Update: Scroll down for month 3, where I enter the world of Hearthstone streaming.

‘Free to play’ is a term wildly thrown about by different crowds. Many publishers offer their games as ‘free to play’, an advert to consumers that they can have endless fun without spending a penny. Many of these, like Candy Crush for example, find ways to reel you in then prevent you from carrying on without spending your hard-money, waiting an extended period of time, or spamming your friends with adverts. Nobody wants to wait to have more fun, nobody wants to be the victim of endless notifications, and £1 is incredibly easy to spend. Before you know it £1 becomes £100.

Hearthstone is a ‘free to play’ CCG (collectible card game) by Blizzard, the plucky developer of World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo. Like most CCGs, there’s a wealth of cards to collect and create a variety of decks with.

Here’s the thing; as well as buying card packs with in game ‘gold’, you can spend real life money. 100 gold or £1. Just £1. From my uninitiated outsider perspective, it appears easy to get hooked into a loop of dropping a little bit of money here and there. On top of that, while it is important to have knowledge of how the game works and how to play, I can’t help but feel that owning more cards, better cards, will provide players with an advantage.

I want to find out just how free Hearthstone really is. Here’s my radical and almost unrealistic proposed challenge:

  • Don’t spend a single penny
  • Reach Legend rank in ranked mode (the highest possible rank)
  • Have fun
  • Do all of the above by the end of 2015

This on-going, monthly-updating feature will chronicle my year-long challenge.

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Month 1

I’m having the time of my life.

I’m completely new to Hearthstone and relatively oblivious to CCGs as a whole. Wrapping my mind around the basics and complexities of Hearthstone is riveting. Helpfully, Hearthstone is especially generous to newbies. There’s constantly something new happening or a reward popping up in my face for completing a task I didn’t know existed. It’s like being drip-fed happiness. It’s brilliantly overwhelming.

There are nine different heroes who all have special hero powers and unique cards. Combining these with a selection of general cards creates a deck to fight with. At the game’s start, all but one of the heroes are locked. Each can be unlocked by defeating them via the in-game practice mode.

While the majority of hero-specific cards need to be bought, each hero has a set of ‘basic cards’. Each hero starts with half of their basic cards, with the other half unlocking through playing (especially winning) with that hero. As you start gaining a feel for each hero, understanding the pace and mana curve that each hero best affords, you’re unlocking new cards to play with for free. I felt rewarded for experimenting.

Over the last month I have been slowly chipping away at unlocking all of the basic cards, and have succeeded. The only way to obtain new cards going forwards is to spend a little wonga. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to do so:

  • Buy a card pack for 100 gold
  • Enter the arena for 150 gold (and perform well)
  • Buy and complete a segment of the Naxxramas single-player mode – 700 gold each, 5 in total

For context, winning three fights against real players – single-player mode won’t cut it kiddo – awards you with 10 gold, with a maximum winning allowance of 100 gold a day. So that’s one card pack a day for 30 solid victories.

Each card pack has five random cards within it, with at least one guaranteed to be a rare card or better.

The arena is a gamble. Upon entering, you select a deck from a random set of cards and then fight against other arena competitors. The skill here is in selecting the right cards and playing well instead of having a strong deck, and as such offers a level playing field to all players providing you pick and play with skill.

Your time in the arena ends upon either winning 12 games or losing 3. Your reward is based on how well you perform; each player is guaranteed a card pack but extra cards, gold and crafting dust are also up for grabs. A bad player might have just spent an extra 50 gold to get a card pack while a great player could have his entry fee paid for in gold and then some. Like I said, a gamble.

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The Naxxramas packs are noticeably more expensive than the rest. That said, for the grand total of 3500 gold you don’t only get the potential to get 30 specific cards, which include a heap of legendaries, you also get new single-player missions. These have you fighting against novel, uncontrollable heroes that have game-changing hero powers. From what I’ve played so far, from the two sections of five that I’ve purchased, it is great. It equally feels great that I’ve earned some cards from my victories against the Naxx bosses. The flip side is that if you purchase but cannot complete the new missions, you aren’t entitled to the cards. These are strictly rewards.

It should be noted that there are daily challenges that can be completed in Play mode (casual or ranked), which offer 40, 60 or 100 gold each. These seem to be the key to maximising your gold income. At the same time they keep you coming back every day. Clever stuff.

