A lot has been said recently about the rising cost of Hearthstone. Discussion within the community ranges from jokingly referring to the game as pay-to-win to accusations of greed from Blizzard (often incorrectly directed towards the development team itself).
There is certainly no denying that those unwilling (or unable) to spend money on Hearthstone are at a competitive disadvantage compared to those spending even reasonable dollar amounts on card packs. Resource accumulation, especially, is dramatically slower for those relying solely the in-game award system to gather cards. Since, for budget players, card packs are few and far between, more reliance must be placed on the far less exciting crafting component of card accumulation. In constructed game modes, a smaller card pool means less options for those who choose to be free-to-play.
That said, there is still plenty of fun to be had in Hearthstone without dropping entire paychecks each expansion. Occasionally, it does require the player to adjust their expectations, be patient, and/or learn to appreciate different aspects of Hearthstone, but enjoyment needn’t be tied to amount spent.
Having just completed the Hearthstone Top Decks F2P BTW Challenge, we felt it would be a good time to discuss the free-to-play experience in Hearthstone, including a look at some of the limitations and possible solutions. Additionally, tips are included for those looking to navigate the current challenges of the F2P Hearthstone life.
The biggest hurdle a free-to-player Hearthstone player has to overcome is the accumulation of cards. Paying players, especially those splurging on expansion pre-releases, have the benefit of getting a massive pool of new cards immediately following an expansion release. Those choosing to embark on the free-to-play journey, however, must either exhibit discipline in saving their gold long before the next expansion is even announced, or wait patiently until they’re able to earn the gold to catch up after the new content drops. Either way, F2P accounts relying on in-game rewards simply cannot keep pace with paying players receiving these same bonuses on top of the purchased card packs.
Welcome to Hearthstone. Time to Catch up!
New players, more than anyone, feel the burden of slow progression in their card pools. For F2P players, time is the best means of gaining ground on paying players in terms of card collection. New accounts are at an even more severe disadvantage here. Early on, Introductory Quests help for a time, but once that particular well runs dry, new players are in a difficult position if they want to compete with players who have more substantial card pools, whether or not those cards were purchased with real money.
Even new players eyeing the Standard format have, at a minimum, full year’s worth of content to catch up on. Deep into rotation, new players could have as many as six expansions plus the core, Classic Set to catchup on. No matter how efficiently fresh account holders manage their resources, which is incredibly difficult for inexperienced players, there is little chance for new players to gain much ground on their veteran opponents without spending an exorbitant amount of time and money on Hearthstone.
Crafting Over Card Packs
No matter how exciting the animation, clicking the “Create” button is dramatically less exciting than ripping open card packs. That said, even the most dedicated free-to-play Hearthstone gamers open a fraction of the card packs that someone dropping money on the game will have access to. As such, crafting becomes a critical component to filling in missing pieces to complete decks.
Shifting focus from the number of Card Packs to efficient Arcane Dust management isn’t always appealing, but it’s often the best chance for an F2P account to assemble powerful decks. More specifically, making informed crafting and disenchanting decisions is incumbent upon the budget player looking to breaking through rank barriers. Likewise, understanding how changes to pack openings and content releases is compulsory for those looking to maximize their resources, as F2P gamers must.
The ability to select which cards to create when crafting makes this means of gathering cards the most effective for players with limited resources. Free-to-play Hearthstone accounts don’t just need cards, they need good cards that fit into decks they want to build. As such, the random nature of card packs is unreliable when it comes to filling out decks.
For players looking to find a specific card, especially those of higher rarities, cracking open card packs is a fool’s errand. Instead, taking advantage of the option to craft cards to meet specific needs should be the focus for F2P accounts looking to add powerful cards to their collection.
With an emphasis on card crafting, disenchanting cards becomes an equally crucial facet of the F2P experience. Unfortunately, crafting cards requires significantly more dust than is received from disenchanting. Because of the poor disenchant to craft Arcane Dust ratio, dusting a card is often a permanent action for the budget-minded player. This means that F2P accounts can’t just wildly dust every unused card in their collection.
However, budget players with a limited card pool don’t have the luxury of holding fringe cards in hopes that they’ll become more powerful in future expansions. They need good cards to help them progress now.
Because of this, F2P players need to find a balance between aggressively disenchanting every currently unused card and stock piling numerous cards that aren’t likely to provide value.
Recently, there has been a lot of stirring about the changes to pack openings in Hearthstone and the impact it has on the cost of the game. There’s certainly no denying that the guaranteed Legendary in the first 10 packs is beneficial to all players. Most of the community’s fixation, however, is on the fact that opening duplicate Legendary cards is no longer possible.
This change has created a dogmatic approach to disenchanting (or rather NOT disenchanting) Legendary cards, no matter how unplayable it may be. While this is a reasonable approach for players looking to maximize their card collection, it is largely only relevant for players opening a significant amount of packs.
As mentioned earlier, F2P accounts are opening dramatically fewer card packs than their P2W counterparts, rendering this change far less applicable to a player opening a small amount of packs. Opening a Legendary card you just disenchanted certainly feels bad, but an orange gemmed card only appears in about 1 in 20 packs. Considering that each expansion typically has around 20 Legendary cards, the chances of opening a given Legendary, including one that was recently dusted, are quite low.
