Free to play…kinda!
One of the defining features of online card games is that most are fairly “Free-to-play” (F2P). Hearthstone lead the way by developing an in-game economy that allowed devoted players to build up a competitive collection without spending a dime. Today, digital card games are everywhere, with new ones coming out all the time. There are obviously a lot of subjective factors to determine which card game is best for you, but we can analytically prove which has the best in-game economy. Which game is the “Free-EST-to play”?
Back in January 2017 I wrote an article called “FreeR-to-Play” which attempted to do an analysis of the Hearthstone economy versus the Eternal economy. It was well received, and while I am proud of the article, even then I knew there was more work to be done. For example, I knew that Hearthstone was going to get smashed, since the F2P model of the game is garbage. Although I was happy to spend 6000 words mathematically bashing Hearthstone there are other digital card games out there where I would expect a fair fight. This article is my effort to finally return to this topic. I am going to be comparing the in-game economies of Hearthstone, Eternal, The Elder Scrolls Legends, Shadowverse and Gwent, and try to answer questions about the cost of decks in each of the different games, the time needed to grind collections, the effect of the “Arena”, and the “beginner bonus” that each game gives.
I also wanted to include a spreadsheet for other people to pick up and work on themselves. This time I have done all my work in Google Sheets, so you can take a look under the hood if you are curious (as well as check my work). Want to tweak the economy of your own game? Adjust for the fact that you rock at Arena or draft? Or maybe calculate the value of your collection in terms of $? Now you can try all of that out! The spreadsheet can be found here.
Since this article is of interest to a general audience, I felt I should also re-work it to include an explanation of the Eternal economy. There have also been a few tweaks to the Eternal economy that I want to address.
If you notice any mistakes, please contact me! I am not an expert on all of these games, and could very easily be missing something. If there are problems I will attempt to fix them. The best ways to contact me are Neon#3891 on Discord, /u/NeonBlonde on Reddit, or @NeonEternal on Twitter.
With that, let’s get started!
This article is a hefty wall of text with a whole lot of math. For this article I am actually going to be pushing a lot of the details of my calculations into the “appendix” section, which will help clean up the main body of the text. If you are curious where I got my numbers be sure to check there.
Here are the objectives of what we are going to talk about.
- What is the cost of a single top-tier deck with respect to in-game currency vs. United States Dollars (USD)? What about the cost of “the metagame”?
- Which game gives you the best rewards for playing? How long does it take to build a competitive deck taking a totally F2P approach?
- How does the “beginner bonus” of these games compare?
- How does the limited format factor in? Does it assist with card acquisition?
- Which economy is the easiest to understand and navigate?
- Which game is the best overall? Which is the worst?
I will finish things off with a few comments, and then address some tangential topics like the impact of adventures or the impact of the “no duplicate” rule that Hearthstone has implemented, as well as some other games not covered here.
Getting into the Game
I am going to do a brief primer on the economy of each game. If you are familiar with the game, I am going to try and cram all the obvious stuff into the first paragraph of each section. Feel free to skip this first paragraph if you have experience in the game. Everything past that should be interesting to any reader.
Some quick general assumptions before we move forward.
- All prices are in United States Dollars, and assume no taxes or conversion rates, or special deals beyond those that are publicly available at this time. We are also going to be buying in bulk, so we can get the biggest discount possible.
- When predicting the value of packs I am assuming we are calculating for the average person over a large sample. Yes it is possible to “run hot” or “get lucky”, but that is not important in the grand scheme.
- Basically everything is going to be converted to the “crafting currency” of each game (Dust, Shiftstone, Soul Gems, Vials or Scrap). Most games use gold, or a gold equivalent, but in reality the only point of Gold is to convert it into crafting currency through buying packs. There may be other things you can do with gold in-game, but those are not relevant to us.
- Some values are explicitly stated in-game, but some are not. For example, what is the average crafting currency value when opening a pack? I don’t have nearly enough experience with most of these games to find these values, so I will be pulling from other people’s numbers. I will try and link sources whenever possible.
- I am basically going to assume that you never open a card that you actually want to play. This helps for a number of reasons. First, it helps being able to treat all types of packs the same within a game, since we are just looking for the crafting currency value. Second, the chances of opening a specific card that you want even over a large number of packs, isn’t exceptional, so the difference it would make is not worth the complication to the math. At the end of this piece I will talk about the duplicate protection rule in Hearthstone, and that analysis will help in understanding why opening wanted cards is just not a hugely important factor in the economy compared to using crafting currency.
Blizzard’s Hearthstone is the most popular on-line card game by a mile, and is also famous for popularizing the “attackers choose” style of combat found in many digital card games. I expect everyone reading this article has played the game at some point, or know a good deal about it, since it is basically the gateway drug of digital card games, but if you are one of the few who has no experience with the game, I will give you the intro. Hearthstone’s economy is very simple. The game uses Gold, Arcane Dust and card packs. You get Gold from completing daily quests (40-100 Gold in value) as well as a 10 Gold bonus for every 3rd win (though this is capped at 100 Gold per day). The crafting currency of the game is Arcane Dust, or “Dust” for short. The conversion values for the 4 rarities are given in the table below. Packs cost 100 Gold, and contain at least 1 Rare or higher rarity card. The premium cards in the game are known as “golden” cards, and they can be crafted or destroyed at a premium. Hearthstone has an Arena mode, which costs 150 Gold to enter, though the mode is not “keep what you draft” like we will see with Eternal. There is technically a 5th rarity, know as “basic”, which are cards given at the start of the game, and although many are very strong cards, they cannot be opened in packs, crafted, or destroyed. Hearthstone also has some “Adventure” style expansions. This is where you purchase entry into a “Player versus Environment” campaign for the chance to win new cards that can only be acquired through the Adventure experience. They are currently phasing these out, but one is still legal, so we will be discussing that later.
Though I am going to spend a lot of this article slamming the Hearthstone economy, it should be mentioned that the concept behind their economic model was incredible for its time. In fact, you will see the other games we discuss have all borrowed from Hearthstone’s economy. There are a number of tweaks that each other company has put on things, especially in terms of the exact formulas being used, but you will see that the core of the all these game economies is very Hearthstone-esque. There are a lot of things people complain about related to Hearthstone, but the fundamental concept of their economy is actually quite brilliant in both its simplicity and elegance (even if their F2P implementation is incredibly conservative).
