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Esports Hearthstone

Hearthstone’s Cost Problem

Journey to Un’goro may be the most balanced, diverse and flavourful Hearthstone expansions ever released. It’s lead to well-spread, interesting meta, every class has its counters, and no Tier 1 deck ruins everyone’s day. However, the launch of Un’goro was marked by unprecedented frustration over cost.

Across the Hearthstone Subreddit and official forums, users complained about disappointing packs and underwhelming options with their new opened cards. The decks they wanted to theorycraft seemed to be hidden behind huge dust or cash investments. Conspiracy theories spread about Blizzard cooking the books to reduce the number of usable legendaries or increase duplicates. While these were quickly rebuked (and corroborated by community data), the fact that the openings felt so disappointing should speak volumes.

And while the issues with launch pack opening disappointments trailed off (largely as most Quests turned out to be less than competitive), core concerns and frustrations about the overall cost of Hearthstone remains. Here are the key reasons Hearthstone’s felt a lot more expensive lately.

Hunter Or Nothing

There are almost no decent budget decks like old Zoo

It’s definitely possible to succeed with budget lists. Popular streamer and meme master Disguised Toast recently managed to achieve Legend rank on a free-to-play account started soon after the launch of Un’goro, without the usual Arena grinding that hallmarked other free-to-play efforts. However, his efforts represent the experience of many new players; he was railroaded towards Hunter. Midrange Hunter represents the only option for semi-competitive decks that doesn’t require Epics or Legendaries. This is fine for those who enjoy the Aggressive Midrange playstyle; but for those who are enthralled by the other archetypes, it’s hardly a good advertisement for the game to have this as the only low-cost option.

Worse, with its reliance on class cards and without any other Hunter archetype available, the easiest avenue into semi-competitive play also represents a dead end, with no other decks to springboard onto.

The Progression Gap

If we chart the trajectory of a player as they explore a new deck, class, or the game as a whole, we can see it in terms of three phases. First, the initial learning and discovering phase where they try out with their initial cards as best they can. Then, the collection and refinement of cards and skills, with incrementally improving decks. Finally, the adoption of highly refined decks and strategies, with later exploration into other less familiar archetypes as the cycle begins anew. While the first and particularly the last phases of the game remain as strong as ever in Un’goro, with interesting mechanics, synergies and balanced high-level play rewarding player’s skill and ingenuity with fun and success, the second phase is looking shaky.

Simply put, there’s little viability in “budget” versions of existing decks. Every single non-hunter competitive deck not only contains multiple expensive Epics and Legendaries, they demand them. While you can try Murloc Paladin without Vilefin Inquisitor, Tirion, Sunkeeper Tarim, Murloc Warleader, Gentle Megasaur, or Finja, you won’t see much reward for your perseverance. Quest decks are self-explanatory in their cost. Priests simply have to include two Shadow Visions and likely Lyra, even outside of Dragon’s Potions, Silence’s Shamblers and Karazhan Purifys. Even historically cheap aggressive decks like Pirate Warrior and Aggro Druid are questionable at best without cards like Patches, Southsea Captain or Living Mana. Perhaps the closest to a non-Hunter budget deck to build on, Secret Mage, rests heavily on the Epic Primordial Glyph, Karazhan’s Babbling Book and Medivh’s Valet.

Compared to old metas, which largely had numerous cheap decks or decks that could be remade in a far more budget-friendly fashion by curving lower with cheaper, smaller minions, we are seeing a situation where playing a new deck without losing a huge amount of competitive viability is simply too expensive in terms of dust for many players.

No All-powerful Neutrals

Dr. Boom was expensive, but he could go into almost every deck

Say what you like about Doctor Boom, he was an equal opportunity giggling goblin. Equally at home in an Aggro Paladin as a Control Warrior, he was a staple not only for his power but also for his versatility across uncounted numbers of decks. Similarly for pre-nerf Knife Juggler, Piloted Shredder, Ragnaros, BGH, Sylvanas and Azure Drake; the defining feature of pre-Standard Hearthstone was arguably a huge number of immensely powerful Neutrals. While these auto-includes hurt the game in many respects by reducing diversity and making for a more homogeneous experience, they did nonetheless make one’s collection far more versatile. Often, when trying a new deck, you could rely on having a decent core already in your collection simply by having a few key neutrals.

Un’goro’s coinciding with many of these cards rotating (building on the impact caused by the previous set of Standard rotations, Hall of Fame inclusions and nerfs) added fuel to the cost issues. No longer would it be possible to build the skeletons of multiple decks out of a limited pool of high-powered neutrals. Instead, decks would now have fewer and fewer cards in common; leading to a diverse and interesting meta, but higher barriers of entry for players looking to branch out.

Harsh Transitions

With every expansion, Team 5 is given the difficult task of creating balanced, interesting, flavourful cards that players will want to use lots of. This last part is key; the designers must push the envelope of power on each expansion if the cards they so lovingly added will ever get used. This is nothing new; but the addition of Standard rotation can lead to huge changes in the classes and cards that are competitive.

The best example of this is the transition from Mean Streets of Gadgetzan to Un’goro. Numerous entire archetypes were rendered obsolete by the rotation of Reno, leading to large amounts of transitional problems for players seeking a new main, as their Jarraxi, Inkmaster Solias and Razas became less than useful. Standard rotations, while necessary, can massively increase the cost burdens on players in this manner.

Feeling Expensive vs Being Expensive

No one would disagree that Hearthstone needs to attract paying customers if the game is to survive, grow and receive high-quality development resources. However, attracting and incentivising people to pay up to get that cool new Epic or Legendary isn’t helped by a progression system that feels stop-start and punishing. High-paying “Whales” are already strongly incentivised to pay for large numbers of packs to access the latest decks, niche legendaries or golden cards. More attention needs to be paid to the players who treat Hearthstone spending splurges as an occasional treat without pushing them over the cost threshold where they’d rather not play at all.

This doesn’t need to necessarily involve reducing costs or giving away free stuff. Instead, ensuring a strong, meaningful and fluid progression system rewards players who slowly improve a deck over time without having to splash out in one huge purchase would greatly encourage a long-term paying customer-base and more satisfied and entertained players. More meaningful stepping-stone decks and cards is key to this, allowing players to experiment and remain competitive without dipping into their life savings. After all, progression is the true heart of any CCG, and making that experience as fun and rewarding as possible is just as important as inculcating a healthy meta or compelling gameplay.

 

Title art courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Art by Joe Wilson

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