Ultimate Hearthstone Guide (Rank 25 to Legend)
Legend in the Making: Part 1 –
Ranks 25 to 15 – Knowing your Role and Embracing Mistakes
I was a total novice at Hearthstone when I began my quest to reach legend. I wasn’t even level 10 with all the classes yet and I only had one legendary card in my collection.
Yet here I am three weeks later, completing my quest to reach Legend on my first attempt.
There were two things which motivated me to shoot for the highest rank at Hearthstone. My first motivation was that I had recently finished reading The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy and subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer who later went on to become a world champion martial artist. The book focuses on the learning principles which Josh developed throughout his careers as a chess and martial champion, which he credits as the primary reason he was able to achieve such tremendous success across two vastly different disciplines. I was eager to try out the lessons I had read about in the book and Hearthstone seemed like the perfect arena for me to put these lessons to the test.
My second motivation for reaching Legend was that I had recently quit playing competitive Magic: The Gathering, mostly to save money for my upcoming move to Australia. Hearthstone seemed like a great way for me to scratch my competitive card gaming itch without breaking the bank. I know many Hearthstone players feel the game is overpriced, but trust me when I say that it doesn’t even come close to the price of MTG. If you don’t believe me just check out the cost of Grixis Death’s Shadow, the most popular deck in the Modern format right now.
As it turns out, my two motivations for reaching legend were my greatest assets. My foundation in competitive MTG had taught me all the fundamentals I needed to climb the Hearthstone ladder, and the lessons I had read about in The Art of Learning provided me with the tools I needed to identify my mistakes and make the best use of my limited time.
A month later I decided to see if I could repeat my results on another card game, so I set my sights on Eternal Card Game’s highest rank – Master’s League. Sure enough, I was able to repeat my success and reached Master’s League on my first attempt.
Why you should trust me
I’m far from a pro at Hearthstone and I’m certainly not a gaming prodigy. I’m a huge fan of Blizzard games, and will begrudgingly admit for the sake of building trust that I placed into Bronze League at Starcraft 2 and Silver League at Overwatch. I don’t have any innate skills or instincts which separate me from the average gamer. All I have going for me are the card game fundamentals I learned from playing competitive MTG and the learning concepts I’ve picked up from The Art of Learning. Both of which I believe I can effectively teach in this guide due to my experience as a writer.
Writing is currently my primary source of income. Though there are many other well-written guides on how to reach Legend, I hope that my ability to distill advanced concepts into clean and effective language will ultimately separate this guide from others like it.
The Art of Learning
I firmly believe that one of the two main reasons I was able to reach Legend on my first attempt was The Art of Learning. Its one the most highly recommended books I’ve ever come across and an essential read for anyone interested in high-level competitive performance.
It’s not particularly long, but its also not the sort of book you want to blast through in one or two sittings. The lessons in it are highly conceptual and may take some time to fully internalize. I highly recommend you get the book and commit to reading a chapter a day during your climb to Legend. A chapter a day takes just 15 minutes, and if you have time to play Hearthstone you have time to read a book. I’m willing to bet that reading The Art of Learning will contribute more towards your goal of reaching Legend than playing extra Hearthstone or spending the cost of the book on extra packs.
Section 1 – The three biggest obstacles to any first-time Legend push
Before you decide to commit the massive amount of time and effort it takes to reach Legend you should be aware of the three biggest obstacles standing in your way. These obstacles are largely procedure-oriented and don’t require any special skills or knowledge to overcome, but they are just as important to your climb as any anything I’ll be teaching in this guide.
Obstacle #1 – Time
It takes a ton of time to reach Legend, even if you’re really good. According to this study a player who wins only 50% of their games should expect to play a whopping 875 games in a single month to reach Legend from rank 20, while a player with a 60% win rate should expect to play 246 games. A 60% winrate at Hearthstone is pretty good, and 246 games is a lot of games. If you can’t commit to playing 300 games in a single month then you probably shouldn’t even attempt to push for Legend at all.
There are few things you can do to make it easier on yourself when it comes to time management and Hearthstone. Firstly, and I can not stress this enough, do not play any Arena. Trust me, I understand that Arena is fun. I understand that doing well at Arena is the best way to grow your collection. But unless you’re willing to commit two or more hours a day every single day of the month to Hearthstone then you simply wont have the time to make Legend. If you spend the coins you’re earning from wins and quests on packs instead of the Arena I promise you’ll still be able to grow your collection and build new decks while climbing to Legend.
Next, I recommend you try to work Hearthstone in to your schedule. If you want to get to 300 games you need to play a minimum of 10 games a day, every single day of the month. Alternatively, you could aim for longer play sessions of 15 to 20 games so you can afford yourself a few days off per week. Speaking for myself I didn’t play anywhere close to every day of the month during my own push for Legend (I took one week off entirely) and found that I got better results from marathon sessions of 20 to 30 ladder games.
Obstacle #2 – Using a Deck Tracker
Using a deck tracker is essential for any first time Legend push. My weapon of choice is the aptly named Hearthstone Deck Tracker, but any deck tracker works fine so long as it provides you with replay functionality.
The most obvious benefit of a deck tracker is that it trains you to play to your outs, a concept I’ll teach in the part four of this guide. Having a window open which shows you the cards remaining in your deck serves as a very useful reminder of your remaining avenues to victory and we’re in the market for every advantage we can get.
The greatest benefit of a deck tracker is not the deck window but its replay functionality. Replays are the most essential tool we have for identifying and correcting mistakes in our play, and a tool we only have access to if we use a deck tracker. The ability to watch replays is absolutely critical to the learning process, which means that a deck tracker is absolutely necessary for rapid improvement.
Obstacle #3 – Choosing a Deck
I know this is going to be a tough pill to swallow for many of you out there but it’s time to give up on your pet deck and play a net deck. I know it hurts, I too am a brewer at heart. My first ever published article on MTG was titled A Brewer’s Manifesto, which discusses in detail why I love brewing MTG decks and the competitive advantages which come along with playing brews.
If we want to make Legend we need absolutely every percentage point and tiny advantage we muster, especially from rank 5 to Legend. The unfortunate truth is that you are only kneecapping yourself by playing an off-meta deck. Do yourself a favor and hop on over to Hearthstone-Decks.net to see which decks you’re closest to making, then make them.
If you don’t have the cards to make one of the top decks in the meta there is absolutely no shame in spending some money to buy them. I spent 100 bucks on packs when I got started to get all the dust I needed to build Aggro Druid and Elemental Shaman, then earned the rest of the dust I needed to build Dragon Priest, Combo Priest, and Midrange Hunter during my climb to Legend. I didn’t need to spend another penny, but I did it anyways because I really really wanted to play Burn Mage and needed an Alexstrasza. So much for saving money.
Section 2 – Ranks 25-15 and Knowing your Role
The most common (yet subtle, yet disastrous) mistake I see in tournament Magic is the misassignment of who is the beatdown deck and who is the control deck in a similar deck vs. similar deck matchup. The player who misassigns himself is inevitably the loser.
Micheal Flores – 1999
Who’s the Beatdown? is the most widely read article in the history of competitive MTG. “Who’s the beatdown?” is one of the most fundamentally important concepts in both MTG and Hearthstone, yet I’ve found that it is widely ignored at all levels of the Hearthstone ladder. In my very final game before reaching Legend (rank 1 with 5 stars) my opponent made a massive misplay which demonstrated they didn’t understand “who’s the beatdown?” at all. Its entirely possible that internalizing the concept of “who’s the beatdown?” will be enough to push some players into Legend by itself.
If you can enter into each game with an understanding of your role in the matchup you will completely dominate this stretch of the ladder. In my experience, the vast majority of players from ranks 25-15 have no absolutely clue about their role in a matchup and will haphazardly throw their spells and minions around without any semblance of a game plan in mind. These players completely fail to see the bigger picture, and approach each decision as the game presents itself to them without bothering to ask themselves “why?”. They play their cards simply because they can, not because they should. Does this sound like you?
In this section, you will learn how to eat these players for breakfast.
So, who is the beatdown?
In every game of Hearthstone there is always one deck which is more aggressive than the other. This deck is the aggro deck, or “beatdown”. Even in a matchup between two highly aggressive decks, one deck is always slower than the other and should assume the role of the control deck in that matchup. This might not seem intuitive, but in a 29 out of 30 card mirror match where the 30th card in one deck is more expensive than the 30th card in the other one, the deck which has the more expensive card in it should assume the role of the control deck while the other deck should assume the role of the aggro deck.
Just because a deck is the control deck in one matchup doesn’t mean it will be the control deck in another one. The role of the aggro or control deck changes from matchup to matchup and can even change places depending on who goes first.
Most of the time its pretty easy to identify who the aggro deck is. Aggro Druid, for example, is the aggro deck against nearly every deck in the game. But what does that mean, exactly? Is it the aggro deck against Pirate Warrior? What about the mirror match? We’ll cover those concepts shortly, but first we should establish how we go about identifying who the beatdown is:
- The deck with the bigger minions and more expensive cards is probably the control deck.
- The deck with more card draw (Lay on Hands, Cabalist’s Tome, and Mana Tide Totem) is probably the control deck.
- The deck with more removal (cards like Hex, Meteor, and Vilespine Slayer) and board wipes (Brawl, Volcano, and Starfall) is probably the control deck.
Another helpful tool for identifying your role is the Metagame Clock from reddit’s competitive hearthstone subreddit. The most aggressive deck is at 1 o’clock (Pirate Warrior) and as the clock progresses clockwise the decks become more and more controlling. This is a great tool to get you started out as you learn how to determine your role in every matchup, but it doesn’t include many decks and isn’t always 100% accurate.
Knowing which deck is the aggro deck and which deck is the control deck can sometimes be a difficult question to answer, especially when two similarly configured midrange decks go head to head. The key concept to understand is that in the vast majority of games, one deck is always the control deck and one deck is always the aggro deck. Identifying which role you are in a matchup should inform almost every decision you make in that game, and misidentifying your role in a matchup is the most likely reason you are losing games at the lower ranks.
Things start to get really tricky when you take into account that roles can even vary from game to game within the same matchup. You might switch roles in a matchup depending on which cards are in your opening hand, which threats from each deck have already been removed from the game, and which cards each player can afford to play around. In general, the closer the decks are to each other in “beatdowniness” the more likely they are to switch roles in the middle of a game, and the further they are apart from each other the less likely the are to do so.
Highly aggressive and controlling decks
As a rule of thumb, the more aggressively a deck is built the worse it will be at playing the role of the control deck against similarly aggressive decks. Conversely, as decks become more and more controlling they become worse and worse at playing the role of the aggro deck against similarly configured opponents. The decks found on either end of the aggro-control spectrum are designed with extremely narrow focuses, and are generally good at one thing and one thing only.
From the perspective of determining “who’s the beatdown?”, its quite rare (though not entirely impossible) that a deck like Jade Druid or Pirate Warrior would have to play a role other than one they are designer for. This is why I believe these decks tend to draw the most ire from newer players. I’ve heard countless complaints about how frustrating these deck are to play against due to how “obvious” they are to pilot. The reason they seem so obvious to pilot is because the role for these decks is so clearly defined that an inexperienced pilot is likely to execute the principles behind “who’s the beatdown?” while playing with one of these decks without even realizing they’re doing it. This gives them a significant advantage over other players who don’t understand what their role is in a matchup.
