The business model of Hearthstone is not an unfamiliar one. You can download the PC and iOS game free of charge, then you can continue to play it for free indefinitely. Everything you can buy with money in the game, you can also purchase with in-game currency (gold). Gold is primarily earned by completing daily quests and winning matches in Arena mode. However, there’s been debate about whether or not you perform better at Hearthstone if you spend money as opposed to using gold to buy everything.
A big part of winning in Hearthstone is having a solid deck. You can’t get a solid deck unless you purchase Expert Packs, or win them in Arena mode. You can buy an Expert Pack for $1.99, or purchase various bundles all the way up to 40 Expert Packs for $49.99. One of the big arguments against Hearthstone being pay to win is that even if you spend hundreds of dollars on Expert Packs, what you get in those packs is completely random aside from the guarantee you’ll find at least one card of Rare value or above.
This is a solid argument. No matter how much money you put into Expert Packs, it could take you hundreds of packs before you get the cards you need to make a truly powerful deck. However, as you open more and more Expert Packs, you gain more and more cards you can enchant to create dust that allows you to make the cards you’re missing. So anyway you look at it, the more Expert Packs you open, the closer you are to obtaining the cards necessary to hang with the Legendary-rank players.
Now very skilled Hearthstone players can take down lesser skilled players without having monstrous cards in their deck. Skill goes a long way in Hearthstone, and there’s no denying that your deck and your draw order can have a huge impact on whether you win or lose. For a novice or intermediate player, cards are a big part of winning. They don’t have the strategy that a more experienced player has, but a good card at the right moment can win a match with ease. In this case, the game is pay to win.
At higher levels of play, when cards are equal and winning is based more on skill and draw order than anything else, Hearthstone is absolutely not pay to win. So it really depends on your perspective and your level of skill. Hearthstone is an extremely frustrating game for an intermediate player who lacks good cards. Losing to players who are clearly lesser skilled, but simply have superior cards is one of the main complaints about Hearthstone (and there aren’t many complaints about the game). It’s easy to determine when a player doesn’t really know what they’re doing, yet you still lose because they played that ridiculous Legendary card. So of course, you exclaim, “this game is pay to win!”
For the expert player who regularly earns 10 wins in Arena, money doesn’t factor into winning. Sure, cards matter, but what’s really important is how you use the cards you have. Arena is actually a great deterrent when people claim Hearthstone is pay to win. While luck factors heavily into Arena drafts, there are expert players who can get 10 wins almost all the time in Arena. That wouldn’t be the case if skill wasn’t a huge factor in winning.
When it comes down to it, Hearthstone is a pay to win game, and it’s not. There are valid arguments on both side of the debate, and it really comes down to your level of skill. Good players can overcome a bad deck, which means at higher levels of play, money doesn’t win you games. However, lesser skilled players struggle to win and losses begin to pile up until they spend hundreds of dollars getting far better cards, or take the time to build up a good deck. At that point they can beat other players of similar or slightly higher skill levels with nothing more than a superior deck they earned by spending more money than their opponent.