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February 2, 2017

Table of Contents

Life at the Low End: Finding Success as a Free-To-Player


It can be a sad and lonely life, trying to be a Free-To-Play Hearthstone player. You try to move up in Ranked play, and find yourself permanently stuck at Rank 20. You enter the Arena, only to have a horrible card draw and get your head handed to you, 0 – 3. You try a new deck design or two in Casual play, only to find the Casual area filled with Handlocks, Secret Paladins and Patron Warriors. The entire game, it seems, is designed to force you to spend LOTS of money, just to keep up.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Blizzard’s first experiment in microtransaction gameplay. It seems to be working for them: The company generated over 2 Billion dollars in Digital Sales in 2014. A substantial portion of that money was being spent by Hearthstone’s 25 million+ players. With that kind of revenue flowing in, surely there is no place left for those of us at the bottom of the income pyramid, right? Success in Hearthstone must be purely Pay-to-Win, how can those of us with limited resources get any enjoyment out of the game?

I am here to tell you that there is hope for those of us with limited resources. Though age, low income, disability or other factors of Real Life may prevent us from spending freely on Hearthstone, we can still find enjoyment and competition within the game. But, I must warn you, the solutions may not be what you are expecting…

Let’s take a look at some potential solutions. Maybe we should go look at some deck designs online?

Economics of Crafting

So, where do we get our info on deck design? Most of us start off by looking around at sites like Hearthstone Players, hoping to find some insight or inspiration. But, once we get past the “Basic” decks that can be built with nothing more than free cards, we can get discouraged in a big hurry:

“Try this cheap Druid Ramp deck that only costs 2,660 Dust to build!”

“Get started with this Basic Mech Mage deck for a mere 1,960 Dust!”

“Everyone’s favorite for Ranked Climbing, the Face Hunter, now only 2,620 Dust!”

First off, let’s get real here – there are hidden costs in just about every “Cheap” deck you will find online. The great majority of them require components from either the Naxxramas or Blackrock Mountain adventures within Hearthstone. These adventures are most certainly not free – they can be unlocked for 700 Gold or $6.99 per “wing”, with each adventure containing 5 wings. Those spending Real Money can save themselves a little by buying each adventure for $24.99 as a whole, knocking $10 off the price of each adventure. Those of us going F2P are going to have to come up with 7,000 Gold to get these totally unlocked. If you are diligently playing to complete 1 Daily quest (worth a minimum of 40 Gold) and 3 Wins (worth 10 Gold) every day, that works out to (worst-case scenario) 140 days of constant activity before these cards are available to you. THEN we can start worrying about Dust.

So, then, let’s talk about the price of Dust for a moment, shall we? Dust is created by destroying (“disenchanting”) cards in our library that we have no immediate plans to use, in order to create cards that we can use right away. The trick is, we need to have cards to Disenchant in the first place.  Every Common card we have can be blown away in exchange for 5 Arcane Dust. Every Rare can be turned into 20 Dust, and every Epic earns us 100 Dust. (Legendary cards can technically be turned into 400 Dust, but I totally don’t recommend that decision in most cases. Do I really want 400 Dust instead of Dr. Boom?)

Armed with this information, we can figure out what it is going to cost us, in Real Life currency or In-Game coins, to build one of these “Cheap” decks. The Basic Mech Mage deck above, for example, lists at 1,960 Dust. This is the equivalent of blowing away 392 Common cards – 78.4 Booster packs worth.

But, it isn’t as bad as all that, right? Because each Booster is guaranteed to have a Rare or better card in it, so that should be factored in. The true numbers are not revealed to us by Blizzard, but the general consensus is that a Booster will contain a Rare 75-ish % of the time, an Epic 20%-ish of the time, and a Legendary around 5% of the time. We are ignoring Legendaries for the purposes of our calculations here (since we probably won’t blow them away), so we’ll focus on the rest of the potential Boosters. This means that 3/4 of the time, we’ll get 40 Arcane Dust from a booster (4 Commons + 1 Rare), and the remaining 25% of the time we’ll get 120 Dust (4 Commons + 1 Epic). This means every 4 Boosters should, on average, work out to 240 Dust total – basically 60 Dust for each fully Disenchanted Booster pack.

(To our Math Purists: For this “Back of an Envelope” equation we are ignoring the potential for multiple Rares and Epics in a Booster pack, and focusing on worst-case scenarios.)