Daily quests are a very big part of the F2P economy. Some folks over on the Hearthstone Reddit found that the average quest value – including optimal re-rolling behavior – was about 58.2. I am just going to trust their work. You can find that Reddit thread here. Beyond this we are going to just assume you get 3.33 gold per win in Hearthstone. I know that there is a limit if you win over 30 games a day, but this really only matters if you are a full-time streamer, since 30 wins is a ton. I imagine this limit really just exists to try and limit botting.
The value of the average Hearthstone pack is not very clear, since Blizzard has not given out numbers on the drop rates of different card types, and there is some evidence to suggest that the probability changes slightly between different kinds of packs. This Wiki gives the average pack value from a number of different studies, from which I took a weighted average and found that the value was about 102 Dust/pack.
Buying cards in Hearthstone with real life money is actually a little weird. It is possible to just buy cards normally through the Blizzard store, but this is not actually the most efficient way to purchase cards. It is actually better to go through Amazon, buy Amazon coin, and then use that to purchase packs. Why? Literally no clue – perhaps someone can explain this to me who has a real explanation. I will touch on this when we get to the “USD cost of decks”. If you are buying optimally the pack price should be about 1.0875$ a pack.
Hearthstone’s Arena mode is not particularly generous. Since you get a pack every time you enter, you need to be pretty horrible at Arena to really fall behind on value, but you need to be pretty good to make much profit. By my calculation number it seems like someone with a 50% win rate will make only a 10% profit spending their gold in arena over just buying packs. I will discuss how I got this number in the “Limited Resources” section.
Dire Wolf Digital’s Eternal takes many of the desirable aspects of Magic’s game mechanics, and mixes it with Hearthstone’s economy model, as well as a few new innovative mechanics. It is available on Steam, iOS and Android. If you want to learn more about Eternal’s game play you can check out this video done by my friend LocoPojo or check out this starter guide that I made. The two main types of currency at Gold and Shiftstone (or Stone for short). Gold can be used to buy packs (1000 Gold each) or entrance into Drafts (5000 Gold) or Forge (2500 Gold). Stone is the “Dust” equivalent for Eternal. Unlike many other games, the cards that you use for limited (Draft/Forge) are kept, which will be important later on when we discuss the “limited bonus”. Eternal uses a “premium” currency in the form of Gems. I am basically not going to talk about Gems in any important way except that you can use them to buy packs. Eternal has 5 rarities – Common, Uncommon, Promo, Rare and Legendary. Promos are a slightly bizarre rarity since they do not appear in packs, and people generally get them for free, but they are still technically craft-able. We are just going to treat them as a normal card for the time being. The table below summarizes all the values relevant to the Shiftstone economy. Eternal has 1 bonus campaign already (Jekk’s Bounty) with another on the way (Tale of Horus Traver), and presumably more in the works.
In Eternal, rewards tend to be given out in the form of Chests. This is an important difference compared to other games, as these Chests introduce a slightly random element into the prizing. The community has all but confirmed the chance of upgrading Chests (about 10%) and the standard values of opening these Chests (source). The following chart summarizes these values, including the value that comes with upgrading (note: the “Stones Value” assumes you use all your Gold to buy packs). Assuming a 10% chance of a Legendary dropping gives an expected pack value of 398 Stone.
Gems are the stand in for real-world currency in Eternal. You buy them with cash so you can buy things in game. There are different packages for purchasing Gems, the most cost efficient way to purchase Gems at present is through the “Liberator Pack”, which is a one-time offer that gives 6000 Gems for 50$. This will let you buy a total of 66 packs using bulk offers, giving a cost of 0.756$ per pack. As I said, this uses a special offer, but the regular offers give a very similar $/pack value.
Like Hearthstone, Eternal uses a daily quest system. These typically reward 1 Gold Chest or 2 Silver Chest. I have not actually gone through the effort of finding out the balance between the two (especially if you re-roll Silver quests) but I will assume you will have an equal chance of all possible quests, meaning the average value of a quest is about 620 Stones. In addition to this, Eternal gives you a pack from the most recent set every day after your first win each day. After this there is a pattern where players get a reward of Bronze chests every win, with every third win giving a Silver Chest for the first 12 wins, after which all wins give Bronze Chests.
Edit: the original post did not include any reference to the daily login bonus. That should be included in the calculations now.
Dire Wolf Digital has paired with Bethesda to create an Elder Scrolls flavored take on a digital card game. The Elder Scrolls: Legends (TESL) takes its mechanic roots from Hearthstone more than Magic the Gathering, though Dire Wolf has developed a number of innovative mechanics to make the game feel unique, such as having two “lanes” rather than 1 like in Hearthstone. The game is available on Steam, iOS and Android. If you would like to learn more about TESL, check out this starter guide. Fundamentals of the economy are very similar to Hearthstone and Eternal. You get Gold from winning games and completing quests, which can buy you packs (100 Gold/each) or entrance into the Arena (150 each). Quest values are between 40-70 Gold in value, and you are able to re-roll one quest daily. The Gold/game reward is very similar to Hearthstone, where you get a small prize for each third win, although you get a minimum of 15 gold and 1 Common card, but you have a chance of getting something better. Soul Gems are the crafting currency of the game (I will just refer to them as “Souls”). Below is a table giving all the values for crafting/destroying cards. There is one Adventure in the game, “The Dark Brotherhood”. A new daily login reward was just instituted. TESL also uses a reward system called “Twitch drops”, where someone watching a TESL streamer with their Twitch account linked to their Bethesda account has the chance to get Gold, Souls, or cards from just watching streams. I will talk about this more later, as it is a bizarre system.
