Hearthstone P2W?

Gevlon had a post up last Friday about Hearthstone that claimed the following:

My problem isn’t that you must pay to be anything but a punching bag. I’ve played 5 years of World of Warcraft, paying 720 euros in the process. My EVE accounts are over 1000 Euros, luckily they’ve been paid by bad EVE players. It’s obvious that you have to pay to use a product and can only get a sample for free. However – unlike in subscription games – there is no fixed cost. If I pay the subscription, I can play EVE or WoW fully. If I pay even $1000 on Heartstone, there is absolutely no guarantee that I’ll be competitive against someone who paid $2000. Even worse, there is no guarantee that my wins are mine, and I’m not just stomping on better players with smaller wallets.

So no thanks, I keep away from Heartstone and the rest of the pay-to-win games.

It is worth noting at the start here that the math is off: on average, you’ll have every Hearthstone card after opening 512 packs, or spending roughly $640. Or it could be as few as 215 packs, for $213. Or you could end up like me, who has just about every card I could conceivably want (not a full set) after having spent 3+ months and $50.

Gevlon countered that there will be more expansions and thus cards later on, but I don’t find that particularly relevant because a dude named Reynard took a 5-day old account and navigated a completely F2P warrior deck to the Legendary Rank, all on Twitch. This wasn’t a guy who spammed Arena games 20 hours a day for every card in the game – this is a guy put us all to shame with his brass balls, mad skillz, and a deck with six Rares (no Epics, no Legendaries). Granted, he is about a pro-CCG player as a person can get. “Results not typical” and all that. But how much money or cards it takes “to be competitive” is not quite as descriptive or damning a statement as it sounds. Is it possible to prop one’s lack of skill with more powerful cards? Sure, probably. Where exactly are those goalposts though?

The larger question of whether Hearthstone is P2W obviously depends on your definition of the term. Is having more/better cards an advantage you can purchase your way into? Yes. However, you can also earn your way to those same rewards using in-game currency. In fact, the whole Dust and Crafting mechanic is something about Hearthstone that has significantly moved my original opinion of its apparent P2W tendencies.

See, I do consider card games like Magic to be P2W for a few specific reasons. First, the power level of the cards heavily and unapologetically skews towards the higher rarities. While there are some very nice Legendaries in Hearthstone, the vast majority of even the top tier decks consist of Basic class cards and Commons/Rares. Second, and more importantly, you have zero control over acquiring any specific card in games like Magic. Yes, you can absolutely buy cards off of other players, but that’s exactly where the P2W part comes in. Or, actually, it comes in at the very beginning, wherein you have zero cards in your collection and have to purchase some to play at all.

Crafting in Hearthstone, along with your ability to complete daily quests and purchase packs with in-game currency, shifts the focus away from paying for advantage to paying for time. Given time, you will have all the cards you could ever want, with zero dollars spent. Is paying for XP boosts in other games considered P2W? Not likely.

But if accelerating the grinding process constitutes a win one pays for, that by definition should encompass most all MMOs, WoW and EVE included. Gevlon thinks dropping $1,000 on PLEX and walking away with a 100m Skill Point pilot inside a Titan as a Day 1 player “doesn’t count” because those were player-made, and thus there was no net increase in power in the EVE universe. But isn’t all power relative anyway? That new player in a Titan is at a significant advantage over all his/her Day 1 peers, not to mention anyone not flying around in a Titan-hunting band.

Besides, what actual difference is there between purchasing currency directly from CCP, and simply siphoning the currency generated from thin air by 1,000 players completing 1,000 missions? Or even completed ships built from ores from the ether? Rate of in-game inflation? If one is P2W, surely the other is as well.

In any case, my opinion right now is that Hearthstone is not P2W, even though it otherwise has most of the trappings of decidedly P2W CCGs. Your early games with the default card selection will suck. There are a number of strictly-better cards at the same mana cost, and they’re usually more rare. A Legendary card dropping at the other end of the table is liable to ruin your day.

That being said… it’s been proven that one can be competitive with a six-Rare deck. You will end up with all of the cards in the game if you keep playing (for free!) long enough. Hell, it’s not even one of those “you can technically get everything but it takes 10,000 hours” F2P payslopes. Other CCGs have allowed players to buy packs using in-game currency, but Blizzard’s willingness to allow Hearthstone players to craft the exact card they want should close the P2W debate once and for all.

At least, for now. We’ll see what the future brings with expansions.

Posted on February 3, 2014, in Hearthstone and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Well, card games are pretty much P2W by definition.
    And the fact that a world-class champion can steamroll a lot of people by using a cheap deck does not make the game any less P2W. There was recently a very good definition of P2W in one of Tobold’s comments: keeping all other variables fixed, does money provide an advantage? If yes, it’s P2W, if not…. it’s not.


    • The problem with that definition is that any MMO that has some resource limited by a timer makes having multiple accounts an advantage – WoW is P2W due to RAF bonuses, multiple raid lockouts, playing both sides of the AH, etc. And of course there’s EVE in which a 2nd scout account is practically the default, on to of unlimited purchasing of ISK for money. Yet who admits either game is P2W?