Our first lesson from The Art of Learning is that mistakes are essential to the learning process. We should not fear mistakes, but accept that they are vital part of learning and our most valuable teachers. The quickest way to learn and improve at Hearthstone (and at life in general) is to make mistakes, identify those mistakes as quickly as possible, and never repeat them. The best way to identify our mistakes is to watch replays of our games.
The most important tool you have for improving at Hearthstone is your replays. If you ever finish a game with a feeling that you could have won but didn’t, or if you don’t understand why you lost in the first place, take this as a signal to go back and watch your replay. Especially during the ranks 25-15, you should be watching replays of every single game loss. It might seem like a waste of time, but every game you lose while repeating mistakes is a far greater waste of time than watching replays.
While watching your replays you want to be mainly focusing on the question of “who’s the beatdown?” until its completely ingrained in your subconscious. The goal is to reach a point where you no longer have to use any of your brain power to identify your role in a matchup. You want it to feel completely intuitively.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself while watching replays to check if you are correctly identifying your role in a matchup:
- Could I have won this game if I played the opposite role?
- Did I play my role in this matchup correctly? (We’ll dive into this shortly)
- Was there a point in the game where it was necessary for me to swap roles to give myself a chance to win?
The concept of “who’s the beatdown?” is so vital to improving at Hearthstone that it should be the only thing you are focused on at these ranks. This falls in line with our next lesson from The Art of Learning: focus on learning only one thing at a time, and don’t focus on learning anything new until you have mastered the first thing. As you progress through this guide try to focus on applying just one skill at a time as best you can. Don’t put too much weight into the results of your games, focus on improvement first and trust that the results will come later.
The Aggro Player
The aggro player has one goal and one goal only:
Kill ’em dead!
The longer the game goes on the easier it will be for the control player to outclass the aggro player with their bigger and better stuff. The way you can gain an advantage with your smaller minions and spells is to leverage your superior speed. When in doubt, point your damage towards the face and aim to kill your opponent as quickly as possible.
Even as the aggro player, some trades are still too good to pass up. It is often necessary to protect a high value minion (such as a Frothing Berserker which is growing in power) by trading your low value minions into their board. Trading away low power minions to protect high power minions still fits in line with the aggro mentality of kill ’em dead! as it often represents the fastest way possible to kill the opponent, otherwise known as a “clock”.
The clock is a term which is used to define how many turns away a player is from dying, assuming that the board doesn’t change and every attack goes to the face. If your opponent is at 10 life and you have 4 power worth of minions on board, they’re on a 3 turn clock (4+4+4>10). Adding two power to this board would reduce the clock to two turns. In this context, there’s really no difference between adding one power to the board (5+5=10=dead) or two power (6+6=12=dead), which brings us to the concept of “clock management”.
One way to get the most of out your clock management is to consider how you can deal the most damage per card. This is easy to do when it comes to burn spells (a Fireball is almost always going to be 6 damage) but its a little harder to conceptualize when it comes to minions. Since you want to inflict the highest possible amount of damage per card, you would do well to to not play minions into boards where they are likely to die prematurely. For example, let’s pretend that we’re an Evolve Shaman in the aggro role against a Mage. If we play out a turn one Patches the Pirate he’s likely to get killed by Jaina’s hero power and only deal one damage in the process. If we choose to wait on that Patches until the turn we cast Bloodlust, Patches will deal 4 damage instead of 1.
One of the easiest ways for an aggro player to lose is to overextend their resources into a board wipe like Brawl. If you’ve already presented your opponent with a one turn clock and they have yet to cast a Brawl this game, what benefit is there to playing out any more minions? You’re already winning next turn anyways and you don’t get bonus points for winning by larger margins. Presenting just the right amount of damage to your opponent without committing your strongest cards to the board forces your opponent to use their annoying board wipes while allowing you to hold on to your key resources. If you can present more threats to your control opponent than they can provide answers, you’ll eventually win.
Overloading the control player’s resources
The dream for an aggro player is to get such an amazing opening hand that they can kill their opponent before they even have the chance to put up a fight. It goes without saying that games don’t always play out this way. So what can you do if your hand is relatively normal or if your opponent has all the tools they need to fight off your initial attack? This is when we should start thinking about overloading our opponent’s resources.
The aggro player can attempt to attack the resources of the control player on a number of different vectors. One way is to continuously “go wide” by presenting boards of four or more minions again and again, demanding board wipe spells from the opponent. If you can present more wide boards than your opponent can present board wipes, you’ve successfully “overloaded” their board wipe resource and have put yourself in a good position to win. This is a very common way for Aggro Druid decks to steal wins against control decks. Aggro Druid can first create a wide board presences with cards like Fire Fly, Bloodsail Corsair, and Patches the Pirate, then buff them up with Mark of the Lotus and Power of the Wild to demand a board wipe from their opponent. Once the board wipe has been played they can play a Living Mana to create a new board all over again and demand another board wipe. Then they can play another Living Mana. This is often too much for control decks to handle, but it requires planning from the aggro player to execute correctly without overextending.
Another resource the aggro player can attack is their opponent’s removal spells. If you can present more fatties (cards like Bittertide Hydra) than your opponent has spells to kill them, the final unanswered fatty will often win you the game. This is how Pirate Warrior wins most of its games. It demands an answer to threat after threat, and if their opponent ever stumbles and allows the Pirate Warrior’s threat to stick around too long they pack enough face damage (such as Arcanite Reaper and Mortal Strike) to quickly finish them off.
Try to be keenly aware of the cards your control opponent has already played so you can attempt to run them out of gas on that vector. Beyond the cards in the opponents deck, there is one more resource the control player badly needs which the aggro player can attempt to overload: Mana.
Tempo is a term you’ll hear a lot in competitive card games but it is rarely well defined. In my mind, tempo is just another way of saying that a player is attempting to overload their opponent’s mana by endeavoring to create a board advantage or speed advantage at the expense of their own cards.
The classic example of a tempo play is a card which returns a minion to their opponent’s hand, like Sap. Casting Sapputs you down a card against your opponent as it only removes their minion temporarily, but it creates a board advantage and has the potential to create a massive mana advantage (tempo). For example, if your opponent spends 8 mana and their entire turn to cast Tirion Fordring while you only spend 2 mana to return it to their hand the following turn, you come out way ahead on mana for the turn and are way ahead on tempo.
Another tempo card in the context of aggro decks is Innervate. It costs you an entire card to play something two turns ahead of schedule, but if you’ve ever lost to an Aggro Druid that played Innervate into Vicious Fledgling on turn one then you understand exactly what it means to be behind on tempo.
The aggro player can frequently use their deck’s superior speed in the early game to gain control over the board, which forces their opponent into making unfavorable trades to stay alive. That’s tempo. If you’re forcing your opponent to use their spells and minions with high mana costs to deal with your own threats which have a low mana costs, you’re creating a mana advantage for yourself and are overloading your opponent’s mana. As an aggro player there’s no greater feeling than killing a control player who is sitting on a full grip of juicy cards they never got the chance to play, and there’s no worse feeling than being empty handed and out of threats while your control opponent has all the resources they need to take over the game.
Turning the Corner
Once the aggro player loses control over the board they are unlikely to ever get it back. Your best shot at winning the game once you’ve lost control of the board is to point everything at the opponent’s face and hope to god it eventually adds up to 30. The moment the control player gains control of the board is referred to as “turning the corner”. It’s the aggro player’s job to never allow the control player to turn the corner just as much as its the control player’s job to turn it themselves.
The Role of the Control Player
The primary goal of the control player is just as simple to grasp as the aggro player’s:
Don’t. Get. Killed.
All you need to do is turn the corner and the game should be firmly in your grasp. It often doesn’t matter how quickly or efficiently you turn that corner, just that you are able to turn it eventually with a safe life total in tact. Every decision you make as the control player until turning the corner should be to keep yourself as far away from dying as possible. As long as there exists even the slimmest possibility that you could die your job is to eliminate that possibility. Seek and destroy! Your stuff is bigger and better than theirs, and in matchups where your deck is significantly more controlling than theirs it really doesn’t matter how efficiently you traded your resources for theirs as long as you are able to eventually turn the corner. Kill their stuff, kill it again, and keep trading every one of your minions into theirs until they run out gas.
Being the control player often requires you to make more decisions throughout the course of the game than your aggro opponent. Aggro players tend to take flack from control players for playing “easy deck”, but I don’t think this is a fair criticism. Though its true a newer player is much more likely to mindlessly pilot the flavor of the month aggro deck to modest success than the flavor of the month control deck, this doesn’t necessarily mean that aggro decks are intrinsically easier to play than control decks. The margin for error for aggro players is much smaller than that of their control opponents. A single mistake or lapse in judgement will frequently cost an aggro player the entire game while control players are afforded a bit more wiggle room.
On a conceptual level, the control player’s path to victory is much more clearly defined that that of the aggro player. Aggro players regularly have to pivot their strategy and construct new game plans on the fly to find a way to win, while control players just need to focus on stabilizing the board to ensure victory. Just. Don’t. Die.
The only time you should not be pointing every last ounce of your resources towards keeping yourself alive is when it becomes clear that your aggro opponent can kill you if they have the right cards. Cards like Bloodlust, Leeroy Jenkins, and Savage Roar can seemingly kill out of nowhere, and it isn’t always possible to sculpt the board in such a way that you won’t die to these threats. What can you do when you no longer have the ability to play around these cards?
Be aware of your clock
The control player will regularly be in a position where they have more cards in hand and the larger minions on board, but still feel as though they are on the back foot (behind on tempo) and are frantically scrambling to stay alive. When it is no longer possible to play around cards which may or may not be in your opponents hand, check to see if its possible to switch roles and put your opponent on a faster clock than they can put you. Though you can never leave your opponent with a lethal amount damage on board, its frequently possible to clear just enough of their board to potentially keep yourself alive for a turn while threatening lethal damage on the following one. When you know you’re dead to a Leeroy Jenkins but are unable to do anything about it, its probably more correct to put your opponent on a clock and pray they don’t have it than it is to keep waiting around for them to draw it and kill you.
Newer players tend to place far too high a value on plays which generate big swings in card advantage and opt to hold onto their resources for far too long. They also tend to put way too low a value on keeping their life total high.
The most common example of getting greedy is when a player decides not to use a removal spell on a minion so they can set up a devastating board wipe the following turn. In matchups where the decks are very far apart in beatdowniness (such as Pirate Warrior vs Taunt Warrior) its often incorrect for the control player to not protect their life total as aggressively as possible. Their late game plan is so much more powerful than their opponent’s that they easily can afford to throw their weight around to keep their life total nice and juicy.
The opposite is true when decks are very close to each other in “beatdowniness”, where card advantage and board control are often more important than life totals. These games regularly come down to “the last minion standing”, and are unlikely to be lost because of the 3 extra points of damage you took while waiting a turn to play Flamestrike. Even still, there is always an aggro player and a control player in matchups between similarly configured decks. The trick in these matchups is to determine who is who.
