The Hearthstone Hole

Green Armadillo from Player vs Developer has a post up about the somewhat skewed incentives in Hearthstone. Essentially, Blizzard does not have too much of an incentive to do Matchmaking based on card rarity/quality, as not doing so allows the paying customers to get some easy wins against non-paying customers while hopefully encouraging the latter to spend some money to get out of the hole. Plus, queue times might go up if they segmented the audience too far.

I’m not really going to comment too much on the situation itself, because it is kinda true. Hearthstone is a CCG, and like all CCGs, it is Pay-To-Win until all the cards are obtained. Moreover, there appears to be a good chance that the Matchmaking algorithm is not even in place or functioning properly. And like I have mentioned in the past, Blizzard has stuck close to the CCG model of strictly-better cards being “balanced” around their rarity.

But let’s put all that aside for now, and start talking solutions.

1) Stick to Arenas

Hearthstone is basically the Arena for me; everything else is simply a means to more Arena games. The only real reason why I would care about opening more packs and whatnot is to get cards that will allow me to complete my daily quests faster. That might change at some later date – likely coinciding with me actually opening up something more than a Rare card – but for now it is more than enough.

If you are leery about the Arena, don’t be. It is the great equalizer. Sorta. It is still entirely possible to be screwed via RNG by facing opponents that got two Legendary cards whereas you barely have one Epic. Plus, sometimes you get little to no selection when it comes to removal or class-specific cards. I went 4-0 the other day as a Warlock, feeling good, and then got matched with a Mage that had four Fireballs. In a normal game, you can’t even have more than two of the same card. I ended up losing to that Mage, plus a 2nd mage that had a seemingly never-ending supply of Freezing cards (Blizzard, Ice Lance, etc), and some third guy that undoubtedly didn’t deserve to beat me somehow.

Hmm… I’m not exactly helping things, am I?

2) Basic decks can still be good.

Generally speaking, Basic Decks are not at too much of a disadvantage depending on the class you are playing. That means both your class and their class. So while the daily quest can basically dictate which class you end up having to play as to get rewarded, there are steps you can take to put the odds ever in your favor.

For example, this Mage deck is entirely Basic cards:

I don't even have any non-Basic Mage cards yet.

I don’t even have any non-Basic Mage cards yet.

By a complete coincidence, the two dailies I had sitting around were “Win 5 games” and both had Mage as one of the class options. I went 5-2 with the above deck in Unranked mode.

I am not suggesting that I am some pro player – my Arena matches usually keep me humble – but understanding the hidden depths to something simple like the above deck is key in turning games around. For example, Kobold Geomancer is not a particularly desirable card on it’s own, since it often (at best) trades with other 2-drops. And while you should absolutely play it early if you don’t have anything better, keep in mind its hidden power: turning Arcane Explosion into a Consecration on turn 4. Even if they play something with 3 HP, you can spend your 3rd turn sniping it down to 2 HP before likely wiping their Turn 1-4 board. Hell, it even works in the late-game considering you can Geomancer + Flamestrike to take out 5 HP dudes, or finish off a line of wounded guys with the 2-damage version.

If I had all the Mage cards, would I replace cards in the above deck? Of course. Mana Wyrm is a complete no-brainer, for example. Then again, most of the cards I would add would essentially morph the deck into something else entirely – Mana Wyrm, Blizzard, and Cone of Cold all have a much different feel to them than Arcane Missiles, Arcane Explosion, and Kobold Geomancer shenanigans. To say nothing about the non-Basic Neutral cards available.

There are absolutely certain classes that are much weaker than others when they do not have access to their powerful Rares/Epics – such as Warriors and Brawl – but the Mage really isn’t one of them. Even classes like the Shaman can win unexpectedly with just their Basic cards (i.e. via Bloodlust).

All that being said, yes, you can and will roll over and die to some Diamond+ League decks. One of the losses I had in my run was to a Priest, who only won because Blizzard knee-jerked buffed the hell out of them in the latest patch. Mind Control, in particular, is some major bullshit:

It's 2:1 Card Advantage, minimum.

It’s 2:1 Card Advantage, minimum.

I had two big blockers Mind Controlled in that match, along with facing some Shadow Word: Pain slowing my early game. “Playing around” the Mind Control is possible, sure, but it cedes control of the board to the Priest unless they haven’t been playing anything else this whole time. Flamestrike is certainly powerful and has to be taken into consideration when facing a Mage, but let’s face it, the Mage is perhaps the best class to deal with Mind Control – everyone else is screwed.