Before going on any further, I wanted to make a note about how difficult it was to get reliable numbers for the TESL economy. It seems there are two reasons for this. First, the content creation community does not have the same quality of math/stats posts that I saw in every other community. The average values that I am using are honestly probably not very good quality, and I really feel some people in the community could do a lot for the game by aggregating/disseminating these stats. Second, I am also under the impression that the developers tweak these numbers often. Given how different the management of the economy is, I would guess Bethesda is in charge of these aspects of the game rather than Dire Wolf Digital, since the style is much different than Eternal. The data that I had to work with here was down right embarrassing in many cases. This was the thread – which uses a sample size of only 90 wins – that I had to use to get Souls value for 3-win reward values. What did I use to get estimates of Arena rewards? This Imgur album. I have some advice for anyone involved in TESL. For content creators – developing these resources will help build your community, as it will assist in collection management, as well as demonstrating how F2P the game is. For those on the developer side – certainty in the economy helps players feel comfortable rather than frustrated or confused, as well showing the game is Free-to-play.
A user on Reddit posted a link to this shared Google sheet that allows for group contributions on pack drops. The average pack value came out to about 117 Souls per pack. The game win rewards for TESL are pretty unexciting. Each 3-win reward gives 15-50 gold (with an average of 20.7 according to this thread and my calculations) and a card (which is usually a Common or Rare). The overall average value of each win came out to about 14.8 Souls when you convert the Gold to packs. I couldn’t find any resource on what the average quest value was (especially when considering frequency and re-roll behavior) so I will just assume the average quest gives 60 gold.
Buying cards in the game is fairly simple, as the game does not rely on the use of a premium currency. The best offer available requires 100$ for 60 packs, which comes out to about 1.67$ per pack. The Arena mode seems to be relatively generous compared to its competitors, though I have no idea how accurate my prize structure model is, since I was working off very limited information.
The most important element of TESL’s economy is actually “Twitch drops”, which is a system that I have very mixed feelings about. Players watching streams have a chance to randomly get in-game currency by watching Streams. Seems like a nice bonus right? Well, from what I understand, it seems like the Twitch drops value is actually massive compared to what you get playing the game. I asked some people in the TESL Discord what their typical pay-out was for Twitch drops, and I got a range from 250 Gold + 400 Souls all the way to 600 Gold and 1000 Souls per day. Relative to the in-game economy that is a lot. You would need to win 50 games per day in order to make even the low-end of the averages that I heard. I will fully admit that I actually have no idea how accurate these estimates are, because the developers are pretty secretive about how the system works. In fact, they have explicitly said that they plan to tinker with the formula continuously, probably to discourage people from trying to get around the system. I am not a fan of this, because I am big into transparency for these matters. In addition, there is a weird incentive structure for the game. Wouldn’t you rather your players actually play the game rather than spend all their time watching it? In addition, I feel like Bethesda is informally supporting people to be “view-bot-like”. Can’t you just have a stream open on your computer at home while you are at work or school? Or have Twitch muted on a tab while you do other things? This boosts viewer numbers for the game as a whole, which will raise its profile on Twitch, and potentially attract more streamers. “Bribing” players to participate in this process seems strange to me. This whole complex mix of incentives is very weird to me, and I am not a fan of it, especially when you consider how warping it is to the economy. Shouldn’t the economy encourage players to actually play the game? I don’t think I am inherently against a system like this, but it feels like the implementation is particularly aggressive, which makes me uncomfortable. A nice little bonus for checking out streams would be cool, but it seems like constantly watching Twitch is the only way to actually build your collection.
Shadowverse is another “attacker chooses” game in the style of Hearthstone, and is somewhat famous for its scantily clad anime-style characters, as well as its over-the-top visual effects. Here is a link to a starter guide I found for the game that can give more information. The most common form of currency in the game is Rupees (similar to Gold from other games), and Vials are the crafting currency. Shadowverse has a limited environment that goes by the name of “Take Two”. I think this name is horrible and confusing, so I am just going to call it Arena. Packs cost 100 Rupees each while the Arena costs 150 Rupees. Game rewards come in the form of “login bonuses” which you get for the first time you login each day, as well as daily quests, of which you get a lot more than in other games. Unlike the other games mentioned here you do not get a “per game” bonus, but rather you gain rewards for making various tiers in the ranking system. I will give a fuller explanation of the system below. There are 4 levels of rarity in the game, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Legendary, the values of all of them are given below. Crafting premiums requires a slightly bizarre series of steps, but that is not really relevant to this article, so we will just ignore that. Similar to Eternal, Shadowverse uses a “premium currency” system in the from of Crystals, which you can buy with real-world money. One important element of Shadowverse’s economy that should be mentioned is the sizable starting collection. We will discuss that in more detail later.
I have never played Shadowverse, so for doing research I created a thread on their subreddit. They were very helpful in sharing useful information and providing me relevant information, so most of the information For Shadowverse will be pulled from that thread or the links associated with it. Thanks to everyone who helped! The average value of a pack comes out to about 471 Vials. The best possible deal for buying Crystals gives 7500 for 80$. Buying packs with Crystals usually costs 100 each, though there is a special promotion that the first pack each day costs only 50 Crystals. In the calculations I use in this article I only use the 100 Crystal cost. The average player that buys into a new game probably wants a big batch of new cards, and doesn’t have the time to buy only one pack at a time. As you will see as we move forward, this distinction won’t matter much when we do our comparisons. It may be worth noting that Crystals do not transfer between different devices – if you buy crystals on your computer you will not have access to them on your phone.
Shadowverse gives daily quests, but unlike other games, you get 3 quests a day rather than just 1. The system is more complicated than this, but we can just say that daily quests are worth an average of 553 Vials a day. Shadowverse does not use a “per win” or even a “per 3 win” bonus, but instead use a monthly reward ladder as well as a daily login bonus. The daily login system is easier to explain, so lets start there. The first time you login in every day you get a small reward, and that reward is determined by where you are in the login bonus scheme. You can see the overall scheme on the spreadsheet under the Shadowverse tab starting at the O2 cell. You get between 20-40 Rupees, or a Pack until the 14th day where you get an Arena ticket and the cycle starts over again. The way Shadowverse implemented play rewards follows a monthly reward scheme. After every win you get between 100-150 points (and you don’t lose points from losing). If you pass a certain threshold you get the associated reward, including some aesthetic bonuses like card backs or emblems. The reward structure is skewed to give more rewards to players as they are just starting, and becomes less generous as you play more. You can find a summary of the monthly prizing on the spreadsheet around N21. Though this is complicated to summarize, I imagine the implementation is fairly obvious when you are playing. Just login in every day and do your quests and you will get stuff in return.
