Hello everyone. I’m OmariZi, a Hearthstone player since February 2014 and an Arena-only player (apart from the odd Tavern Brawl) since roughly March 2015. My insights will hence be almost exclusively relevant to Arena play, though some elements of this article could also be interesting to Constructed players.
In this article (my first ever!), I’m going to take a look at the “confusion value” of secrets, as inspired by a recent Arena game I played, in which a single secret won me the game twice over.
A Lucky Win
It was one of those matches where I felt complacently sure I was going to win. Playing as a Mage against a Hunter, I had started aggressively, getting my opponent’s health down pretty low and seeming to have decent momentum. Then, over the course of a couple of turns, I found to my surprise that the situation had swung around. My opponent played dreadscale and then houndmaster in the same turn against my empty board, and I found myself facing lethal the next turn. My hand consisted entirely of minions, with no form of removal. All signs seemed to point to defeat. The only thing I had going for me: I had the secret counterspell out from a previous turn.
In situations like these, I’ve seen opponents just give up. I’ve probably even done it myself. You know that the likelihood is that your opponent has realised they have won and that there is nothing you can do. You see lethal set up, you say “well played”, and you concede.
The end of this story should hopefully illustrate why it’s always worth resisting that urge.
After a few moments of thought, I decided to play it cool. No emotes from me. I simply played 2x sorcerers-apprentice, pinged my opponent’s face, and ended the turn. I was pinning my hopes on the small chance that my opponent would misplay because of my secret.
And lo and behold, it seemed that our poor Hunter friend was thoroughly confused by the various possibilities of what my secret could be. They considered their options for a while, and then proceeded to trade into my minions instead of just killing me, as they could have.
Of course, at only 5 health, I was still at risk, but I cleared the Hunter’s board, topdecked a Sludge Belcher and hoped that might help save me.
The next turn, Monsieur Rexxar topdecked a kill-command. A moment of panic flashed through my mind as he aimed it at my face.
Then I remembered I had counterspell. I won the game.
Spells and Deception: The Value of Secrets
Many Arena guides will tell you about the importance of drafting cards that are not simply minions. And many also touch upon the importance of deception and opaque plays in Hearthstone (see, for example, Luís Magalhães’ article on deception).
Nonetheless, it’s easy to undervalue secrets while drafting, especially where their pure effect doesn’t appear that significant. What I want to make a case for here is taking into account the confusion value of secrets: their ability to prompt a misplay from your opponent.
More concretely, let’s imagine you are drafting and already have a very minion-heavy deck. You are now faced with a choice between a secret (let’s say bear-trap) and a minion which, on the face of it, is a slightly stronger card than the secret (let’s say silvermoon-guardian).
My argument is that in this situation, the secret is worth more consideration than at first glance, and that you could legitimately give a small mental boost to its value – because of its potential to cause misplays, and because of its ability to provide variety and complexity to your resources and your potential future board states. A board composed of minions can only have so many variables: secrets, alongside weapons, can be seen as another dimension of the board, and having a presence in more than one dimension is often an advantage.
There are Secrets, and Then There Are Secrets
It’s worth noting, however, that not all secrets, and indeed, not all secret classes, are created equal. Three of the classes – Mage, Hunter and Paladin – have secrets as part of their arsenal. But these vary quite considerably. The obvious way in which they vary is in their mana cost and corresponding power: 1 mana for Paladin, 2 for Hunter and 3 for Mage, with the power of the cards roughly matching their cost in general.
What is less obvious, however, is the other way in which these collections of secrets vary: their ability to confuse, or more precisely, the number and “depth” of plays necessary for someone to determine what a particular secret is.
Since my original idea for this article was conceived, the release of the League of Explorers adventure has actually brought the number of actions needed to “suss out” each secret to a similar level for each class, whereas beforehand it was more clearly Mage secrets that always required the largest number of actions. More time playing in the new, slightly adapted LoE meta will be needed in order to fully evaluate the impact of the new Paladin and Hunter secrets, sacred-trial and dart-trap. Nonetheless, it still seems to be the case that the confusion potential, and the impact of misplays stemming from that confusion, remains strongest in connection with Mage secrets, as I will explain.
Below, I have listed the different actions required to trigger each secret, grouped according to class. Brackets are used where an action taken in a specific way can trigger a specific, additional secret.
