Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hearthstone Constructed Match-Making: Profiting From the Stomping of Newbies

Blizzard's Hearthstone is a well polished game that I would have enjoyed greatly if not for its trading card game (TCG) business model.  After a few hours in the beta, I am finding my newbie basic decks consistently demolished in un-ranked one-on-one play by decks stacked with epic and legendary cards.  Based on where Blizzard does - and does not - get paid for their work, I am not optimistic that things can or will change going forward.

I would rather be paying....
Hearthstone is free to download.  Playing against "basic" and "advanced" NPC AI decks is completely free, and allows you to unlock all nine heroes with 20 "basic" cards each.  Once you are satisfied that you know how the game works, entering the game's one-on-one constructed PVP lobby is completely free.  And here is where my experience went south very very quickly.

My experience makes me suspect that the "unranked" play mode operates on a hidden ranking system.  I faced roughly equal opposition for my first ten or so games, but as I had half a dozen wins under my belt I found that the games were increasingly lopsided against me.  I have slowly clawed to about a dozen wins, and I'm increasingly getting stomped into the curb five or more times in a row before barely winning the occasional match.  

In a one-on-one card game, one of the players is going to lose each and every game.  A perfect match-making system would aspires to pair opponents who have a roughly even chance against each other - which would mean that streaks of wins and losses are going to happen.  For that reason, the way in which you lose the game matters.  Losing because you made a poor choice or because the odds weren't with you or because your opponent built a deck that you could not answer can still be fun.  Losing because the other person has more and better cards than you do - the entire basis of the TCG business model - is not especially fun. 

Right now I am spending an hour at a time losing five or more games in a row because the match-making system is pairing my out of the box basic decks against players with cards that are objectively better than the cards I have.  I have had my entire health pool go from full to zero in a single turn as an opponent somehow strung together a combo in which they played a dozen cards due to draw and cost reduction mechanics.  And, to be clear, because this is a free to play game that I have not bought into, this abuse is the price that I am to pay in exchange for being able to play the game. 

Blizzard wants me to get stomped so I will want to buy more cards.  Failing that, they categorically don't want me to be able to click an option for "other people with basic - read unpaid - decks only" because that not only denies the people who have spent money the opportunity to stomp me, but it also means higher queue times for those players who are actually supporting the product. 

I would gladly pay a one-time fee for this product.  I would consider paying a subscription for this product.  I have zero willingness to pay into a system where I spend money and get a random assortment of cards that probably aren't the cards I wanted.  And as to the free option - on paper you can "win" booster packs every few days - the experience is not worth my time.

Two alternatives worth noting, that will probably be the only way I spend more time on this product:

1. You can supposedly challenge specific friends if you have their Battletags.  This would mean that you could come to an out-of-game handshake agreement to use the basic decks, and, ironically, not pay a dime for the product as a result.
2. The game's other format is the Arena.  Normal TCG's offer "sealed" formats in which you buy new packs of cards for a specific tournament (thus ensuring that the game maker gets paid) and then pay an additional entry fee, in exchange for a comparatively level (random card draws aside) playing field.  This is potentially fun but guaranteed to be costly - the sealed cards you bought are yours to keep, but you're probably never going to assemble a competitive constructed deck with these small random draws. 

The Hearthstone twist is that you do NOT get to keep the cards in your Arena deck, but that the format only costs $2 per draft because the entry fee is all you are paying.  As Azuriel notes, this does mean that a losing streak costs you real money per loss, but at these prices you're going to have to draft, play, and lose very quickly to be racking up more than $1-3 per hour in entry fees.  That's potentially high compared to MMO's (or potentially not if you subscribe to a game where you don't spend 15+ hours per month) but very very low compared to any other TCG on the market. 


  1. You didn't mention that you can, in a limited way, grind yourself some cards. Completing various achievements earns you in game currency that you can spend on 'booster packs' (100g) for five cards and arena drafts ( again 100g for a draft ). Out of the gate you end up earning several hundred gold and there are daily achievements to help you earn more. It's a fine balance, I mean they want you to spend money, but I'm like you I'd rather plunk down 10 or so dollars for a complete set of class cards.

    In the real world I certainly prefer games of the 'LCG' variety (championed by fantasy flight games) where you get all the cards (mostly) by simply buying the box. Over their CCG golddigging brethren.