Midrange Matchups and Mirror Matches
Midrange decks are designed to pivot fluidly between the aggro and control roles. Unlike the decks on either end of the aggro-control spectrum, midrange decks tend to have a less focused gameplan and often trade deck synergy for raw power of individual cards. In a midrange vs midrange matchup, its not entirely uncommon to have both players assume they’re playing the same role, switch roles in the middle of the game, or abandon the idea of roles entirely to focus on assembling a different kind of gameplan.
Not all midrange decks are created equal, and the most lopsided matchups in Hearthstone tend to be between two midrange decks where one is slightly bigger than the other. If the smaller deck doesn’t have enough ways to leverage their speed to create a tempo advantage they’re stuck in a situation where they’re forced to go into the late game against a deck with more firepower than them. As the player who’s outgunned, its generally best to abandon the idea of winning as the aggro deck and focus instead of assembling a devastating combo.
Let’s say you’re Dragon Priest playing against a N’Zoth Paladin. As the Dragon Priest you don’t quite have the speed to go underneath the Paladin in the midgame, and your late game plan will probably get crushed by N’Zoth, the Corruptor. Playing the straight up aggro deck will get you nowhere, as will playing the control deck. In this situation you still have two good options – you can set up a massive Lyra the Sunshard turn or attempt to assemble a Divine Spirit/Inner Fire kill. Once you’ve identified that the aggro plan isn’t going to work in a midrange-midrange matchup, your best option is to assemble the pieces necessary to combo kill your opponent. This means that you cannot afford to play any of your combo pieces until the turn you are ready to go off. In the above example, this implies that you have to wait until you have both Lyra the Sunshard and a Radiant Elemental or two in hand before playing any of them out.
In a midrangey matchup between two very evenly matched decks, the standard playbook for “who’s the beatdown?” can go out the window. In these matchups the true battle often isn’t over the player’s life totals, but for control of the board, card advantage, and squeezing every ounce of value out of your cards. Though there will be times in many midrange matchups where the players assume the role of the aggro or control player due to the nature of the situation, attempting to rigidly apply the concepts of “who’s the beatdown?” can get you into trouble. Mirror matches are very similar to these midrangey games as they are also won or lost more by board control and hunting for small advantages than they are by playing aggro or control roles.
The player who goes first in a mirror match is inherently ahead on tempo by virtue of getting to play their stuff out first, as such they are generally in a position to play the role of the aggro player. This is exacerbated in mirror matches at the higher ends of the aggro spectrum where decks are already ill-suited to play the control role. In Pirate Warrior vs Pirate Warrior, the player who goes first has a massive advantage. On the other end of the aggro-control spectrum, the player who goes second in a mirror match is often in a better position to play the control role by virtue of the fact that they begin the game with an extra card in their hand. The events which unfold throughout the game are still undoubtedly the greatest factor in dictating the roles each player should assume, but the innate advantages and disadvantages which come along with going first and second are more greatly magnified in mirror matches than they in other kinds of matchups.
Section 3 – Conclusion
Learning and applying the lessons of “who’s the beatdown?” are the first steps any aspiring Legend should take in adjusting their play. Knowing your role informs every decision you make in a game of Hearthstone and provides you with a solid template to follow in the majority of your games.
There’s more that goes into a winning game plan than understanding your role, so in my next installment of “Legend in the Making” I’ll cover the topic of “having a plan”. Now that we understand the driving force which behind the decisions we make, its time to learn how we can use this knowledge to construct cohesive, multi-turn strategies which will pick apart any opponent who plays without a similar amount of foresight. Knowing “why” is step one, knowing “how” is step two.
The three biggest obstacles of any first-time Legend push:
- Commit to playing 300 games of Hearthstone in a single month. Try to work Hearthstone into your daily schedule and quit playing Arena.
- Download and install a deck tracker which provides replay functionality.
- Start playing net decks. Use this site to find them
Lessons from The Art of Learning:
- I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Art of Learning and commit to reading one chapter (roughly 15 minutes) per day.
- Embrace your mistakes, they are your greatest teachers. Watch replays of every one of your losses so you can identify your mistakes, then note these mistakes in an effort to never repeat them.
- Focus on learning one thing at a time. Learn that one thing completely before moving on to the next one. Depth, not breadth, is the path to mastery.
- Don’t focus too much on the results of your matches while you’re attempting to learn a new skill. The key to learning is the process, not the results. Trust that the results will come in time.
Knowing your Role:
- Begin each match by identifying your role as the aggro or control player. Use this knowledge to inform all of your decisions throughout the match.
- As the aggro player – Get ’em dead!
- As the control player – Don’t. Get. Killed.
- Be aware of the importance of board control and card advantage in midrange matches and mirror matches.
Legend in the Making: Part 2 –
Ranks 15 to 10 – Having a Plan and Playing to Outs
I’m of the opinion that anyone can reach Legend so long as they have a solid grasp on the fundamentals and are willing to commit the time and effort. I can’t promise to help you find the time and motivation it will take to play the 300 or more games it takes to reach Legend, but I can certainly help you learn the fundamentals.
In part one I discussed the importance of identifying your role as the aggro or control player in every game of Hearthstone. Commonly referred to as “who’s the beatdown?”, I can’t possibly overstate how critical it is to understand this concept before moving on to more complex topics. If you don’t have a solid understanding of “who’s the beatdown?” then you should go back and read part one before part two, even if you’re already rank 15 or higher. Part two builds upon the ideas of its predecessor and is written under the assumption that the reader understands the terms I defined in it.
In part two we’ll be covering two highly related concepts: “having a plan” and “playing to outs”. If understanding your role in a matchup is what separate the beginners from the intermediate players, then “having a plan” and “playing to outs” are what separate the intermediate players from the advanced ones.
“Having a plan” is a framework for making tough decisions in tight games, and to have a plan is to consider the past, present, and future of our current game when making decisions. “Playing to outs” is the framework for making decisions in games where one player is clearly ahead. To play to your own outs is to ask and answer “how can I win this game?” when playing from behind. Conversely, playing to your opponent’s outs is to ask and answer “how can I lose this game?” when you have the lead.
By having a plan we can make more informed decisions in the present by making choices which guide ourselves towards a desirable future state. It’s always better to have a plan than to not have one, so we should begin each turn by asking ourselves a series of questions to determine what the best plan is and what can we do right now to get there the fastest.
People who aim to rapidly improve at Hearthstone tend to adopt a heuristic-based approach to their decision making. They adopt hard and fast rules such as “never Coin into Wild Growth” or “never play turn one Northshire Cleric against a Warrior”, but in Hearthstone there is no such thing as “never”. Decisions in Hearthstone, just like decisions in real life, depend entirely upon the context in which they are made. “Having a plan” and “playing to outs” require that you have the ability to make decisions based solely on the texture of the current game, regardless of how stupid these decisions might look in another one. In a vacuum its a terrible idea to attack a 10/1 into a 1/1, but there are many contexts in which this attack is the only way to win the game.
It’s time to throw out our old toolbox for making decisions and replace it with a newer, more complete one. Let’s learn how to break the rules.
Watching Replays and The Art of Learning
As I mentioned in part one, a large part of how I was able to reach Legend in my first month of competitive play were the lessons I learned from a book called The Art of Learning. It taught me how to critically analyze my own decisions, relentlessly hunt down my mistakes, and create systems to prevent myself from repeating these mistakes. Many readers have reached out to thank me for recommending The Art of Learning to them – I promise you won’t regret reading it.
If you learn only one thing from this entire series then let it be this: watch your replays. The quickest way to learn and improve at Hearthstone (and at life in general) is to make mistakes, identify those mistakes as quickly as possible, and never repeat them. The best way to identify our mistakes is to watch replays of our games. You’ll need a deck tracker to watch replays, so if you aren’t using one already get a deck tracker installed right away.
One of my readers commented on part one with a question about replays. They noted how much time it normally takes to reach Legend and asked if it would take them even longer if they had to watch their replays all time.
In a word, no. In two words, hell no.
Every time you make a mistake and it goes unnoticed you set yourself up to make the same mistake again in the future. Games are often won or lost on the back of a single mistake, and every game loss on the ladder requires an additional win just to get you back to where you started. If you’re hoping to reach Legend in any kind of timely manner then you simply can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes over and over.
If you ever lose a game and feel as though there was a way you could have won if you played the game perfectly, take this as a very strong signal that you should watch the replay before jumping back on the ladder. Keep an eye out for the mistakes you made, embrace these mistakes as a valuable learning opportunity, and find a way to make sure you don’t repeat them.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Intermediate level Hearthstone players love to make “high value” plays. They have just enough experience with Hearthstone to know what a high value play looks like, but they lack the wisdom to know if their high value plays are actually helping them win the game. These players tend to get angry when they lose because they have convinced themselves that they deserve to win every game. They’ll rationalize each defeat by telling themselves they had terrible luck or that their opponent’s deck is overpowered. There’s always a reason these players lose, and it’s never their own fault.
What I just described is a well documented phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect states that the less knowledgeable someone is the more likely they are to believe they’re an expert. This extremely common cognitive bias (which I have been very guilty of in the past) occurs when someone knows just enough about something to understand it better than a beginner but not nearly enough to understand how much they still have left to learn.
Have you ever met someone who only knows how to play Wonderwall and the intro to Stairway to Heaven on their new guitar but they’re already talking about the fancy car they’ll buy when they become a famous guitarist? That’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. The guy who posts on the official Blizzard forums the same day a new set comes out claiming to have solved the entire meta? Dunning-Kruger effect. That buddy of yours who claims the only reason they didn’t hit rank 5 last season is because Pirate Warrior is overpowered? You guessed it, Dunning-Kruger effect. By convincing themselves they know more than they actually do these people have become their own biggest obstacle to improving at Hearthstone. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the poison pill to progress.
Section 1: What’s the Plan?
The Difference Between Roles and Plans
Many of you who have just arrived from part one may be wondering something along the lines of:
Well, not exactly. Knowing your role certainly factors into your plan, but it’s not what I’m talking about when I use the word “plan” in part two. “Beatdown” is no more of a plan for winning at Hearthstone than “going fast” is a plan for winning the Tour de France.
Your role in a matchup is the big picture, long-term reason for why you should be making the decisions you’re making. Your plan is the shorter-term, context dependent method for determining how you should make your decisions. Roles inform decisions over the course of the entire game while plans inform decisions over the course of the next few turns.
Let’s walk you through an example:
I had an incredible first turn of double Innervate into Bittertide Hydra plus Coin into Enchanted Raven (note: this play was made before the nerf to Innervate, so the card adds 2 mana instead of 1). I’ve been pushing as much damage to his face as I can but I’m faced with a difficult choice on turn five. Do I play Living Mana or Druid of the Claw? My role is obvious, but what’s my plan here?
