Hearthstone: I Don’t Pay to Play (Though I Should)

The new Hearthstone adventure, Blackrock Mountain, will be released next month and I am going to have to grind for the gold to purchase it because I do not spend money on the game. Hearthstone is a collectible card game that you play online. It is completely free to play and you get cards over time by playing, doing arena runs, and completing quests. You can also get more cards a lot faster if you are willing to pay for them with cold hard cash. I don’t. The odd thing about this is that I used to buy a lot of Magic: The Gathering cards. A proverbial shit ton in fact.

I came across a post on /r/truegaming the other day where someone asked why people are happy to spend money on M:TG (and other physical, offline games) but are very price sensitive when it comes to online card games. As someone who doesn’t spend money on online card games and someone who spent a lot of money on M:TG in the past, I am going to try to explain why people might be more price sensitive in freemium card games than in physical ones, and tell the story of why whales made me stop playing one of my favorite games of all time.

Why I Don’t Want to Spend Money on Hearthstone

Physical goods have a tendency to create speculative marketplaces. M:TG and other card games have a vibrant and strong reseller economy where people sell individual cards for much more than the cost of a pack. The most famous example of this is the Black Lotus, that legendary card that every magic player has heard of before. Currently, a BGS-10 Black Lotus is selling for $100,000 on eBay. (BGS is Becket Grading Service. 10 is the highest score. It’s a grading service for card condition.) Whether it is actually worth that is another discussion entirely, but knowing that you might get an extremely valuable card in a booster pack is something that can’t really be done in an online game for a few reasons.

Players need access to free cards in a freemium economic model, otherwise there is no incentive for them to stick around. A freemium game makes its profit off of whales, individuals who spend a lot of money and cover the people who decide to play for free. When you hear someone talk about how they have spent upwards of a thousand dollars on champion skins in League of Legends or on Hearthstone cards, that is a whale. By having a secondary market, players would effectively be able to enter the game at a high level without actually buying any card packs, just the individual cards they need. This means that you can spend a lump sum and have a relatively competitive deck without the need to buy cards. You can’t do this in Hearthstone.

The main reason this works for Magic and not Hearthstone is that digital ownership does not exist. When I bought Magic cards, I actually owned something. I could touch it, display it, and shuffle my cards. Just like on Steam, where you are buying a license to play a game and you do not actually own it, when you buy digital cards (like in Hearthstone) you do not actually own them. A quick look through the Hearthstone/Battle.net EULA gives us these conditions (which you have to agree to if you want to play):

and this:


I don’t mean to scare you. After all, Blizzard states that almost all suspensions are due to violations of the agreement (which is reasonable) and it is in a company’s best interest to keep their customers happy and playing the games (unless you are Valve). It does, however, make it impossible to have a marketplace when no one actually owns the cards. The EULA even specifically points out that any licenses (i.e. Hearthstone cards) are not transferable, no doubt to protect their IP and products. It removes that special feeling of “maybe I will get a card that is worth more than what I just bought” after you buy a booster pack. That gambling feeling is a major part of what gets people to come back for more.

Hearthstone does a pretty good job of displaying your card collection in a “rare binder” sort of way (that is a 3 ring binder with plastic sheets containing 9 sleeves for cards) so you feel like you are building your collection, and for players like me, bring back a certain nostalgic feeling. It still doesn’t compare to collecting actual things though. Anyone who has been an avid collector of something knows that one of the joys of collecting is displaying it in a physical space. It helps give the collection meaning and creates a physical statement of our obsession. Whether it is cards, DVDs, albums, cars, or dolls, we want to display what we collect for others enjoyment (and envy, or puzzlement) but especially for ourselves. I had a pretty good rare binder of Magic cards, some were signed by the artist, some were from special events, but a lot of them had some sort of story. I would take this binder with me to meet-ups and tournaments so I could trade for some cards I wanted and to show off my collection with pride. Calling someone over to my computer screen to gloat over my Hearthstone collection does not have the same magic at all. It is the same feeling I lost when I converted my music collection to digital. Bye-bye jewel cases, bye-bye sense of accomplishment. Hello scroll wheel.

Any digital game will have a larger potential player base for you to interact with than you could in any physical game. I would play Magic with my friends and some local kids at the mall whereas in Hearthstone I have no idea who I am playing. While me and my friends were on equal footing with our finances, which meant we would add to our collections at the same general pace, I have no idea how much money and time my anonymous Hearthstone opponent has put into the game. This creates a really uneven and unpredictable battlefield. You would think that this would encourage me to spend more on Hearthstone to catch up to those which decimate me with their ultra rare cards, but it has the opposite effect. There is always going to be someone with more time and money to put into the game which sometimes makes it a very frustrating experience. No matter how much I spend, I could (and probably will with my luck) face an even bigger whale.

Why I stopped playing M:TG

So I just talked about how Magic was enjoyable and worth me spending my meager stock-boy income on cards because between me and my friends the playing field was generally even, since we had invested similar amounts of money into the game. That all changed when we discovered net-decking (the act of looking up super good decks other people have made and then copying them.) Since net decks are usually those which do well in tournaments, a lot of people try to copy them. Which means the price for the key cards in those decks go up. Which means they become harder to trade for and more expensive to buy.

Our little group played twice a week after school and generally had a blast. When we discovered trade-able card game websites and saw these decks that won tournaments, a few people in the group started to outspend the others by buying the key cards required for the tournament winning decks. They were essentially whales, and the rest of us could either not keep up or did not want to put the effort in to do so. Some of us started printing out cards from the web, stating we were using them as proxies. This was generally legal but only if you actually owned the card. The idea was that if you had a very expensive or rare card, you should be able to use it in the game without compromising its quality.

At this point, things had gone into chaos. We got more competitive, the game got less fun, and we started looking for other games to play before the whole group would implode. For me personally, it removed a lot of the things I found special about the game. The mystery of what cards I could get (we started looking them all up online), the interesting decks we could make (everyone just copied the tournament winning decks), and the feeling of sharing and enjoying each others’ collections (we just used proxy cards).

In a  lot of ways, Hearthstone feels the same. The game is fun, even though it gets very frustrating since I am not spending money on it, but it is missing all the cool things that come with collecting, and actually owning, cards. On the other hand, League of Legends is a game I have spent plenty of money on. But that’s different!


No, really, it is.




  1. Well explained. Regarding things losing their emotional value when they become digital, I think the same thing is happening with games themselves. At this moment, I currently have 342 games in my Steam library. I remember when it was a huge deal to get a new game. You ripped apart the plastic, opened the box, enjoyed the smell of the new cartridge or CD, installed it (or set up the console)… it was a big event. Now I buy a handful of games for cheap on some bundle web site and I never even remember I have them. It’s just another name on the list. Hello scroll wheel, indeed.

  2. Yeah, totally agree with Megan.
    I remember when it was a huge deal when a new game came out! You read about it and thought what a cool game it was. Talking about Atari ST here, about a hundred years ago. Before the business-PC’s took over.
    Ah, it was a magic time when seeing the game in the window shop. But there was no money.
    Now I have the money and masses of games. But still playing FreeCol on Linux 🙂 ha ha
    I guess it is all about growing up. Greetings, Martin
    PS, I like the way your site looks.

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