      • Not just MMOs, but almost any activity. Any sport with any sort of equipment is “pay to win” under that definition. Do people really think golf is “pay to win” because you can buy nicer clubs with better performance?

        As for the article, the one thing that Gevlon forgets is that a subscription does not get you full access to the game; you have to buy expansions as well. Plus, if you want to keep playing the game, you need to keep paying in a subscription-based game. I play DDO free-to-play, and yeah, I could pour infinite amount of money into it. I’m able to control my spending the way I want, and even if I decide not to pay I still have access to everything I’ve paid for as long as the game runs without spending more money. Personally, I prefer that measure of control over how much I want to spend rather than being forced to keep paying a subscription if I ever want to see my characters ever again.


      • Ha! That golf analogy is awesome.

        I mean, once you start drilling down past the crust, “money provides an advantage = P2W” starts really showing itself for the specious argument that it is. Not only do you have higher-performance golf clubs to think about (running shoes for marathons, swimsuits for swim meets, etc), but where would you put in personal trainers under that rubric? Would they not count, since technically everyone can “train” by themselves?

        Honestly though, there is a ridiculous Nth degree that hasn’t been addressed either, despite the debate revolving around MMOs: Social 2 Win. If I’m in a Top10 guild, I’m winning almost by definition. How I got there is almost immaterial, despite the fact that A) I could have bought my way in, and/or B) there is precious little separating social capital from actual capital such that no one would really ever be able to tell a difference. That can be a bit cynical, but helping a friend move their furniture can be said to be worth $X; if said friend then puts me in on the world-first kill of whatever, how could that not be considered “paying” for that slot, i.e. paying for advantage, i.e. P2W?


      • Uh? I’m not sure you read what I wrote.
        Consider two players: same time invested, same skill. In what way paying for a second account in WoW provides an advantage? You will not advance in raiding by having an alt account, you will not increase your arena rating with an alt account. At most, you get better AH access. I also have trouble considering RAF to be P2W, leveling a character is already completely trivial and takes an irrelevant amount of time compared to all other activities.
        The only P2W side would be battle pet collecting, since there are pets that you can only obtain by paying.

        As for sports: it’s sure that money provides an advantage through better equipment/doping/etc. Why do you think champions always use top-level equipment and why do you think that games have very strict rules (which keep being updated) to prevent it from being a pure money-eqsque escalation?


      • In what way paying for a second account in WoW provides an advantage?

        You are correct in that many of the prior advantages have been diluted/removed over time. I remember doing the RAF back in… Wrath I believe, back when it took significantly longer to level. You also had to form a raid group to farm the old raids, and it was much easier to do so with a 2nd account rather than bothering guildmates to log onto alts. Pet-wise though, multiple accounts will allow you to camp twice the rare spawns. And don’t discount the cross-faction arbitrage opportunities, especially considering how many times Blizzard has had current-tier raid recipes with BoE components. If you are making 30k+ more than the next guy, you can afford the better gear faster.

        Besides, let’s not forget the value of basic services like server transfers. Dropping $25 to abandon Auchindoun-US would have put me lightyears ahead of anyone of equal skill still stuck on that no-pop server, in every regard (AH, raiding, PvP, etc).

        As for sports, I doubt you would get many people to agree with us IRL that football/soccer are P2W games. Even if equipment is standardized and everyone has the same trainer opportunities, at the end of the day these teams pay the players to play on the team. Which by definition is P2W. Which, IMO, sort of renders that definition of P2W effectively irrelevant.


      • As for sports, I doubt you would get many people to agree with us IRL that football/soccer are P2W games.

        Quite the contrary. At least in Italy, it’s pretty much recognized that “team with more money = team with better players = team at the top of the list”. And in reality nobody really cares, because it’s not YOU playing the game, you only get to watch them and a good match is a good match regardless of who wins. Formula 1 has/had the same problem and ended up adding a ton of rules to make sure that GPs are actually a fight and not 1hr spent watching 2 cars running 1-2 mins ahead of everyone else (ok, in reality this was not to make the race not P2W, it was made to make sure to have an audience….).

        The problem with sports is a lot less severe than MMOs because:
        – you tend to play with people at the same level as you are, as a result you both have access to roughly the same quality of equipment, in RL if the skill/equipment discrepancy is too high, the match just does not happen.
        – sports have rules which minimize the P2W aspect: you cannot bring your personal supercomputer to a chess tournament, and you cannot wear a rocket engine on your back while running marathons. All the anti-doping effort is a big war on P2W.
        The behaviour of MMOs and card games depends a lot on the game, there are card games which are totally not P2W (think Dominion), while some are (when you get a higher rarity card which is identical to a lower-rarity one but with better stats, that’s a clear message).


  2. To a degree we can pretty much boil down any competition into components to show that it was pay2win; the only thing that really separates it is how much any purchasable factor is likely to affect your chances of winning. Awesome golf clubs might only be a 5% increase, whereas certain rares in a CCG might increase your changes by 25-50%. Most people would probably balk at the idea that the clubs made all the difference (though it can be significant enough that things get banned, like the special swimsuits at the last summer Olympics). So when we talk about people in games paying to win I think we’re really just observing that the person purchased a significant increase in his/her likelihood of winning. How significant the improvement is seems to be the part though I cannot articulate where that is; 25% or greater definitely feels like you “paid to win” while a 1% increase is negligible.


