When wanting to rank up on the Hearthstone ladder, it is all too easy to focus on having the best deck. While having a deck with many good match ups in the meta is very important, a more consistent way to increase your win rate is by making better (ideally the best) plays during the game. It’s no accident that weaker players struggle to rank up with the same decks that far stronger players took to high legendary ranks. Learning to make better plays not only rewards you through a higher win rate, but deepens your understanding of the game and of how you ought to go about improving.
Now that we’ve established that good play is important, we might ask how we should go about learning it. Watching pros play or reading good guides can help you, but at the same time you need to learn to analyze your own plays (and those of others). This is because, baring a personal coach, the person with the most potential to correct your misplays is, well, you. You need to start understanding the game better, so that you can make full use of your learning resources, begin to understand what you’re doing wrong, and learn to identify better plays.
With this guide, I at least want to introduce you to some of the thinking tools required to improve your play. In the first section, we will discuss what the “best play” is, and why it is often so hard to identify, even in retrospect. The second section will highlight several important advantages and gameplay principles, allowing us to discover the best strategy in a given match up or situation.
As for introductions, my name is Mats and I’ve reached legendary on EU this (season 4) and last season (with a peak ranking of 209 in season 3; I wouldn’t take this too seriously though, since it wasn’t quite at the end of the season). I don’t have any real TCG experience outside of Hearthstone, and I had to learn the game the hard way. I hope my analysis will help you improve, and hopefully do so a little faster than I did!
Part 1: The Best Play
So What is the best play?
In my mind, a sensible definition for the best play is: “The play which maximizes the player’s chance of winning.” The reason we should speak of chance is that Hearthstone has a substantial amount of variance in it, and we often need to play the odds. The best play may have a really bad chance of wining the game (say about 10%), but as long as it’s better than all alternative plays it will be the correct choice. A consequence of this definition is that any play that gives immediate lethal is the (or one of the) best play(s), since it has grants a 100% chance to win (so check for lethal more often). Another consequence is that conceding with its 0% chance to win is always the worst (or one of the worst) play(s), so unless you are dead, don’t care about winning or want to save time you should never concede. I didn’t include the really uncommon simultaneous lethal situation (hellfire), but suffice to say that if you’re in a bad spot a guaranteed draw is often the best play. While my definition might not be obviously useful, try thinking about wether your plays are properly taking probability into account. Are you playing around an unlikely combo too often? Are you risking too much by constantly overextending into board clears? In Hearthstone, you want to be thinking about the possible risk versus the possible rewards of your plays, so you can improve your chances of winning with each play.
The Best Play is sometimes Hidden
The first obstacle to finding the best play is that you might not see it. It’s surprisingly easy and often devastating to miss a particular combination of cards, so much so that players often highly praise the ability to find the correct “Hidden Play”. Of course you can spot an absolutely terrible hidden play, but the ability to see more plays isn’t just valuable because you could spot the best play, but also because it gives you more options on your turns. An impressive example of finding a hidden play was Reynad’s finish of a close Midrange Hunter versus Freeze Mage match in the first Dream hack Tournament.
So how should we get better at finding the good hidden plays, or at least the plays hidden to us? The short answer is that we should work on our pattern recognition skills. A good way to do this is by watching a match between strong players (preferably with good commentary), and thinking about how you would play out each turn (you might want to pause at the start of the turn). If one of the players makes a play you hadn’t seen, then take mental note of that combination, so you will be aware of it when you play yourself. Another tip is to check more thoroughly for hidden plays every turn, and to perhaps be a little more creative in the options you consider (I’m not going to say how often I think about Soulfiring my own face as hand-lock!).
The Best Play sometimes looks Bad
Here’s the awkward thing about good plays: Even if you spot them, you might think they’re bad. Often players will be too concerned about losing value or taking risks that they misevaluate the best play. Again, the exercise of watch good games can help, but I have a simpler piece of advice. At the start of each turn, ask yourself what you have to do to win. If you’re far behind, you should be ready to take risks to regain control of the game. If you’re noticeably ahead, start cutting down your opponent’s chances to come back into the game and avoid risks if possible (since you’ll be winning anyway).
You also need to know what is most important to your game at the moment. Is board control critical to win, or do you need to be playing for value? This sort of assessment is hard to do, and we’ll discuss it again in section 2. Giving it an honest try can only benefit your play regardless.
The Best Play takes into account the Information you’ve gained so far
If you know what cards your opponent is likely to have in hand or in the deck, you can play around the cards he is likely to have, and not play around cards he is unlikely to have. This is obviously super important, and winning the information war is often crucial to victory, especially in longer games. So how do we best go about gaining information? Here are a couple of good habits for the keen competitor:
1. Try watch your opponent’s mulligan and wait for him to toss back before you do. This gives you more information (about his hand quality and what deck he is likely to be playing) and at the same time denies your opponent that information. Watching the mulligan is more important for decks that can have drastically different mulligans based on the match up, such as Miracle rogue or Hand-lock. Lastly, watching the mulligan has the occasional psychological upside: Your opponent might get annoyed or hope you’ve disconnected.
