One of the most common complaints about Hearthstone is the game’s price. Not only card games are expensive if you want to keep up with the new releases (ask any veteran MTG player out there), but funnily enough, F2P games often also force you to spend more money than the games you actually pay for upfront. Yes, you can theoretically play those for free, but you need to prepare for a massive grind of resources of all kinds. But don’t worry, game developers hear you. You have a very convinient potion - you don't want to grind, you can spend real money instead. This kind of “F2P, but if you don’t throw cash our way, prepare for hundreds of hours of extra grind” games are especially popular on mobile devices, among more casual players, often those not familiar with how the gaming market should look like. And, sadly for us, Hearthstone is one of those games. It was designed as a F2P mobile game right from the start, and if this model works for a number of other games, why wouldn’t Blizzard also adopt it?
Yes, the game is expensive, and almost any player will tell you that. The exact figures, however, are very different depending on who you ask or what you read. I’ve heard some people claiming that buying pre-order is enough to keep up with the game, others have counted that you need to spend hundreds of dollars per expansion. Even better – I’ve read some opinions that the game can be played 100% F2P, while maintaining a decent collection. So which one is right?
How Expensive Is Hearthstone
Those different figures I’ve listed above come from a simple issue. Hearthstone’s expansion is not binary – you can’t “own it” or “not own it” (this was somewhat true with Adventures, but those are no longer supported). You buy packs, packs give you cards, and only you can determine what part of the expansion you need to enjoy the game. People claiming that the game costs hundreds of dollars per expansion are not technically wrong, but they are assuming that everyone aims to get a full expansion, which is simply not true. Having most of the Commons, Rares and the best Epics/Legendaries (which is often only 20-30% of the expansion’s total number of those higher rarity cards) is often enough for an average player to enjoy the game, even at a semi-competitive level.
Which means that people who say that you can be completely F2P and play this game are right… right? Theoretically you could keep up while being completely F2P. After all it is possible to grind 100g per day, if you add an average 50g from the Quests, that’s 150g per day. With about 120 days of time between expansions, theoretically you could save for up to 180 packs from the upcoming expansion, and that’s way more than enough to enjoy the game while not paying at all.
But that’s only the best case scenario. In order to achieve that, you would need to grind 30 wins every day, and that would take a few hours even for the best players while using an aggressive deck. 70 gold per day is a much more realistic number for an average player, even less for the casual players who just log in every 2 or 3 days, sometimes miss a quest or two, because they’re too busy to finish them etc. So taking everything into account, I think that 60g per day is a pretty generous average for a casual player. Which suddenly brings the number of packs grinded between the expansions from 180 to about 70. And that’s the number I can confirm – most of my friends, saving gold between the expansions usually end up with between 60 and 80 packs. And sadly, that’s not enough.
There’s also a middle ground option – buying a pre-purchase and nothing more. Pre-purchases cost $50, but the price can often be brought down to $40 or even less thanks to the deals like Amazon Coins (which you can sometimes buy for 25% off). But let’s stick with the base price - $50. For that kind of money, you will get 50 extra Hearthstone packs. If you add that to the 70 you should be able to grind over the 4 months, that’s 120 packs from the new expansion. And that should be just about enough to maintain a solid collection.
That’s what I was doing ever since TGT, and I can play almost any deck I want. That said, I don’t care about the golden cards, so if I need some extra Dust to craft something, I just get rid of my goldens, but any other player can do the same. And I’ll be honest with you – I think that’s a fair price. With the current model of three expansions per year, that’s still only $150 per year, or $12.5 per month, spent on Hearthstone. Given how much we play this game, it’s not a very high price. Still, I have to say that even though pre-order lets you keep your collection on a solid level, it still feels underwhelming.
The worst thing about it, or the whole Hearthstone pack opening experience, is randomness. The number and quality of Legendaries you open might vary A LOT. Sure, there is a pity timer, but it just means that you can’t get completely screwed out of your money. After opening 120 packs, one person will have 9 Legendaries, including the most meta-defining ones that are needed to play top tier decks. And another will have 4 Legendaries that are all bad and unplayable in any viable deck. That’s simply something that should never happen. It’s great that we can no longer get duplicates, it’s a step in the right direction, but the fact that there’s such a high discrepancy between the best and the worst result makes you pray so you won’t get the short end of the stick this time around.