Editors note: the original version of this article was using outdated values for milling cards, nor did it include season rewards. It has since been updated.
Gwent is a card game made by CD Projekt Red. This is much different game than the rest in the article, as it functions on an entirely different mechanical axis. I have heard it described as being closer to a “trick taking” game rather than using mana, combat, or even health totals. You can watch this introductory video gives a good job explaining the fundamentals of the game, and look at this starter guide that is packed with useful information. It should be noted that games of Gwent are much longer than the other games listed here, as each game consists of 3 rounds. While the gameplay mechanics are quite novel, the economy follows a familiar model. Ore is like Gold in the other games discussed, while Scraps are the crafting currency. Kegs are the name for packs and each one costs 100 Ore. There are 4 levels of rarity in the game, which are known by their color. There is technically a third currency of Meteorite Dust, but we don’t need to cover that. The only form of “game rewards” that you get comes from the quest system, which is very different from other games. There is no limited environment.
One interesting twist on the Gwent economy is the limits of using different rarity cards. Each deck can have a maximum of 4 Gold cards and 6 Silver cards. In addition to allowing the developers to involve rarity in game play it also means the costs of decks is essentially capped at around 6000 Scrap.
Gwent does not use premium currency, so calculating the cost of Kegs is really easy. The best deal you can get is 70$ for 60 packs, so about 1.17$ per pack. Kegs contain an average of 80 Scrap each (source). There are some conflicting numbers out there, so if there is someone out there who is more familiar to the game wants to give me a better value, feel free to send it along. The “daily quest” system in Gwent is much different than the other games, as you get the same quest every day: get 6 round wins for 100 Ore, for 12 additional round wins (18 total) you get 75 more ore (175 total), and for another 24 round wins (42 total) you get another 50 ore (225 total). There are some additional play rewards beyond that, like a “GG” bonus you can get after a game. Someone from the Gwent subreddit crunched a bunch of these numbers to find actual total values, so I am pulling a lot from that spreadsheet. Once again, there is a lot going on here (it looks like there is a chance to get a bonus card?) so if something is wrong with the calculations I wouldn’t know. Given these values I found that you get about 19.9 Scrap/Round win at “Tier 1” rewards, 15 Scrap/Round win at “Tier 2” and 10 Scrap/Round win at “Tier 3”. Given how round these numbers are, I am inclined to believe that this was what was intended by CD Projekt Red.
Getting on Deck
Now that we understand the fundamentals of all these economies, let’s turn to the first important question – how much does it cost to buy a deck, or buy a handful of the top decks? What I did here was look up the “crafting currency” value of each deck, and simply divided that by the “crafting currency/$” ratio that can be found by taking the “crafting currency/pack” and dividing by the “pack/$” value. Looking at the value of the “meta” is also important, as there are some cards that appear in multiple top archetypes, meaning you get a “meta” saving. It also seems unlikely that you would want just one top deck, as you would be in a rough spot if a counter deck emerged. I tried to find 4 top decks for each game as an arbitrary number for the “metagame”. Looking at the meta as a whole also provides a bonus to games where there is significant cross over between decks. I have not included the table of these values for this section, but you can look ahead to the next section to see these tables.
I will note here that I am not looking at “budget” decks. I understand that in every game there are usually some powerful strategies that do not rely on the most expensive cards. For the purpose of this article I don’t care. If I wanted to maximize my chance of winning and cost was not a factor, what would I play? Those are the decks I am focused on.
For Hearthstone I pulled the top 4 decks from Tempo Storm’s Tier list – Priest, Rogue, Shaman, and Druid. It seems like the Hearthstone meta is more expensive than usual. Highlander Priest – which is easily the best deck right now – is packed with Legendary cards. That comes in with a 133$ price tag, which is just ahead of the 131$ cost of Tempo Rogue. Not only this, there is just very little overlap between major decks. There have been times where Neutral Legendaries like Bloodmage Thalnos, Sylvanas, or Leeroy Jenkins were seeing play in multiple top decks, but that is not the case right now. This might relate to the phasing out of the adventure system, as previous top decks often used a lot of cards from League of explorers. The cost of all 4 top decks together was 397$ If you want to calculate the dollar value of your deck or your collection, take the Dust value and divide it by 94.4.
While Hearthstone seems more expensive than usual, it seems like Eternal is a little cheaper than usual right now. I used the RNG Eternal Tier list for finding top decks, and the values came out to about 50-100$ each for Praxis, Elysian, Chalice and Stonescar Aggro. While I know there have been other top decks in the past that are significantly more expensive, this range seems pretty typical for getting a competitive deck. Praxis and Elysian also had significant overlap, meaning the “meta” cost was close to 241$. If you want to find the dollar value of your deck or collection take the Shiftstone value and divide it by 525.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends
To find decks for TESL I pulled from this tier list. It seems like buying into the game is a bit more expensive than some of the competitors, as many of the top decks are pretty stacked with Legendries. The decks that were analyzed were Token Mage, Crusader, Control Mage, and Scout Ramp. Control Mage was actually the most expensive deck to make any of these lists, coming in at about 155$. Crusader was the cheapest of the TESL decks, costing about 90$. Luckly, TESL had significant “meta” savings, as it appears Willpower in general, and Mage specifically, are pretty busted. There were 2 Mage decks that made the top 4, with another one just outside at #6 (which would have won the “Wallet deck” prize, coming in at 170$). The overall meta cost 422$.
The timing of this article is a bit strange for Shadowverse: they just had a major content release, so identifying the top decks right now is a bit difficult. I decided to just pull some decks from this database of tournament decks. The decks I used were a Swordcraft deck, a Heavencraft deck, a Runecraft deck and a Shadowcraft deck. Even without applying the “first pack purchase a day” bonus, it looks like Shadowverse is pretty cheap, with many competitive decks costing 50-60$. I also saw some ladder decks that appeared to be even cheaper than this. It doesn’t seem like there is much overlap between top decks, even for neutral cards, so the whole meta cost about 234$. If you want to find the dollar value of your collection or a specific deck take the vial value and divide it by 442.