2. Know your opponent’s deck. This advice is more useful in a stable meta-game, but you should at least try to guess your opponent’s deck or archetype based on the cards he plays. The class alone should tell you at least some of the cards you ought to keep in mind; for instance you can expect all versions of paladin to run double equality. Properly accounting for your opponent’s plays also relies on remembering what cards he/she has played already so far, which leads us to the next point.
3. Keep track of the cards you and your opponent play. While pulling out a pen and paper feels like try hard mode, it can be very helpful against decks like Miracle Rogue. At least you want to remember the key cards, by which I mean cards with a strong potential to swing the game like equality or sap (but most cards can be swing cards in some situation or other). Keep track of your own cards too, sometimes you will be faced with hard decisions that require you to know what’s still in your deck before you risk committing mana to drawing cards.
4. Another good way of gaining information is by process of elimination. For example, if your opponent had the opportunity to play a combination of cards that would be (reasonably obviously) very strong given a particular board state, and he didn’t, then we can conclude that he either doesn’t have it, or he missed the opportunity to play it. Since we ought to credit our opponent with at least some playing ability, we should conclude the he isn’t holding said combination of cards. Hence we often have the luxury of not playing around it for a few turns. This trick sometimes doesn’t work as well, since players might be being very greedy or could’ve misplayed. Here’s a common situation where it is good: You’re at 14 life without any taunts or life protection mechanics (like ice-barrier), and your druid opponent doesn’t combo you out at 9 mana. So you probably have the luxury not to play around the combo next turn. Another less common use of process of elimination is to play around various trap cards, and test for various ones before committing a minion or an attack.
Of course you also want to restrict the information your opponent has access to, or feed him false information, but mind games are probably a topic on their own. One good general technique is to play slower, so that you don’t reveal to your opponent that you only have a single option available to you.
The Best play sometimes loses the Game
Because Hearthstone is a game of chance, the best play sometimes loses the game and bad plays sometimes win the game. So the moral is that you shouldn’t assume that you lost because you played badly, or that you won due to skill alone. So think about whether your plays were correct or not after a game, instead of fixating on the result.
The Best Play Can Appear to be Subjective
If Hearthstone were a game were we could know the exact probability of a play winning us the game, then we could always say for sure which play was best (even if by a 1% margin). This is of course very unrealistic, and even the best players sometimes need to guess at a close call. So even if there probably was only one best play, it’s hard to fault a player if the decision was very unclear. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try though. Still Hearthstone’s inherent subjectivity allows for different playing styles to be respectable, and has the upside of making it more of a thematic than a scientific game (this would change if we had an analysis tool like computer engines in chess).
On a more abstract note, playing Hearthstone well depends on having the right set of (somewhat subjective) beliefs about the game. For instance, the belief that midrange druid mostly lives and dies by board control helped strengthen my play with or against it. For this reason, I think it’s a good habit to explain to yourself why you want to make a particular play, and then check if your reasoning makes sense. You also want think about whether the way you think about the game is problematic or not (though this is perhaps to abstract or difficult to be meaningful advice). A good way to start deepening your understanding of the game is to watch strong players explain why they make plays in a particular way (for instance on their streams or on coaching shows like pro corner).
The fact that the best play is sometimes so hard to find makes some players say that there occasionally “is no best play”. But I think that the best play is just is obscure in these situations, and we shouldn’t invoke subjectivity to explain away difficult decisions too often.
Part 2: Understanding General Strategy
Strategy is dependent on Match Ups and Situations
So here’s the thing: Even the most useful principles of hearthstone strategy don’t apply to every match up, or a simply less valuable than other factors. Nor will a decks general strategy give us a proper indicator for every situation. For example, consider the face hunter deck. The strategic objective of the deck is reduce the opponent’s health total to 0 by taking an aggressive stance. However, in the Hunter versus Zoo match up, we have to focus on keeping the opponent’s board under control. Things get more confusing when you consider that a given match up can play out very differently in some circumstances. For instance, the warrior control mirror tends to depend heavily on the start. If at least one side draws into a good amount of early minions, then the game has a tendency to become a tempo war, with one side struggling to stabilize and the other trying to set up a kill. If the first five turns are each mostly spent on the hero power, then games a more likely to become longer, more value oriented fights.
