Hearthstone is a great game. Unfortunately, it’s also a very expensive game. While many people don’t have an exact sense for how expensive the game is, there’s a lingering sense among many players that the game is hard to get into, return to after a break, or even keep up with while you’re still playing unless you’re investing a large amount of time or money. Usually both.
These feelings have been brought out all at once by the recent changes to the “free” reward track in Hearthstone. I use the word “free” in quotes here because the content of the game – the cards themselves – are not actually free. What they are is available for purchase with your time, in addition to your money.
What I wanted to do today was give a concrete sense for how much Hearthstone costs, both in terms of your time and your money, if you have a simple goal: you want to unlock access to all the content in an expansion. You just want the option to put any card from an expansion into your decks whenever you see fit.
To complete that goal, we first need to figure out exactly how many packs are required for a full set of 135 cards from an initial expansion, and then how many more you’d need for the 35 new cards from the mini-expansion. Previous estimates have put the original 135 card expansions at around 250 packs after duplicate protection got extended to all rarities. While that number might be slightly higher or lower depending on your pack opening luck, I’d say 250 packs is a pretty close estimate, and a simple number to picture.
However, now we have an additional 35 cards coming in mini-sets between expansions, raising the total number of cards required to 170. Exact numbers here again are hard to pin down since we don’t know the rarity distribution of the cards, but it represents an additional 25% increase in the amount of content in each set. Assuming you have everything from the original set, duplication protection should allow you to acquire all the new cards in about 40 additional packs if the new sets are anything like the old adventures.
This leaves us with a goal of approximately 300 packs (rounding up for good measure, since we want to be sure we get everything, and it’s also a nice, easy number to wrap our brains around). What we want to know is how much money it takes to buy that in cash, and how much it takes to buy that in time.
Buying Hearthstone With Money
Let’s say you want to buy the latest expansion entirely in cash, day one of an expansion.
This calculation is easy to do. At the time of writing, when I go into the Hearthstone store, I am offered Darkmoon packs at 60 packs for $70. We will want about five of these bundles to open the whole set. That’s $350 for one expansion.
Now buying pre-order bundles makes this a little cheaper if you get in during the right window (since they aren’t available after release), and you can sometimes find a deal on Hearthstone packs through other bundles or using other methods of payment, like Amazon coins.
- Taking that into account, in total, all the cards should cost you somewhere between $300-$350.
That is the actual cost of Hearthstone, in cash, per expansion. When you look at three expansions over 12 months, that’s $900-$1050 each year. (I’m assuming that you don’t need any cards from the Classic set or from previous sets). No wonder the game seems expensive.
“Now that might seem expensive,” I hear you saying, “but what about all the stuff we get for free?” Let’s see how that works out.
Bear in mind, this section gets a little more complicated than buying in cash.
Before we begin, I’d like to again mention that this content we earn isn’t exactly “free”. Instead, we pay for it with our time. This is why we have daily quests (more like “daily tasks”) and rewards for time spent playing the game, rather than just resources that get dumped into our account. We do a service for Blizzard by engaging with their game, and that service is compensated with rewards. It’s like a little job (and hopefully one you enjoy doing)
Let’s assume you’re going to complete every single one of your daily – and now also weekly – quests. After the most recent update, Your daily quests should award about 950 XP each day, while your weekly quests add another 6000 XP over seven days. This is 12,650 XP each week, or about 1,807 a day. Since we are seeing 3 expansions a year, that means about 122 days between expansions. So, that totals an expected 220,471 XP over four months. In terms of the reward track, that puts you at level 50 with about 65,271 XP to spare. The level 50 barrier is important to note, as once you cross it, XP converts to gold at about a 30-to-1 ratio.
- Summary for quests: This brings us to a first total. Your quests will earn you 5,650 gold from the reward track through level 50, as well as about 2,200 from levels 51 and beyond. In total, that’s about 7,850 gold from dailies/weeklies.
Now we have to factor in how much XP you earn from playing the game, and this is where things get really messy. You earn different amounts of XP depending on what game mode you’re playing in, whether you win or lose, how long the match goes, and how much time you spend playing games vs looking to find them in the queue, building decks, or doing anything else in the client.