But, to answer the important question. Can you always play the game for free if you grind a lot, or just with the pre-purchase bundle if you are more casual? The answer is no. This system works for me, because I’m playing the game since Closed Beta. I’ve been there for every expansion’s release and I’ve been keeping up with the game as the time goes by. I have almost every card from the Classic set (missing only a few bad Epics and Legendaries) and I have the most important cards from every set that’s currently in Standard (and the Wild ones too). Which means that I can actually save that gold for a new expansion and don’t worry about my current collection. But what about someone who just downloaded the game for the first time?
Note: We love Ben Brode and we know that he's not the one dictating the prices. We just liked this image and thought that it fits really well!
F2P as a new player
Now, that’s much more difficult. Even though the game feels generous for the first few hours, you’re unlocking more cards, you get pack after pack, free Arena run, some Dust. Not only that, but you’re also matched against other people playing completely basic decks, who have no idea what they’re doing, just like you. But then, it goes downhill very quickly. You switch to ranked, you play some games, and after your initial few games at Rank 25, you start facing people with better decks. With cards that you’ve never seen before. Even getting to Rank 20 is difficult, but past that? Almost impossible. Not with your basic deck.
So, you check out some Hearthstone websites. You look for better decks, for strategy guides. And you quickly learn that there is no single viable deck that you can actually play, because you don’t have any of those cards. So you look for budget decks. Funny thing, you can’t even play those, because you’re stuck with only Basic cards and some Classic Commons/Rares. You don’t enjoy the game, because no matter how hard you try, people are still beating you with their fancy Legendaries. Which leaves you with three choices – grind (a lot), quit the game or use your credit card.
If someone starts to play the game right now, he has to worry about Classic cards, but also 6 extra sets – 5 that are currently in Standard and one that’s coming soon. Starting at the beginning of Standard cycle is a bit better, but that’s still Classic + 4 sets to worry about. One would probably need to focus on Classic and the latest Standard set, then two more that are coming out. There’s no way a F2P new player can invest gold in the last year sets, simply because by the time he collects enough cards from them, they will get out of Standard. So it basically means that a new player, in order to build up his collection, is expected to start playing at the beginning of Standard cycle (most optimal time), play the game with inferior decks, missing tons of cards that are played in Standard, focusing only on the latest sets for a whole year, and only then, when the old sets rotate out, his collection will be more or less up to date. That’s absolutely insane.
The other option is simply paying to catch up. But that’s not cheap. Not only Classic set is much bigger than an expansion, but a new player owns no cards and has no gold. It means that everything has to be bought with money. And without a pre-order, the pack deals are worse (even when buying a 60 packs bundle, the cost of a single pack is about $1.17, as compared to $1 with pre-purchase). Even when starting at the best moment possible, at the start of a Standard rotation, a new player would need to spend about $120 per expansion and twice as that on the Classic (so approximately $700) in order to catch up. And if you would expect that this kind of money will give you every card in the game, sadly, you’re wrong. It will be just enough to get a playable collection and be able to play most of the meta decks. Want to play off-meta stuff? Spend twice that. Want to play Wild? Spend even more.
Given that majority of the players not only don’t have that kind of money to spend on the games, but why would they drop a few hundred bucks on a game that they haven’t even really played yet? So does it make sense for Blizzard to price the game so high if 99% of people wouldn’t be able to afford it? Sadly (again), the answer is yes, yes it does make sense. That’s because of one group of customers – so-called “whales”.
Who is a "whale"?
Obviously I’m not talking about the aquatic mammals playing Hearthstone in their free time, so what’s going on? Well, to put it simple, whales are the people that make the whole F2P system look like it looks like now. Those are people that have a very big gaming budget, much bigger than the average person, and they decide to spend it on a F2P game. Have you noticed that the prices of gems, diamonds or whatever premium currency in mobile games is so high? That you would need to spend hundreds of dollars to actually get something out of them? Yeah, that’s because there are people who spend that kind of money. I personally know some people who spend like $300-400 per month on F2P mobile games, and they’re only small fish.
