When Hearthstone was in closed beta, I thought it had a chance to be a game changer for free to play games. For the record, I hate free to play games. Yet for some strange reason, I hold out hope that a game developer is going to prove that the entire free to play concept is more than just  a shameless cash grab. So far, the outlook is not good.

Things changed once Hearthstone moved into open beta. No longer did fortune exclusively favour the superior tactician. Instead, super charged decks, filled with rare, epic, and legendary cards, laid low my humble but previously effective decks. The market was open and people were buying.

Immediately, and not without some level of disappointment, I began running the numbers on Hearthstone.

Suppose “Player A” spends $19.99 on the game. Said investment will buy them 75 cards, with at least 15 of them guaranteed to be rated as rare or better. “Player B” refuses to spend real world money on the game. Instead they fatten up their card bank by completing in-game quests. However, it takes roughly 2-3 days worth of quests, obtaining one new quest per day, to net a single pack of five cards. At that rate, it would take forty-five days before Player B caught up with Player A’s investment. Even though some quests only demand a handful of games for completion, the time-to-money ratio still seems skewed toward buying new cards rather than earning them. In other words, Blizzard is banking on people valuing their time more than their cash as a mechanism to get them to buy into the game.

This raises an obvious question: has Hearthstone become a pay-to-win game? I’m not sure. It’s clear that more people are buying cards now than in closed beta. However, I’m still keeping a slightly better than 50% win ratio. Though I’ve been thoroughly trounced at the hands of epic decks, I’ve also found occasion to finesse my way to more than one victory against a superior foe. If the game truly were pay-to-win, such a thing should be much more unlikely to occur.

Urge to record games and conduct quantitative analysis, rising.

At the risk of splitting hairs, I’ll argue that the key benefit to buying cards is the flexibility it affords in building a deck. For example, I have a fairly strong Warlock deck. However, there’s only one way for me to build my Warlock deck. Other than changing a card here or there, I don’t have nearly enough depth in my stockpile to do anything other than optimize my current resources. Whereas other players, potentially players who buy additional cards, can gin up rush decks, control decks, and slow burn decks geared toward strong endgames.

Despite these shortcomings, there’s one inescapable and overriding fact about Hearthstone; I still have fun playing the damn thing. Perhaps that fun factor is what fuels my overall indecision about the game. I like how Hearthstone facilitates a few quick matches without ever feeling like a huge demand on my time. Unlike seemingly every other free-to-play game out there, I can play as much as I like without running into a “please spam your friends for more energy” mechanic. Though limiting players to one new quest a day is similar to the limited play gimmick, it’s not so overt as to be offensive. Mind you, I wouldn’t complain if the release build of the game saw more daily quests.

Ultimately, Hearthstone continues to appeal to the part of my gamer psyche that reveled in playing Magic The Gathering so many years ago. For comparison, investing $20 in Hearthstone is equal to investing about $60 in Magic – though my information is a bit dated there, but I’m sure the internet will correct me if I’m wrong. There’s also the added bonus of playing Hearthstone on my terms, rather than having to go to a friend’s house for a Magic night. So no, Heathstone, probably isn’t the silver bullet to slay the free-to-play jabberwocky, but it’s not awful, and it’s just charming enough to make me think that I’d be willing to part with $20 if only to see how it would change my game play experience.