Even though that game felt completely awful to me, it is worth mentioning that I was 1 damage away from stealing earning the game at the end.

This would have felt SO GOOD, dammit.

This would have felt SO GOOD, dammit.

Fireball for 6 damage, Frostbolt for 3 damage, Hero Power for 1 damage would have left the Priest at 1 HP and frozen. Now that I think about it… holy shit, guys. I’m so dumb. What I ended up doing was Fireball the Lord of the Arena (my own, by the way), Frostbolt the Yeti, Hero Power the Priest, and then attack for 2. My logic at the time was that if I could bluff him into worrying about a Pyroblast (10 damage), he might play more defensively while I continued digging a way out of the hole. It didn’t occur to me that being frozen by the Frostbolt might have prevented him from using his own Hero Power to heal… letting me ping him for 1 damage and the win next turn.

Even if that doesn’t work – I’m honestly not sure – the point is the same: I had him to within 1 damage with a Basic deck. A minor decision at the beginning of the match or an errant attack against a creature I didn’t have to might have made all the difference. So while some cards are horribly OP and possibly locked behind a rarity wall, just keep in mind that a better player might have been able to steer your same deck and same draws into a win.

So… strive to be that better player.

3) Your cards only ever improve

This likely won’t feel like a “solution,” but your card situation in Hearthstone only ever improves. But more importantly, keep in mind that if you are feeling particularly weak without a certain card, you can craft that card specifically. Each pack of cards can be disenchanted for 40 Dust, minimum (+5 for Common, +20 for Rare). That is enough for a 100% assured Common card of your choice, per pack. Three packs would equal a Rare of your choice plus 20 Dust leftover. Ten packs would give you any Epic of your choice. And if you were crazy enough to do so, 40 packs will guarantee any Legendary card of your choice.

Again, those are minimum numbers. If you (digitally) crack open a second Rare, or an Epic/Legendary/Gold version of any card, the Dust payout increases substantially. Plus, you know, you might actually open the card that you were looking for to begin with.

What I am basically trying to get across here is that Green Armadillo (and others) are correct: Hearthstone is a “F2P” CCG whose principal purpose is to extract the maximum amount of dollars from you in a completely typical F2P way. The important difference here, and reason I am likely to be playing Hearthstone for a long time to come, is that Blizzard isn’t being particularly nefarious about it. Try playing Magic Online or the upcoming Hex by investing zero dollars while still earning actual cards. Try playing any CCG and having a predictable and free (!) method of eventually acquiring any specific card you want. I mean, everyone pretty much agrees that the best way to play Card Hunter is to throw down $25 on their Basic Edition, and that’s also a F2P game. A similar “investment” early on could make your daily quests in Hearthstone that much easier.

Or save your money, like I’m doing. Losing streaks suck, but the Matchmaking software will fix it eventually if going Live doesn’t do so by virtue of deepening the pool of players. The minute you hit 150g, you can buy a ticket into a cloistered realm where, even if everyone doesn’t have the same quality cards, you are at least not shackled to playing around with just your Basic ones. Plus, 7 wins before 3 losses means you can get back in for free. And even if you go 0-3 like I have on a few occasions, the minimum you walk away with is something like this:

Just be aware of the ego-bruising that accompanies it.

Just be aware of the ego-bruising that accompanies it.

What’s that? A booster pack plus almost as much Dust as you’d get disenchanting a 2nd pack.

Card balance isn’t exactly where it needs to be – beta is beta – but the one thing least deserving of criticism is Hearthstone’s business model. While being in the Hearthstone Hole is discouraging, it is not and will never be as bad as the same phenomenon in traditional CCGs nor even your everyday F2P app with a payslope. I mean, Jesus, I’m not sure how other CCGs can compete with this.

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Posted on October 17, 2013, in Hearthstone and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Very nice article. After reading Green Armadillo’s post I was a bit worried, as I’ve been looking forward to the game. Your through walk-through of different solutions were very positive to read.

    I have high hopes for Heartstone, and hope it’ll be able to give some solid entertainment.

  2. dachengsgravatar

    I’d just like to make two points: You wrote
    “…like all CCGs, it is Pay-To-Win until all the cards are obtained…”

    I don’t think that point will ever come (or if it does come, it will be very temporary). It is always in Blizzard’s interested for there to be new cards for you to buy. Expect a constant stream of such new cards to be invented.

