Thinking about Hearthstone

Hearthstone512I spent some time playing Blizzard’s Hearthstone over the weekend, and came away a little conflicted.

First things first: Hearthstone is a digital Free-to-Play collectible card game, in the vein of Magic the Gathering. Visually, it’s one of the most impressively polished video games I’ve ever seen, and the card game itself is very, very cleverly designed.

To me, one of the most interesting things about the game is its metagame — “the game around the game”. Hearthstone has two main game modes: play using your custom deck created from purchased cards (“Play”), and play using a deck constructed randomly (“Arena”).

In F2P game terms, “Play” is a money game. You buy “expert” card packs which give you better cards, you can put those cards in your deck, and all things being equal, you can get quite a sizable advantage in matches thanks to those better cards. “Arena”, on the other hand, is a skill game. Because you don’t get to use purchased cards, any overall match bias comes exclusively from how skillfully you play the game, and how well you guided the random construction of your deck.

I don’t play a lot of F2P games, but in my experience it’s unusual for a F2P game to be both a money game and a skill game — usually they’re solely one or the other. I like the idea of a game which is flexible enough to allow players to engage in whichever they prefer.

Of course, Hearthstone then shoots itself in the foot by requiring real money each time you want to play the skill game. Real money, or else an investment of gold earned through success within the “Play” mode, which is the money game. Oh well. I played Hearthstone until I hit the obvious paywall, and then stopped. (The paywall happens after about ten to twenty games, when you reach rank 20 in “Play” mode. From that point onward, you’re no longer matched against similarly-experienced players, but instead against long-term players with fully customised and expensive decks that a largely default deck is ill-equipped to cope with)

Kind of a pity. I’d probably have put down a non-trivial fixed amount of money for a full game which included access to all the cards. Say, in the way that NetRunner does. Because it really is an extremely clever card game with extremely lovely visuals, soiled by an absurdly transparent pay-to-win monetisation strategy. But $3 for a set of five random cards? Or for a chance to play the game where money isn’t supposed to matter? No thanks; not my thing.