Is Hearthstone Pay-to-Win?

Cassius Sonoda

by Cassius Sonoda

YouTuber, blogger, PC hardware seller, and PC gamer.

A bag of money and trophy exchanges hands.I’m a big fan of and write a lot about Hearthstone, but I think they got the balance wrong in terms of their pay-to-win (P2W) business model.

I’ve tried playing without paying and it genuinely feels like you’re just a punching bag for the satisfaction of paid players who are cashed- and loaded-up with Legendary cards, and have the benefit of a wider pool of cards to draw from when optimising their deck.

I’ve even ranked every class up to level 10 at least (with 3 classes over level 20), and unlocked all the basic cards; so it can’t be said that I’ve made a trifling effort with a precious expectation of being rewarded for little engagement.  Yet I remain convinced that I cannot play on a level footing against players with enriched decks.

So to answer the question – is Hearthstone pay-to-win?  In my humble opinion, absolutely. And the makeup of pro decks is telling. In the majority of pro tournament decks, at least half the decks (and often more) are comprised of rare, epic and legendary cards – and these are incredibly expensive to craft purely from earnt essence, and are dropped only occasionally through earnt card packs.

A typical pro player’s competitive deck, comprising of more than half coloured cards.  The player is in this case is tom60229, winner of the 2017 Hearthstone World Championship for team yoe Flash Wolves (Taiwan).  src:

I do think this game has elements of pay-to-win – who can deny that when pro decks are lined up with coloured cards?  It’s not a coincidence.  Many of the most competitive cards are coloured cards. That’s part of their appeal and why they are being paid for as such.  It’s a part of Blizzard’s commercial logic – players will pay to experience the euphoria associated with powerful cards.

To be fair, Blizzard does drop free card parks during special events and in coincidence with Blizzard milestones such as the release of new expansions and playerbase growth milestones, but I don’t think this goes the full way to redressing the pay-to-win balance issue.

I don’t believe Hearthstone has struck the kind of ideal balance that League of Legends (LoL) or even Overwatch – another well-recognised Blizzard title – has, which, despite a one-off payment to access the game, has free-to-play (F2P) characteristics, as you can only pay for cosmetic features, and champs are on free rotation in the case of LoL.

Even Smite has struck a better balance, because for $30, though paying, you can earn all the Gods for all time, which is cheap, if you consider that you can pay $50 for packs of 40 cards in Hearthstone.  (Hearthstone has well over 1000 unique collectible cards.)

$30 Smite Ultimate God Pack
Hi-Rez Studios offers a one-off $30 pack which grants access to “all existing and future gods”. This pay model is then supplemented by cosmetic transactions for in-game skins and accessories.  Source:

Polygon is calling Hearthstone a $400-a-year game, while the debate rages in Hearthstone forums.

It is true that you don’t need more than a couple competitive decks to be averagely competitive, but certainly it gives you an indisputable edge the more of these expensive cards you have.  And having enough coloured cards to make up even a couple of competitive decks is no easy feat for a non-paying player.

King Krush Legendary Minion
King Krush, a Legendary Hunter card. Such cards not only have special animations and sound effects, but clearly outclass free and common cards in their qualities and effects.
To an extent, it is fair enough that Blizzard is running a business after all, but I think Blizzard can be served by a better business model that is more inclusive and balanced for those who can’t afford to drop a few hundred bucks a year.

And they can still make plenty of money if the cosmetics are good enough – truly F2P publishers have proven that skins and accessories can be tremendously profitable.  Nobody at Riot’s marketing department is bemoaning a lack of player transactions through their F2P model.  League of Legends is quite evidently doing very well, and not at the expense of social-economic player equality.

Free-to-play really works, because even those who don’t have money or aren’t prepared to pay are contributing to the business model by providing quality company for paying players, and improving their overall experience.

One failure of the originally-promising – now defunct – MMORPG Firefall was to make unpaid players feel especially left-out, stifling the growth of their playerbase as a result.  (Repetitive, grindy tasks was another failure, but that’s for another article and another time.)  It wasn’t that Firefall had locked areas for paid players, but that the grind was insane, and the massive environments were impractically slow to traverse to be expecting unpaid players to walk the distance.  All the while, amazing utility – not just cosmetic – features were being flaunted by paid players.

In the case of Hearthstone, playerbase growth isn’t bad, with the 70 million player mark being reached back in 2017.  But that doesn’t mean Hearthstone can’t be improved culturally, even if it is doing well commercially.  If League of Legends can grow a comparable playerbase but do so without giving any competitive advantage to paid players, I’d say they are making a better contribution to gaming than Hearthstone is.  Even though I love Hearthstone as a game.

Hearthstone can get away with more commercial apathy towards unpaid players – but that doesn’t mean they should.  The reason Hearthstone can get away with a more P2W business model is that the game is still fun for unpaid players, and you can still have a fun time losing – which is not the case for League of Legends.  And in Hearthstone, you can still win against a better deck because there is an element of chance; it is a probabilistic edge we are talking about.

Nonetheless, if you make it clear to unpaid players that paid players have a competitive advantage, I think you’re treating unpaid players with contempt – it is akin to saying, “If you want a fair chance, you can pay for it”.

Nothing feels more off-putting than being absolutely stomped by someone who paid for a competitive advantage – players who, if it weren’t for having their decks stacked with Legendary cards, wouldn’t have won.

Any competition not based on merit is simply not a respectable one.  If by winning, the chief quality you’ve demonstrated is your capacity to outspend your opponent in real-life monetary terms, you have no right to feel proud of your victory, and gloating in it is even more obnoxious.  P2W honestly cheapens the game and I honestly feel that Blizzard – given the quality of the games it makes and the massive playerbase it commands – should be more of a role model.

I will still tolerate it because it’s a great game, but it still irks me.  Surely you can make money in ways that don’t involve using unpaid players as punching bags for the satisfaction of paid players.

To date, I’ve paid more to play the F2P League of Legends than the P2W Hearthstone, even though it could easily be the opposite.  It probably has to do a little bit with my reluctance to reward P2W business models.

Got comments?  Please, go ahead and knock yourself out.

Feature image credits: Bag by Brennan Novak; and Trophy by Robert Bjurshagen.

4 Replies to “Is Hearthstone Pay-to-Win?”

  1. Nice article, i’ve been wavy for few times whether to keep playing it or not. The main reason is i always met with few players that has imbalanced cards than mine. And mostly i win if we got same deck with less rare, epic, or legendary cards. I even haven’t check if i have one. But yeah, the insanely fun with hearthstone if, if you have less better cards with your opponent and you outplayed it. That’s a pure satisfaction.

    I haven’t play ranked btw, and just have about half heroes with complete basic cards.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Naufal! 🙂 It certainly is satisfying when you’ve outplayed an opponent knowing that they have a better class of deck! Sometimes it’s all about how you use it – and if they’re not playing optimally even with a tournament-class deck, you can still win. 😉

      I guess I’ve been unlucky that I’ve been matched up with people who seem always have Legendary clutch cards! 🙁

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