Play a minion – mirror-entity
Kill a minion – duplicate / effigy
Play a (targeted) spell – counterspell / ( spellbender )
Attack face – ice-barrier / vaporize
Deal lethal – ice-block
Attack face (with a minion) – misdirection / explosive-trap / bear-trap / ( freezing-trap )
Attack a minion (with a minion) – snake-trap / ( freezing-trap )
Play a minion – snipe
Use your hero power – dart-trap
Attack (face) – noble-sacrifice / ( eye-for-an-eye )
Attempt to kill a minion (and leave another alive) – noble-sacrifice / redemption / ( avenge )
Play a minion (when you already have at least 3) – repentance / ( sacred-trial )
Leave at least one enemy minion on board at the end of your turn – competitive-spirit
There are many interesting comments to be made about all of these secrets. However, the key things to note are how the secrets are grouped by action. These groupings have double-edged effects. On the one hand, grouping secrets into a single action makes for more complicated decisions, in which opponents must consider a greater number of potential outcomes and prepare for all of them (or at least, the most serious ones). However, this also reduces the number of actions necessary to test for all of the class’s secrets.
Let’s look at each class in turn, in terms of both characteristics.
The Paladin’s most significant grouping of secrets is connected to the action of attempting to kill one of his minions. This can certainly lead to quite complex decisions with three possible outcomes, and the difference in these outcomes can sometimes be pretty crucial. noble-sacrifice is often not too difficult to play around, but an example of a potentially devastating wrong guess is when you kill Uther’s taunt minion expecting avenge to trigger on another minion, only for the taunt to be respawned with 1 health via redemption. However, as already noted, these effects are more often relatively minor, and in the Arena, where it’s quite rare for more than one secret to be played at once, not too hard to play around.
In terms of the number of actions required to test for all the secrets, the Paladin does actually have the upper limit of roughly 7 actions, if you are unable to combine the actions in brackets within their corresponding lines – though this is only if we count eye-for-an-eye, undoubtedly the weakest secret in existence and very rarely of any significance. (I once drew a game rather than winning it thanks to the card, but that’s another story for another time.) At the lower end, however, it’s possible to test for all of the Paladin’s secrets with 4 actions – or even 3, in a sense, as leaving one of Uther’s minions on the board is more an “inaction” than an action.
The Hunter has the heaviest single grouping of secrets, with 4 potential activations stemming from attacking Rexxar/Alleria’s face. Again, these effects can be quite varied, with an unexpected ironfur-grizzly popping up, or 2 damage being dealt to all of your minions (for example), sometimes being a real pain to deal with. Arguably, however, the Hunter’s secrets can be some of the easiest to guess according to the situation.
Meanwhile, it takes between 4 and 6 actions to figure out a Hunter secret for certain, and it’s pretty easy for this number to be 4 if you use minions to attack.
So now we come to the Mage. The Mage’s secrets are undoubtedly the most sparsely grouped, meaning you rarely have to consider more than one outcome for each of your secret-triggering actions. That said, the grouping of duplicate and effigy into one action is arguably the most powerful secret grouping of all. The consequences of these two secrets differ so heavily that preparing for both results is a real challenge: it’s often nigh-on impossible to predict whether Jaina/Medivh will be rewarded with 2 copies of the minion you just killed (often daunting, but much less immediate), or whether you’ll be facing another minion of exactly the same cost (and therefore ideally have extra minions ready to attack with, or removal in hand).
The Mage’s other strength is in the lower floor of the number of necessary test actions. Although it’s technically possible to test for counterspell, spellbender, duplicate and effigy all in one go by attempting to kill a minion with a targeted damage spell (e.g. casting a fireball on a chillwind-yeti), this situation is relatively rare, meaning that most of the time, you need to spend 5 significant, non-overlapping actions in order to figure out which secret the Mage has out. And one of these actions (dealing lethal), although combinable with attacking face, is one you cannot take until the late game. Granted, ice-block is an epic, so not seen all that often, but it still lingers in the back of your mind.
Hence, overall, while the differences between the strength of these secret sets are not enormous, it is the Mage that shows the most considerable strength in both departments, causing (I would argue) maximum awkwardness in the enemy’s decisions and the largest potential for confusion and misplays. (Paladin and Hunter I would place on a closer footing, even if Hunter has the “technically” more powerful secrets.)
The one area I haven’t touched upon here is rarity, which does go some way towards balancing this effect in the Arena. Below, we see each set of secrets with rarities indicated:
3 common, 3 rare, 2 epic
5 common, 1 rare, 1 epic
6 common, 1 rare
This means that in fact, you should generally see secrets less often against a Mage than against the other secret classes – and that, when you are thinking through the possibilities of what a secret could be, you can leave spellbender and ice-block fairly low down on your mental list. However, it doesn’t mean they can be discounted.
In all, even with rarities taken into account, I would stand by my previous conclusion regarding the “ranking” of the secret sets. But I’m interested to hear about other opinions and any in-play experiences that run counter to this!
I hope this article was interesting to you and will have a positive effect, however small, on your drafting and gameplay.
Keep it secret, keep it safe.