Living Mana has the potential to get blown out by Innervate + Primordial Drake, which could potentially allow my opponent to turn the corner on me if he has any number of cards (such as Jade Behemoth or Earthen Scales) the following turn. Another thing to consider is that my Bittertide Hydra will have 3 life on his next turn and could be killed by a Wrath. If I wanted to play the Druid of the Claw as a 4/4 with charge then my opponent would need to have Wrathplus another spell which dealt with my 4/4. I remembered that my opponent had already played a Wrath, a Swipe, and a Feral Rage this game, so I decided that the odds that he could deal with my Hydra plus my 4/4 were lower than the odds he had Innervate + Primordial Drake. I ended up going with the Druid of the Claw play and winning the game.
What Goes Into a Plan?
Continuing with the above example, let’s take a look at some of the factors which went into formulating my plan:
- My role in the matchup.
- The cards in my hand.
- The state of the board.
- My opponent’s life total.
- The specific cards my opponent had already played this game.
- The amount of health my Bittertide Hydra will have after attacking the Tar Creeper.
- The amount of mana my opponent will be able to produce the following turn assuming he has an Innervate in hand.
- The cards which are likely to be in my opponent’s deck which I haven’t seen yet.
All of this just to choose which card I play on turn 5! But what if I didn’t “have a plan”? What would the factors for my turn 5 decision look like then?
- My role in the matchup
- The cards in my hand
- The state of the board
- My opponent’s life total
Without a plan, decisions are made through the lens of how they impact you from the data you can see right now.
What do I have? What’s on the board? Can I kill him right now? No? Then I guess I’ll do whatever kills him the most this turn!
Playing with a plan means you consider not only what going on right now, but what has already happened in the past or is likely to happen in the future. It also means that you realize your own cards are only half of the puzzle and that your opponent plays just a big a role in determining the outcome of the game as you do. Playing with a plan is a holistic approach to decision making which accounts for the past, the present, the future, and the player on the other side of the table. If these four factors are all the pieces of a puzzle, then having a plan is the act of putting the puzzle together.
During a recent server maintenance on NA I decided to play on EU for the first time. After I played through the mandatory tutorial missions I slapped together a budget Hunter deck and hopped onto the ladder for the first time.
I passed my first turn with no play. Turn two he casts a Frostbolt to my face.
I won the game handedly. I played minions, he couldn’t kill them, and he died.
Did I win because my opponent didn’t have a plan? Not at all. My opponent had a plan, a very popular one in fact. I call it the “play stuff” plan. Many new players default to the “play stuff” plan because they don’t know any better, but this plan is doomed to fail because it only considers one stretch of time: the present.
Do I have a one drop? Cool, let’s play it! Is that a two drop? Frostbolt to the face, take that! Ooh look, I’m at 30 and my opponent is at 24. I’m winning!
Playing a card because it’s in your hand is like getting on a bus because it’s the first one at the bus stop. Sure, sometimes you’ll get lucky and step on the right bus (play the right card without realizing it), but if your plan is to always get on the first bus you see then you’re going to eventually end up in the wrong part of town (turn one Arcane Missiles to the face).
Newer players tend to play the game as it presents itself to them. They don’t consider the past or future when constructing their plans, they just look at what’s in their hand and go for it. They play cards because they can, not because they should. They’re completely trapped in the present.
Intermediate players fall into a different kind of trap. They think the present isn’t very important because games they believe that games are won in the future with superior card advantage and bigger stuff. They opt not to cast Shadow Word: Pain on a Vicious Fledgling so that their Dragonfire Potion will get max value the following turn, so they die to a Savage Roar the next turn and take to forums to whine about how mindless Aggro Token Druid is (courtesy of the Dunning-Kruger effect). These people are trapped in the future.
People can also get trapped in the past.
They already played one Brawl and one Sleep with the Fishes, so there’s no way they have another board wipe. I’ll play out my entire hand to set up lethal next turn.
Section 2: Past, Present, and Future
Since we don’t have to worry about the past changing on us, factoring the past into our plans is actually quite simple. We just have to remember to do it.
The past gives us access to all kinds of useful information. It can tell us which kinds of cards have been put into our opponent’s hand by effects like Cabalist’s Tome or The Curator. It can tell us which cards have died this game and are able resurrected by effects like N’Zoth, the Corruptor. Most importantly, the past tells us which of our opponent’s cards have already been used and we no longer need to worry about playing around. We shouldn’t have to spend much tracking the cards we’ve already played as our deck tracker (which you’re totally using to watch replays, right?) can help us out with that.
Having access to more data enables us to make smarter decisions, and one of the bests ways to unlock all the data we have available to us is to ask ourselves smarter questions. Here a few examples of the kinds of questions we can start to ask ourselves about the past:
- You want to commit more minions to the board and your opponent has already cast a Swipe. If your opponent had the other Swipe in hand would they have cast it last turn?
- You want to know if you should kill your opponent’s Alexstrasza or push damage to your opponent’s face. An Alex attack would put you at 7 life and dead to the following: Fireball + Hero Power, double Frostbolt + Hero Power, Firelands Portal + Frostbolt, and Pyroblast. Which of these spells has your opponent already cast this game? Are you likely to die next turn if you don’t kill the Alexstrasza?
- You can kill your opponent next turn with a Jade Lightning if you send every minion at his face this turn. Has he already used a Greater Healing Potion? How about the Shadow Visions he used on turn four? Has he already cast the spell he found from it? If he hasn’t, how likely is it that he would have chosen Greater Healing Potion when he cast Shadow Visions?
- Your Warrior opponent played The Curator and drew two cards. Can you use the data from the past to determine exactly which two cards they are?
The present is everything you can see on the screen. The life totals, the cards on the board, the cards in your hand… I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you these things should factor heavily into your plans.
Playing correctly in the present is largely a matter of knowing your role. If you’ve read part one of this guide then you should already have the blueprint for putting together a plan when the present is the only thing that matters. As the present is the most important stretch of time in the majority of situations, playing your role is quite often the correct plan. In fact, present data should be weighed most heavily when roles are most clearly defined. Are you getting your face pounded in by Murlocs? No time like the present to not get killed! Are your opponent’s Jade Golems starting to get out of hand? Better to not waste any time worrying about the future, kill ‘em dead! The trick comes in knowing when not to focus on the present.
There are many situations where the present is far less important than the past or future. The present is often the least important stretch of time in control vs control matchups, and many combo decks tend to play the majority of their games in the future as they attempt to assemble a specific combination of cards. As a general rule of thumb, the less clearly your role is defined the more heavily you should be weighing the past and future into your plans.
If you’ve ever watched a professional player stream Hearthstone on twitch.tv you may have noticed that they spend a huge amount of time talking about the future. What is my opponent going to do next turn? What do I need to draw here? Which cards can kill me? This is not necessarily because the future is the most important stretch of time, but that the future is far and away the most difficult to assess. The past and present hold a wealth information, but with few exceptions their data is fundamentally immutable. In the future nothing is a guarantee.
A newer player might be forced to use the majority of their thinking power to make sense of the X’s and O’s on the board in front them (the present). A pro player looking at the same board might have already seen one just like it a thousand times before. This allows them to swiftly recall the data they need about the present on a subconscious level, while a newer player is required to use their thinking time to generate the same data. This allows more experienced players to free up their thinking time and point their attention elsewhere, most likely towards the future.
Predicting Your Opponent
Everything you can do in future turns is impacted by actions your opponent may or may not make. Planning for the future is just as much about analyzing your opponent’s future as it is about analyzing your own. To be able to predict your opponent’s actions you’ll need to know which cards are likely to be in their deck, and to know which cards are likely to be in their deck you’ll need to have a fairly deep understanding of the current metagame.
By the time you’ve climbed to rank 15 you’re already likely to have encountered every deck in the meta at least once. The vast majority of players on ladder simply copy their decklists off the internet (and so should you), which makes it much easier to perform the kind of future-oriented planning I will talk about in this section.
You should already have the ability to guess which deck your opponent is playing after seeing the cards they’ve played in the first few turns. Even if you aren’t able to determine the exact 30 cards they’re running you should still have some kind of sense for the cards you’re likely to encounter. Shamans almost always have Flametongue Totems, Priests almost always have some combination of Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Word: Death, Rogues almost always have Backstaband Eviscerate… you get the picture. This knowledge alone should factor heavily into your plans for the future.
Let’s take look at some questions we can ask ourselves to help collect as much data as we can about the future:
- Which cards are capable of killing me in the future? Am I capable of playing around them?
- Example: You’re playing against an Evolve Shaman. On turn five they drop a Doppelgangster and pass the turn. Are you dead to a Bloodlust? Can you stop it? Will your opponent take over the game if they have an Evolve? Can you stop it?
- Note: This is called “playing to your opponent’s outs”, which I will talk about in detail in the next section.
- Are there any cards my opponent has been unable to play so far but will be able to play soon?
- Are there any cards I want to play right now which are my only answer to a card my opponent hasn’t played yet?
- Example: You have a Hex in hand and are playing against a Paladin. They haven’t played Tirion Fordring yet, but you want to cast Hex on their Wickerflame Burnbristle. Can you beat Tirion Fordring without a Hex?
- Note: This is called “line-up theory”. I will be diving deep on this topic in part three.
- How do I lose this game?
- Example: You’re playing an aggro deck and are clearly in the lead. Are you more likely to lose if you play out your hand into a board wipe, or if you don’t play out your hand and have your minions killed by removal spells?
- How do I win this game?
- Example: You’re playing Freeze Mage and are clearly losing. Your opponent’s board is getting out of control and the only way you can win is if you peel a Blizzard off the top of your deck next turn. How does that impact the decisions you make right now?
How would things change if your opponent was a literal goldfish? Seeing as goldfish lack the dexterity to play Hearthstone all they could do is pass.
When playing against an opponent who takes no actions whatsoever Hearthstone morphs from a game into a puzzle. The solution to the puzzle is to kill your opponent in the fewest number of turns possible. In an exercise known to many MTG players as “goldfishing” the past and present lose all relevance. What we’re left with is an entirely future-oriented approach to planning out our turns.
When goldfishing it’s better to deal zero damage in the first four turns and kill on turn five than it is to deal twenty damage in the first four turns and kill on turn six. The same is often true when playing against a real opponent.Goldfishing can teach us that our number one priority when it comes to killing our opponent is time. Though it would be foolish to play against every opponent the same way we would play against goldfish, there are actually quite a few situations where it’s correct do so.
If the game ever lines itself up in such a way that your opponent’s cards don’t matter and the future is the only important stretch of time, then you’re goldfishing! This situation can arise when an aggro player is so far behind their opponent that they can’t afford to play around a single card. It can also occur when a combo deck plays against an opponent who is unable to pressure their life total in a meaningful way, affording them the time to goldfish until they are able to combo off or are forced to deal with their opponent’s pressure.
Making the Most of Your Mana
With all things being equal, it’s generally best to play your most expensive cards first. Bigger cards tend to have more powerful effects, but the main reason we want to do this is mana efficiency. Using more mana than our opponent is one way we can build up a lead, and playing our most expensive cards first allows us to use our mana more efficiently in the future.
The Critical Card
It’s all too common for a game to be won or lost on the back of a single a card. Sometimes these cards have a devastatingly powerful effect on the game, while other times they provide a narrow answer to a specific situation. If a critical card is waiting in your hand a plan might be as simple as constructing a situation for it to take over the game.
