Well Met? Hearthstone & Social Comparison Theory

I started to play Hearthstone more frequently this summer. I downloaded it last year and experimented with the gameplay, but ultimately felt that SolForge was a more interesting experience. Over time I lost interest in SolForge and allowed the Hearthstone app on my iPad to get dusty, but my interest was renewed when Hearthstone became available on my iPhone. It allowed me to play more often and I slowly got sucked into the gameplay mechanics. Hearthstone is an online competitive, collectible card game that relies on numerous factors including a growing element of randomness, player skill, and the quality of the cards. Some cards are clearly more powerful and effective than others, and players must spend resources – time and/or money – to unlock, craft, or purchase new cards.

Hearthstone Logo

Playing Hearthstone is fun, but winning is better! Like any good researcher, I set out to learn how to best play the game and what cards I should unlock, craft, or purchase so I could win more often. What followed was a lesson in the merits and perils of comparing myself to others who I deem more successful than me – commonly known in the psychological field as Social Comparison Theory.

Social Comparison Theory was first proposed by the psychologist, Leon Festinger, in 1954 and states that humans define themselves by comparing their thoughts and behaviors to the thoughts and behaviors of others. We can compare in two ways; downward social comparison is when we compare ourselves against someone that we see as less than us in some way. While upward social comparison is when we compare ourselves against someone that we see as superior to us in some way.

The ubiquity of social media (e.g., Twitch, YouTube, reddit, Twitter) allowed me to quickly compare myself to others that have played Hearthstone since the 2013 Beta and those who are play professionally. Watching professional players stream games and reading articles about competitive play helped me to learn about the a wide variety of skills and strategies in the game that I did not know about. I wanted to win more games when I played Hearthstone, and my general take away after immersing myself in podcasts, articles, and streams was twofold:

  1. I need to play more often
  2. I really need better cards

By comparing myself to experienced and pro players, I was engaging in – according to social comparison theory – upward social comparison. Whenever an individual compares themselves to someone they view as superior, then that is upward social comparison. Examples include comparing your salary against a supervisor that earns more money, your physical appearance against a professional model that is frolicking on a beach, or your lawn against your neighbor that is outside tending to flowerbeds on a daily basis.

Studies have shown mixed results about the effects of upward social comparison. When we measure ourselves against those we feel are better than us, it can trigger negative thoughts and emotions. Comparing ourselves to people who look better, have more money, and live more exciting lives than we do can result in us feeling lower self-esteem.

“I’ll never be that rich.”

“My god, who has the time to exercise that much?”

“Seriously, how can they be in their yard so much? I’m never going to have grass that looks like that!”

Comparison is the Thief of JoyIf this you reminds you of emotions that bubble up when you scroll through Facebook, you are not alone. Facebook tends to be a place where people share positive moments about their lives – birthdays, anniversaries, and vacations. Going down a Facebook feed is often a parade of happy children, gorgeous sunsets, and achievements by people you care (or used to care) about. Social media enables constant upward social comparisons, and the effects can be truly devastating.

However, research has also demonstrated that upward social comparison can be a motivating force for an individual. When the target of our comparison is better in a way we care about, then it can inspire us to change behavior to be more like them. This is the foundation of most advertising; it’s why attractive people can make millions of dollars modeling clothes because we want to be like them, and we’ll spend money on products they use to get us closer to that ideal. It is why children hang up posters of athletes they admire and aspire to be; it gives them something to strive for. In my case, I wanted to improve my ability to win Hearthstone games, and comparing myself to people who are experts at playing the game motivated me to learn new behaviors.

And it also made me feel a bit hopeless.

“I just started playing this game. How can I catch up to people that have been playing for years?”