So to properly analyze match ups and decisions, we want to be familiar with important principles of hearthstone strategy, but we also want to be aware of when we ought to care about which one. It’s important to avoid playing only for value when you need tempo, or to use your life total as a resource when you’re soon to be in lethal range. Discovering what is critical to a given match often requires experience or a good source of information, along with an understanding of the concepts you are dealing with.
1: The Tempo
The player with the initiative holds the tempo. Either the player with the tempo is making proactive plays while the other player is reacting, or the player with the tempo is making more effective grabs for the initiative than the opponent. The initiative can take several forms: You could be making a stronger play for board control, going for the opponent’s face or setting up a kill with your burn spells and battlecries. A tempo play tries to swing the tempo in your favor (or more in your favour), but may sacrifice something else.
As Gnimsh pointed out in his solid arena video guide series, the player with the tempo at the of the game is the player who wins. But that’s not to say that you need to grab the tempo from the start to win. In fact, the way you interact with the tempo is fundamental to your deck’s strategy. Some decks mostly try to grab the tempo right from the start (such as Warlock Zoo). Other decks tend to take a more controlling approach, trying to arrest the opponents tempo at some stage and then taking charge of the game (a good example is freeze mage). Other decks can be more flexible, and easily play the aggressor or control as required (like druid midrange).
It turns out that one of the players often needs to take over the initiative in a timely fashion to win. This player is known as the “beat down”, and if he/she fails to develop a strong initiative then the other player (the control player, or the player with inevitability). This concept comes from Magic the Gathering (like most good theories in Hearthstone), but can be a little misleading, since these roles can swap and sometimes don’t apply. Still it’s worth asking whether one has to be playing aggressively or should take a more passive line of play. Conversely, sometimes you should not trying too hard to take over the tempo, so don’t overcommit into a board clear or a heal spell trying to set up lethal.
1.1: Board control
The obvious, and often most important manifestation of a tempo advantage is board control. Whoever can establish more powerful sum minions on the board is normally able to set up favorable trades and pressure the opponent’s life total. Board Control is also gained by keeping control of the opponent’s board, for example, if the aforementioned freeze mage can lock down the opponent’s board with a chain of freeze spells until the critical alexstrasza turn, then I’d say he/she holds board control. If you don’t hold board control, you should have a plan to regain it before it’s too late, or else to win by burning the opponent out.
1.2: Life Totals
Life totals only matter when they’re zero right? If you’re in a situation or match up where you aren’t in danger of being burned out anytime soon, then feel free to use your life total as a resource. However, that’s not always the case. When one player has a low life total, he has the difficult choice whether to play around lethal or not, while the other player has the chance to pursue a burn plan and draw his outs. If the player with the lower life total has no way of gaining health while the other has clear burn plan for lethal, then first player is “on a clock” and needs to be the beat down. Life totals can matter in other ways: A Hand-lock or a Frozen Giants Mage can be more scary at a lower life due to the possibility of a molten-giant swing turn. If you opt for a burn plan, be aware of cards that add to your opponent’s life total, such as heals or Ice Block. Try think about whether your minion attacks or damage spells are more valuable hitting his face than his minions. While the principle “that you should trade off his board” is a good start, it isn’t always true. Along with checking for lethal more often (as we said it’s always the best play), you should wonder if your best chance to win relies on clamping down his board or going face. You’d be surprised how often charge kitten druid to the face is the correct call.
1.3: Mana Efficiency
While mana efficiency doesn’t win you the game on it’s own, it’s often the mark of a good tempo or aggressive deck (most notably turn 6 rogue). If you’re not using all your mana then you’re probably less likely to gain control of the game. Just remember that being efficient with your mana isn’t always best. For example, I think it is often better to play a harvest-golem rather than a keeper-of-the-grove with 4 mana on an empty board.
2: Card and Card Quality Advantage
The player with more cards in hand and in play holds card advantage. This definition is a little sketchy and relies on the notion of Card Quality advantage to be useful. Your Card Quality depends on how good your cards are at a given time, be they in hand or in play. I’ve found it a useful exercise (especially when playing druid) to ask myself whether the individual cards I have in hand are likely to get better or worse. Consider the earlier example, where the keeper’s battle cry makes him likely to have relevance later in the game, while the Harvest Golem is probably going to become a worse play later.
You gain card advantage by either drawing more than your opponent, or by squeezing more value out of your minions. Unfortunately, “value” tends to be an unclear term, but a typical if simplistic way of looking at is by noting how many cards your cards trade for. A single card going two or three for one is normal way to gain card advantage. Having card advantage is critical if the game is slower, since you can exhaust your opponent’s card resources and then win with your remaining cards, as long as you have reasonable parity in card quality. So the player with card advantage tends to be the one who holds inevitability. Card advantage critical to some match ups, like shaman versus control warrior.