Our example Basic Mech Mage is now requiring us to obtain and blow away 100% of the contents of 32.67 Booster packs.

This equates to $40 in Real Life currency, or 66 days of diligent Daily Quest activity – all this for cards that will be destroyed. This, of course, all taking place after we’ve spent 140 days or $50 unlocking Blackrock Mountain and Naxxramas.

And that, my friends, does not sound like a whole lot of fun for a nominally Free To Play player.

The Light at the End of the Arena Tunnel

I, for one, would not be happy about waiting two-thirds of a year and reducing my card collection to slag in order to have one “playable deck.” So, the answer must lie somewhere else, yes? And the answer is actually hidden somewhere inside those Booster Packs that you were going to have to disenchant to make a “cheap” deck. So, let’s go about getting a few boosters and seeing what is inside them.

There is quite a bit of low-hanging fruit existing in the first few hours of the game – free boosters and free currency being handed out just for learning the ropes of the game. But if, for the sake of argument, you are already past that point, have made some bad disenchanting decisions and have what you feel is a useless library, let’s try something else – let’s take a week and get ourselves a couple of new boosters from participation in the Arena.

My first hard and fast rule is this: Never use gold to buy Boosters. If you happen to get a gift card, or some Amazon credit from, or some other external source of Booster buying power, awesome – buy to your heart’s content. But never, ever go to the in-game store and click that “1 Booster @ 100 Coins” button. Always wait the extra day of Daily questing, then buy yourself an entry into the Arena.

Why, you ask? Three reasons:

  1. If you are struggling in Ranked, you need the practice. The Arena gives you a chance to go up against opponents on what is, theoretically, an even playing field – they are using the very same card draw system that you are to build their decks, also out of a blind pool of cards. There are no Flavor Of The Month decks here, simply skill vs. skill – both in card usage AND in card selection.
  2. You will get exposure to cards outside your comfort zone. We all have decks we feel comfortable with. I, for example, tend to gravitate towards Paladin and Mage decks. Playing in the Arena forces me to become familiar with cards and effects from other classes that I might not see otherwise until they are smacking me in the face in Ranked play. This effectively equates to “free” usage of these cards – I am in the Arena to expand my Library anyway, right?
  3. Because the Arena can very easily be turned into a profit center. At a mere 3 wins – a .500 average – you will be getting the Booster pack you wanted and 50 Gold back in your pocket: the exact amount you would have had after 3 days of dailies and the purchase of a pack through the store. And, you have the chance to earn even greater prizes: at 7 wins, you will get the Booster pack and all 150 Gold you spent in the first place, leaving you 100 Gold ahead of where you started. As the wins go up, so do the rewards.

Always, always, stick with the Arena. There are tons of guides out there on how to prevail at Arena play, but I have found that following 3 guidelines in card selection can get me to the .500 mark pretty consistently:

  • Always value Health over Offense on your Minions. Your minions will be your primary source of damage in Arena, make sure they stick around long enough to get multiple uses or favorable card trades.
  • Always take direct removal when it is offered to you. In the minion-heavy context of Arena, being able to direct external damage or removal is Pure Gold – A Hex, a Frostbolt, an Assassin's Blade and the like all give you the opportunity to remove your opponent’s offensive tools (i.e., their minions) while protecting your own. In the same vein, only use direct damage against your opponent’s face when doing so will close out the game.
  • Make sure at least 10 of your cards are playable on Turn 3 or earlier. Arena is not home to well thought out Control-style decks. It is a slug-fest from Turn 1 onward, and an early lead generally leads to victory. Have enough cards in your deck that you can gain early momentum with.

Also, never select Warrior as your Arena class. Warrior decks are extremely combo-centric, and blind drawing the cards you need almost never happens. Any other deck is a safer choice.

I am Victorious – Now What?

Having spent a couple rounds in the Arena, you’ve earned a couple of Booster packs (And potentially more!). Here is where you begin your journey up the Ranked ladder. Open your packs and see what you have added to your collection. Now, ask yourself some questions:

Are a large number of these cards for one class? Obviously, some of the cards go with any deck, and others are class-specific. Have you gotten 3 or more cards for one class? If so, consider building your first Ranked-tackling deck with that class, incorporating those cards.

Do any of these cards synergize with Hero abilities? Since The Grand Tournament’s release and the addition of the Inspire mechanic this is much more common, but cards that tie into your Class ability are excellent choices to start building a deck around. Why? Because that class ability will ALWAYS be available, no matter what other cards are in the deck. Weapon-enhancing Rogue cards, Demon-enhancing or -producing Warlock cards, and Totem-generating and -buffing cards for Shamans are all great ways to start building and focusing decks. Identify these strengths and start building around them.