In terms of value for money, I’ve made the following astute and seriously scientific observations:

  • Card packs can be purchased for 100 gold or £1
  • Card packs are easy to earn but unreliable
  • The arena is 150 gold or £1.50 an entry
  • The arena is either the worst option or the best option depending on how skilled you are (it is currently not my best option, to say the least)
  • Naxxramas costs either 3500 gold or £14
  • The pricing structure here is designed to entice you to pay real money. With the same conversion of card packs and the arena, the Naxxramas set could cost £35 but it probably isn’t worth that much. What appears to be the case is that the gold price for the content, which would convert to 1400 gold, is intentionally inflated by 150%, requiring players to either grind for the Naxx set or to throw down a little dollar.

My first month as a whole has been positive. That said, I’ve almost exhausted the game’s entire set of free gold for completing tutorial quests, such as win 100 games, so I can imagine next month being more of a drag.

Come back in March to see if Hearthstone has kept me elated or made me deflated.

Side note: I’ve dipped my toes in ranked play, but I’ll go in-depth with this next month after more practice and exposure.

Additional Side Note: I’m sick of hearing “I hope you like my invention” but can’t get enough of “Take my arc light spanner”.

 

Month 2

Tumultuous. Probably the best way to describe this month. While the tight-wad in me doesn’t want to spend any money, I often feel compelled to open my wallet and indulge. Many matches feel like intense fencing battles with gruelling thrusts and parries. Stories woven with better twists than Game of Thrones. Other times I am ruined. I am happy to admit that sometimes I play badly or fall into a nasty trap – in the grand scheme of things I’m still a beginner – but other times I feel cheated.

I’m playing against a Rogue; I’m a Paladin. “Well met!” my character humbly emotes. She responds just as kindly. I go first but my deck isn’t built with any 0 or 1 mana cards and I am forced to immediately end turn. The Rogue drops The Coin and then plays Defias Ringleader whose combo ability automatically summons a Defias Bandit. These cards have 2 attack, 2 health and 2 attack, 1 health respectively. I reach my second turn and am already at a big disadvantage. Throughout the rest of this rather short match my opponent pulls out card after card that puts me deeper into the ground. I lose radically. Almost every card played by my opponent was a rare card or better. Cards that you need to pay for. What was I meant to do?

The problem I’m facing two months in is my lack of non-basic cards. I have all but the final set of cards from the Naxxramas adventure mode, and these have proven valuable in improving my deck, but in the grand scheme of Hearthstone I have diddly-squat. I’ve seen decks built almost entirely from Goblins versus Gnomes cards (GvG); I lose fairly consistently to them.

I want to spend money to enter the arena and buy card packs. I could get lucky, find myself the legendary cards that I want. Dr. Boom looks radical. Unfortunately, this challenge forces me to grind. 3500 gold is a hefty amount to build, and with the recent announcement that Blackstone Mountain (a new Hearthstone adventure) is coming out next month, I’ll need to save another 3500. The voice in my head speaks loud and clear: You could have bought 70 card packs instead. That’s 350 new cards. These card packs provide random cards and I like the certainty afforded by adventure rewards. Especially Loatheb.

Hearthstone Screenshot 04-05-15 08.54.05

I’ve been adjusting real life to fit around Hearthstone. A less than perfect solution. I feel a compulsion to make sure that I can maximise the amount of gold I get from the daily challenges. My current strategy is to save up three days worth of challenges and try to re-roll so that they either give out the best possible gold or align in a complimentary manner. Case in point: The last three challenges I had were:

  • Win 2 games with either Priest or Paladin – 40 gold
  • Win 5 games with either Priest or Paladin – 60 gold
  • Win 3 games with any hero – 40 gold

Needless to say, I obtained 140 gold from five matches.

I spent last week preparing for a job interview. By the time I had finished speaking and gesticulating to my reflection – I hope they enjoyed my presentation – it was 11PM. I knew that I should have gone to bed but I had daily challenges to complete. I was tired the next day. In hindsight, I have no regrets.

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Despite my negativity, the core game of Hearthstone has been fun and I’ve had a great month.

Naxxramas continually impresses. Each boss is different enough to alter the way I play. The brain-busting fight with Thaddius, who swaps every creature’s attack and mana every turn, had me bamboozled; it was satisfying when I won. It felt like I had outsmarted him in a much deeper way than usual.