If the plan is to win with a card like Bloodlust or Savage Roar, then the plan is to set up a single turn where you’ll have a lethal number of minions of board. Nothing else matters. If your only hope is to combo kill your opponent with Tundra Rhino and a massive Scavenging Hyena out of nowhere, then you simply can’t afford to let your cheap beasts get killed before your Hyena bursts onto the scene. Plans like these are where classic concepts such as card advantage and “who’s the beatdown?” go out the window. All that matters is you can shape the game in such a way that your critical card can do its job.
It’s easy enough to understand how to construct a plan around a critical card if it’s already in your hand, but what should you do if the card is lurking somewhere in the depths of your deck? And how about the player on the other side of the table? When can we afford to play around their critical cards?
Section 3: Playing to Outs
Some of the best players in the world have a reputation for getting lucky at critical moments in big games. If it happens once it’s a coincidence, but if it keeps happening then it’s a pattern. What’s going on here? Is Pavel naturally luckier than the average human? Of course not! Pavel understands how to play to his outs, a finely honed skill which creates the illusion of luck.
I often think back to a quote I heard on Limited Resources, a Magic: The Gathering podcast co-hosted by Luis Scott-Vargas (one of the greatest MTG players of all time), which helped me grasp the importance of playing to outs. Here’s what Luis had to say about why one of the best MTG players in the world was so special:
It’s time to get good.
Playing to Your Outs
When the chances of victory start to dip into the single digits many players have a tendency to concede the game before they’re actually dead. They think they’re saving themselves time by getting a head start on the next game. This is a tremendous fallacy.
Every loss you suffer on ladder requires at least one more victory to get you back to where you started. By conceding away all the games where you’re only 9% to win you cost yourself 9 wins out of every 100 games. What do you think will take longer, playing those 100 games to their conclusion or playing the extra games it would take to net yourself 9 more wins than losses? Unless you’re a god at Hearthstone it’s probably the first. With a 60% win percentage you should expect to play 45 games to net plus 9 wins. 45! Think about that for a second. Unless you’re 100% to lose, you’re almost certainly saving yourself time by playing each game out to the best of your ability.
I will only ever concede a game of Hearthstone under two conditions:
- My opponent has lethal on board and I can’t stop it.
- I would still lose the game if I could choose the exact card I drew every turn for the rest of the game.
If there’s a chance you can win if your deck is stacked then there’s still a chance you can win. So what’s the plan when you your only hope is to topdeck Arcanite Reaper into Leeroy Jenkins? That’s the easy part! Just make all of your decisions as though the top two cards of your deck are guaranteed to be Arcanite Reaper into Leeroy Jenkins. You’ll still need some luck to pull out the victory, but wasn’t that already the case? You already know your favorite deck well enough to realize which cards need to be on top of your deck in order for you to mount a comeback. The only thing that’s left to do is play as though they are there.
An unlikely plan is much better than no plan at all. Playing to your outs is how you can make the most out of your unlikely plans.
Playing to Your Opponent’s Outs
Inexperienced players tend to relax their focus once they determine their odds of winning are sufficiently high. This is an even bigger logical fallacy than conceding when you still have a chance of winning, because playing from ahead is even more difficult than playing from behind.
When playing to your outs you have the privilege of knowing exactly which cards in your deck are capable of getting you back in the game. Your opponent’s outs can be in their deck or their hand. You also have to consider if you can afford to play around cards which may or may not even be in their deck at all. I’d go as far as saying that there is no worse time to relax your focus than when playing while ahead.
In the word’s of the great Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski: “When you’re ahead, get more ahead.”
Artosis said these famous words about Starcraft II, a game where the best way to get “more ahead” is to eliminate every one of your opponent’s potential avenues to victory. Hearthstone is no different. The way to turn your 85 percenters into 90 percenters is to ask yourself “how do I lose this game?” and work backwards from there.
Generally speaking, the more you’re winning by the more aggressively you can afford to play around your opponents outs. You don’t get bonus points for winning by a larger margin, so the best way to increase your win percentage when you have the lead is to dot all your I’s, cross all your T’s, and make all of the small sacrifices you can afford to ensure your opponent’s outs won’t let them back in the game.
Outs in Close Games
In a tight game it will never be possible to play around every combination of cards your opponent could have. If that were possible then by definition it wouldn’t be a close game. It’s generally wise to ask yourself “how do I lose this game?”, but you can’t afford to lose sight of how you’ll actually win.
In tight games you’ll often have to decide which of your opponent’s outs you are most comfortable losing to. Remember the example from earlier when I had to choose between playing Living Mana or Druid of the Claw on turn five? My decision ultimately boiled down to which combination of cards I was more comfortable losing to. Do I want to lose to Innervate into Primordial Drake, or do I want to lose to two removal spells? The only way I can ask myself this all-important question is to understand my opponent’s outs. The only way I can answer this question is to have a plan.
Whether we’re behind, ahead, or at parity, smart decisions are come from asking ourselves the right questions. By looking to the past, present, and future of ourselves and our opponent, we gain access to all the data we need to ask ourselves those questions.
Part three of “Legend in the Making” will be about the specifics. The first two parts of this series have discussed broad and general topics but have largely ignored the interplay between specific classes, cards, and deck archetypes. Now that we’ve looked at the bigger picture it’s time to dive into the little details.
Legend in the Making: Part 3 –
Ranks 10 to 5 – Line Up Theory and Mulligans
The first two parts of this series taught a top-down approach for approaching decisions in Hearthstone. Mastering these broad and fundamental concepts of Hearthstone gave us the weapons to dominate any opponent attempting to fight us unarmed. Knowing your role at rank 20 is like bringing a knife to fist fight, and having a plan at rank 15 is like bringing a gun to knife fight.
Understanding the big picture concepts which are relevant in nearly every game creates a huge degree of separation between ourselves and our opponents, but as we progress up the ladder and begin to learn about more and more narrow topics this margin begins to shrink. The massive advantage which comes from “having a plan” against an opponent who doesn’t is much smaller than the advantage you’ll gain from learning about “line up theory” in part three against an opponent who hasn’t learned this same concept.
This is the nature of progress. The gap which separates us from our competition grows smaller and smaller as we get better and better. The margin for error shrinks. The difference between victory and defeat is no longer a misunderstanding of the matchup, it’s attacking the wrong minion on turn 7 or shipping away the wrong card in our mulligan. This is why it is critically important, now more than ever, that we internalize the broader lessons from parts one and two before moving on to the more specific concepts which I cover in parts three and four. You stand to gain a much bigger by mastering the broadest skills first.
Section 1 – The Essence of Progress
Making Smaller Circles
As we gain experience and internalize concepts on a deeper and deeper level, questions which were once complex and demanded a significant portion of our thinking power start to be answered instinctively. The macro becomes second nature and our minds become free to begin worrying about the micro, then the old micro becomes our new macro and the process repeats itself. This is a process called “making smaller circles” in The Art of Learning, a book which I’ve recommended ad nauseum in this series.
To turn the macro into the micro we should endeavor to learn depth, not breadth. Our goal isn’t to collect new heuristics, it’s to completely master the lessons we are still learning. By seeking to understand the finest details of every concept we will eventually be able to internalize them on a subconscious level, and this is what will ultimately enable us to answer difficult questions instinctually and automatically.
As it applies to Hearthstone, the biggest advantage which will come from making smaller circles is the amount of thinking time it will buy us. By gaining the ability to quickly evaluate something which would have once taken us a long time we free our minds to focus on something new. We get to think more, and thinking more is often thinking is smarter.
The higher up we climb the ladder the smaller our margin for error becomes. A great way to minimize on these errors is create more time for ourselves by making smaller circles. But there is another, much more simple way to buy ourselves more thinking time.
As the margins between defeat and victory tighten the costs of making mistakes are greatly magnified. There’s a huge difference between a mistake due to a lack of understanding a making a mistake due to a lack of focus. Mistakes made from a lack of understanding can only be corrected with time and practice, while mistakes made from a lack of focus are entirely preventable.
A turn in Hearthstone times out after 75 seconds, and with 20 seconds left the rope will appear across the middle of the screen. There is no penalty for taking each turn to rope and there are no bonus points for playing quickly. However, there is a massive penalty for playing too fast and making mistakes as a result. The most your opponent can do to complain about how long you are taking is emote “Hello”, so what do you have to lose by taking more time?
I can’t teach you how to be smarter or have better focus, but I certainly share with you a framework for making the most out your time each of turn. More time means more thinking, more thinking means smarter decisions, and helping you make smarter decisions is the entire goal of the “Legend in the Making” series. Here are some steps you can take to ensure that you’re using time to your advantage:
- Decide what the plan is.
- If there is still time left in the turn before you must act (the rope hasn’t appeared yet), see if you come up with a different plan.
- If there is no other plan, use the rest of your time to plan out future turns and consider the outs for you and your opponent.
- If there is another plan, compare and contrast the advantages of both plans to decide which one is better.
- If there is still time left in the turn after you’ve compared the two plans, try to see if you can come up with another plan and repeat this process.
There will probably be many turns where this process feels laborious and unnecessary. Your first instinct will often be the correct one and might feel as though you just wasted time and effort for no benefit. The beauty of this process is that it doesn’t truly matter if your decisions don’t change as a result of this extra time and focus, because to reflect and ask yourself questions is the fastest way to internalize the finer details of the game! This is how you make smaller circles.
Think of the effort you’re spending now as effort you won’t need to spend again in the future if you encounter a similar situation. Taking the extra time to reflect on your decisions in the present not only decreases the likelihood that you make mistakes (which allows you to win more games), it encodes your patterns of thought into instincts which will free up additional thinking time in the future for you to do even more. This enables the cycle of learning and improvement to repeat itself. Self reflection is not only key to ensuring we don’t make mistakes, it the essence of progress and rapid improvement.
Section 2 – Line Up Theory
Hearthstone is a game of threats and answers, both of which can come in many forms. A threat might be a wide board of buffed-up Murlocs thanks to Murloc Warleader, and answer to this threat might be a single Dragonfire Potion. A 12/12 Edwin VanCleef is a threat which can be answered by 12 power worth of minions.
A threat is anything a player can use to win the game if their opponent doesn’t have an answer for it, and an answer is any way to remove a threat. The battle of aggro vs control is fundamentally a battle of threats against answers. It’s the aggro player’s job to present the threats their opponent is least likely to have an answer to, and it’s the control player’s job to answer the threats presented by the aggro player in such a way that they will still have the ability to handle the next one.
It is often the case that a specific answer lines up against a specific threat in such a way that one player comes out of the exchange at huge advantage. A classic example is the threat of Tirion Fordring and the answer of Polymorph. Casting Polymorph on Tirion cleanly answers his big body, his Divine Shield, and his Deathrattle trigger. Without a Polymorph, answering a Tirion might require a combination of your hero power, some spells, and minion attacks just to take down his 6/6 Taunt body, and when everything’s said and done your opponent still gets a 5/3 weapon. Sounds like a disaster! Cards like Polymorph and Hex line up very well against Tirion while most other answers line up against him poorly. This is “line up theory”, a method for assigning specific answers to specific threats in an effort to create advantages and avoid disasters.