Are any of these cards show-stoppers? Some cards can dictate development all on their own due to their powerful nature. These cards are usually of Rare quality or better, though not always. (I am looking at you, Murloc Knight.) Velen's Chosen for Priests, the Doomhammer for Shamans, Varian Wrynn for Warriors – these are cards that, in and of themselves, are worth building a deck around, because they change the very nature of duels they are dropped into. If you are lucky enough to grab one of these, make it the cornerstone of your deck, and don’t look back.

Don’t forget to shop generic.  Once you’ve identified the strongest or most interesting cards from your boosters and picked a class, don’t forget to fill out your deck with the standards of “Basic” deck building. Two expansions and two adventures worth of cards later, things like the Shattered Sun Cleric, Chillwind Yeti, and Boulderfist Ogre remain part of the meta because they consistently work. Don’t be afraid to fall back on old standbys as you are developing your new deck. Making “pretty” decks is accorded solely to those with extra resources. Those of us shooting for Free To Play success must choose function over form, every time.


Hopefully this will get you started on your path up the Ranked ladder. Remember – Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you will probably not reach Legend status based on the contents of a couple of Booster packs. Just keep on sticking to your dailies, expanding your knowledge of the game in the Arena, improving your deck where you can, and developing new decks as you gain more resources. Soon, you too will be able to go up against those that went straight to “Disenchant-To-Win”. I hope to see you soon, on the Ladder or in the Arena!

– Hawkwind

Want More in the Life at The Low End series? Article #2 can be found here!

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Leave a Reply

  1. Anonymous says:

    i wanted to ask, if you know a timeline of getting free cards or quests maybe, i just read this post about free play, i am new and i got c’thun are there any free cards that i will get while playing?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Awesome guide. I was thinking that maybe I’d missed the boat as a new player that can’t really afford to pay for extras – I’m happy to work for it though.
    I’ve previously played arena a few times but failed dismally. Not really sure how to pick my cards well. I know I need to work on mana balance and minions vs spells. Think it’ll just take practice.
    Good tips though.

  3. Very nice guide and informative. Im kinda new player myself and i currently have naxx adventure and the first wing of blackrock open. I done some arenas time to time and managed to craft some neutrals. Azure drake, Loot hoarder, Defender of argus, ironbeak owl, harvest golem, pilloted shredder, antique healbot (i thought it would be helpful to mention these cards so i did). Now i struggle to open the other wings of blackrock with the 50gold per day thing, and gathering as many gold as possible by playing casual and ranked. If my deck is kinda good, i try my daily at ranked (which makes me to get 15-14 rank every month, a thing that helps the month rewards). I didnt like the arena, only from the fact that you cant choose what pack to get, i mean that new players will need cards from expert set (and not GvG or Tournament collection), but a pack is a pack as it seems and even if you lose hard you still get some gold or even dust, and if you are lucky and learn things you might make more wins and benefit more..So arena will be my source, AFTER i finish the blackrock stuff..It will be mord hard though, as i heard that it will be a new adventure after Blizzcon maybe..Not sure though, its just what i have read.. I wish that the wings would not cost 700 gold, i think is a bit too much to grind…Anywayz, its how the system works..Thanks again for information :)

    • Hawkwind says:

      I will be pretty surprised if they announce a new Adventure at Blizzcon, given that TGT is just now settling in to the expansion family. And while I agree that not being able to choose which pack you get from the Arena reward is kinda a drag, at least we are no longer guaranteed a Goblins vs. Gnomes one, right? Good luck to you in unlocking those Blackrock wings – one every two weeks (while earning 50g a day) is not too bad, right? Thanks for the feedback, and hope to see you in the Arena or on the Ranked Ladder!

      – Hawk

      • Stonekeep HSP says:

        I’m actually pretty sure they’re going to tease/announce the new expansion soon, possibly even at Blizzcon with how things are going on. There were 4.5 months between GvG and BRM and then 4.5 months between last wing of BRM and TGT. So I guess they’re going to keep up the pace of 4-5 months between expansions. At the time of Blizzcon, it will be already 2.5 months since TGT release. TGT was being teased nearly 2 months before its release with Blog & Twitter posts + “invitation” scrolls being sent to famous personas. The official announcement and reveal of TGT was over a month before the release.