  2. You're guaranteed at least 1 pack if you play Arena.

    So worst case it's $2 for 1 pack, which is less efficient than buying packs directly, but you get to make a deck and play against other decks of similar quality.

    It's also a nice way to try out new champions and new cards. Arena is my preferred style of play. I don't really play a lot, though. Just one or two games a night or less.

  3. Arena is the best way to play. Each player drafts a deck based on cards offered. As you gain levels and achievements in Arena, and win, you gain more cards and packs for your non-Arena deck. The cost of Arena gives you more back than just buying a pack of cards. If you get 9 Arena wins before you get 3 losses, you Win and get even better rewards. Often with Arena you can win enough gold to go right back into Arena and win another pack and more cards.

    Blizzard has also stated that the match-making system is not properly in place. It only gives you Worthy Opponent right now. It's in Beta, not finished.

    If you want that one time fee, pay $50, get at least 40 rares and probably a few epic and legendaries, and you'll be winning a lot more. There's your one-time fee

  4. I'm not sure why this surprises anyone. Back when the game was announced this was the only logical monetization strategy. Whatever we may want to think gaming is still a business and they will only continue if it's turning a profit.

    I was a fairly serious Magic player, back when The Dark and Fallen Empires were new, and I'm treating this game like a less expensive version of the old tournament scene. Grind out the Arena entry fee in constructed games, go into the Arena, and try to pull together a deck that earns me a decent reward. The better I do in Arena, the better chance I have in constructed. It's not fast but I'm not trying to "win" the game and retire.

    If I get tired of that I'll just drop $60 - equivalent to a new box game - and stock some cards into my deck. But it will never end. They will add new heroes and new sets that you will either have to buy or win, and both cases will depend on random luck.

  5. If you are not buying cards, you are not the customer. You are the content.

    Blizzard lets you play for free so that paying customers get to have fun stomping on you. Without your participation, those customers (despite paying for 'epic' cards) would find themselves losing games more often (since they'd be playing against players who had also paid for 'epic' cards). they might start to wonder if they're having enough fun to warrrant paying for more cards. that's where you come in, as a non-paying player. You are allowed to play for free so that even poor players who are paying customers get to win enough games to make them feel they got their money's worth. In a pay-to-win game such as this, the price of not paying is not winning.

    I also play a pay-to-win game that I don't pay for (World of Tanks), so I'm not knocking pay-to-win: but I know that
    a) I am allowed to play for free so that players who can afford to buy gold shells have fun blowing me up.
    b) the game wouldn't exist if
    somebody wasn't paying for it.

    Blizzard doesn't directly want you stomped so you will buy more cards. That is a bye-product of their real desire: Blizzard wants you stomped so that their paying customers have a good experience.

  6. @Dàchéng: We're on the same page here. My point is not to knock pay to win but rather that, unlike your experience with WoT, I don't consider the non-paying Hearthstone experience to be worth my time.

    RE: Grinding out the fees, for me personally it is NOT worth suffering through painful losses for the virtual currency equivalent of less than $1/hour. The place where I see a potential niche would be paying for the arena entry fee in cash and using the winnings as a rebate towards future entry fees. I could imagine playing Arena primarily on the weekends for roughly the cost of a normal MMO subscription and eventually having enough cards to make a deck that isn't terrible.

  7. Agree. I like Hearthstone but I'd enjoy it more if they charged £20 or something and gave you the full set of cards to play with.

  8. Just to add my own personal anecdote. I have spent a grand total of $1.99 on the game for a single arena entry to get the Beta Legendary (although I use him in no decks)

    All packs and gold have been gotten simply from playing doing the daily quests and a few arenas.

    My main deck is a paladin deck that has all common cards (a couple were crafted from dust from arena/disenchants) and I think one rare (the give adjacent +1/+1 taunt Defender of Argus?)
    I got him from a lucky 9-2 arena run.

    I have a fairly decent win rate 60%ish and have made it up to 2 star masters, both pre-wipe and post.

    I will definitely say you can play this game for free if you want. I get stomped occasionally by some crazy combo decks but can mostly hold my own.

    *No previous TCG/CCG experiance watched a bit of Trump/Kripp streamers to understand some ccg basic.


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