“Ho ho ho, it's good ta see ya again,” says Hearthstone as I load it up for the hundredth time. “Save it you Scottish dwarf,” I think, “And SHOW ME THE MONEY.”
Call me a Venture Co. Mercenary, but after a month or so immersed in the collectible card game's beta I've eyes for Gold and Gold alone. Blizzard's in-game currency is a fickle mistress, there in great lumps one day and on others falling through your fingers like sand.
I'm all about a phat hoard. So hit the jump to find out how you, too, can have one.
It's worth starting off by acknowledging that parts of Hearthstone's final release may well differ from the beta – though the structure around Gold definitely feels permanent. Hearthstone's odd because if you just want to play the game and gradually build up more cards, then you don't have to pay – you really don't. The problem with the business model only starts when you're hooked.
Hearthstone's Gold can be earned by playing; you get 10 Gold for every 3 wins in Play mode, but the real source is daily quests for between 40 and 60 Gold. 'Win three games as a Paladin or Priest', 'Play 20 Minions That Cost 5 Mana', and so on. It's a regular dripfeed, but the first source is negligible and the second runs out fast; you can have three quests at once, but you'll only get one new quest every 24 hours.
A pack of cards costs 100 Gold, and an Arena entry costs 150 Gold. So let me break all those numbers down to something simpler. Do you want to play Hearthstone for an hour or two a week, and don't care much about getting smashed down by Epic and Legendary cards in ranked games? You're good. Do you want to play it a bit more, and do you want to regularly play in the Arena ? You're screwed mate, and so am I.
We'll return to the ethics of this momentarily, but first: Arena is a drafting mode where you choose one of three random cards, thirty times over, and in doing so build a deck of thirty cards. Then you take it out for a spin. The point of Arena is to win as many games as possible without losing three, with ever-increasing prizes, and it's absolutely brilliant – the final release will have an endless Arena mode, but at the minute the cap on wins is set at 9.
Arena works first and foremost because drafting like this is a great way to play a card game, and especially good with Hearthstone, where you start off with not many cards to build pre-constructed decks. Drafting lets you slam together previously unthought-of combinations, use cards you haven't considered before, and forces you to think creatively about the options available. You could even argue it reveals the most generally effective cards in the game.
And so we come to the money shot: how to make yourself somewhat self-sustaining in Arena. I've had the beta for just over a month and pumped in at least £20 on Arena entries, all in the name of working out the various prize tiers. It's not good news. Anything below seven wins in an Arena session is bad, and even this only guarantees you'll make back enough Gold for another entry.
Lower than this? Look at the screens. Dotted around this page you'll see what happens when things go badly wrong and you're turfed out of there with three, four or five wins. The gap between six and seven wins is insane – on Arena sessions with six wins I've had between 50-70 Gold in prizes, less than half an entry fee for winning twice as many games as you've lost. Gaaahhhh!
But wait – even if you're winning, there's another consideration. If you start regularly going the distance in Arena and racking up the wins, you might want to think about putting the brakes on. Nine wins is the maximum at the moment, and for this you'll get a good chunk of Gold, plus a small chance of an extra card pack – I read that the chance for a second pack is 20%, but it's dropped for me fairly regularly.
Problem is that this pack can also be dust, or it can be a golden card. So if you're just focused on earning Gold for further Arena entries, you're better off retiring your deck at 8 wins for between 40 and 80 more Gold in prize money; Hearthstone tends towards 280ish Gold for 8 wins, and more like 200-240 for 9 wins. Personally speaking, I like the chance of an extra pack, and can never bring myself to pull out when so close to victory – which is probably why I have a kid. But it's something to bear in mind.
Which leads us to the overwhelming question – how to do it? It's all about having solid principles for card selection, and accepting that you cannot build certain types of deck in Arena. The biggest mistake I made at first was having little to no drawing ability in my Arena decks; you need to incorporate either Class-specific drawing cards (Northshire Cleric, Arcane Intellect etc) or use neutral cards like Cult Master and Gnomish Inventor. My ideal is two draw-based minions and one or two spells.
Never pick Murlocs – they're crap unless you can guarantee other Murlocs, and in Arena you can't. Only pick Pirates if you're playing as a Rogue or have already drafted a weapon. Avoid low health taunters (useless) and low cost cards with only one health – the latter are easy prey for almost half of all hero abilities, and swapping a card for that is never a good trade.
