx and BRM. The wings can be bought with gold, sure, but at 700 per wing, it’s not realistic for many players. The real kicker comes with the price of expansions. 25 dollars per is quite steep; perhaps prohibitively so for some players.

    I play for free. Not because I can’t afford to pay, or because I am averse to spending money on games. I spent a small fortune on WoW in expansions and monthly fees, as well as various other Blizzard titles and expansions, not to mention consoles and games. I have spent several hundred dollars on various mobile games. But I have never played a card game before. As someone new to the genre, it seems to me that spending a little is worse than spending nothing. Whwn it comes to card packs, it’s go big or go home. Simple statistics will bear out that much. At the very least you have to pony up for the expansions. I am committed to using gold for BRM just for kicks, but will probably buy Naxx. But the day I spend hundreds of dollars on virtual cards in a video game is the day after someone drills a hole in my head and sucks out what common sense I possess.

    • RitoBad says:

      So you say it is P2W at the end, which we all agree with except the fanboy or blizzard paid writer

  10. Mormegil says:

    Lol really…not pay to win?

    the fabled “in game curency” that you win you can only get by actually wining…and guess what…players that won’t pay don’t have any decent cards->players that don’t have any decent cards can’t win->players that can’t win get no coins-> players that get no coins don’t have any decent cards-> continues indefinitely unless guess what? you pay to buy cards…”omg what a shock”

  11. Kay Don says:

    If you need free hearthstone packs checkout this site.. http://po.st/mypoints2shop

  12. Madmenyo says:

    I’d make it like Dota 2 and let people pay for skins, sound, foils, etc. Perhaps have some good story quests paid and give trophies on completion. Free quests cost energy to complete and you only get a couple of battles a day, a refill costs money. And also let people have the opportunity to show off there trophies, foils and skins to other players and opponents in game. This shows they are paying for the game. Also create paid tournaments where Blizzard can get a share of the price pool.

    With Dota 2 you don’t have to pay a dime to participate and get exactly the same abilities and power as a pro that invested… (hundreds of dollars, maybe even thousands?) in it. I bet every regular dota player have put more money in it then any game. I know I did, a skin here and there for my favorite heroe, a seasonal battle pass, announcer sounds, etc. I have no clue about the numbers but I think Dota is a very lucrative game.