In addition to important concepts like tempo, removal, fatigue, and synergy, one of the primary behaviors I needed to learn was the act of buying more Hearthstone content. The game starts you off with 133 Basic cards that can be unlocked by playing through tutorials or games against opponents. Beyond the Basic cards are 245 Classic cards that can be either purchased in 5-card packs, or crafted with an in-game resource called Dust. Since the game launched, there have been two expansions. Goblins vs. Gnomes added 123 cards while this summer’s The Grand Tournament added 132 cards. Hearthstone also features two Adventure modes that lead the player through a series of boss battles and unlock cards along the way. The adventures, Naxxramas and Blackrock Mountain, added 30 and 31 cards to the game. In addition to 4 Reward cards that are awarded for completing different collections, Hearthstone now has a library of 698 cards. However, the true number of cards you would need to have “a complete set” is 1,065 since any deck can feature two copies of non-Legendary cards.

At the moment, Hearthstone is giving players access to 133 cards (266 counting doubles) and asking them to purchase – with a combination of time and money – the remaining 565 cards (799 counting doubles). This is where Hearthstone seems to be at a bit of a crossroads as the cost of entry for new players to become competitive is climbing. Hearthstone has a thriving online presence with multiple fan sites dedicated to strategy, mechanics, and weekly meta reports. Multiple creative and entertaining personalities stream Hearthstone games and produce videos to offer tips on how to play the game in effective and interesting ways. And the game is featured in a growing number of eSports events across the world. Harrison Jones HearthstoneBut how can new players hope to keep up with the (Harrison) Joneses of the world?

The sheer amount of Hearthstone content from experienced players makes it easy for upward social comparison to happen. As discussed earlier, upward social comparison is a double-edged sword; it can inspire motivation to emulate the behaviors of those we deem superior, or it can lower self-esteem and result in feeling hopeless.

Blizzard should figure out how to maximize the benefits of upward social comparison for their product while minimizing its consequences. Rather than offer Blizzard advice on how to change their product, which by all accounts is widely successful, I want to offer my thoughts on how to navigate Hearthstone and continue to enjoy the game even if you cannot spend a lot of money on the product to match the card collections of more experienced players.

Because it takes a lot of time and money to collect cards.

As of today, I have spent $100 on Hearthstone – not to mention the sheer amount of time I’ve logged trying to complete daily quests to earn in-game gold to buy packs. I purchased both Adventure modes ($25 each) because each unlocked cards I wanted to try in various decks. I also pre-ordered the $50 bundle of 50 packs for The Grand Tournament expansion. Other than that, I’ve been a free-to-play player, which is a ridiculous thing to write since I’ve spent $100 on the game so far.

All of my efforts have resulted in being nowhere near a complete set of cards. I have thus far used the majority of the gold earned in the game to buy Classic card pakcs, which cost 100 gold each. Each pack has five cards with at least one card being Rare or better. The cards range from Common, Rare, Epic, and Legendary. I have just under 60% of the total cards available from the Classic set (270/457) and only 21% (7/33) of the Legendary cards.

That’s with playing multiple games a day for the better part of four months – in addition to the games I played well over a year ago when I first experimented with the game for a few weeks. To acquire the remaining 187 cards I need from the Classic set, I would likely need to spend a few hundred dollars and hope I get lucky to get the Legendary cards I needed. The most cost-efficient purchase is 60 packs for $70, and players seem to open an average of 3-5 Legendary cards for each 50-60 packs opened. So, to get the remaining 26 Legendary cards from the Classic set I do not yet own, I’d probably need to open at least 200-300 packs, which would be well over $200.

Hearthstone Gold
You’re going to need a lot of gold — Scrooge McDuck levels of gold to collect all the cards.

That does not begin to cover all the content in the game, as the two expansions introduced more cards, and those cards are sold in separate packs. I have purchased a handful of Goblins vs. Gnomes (GvG) packs with gold earned in the game, and I have a meager 11% of the cards from that collection (25/226). Since I bought the $50 pre-order of The Grand Tournament (TGT) decks, I was able to open 50 packs and now own approximately 64% of the collection (156/244). I opened 3 Legendary cards in those 50 packs, so 17 remain in the TGT set. Even if I spend time and money to complete the Classic set, I still have a long way to go to acquire all the cards available in the GvG and TGT expansions.