When it comes to Hearthstone, a whale doesn’t really care that much about the price. He wants to have a full collection, often full golden collection, and he will spend even thousands of dollars to achieve that. Whales are the main source of income of F2P games, including Hearthstone. For every 99 people that spend no money or just buy the pre-purchase, there is one person that will drop enormous amount of money each expansion.
On the one hand, if you’re a completely F2P player, that system is great for you. It means that you can play the game for free, devs earn their money and everyone is happy. However, it also means that the prices are usually adjusted for those whales, not for the average player. It means that people who want to spend some money, but aren’t whales, get the short end of the stick. Let’s say that you want to buy 100 Hearthstone packs. It’s actually not that much in a hindsight, it’s far from getting every card from an expansion. In order to do that, you need to pay $120. That’s a price of two, new AAA titles, or 4-5 AAA games a few months after their release, after they go on the first sales. And in Hearthstone, that’s far from a full expansion worth of stuff.
But is there anything that can be done with that model? Is there a way to make Hearthstone more friendly for anyone who isn’t a whale?
Well, yes, yes it is. And there are actually many ways to do that. But first things first – you need to understand that there will always be some sort of entry barrier into a card game. Unless you make the game completely free, you can’t possibly expect to have a huge collection right when you start playing. You also need to understand that Blizzard, or any other company releasing a F2P game, will always adjust their prices to the wales, and cater for them, since they’re their main source of income. You can’t make the game too F2P-friendly, because then there would be little to no incentive to spend money. Knowing that your other option is grinding for a few months is an incentive to spend money. But if you would be able to get all the cards you need very quickly by just playing the game, the number of paying customers would drastically go down. But it doesn’t mean that everything has to stay the way it is. There are many things that can be done to improve the F2P experience in Hearthstone, especially the experience of new players, because they’re struggling most with the current model.
As an extra note, I'm not saying that each one of those solutions should be implemented. I'm just giving some ideas.
Add more Free/Basic cards
Free cards right now are pretty much limited to the Basic set. While we do get some Legendaries for free with the new sets, that’s not exactly what I mean here. My point is that the Basic set should be bigger, or that each expansion should have its own “Basic set”. The first idea is simple – Basic is very small when compared to Classic, and the cards there are very underwhelming. So much that the deck building options are extremely limited.
What if we took some of the most staple cards from the Classic set and added it to the Basic instead? Yes, the issue here is that Basic set is meant to be new players-friendly, without any complicated cards and mechanics. But that’s not a problem – those cards could just be unlocked over time. E.g. some of them would unlock after reaching level 10 with every class, others would get unlocked after getting one class to level 20, another after finishing the first Arena run. Not only it would make the early experience better, because there would be more “goals” to aim towards, but it would also increase the number of early deck building options. Or, for the sake of consistency, we could just leave those cards in the Classic and reward them for finishing those tasks.
Another idea is to make more Basic sets, and hear me out, it’s not as complicated as it might sound. Adventures were scrapped, but the new expansions are still getting some PvE content, which rewards with packs and a random Legendary. What if instead of that, each expansion had a “free” part you can unlock by finishing an adventure? It would work like adventures used to, but the cards unlocked would be only a small part of the whole expansion – let’s say that a 150 cards expansion would have 30 “free” cards from adventure. Not only it would make the F2P players experience much better, as they would have access to some cards from the set without buying anything, but those free cards could be used to showcase some of the expansion’s unique mechanics.
Most of the expansion would still need to be unlocked through packs, which means that the sales wouldn’t go down by much, but now a new player would actually have some cards to work with, some sort of base to build upon. I'll go even further - playing around with some of the cards from the latest expansion, with the new, cool mechanics, might make some people want to buy more packs from that expansion to get more cards.
Add more milestones
Hearthstone has some milestones already. They’re usually called “hidden quests”, “unique quests” or “achievements”, but naming is not important here. You get some sort of small reward, usually card pack/100 gold, for achieving something. E.g. unlocking every Hero, disenchanting your first card, collecting every Basic card (so leveling every class to 10) etc. Those are small reward, but are helpful at the beginning. However, after your first day or two, you no longer get them. The only rewards past that are for winning 100 games, 1,000 games and collecting every Classic card. The last one is kind of pointless, as it gives you only 100 gold, and is incredibly hard to achieve. The ones for 100/1,000 wins are cool, but definitely not enough.