        So I think that Blizzcon is a perfect moment to tease or announce the new expansion, which probably will hit late in December or early in January next year.

        • Hawkwind says:

          Interesting, I had not thought to sit down and check the history on release schedules. Thanks for the historical info! I would be ever so happy to be wrong on this one, and have yet another Hearthstone release coming down the pipeline this soon. As a WoW player, I have gotten very used to waiting…and waiting…and waiting…

          – Hawk

          • Stonekeep HSP says:

            I feel that hey just have to get new releases pretty often to keep people playing. The truth is that the meta gets really 2-3 months after the expansion. People get bored pretty fast. People getting bored -> people stop playing -> money stops flowing. You know how it works :)

            I’m not 100% sure that they’d announce a new expansion yet, but I’m rather positive. And I’m sure that they HAVE to announce something – either an expansion or even bigger changes. People are very upset with the game’s state right now (you can check out the reddit, front page is constantly full of complaints). It means that if they just ignore Hearthstone (which I think is the second game after WoW when it comes to their profits) and not give any new stuff/info, people can riot really hard.

  4. Chinto says:

    There’s also the fact that you get rewards monthly for ranked play. Get to rank 17, and you get a golden common card, and 25 dust, 75 dust total. If you eventually build a deck that gets you further down the ladder, say rank 14, you get a golden common, a golden rare, and 10 dust for 160 dust total (more than double the rewards at rank 17). Add this to the predicted 1200 dust from disenchanting (16 packs from the arena, and the 4 packs from tavern brawls), and you have 1360 dust at the end of the month. I believe over time, reinvesting these monthly rewards into your decks, disenchanting packs from the arena, and saving gold from dailies, you could build a formidable library as a free-to-player .

    • Hawkwind says:

      This is certainly a valid strategy, IF you are willing to invest a month or two blowing away 90% of the cards you earn for dust. That can be a little hard to swallow for some players. Also, 16 Arena packs a month would imply an Arena every 2 days – 75 gold a day means you are either VERY lucky with daily quests, or picking up 9+ wins a day, every single day. Kind of a grind when you are sacrificing all your cards to the Dust Altar. Thanks for reading, appreciate the comments!

      – Hawk

  5. Anonymous says:

    Man, dont draft the decks yourself, use heartharena/ADWCTA tier list, they even have an overlay to suggest picks. That way you can consistently manage a 5-3 score most of the time, even if you suck at playing.

    • Stonekeep HSP says:

      I agree, but disagree at the same time… I’ve been infinite Arena player long time before the heartharena was even a thing. And I can really tell you that some app drafting whole run for you is not healthy for your progress.

      You’re definitely going to see short term effects. The drafts are going to be much better. But if new player just gets offered the best picks all the time, he won’t take time to think about them. Why they’re best? Why the others are bad? What’s so good in them? Why they synergize with my stuff? Why they don’t synergize? When should I look at the curve and when should I look at the pick value? There will be no long term effects if the bot answers all those questions for you and you don’t even have to use your brain.

      Yes, if players are using the tool as a guideline, it’s fine. Something like a second voice to check with what they’d pick. But if they are using it to get 100% draft finished, it won’t be good for them in the long run. Draft is one of the most important parts of the Arena and learning it is as important as learning how to play the mode.

      Not to mention that sometimes the picks aren’t 100% right. I mean, I disagree with about 3-4 picks per draft. For example, last draft it took the Imp Master over Sunwalker. Yes, I had some synergies with Imp Master, but it’s not enough to take it over one of the best Rares in the Arena. That’s not much and I think that the app is great, I’m using it right now. But it means that it’s not perfect. I’m mostly using it, because it automatically registers my runs on the HearthArena. I’ve been doing it for a while like 3 months ago, but then again it was annoying to put all the data yourself and I’ve decided against it. Now since it’s automatic it gives me a nice tool to archive my runs.

      • Hawkwind says:

        Couldn’t agree with you more, Stonekeep. I tend to use Heartarena as a “check yourself” kind of tool. There are times when I will verify my entire Arena, pick-by-pick, against its rankings. Mostly, though, I try to do it on my own horsepower – understanding why a card works better is much more important to me than having the “right” answer handed to me. Thanks for your insight!