The problem this creates is that F2P players feel obligated to hold onto Legendaries that go unplayed. By holding onto these cards, 400 valuable Arcane Dust is essentially rotting in their collection rather than contributing to cards that could bolster their decks.
This isn’t to say free-to-play gamers should freely disenchant out of meta Legendary cards. Occasionally, unplayed Legendaries do make their way into top-tier decks (see Raza the Chained and Prince Keleseth) after supporting cards are introduced or the metagame shifts. The point is that, outside of bulk opening packs around the release of an expansion, holding bad Legendary cards to avoid opening duplicates is not universally an optimal strategy.
Of Expansions and Adventures
In the past, new Hearthstone content was released on a schedule of Full Expansion, Solo Adventure, Full Expansion. Beginning in the Year of the Mammoth, Solo Adventures were pulled from the release schedule and instead wrapped into Full Expansions in the form of Missions.
Previously, Solo Adventures were seen as the F2P dream. For a measly 700 Gold per wing, players could be certain they would receive every card from the set, Legendaries and all. Now, however, with three Full Expansions each year, that dream is dead.
…Or is it?
The new release schedule is not all bad for the new and budget-minded player, however. Before, powerful Commons and Rares were buried beneath massive pay walls. To gain access to Medivh's Valet, for example, players needed 2,800 Gold for a single playset of a card required in just about every Mage deck. This becomes a limiting factor for new players or anyone unable to bank the requisite Gold to purchase the Adventure in full.
Now, a similarly powerful card can simply be crafted upon release for 40 Arcane Dust apiece, unlocking potent decks for a fraction of the total cost. Sure, crafting a few cards isn’t nearly as exciting as having the entire set available, but free-to-play gamers need to think in terms of decks assembled rather than full collections.
This often overlooked component of the new release schedule is actually a massive boon to the those on a budget. Now, F2P players can save up a combination of Arcane Dust and Gold (instead of Gold alone) to fill in holes in their collection and put together more formidable decks.
Constructed play is where budget players see the effects of their limited spending the most. Queuing up your favorite low-cost deck only to get stomped by a string of potent Legendaries never feels good. A comparatively lower deck quality, in fact, is often cited as a major deterrent for new and free-to-play Hearthstone players.
Approaching constructed play with the correct outlook, however, can provide players not spending money on the game with the opportunity to find success in the mode. For one, focusing on a narrow range of decks can make it easier to assemble a competitively viable collection of cards. Likewise recognizing and appreciating the fact that they have limited options, budget players can make the sacrifices necessary to have a powerful stable of fierce decks.
A smaller card collection means that F2P accounts need to approach deck building with laser focus to be competitive. Non-paying players simply do not have the resources to effectively stretch themselves across multiple decks at the same time and, instead, are forced to go all-in on one or (at most) two decks at a time.
Focusing on such a small number of decks gives the F2P much more limited options in terms of what they can queue up into constructed play. Unfortunately, the monotony of playing the same deck game after game can wear on even the most patient player. Worse yet, losing to an exciting new deck is more frustrating when you lack access to the cards required to assemble it.
All of this is to say that, yes, it’s possible to find success in constructed play without spending money, but sacrifices (willing or otherwise) are an unfortunate reality for the F2P Hearthstone gamer.
The simple fact of the matter is that, without spending a great deal of money on the game, players won’t have access to every meta deck. That said, by making difficult decisions, those who aren’t paying for packs can still put together a healthy stable of top-tier decks over time.
Room For Improvement
It’s certainly possible to enjoy Hearthstone without spending money (I certainly do). That doesn’t mean, however, that additional steps shouldn’t be taken in order to improve the in-game reward structure of Hearthstone. As mentioned earlier, new players, especially, bear a heavy burden when it comes time to accumulating cards. Daily Quests, the main outlet for Gold in Hearthstone can be made more lucrative, to the benefit of the entire Hearthstone player base. Newly introduced Seasonal Events offer a temporary boost in gathering precious in-game resources. Likewise, a regular bonus for simply logging into Hearthstone can incentivize continued play beyond the occasionally tedious Daily Quests.
In the early stages of a new account, it seems Gold, Card Packs, and Arena Tickets are given away freely. This is, in large part, thanks to the Introductory Quests available to all new players. While this is great for the fresh account trying to catch up to experienced players, it doesn’t last long and sets an unrealistic expectation for these new Hearthstone players.
The fact of the matter is resources will rarely be as available as they are in the first week or so of a new account. Once these Introductory Quests are completed, it feels like collection progression slows to a snail’s pace.
New players are quickly confronted by the harsh reality of the F2P grind, likely causing some degree of account abandonment. This far into its lifespan, Hearthstone needs to do more to allow new players to catch up. The New Player Bundle was a good start (and the best value for your dollar), but more could be done to give new, F2P players a means of catching up.
In addition to the New Player Bundle, including more Introductory Quests, on top of those already available, would give new players another means of gathering early resources while introducing them to new aspects of Hearthstone.
