Popular opinion on Blizzard’s card-battler Hearthstone has drifted back and forth over the years.
When the game was first announced in 2013, Many of Blizzard’s traditional fans were skeptical about the game’s accessible edge, free-to-play business model and the developers aggressive positioning of it as a potential esport. In time, Hearthstone won those same fans over again and again. Before long, the game became something of a posterchild for what traditional AAA developers could bring to mobile gaming space.
However, for all that popularity opinion around the game has waxed and waned, the fundamentally frustrating economics of Hearthstone haven’t changed all that much.
Sure - if you’re a casual player who just wants to jump in and play, Hearthstone truly does cost nothing but your time and a couple of gigs of your data allowance. However, if you’re serious about climbing the ladder in ranked play or even just building a deck that’s capable of winning regularly, you’re going to need to bulk up your collection of in-game cards. For many Hearthstone players, staying competitive and sticking with the game regularly came with a cost that kept rising.
In 2017, a piece published on Polygon made the argument that Hearthstone had become a $400-a-year game. The short version of this piece is that while Blizzard have implemented measures to reduce the amount of duplicate cards that opening new packs gets you, the sheer number of expansion sets that get introduced to Hearthstone mean that staying competitive with the digital card game involves either investing an impossible amount of time or spending a ludicrous amount of real-world money on packs.
Building a competitive deck doesn’t require you to own every card in the game or even standard play but the process of getting those cards - regardless of whether you’re investing sums of time or real-world money - is frustratingly random. It would be one thing to burn $100 on card packs each time a new expansion set for Hearthstone gets released but the annoying reality is that even then, you might not get enough or the right cards you need for the deck you’re trying to build.
Alternatives like Elder Scrolls Legends, Duelyst and Magic: The Gathering Arena might be slightly more generous but, for the most part, Hearthstone set the standard for how these kinds of games are priced and monetized.
Now, competitive card games have always been something of a money sink. That part is nothing new. That being said, with traditional card games, there’s nothing stopping you from just buying the specific cards you need to build the deck you want to play with.
If I wanted to get back into Magic: The Gathering, I could theorycraft a deck this afternoon, order those singles and get them in the mail a week or two later. Getting your hands on the competitive Hearthstone deck you want is inherently more convoluted, expensive and ultimately frustrating procedure.
This was as true of Hearthstone in the year it launched as it is today. Aside from the odd tweak, Blizzard haven’t done that much work to change the way that their card game is monetized. It is what it is. If you don’t like it, go play something else.
The problem here is that most of Hearthstone’s competitors have taken their cues from Blizzard's game when it comes to monetization. In some ways, you’re just choosing a different brand of slot machine. There aren’t that many other digital card games that differ or deviate from the Hearthstone-shaped template.
Those that do, like Valve’s Artifact, have struggled to find a sustainable audience. Co-created by Richard Garfield, Artifact opted to attempt to build a digital marketplace where players could buy and sell their cards as they do with traditional collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering.
Of course, for this to work, those cards have to have value. To generate that, Valve’s card game required you to spend money buying those cards. Essentially, it relied on players to kickstart and sustain the game’s digital economy.
On paper, this is a really intriguing approach. At any given moment, the Artifact marketplace housed a finite number of cards and the resale value of those cards ebbed and flowed with the demand for them. As opposed to something like Hearthstone, Artifact was a digital card game architected to cultivate a sense of scarcity.
No such analogue exists in the world of Hearthstone. Blizzard’s take on digital card gaming is one where the house always wins, cards can’t be traded and the money only flows one way.
Nevertheless, the inability to grow your collection in Artifact through more casual play quickly proved lethal to the game’s initial playerbase. But even if the game proved to be less of a disruptor and more of an anomaly, it feels like Valve’s failed attempt to break into the space has created new opportunities for others.
In an effort to distinguish themselves against Blizzard’s game, new additions to the genre like Legends of Runeterra are looking to shake up the status quo in new ways.
Unlike other digital card games - you don’t buy any random booster packs for Riot’s card-battler. Instead, you earn new cards through play. The more you play with one region, the more cards you’ll unlock for that region. Your collection is further bolstered by a weekly “vault pack” that scales with you in-game level and the amount of matches you play over any given week.
CD Projekt’s Gwent has undergone similar evolutions as it looks to carve out its own niche. As part of this, the game has rapidly adopted mechanisms like log-in bonuses and scaled incentive systems to try and help new players build up their collections in the wake of the game’s mobile launch.
Finally, with Artifact set to experience a radical 2.0 overhaul, it’s possible Valve’s new approach will be even more generous a second time around.
In 2020, it feels like Hearthstone is finally getting real competition in the form of games that don’t just try to match its strengths but instead try to hone in on the inherent weaknesses of its monetization model.
Within that wider context, it doesn’t feel like the rapid changes that Blizzard have made to that model in recent months are a mere coincidence. The developer recently upgraded their “duplicate protection” and are even offering free decks to lapsed players to try and woo them back in time for the game’s new Ashes of Outlands expansion.
If anything, it feels like a retread of the developer’s strategy when it came to World of Warcraft. Blizzard’s eternal MMORPG has found itself up against no shortage of competitors over the years but a willingness to adapt and rapidly incorporate the gameplay innovations introduced by those same competitors saw it endure time and time again.
Will that same approach work when we’re talking about a monetization model rather than MMO mechanics like vehicles or phasing? Are Blizzard even willing to tinker that much with the model that has worked so well for Hearthstone up until now?
The answers to these questions are unclear. However, for the first time in what feels like a long time, Blizzard are facing the prospect of real competition in the digital card gaming space and that pressure is already making Hearthstone a more dynamic - and arguably better - game regardless of how much money you spend.