        – Hawk

  6. Delnai says:

    Cool article! I think this is good advice overall. But I don’t agree that you should only play Arena. It’s a game, so you should play however you have fun. If you enjoy playing Ladder, more power to you! You will have fun and gain some gold at the same time. And if you then find that you have enough gold leftover to buy packs, then go for it!

    I agree though that if you’re feeling frustrated because you don’t have good enough cards for constructed play, then your instinct should not be to blow gold on packs. You should switch to arena for a while.

    Personally, my strategy is to use gold to buy packs down to 300 gold. I never buy packs if it will put me below 300 gold. With this strategy, at my personal balance of ladder and arena play and how frequently I play, I have never wanted to play arena and not had the gold.

    • Hawkwind says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Delnai! I certainly don’t think you should only play Arena – I just happen to believe that Arena is the best way to develop a library capable of starting to climb the Ranked Ladder. Using Arena rewards seems to me to be the best way to earn new additions to Ranked decks while also getting in that oh-so-valuable practice time that will assist you when you start Laddering. And I, also, use a “floor” for pack purchases, usually also 300 Gold. I just gotta be able to get in an Arena match or two at a moment’s notice. Thanks for the read, and keep on playing! – Hawk

  7. shwayfromv says:

    I always love seeing articles on here about the free to play side of Hearthstone. I have been playing since release, haven’t spent a dime and been loving it! I do think you could have expanded on obtaining the solo adventures more. Although you do note that 140 days of grinding gold is a worst case scenario I think it presents getting the wings as a much more intimidating feat than it can be.

    I worked for all the gold to fully unlock both adventures and I would say it seldom took me more than 10 days to unlock a wing, often less. This involved me aggresively rerolling quests and taking advantage of being able to hang on to up to three quests a day. If I would find myself at 680 or 690 pushing for those last wins to cash in those 3 win 10 gold rewards. It’s worth noting that you don’t need all the wings to start using the cards. The warlock list form the basic + adventure section uses cards from the end of naxx but you would only need the first two wings of blackrock. These are things anyone can do and I just think that setting up unlocking the wings as a 140 day barrier to building your collection is much scarier than it really is.

    This is a good read for those players just starting along the free the play path of this game and I’m sure it’ll encourage some to take a more proactive approach to building their collection and improving their play! Thanks for writing this up for the site.

    • Hawkwind says:

      Thanks for the kind words and insight, Shway. It is absolutely true that the Adventures can be unlocked “piecemeal” – I, for one, have unlocked the first two wings of Naxxramas because I couldn’t live without Sludge Belchers in several of my decks. But do note that I am kind of recommending a minimalist approach here – something that can be done without a massive time commitment for a new F2P player. After all, it is theoretically possible to make 150+ gold every day, given the right daily quest and 30 qualifying wins. That would be an Adventure wing every 5 days! At a 60% win rate, you would only need 48 matches a day – around 5 hours a day of playtime :-) A little much for most of us. Thanks again, and keep reading and commenting! – Hawk

  8. Anonymous says:

    Just started a few weeks ago and going pure F2P. Been using thundyr’s F2P blog on this site as a guide, and he reckons (if i understood correctly) that it’s better to open Classic boosters before taking on Arena because you need a few base Classic cards (Knife Juggler, Azure Drake, etc) for a decent deck anyway, and Arena gives out cards from the GvG set. What do you think of this?

    • agitofang says:

      Actually, You get a pack randomly from any of the current three sets.

    • Delnai says:

      I don’t like this advice that much. It may have made sense back when Arena only payed out GvG. But now you can get a wide variety of cards from playing Arena. Now, whether you buy packs or play Arena is up to you, and depends on how you like to play the game.

      I think it is true, however, that _if_ you’re going to buy packs, then you should buy Classic, unless you’re particularly interested in getting your hands on some mechs or inspire cards.

    • Hawkwind says:

      Thundyr’s guide is excellent, though a bit outdated. As Agitofang and Delnai noted, you will get a totally random booster pack from Arena wins nowadays. Also, don’t forget that you don’t really need any Knife Jugglers, Azure Drakes, or other specific cards to get going in the Arena – each Arena deck will be selected from cards you pick out of a card pool available to the Class you select for each Arena match. You are using the Arena to build a Ranked deck, not the other way around. Good luck to you! – Hawk

  9. Anonymous says:

    Great guide for starters i am F2P myself and rank 5 for already 3 seasons was hard but definitely possible glhf everybody!

    • Hawkwind says:

      Thanks for the comments, glad to know you are finding success going Free to Play. Continued good luck to you! -Hawk