Lining Up Decks
We can use line up theory to help us understand the correct approach to most matchups. Through line up theory we can determine which matchups are “ask and answer”, or classic aggro vs control games where the lining up of threats and answers is determined most by the present, and we can also discover which matchups are dictated more by a deck vs deck approach to lining up threats and answers. Let’s see an example of a matchup where threats and answers are far more important than roles, and where the “plan” is to have the correct answers to line up against the correct threats.
Giant Miracle Rogue is a deck with some very powerful threats and the ability to quickly cycle through its deck to consistently find them. It also runs a very limited number threats due to the density of its cheap spells. They typically look to set up a single turn where they clear their opponent’s board and play out a massive Edwin VanCleef and/or multiple Arcane Giants and overwhelm their opponent on tempo with the size of their creatures.
Evolve Shaman is a deck which looks to control the board early with cost-effective creatures and board clear spells. By keeping their opponent’s board empty in the early game they seek to take over the mid to late game with a powerful Doppelgangster + Evolve play or to kill their opponent outright with Bloodlust and a wide board of minions and totems.
It would be accurate to say that both of these decks are midrangey and have combo elements to the way they play. Depending on the way the cards line up on a game by game basis either deck could be the aggro deck or the control deck if you approach the matchup purely from the perspective of roles. However, due to the way that the threats from Miracle Rogue line up against the threats from Evolve Shaman, this matchup has the potential to be incredibly lopsided if the Evolve Shaman player understands line up theory.
Let’s look at the threats that the Miracle Rogue is packing:
The rest of their minions in the deck aren’t there to end the game on their own but to facilitate the strategy of the deck. Though the deck could also manage to drudge up a threat with a Hallucination or Swashburglar, the likelihood that they find anything which threatens to end the game on its own from these cards is quite low.
If we look at how the answers from Evolve Shaman up against these threats, we find that the Evolve Shaman is perfectly suited to answer these threats at a tremendous advantage. The Jade Lightnings line up well against the Gadgetzan Auctioneers, while the Lightning Storms, Maelstrom Portals, and Volcanos can easily clear up the other roleplayers. The two Hexes can handle Sherazin, Edwin, or an Arcane Giant at a mana advantage, the Devolve can handle the Edwin or Sherazin at a mana advantage, and a combination of minions and spells can add up to the 8 damage needed to finish off the final Arcane Giant.
When you line up the two decks against each other the default strategy for the Evolve Shaman player should be clear. The Evolve Shaman just needs to be able to deploy each of their lined up answers against the Miracle Rogue’s lined up threats and they will eventually be able to run them out of gas. From the perspective of line up theory, any Shaman deck running two Hex and one Devolve should be favored against a Giant Miracle Rogue which is light on threats. Their answers are naturally advantaged against their opponent’s threats, and they will be heavily favored in any game where they can deploy these answers on time. Whenever you can identify a matchup where your threats line up favorably against your opponent’s answers or vice versa, your best bet is to approach the matchup from the perspective of line up theory and aim to win the game by abusing the natural advantages of your specific threats and answers against theirs.
There will be the occasional game where one of the Shaman’s much needed answers is on the bottom of their deck or where the Miracle Rogue draws well and is able to play their threats too quickly, but the chances of losing a game to these circumstances are much lower than the chances of losing in a more traditional midrange vs midrange matchup. Generally speaking, decks which have more answers than their opponents have threats are favored in games which go long when playing with line up theory in mind. This implies that decks with fewer answers than their opponents have threats should try to find a way to end the game quickly before they get overwhelmed by their opponent’s threats.
The Narrow Answer
When lining up decks against one another you’ll often find that there are only one or two key cards in either deck which demand specific answers from their opponent. Polymorphs for a Tirion Fordring, or Volcanic Potions for a Living Mana, for example. It may not always make sense to mold your entire strategy from the perspective of line up theory, but the knowledge of how these threats and answers line up against each other still has an impact on the way you play out the game.
When playing against an opponent who has a threat in their deck which demands a specific answer from your own, the goal is to hold onto your narrow answer for as long humanly possible. Patience is key, especially if your opponent also understands how line up theory works. Whoever bites first and plays their threat into a narrow answer or uses their narrow answer on the wrong threat will often lose as a result. Unless you’re under direct threat of dying, hold onto that narrow answer at all costs and find a different way to answer your opponent’s other threats.
You might also find yourself in a situation where you have access to a threat which can completely take over the game if your opponent lacks the narrow answer. In an ideal world you would construct a situation where your opponent is forced to deploy their narrow answer on the wrong card, but you won’t always have this luxury. If time is not your side, it’s often correct to throw your threat out there and pray that they don’t have the answer in hand. If time is your ally, then it’s probably best to hold onto your threat until you’re sure the coast is clear.
Section 3 – Mulligans
Mulligans are among the most complex and important decisions in the entire game, yet they are often overlooked or taken for granted as deterministic.
The majority of deck guides I’ve seen around the internet list cards which are considered “keeps”, but this completely fails to recognize the importance of matchups when it comes to mulligan decisions. More thorough deck guides will list the cards which are keeps in every matchup, and though this is certainly a step closer to the truth it still doesn’t tell the entire story.
To be to fair to all the excellent deck guide writers out there, there are certain decks which will almost always want to keep certain cards. For example, I very rarely mulligan away Wild Growth while playing as Ramp Druid. It’s a card you can play early and is simultaneously critical for the deck’s gameplan, but is it always correct to keep two Wild Growths? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. There are certain matchups where double Wild Growth is the stone cold nut, but there are other matchups where it might be more important to dig for something that impacts the board.
In this section I’ll attempt to teach you all of the different factors I’ve discovered for informing mulligan decisions. Factors can vary wildly in importance from matchup to matchup, hand to hand, and deck to deck, so the real talent to mulligans is knowing when each of these factors takes precedence over the others.
The level zero, most basic mulligan tip that everyone learns first is to mulligan away your expensive cards so that you can find cheap ones that you can play early. It makes sense why you’d want to do this as it’s very advantageous to curve out (use all of your mana on cards which cost as much mana as you have available that turn), and you can’t exactly curve out in the first few turns if you are sitting on a hand full of expensive cards.
You can think of all the other factors I discuss in this section as reasons not to mulligan away more expensive cards for cheaper ones. If you were to enter into a completely unknown matchup then the mana cost of your cards would almost certainly be the most important factor, but at these ranks we are never entering into an unknown matchup.
Line Up Theory
The time you have to mulligan is the all the time you have to determine if your current matchup is “ask and answer” or is dictated by line up theory. Before sending away a single card you should have a decent idea of whether or not line up theory is the axis by which you’ll be attacking this game, as this will completely dictate your mulligan decisions.
It should be fairly straightforward to understand how line up theory impacts your mulligans. If you’re in the position of the player who has more answers than your opponent has threats then you can’t afford to ship a single answer from your opening hand. You have inevitability on your side if you can assemble all of your answers before they can assemble all of their threats, so you shouldn’t be too concerned if your hand appears to be slow.
If you’re in the position of the player who has fewer threats than your opponent has answers you likely can’t afford to ship a single threat. The way you win is by playing one more threat than they have an answer for, so you’re also in the market for any cards which might force your opponent to spend one of their precious answers on the wrong target.
Some cards have the ability to completely take over a game on their own in certain matchups. If you know exactly which deck you’re up against then keeping these cards in your opening hand is always the correct decision, regardless of whether they cost 10 mana or 1. If nine of the last ten Druids you faced were playing Jade, then you stand to gain much more by holding on to Skulking Geist in your opening hand than you do by mulliganing it away. Let’s explore why.
In this example nine of the last ten Druids we faced were Jades, which extrapolates to a 90% chance that the current Druid you are currently facing is also a Jade. If you assume that keeping the Skulking Geist drops your win percentage from 50% to 0% against all other Druids (which it doesn’t), you’re still only giving up 5% win percentage over the course of 10 games (50% or .5 divided by 10). This means that keeping the Skulking Geist would still be the smarter decision if getting to play the card increased your overall match win percentage against Jade Druid by more than 5.6% (50% or .5 divided by 9), which I’m almost certain that it does. Though it might seem greedy to keep an expensive or narrow card in your opening hand without being certain what you’re up against, the numbers show that it’s often correct to do so.
Try to resist the urge to mulligan away an expensive card in your hand before considering the odds that it could tilt the matchup in your favor. Consider the prevalence of each deck in your opponent’s class, as well as the impact an individual card has on the overall win percentage in each matchup. It’s far too complex to calculate exact numbers, but with time and practice you can start to get a sense for when and why you should keep certain narrow or expensive cards in your opening hand.
Conversely, there are cards which are typically strong in opening hands but must be mulliganed away based on your opponent’s class or the expected matchup. These cards might line up poorly against the enemy’s Hero Power or common class cards. For example, minions with one Health are typically miserable against Mage, and early Deathrattle cards like Kindly Grandmother with 2 power or less can get blown out by Potion of Madness. The ability to recognize when it is correct to mulligan away cards that are typically strong is just as important as the ability to recognize when it is correct keep cards that are typically weak.
It is often correct to hold onto a card which might not be ideal but is just above the cut. In what I call “50% Theory”, I always try to stop and ask myself if there is a greater than 50% chance that the card I’m thinking about mulliganing away will turn into a worse one. I often find that my first instinct is to mulligan away a less than perfect card to try and find something better, but that when I apply 50% theory I realize that my odds of improving my hand actually decrease by shipping the card away.
Another reason to keep potentially expensive cards is because your hand can naturally curve into them. For example, let’s say you’re playing a deck which typically always mulligans away 4 drops in the dark. If the other two cards in your hand are a 2 drop and a 3 drop, then it could potentially be worth keeping the 4 drop so long as it is a natural follow-up to the other two cards.
Checking the curve of our hand can also help us catch when we might have too much of a good thing. Many cards which are typically excellent in opening hands might not pair well with the other cards in our hand, or even with a second copy of itself. N’Zoth’s First Mate is typically the best card for Pirate Warrior on turn one, but the second copy should almost always be shipped away. The same can often (though not always) be said for Innervate, depending on what the final card or cards in your opener are. If you’re on Aggro Druid and your opening hand is double Innervate + Bittertide Hydra, then you have a potentially game winning play on turn one. If your hand is double Innervate + Living Mana, then you’ll want to ship both the Living Mana and one of the Innervates to try and find yourself a better curve.
To recap, here are a list of questions you should ask yourself about each hand while mulliganing:
- Based on my opponent’s class and the local metagame, which decks could my opponent be playing?
- Is this a line up theory matchup? Are there any narrow answers or threats in my hand?
- Do I have any cards which are very powerful against one of these decks? Am I increasing my overall win percentage by keeping these cards?
- Do I have any cards which are very weak against one of these decks? Am I decreasing my overall win percentage by keeping these cards?
- Does this hand curve out? Does it have a game plan?
- Do I have any expensive cards which I should mulligan away for something less expensive?
- If so, is there a greater than 50% chance that getting rid of one of these cards will yield a worse result?