Let's get a little more specific. First, for a serious introduction I recommend reading through Trump's ranked list of Arena cards [http://ihearthu.com/trumps-arena-card-rankings/ ]. Definitely don't take this list as gospel (Kobold Geomancer 4 Life!) but Trump's principles for card selection are exactly right – solid cards like Shattered Sun Cleric and Chillwind Yeti are the key to victory in Arena.
I sometimes think the Shattered Sun Cleric is the best card in the game, in fact – because in your opening hand it can help clear the board on turn 2 (with the coin) or 3 and leave you with two meaty minions. The point about it, and this should be your guiding light for all Arena cards, is it has exceptional utility – the ability (buffing one other card by 1/1) nearly always leads to a good trade, and as a bonus you get a 3/3 on the board.
This reasoning works for many other cards – the Dark Iron Dwarf gives you a 4/4, but the battlecry lets you increase a minion's attack by 2 – and gets to the fundamental principle behind Arena selection. What do you want to do? Basically you want to force your opponent to use two cards to get rid of every one of yours, because each player only has 30 cards. This isn't possible in every situation, but you want to make it as likely as possible – so cards like Harvest Golem and Silver Hand Knight (which give two dudes for one card) are fabulous value.
A brief word on spells: whatever class you choose, if the big removal spells come up (Hex, Polymorph, Assassinate etc) you must choose them. AOE removal spells I'm a little leery of outside of the Mage's outstanding Flamestrike – stuff like the Paladin's Consecration depends on your also having another Paladin card (Humility) for maximum effectiveness, so it's a bit of a gamble.
Really that's Arena in a nutshell – having racked up over 250 wins in this mode, I feel pretty confident asserting that it is fundamentally a gamble. It is one of the best ways of playing a card game I've ever experienced, but at the same time it is a mode that you pay money for and that often comes down to luck. I've had drafts where not a single decent lategame card came up, and my endgame strategy was Lord of the Arena and Boulderfist Ogre. I've had others where I've ended up with truly crappy low mana minions, because the alternative was having none. It is the nature of drafting: things can go wrong.
Which is why Arena slightly pisses me off. I don't gamble IRL, but I feel like Hearthstone has turned me into a bit of a gambler – every time I hand over that £1.49 it's for an uncertain return, with no second chances (you can't re-roll the options presented). How does Blizzard get around this? The simple method of guaranteeing a pack of cards in your Prize, so even if you win 0 games you still get a pack worth 100 Gold. And by this reasoning, even a 4 run in Arena is kind of breaking even, because you get the pack plus around 40 or 50 Gold back.
It's not an especially satisfying return, and I'll tell you for why; I just like playing Arena. I like getting the packs, don't get me wrong, but all I want to do in Hearthstone is play Arena mode, and it's behind a paywall – so my energies are focused on wringing as much Gold as possible out of each run, so I can play again without pumping more cash in or grinding out the Gold.
If you think that something sounds slightly wrong about this, you'd be right – after all, when did part of making a great game become making a great hamster wheel? Arena mode is the true cost of Hearthstone – Blizzard has quite simply put the most fun in this game behind a toll booth. You're being charged to play a mode.
This, I suppose, is why developers love free to play. Make a game good enough and people don't just pay for it once – they go on paying forever. I would be over the moon if I could buy Hearthstone for £40 or whatever, and I'd even be happy beyond that to pay for expansions – the game is that damn good. But that's not enough.
There is a fundamental fact here about the future of games, and its custodians. Blizzard can obviously make whatever it wants, under whatever business model it chooses, and we have the choice to play or not to play. With Hearthstone the company has gone perhaps further than people realise, by making a mode of the game contingent on a continuing gamble from the player – and that's not cool. I don't mind paying a bit of cash, but when it comes to a game demanding £1.49 in perpetuity so I can play it the way I want... well.
There's a sign in Blizzard's Californian HQ, displayed ostentatiously on nearly every noticeboard – it says, and I'm paraphrasing, 'If you suspect a colleague is putting short-term gain ahead of the company's long-term good, shop 'em using this anonymous hotline'. I could never decide whether it was real, or it had just been put there for the benefit of visiting journalists – after Hearthstone, I can't help but feel it was a plant. Because this is one of the best card games I've ever played and, now that I know it intimately, I can't help but feel it goes against that principle. Hearthstone I heart you: but Arena mode puts Blizzard's short-term interests far, far above the long-term retention of its players.