To make this as simple as possible, I’ll stick to only two numbers: 300 and 400 XP per hour, on average. This roughly corresponds to the in-match time for play in Battlegrounds and Ranked ladder, respectively.
After level 50, the reward track will offer 300 further levels that reward 50 gold each. So how long does it take to reach level 350 from play? If you have done all your quests, you should be about level 93, so you’ll have 257 more levels to earn at 1500 XP each. This means you’ll need 385,500 more XP.
- Summary for game play: This brings us to our second total. At our above rates, we’ll need between 964 and 1,285 hours of in-match time, or 8 to 10.5 hours of play a day to max out the pass. (This number underestimates the amount of total time investment, since finding games and making decks also takes time)
However, there’s one more thing to consider: assuming we have done all our quests and played the game like a machine, we would have earned around 22,850 gold. Rounding up, we earned 223 packs. The problem here is that a full expansion worth of cards requires 300 packs. Over four months of doing very little else than playing Hearthstone with our hypothetical lives, we’re still about 70 packs short of having an expansion. You cannot earn a full expansion before the next one has released, no matter how much you play.
So, we’ll need to cover the rest in cash, which is close to $80.
- Total Summary: Hearthstone expansions cost somewhere between $300-$350 in cash, or about 9.25 hours a day, every day, plus $80 more.
Your Reaction To Those Numbers
Hearthstone costs about $300-$350 an expansion in cash. You can pay for that content by playing the game, which rewards you with about $0.22 an hour, including your quests and in-match time.
Faced with this, some players might realize the cost of the game is astronomical when compared to other video games. Whether you’re talking cash or time, Hearthstone asks a lot. This puts those feelings of slow progress that players have into real, and frankly, intimidating numbers.
It gets worse when you realize these numbers don’t even account for how players can set themselves back by dusting cards. That’s right, it’s even possible to make the system worse than this if you get impatient and want something now. It’s no wonder that many passionate fans of the game (myself included) don’t feel they can recommend it to friends, or that many players exit the game over time. People want to play and explore the game. They don’t want to work at a video game job until they’ve saved up enough to play.
One reaction to these numbers is to try and rationalize the cost of Hearthstone.
Maybe there’s some massive error in the math and the real cost of the game is actually only $250 an expansion. Except even that still feels pretty expensive, doesn’t it?
It’s cheaper than buying cards for a physical game, like Magic, but why are we comparing them? Hearthstone is cheaper than buying a car, too. It’s not like you own any Hearthstone cards, anyway. You’re merely paying to rent access to them on an account which cannot be sold and can be terminated at any time Blizzard sees fit.
“You don’t need all the cards,” is another response, and while that’s true it’s not a great response either. First, if it’s truly irrelevant whether players have all the cards or not because they’ll only use, say, 40% of them, then what’s the harm in players having access to the cards they won’t use? The answer, of course, is that there is no harm to that.
Second, even if players won’t use all the cards, we have to purchase card packs that pull from the entire pool. You don’t get to pick which ones you want to open from packs. As such, asking that players be able to access all the cards is reasonable. Doubly so when players don’t really know which part of the content they want until they’ve tried it.
Finally, some will simply say that Blizzard is a business, and all they care about is making as much money as possible off their products. The assumption (or fear) here is that if Hearthstone card content was too accessible for time, no one would pay for the game and it would die. Except that forgets cosmetics are a thing. Perhaps players will spend more on cosmetics when they don’t have to worry about not affording content. Perhaps players will spend more money when spending money feels good. And right now it doesn’t feel good to spend money in Hearthstone.
Another, better reaction to seeing the real time/money costs of Hearthstone is simple: demand better for yourself as a player. If Blizzard is free to demand as much as they do for the content, you’re free to demand more for your time and money.
There should be no reason that we’re paying more than the price of a full video game for well under half an expansion. There should be no reason that a game advertises itself as “free to play” while locking players out of huge portions of the content even if they do little else with their life than play the game.
The demands Hearthstone places on a player’s time and money aren’t reasonable. To make them reasonable, you have to demand reasonableness with your actions.