It’s important to note that the de facto “most important factor” of mulligans, the mana cost of the cards, is the second to last question when working down this checklist. This isn’t to say that the mana cost of the cards in your opening hand isn’t important, it’s just that there are many other things you should be thinking about as well.
Another thing of note is that I never stop to ask if I have cards in my hand which should be automatically kept. I believe that you can get yourself into trouble by thinking about cards as “automatic keeps”, and should instead start off by viewing each card through the lens of the specific matchups you’re anticipating. Granted, to this day I have still never mulliganed away the first copy of Flametongue Totem, but I’d like to think that’s because I have yet to encounter a matchup where it isn’t good in my opening hand and not because the card is an “automatic keep”.
Line up theory can help us think about our boards, hands, and decks as distinct sets of limited tools. By lining up our tools against our opponent’s problems we can attempt to organize our game plan into the most effective and thorough plan possible. Some matchups are dictated entirely by line up theory, while in other matchups we can use the lessons we’ve learned from line up theory to gain small edges in efficiency.
Mulligans are an often overlooked or misunderstood facet of the game, but they are sometimes the most important decision we make in the entire game. By taking the time to carefully consider all the reasons why we should or shouldn’t keep each card in our opener, we are adding one more edge to our game which will help propel us to the next stage of the ladder.
For the fourth and final installment of Legend in the Making, I will discuss all of the subtle ways that game behavior can inform the exact content of player’s hands. By analyzing the ordering decisions and tiny mistakes our opponents make we can glean much more information about our their game plan than you might think.
Legend in the Making: Part 4 –
Ranks 5 to Legend – Tools for the Climb and the Art of the Read
I’d like to start off the fourth and final installment of “Legend in the Making” by letting you know that I most certainly have not saved the best for last. In fact, I’ve done quite the opposite. The concepts I’ll discuss in part four aren’t necessary for reaching Legend at all, I know this to be true from of all the comments and messages I’ve received from readers who were able to reach Legend for the first time after reading just the first three parts of this series. Part four doesn’t set out to reinvent anyone’s approach to the game of Hearthstone, if you’re capable of reaching rank five then I believe you already have the knowledge you need to reach Legend.
The first section of this article aims to help players who are struggling with the final push to Legend get the most out of their laddering sessions. Sometimes the biggest challenge isn’t knowing the right thing to do, but having the ability to keep your composure and put together the things you already know while maintaining a winning mindset.
We’ll wrap up this series by covering “reads”, or the art of analyzing the human element of Hearthstone. Once we have a thorough grasp on the fundamentals we can look beyond the X’s and O’s and begin analyze the subtle things our opponent’s do which reveal their true intentions.
Let’s get started.
Section 1 – Tools for Optimizing Your Climb
It’s obvious that the decisions we make throughout the course each game are important, but have you ever thought about the impact of the decisions you make outside of them? In-game decisions affect the outcome of the game they’re made in, while the decisions we make outside of games have the ability to affect the outcome of an entire ladder session. Let’s take a look at the things we can do between games to avoid losing streaks and to prepare ourselves for tough decisions.
A term usually applied to video games, tilt is an emotional state which can occur after a repeated process produces repeated negative results. Tilt is an emotional breakdown caused by hard work not resulting in success which is deeply craved. When you or someone you know is tilted, the best thing to do is take a break from that activity.
– Edited from Urban Dictionary
I’ll be honest you, I struggle with tilt.
I nearly always get a bit angry after losing a game which was completely out of my control. I can happily accept a loss which came as the result of a mistake I made, but I absolutely hate it when I lose a match where there was nothing I could do and there were no lessons to learned. Card games can be uniquely frustrating as they are one of the few competitive outlets where it is possible to do everything right and still lose.
The worst thing about tilt is that it is self-perpetuating. Tilting causes mistakes, mistakes cause losses, and losses cause more tilt. Playing on tilt can dramatically drop your win percentage and lead to a string of losses which put you even further away from your goal of reaching Legend. It could very well be that your win percentage while you maintain composure is more than enough to carry you to Legend, but that the losses you accumulate while on tilt are dragging your overall win percentage down low enough to keep you from the promised land.
So what can you do to prevent tilt? The solution is incredibly simple, and I’m almost embarrassed that it took me so long to do it myself:
That’s really all there is to it. Whenever you find yourself on tilt, the best thing you can do is take a break, even if it’s just for a short time. What works best for me is to fully close the program and take a break until I’ve fully calmed down. If that’s simply not an option, the absolute minimum you should do is stand up to stretch your legs, get some water or going to the bathroom, take a few deep breaths, and consider changing decks before jumping back on the ladder. Slamming the “play” button as fast as you possibly can is a recipe for disaster.
For some, the trickiest part will be convincing yourself that it’s the right idea to stop playing. How could not playing Hearthstone be the best way to rank up? If you ever feel this way while on tilt, try to remind yourself that every loss puts you one step further away from your goal, and that stopping yourself before an impending stretch of losses is functionally identical to going on a win streak.
For others (and I include myself in this category), the tricky part isn’t stopping but recognizing when tilt is starting to become a problem. How can you know when to stop if you don’t even recognize that you’re angry? Self-awareness is the best tool you can have for avoiding to tilt, but it’s also one of the most difficult meta-skills to cultivate in life, let alone in Hearthstone.
The trick I’ve taught myself for catching tilt before it becomes a problem is “three loss” rule. Every time I lose three consecutive games I ask myself if I am starting to go on tilt before hitting the play button again. I found it to be a bit excessive and self-patronizing to check myself after every single loss, and that I was almost always starting to go on tilt after losing three consecutive games. If you find a better trigger for yourself to check if you’re going on tilt then I encourage you to use it, the three loss rule is just something which worked for me.
I’m far from an expert at dealing with tilt, so I would highly recommend that you seek alternative resources for dealing with tilt if it’s a problem you deeply struggle with. Tilt isn’t unique to Hearthstone, it’s a problem which is shared by nearly all competitive online games. There are thousands of articles and videos on the internet which are written by people far more qualified than myself to give advice on the topic, so if you need help (and you know who you are!) I encourage you to go out and find these resources before proceeding any further in your quest for Legend. Your biggest obstacle for reaching Legend may not be your ability, but your mindset.
One of the very first things I discussed in part one of this series was the importance of deck selection, where I encouraged readers to ditch their homebrews and play popular decks for a variety of reasons. One of biggest reasons to play a popular deck is the vast amount of data which you’ll gain access to about your matchups. Thousands of matches between top tier decks are logged by deck trackers and uploaded to various Hearthstone sites for statistical analysis on a daily basis, providing us with a powerful tool we can use to avoid unfavored matchups. Now that we’ve reached the stretch of our climb to Legend where the tiniest margins make the biggest differences, we should be very interested in any tool which could potentially increase our win percentage by multiple points over the span of multiple matches.
One peculiar phenomena of the Hearthstone ladder is the “local metagame”. If we use the term “metagame” to refer to all of the decks which are popular at a given time, the term “local metagame” refers to a group of decks which are likely to be encountered at a specific rank. Especially between ranks 5 and Legend, I’ve found that it is quite common to play a stretch of games against the same two or three decks for the span of an entire rank. I won’t pretend to understand why this phenomenon occurs, but I’ve encountered it more than enough to be confident that it exists.
Let’s take a look at a recent screenshot from my deck tracker:
This nice run of wins began in the middle of rank 3, where almost every deck I encountered on ladder was either Jade Druid or Kazakus Priest. Playing as Pirate Warrior, a deck which is favored against both, I was able to go 7-1 and climb all the way up to the the top of rank two! Not bad, eh?
Let’s see what happens next:
Same deck, new local meta, and I’m right back where I started. Four of the five Druid games you see above were against Aggro Druid, a deck which is massively favored against Pirate Warrior but was nowhere to be found in rank 3. After losing to two Aggro Druids in three games, what I should have done was switch to a deck which wasn’t so unfavored against it. Switching decks at this point could have prevented two future losses, which is absolutely massive!
The best tool I’ve found for battling local metagames is the Data Reaper Live Report. To use the report, scroll down to the bottom of the screen and select “Top Archetype Matchups”. This will reveal a chart with matchup winrates for all of the most popular decks in the format, which should allow you to select the best deck from your collection for conquering whichever local metagame you are up against. I understand that most of you won’t have the cards you need to play every deck on that list (I certainly don’t), but you probably have the cards to play at least two or three of them. Even if you don’t have access to the best deck for your local meta, you can still use the report to select the best from the ones you have access to.
Are you facing 90% Jade Druids? Play one of the three aggressive decks which have favorable matchups against it. Are you seeing only Murloc Paladin and Aggro Druids? Token Shaman would be a solid choice for this local meta.
The same tool I use for preventing tilt, the “three loss” rule, is the very same tool I use for detecting local metas. Any time I lose three games in a row I check to see if my deck choice may be a part of that reason (in addition to checking if I’m starting to tilt). If I ever find that I lost the same unfavorable matchup more than once during a stretch of three games I’ll probably change decks to something more favored against the local meta.
I’m sure there are some experts out there who will vehemently disagree with my suggestion to regularly switch decks. The counterargument for why you should stick with one deck through thick and thin is that by frequently changing decks you will never master a deck well to the point where you can play it at a high level. This is a fair point, but I wholeheartedly disagree with it.
From a competitive perspective, I believe that you stand to improve more as a player by playing multiple decks. Having a thorough understanding of a deck certainly provides you with an advantage when you play with or against it, but this advantage is predicated entirely on the effectiveness of that specific deck being effective in the meta. If you only ever play Pirate Warrior, will your advanced deck knowledge be able to make up for the massive disadvantage you’ll have in each game against a local meta of Aggro Druids and Golakka Crawlers? I find it highly unlikely that you’ll be able to string together wins from your advanced deck knowledge alone if the metagame becomes toxic towards the deck you’ve planted your flag in.
The other reason I advocate for switching decks is that it’s more fun! After an hour or so with the same deck I frequently find myself wanting to play something else, local meta be damned. I enjoy winning as much as the next guy, but even I will get bored of winning if it means that I have to play the same matchup over and over. I enjoy Hearthstone the most when I’m able to play a wide variety of decks and strategies, something I’ll never be able to do if I only play one deck on my climb to Legend.
The Winning Formula
The number of variables which can factor into a single decision in Hearthstone is staggering. Even if you only take into account the tools I’ve discussed in series, you’ll still need to evaluate up to five highly nuanced and loosely related concepts to reach a single conclusion:
- “Who’s the beatdown?” and knowing your role.
- Data from the past, present, and future of the current game.
- Having a plan.
- Playing to outs.
- Line-up theory.
Collectively mastering each of these concepts should be more than enough to carry you to Legend, but it’s no easy feat to keep track of them in the middle of a game. Even if you understand each concept individually, finding the thinking time to thoroughly evaluate and weigh them against each other before each decision is no easy feat.
I discussed the topic of “making smaller circles” from The Art of Learning in part three, which is the process of internalizing complex topics on an instinctual level. Through this process it is possible to greatly reduce the amount of mental throughput it takes to evaluate each of the concepts I’ve discussed, but even this doesn’t account for the varying importance of each concept in different matchups.