And Hearthstone will certainly release new Adventures and Expansions as time progresses. The problem will only get bigger. Looking at the pages of cards I do not own in Hearthstone can be disheartening!

Coping with Upward Social Comparison

One thing that I have to remind myself is that I am not a professional player, and I am not someone who has played Hearthstone for two years. It is helpful and entertaining to watch experienced players stream games, but it is not helpful to lament that I do not have their skill – or their card collection!

A great example of this for me was my reactions while watching the recent Effigy Gone Wild video from Brian Kibler, a professional player and game designer who was inducted into the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2010. Mr. Kibler plays Hearthstone with a zeal and positive energy that is tough to match; it’s downright infectious – in all the right ways. And he’s extremely talented at the game. In the video below, Mr. Kibler is playing a Mage and a series of events leads to an insane combination that leads him to a wild victory. They joy he derives from the sequence of events is wonderful, and it makes me want to continue playing Hearthstone to experience moments like this.

His reaction is priceless; his deck is not.

From the brief video, Mr. Kibler is seen holding a variety of cards in his hand. He immediately plays Malygos, and is holding Rhonin, Flamewaker, Arcane Blast, and Flamestrike. Two Secrets that he already played earlier in the game, Duplicate and Effigy, are triggered at the end of his opponent’s turn. Then he draws another Effigy. Let’s review what it would take to acquire just these cards:

  • Malygos – Legendary card from Classic set (1,600 Dust)
  • Rhonin – Legendary card from The Grand Tournament set (1,600 Dust)
  • Flamewaker – Rare card from Blackrock Mountain Adventure (can’t be created with Dust)
  • Arcane Blast – Epic card from The Grant Tournament set (400 Dust)
  • Flamestrike – Basic card awarded for raising the Mage to Level 10 (Free)
  • Duplicate – Common card from Naxxramas Adventure (can’t be created with Dust)
  • Effigy (x2) – Rare card from The Grand Tournament set (100 Dust each)

The eight cards above, which only make up 26% of Mr. Kibler’s 30 card deck, would require one to purchase both Adventure modes ($25 each), buy numerous Classic and The Grand Tournament packs (probably spend less than $3,200 like this guy did) or save up 3,800 Dust. It will take many months to come up with that amount of Dust, and that’s for FIVE cards since Flamewaker and Duplicate cannot be crafted; you can only acquire them by purchasing the Adventure modes.

I suggest you watch talented players to learns concepts from the game, not to replicate exactly what they do – because that is likely financially unobtainable, not to mention the skill involved to successfully pilot the cards. Watching videos posted by Mr. Kibler and other personalities like Trump, Kripparrian, and Amaz is a great way  for new players to learn about Hearthstone, but it can be a painful lesson in upward social comparison. New players that are interested in jumping into Hearthstone should be aware of the perils of upward social comparison as they use online resources to learn the game.

It is important to enjoy the game on YOUR terms!

Maybe that is checking in from time to time to play Daily Quests, or diving into each week’s Tavern Brawl. Maybe it’s getting to Rank 20 each season, or toying around with a gimmick deck in Casual just to see if you can get it to work once. Perhaps you want to race up the Ladder in Ranked as quickly as possible or just play a few friendly games with people you know. The key is to not get dispirited because others who are experts in the game are pulling off advanced moves with comprehensive decklists that are beyond your economic reach. Be sure to monitor your self-esteem, and engage in good self-care practices.

I have an upcoming article that will address each game mode from the perspective of a new player. Spoiler alert – Casual mode does not mean non-competetive or easy! And another article that will highlight resources that I have been using to learn more about Hearthstone, become a better player, and decide what cards I should craft. I also plan to conduct some research about Hearthstone in the future, so be sure to check the site from time to time.

Until then, good luck out there, and may the RNG* Gods favor you.

*it took me weeks to figure out what RNG meant

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

6 thoughts on “Well Met? Hearthstone & Social Comparison Theory”

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