As mentioned earlier, the price of decks in Gwent is very flat because of the limit to Gold and Silver cards that can be played. This basically means that any competitive deck is going to cost a about 80$. Still, I pulled 4 decks from this database to just see the amount of overlap. I looked at a Henselt, a Calviet, a Radovid and a Bran deck, and the overlap was limited to only 2 Golds and 2 Silvers. This lead to a total metagame cost of 290$. If you wanted to find the value of your collection, take the Scrap value and divide it by 44.
Feeling the Grind
Now that we have found how much it costs to buy into each game, but what about the F2P experience? Isn’t that what this is whole article is supposed to be about? Well, we are now finally here! Assuming you are winning about 10 games a day, completing your quests, and generally managing your collection optimally, how long does it take to grind a top tier deck? Let’s take a look!
For clarity, when I calculate the value of wins I convert all rewards to crafting currency, and I also divide the quest value between the number of wins per day. It also should be mentioned that I will be focused pretty heavily on wins here, as wins are the only thing that matter in getting most rewards. Unless stated otherwise, if I mention “games needed for XYZ”, I probably just mean game wins, since losses are generally worth nothing.
The F2P rewards for Hearthstone are truly awful. Like just embarrassing. Even if you are winning 30 games a day, I don’t think it is possible to keep up with expansions as they release unless you are playing a lot of Arena in addition to this. Every game win gives 3.33 gold, and quests are only worth an average of 58.8 gold, so a player who is getting 10 wins a day and completing all quests is going to have roughly a value of 9.5 Dust per win. Getting one top tier deck is going to need at least 700 wins, and it could be as much as 1300 wins. If you want to find the “win value” of your deck or collection, take the dust value and divide it by 9.5 (assuming a 10 win/day average).
If I were a Hearthstone developer, I would be pushing for revising the game rewards formulae. Something even as minor as 25 gold for first 3 wins, 20 for second, 15 for third and 10 thereafter. We will be talking about Arena later, but someone would likely need to be very good at Arena and play a ton of it to actually maintain a competitive collection without paying.
Eternal’s F2P rewards are pretty handsome in the grand scheme of things. The pack-a-day bonus really is a big deal, meaning a player who averages 10 wins a day will only need about 600 wins before they have access to a hand full of top decks, with most needing around 150 wins. I have also included monthly rewards for hitting Master in Ranked, but no rewards for draft. If you want to find the win value of your favorite deck, take the Shiftstone value and divide it by 196 (this assumes 10 game wins per day).
The Elder Scrolls: Legends
This one is really weird because of the Twitch drops. Without Twitch drops, I think TESL is pretty time consuming, requiring something like 2000 wins to have a competitive collection (assuming 10 wins per day). If you include Twitch drops TESL actually rockets up to first place. Someone on Reddit provided their daily estimates for Twitch Drops, so I am using those in the calculations. I really am not confident in my “average Twitch drop/day” numbers as I got a lot of conflicting values, but it is very clear that they are the bulk of the daily income. I have also integrated the value of daily login rewards, and divided them so that they are averaged for each day (which is roughly 87 Souls in value). Assuming 10 wins per day, 450 Gold and 392 Souls per day from Twitch drops, it should take about 400 wins, or just under 1 and a half months, to have a collection of top decks. If you want to compute the value of your collection or deck in wins (using my assumptions) take the Soul value, and divide it by 122.
While buying into Shadowverse is really cheap, and the starting collection value is pretty generous (as we will see in the next section) the play rewards in Shadowverse are kinda “meh”. There are pretty brutal diminishing returns on play rewards because of the reward ladder that they have in the game. Obviously having login and quest bonuses are nice, but you basically get no rewards after meeting those objectives. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but it does incentivize players to just do the bare minimum each day. Typically decks take between 340-650 wins to put together assuming a 10 wins per day, as well as completing all the quests. If you want to find the win value of your decks/collection, take the Vial value and divide it by 442.
My calculations on how I got this are pretty weird, so I will explain them briefly. You can find the whole monthly reward chart in the spreadsheet. I then calculated the Vial value of the total rewards you get for reaching each score threshold. Then, assuming a points/game value of 125, I found the “Vials per win” value. In order to manipulate the spreadsheet you need to find the “Vials per win” value from that chart and then plug that into cell I2. You can also calculate your final score for the average month by adjusting the win/day value, and checking the resulting value in the next cell.
For Gwent, I really leaned heavily on the values from this spreadsheet that I found on Reddit. It basically seems to suggest that you will get 119.5 Scrap for reaching the first reward tier each day, followed by 271.6 for making it to tier 2, and 432.5 for tier 3. Once you dived that by the number of round wins you get 19.9, 15.1 and 10.3 as the Scrap/round win values. It takes roughly 220 round wins at tier 1 to get a competitive deck, 330 at tier 2, or 500 wins if you manage to hit tier 3 every day. The meta cost is in the neighborhood of 1000, 1300, and 1900 depending if you hit tier 1, 2 or 3. I have also added in a season reward bonuses (both rank up and end-of-season) of 45 Keg and 1600 Scrap, which corresponds to the total you get by the time you reach Master rank. If you want to find the round win value of your collection or deck take the Scrap value and divide it by 19.9, 15.1 or 10.3 depending on which tier you tend to reach.
It is worth briefly noting that this is a count of round wins rather than game wins. It is much harder to compare the value of these to other games, given that the rounds will tend to be much shorter and the games will tend to be much longer. When I do comparison in the sheet I count round wins as being worth 2/3s of a game win for the other games.
The Beginner Bonus
We all need a little help to get off the ground, but some games give you a little more help than others. How much is the starting collection value for each game? How does this compare to the cost of the metagame? Most games have some kind of “character leveling” system, and it is almost impossible to compare them between the different games, so I chose 20 as the “starting point” for all games. It is a comparable challenge to get to level 20 Time in Eternal as getting to level 20 Hunter in Hearthstone? No idea! We are using this for the sake of simplicity, and for the fact that it is difficult to measure.
