How I learned to stop worrying (about P2W & RNG) and love the Hearthstone

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A few weeks ago, I decided to throw myself into Dota 2. A mixture of admiration for its design and the bad feeling that I was left with from my time with the original Dota were reason enough. It was about getting over my negative bias which I’d gotten because of stuff that had nothing to do with Dota itself. So I did. I actually really enjoyed my time! But I’m at peace with the game. I’m still bad at the game of course, but I learned to have fun in it nonetheless. In any case though, I’ve stopped again.

It’s all because of (duh!) Hearthstone. Much like with Dota, I can’t help but admire this game’s design. The crucial, crucial factor that effectively made Hearthstone replace Dota for me is its lower demand for my time. Overall, probably, I’m investing about as much time as I would into Dota, or any “hobby game”. But single matches take 5 – 10 mins tops, and this gives me more agency over how I spend my time. I can choose to spend my entire Sunday wrestling on the ladder, or quickly do 2 matches to finish a daily quest before bed time. Also, I can play on the PC and my phone. So it’s perfect for lunch breaks. It’s a game that’s just much more compatible with my life style.

I didn’t jump into it all full force though. It’s been a year and half since Hearthstone launched, and even before that, it had a lengthy beta, so it’s been around a while. This means there’s been a couple of expansions, and the card pool is quite daunting for people starting out now. I’ll address some of these concerns that I’ve had myself.

Hearthstone isn’t actually Pay2Win

One of the main criticisms aimed at Hearthstone is that it’s impossible for players to succeed unless they pay real money. The idea is that with money, you’ll be able to get all the strongest cards, which will allow you to build all the strongest decks, which in turn will mean you win without actually being skilled at the game. I get that it could look like this from the outside looking in, but in reality I didn’t find Hearthstone to be this blatantly P2W. It is true that there are decks that are just stronger than others, but not all good decks are expensive to assemble. In my experience, it is far more important to have a good grasp of the game itself, which means knowledge of cards, ability to read the game and an ability to assemble an effective deck.

I play completely free-to-play, so I only increase my card collection by gold earned from daily quests. This way, I’m able to get a new pack very two or three days, which is perfectly fine. What I found is that this way I wasn’t able to create most the decks you can find on sites like hearthpwn.com. I’d pretty much always find myself short on some essential cards. This means that I actually had to learn to make good decks with the cards I do have. It forces you to think deeper about deck creation, which in turn makes you a better player. You learn to appraise the value of a card. With the consistent, if slow, addition of new cards it makes for a nicely paced sense of progress for a casual player like me. Of course, if you are serious about climbing the ladder or play even more competitively, this won’t do for you. But then, it makes sense to invest your money if you’re already making such a commitment.

One thing that kind of makes the whole P2W argument moot is Arena mode. It’s a draft mode, so people don’t play with cards from their collection. It’s quite random, so it’s difficult to make reliably effective decks, but even here there’s a strategy. The best players are able to consistently do well in Arena, which means they make more in-game money than they spend to enter it. If you’re actually good at the game, you’ll be able to accrue in-game wealth without spending any real cash.

It’s got RNG, yes, but that’s part of its strength

I won’t say much about RNG here and just link you to this article that really says it all: http://www.pcgamer.com/stop-blaming-rng-in-hearthstone/. The only thing I’d add there are two fundamental types of strategy games. There are those that have a component of luck in it, like Hearthstone or Poker, and there are those that are purely skill based, like Chess or Starcraft 2. Both are valid forms of game design, and it doesn’t make sense to criticize Hearthstone simply for the fact it’s got RNG in it. It’s about playing the odds, and calculating probability is a skill with a very high ceiling.

Apart from that though, I believe that unexpected stuff, that X factor is what really brings in excitement into these games. I love football (or soccer for you U.S. readers) and one of the best things about the sport is the certainty that nothing is certain in this game. Over the long run, sure, the best teams are those that win most consistently, but even the weakest teams can beat the best once in a while. It means that there’s always the potential for hugely entertaining drama in the game.

It’s got a ton to offer

One of the best things about Hearthstone is how much variety you have in playing the game. There’s the traditional ladder climb, just like in any other competitive multiplayer game and there’s casual mode which is, well, casual. And as mentioned before there’s Arena mode. Every week though, Blizzard will open up the “Tavern Brawl”, a mode in which every week the rules of the game are twisted in some new fashion. It can range from small changes that offer some slightly fresh gameplay to completely ridiculous, radical changes. There even was a Tavern Brawl recently in which both players had to beat a third party cooperatively! It’s more often than not a ton of fun simply for the novelty of it. It goes a long way towards keeping the game from going stale. I suspect that this is the test bed for new mechanics and card ideas for future expansions, too.

Lastly, Blizzard will release a new Solo Adventure every 6 months or so. These are purchasable single player campaigns broken up into wings that can be bought one by one, each containing some light story and a series of boss fight challenges, playing out like puzzles. You need to figure out the gimmick of the boss, and build a deck that counters it. You get rewarded new cards, and guaranteed a legendary card for each wing. The latest was League of Explorers, which I bought purely through daily quest reward gold. I was able to earn that gold at the pace the wings would unlock, which is surely no coincidence.

Personally though, the best part has been the social interaction with friends and colleagues who play Hearthstone, too. It’s just fun to discuss new strategies and it keeps your brain engaged even when you’re not actively playing the game. The best multiplayer games have this in common. I’ve had this experience with CS:GO, Dota and Warcraft 3 back in the day. You find yourself thinking of new ways to build a deck, something unexpected, and the satisfaction when it comes off is one of the greatest joys you can have in gaming.

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