Knowing your role might be the most important concept by far in one matchup but the least important another. Certain decisions might require you to weigh all five against each other at once, while other matchups might demand to be approached from another angle entirely. Attempting to factor each concept into our decision making process at all times is a fool’s errand, as it is neither the most effective use our limited thinking time nor the most efficient way to arrive at smart conclusions.
Instead of trying to balance the importance of everything we’ve learned at all times, we can frontload this entire process into something I like to call “the winning formula”. Within the context of a specific matchup but outside the context of a specific game, we have all the time in the world to weigh the factors and data against each other to determine what the keys to victory are. Let’s explore an example from my own past where I was able to overcome my instincts to determine the winning formula for a specific matchup.
When I first played Midrange Murloc Paladin my approach to the deck was the same as most other midrange decks. Against Control decks I played aggressively and flooded the board with early murlocs, and against Aggro decks I attempted to control the board early so I could stall out the game until my heavy hitters could take over. Unfortunately, the mirror matchup completely baffled me.
“Knowing your role” told me that Midrange mirrors tended to be won by outvaluing the opponent and trading two-for-one as often as possible, so I originally approached the matchup by keeping cards like Finja, the Flying Star and Stonehill Defender in my mulligans. These cards have “value” written all over them, and they fit perfectly into my initial plan of accruing card advantage over the course of a long game.
This sounded like a nice idea in theory, but in practice it got completely destroyed. It took me four or five losses in the mirror match before I realized that the matchup wasn’t about value at all, but tempo. I noticed that the player who got control of the board first was frequently able to snowball their early lead into a massive tempo advantage. The vast majority of Midrange Murloc Paladin decks simply lacked the tools to catch up from behind once they were already behind on board. Even Sunkeeper Tarim, an all-star against other aggressively slanted decks, was often too little too late.
When it comes to formulating a gameplan in the Midrange Murloc Paladin mirror, locking on to concepts like “who’s the beatdown?” was actually doing me more harm than good. Understanding “who’s the beatdown?” still helped me out on a decision by decision basis, but the big picture formula for victory was dictated by something else entirely. Regardless of the past, present, and future, mulliganing aggressively for one and two drops and playing to establish early control over the board is the plan. In this matchup, the “winning formula” is to grab control over the board early and never let go of it.
The goal with a winning formula is to be able to be able to enter each matchup with a solid understanding of the specific factors which contribute most towards victory and defeat. By front-loading this thinking before we ever enter into a game we free our minds to ignore unimportant concepts and allow ourselves to hone in on the most critical pieces of information. Here are some examples of what a winning formula might look like for a variety of matchups:
- As an aggressive deck, kill the opponent before they are able to play their board wipe. If this is not possible, don’t over-commit to the board and attempt play around the board wipe as much as possible while applying pressure.
- Example: As Evolve Shaman against Kazakus Priest, Dragonfire Potion is the single card which is capable of causing you the most problems. Plan A (obviously) is to kill the Priest before they get the chance to play the card on turn 6, but this isn’t always possible. Barring an early kill off Bloodlust, apply pressure while not over-commiting to the board until they use their Dragonfire Potion.
- Avoid getting beat by a specific card. Conversely, set up a scenario where a specific card dominates the game.
- Example: As Evolve Shaman against Aggro Druid, Devolve is the most important card in your entire deck. Devolving a board of Mana Treants is often game winning, while Devolving a board of cheap minions which are buffed up by Mark of the Lotus or Power of the Wild can buy you enough time to take over the late game with your superior cards. Understanding that you are the control deck in this matchup is important, but perhaps not quite as important as understanding the value of Devolve.
- A singular concept from this article series, such as “who’s the beatdown?” or line up theory.
- Example: In the Pirate Warrior vs Jade Druid matchup there are really no mysteries about the correct plan for either player is. Kill ‘em dead, and don’t get killed.
- Example: As discussed in part 3, Shaman decks with double Hex and double Devolve can attempt approach threat-light decks such as Miracle Rogue from the perspective of line up theory.
Finding a winning formula takes equal parts out-of-game preparation and in-game experimentation. The winning formula might be immediately obvious from the first time you play a matchup, or it might some thought or trial and error to put together. Regardless, if we spend some time outside of the game thinking about the factors, concepts, and circumstances which contribute most to winning or losing a specific matchup, we are able to spend far less time in the middle each game worrying about concepts which might not even matter. The goal isn’t to be able to remember every single concept I’ve discussed in this series at all times, it’s to understand which factors supersede these concepts and which concepts don’t deserve to be considered at all.
Section 2 – The Read
By paying close attention to the behavioral quirks of our opponents we can occasionally catch a glimpse of their working mind. We have already trained ourselves to consider what our opponent is doing, but there is much to be learned from how our opponent goes about doing those things. By carefully watching the cards our opponents almost play and the moments they choose to pause, we can often use the information we already know about their deck to determine the exact cards in their hand.
In this section I will briefly cover a variety of situations where we can take advantage of the mistakes our opponent’s make in sequencing to gain information about the contents of their hand. This list of reads is not intended to be exhaustive. Reads are much more of an art than a skill, and this section is meant to make you aware of the kind of minutia you are free to shift your attention towards once you have hard coded the fundamentals into your play.
It bears repeating that being able to read your opponent is a completely unnecessary skill for reaching Legend. It provides you with a small advantage at best, and can even get you into trouble if it takes away focus from more important matters. With that said, once you’ve reached a point in the ladder where both players are able to maintain their focus and have a total understanding of the fundamentals, the information which can be gained from reads is a way to create separation between you and an otherwise evenly matched opponent.
Read #1 – The Awkward Pause
You should always try to formulate a complete plan before making attacks or playing cards, yet in practice this doesn’t always happen. The reason it’s important to make all of your decisions before taking any actions is because of the information you accidentally reveal when pausing in the middle of a turn.
If you start the turn with ten mana, spend six of it to play a minion, then spend the next thirty seconds paused at four mana before making your next play, this unintentionally reveals to your opponent that you had choices to make about how you will spend your final four mana. Pausing with four mana for this long implies that you had at least one cards in your hand which costs four or less. By paying close attention to the amount of mana your opponent pauses at, the cards which your opponent has already played, and what your opponent accomplished with the play they eventually ended up going with, it should often be possible to determine the exact card that your opponent was considering playing.
A particularly obvious giveaway is a long pause at 0 mana while the player has The Coin in hand. Especially if you can see your opponent hovering over the coin several times, this should be a pretty clear signal that they have a 1 drop in their hand which they are thinking about playing. The same can be said for Druids who take a long pause at 0 mana with a potential Innervate in their hand.
Players at the highest ranks aren’t stupid. If your opponent paused for a long time to eventually make what seems like a totally obvious play it probably isn’t because it took them a long time figure out something obvious. They were most likely considering multiple choices, implying there may have been another play in their hand which costs the same amount of mana and at least deserved some consideration.
Read #2 – The Unplayed Card
A card is only capable of being dragged out over the battlefield if it is able to be played. Any time a player drags a card out onto the battlefield but doesn’t play it, this guarantees that the card costs equal to or less than the amount of mana they have access to, and implies that the card was being considered as a potential play.
On turn 10 it might not reveal a lot of information to you if your opponent accidentally drags a card out onto the battlefield without playing it, but in the earlier turns and at lower amounts of mana it is often just as good as if they revealed the card to you. By taking a look at the situation and using process of elimination, it is frequently possible to deduce the exact card which your opponent elected not to play.
Even more damning than a minion or spell which goes unplayed is a targeted minion or spell which goes unplayed. An arrow appears on screen for any spell or minion which requires a target to play, and there are many circumstances where it’s trivially easy to narrow down which card the opponent was considering playing based on their deck.
Read #3 – The Hovered Card
I try not to read heavily into cards which are merely hovered over but not actually dragged out over the battlefield. It is often just as likely that they are considering playing this card on future turns as they are considering playing it now. They could have simply left their cursor over the card for no particular reason, or could be merely checking out the art. You can sometimes notice behavior which suggests that they are heavily considering a card which is being hovered over (such as when an opponent hovers back and forth between two cards), but I found that I got into trouble a little too often by reading into hovered cards and choose to ignore this read more often than I choose to consider it.
Read #4 – Cards in Hand
There is a lot information to be gained from paying close attention to how long your opponent holds onto cards in their hand, starting at the beginning of the game with the mulligan. It’s safe to assume that cards which were kept in your opponent’s opening hand but are not played in the first few turns are key cards in their deck or in the matchup. If your opponent kept a card but it still hasn’t been played by the end of the midgame, you should adjust your plans accordingly to expect a heavy hitter. You can also expect that cards which were not kept during the mulligan and remain in the opening hand for a long period of time are likely to have expensive mana costs.
The longer a card sits in a player’s hand the more information you can glean as to what it may be. There are a limited number of cards in each player’s deck which are worth holding onto for a long period of time, and as more and more situations arise where these cards could be potentially played you should be able to systematically eliminate cards from contention until you are positive as to which card they are holding.
Read #5 – The Card Off the Top
Players at rank 5 and above are likely to consider cards which they would be happy to draw the following turn, but sometimes they are a little too eager to play those cards when they are actually drawn. Cards which are drawn and immediately played are likely to be cards which your opponent was quite happy to see. By slamming down a board wipe off the top deck, your opponent signals that they likely don’t have another board wipe in hand, and that coast is clear to dump your hand into play the following turn.
Reversing the Reads
Using this knowledge to your advantage, it is sometimes possible to construct a scenario where you can send a false signal to your opponent about the content of your own hand. Though this might sound tempting, the advantages you gain by attempting to trick your opponent with intentionally misleading behavior are so small that they are rarely worth pursuing. The majority of opponent’s might not notice your misleading actions as at all, and the thinking power which is required to construct these false reads is likely better spent elsewhere.
I suggest that you use your knowledge of reads not to mislead your opponent’s but to avoid giving away information. Try to always formulate your plans completely before taking any game actions so that you can avoid pauses mid-turn. This will hopefully also prevent you from dragging cards out onto the battlefield which you won’t actually play. Lastly, be aware that slamming cards down immediately after they are drawn is a signal to your opponent that you were happy to draw the card, so try to exercise some patience before playing lucky topdecks.
For those of you who have stuck with me through all four parts of “Legend in the Making”, it is my sincerest hope that I have imparted you everything you’ll need to reach Legend. The fundamental card gaming concepts which I discuss in this series are hardly rocket science – the true challenge of the climb to Legend is overcoming the frustrations and setbacks of the competitive Hearthstone ladder.
This too is far from an impossible obstacle to overcome, and the formula for battling adversity in a competitive environment is to embrace your mistakes and adopting the mindset of a constant learner, but you don’t have to take my word for it. These are ideas from Josh Waitzkin’s wonderful book The Art of Learning, which I’ve recommended throughout this series to anyone who is interested in the learning methodologies of a world champion competitor.
If you were able to reach Legend after reading this series, you have my sincerest congratulations. Reaching Legend is a tremendous accomplishment which you deserve to be proud of. Not many people can claim they’re in the top .25% in the world at something which millions of people of do on a daily basis, but you can!
Enjoy the climb.