    And, following on from that:
    “Your cards only ever improve”
    While this is true in absolute terms, the most important thing is their relative improvement against the cards of other players. For non-paying players, I imagine that while their cards may be improving in absolute terms, they will continue to fall further behind the paying customers, whose advantage in this respect will only increase over time.

    • Actually, if WoW is an example, Blizzard is very careful (and much better than the competition) at making sure that the divide between old and new players does not grow with time. I don’t see why they would not translate that experience into Hearthstone. I mean: I don’t think that they are aiming at a “quick buck game” which will be forgotten in six months…..

      • Good point. Plus, all it would take to “fix” pretty much all future player issues would be to let people complete daily quests against the AI. Bad news for the queues, perhaps, but it could work.

    • It is true that one will likely never completely catch up with someone who pays. However, keep in mind that the pool of players is not going to be a closed system, especially given the F2P aspect. There will always be the upper-crust, but hopefully they’ll be in their own bubble while the rest of us are having fun in the slums.

  3. For the record, it’s perfectly possible to complete the Card Hunter campaign without spending a single pizza (and, in fact, using only Common equipment).

    Make a party of three Elf Wizards. Kite everything. Drown victory squares in lava.

    • Oh, I know. I went through the beta without paying anything; I don’t even think I got stuck anywhere, as I too found lava to be the great equalizer. That said, one’s early game would undoubtedly be smoother with the boost.

  4. I don’t dispute your core points – Hearthstone’s business model is less bad than all of the other TCG’s with worse business models (that I won’t play due to the business model), your card collection will improve over time on a scale that is unprecedented compared to any other TCG, and the smart call is probably to pay arena fees in cash unless you have the gold on hand to pay them in-game or win the cards to be more competitive in constructed. The big barrier right now is that my initial experience was for whatever reason so bad that I’m reluctant to risk the time or the money to try and get to a point where things might not be as bad.

    It’s possible that matchmaking literally does not exist at the moment and I got the experience that I had – we’re talking about nearly two hours to eke out three wins – because the people who care enough to be in the random pool on a weekend evening during beta are disproportionately going to be the players who care enough to have spent time and money. I assumed that I had landed in some sort of reverse ELO-Hell where I was only getting matched against unbeatable foes as a result of having a non-zero number of wins, but the sample size was not that high. Also, if there is really no consideration for card quality (either by design or because match-making is not working) I guess I should pick a class based on the cards I got in my one-time reward packs so I can put the best I have on the field.

    That said, as you note in closing, I am very glad that I kept my Hex pledge to the minimum $20. I think I’m still going to want to try that game and that I’m going to be happy to be starting from a non-zero collection at a significant “discount” compared to the retail price, but the financial incentives for that game are going to be even worse with their pricing strategy.

    • I am really, really regretting my $85 buy-in to Hex. I don’t think Hearthstone was even a thing at the time, but the whole “actually play for free in a CCG” is a sort of LFD moment where you start questioning why the entire genre doesn’t do it. What I am hoping beyond hope is that the PvE side of things is actually good enough that I don’t feel like my entire “investment” was wasted. I guess I’ll see how the Constructed side of PvP handles soon when they finally let me in an Alpha wave.

      I definitely respect your Hearthstone beginning experience though. Blizzard will need to do more to fix that feeling of being thrown to the sharks prior to or at launch if they ever hope to keep the F2P crowd engaged long enough to spend money. I seem to have avoided it, but I definitely am wary of, say, playing Arena games at odd hours of the night to avoid the hardcore competitors.

  5. I think one thing to bear in mind when considering business models is the difference between a TCG and a CCG.

    Hearthstone can afford to be generous with allowing people to “earn” cards because it is a CCG. There is (as far as I know – correct me if I’m wrong!) absolutely no trading of cards between players.

    As soon as you introduce trading into a F2P card game, you’ve created a colossal incentive to register bulk accounts, bot them, and trade cards. Effectively you’ve created a goldfarming industry within your game.

    Games like MtG:O and Hex won’t let you earn cards* because they were designed from the ground up to be _Trading_ Card Games. They want people trading cards, they want cards to be able to be sold on the secondary market, they want people to feel that their collections have real genuine value, just like a physical card collection. This design is really incompatible with allowing players to grind cards in-game.

    Don’t want to say one model is better than the other, but there’s a significant difference of philosophy that goes well beyond, say, the difference between a F2P and a sub MMO.