There should be way more milestones, with different kinds of rewards, for finishing different kinds of tasks. You can add 50, 250 and 500 wins milestones (and maybe even something past the 1,000). You can add Arena-related milestones – for getting your first 6, 9 or 12 wins (the last one could give you a unique card back, like Legend one in Constructed). Or maybe a harder one, for getting 9 wins with every class. There could be collection-related milestones giving you some extra Dust – “own 5, 10, 20, 40” or whatever number of Legendaries. Something different? “Kill 1,000 minions”, “deal 5,000 damage to the enemy Hero”. Those milestones that would naturally get unlocked over time.
And what’s the point? First of all, it would make the game more enjoyable. Statistics are fun, and knowing that not only you’ve achieved something, but also got rewarded for it feels great. Then, it would improve the new player’s progress. Right now, you’re greeted by lots of free gold and packs, but it stops very quickly. The trend should continue, although slower, at the very least you should be consistently getting to some milestones for the first week or two.
It would also mean that more experienced players, especially those who already hit Legend, had some goals to work towards. Like, “oh, I still need to get 9 wins with Warrior and Priest for my milestone, I will try them out in Arena and see how it goes”. Having goals is cool, but if you already got the max rank possible, you don’t like grinding the ladder
Give out more free packs/resources
Hearthstone is one of the least generous F2P games I’ve ever played. As a big fan of multiple mobile games, I have to say that Blizzard is pretty stingy about giving out free stuff. Many hyper popular games I'm enjoying on my phone are giving out more stuff for free than Hearthstone. And I'm not even mentioning the competing card games (which aren't very relevant yet, but that might change in the future). Of course, we have to be reasonable – I’m not even thinking that they would give everyone 50 packs just like that, but there are ways to make some giveaways without really hurting business.
- Increase rewards for the first few Tavern Brawls. Tavern Brawl was a great idea and a huge success. Not only it adds a “fun” mode to the game, where people can just play around and not care about winning or losing, but also the one extra pack per week is a great way to make your Classic collection bigger. It doesn’t seem like much, but some players have already earned over 100 Classic packs from the Brawls. That’s really significant. But if you’re a new player that just starts the game, you’ve missed so much free packs. So, what if, to offset that fact, your first let’s say five Tavern Brawls awarded 3 packs instead of 1. It would lead to new players not exactly catching up, but getting 10 extra packs for free. It wouldn’t hurt anyone, but speed up the new player’s progress a bit.
- More events. For example, the Fire/Frost Festivals we had before Knights of the Frozen Throne. Those were fun – double gold from the Quests during the Fire festival felt really good, on average players could probably snatch 700-800 extra gold from the whole event, which isn’t enormous, but felt good. Frost Festival was also cool (pun not intended), with free Arena runs and every Arena run starting at 1 win. It gave more incentive to play that mode. And there are many more things they could focus such events on. Maybe a Wild event, where you get 10g per win instead of per 3 wins? (with the cap staying at 100g, of course). Or maybe event during which you get two quests per day instead of one, and class quests can be finished with any class? I’m not a game designer, but I’m absolutely sure that they can come up with multiple things. And repeating events isn’t bad either, when they run out of ideas they can just reuse the old ones, maybe with a slight twist.
- Make daily log-in rewards a thing for more than just a week before expansion. I really liked the daily log-in rewards we had before Un’Goro. It was a more interesting to give away free stuff, plus it incentivized players to log-in. I think that such a system implemented into the game would be great. Of course, the rewards wouldn’t need to be big. Let’s say a 28 days format, where you get small reward (e.g. 15 Gold/Dust, a random Common/Rare), with a bigger reward every 7 days (Card Pack, Arena ticket, random Epic) and even bigger reward after you finish the whole 28 days cycle – maybe 5 card packs, maybe random Legendary. Of course, the individual rewards would be adjusted, so Blizzard wouldn’t lose that much, but consistent players would be able to snatch some nice rewards. Such a system incentivizes people to log-in daily, and when they log in they will often stay to finish the quests or play some games
Revamp the quest/rewards system
One, important thing. Why are so many quests and the standard gold gain (10/3 wins) tied to wins? That’s a terrible system. Now, if you’re a more experienced player, you might not see the problem. But remember those times when you wanted to just finish the quest quickly, but you hit a losing streak and instead of 3 games, you had to play 12? Yeah, that’s exactly how new players must feel about the system. In order to grind gold necessary to improve your collection, you need to win games. And if you want to win the games more consistently, you need to have a better collection. Player who is past the level of playing vs other new players, but is still rocking a nearly full Basic deck will be happy to have a 25% win rate. Which will make finishing quests way more difficult, and punish gold gain.