Once again, Hearthstone’s F2P model fails its players. Although you get a lot of Basic cards when you start out your account, from my count you get about 3 Packs, 400 gold, 95 Dust and 1 Arena ticket as a starting point. That is nothing, and represents only about 2.6% of the cost of the total meta game. Obviously the value of the starting collections is heavily tied up in these basic cards, but I don’t think that is an excuse for giving players almost nothing beyond that to play around with.
Eternal’s starting collection is fairly generous, but it also is slow-release compared to other games. The leveling system for each of the factions, the puzzles, the starter decks that you get (both from the campaign and early quests) add up to a really solid amount, but you are not going to be able to access all of that for a little while. Still, if my accounting is right, I think you get something like 40,000 Stones worth of value off all of this combined, which represents about 30% of the total metagame cost, and is enough to craft a top tier deck.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends
The earlier collection building in TESL is somewhat complicated by the weird card levelling system that doesn’t seem to actually matter to the game long term. There are also lots of campaign rewards, starter decks that are packed with value, and faction specific bonuses. I can’t quite make sense of the total value of all of this, but I would guess that the total value is about 5-10% of the metagame value. If someone wants to give me the total value of the starting beginner collection either as a function of just Soul value, or Souls + Gold + packs, I would be very happily use those, and give credit to whoever provided them.
Shadowverse’s new player experience is very clearly the best. Going through the Reddit thread for info, it seemed like you got Rupees and packs thrown at you at every turn. “Ten packs for picking your nose!” “100 Rupees for choosing your Waifu!” For example, I think you get 10 packs from every set as soon as you finish the tutorial? By my count you get something like 42,000 vials in value from the early stages of the game, which adds up to about 40% of the metagame value. I am pretty sure I missed some, meaning you’re very likely pushing 50% of the total metagame value. Certainly enough to build at least one high tier deck pretty early into the game. In addition, it looks like you get all these rewards fast, compared to Eternal where the new player bonus is a little more “slow release”.
From what I can tell, the beginning collection value of Gwent is fairly small, but better than TESL or Hearthstone. Getting to level 20 gives a total of 913 Scrap worth of value. I saw somewhere that you also get 4 Golds from every faction to start with as well, meaning you get a bonus 1000 Scrap from that. Ultimately I think your starting collection is valued at something like 10% of the metagame value, or about a third of the value of a top tier deck.
Many of these games have a limited game mode, often going by the name of Arena. The best way to build your collection often relies on taking your Gold, and battling in Arena. How lucrative is the limited format in each game?
Before moving on, I should mention a little bit about my mathematical methodology here. I am not going to be getting too deep into the weeds, since you kinda just need to understand statistics and how to work with probability trees to solve for the expected values here. I found the average reward value for each potential record (in crafting currency) then calculated the chance to arrive at any given record using a 50% win rate. You can tweak the win rate in the spreadsheet if you like to adjust to different values. I then compared the value of the expected rewards versus just buy packs, and got an “Arena bonus” value, which is essentially just the “return on investment”.
To compute the value of different records, I pulled the data from a site that seems to know what it is talking about. The Arena in Hearthstone is really not very valuable to players until they get really good. Since you are always guaranteed a pack the chances of losing much value are pretty low unless you are truly god awful, but you really need a high win rate to actually notice much profit. A player with a 50% win rate is looking at only a 10% return on investment, and a player with 60% win rate is only making 35% returns.
Eternal’s draft mode is pretty great. Although it is expensive (5000 gold) you get to keep the cards that you draft as well as having getting minimum winnings of 2 Silver Chests. With a 50% win rate you have a 60% return on investment, while a 60% win rate gets all the way up to 87% returns. The math here is almost too good, where players are probably better off to buy packs via spending Gold on draft and just Rare drafting all the way through. I might actually suggest to Dire Wolf Digital to only make the 2 Silver Chests for a 0 win record become available to players after losing 2 games, or just making a cool-down between when someone can resign drafts. This might limit the number of people rare drafting over actually playing games or buying packs the old fashioned way.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends
I will note again that I did not have a very good source to find the value of TESL Arena runs. This Imgur album was the best source I had. What is the chance of getting each type of reward? What are the rewards for getting 4 wins? Or 6 wins? No idea!! There has gotta be a better source out there than this, and I would love to take a look at it, since I have found nothing after scouring Reddit, fan sites, and talking to people in their discord. Anyway, I just assumed that these are all the possible rewards for ever reward level (someone from the Discord gave me the 0-win value), that they all occur with equal frequency, and that 4 wins and 6 wins are worth roughly the average between 3 and 5 wins or 5 and 7 wins. Overall, this lead to an Arena that is very lucrative, having an 83% return on investment even with a 50% win rate. Still, I am not satisfied with these values, for obvious reasons.
Shadowverse’s Take Two (which I still think is a dumb name) uses a slightly different system than the other games. All three of the above end when you either reach maximum wins, or 3 loses. Shadowverse’s Arena is always 5 games. Overall it is only medium value. It is certainly better than Hearthstone, but you still only get 18% returns on investment with a 50% win rate. It seems like the rewards are really top heavy, which makes this slightly more complicated than the math suggests, but you do clearly make a small profit if you are spending all your Rupees on Take Two over just buying packs. I got the values for this from the Reddit thread I started.
Gwent does not have a limited mode (at present). I do view this as a net downside from an economic perspective, as it does mean there is one less venue for players to build their collections.
I wanted to add in a more subjective note to each of these economies. Some games are intuitive and it is easy to manage your collection, while others it is more difficult and confusing. It is hard to mark this as an objective outside because I have played some of these games and not others, but I will try my best to justify my ranking.
It is hard not to argue that Hearthstone’s economy is the most intuitive. It is obvious how everything works, there are no exceptions to rules or complicated systems. Just dead simple all the way through, which is part of the reason that the rest of these games have implemented variants of Hearthstone’s economy. In my opinion, the intuitiveness of the Hearthstone economy is the best.