    • I don’t know, I think that once you get to the point defining percentages – 5% is okay, but what about 10%? – the argument sort of collapses in on itself. A 5% difference on a 280 yard golf drive is 14 yards; such a distance is easily the difference between getting on the green in one shot versus two. If we back up and say that skill still makes the difference between a 266 yard drive that gets to the green and a 280 yard drive that goes into the lake, I agree… just like how a pro-CCG player can still hit Legendary with six rares.

      As far as getting cards in a CCG that largely affects your win-rate (25%+), sure. But doesn’t that line of reasoning implicitly depend on the person’s original skill-level? A new player and a pro-player with the same deck are going to perform differently, even if they get the same uber-card.

      In any case, all things considered, I believe the P2W argument in Hearthstone is weak for the simple fact that you CAN get the cards in a perfectly reasonable manner through gameplay and (more importantly) crafting. If HS required just relying on RNG packs, that would be one thing; the crafting bit makes it an entirely different scenario.


      • Oh I don’t think HS is pay-to-win, at least no more than any of the other CCGs. I’m just taking a 50,000 foot view of what the idea of paying to win means. In brief, the line is blurry between where you are simply paying for a “boost” and paying to outright win. I see it as a spectrum with things like a “2%” boost on the end (I use percentages only vaguely, but to use your golf analogy, the extra few yards might make the difference for someone who is less skilled, but might not be as important for someone more skilled). Whereas the far end of the spectrum is a 100% chance of winning, akin to me getting an item that just automatically kills my target.


    • I agree with Cl0ckwork and mostly disagree with the rest of you. This idea that nothing is P2W just because money increases your chances of success at *everything* is also a specious argument. There *is* such a thing as having money tip the scales so much in your favor that it is the defining factor in your success. I’m not sure Hearthstone fits that criteria.

      In a world where cash is king, everything is pay to win. I don’t know if that spoils your dinners, but that’s literally how the world turns. The more money you have, whether for golf or for Hearthstone, the more you increase your chances of winning. Arguing that

      Now I’m not of the mind that Hearthstone is P2W, if only because it’s unclear how great the advantage is of buying more decks. Time will show us the answer to that one.


      • Actually, I’m pretty sure the Earth had rotation before the invention of currency. Literally! ;)

        Yes, there are times when money has an affect on the balance of a competition. In a theoretical match-up where two people of precisely equal skill meet up, one person could gain an advantage from paying more money and, in Hearthstone, having a better selection of cards. The reality is, however, that this theoretical matchup rarely happens. And, in a card game like Hearthstone where luck of the draw plays a part, that is likely a larger influence than how much money someone paid.

        And people talk in extremes. Look at the quote from Gevlon above: he states that, “there is no guarantee that… I’m not just stomping on better players with smaller wallets.” Not that he’ll have an advantage, but that paying money is an instant way to “stomp on” better players. The accusation is that it’s “pay-to-win” not “pay-for-some-advantage”.

        And, that’s the issue. We accept that advantage for money happens in other areas, even something as “pure” as sports. Why are the expectations for Hearthstone so much different than golf? My opinion is because skill at a card game is harder to identify by observation. We can tell that someone like Tiger Woods would do well in golf even if saddled with worse equipment. But that guy who just trounced my ass in Hearthstone? Obviously he can’t be better than I am, so therefore he’s an clueless asshole who just paid to win by buying a lot more cards than I did. *cough* And Gevlon’s ego wants to believe that he’d, of course, always be on the winning side of that equation. ;)


      • Well you bemoan extremes even as you jump to one “the earth had rotation …” My point stands: money makes a difference, and the extreme argument which states otherwise commits the same error it attempts to discredit :)

        Like I said, the question is to what extent but I’m not of the mind that Hearthstone is P2W.


  3. I run a rank 6 shaman control deck with plenty of rares but nothing of higher quality. The pay to win aspect is definitely there, but I don’t feel it nearly as much as the RNG.

    In some ways the RNG is better than MtG because the mana system in hearthstone means you don’t have to worry about getting mana flooded or mana screwed. But at the same time cards like Lightning Storm, Deadly Shot or even Ragnaros make the RNG much worse. There are plenty of games that I’ve lost games because Lightning Storm hit a creature for 2 instead of 3 and plenty of times I’ve won games because the enemy Rag went totem stomping for three turns giving me the time to set up a response.

    Furthermore it’s hard to make your deck do what you want it to do because of the lack of reliable card draw. When I face legendary decks I lose because they draw Cairne, Sylvanas,Ragnaros and Ysera faster than I can draw my hexes and lava bursts. But in those cases I would be in similar amounts of trouble if they were dropping vanilla Boulderfist Ogres and War Golems. Mana Totem isn’t that great because it needs so much protection and usually only snowballs the games you were gonna win anyway. Having a Sphinx’s Revelation (aka Lay on Hands) would be perfect, but that’s restricted to Paladins.


%d bloggers like this: