Free to Play: Transitioning From Hearthstone Player to Competitor

A couple of months ago, before The Grand Tournament (TGT) expansion was released, I wrote about how much more difficult (or not) the expansion was about to make Hearthstone for me as a strictly free-to-play player. At the time, I presumed I'd wait for the metagame to shake out by playing primarily Arena, and then figure out which cards and decks were good and go from there. That turned out to be true, but only partially.

What really ended up happening between when I wrote that post and when the expansion came out is that my wife, Maureen, picked up the game as well. What that meant is that Arena became something that we did together. I would only start an Arena run if she was around to help me draft a deck and vice versa. This made Arena a lot more fun; not only did we get to spend time together doing something we both enjoy, but the decks I drafted with Maureen were almost always better than the ones I drafted on my own, because evaluating cards for Arena turned out to be something she's really good at. The side effect of this is that I haven't been playing Arena as much as I thought I would; two weeks after the expansion released I still had 1500 gold in my account that I'd earmarked for Arena keys, because it's not always a good time for both of us to start an Arena run. Arena runs also became more involved affairs; as I got better at Arena I found it was something I wanted to spend an evening giving my full attention to, in order to maximize my rewards at the end.

As a result, I spent a lot of that time I thought I was going to be playing Arena playing Ranked instead, with my pre-TGT Face Hunter deck. A funny thing happened: As the meta was still shaking out, a lot of players at my rank started playing experimental decks, while I'd been playing the same tried and true deck for weeks. So while they were still tweaking their decks, I knew my Face Hunter in and out, and I capitalized on that. I ended up climbing up the ranks quickly, much higher than I thought was possible as a free to play player. Before August, rank 16 was the highest I'd been able to reach. In August, I reached rank 12. I was overjoyed; being in the top 10% of Ranked players for August was way beyond where I thought my limits were.

That achievement came with something of a price, though. Before August, I was invested in Hearthstone but I still played it casually; I'd try out random decks in Ranked, and if I lost, I lost. Once I knew I was capable of being objectively good at Hearthstone, I started to approach it more seriously, and that ended up becoming a significant source of frustration when the meta finally shifted in early September and my win rate with the Face Hunter dropped precipitously. I kept losing no matter what I tried, so I started trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.

 Milestones like this are easy to forget in the middle of a losing streak.

Milestones like this are easy to forget in the middle of a losing streak.

One thing that happens when you're building decks as a free to play player, especially if you're looking at posted deck lists on the Internet (called "netdecking" in Hearthstone parlance), is that often you need to improvise. Even the "budget" decks that some pros post can often have a handful of rare, epic and legendary cards that you just won't have access to, so the next best thing is to build the deck as best you can and then substitute for those cards. It's easy to focus on what's missing, though; in the middle of a losing streak it's easy to say "if only I had Armorsmiths I could have won that match". I had a growing list of decks I either couldn't build at all or that I couldn't build effectively because I was missing one rare or one epic card.

Finally, I started doing something about it. I became convinced that if only I had Mad Scientists in my Face Hunter deck that would get me over the hump. I'd been playing without them, and every Hunter deck list I found included them, so I'd decided they were critical. The problem with Mad Scientists, though, is that you can't just get them randomly in a pack or craft them from dust that you get from disenchanting duplicate cards; you can only get them from playing the fourth wing of the Curse of Naxxramus single player adventure. I had, at that point, only completed the first two wings of Naxxramus. Subsequent wings cost 700 gold apiece (daily quests earn on average 50 gold apiece, so one wing represented roughly two weeks' worth of daily quests), and have to be completed in order. So I spent 1400 gold (almost all of what I'd stockpiled ahead of the TGT release, with just enough left over for a couple of Arena runs), got my Mad Scientists, and slotted them into my Face Hunter deck immediately.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The new cards, the ones I was sure would fix the deck and get me out of my slump, made no difference at all. If anything, I started getting more upset that I was losing despite the Mad Scientists being in the deck, and that caused me to play worse. I fell to rank 20 (the lowest the game will let you fall to by losing matches) and stayed there for another week or so. I decided, correctly, that maybe Face Hunter just wasn't viable in the current environment, so I tried to make a couple of other decks work. I went back to my Ramp Druid deck that had been occasionally successful, but that didn't do any better. I tried to build a Mech Mage deck that the metagame reports said was effective at the time, but success with that was just as short lived.

I realized my relationship with Hearthstone was at a crossroads. I could decide to continue to play without spending any money, which would leave me perennially a couple of steps behind people who have either been playing since the beginning or have sunk significant money into the game to catch up. Alternatively, I could sink, say, $60 into packs (the cost of a AAA game, so not an unreasonable amount of money given how much play time I've gotten out of Hearthstone) and try to get my collection to the point where I could start being legitimately competitive.

 My white whale.

My white whale.

This is probably the point of the story where you expect me to say that I broke down and dumped a bunch of money into the game, but that's actually not what happened. I did get frustrated and just outright bought a few Goblins Vs Gnomes packs on the off chance I would open a Dr. Boom card. Dr. Boom is a Legendary card, and one of the five best in the game right now; nearly every deck that's not super aggressive includes a copy in its deck list. I generally got nothing useful from those packs, though; at best, I got a bunch of duplicate commons I could trade for dust and maybe a rare I wasn't likely to use. I'd felt like I'd flushed the gold down the toilet; I could have used that for Arena runs, and maybe I'd have gotten the same cards, but I'd have had the opportunity to earn more rewards on top of it.

This exercise was as instructive as it was frustrating, though. I realized that just sinking money into packs wasn't going to fix my problems; if I'd spent $50 on packs and not gotten the cards I wanted, I'd feel even more down than when I started, and I'd be no better off, ultimately. Even if I did get the cards I needed, they would come with an additional cost: Expectation. You see, I know I'm better than average at Hearthstone, and that's not bragging; my Ranked finishes have put me within the top 15% of players the last several months. But I don't know where my limits are, and I can still give myself the room to improve at a slower pace by attaching the phrase "and that's without spending any money on the game" to whatever achievements I earn. Dumping a bunch of money into cards would put pressure on myself to justify a return on that investment in terms of what rank I would earn at the end of any given season, and knowing myself, that would either end up with me taking it far too seriously or rage quitting the game.

So I decided I'd just go back to the way I was doing things. I concentrated on Arena, and dusted enough golden, epic, and legendary cards that I knew I wasn't likely to use soon, and I crafted Dr. Boom. I got a couple of cards in those Arena packs to get me close enough to a Warlock Zoo deck that I wanted to build to be able to craft what I was missing, and so I did that; that deck has gotten me as high as Rank 8 (top 5% of players) this season, and I've had a good win rate at ranks 9 and 10 with it. (Disclaimer: I did spend money on the League of Explorers expansion when it came out, but that was a small investment for a guaranteed set of cards, and the single player experience was worth the cost even if all the cards were bad.) Most of all, though, I'm really happy with that performance. Would I like to get to Legend one day? Sure. Will I be happy playing this way even if I never get there? I think so.

 I may have done a little dance when this happened. 

I may have done a little dance when this happened. 

Before The Grand Tournament, I was convinced that success in Ranked wasn't really possible without putting at least some money into cards. At a low rank, knowing the game overcomes the power differential that a big collection gives you, but at a higher rank, the skill is so much more even that the small edge rarer cards give you makes that much of a difference. I still believe that, but I'm more convinced now that it's possible to focus your skill and collection based on your resources and still have success with the game. It's a more frustrating road, to be sure, but every win I get against someone with a Legend card back is that much sweeter knowing that I got there the hard way. That's a feeling no amount of money can buy.