While Hearthstone’s economy is the most simple, I think Eternal has done a good job of building on it without too much complexity. Using a premium currency does complicate things, in addition to the Chest system, but generally things are pretty straight forward. I put Eternal as a very close second place.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends
I went on a rant about this above, but I really hate the implementation of the Twitch drop system. I feel like the economy should be designed to encourage players to actually play, rather than keeping Twitch open in an unused tab at all times. There are some other parts of their economy that I am not crazy about, but I feel pretty strongly about this particular element being poorly done. Although this isn’t quite an “intuitiveness” problem, this is the place to ding them for this problem, so I think TESL’s ranking in intuitiveness is the worst.
While Eternal took the Hearthstone economy and added complexity in a few places that contributed to the game, I really feel like Shadowverse did the same thing but just made it more confusing. Login rewards are kinda lame. 3 quests per day is unnecessary. The fact that things are on a 21 hour timer seems totally random. The monthly reward ladder scheme is very strange, and really does not reward players that play a lot. Although the average player may not think about it much once they are used to it, the whole system is unnecessarily complicated in a number of places, and I think it detracts from the game. I think Shadowverse’s economy is the second most complicated.
Overall the economy is pretty easy to understand, but has a few elements that complicate things. I may be wrong, but I don’t really feel like Meteorite Dust adds much to the economy, and the particular implementation of the game win rewards is weird. Still, overall it is pretty good, and it probably doesn’t take too long before you “get it”. I think Gwent is third in complexity.
The Final Score
The spreadsheet has a tab which attempts to put together an overall ranking, where I took the dollar cost of the meta, the wins cost of the meta, the starting collection value, the bonus from draft/arena, and the intuitiveness score for each game to find which was the best overall. The worst game in a category got 1 point, and the second got 2, etc. In the case that two games were relatively close, I tended to give them the same score. Here is the final tally:
I know that there is clear bias given that I am writing for an Eternal focused site, but I really do think Eternal has the best economy of the games analyzed. It takes a little bit to buy into the game with cash, but building your collection in a F2P manner is pretty reasonable, especially if you like draft.
Shadowverse is second place, and if you exclude the subjective ranking, it is really close behind Eternal. The things it does well it does really well, such as the cost of buying in with money and the starting collection. Still, the limited mode could be more generous, as well as the “rewards per win” system. It is very realistic to have a competitive collection without spending a dime.
TESL’s ranking comes in at #3, but this is pretty tied up in how you think about the Twitch drop system. If you are comfortable with it, it is really easy to build a collection, but I personally find it pretty problematic. The Arena seems to be pretty generous, but I may need to shift this value down once I get better data.
Gwent comes in just behind TESL, though it is pretty easy to argue that it should be higher. I also expect the economy becomes pretty logical once you get used to it. Gwent is hit pretty hard by its lack of Arena mode. It seems like there were some changes to the economy recently, and it appears to make a pretty big difference. Still pretty noticeably behind games like Eternal and Shadowverse, but still quite good.
Hearthstone is dead last, which is perhaps as expected. Most of its points were scored from its intuitiveness, and was close to last in every other category. I am under the impression that many of the people who leave Hearthstone partly leave due to it being overcosted, and they seem to be right. I really think Blizzard should rethink their in-game economy.
Of the games I looked at, 3 of them have adventure style expansions. I didn’t include these into any of the calculations for a few reasons. First, is that they are really not that expensive relative to the cost of the rest of the game. 20$ for an adventure is only a small fraction of what it costs to buy into most of the games. TESL’s adventure is the cheapest in terms of games wins (owing largely to Twitch drops), coming in at about 80 games. Eternal’s Adventures are about 150 games to purchase. Hearthstone is obviously the worse, coming in at about 300 games to purchase.
Duplicate Protection and Pity Timers
Blizzard has taken a couple steps over the years to slightly improve the Hearthstone economy. These include a “pity timer” which would increase the chance of opening a Legend if you hadn’t picked one up in a while. I don’t believe this system was ever officially confirmed, but there was strong evidence to suggest that you were guaranteed a Legend if you had not opened one in the last 40 packs. More recently Blizzard implemented a system that I will call “duplicate protection” where you cannot open a Legend that you already own (it should be noted that Legends are limited to 1/deck). These systems sound great! In fact, I have seen people suggest that they should be implemented in other games. Take for example this Forbes article that makes it sound like Blizzard solved world poverty by introducing the duplicate protection rule. Do these measures actually improve collection building, especially for players who are looking to stay on a budget? Not really.
Let’s start with duplicate protection. I have a whole bunch of calculations related to this at the bottom of the Hearthstone spread sheet, but I will quickly describe what I did. In the two most recent expansions (Un’Goro and Knights of the Frozen Throne) there are a total of 23 Legendaries, but only about 1/3 of those really see play. So my question was: how many packs would you need to open to get all the Legendries you wanted either by cracking them or from the Dust? About 90 packs for each model. In fact, after opening 90 packs you are only ahead by something like 1%. Unless you want the majority of the Legendaries you are just not very likely to open two of the same Legend. In addition, you need to remember that if you open a duplicate legend you still get 400 Dust, so the “value” gap between opening a duplicate is not really as bad as it seems initially. If you are someone who is really looking to own the entire set then this change makes a material difference in the amount you need to spend, but this does not help the F2P players in any significant way.
(While we are here, I should talk briefly about the effect of opening wanted cards in packs versus using crafting currency. It strongly depends on the exact equations of the game, but it seems to me that frequency of opening wanted Legendaries is really small in this case. Value from the crafting currency to turn into wanted cards is much more important.)
The “pity timer” has a similarly small impact on collections, though larger than duplicate Legend protection. I made up a quick model to predict the number of people who not get a Legendary over 40 packs if we assume a 5% drop rate (which is roughly in-line with the community-estimated values). This can be found here. It looks like it is about 12% of people are in that category. I then scored the expected value of Legends opened, which came out to 2 (unsurprisingly). I then took that 12% of people who got 0 Legends and treated them as having opened 1 Legend instead, giving a new average of 2.12, or a 6% improvement over standard levels. This shifts the “effective” Legend drop rate to about 5.3% rather than 5% flat. This is clearly an improvement, but it is hard to argue that it is a big deal.