Daily Quests are the primary source of gold for the free-to-play accounts. As such, getting maximum value from these dailies is paramount to accumulating resources for those on a budget.
During the early stages of Hearthstone, Daily Quests were pretty stingy in terms of their reward structure. Changes have been made to increase the average payouts of Daily Quests, but it’s, quite frankly, not enough to keep pace with the rising cost of Hearthstone.
Further increasing the payout of Daily Quests benefits all players, paid and F2P alike, and can help offset some of the cost increases of the new content release schedule and the up-tick in playable cards of higher rarities.
A recent initiative, Seasonal Events are a fantastic way to allow players to receive additional rewards while interacting with Hearthstone in new ways. Tavern Brawls can be a fun way to introduce fun mechanics and rewards players for engaging Hearthstone in new ways, but the one-and-done nature of the Brawl reward structure doesn’t do enough to incentivize continual play of the game mode.
Seasonal Events, however, often have a better reward structure and manage the time-limited component a bit better than Tavern Brawls. These flavorful encounters have, in the past, pushed players to Arenas and/or offered bonuses near expansion releases.
This is a place where Blizzard has already shown a great deal of growth, so continuing on their current trajectory with Seasonal Events will be generally beneficial to Hearthstone players.
Daily Login Bonus
Something that’s also been explored during past expansion releases is a Daily Login Bonus. In these periods, players are awarded simply for logging into Hearthstone on a regular basis. Like Daily Quests, this is a great way for Blizzard to incentivize a regular player base.
Essentially, an incremental offering of Gold or Arcane Dust (up to a certain threshold) each day would increase time spent in game as well as give players (F2P or otherwise) a means of gathering more cards.
As previously mentioned, budget-minded players are more reliant on card crafting than pack openings to accumulate cards. However, the dust generated from disenchanting pales in comparison to the crafting cost. The fact that 4 Legendaries must be dusted to craft 1 is too steep a requirement for those who aren’t opening a massive number of card packs. This disenchant:craft ratio is even more unfavorable at lower card rarities (though, admittedly it feels less impactful for Commons and Rares).
Increasing the Arcane Dust received from disenchanting cards will make it possible for new and F2P accounts to make better use of card crafting in Hearthstone. In doing so, these players will be more able to assemble at least one potent deck.
Tips for the F2P Hearthstone Player
While nice to consider, there’s no guarantee that any of these improvements are going to be made. So, in the meantime, how can a free-to-play Hearthstone gamer manage to have a good time without spending money?
Several guides have already been written about earning free packs, choosing the right card packs, and managing the Hearthstone collection. Instead of simply reiterating those same recommendations, below are a few general tips for confronting the challenging experience of not spending money on a Hearthstone.
Many of the frustrations that F2P players cite are due to unrealistic expectations. Too often, players are looking to complete their collection or even mimic the meme decks built by popular streamers looking to entertain their viewers.
For one, a full collection is neither a realistic goal nor is it necessary to enjoy Hearthstone. Even players spending significant amounts of money each expansions can’t expect to feasibly gather every card for a given set. As free-to-play, completing a collection is even more unreasonable. Instead, players need to find ways to appreciate and enjoy their current collection while progressing towards a specific goal (competitive or not).
Likewise, expecting to have the same experience as streamers who drop a lot of cash on Hearthstone and play hours on end is unrealistic. Instead, enjoy the entertainment that watching these games provides and recognize that you can’t always build every deck you see played.
Even above Arcane Dust, Time is perhaps the most valuable resource for F2P accounts. Unfortunately, this requires players to be patient in accumulating cards. The good news is that paying money for the game doesn’t give players better cards. Spending money simply allows players to gather cards more quickly.
While certainly a significant advantage, it’s far from insurmountable. F2P players need to be comfortable collecting cards slower than their P2W counterparts. Fortunately, there’s not a card, deck, or game mode that can’t be accessed without using in-game rewards as a means of purchasing.
F2P players are often faced with difficult decisions in terms of resource management. Unfortunately, budget-minded players simply cannot afford to waste resources, so doing thorough research on decks to assemble and cards to craft is critical.
While the choices may be tough, being frozen by the anxiety of wasting dust or gold is not fun. Instead, make the best decision using the information you have available and know the potential consequences of that choice ahead of time. Doing so will make decisions come easier and help avoid the discomforts of choice paralysis.
Explore Additional Game Modes
Constructed play is not the only way to enjoy Hearthstone. Frequently, Arena and Tavern Brawls are recommended for free-to-play players looking to gather cards for Play Mode. While great advice, both of these game modes can be enjoyable in and of themselves, rather than simply a means to an end. Learning to appreciate Arena (as well as Tavern Brawls), where card collection is irrelevant, can help make up for limited options in Play Mode.
About the Author
A card game veteran, Roffle has been infatuated with Hearthstone since closed beta. These days, he spends most of his time tinkering with decks on ladder or earning gold in Arena (f2p btw). In particular, Roffle has a wealth of experience in competitive Wild Hearthstone, including a top 16 finish in the inaugural Wild Open Tournament and numerous high end of season finishes since the format’s inception. Follow him on Twitter or check out some of his articles on Roffle.net.