I wrote on Hearthstone a few months back, just when I was getting into it and I talked mostly about how I was intrigued by the random number generator that is at the core of many of its cards and mechanics. Since then I’ve been playing pretty regularly, and I’ve got some more thoughts on it as a relatively casual player who has spent no real-world money on the game.
First off, I think its great that Blizzard offers the option to pay for all of the content with in-game currency. It gives players a reason to save their gold, drives them to play more, research more, and generally become more embroiled in the intricacies of their game. My hesitation with this is the catch-22 that arises from this situation. If a player wants to get access to the cards that the meta consists of, they must complete quests, arena runs, and win rewards on the ladder. The quests are varied and seem to be well balanced enough, but they generally also involve winning games or making progress winning games. This all makes sense seeing as Hearthstone is a competitive CCG, but the issue for me arises from the fact that there are pretty much only two distinct ways to grow your card collection to a point where you can go toe-to-toe on the ladder confidently: spending time playing hard-fought games against ostensibly better equipped players, spreading your gold prudently between buying new packs, arena runs, and adventure wings, or by making a big investment with real-world money and purchasing a bunch of cards. This isn’t to say that losing to someone with better cards is in any way a surprise or a new sensation, this happens in pretty much every CCG without exception. What gets me is that even in the low-level of play that I exist in, I find myself spending my time playing more and more games where I feel like, even if I had played perfectly, I would have still not had a chance at grabbing that win star. Grinding your way up takes a crazy long time and a level of investment that most casual and moderate players may not have time for.
“The inability to purchase single cards without dismantling another part of your collection feels like it gives the player very little direct control over what sort of deck they want to build.”
That being said, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with spending money on Hearthstone. The game is free and available on multiple platforms, they’ve gotta turn a profit with it somehow and they do so by creating systems that lightly suggest the player drop a few dollars on the game. The other reason why spending money could be justified is that Hearthstone is partially about playing the game and partially about getting a cool digital collection of art, lore, and interesting mechanics. Opening a pack is a bit of an exhilarating game in itself and however pachinko-esque that game might feel, it’s the way CCGs have worked since they were created. However the inability to purchase single cards without dismantling another part of your collection feels like it gives the player very little direct control over what sort of deck they want to build. This feeds back into the loop of “spend money, or lose like crazy” (Or spend money and still lose like crazy) to progress. Hearthstone markets itself as fun, and it definitely is so. Possibly even insanely fun. However, taking the tried and true definition of insanity into account gives that phrase more accurate meaning. I personally find myself playing the same, Sisyphean duels over and over again. Grinding for an amount of gold, or arena run, or tavern brawl pack that will possibly break the cycle. But I think that the sad truth is that without committing a large amount of time and money and heartbreak to the game, and even with a pretty good grasp on how the mechanics and strategy of the game works, I won’t break through.
I’m not sure if this is an intentional move by Blizzard, but no matter the reasons, it can’t help but feel a little alienating. At least when I lose a game of Dota, I can go back and take a look at the strategic reasons why the plays my team made didn’t succeed and work on how to fix it. At least when I lose a game of Starcraft I feel like I was playing with all the pieces and can focus on how to better my own understanding of the game’s design rather than turn to frustration at feeling like I was fighting a losing battle from the start. I love a lot of things about Hearthstone, and I do intend to continue playing as a in-game currency scrub, but there’s so. much. frustration. that surrounds the game as a whole, even from people who have sunk real funds into their collection, that I get the distinct feeling there’s some sort of joke the players aren’t in on.
Maybe I should just start playing face hunter exclusively? Good gaming, ladies and gentlemen.