I have mixed feelings about these kinds of changes. On the one hand, you get few “feel bad” moments for players. You save enough of your Dust to finally craft a sweet Legend, and then open it in your next pack. You go on an absolutely horrible run of luck and go 80 or 100 packs without seeing a Legend. These situations are incredibly unlikely, but are possible, so it is nice to alleviate them. It also removes some of the anxiety of collection building. I do appreciate the non-mathematic benefits you get from implementing these changes. On the other hand, we don’t really get much added value from this system. I know Blizzard doesn’t manage what some bozo from Forbes writes, but this guy is clearly convinced that the economy in Hearthstone was greatly improved by the no duplicate rule, but that is simply not the case. Throwing a morsel to people who get salty about bad luck is not addressing the very real complaints about how hostile Hearthstone is to F2P players.
If 7 wins is harder than 6 wins, why are there more 7 win runs?
Something bizarre you may have noticed when looking at the limited probability tables for Hearthstone, Eternal and TESL: you have a higher chance to get maximum wins in a draft rather than 1 less wins in draft. How can this be? It actually makes sense if you think about it. Let’s say you are playing one of the games with a 7-win maximum. If you are 6-2 in draft you have a 50-50 shot of going 7 wins or 6 wins, right? Well, if you end up with 6 wins at the end of a draft you must “go through” a 6-2 record first, meaning there was a juncture where you were just as likely to go 6 wins or 7 wins. Not all routes to 7 wins must “go-through” the 6-2 record first, since it is possible to go 7-0 or 7-1. Given that all routes to 6 wins require you to have at least an equal chance of getting 7 wins, and there are alternative routes to 7 wins, 7 wins must be more likely than 6 wins. If that doesn’t make sense to you, it is hard to illustrate the proof here, but I promise you that it holds up mathematically.
What about Magic: the Gathering Online?
Wizards of the Coast is exceptional at making real-life games, but has not had as much success with their digital games. I want to be totally clear before I go a step further: I am talking about Magic the Gathering Online and not Duels (which is now an abandoned product) or Arena (a new version of digital Magic that is currently in beta). I don’t know about the economy in either one of those games, so I really can’t comment. I am talking about MTGO, and it is not going to be pretty. With that out of the way, I will give you a very brief run down of my thoughts on MTGO’s economy.
If I were to include MTGO in this article it would rank dead last in all categories. I am not kidding. For example, as of the writing of this article, the top 3 most popular decks cost about 500$, which is more than any other game. And that is the good news! The bad news is that the game is “pay-to-play”. It is impossible to get into serious matches without spending money just to play. Even then, you need a win rate close to 55-60% to keep playing without spending more. It is impossible to build a collection without being incredibly good at the game, no matter if you play constructed or limited. What about the starting material they give to beginners? Basically nothing, and in addition you need to pay real money for an account, so you are just paying for that. In addition, managing the economy is a mess. You need to trade with others to get cards you don’t have, which usually means trading with bots, that sometimes don’t have the cards you want, or are being used by other people so you need to wait. This is all aside from difficult-to-navigate screens, tons of clicking around, and the anxiety of managing your collection like a stock portfolio. Of course neither MTGO nor its proponents argue that the game is even trying to be F2P, but the economic model is honestly trash. Before anyone comes at me about the ability to sell back cards to vendors or use redemptions, this doesn’t exactly solve the massive buy-in problem, or the fact that most cards depreciate in value, or the fact that it is so expensive for the average gamer. Unless you are a ringer who never loses or a baller that can just throw your wallet at the screen, MTGO’s economy is hot garbage.
What about Hex? Or Duelyst? Or…
As you can probably tell reading this post, this was a lot of work. Between researching the economies, crunching the numbers, and finally putting my thoughts on the page this project has been a pretty major undertaking. There is a limit to what I can do, so part of my reason for publishing my spreadsheet is so that other people can build on it. Between the Steam charts for each of these games, as well as word-of-mouth, it seems like Hearthstone, Shadowverse, Eternal, TESL and Gwent are the most popular of the online card games at present, although that will likely change at some point. If you think the online economy for your game is best, be sure to let me know! Unfortunately this project needed to stop somewhere, so these games were the ones that failed to make it.
Wrapping things up
Thanks for joining me on my tour through Card game Economics! I find in-game economies fascinating, as it is an under-appreciated part of games. Something I mentioned in another article I wrote about the prize structure of a specific Event is relevant here:
…[I]ncentive structures in games should be aligned for people to do the things that are fun. This is something that Mark Rosewater (lead designer of Magic the Gathering, AKA MaRo) talks about a good deal. An important point that he raises focuses on supporting game elements with fun play patterns. If the winningest strategy for your game is unfun to play with/against your players will still play it anyway. Even if a fun strategy exists, players will generally stick to the winningest strategy, and then blame you for making a game that is unfun. Although it is possible to blame the players for refusing to play the fun strategy, MaRo says it is actually your fault for rewarding the wrong types of strategies. Whenever possible you should try and make the most fun and most winning strategy line up.
This way of thinking that MaRo advocates was originally applied to encouraging playstyles, cards and decks, but it applies here in a more “meta” sense. People tend to think about the “game” as being what happens when you get matched against an opponent. Some people recognize that the deckbuilding and deck selection component of Eternal is just as much a part of the “game” as in-game decisions. What is even more rare is an understanding that everything that happens once you enter the client is part of the game. The economy, the design of the different play modes, and even things like completing your collection is part of the “game”. By releasing a new play mode that you draw attention to as a special feature you are encouraging players to do it because you think it is fun.
I want games to be fun. I truly believe that Eternal has the best Economy on the market, so part of me sharing this info is about giving people the background info on why the game is so good. I also think helping everyone understand the economy from their own game better will assist players in building and managing their collections.
If you are visiting from another gaming community, and want to check out some of my other writing on topic of general interest, check out this article on variance in card games, this article on understanding pushed cards or just check out my Eternal Starter Guide. I also have a podcast where I talk with Eternal’s Lead Designer (and MTG Pro Tour Hall of Famer) Patrick Chapin and another where I speak with Hearthstone streamer Amaz about Eternal’s draft environment. If you have comments or questions be sure to bring them up in the associated Reddit thread, or hit me up on Discord (Neon#3989) or Twitter.