Just having many cards can be an advantage on it’s own, since it grants you more options. Good card draw cycles you towards cards you need as well. For this reason most midrange and especially control decks have a substantial draw component.
3: Combos and Key Cards
Sometimes there is a specific combination of cards that is so strong it almost defines a given match up. For example, if a miracle player can keep a concealed Gadgetzan Auctioneer alive for a turn against a control warrior (aka. he’s not facing Kikatz with armor smith + Brawl!), then the Rogue is a strong position to win the game. If he doesn’t get any of his big 5 drops, he’s in big trouble. Another possible example is hunter versus shaman, where the starving buzzard unleash combo can be critical. Yet another example is a midrange druids dream of turn 2 wild-growth in the mirror (or against basically anything really). Because such combos can be so important, strong players sometimes aggressively mulligan for them, and try to play around them. Try think about which cards combinations are very powerful in the match up you are playing, so that you can properly take them into account.
Sometimes specific effects become defining of a match up. If a freeze mage gets his burn plan going against you, heal becomes super important. It’s sometimes worth it to hold on to hold key cards (like ancient-of-lore vs Freeze Mage, big-game-hunter vs Hand-lock) in hand for when they become critically important.
4: Maintaing Flexibility
Playing flexibly means maintaining more options. This might not be the most important principle in the game, but it has some useful lessons. The obvious piece of advice is that when you sequence your play, play out the options that could change your play first. You mostly want to lead with draw effects, but this could also apply to RNG effects like totem roll. Just holding back weapon charges (even as aggro hunter, guys!) can be valuable, since you preserve the option of hitting something besides the face on your next turn. Mulligans can also skewed to be more flexible, if you have the luxury to do so. There are plenty of other examples of how maintaining flexibility can be important.
These might well be outdated by the fifth week of Naxxramas, but here are some slightly simplified examples of what could be critical to a certain match ups. I hope they will provide you with a better grasp of what I was going on about above.
First example: Say you’re playing Shaman against Mage. His first couple of turns are passive, so you correctly guess that he’s/she’s a Freeze Mage. So what does that mean for your game plan? First lets note that if your opponent gets the time to develop Alexstrasza, then you will have at most 2 turns to live (provided he hasn’t spent all his burn), since shaman doesn’t have any real healing options. So your basic strategy is to beat him down so that he/she can’t feasibly develop the dragon without dying on the following turn. To quickly pop his ice block, you’ll want play out minions and take an aggressive board stance, hoping to develop a doom hammer for a consistent source of damage. So here you’d just focus on our role as the beat down and try to keep your board and damage initiative alive.
Second example: You’re aggressive druid midrange running up against a miracle Rouge. Like any good druid, you mulligan for a good curve with ramp. But you also don’t have high-end taunts, so you can’t really hope to outlast the rouge (like taunt druid sometimes can). So the plan is quite simply to rush him down to 14 health or lower and finish him off with a force of nature savage roar combo (of which we run two). Aggression also has the benefit of forcing him to use his spells early, allowing him to gain fewer cards with auctioneer later. It’s not only card advantage that matters here, but denying the rouge’s draw is important because it means he/she will be less flexible and will have fewer options to fight for the board or burst you down. So not only does the board and life initiative matter, but also preventing him from getting extreme card advantage. Unfortunately this match up is often decided by how early he draws the auctioneer, so the key cards can swing this match up heavily (a turn 2 wild growth is also a key play here for tempo reasons).
Third Example: You’re an aggressive Hunter versus Zoo warlock. If you both pursue your aggressive game plan from the start, then you will most probably lose the race, since, among other things, he/she has taunt givers in the deck. Also, a Zoo’s unchecked board snowballs damage far more quickly than your charge minions and hero power. Since warlock naturally lowers his life total, you are likely to hold inevitability. Your first goal is to kill his tempo (probably with a big unleash play, since the nerubian-egg now counters explosive-trap) and then burn him out. The key cards and combos (unleash with buzzard among other cards) matter a lot for hunter in this match up.
In the first section, we discussed several attributes of the best play, showing how we ought to approach it. In the second section, we went over general principles of play, and want these can mean for individual match ups and situations. Whenever you play, you need to be clear about what goal you’re trying to pursue, be it a board control, card advantage or life total (be it burn or damage prevention), and whether that goal is going to give you the best chance of winning. Sometimes this is easy, but sometimes you might be consistently miscalculating a match up. So do some research! It could win you far more games in the long-term.
I hope this article has been of at least some use to you. I didn’t cover everything important to making the best play, suffice to say that you want to stay in a healthy mindset to avoid misplays, and possibly keep a match log (see Hearthstats) to stay objective about your results. Please let me know via up-votes or comments if you like this more abstract and wordy type of article, and feel free to post question below (I check them daily). I wish you all the best for improving your game and your win rate!