Oh, my. I don’t think anyone saw this coming, but Blizzard is making a(nother?) Collectible Card Game.

Like I imagine many people in the non-apoplexy camp, I spent a large portion of my formative nerd years with Magic: the Gathering. My original shoebox of cards were from Ice Age, gifted from some obscure cousin of a family friend, but the first real entry into M:tG came with Tempest. Which then led into the Urza trilogy, with Urza’s Saga still remaining my favorite expansion of all time.

Not the most OP, but some of my favorite art/effects.

Not the most OP, but some of my favorite art/effects from Urza’s Saga.

My high school friends and I continued playing weekly up through, I believe, Ravnica. At that point, we were all scattered from life and interest waned. I dabbled with Magic: Online, still in the Ravnica era, and I was midway through busting out my credit card for another $17 tournament entry fee when I realized my objection to WoW and other MMOs with subscription fees was somewhat hypocritical.

I have little doubt that Hearthstone will be fun, at least for anyone who enjoys CCGs – it is difficult to screw up the innate simplicity and surprising depth to deck-building games. Any reservations I have is entirely based on the payment scheme.

Can we be frank for a second? Calling a Collectable Card Game “Free-to-Play” is such rank PR bullshit as to make even David Reid nauseous. Of course a CCG is free-to-play. You already bought the cards! Who is selling collectable cards and then charging a subscription for the privileged of keeping them? EA? This sort of nonsense is like calling Chess a F2P game. Maybe we are so mired in novel payment schemes that such a distinction (misleading as it is) is nevertheless necessary as signals to consumers.

And all of this obfuscates the underlying snare of all CCGs, Magic included: they are Pay-To-Win by design. I love M:tG, I really do. There are Pauper leagues (all common cards), Drafts, and some historical decks in which many of the key cards were no more than uncommon. But those things are only noteworthy insofar as they were the exceptions. If you look at standard tournament decks, they will cost between $250 to $650+ (!), stuffed as they are with Rare (or Mythic Rare, these days) cards. I used to read the WotC design articles, and at that time I almost swallowed their premise that these rares were justified in their rarity based on their complexities. “Commons are, well, common. You wouldn’t want the average player to crack open a pack of 12 complicated cards.”

Yeah, you’re right, we wouldn’t want that. It is just a huge coincidence that the more complex cards are the most objectively powerful and the most (artificially) rare, thereby forcing people to buy more booster packs in order to compete. I mean, we couldn’t possibly keep things proportional, like limiting rare cards to 1 specific card per deck instead of 4.

I mention all this because there is one indelible truth to CCGs: someone with more money to burn is going to ruin your day. Over and over and over again, until you can’t whip out your credit card fast enough. If you don’t think this is the first thing that will happen in Hearthstone, I don’t know what to tell you. Cynicism? Bitch, please. I am a Grade A recovering CCG addict and I know what’s coming for you and anyone else with less street-smarts to know that the first hit from the dealer is always free.

Posted on March 22, 2013, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. An interesting point over CCGs and pay to win. We played for years back in the early late 90s/2000s but just drifted away from it as the boxes of cards mounted and the newer edition rules became every more overpowered. But recently we’ve had a few games with a nephew who also has gotten into the game. His cards are so ridiculously OP, several of which are rares that he has bought for £20-30 a piece. He’s working but still living at home so he has the money to burn I guess. There was no chance for us to beat the combos he can pull with those rares though, just crazy stuff compared to our 5th or 6th edition era cards!


    • Indeed. The sad thing is that even Commons are stronger than some of the Uncommons/Rares of yesteryear, as the designers slowly evolved their design to fit the various experiments they tried over the years. This is especially evident with multi-color cards.


  2. Success or failure will hinge on how they handle matchmaking to deal with this problem, not on the probably high quality of the underlying game. Bonus issue – people trying to troll the newbie bracket via steamrolling.


    • Yeah, part of the reason I never stuck with Magic Online was because I would frequently get matched against people test-driving their tournament decks (despite there being a specific area for tournament decks). Alternatively, I would face some stranger only to have them leave the game by Turn 3 because I happened to use a card that is common in Tournament decks, and they thought I was a steam-roller when in actuality it was simply a useful card in every deck.

      Perhaps Blizzard could implement some sort of “point system” like exists in wargaming, and certain powerful rares will cause your decks to only be matched against similarly high-point decks. Then there would be a whole new metagame in trying to have the highest point deck that still falls below the threshold… but that could be more feature than bug.


  3. A few months back we began running MTG events in the bookshop where I work. Well, I say “we”, actually just two people do it and I’m not one of them. The amount of income it generates is quite impressive. It’s very instructive to see how the whole thing is managed commercially. I never really thought about it before but it’s very obvious what a pure money-making scheme the whole thing is when you see it from the retailer’s point of view, let alone from the producer’s.

    I’ve barely ever played MTG myself and never played any other collectible card game, When I was at a susceptible age the equivalent was probably Foldees. I wish I still had mine…


    • “Booster Drafts” are the most popular tournaments on Magic Online, and they involve eight people buying 3 booster packs apiece (~$4 each) plus $2 entry fee. While first and second place can almost break even or actually start to profit from winning, everyone generally feels like they came out ahead because the deck-building portion revolves around opening booster packs, choosing 1 card, then passing to the left. Those people who are trying to win might choose the stronger Common card, leaving the Rare to you; win or lose, everyone keeps the cards they pick.

      Of course, what ends up happening in reality is that four people lose the very first round, them having spent $14 for approximately 10-30 actual minutes of gameplay (not counting the deck-building time). The prizes are 8 packs for 1st, and 4 packs for 2nd. Eight people * $2 means 2nd place’s winnings is already covered just by the entry fee. “Giving away” 8 packs for 1st place sounds like a lot, but everyone has spent $96 on boosters just to get in, so as long as the profit margin on each (digital) booster is higher than 33%, WotC makes money on each and every tournament.

      So… yeah. The accountants behind Magic are geniuses, really.


      • What’s interesting about this is that stores don’t run Booster draft like this. The vast majority of them use Swiss system (where people play opponents of similar record). So in an 8 person draft, everyone plays 3 matches. In the third round, the two 2-0 people play each other, and the person who wins goes 3-0 and wins the draft.

        I do wonder why Magic Online didn’t use the same system, and instead opted for an elimination tournament. They’d still make the same amount of money, but you’d at least get to play 3 games.


  4. This game was built by a team of 15.
    It is multi-platform, features tried-and-tested gameplay (M:TG) and relies on gambling in order to pay-to-win.
    Throw in some perks for other battlenet games (WoW pets, SC2 avatars) and you have a license to print money.

    Personally my enjoyment will hinge on whether I can still have fun without buying lots of decks. This is meant to be a ‘casual’ game after all.

    I expect the answer will be ‘No’.


  5. I agree with one of your central premise, you can pay your way into competitive. Interestingly, it’s one of the reasons I switched from WoW to MtG. I currently find myself with more money than time. I can spend a Friday tossing around and comboing the same cards as the pros without the hours of grinding dailies, chaining dungeons, and raiding it takes to get the top gear in WoW.

    MtG has the added benefit that my epic cards will remain epic. I can take that Deathrite Shaman slip into a modern deck and use it for a long time. Try that with your Massive Skeletal Ribcage.


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