Is Hearthstone Really Pay-to-Win?


By: Jason Siu


5 min read

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Blizzard’s Hearthstone is still in closed beta and already it’s at the center of controversy on whether or not the game is pay-to-win. So is it? Full Cleared takes a deeper look into Hearthstone and after several weeks of playing the game, competing in the arena, and building decks, here’s our opinion on the delicate subject.

To start off, Hearthstone is going to introduce a lot of gamers to an entirely new genre that many may have either never knew existed or had no interest in before. World of Warcraft successfully did that for even non-gamers, introducing the world to an MMORPG that was easy to get into and addicting all at the same time. Personally I’ve met dozens of people that had zero interest in gaming prior to being introduced to World of Warcraft and some of them carry multiple accounts and raid weekly now. That’s what Blizzard Entertainment has built its success from, is appealing to people and not just gamers.

So with that in mind, there are going to be many Hearthstone players, myself included, that never seriously dabbled in the word of collectible card games (CCGs). Perhaps they won’t understand that in essence, the genre itself is pay-to-win. Naturally, the more money you spend on packs of cards, the more likelihood you’ll be able to build the deck you want. As a result, there’s a higher chance you will be successful when competing against other players or playing at tournaments. At the same time, those that have extensive experience playing CCGs also know that there is no “unbeatable” deck – and that’s the appeal of CCGs.

At its core, Hearthstone is a virtual CCG. Players accrue cards, build decks, and compete against one another. Does that mean you can’t have fun without spending a single penny? Absolutely not. Hearthstone is an extremely fun and addicting game regardless of whether or not you purchase a pack with real money. But what Blizzard is doing, and has been doing throughout the beta process, is allowing players to experience what it’s like to purchase a pack without having to spend real money.

Currently there are daily quest rewards of in-game gold that can go towards either purchasing a pack or competing in the arena. The per-pack cost is 100 gold while entry into the arena is 150 gold, or $1.99. Even if you don’t manage to win a single game in the arena, you’ll be awarded with a pack and other consolation prices of a few gold and dust. In our opinion, we believe that the system is fair as it stands now. However, we feel that if Hearthstone always rewards you with enough gold to compete in the arena at least once per day without having to take out your wallet, then it’s a successful free-to-play game. It’s also worth mentioning that for every five wins you obtain playing against another human opponent you are rewarded with five gold.

Daily quests can reward you with in-game gold for you to purchase packs or compete in the arena.

Players want to be rewarded when they play games. Not just with wins and bragging rights, but with shiny items and in Hearthstone’s case, that means cards. But all this talk about in-game rewards and daily quests doesn’t really address whether or not Hearthstone is pay-to-win.

To us, it’s not. Why? Because no matter how amazing of a deck you have chock full of legendaries, you aren’t guaranteed to ever win a game of Hearthstone. The randomization of what’s in your hand, who you’re playing against, and how their deck is built makes us believe that Hearthstone isn’t a pay-to-win game. In our definition, a pay-to-win game almost guarantees you success the more money you spend. Hearthstone isn’t like that just on the sole principle of random card draws.

Say you’ve got that amazing legendary that other people are calling “game changers” in Hearthstone. You’re playing against an opponent and you giddily and anxiously await to play that card. You finally have the turn setup, drop down your menacing Tirion Fordring and smile thinking you’ve got this in the bag. The very next turn, the opponent counters it with a Polymorph or a Hex – both cards that are ultimately available to you without having to spend a dime. There’s just so many “easily obtainable” cards in Hearthstone that negates every “amazing” card that to us, the more money you spend, doesn’t guarantee you’ll win more games.

Competing in the arena costs $1.99 or 150 gold, but you’re guaranteed a pack even if you don’t win a single game.

But that’s not to say spending money doesn’t benefit you. It obviously is a huge short cut from having to grind in-game gold in order to purchase packs. But isn’t that what ever free-to-play game is? Essentially paying money saves you time, and Hearthstone does that well. What makes Hearthstone really shine however is that you can always have fun regardless of whether or not you plan on paying real money. Unlike other free-to-play games, there aren’t any grind mechanics built into Hearthstone in order to be rewarded. You play the game, you get rewarded. Simple as that.

All of this makes natural sense to seasoned players of the CCG genre, but Hearthstone is going to be bringing in a huge demographic of gamers that have never picked up a CCG in their entire lives. Paying essentially allows you the versatility to build the deck you want quicker, or open up new strategies to your play sooner. If Hearthstone had cards that you could only obtain through paying, then the game would be considered pay-to-win in our eyes. And no, the card that beta players obtain from spending money to test the store (Gelbin Mekkatorque) is not a pay-to-win card.

At the end of the day, strategic playing and setting up your deck for your playstyle goes a long way compared to just dropping as much money as you can onto packs. We wouldn’t be surprised to see top players having never spent money on Hearthstone and having a blast along the way. Will things change in the future? Possibly. But so far, Blizzard is on the right track with Hearthstone in balancing between free-to-play and pay-to-win.

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With over 20 years of online publishing experience, Jason Siu is currently the Content Director at VerticalScope and used to spend most of his time writing about cars. His work can be seen on websites such as AutoGuide, EV Pulse, FlatSixes, Tire Authority, and more. As the former co-founder of and West Coast Editor of Modified Magazine, he has also authored two books for CarTech Books. In his spare time, he founded FullCleared to indulge in his passion for writing about games. Although Jason is a variety gamer, he generally prefers RPGs.

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