Quests and the per 3 wins rewards should be about PLAYING the games, not winning them. Instead of “Win 3 games with Druid”, the Quest should be “Play 5 games with Druid”. Similarly, you shouldn’t be rewarded per 3 wins, but per 5 games. It’s true that the new quests are heading in the right direction, but the “win” quests are still very common, and they shouldn’t be.
The game would also be more fun. Right now when you have a 5 win quest, you don’t feel like you can play around. You need to try-hard in order to actually win those 5 games. You also want to win, because you get more gold that way. If those would be gone, you wouldn’t be punished for just picking your favorite deck and playing the game for fun. You don’t care if you win or lose that much if you still finish your quest and you still progress towards the 100g daily limit.
Another thing is that the rewards themselves are too low, casual players end up with pack per 2 days or something, but I doubt that they will increase the gold rewards, so I won’t even try to give any suggestions in that department.
Reintroduce the Adventures
Adventures were best way to spend your money on. Let’s say Karazhan. For just $20, which is less than half of the pre-order, you’ve got 45 cards (technically 85, since you’ve got two copies of non-Legendaries + 5 Legendaries), and about half of them were actually viable and played in meta decks. For the same $20, you can buy 15 packs, which give you 75 cards in total, with only one guaranteed Legendary. You spend 20 bucks on an adventure, you have every single card released there. You spend $20 on an expansion, you don’t have anything.
The main complaint was that adventures don’t provide enough content. So why not change their format instead of getting rid of them? You could make 6 wings instead of 4, add more cards per wing, and easily go up to 80-90 cards per adventure. That would be impactful enough, and with a $30 price tag, it would still be a great deal.
Unless “not enough content” was just a PR talk and the real reason was “because whales will only pay $20 and not $400, because that will give them every card”. Which is very likely.
Increase The Dust Value of Cards
Dust values of cards in Hearthstone are incredibly low. While Epics and Legendaries are still "passable", because it's a 4:1 conversion rate, the matter gets worse with Rares (5:1) and especially Commons (8:1). You need to get rid of 8 Common cards to craft just a SINGLE new one. But why would you craft commons, you might ask?
There are many reasons, actually. You're a new player and you're missing 4 commons from a certain expansion for your budget deck. You don't really want to open 40 packs and hope that you will get the cards you need, especially if it's a previous year expansion and it will rotate out soon. But then you need to spend 160 Dust just for those 4 Commons, or in other words, you need to Disenchant 32 Commons you own to do that. The rate is crazy low. I'm not saying that it should be 1:1, of course. But even increasing the ratio of Commons and Rares to 4:1, possibly Epics and Legends to 3:1, would make things much easier.
But there's also another solution that wouldn't impact the overall economy that much. Increasing the Dust values of golden cards. Right now, you can trade goldens cards for regular cards with a 1:1 ratio (except Commons, which have 1:1.25 ratio). But that doesn't seem like too much. Bumping the disenchant value of golden cards would make crafting experience much better for people who aren't collectors. Given the fact that those cards are pretty rare, changing the ratio to 1:2 ratio (1 golden for 2 regulars) wouldn't make people run with full collections all of sudden. Plus it wouldn't affect whales that much, as those players will usually want to keep their shiny cards.
Discount packs from the previous year expansions
I’m not even talking about making them cost 50g, but discounting them by let’s say 20% would be great. Even better, the discount might grow as the year passes. Like, they might cost 90g with the first expansion of a new Standard year, 80g with the second and 70g with the third. Why? Simply because they’re less valuable. Right now, it’s already not worth to buy packs from 2016 expansions, simply because they will rotate out in 5 months or so. It feels really bad to buy packs from Gadgetzan if you know that you won’t be able to play with those cards soon. And sometimes, if you want to be competitive, you simply have to. Such a discount would help new players with “catching up”, and would people refill their gaps in previous year’s collection without feeling that bad about spending gold/money for something that rotates out soon.
Make Wild More New Players Friendly
Why Wild? Well, it might seem counter-intuitive, but eternal format is much, much cheaper than Standard in the long run. It has a higher entry cost, but then it simply doesn’t change that much. It’s still not that apparent yet, simply because Hearthstone is not as old as let’s say MTG, but it will be very clear in the future.
When playing Standard, you craft a deck you love, and it might get obsolete next expansion. That’s just how the format works. But in Wild, you eventually will be able to craft a deck and not worry about anything. Your deck should still be perfectly viable when a new expansion hits. You might want to change a card or two, but that’s it. That's already the case with some decks, like RenoLock or Midrange ("Dude") Paladin, which aren't always top tier, but are viable for a few expansions already. It means that F2P players should enjoy a Wild format much more, as it would be way easier to keep up with it.
Except the fact that getting into Wild is incredibly hard right now. Recently, Blizzard has added Wild packs to the shop… for real money. That's great, definitely a step in the right direction, but why only money? Why not just make them available with gold? If you don't want to spend real money, you basically have to craft all the viable Commons and Rares, which you would get after opening some packs quite easily.
But that’s not all. Wild needs more support and more promotion. Maybe more ways to get cards from the old expansions. Let’s say 5 years from now, with 25 expansions in the Wild, the entry barrier will grow significantly. So, again, maybe discounts on Wild packs. Maybe giving out some Wild packs/cards for free during different events. Some ways to make getting into it easier would be appreciated.
Oh, and bots. Wild is flooded with bots, especially around rank 5, where they hit the wall. While it’s not a F2P problem, it’s not fun to play against bots, and it's really a big problem in that format (less so in Standard, but you also see bots there).
The worst thing about everything is that the game gets gradually more expensive. Releasing expansion every 4 months, getting rid of adventures, adding more Legendaries, especially “auto-include” Legendaries that are simply too good to pass on. I remember the times when a 10k Dust Control Warrior deck was considered the pinnacle of P2W decks, it was nicknamed “Wallet Warrior” and people laughed. Now half of the meta decks cost 8k+ Dust, even with the cheapest Zoo or Aggro Druid builds being at 5-6k.
One my real life friends quit Hearthstone quite recently, after the Journey to Un’Goro’s release. He opened 110 packs (50 from pre-order and 50 from Gold), got 3 useless Legendaries and couldn’t build any deck he wanted. And I really understand him. You grind the game for 4 months, save the gold, you spend extra $50 and then you still can’t play anything you want.
But you know what’s the worst feeling? When I meet someone who gets curious about what I do for living, I tell them that I write about Hearthstone. If he ends up wanting to test the game, I can’t just say “go for it, it’s super fun, you’ll love it”. The first thing I say is “you know, the game is fun, BUT you need to prepare for a massive grind right from the start or drop a lot of money on it”. On the one hand, I’d love to play with someone I know, but then I just can’t recommend the game that is so unfriendly for the new players. I’ve played both Shadowverse and Gwent quite recently, and even ignoring the gameplay, I could recommend them to my friends for their generous F2P system alone. You feel a real, quick progress in both of those games, and while it’s still helpful to drop some cash, the grind isn’t nearly as long and unfriendly as in Hearthstone.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love this game. And that’s why I want it to get better. F2P, especially new player’s F2P experience is probably the worst thing about the Blizzard’s card game. And if I had to pick one thing I’d like to see changed, that would definitely be it.
If you’re still with me, I apologize for the length of this article. It’s just a topic you can’t cover in a short piece, it’s simply too vast and too important. Thanks for reading, if you have any other ideas on how to improve the F2P experience, please share. Until next time.
A Hearthstone player and writer from Poland, Stonekeep has been in a love-hate relationship with Hearthstone since Closed Beta. He's achieved infinite Arena and multiple top 100 Legend climbs. You can follow him on Twitter @StonekeepHS.