Hearthstone might be the only game where you can spend $40 and still call yourself “free to play” without getting weird looks.
With another major expansion just around the corner, things are only going to get harder for budget players. Fortunately, with some planning, you can make the most of whatever you are comfortable spending.
Decide on your budget in advance
The most important thing you can do to get the most out of your Hearthstone budget is to decide in advance what your goals are and how much you are going to spend. It is all too easy to decide “I’ll just buy 20 packs,” then two weeks later give in and buy another 20 packs. But you would have gotten more for your money if you simply decided on how many packs you were likely going to buy in the next few months and purchased them in bulk!
Hearthstone cards disenchant for much less than what it costs to craft them, so you lose out significantly if you disenchant a card that you will later want in your collection. Be honest with yourself now about how serious you are likely to get over time about building your collection. It can be frustrating for a new player to open Baron Geddon in one of her first packs, when she desperately needs Dr. Boom. If this happens to you, ask yourself if you will end up eventually wanting Geddon in your collection. There is nothing wrong with disenchanting Geddon if it enables you to enjoy playing the game now, but try to minimize these types of decisions, unless you are okay with having a small collection in the long run. If you know you will spend money eventually, you might as well not waste it by disenchanting useable cards.
I would generally advise against disenchanting legendaries that have a chance of being playable in the future, even if you can’t use them immediately. Early in my Hearthstone career I opened a Harrison Jones, and since at the time there were few weapons in the meta, many crafting guides advised disenchanting it. I later had to spend my dust to craft it when Harrison became indispensable.
In addition to being honest with yourself about your budget, it is important to decide on your goals. Do you want to gain the highest rank possible with the lowest budget, regardless of what deck you want to play? Do you want to work towards building specific decks that you find fun? Do you like having non-competitive fun cards in your collection, like Nozdormu, or will you disenchant everything that cannot be played in a competitive deck? Do you care about golden cards? Personally, I like theorycrafting with a wide variety of cards, so I tend to disenchant goldens in order to have as complete a collection as possible. I don’t disenchant gimmicky fun cards, but I only craft cards that I want to play competitively.
What should I buy first?
Whatever your budget, you need to make choices of how to spend your money, gold, and dust. Should you play Arena? Is it better to buy packs or adventure wings? Which packs are better to buy first?
The simplest question is the first. In short, you need to average at least 4 wins in Arena to do better than simply buying packs using your gold. You need to average at least 7 wins to pay for your next Arena run without using the extra gold from daily quests (for more details, see How Much Arena Should I Play?). Even for excellent Arena players, there is another factor, though, which is time. Arena runs take a long time, and can take away from your constructed play if Ranked mode is what you prefer. Personally, even though I have a decent win rate in Arena (5-6 wins), I much prefer constructed, so I almost always spend my gold to buy packs, and only play Arena when I feel like it.
If it is at all possible for you, I would advise buying Naxxramas and Blackrock Mountain wings with real money. The amount of gold required to get Adventure mode wings is extreme compared to the amount of cards you get, and trying to grind it takes frustratingly long. Not only that, while you are grinding gold to buy Adventure mode wings, you won’t be able to use that gold to buy packs. It is most economical in the long run if you buy both Adventures as package deals. Failing that, I would recommend getting all of Naxxramas and one or two wings of Blackrock Mountain.
At minimum, you need wings 1, 2, and 4 from Naxxramas, and wing 1 of Blackrock Mountain. [Edit: Adventure mode wings must be completed in order, so it is not possible to skip a wing. Thanks Reddit for pointing this out.] These wings give you cards like Haunted Creeper, Loatheb, Sludge Belcher, Mad Scientist, Zombie Chow, and Emperor Thaurissan, among other top tier staples of constructed decks. It is virtually impossible to build competitive decks without cards from at least one of those wings. If you can afford it, the other two wings of Naxxramas include cards required by certain relatively cheap constructed decks, like Shade of Naxxramas for Midrange Druid and Voidcaller for Demon Zoo.
Wing 2 of Blackrock Mountain includes Imp Gang Boss, another core card for Demon Zoo, while wing 4 provides Flamewaker, which is the basis of modern aggressive Mage decks. Wing 5 of Blackrock Mountain includes cards like Blackwing Corrupter and Nefarian, which are run in competitive decks, but they tend to be more expensive decks and these cards are not necessary for a basically viable collection. Wing 3 of Blackrock Mountain contains no cards that are currently viable.
It is hard to say which packs are best to buy. Partially, this will depend on the deck you aim to play and what cards you are hoping to open. All packs, be they Classic, Goblins vs. Gnomes, or (soon!) The Grand Tournament, give the same chance of opening different rarities, so the only thing that matters in terms of total dust is opening packs for the card set you have less of. The more duplicate cards you open, the less value you get.
If you are trying to build a Mech deck, it is fairly straightforward to open GvG packs, since almost all of your decklist will be made from cards in that expansion. For other decks, there is usually a mix of cards from different sets. Ultimately, you will want to open 50-100 packs from each major card set in order to have a reasonably complete collection, so it is mainly a question of how you get to that goal over time. This is a good time to reiterate that it is most efficient to decide in advance how much money you want to spend, rather than buying small numbers of packs several times.
What should I craft?
Certain cards, like Dr. Boom, Sylvanas Windrunner, and Ragnaros the Firelord, will be at the top of every crafting list, but after that, I would advise you to be very cautious about crafting according to a tier list. Such things can give you a sense of how cards are generally regarded in the current meta, but cards can fluctuate greatly over time: witness how Cairne Bloodhoof, once a staple of constructed decks, is now hardly seen, while Archmage Antonidas is now indispensable for both aggro and control Mages, where it once was rarely played. The better approach is to craft according to the specific deck you want to build.
Here are some of the more budget friendly decks in the pre-TGT constructed meta:
Patron Warrior is both the strongest deck in the current meta and an extremely cheap deck, so it is by far the best deck for a budget player to learn. It takes a considerable amount of skill to play well, but there are many streamers and resources to help learn it, and even decent players will be able to win with it due to its power level.
Midrange Druid, Mech Shaman, and Midrange Hunter are all solid decks that can do well on ladder, and which require only a few top-tier neutral legendaries, so if you have started to craft a few cards you will probably be able to build them. Hunter is the cheapest of these, because it does not require any epic cards — all builds of Hunter are cheap, actually. Mech Shaman requires three epics and Lava Burst, a fairly specialized rare. Druid requires five epics, though one of them is the ubiquitous Big Game Hunter, and the others are core class cards.
There are lots of other cheap decks in the game. Aggro Paladin, Demon Zoo, and Oil Rogue all are inexpensive, but include legendaries that don’t see much play in a variety of decks.
The important thing is to pick a deck that you will enjoy playing, and work towards crafting the cards you need, whatever the deck is.
One of the most fun parts of a collectible card game is, well, collecting the cards. Be honest with yourself upfront about how much you will end up spending on packs. For a dedicated player who can afford it, there is no shame spending money how you spend your time. Hearthstone doesn’t demand that you invest your life savings just to be competitive, however. True, without investing any money in the most important Adventure wings, getting started can be slow and painful — to me, this is like buying the game after enjoying the free trial. Beyond that initial cost, with skillful play and thoughtful planning, it is entirely feasible to win and enjoy constructed play in Hearthstone even on a small budget.