    * note – Hex will let you earn PvE cards. Really, the PvE portion of Hex sounds to be similar to F2P CCGs in nature, whilst the PvP portion sounds to be similar to real-money-only TCGs like Magic.

  6. Everybody has an exploitable weakness. In case of Priests, it’s 4/* minions.

    Immune to SW:P, immune to SW:D, usually big enough to survive a Holy Nova or Smite, yet small enough to let you deal with them if they get MC’d.

    • While that’s true, the problem is that “countering” the Priest requires you do so before the game even starts. Compare that with countering a Warlock, which is mainly baiting the Hellfire. Or a Shaman when you keep his creatures/totems under control. Or a Hunter by killing his combo pieces. And so on. In fact, the Priest and Mage are pretty much the only two classes which require heavy meta gaming before you even queue up.

  7. What is bugging me about Hearthstone thus far, is the fact that certain classes seem extraordinarily easy to play. Mage being the first and foremost in my mind. The last game i played, i must say, i did excellently, but every single time i placed down a card that i thought was going to give me an edge, he fireballed, froze, polymorphed, used Mirror Image twice early on so i could barely do anything….used about 15 taunt creatures, etc…

    I was playing a hunter beast deck, and he did not even have a flamestrike or a blizzard and he ended up beating me on 2 draws at the end of the game….it’s really irritating to lose to someone that plays poorly and still somehow manages to beat the crap out of you in the final moments.

    The only real advice people give you on the forums is to…build a high mana cost creature deck…Which is all fine and dandy, and in theory could work…but now you are altering your play based on dealing with one insurmountable opponent…at which point you will then be extremely vulnerable to other decks….

    I guess i am saying, either the decks are not very balanced, or the next time i play a mage on my hunter, and i am not in the arena (i agree with you, this is my favorite part of the game as well–by far), i might as well just concede and move onto the next game…

    I think that’s pathetic.

    I feel the same way about priests also, it’s very frustrating to play against.

    It’s just terrible when you feel like you are trying to “tread water” just to stay afloat, meanwhile they are amassing a huge number of high damage cards, and you just have to sit and take it. Very upsetting.

    I’m nowhere near an expert, but that game i thought i played exceptionally well given my draws, and his plays, and still came out on the short end of the stick…I would have won if he did not draw a fireball on his last card, but he did, and that’s why i am bitter.

    Sorry i am taking it out on you…better here then on battle.net forums where they will simply tell me to L2P.

    • No worries. I actually agree completely that Mage and Priest are overtuned and/or overpowered compared to the other classes. Hell, there have been multiple reports of people being able to rise into Master’s league (the highest) by using just the Basic Mage and Basic Priest decks. Don’t hear much about people doing the same with Basic Shaman, Basic Druid or any of the others.

      • Yeah, i just went 2/3 in arena (urrrrrgggggghhhhh), because i decided to pick a paladin for funsies. Unfortunately, i got matched up against 3 priests, and 2 mages. Somehow i beat two priests by drawing the game out, but for some reason mages just destroyed me. No flamestrike or anything, they just basically blitzed me down and i was pretty helpless.

        The gold gain is pretty frustrating, and since i have a job, and i do not want to spend endless hours grinding for gold just to (it’s happened before) possibly go 0/3 in an arena.

        I am not sure i think their business model is very good. If the meta game is supposed to get the player to spend money, and there is a very real possibility to get almost no reward for winning, what is the point of spending money? Seems pointless.

        I will lose interest in this game if it does not become more balanced, or if they do not introduce a 2v2 gameplay mode at least…not being able to team up with friends is crazy in this day and age.

        Sorry to yack your ear off…Have a nice day.

  8. “situation in Hearthstone only ever improves”

    Until the the first expansion is released, and what do you think is going to be the revenue driver for the game?

    At least with MtG:O, it was understood you were stepping into a P2W arena, where you could pay X to compete with Y. What level you wanted to compete at was up to you and your wallet.

    Here, I feel as though Blizzard is trying to hide the P2W aspect (especially in beta), but ultimately that’s what the model demands. Without new cards you don’t keep people interested, and for those new cards to be interesting, they have to be worthwhile (aka; stronger/better).

    I think the heavy class-based gameplay is also a balance nightmare as we are already seeing, and I expect it to get worse as the better players create more gimmick decks. Woe is the free player if the FOTM gimmick requires an epic or ten.