I had to create a custom deck to beat Patchwerk, a boss who has no cards but an endless weapon that deals five damage and a hero power that lets him kill one minion per turn. It’s a tough race that requires you to put out loads of tiny minions and buff them before he can kill you. He will kill you.

I’m looking forward to buying and completing the final Naxxramas wing within the next week.

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I may have played a match against Zedd, the musician behind the fantastic song Clarity. I have no real way of knowing but I’m happy to be optimistic. Zedd, if you’re reading and would like to confirm that for me, I would really appreciate the clarity. (sorry)

I’ve put some time into ranked mode. I reached rank 20 during February and was awarded with a wonderful new card back. It’s a tiny little change, but there’s something fulfilling about moving away from the standard card back. Look at me, I am an achiever. Unfortunately, trying to push beyond rank 20 seems nigh impossible. Everyone else has better cards. Really, what am I meant to do?

As I enter into month 3, that little niggle repeats in my head. The easy solution would be to spend money. I can’t do that though. I can’t even spend gold; I have a new adventure to save for.

 

Month 3

I finished Naxxramas! Lo and behold, I am a single-player champion. And what a difference it has made. Adding in the legendary card “Kel’Thuzad” to all of my decks has increased their potency by tenfold. Many other Naxx cards fill my decks, such as “Zombie Chow”, “Shadow of Naxxramas” and “Sludge Belcher” and I finally feel competitive.

While I wait for Blackrock Mountain (a Heaaaaarthstooooooone Adventure) to release, I’ve been building up my gold. I’ve taken the decision to buy and complete all of the new single-player content before focussing on card packs and the arena. While my overall card collection will only slightly increase, I will have certainty as to what new cards I will collect and, for the first time, I may be able to take part in the game’s meta.

Meta is one new term that I’m truly starting to get to grasp with, but not through experience. The meta of Hearthstone is based around what type of decks people are mainly using. Examples include: Mechlock (a Warlock deck that solely uses Mechs), Freeze Mage (a deck with the aim of halting your opponent from attacking with their minions), Zoo (a deck in which you play low-cost minions rapidly with the aim of winning before your opponent can gain board control), and Mill (a deck that forces your opponents to draw all of their cards quickly, wasting their cards – you have a hand limit of 10 – making them take direct damage every time they try to draw a card once they have run out).

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Blackrock Mountain introduces the possibility of Dragon decks and has some other new cards that could allow for an Aggro Warrior or bring back “overload” focussed Shamans. My decks currently all focus around Naxx cards and don’t take into consideration Hearthstone’s current meta because I simply don’t have the cards to do so. After Blackrock Mountain maybe I will.

How do I know all about meta? Well firstly, I don’t. I’m still a massive scrub, but learning about this high-level play is crucial if I want to get better. How am I learning? Trump.

Trump is a Hearthstone streamer; one of the best. At this moment of writing his aim is to make the top 20 within Legend rank, and it appears he may succeed. His card portfolio is massive, game knowledge even more extensive, and he plays Hearthstone as if it is chess. At high-level ranked play he can look at the opponent’s hero and first play and immediately determine what type of deck they are running. After playing a few matches and recording the type of decks he has been facing, he constructs a new custom deck that should win most often within the current meta. He is constantly adapting and it makes him powerful.

Moreso, it makes him a great source to learn from. I find great pleasure in watching him play and attempting to guess what cards he will play each turn before he does. While I don’t have the capacity to play at the level he does, I can train my brain to reach that level. When I guess wrong I can look at what he played and why he played it. Truly fascinating and beneficial stuff. Perhaps the new generation of Youtube-addicted children are on to something after all.

As the month ends I find my time is dwindling. Bloodborne has arrived and it is glorious. It is also meaty and a time-sink. It deserves my attention and will get it. I got my new job, huzzah, and have found myself become even more busy at work than before. I want to lazily lay in bed and watch Trump dominate. Despite all this, I will always find time for Hearthstone. It started off as an experiment and a fun hobby but something has changed. I’m finding a larger and larger appeal to the game, rivalling people’s support and admiration for football, and am finding it difficult to imagine my life without it.

About The Author

Matthew Evans
Contributor

Matthew is a creative wordsmith who enjoys producing editorial content between camping loot caves in Destiny and backstabbing invaders in Dark Souls. When not sinking hours of his life in to videogames he enjoys playing tabletop board games and being employed as a person who dishes out the law. Normal fairly uninteresting British Laws, not awesome Judge Dredd laws.

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