Into The Hearthstone Mind: The Four Stages of Competence

I come from a background of semi-professional poker, Magic The Gathering, and I'd like to share today's article on Competence with you!


Hello! My name is Katy and I’m a pretty new Hearthstone player who is still learning the ropes. I come from a background of semi-professional poker, Magic The Gathering, and both business and performance involvement in both the video gaming and general entertainment industry, whereupon I have been successful in all areas. I hope to transfer the relevant skills I have learned in these areas towards professional Hearthstone play, and take you on the journey with me here at Hearthstone Players.

I’m going to start a little off tangent by explaining a well-documented learning cycle in terms that are applicable to Hearthstone. Reading this won’t make you a great Hearthstone player, but it may help you think productively about the way you reason about your performance and progress in the game.

The Four Stages of Competence

You’ve probably heard of the five stages of loss; there also exists a model called the four stages of competence. The stages look like this:

Unconscious Incompetence – You are bad at Hearthstone and you don’t even know it. All the decks you’ve netdecked suck. The opponents always have exactly the answers they need. The RNG is always stacked against you. The current meta is impossible to beat. Arena is pure luck. Does this sound like you? If so, welcome to the pre-learning phase! Somewhat (but not entirely) analogous to denial in the five stages of loss, you have not yet realized that the game is not out to get you: you just aren’t that good at it.

Unconscious incompetence can be coarse as above or more fine-grained. Perhaps you do well at constructed but can never seem to break past 3 wins in arena. You play just the same as you do in constructed and you’re rank 5 on the ladder! In this case it is just one aspect of the game that you haven’t recognized you are flawed in (by the way, you will never win at arena if you play it the same way as constructed).

Conscious Incompetence – You are bad at Hearthstone and you know it. This may sound awful but it is actually the first really important step towards learning. You cannot become proficient at something new until you realize where your weaknesses lie. Conscious incompetence can likewise occur on many levels and this is the phase where you narrow down your problem areas: do you attack face too much, or trade too much? Is your mulligan strategy letting you down? Is your deck a bad match-up for the current meta? Do you always draft bad cards in arena? Once you can identify the weak points, you can start to take corrective action.

Conscious Competence – You are good at Hearthstone but you have to think carefully and in an active way through all of your plays, calculating the damage totals, order of attack and card plays, thinking through possible answers your opponent may have and whether or how to play around them, and so on. You know when you face a shaman that she’ll likely be using the 3-damage Lightning Bolt and 2-3 AoE damage Lightning Storm for early removal, roadblock you with a couple of Feral Spirits and that those innocent-looking totems should probably (generally) be cleared as fast as possible for your own wellbeing. You will remember all of this and handle it fine because you understand the upsides and downsides of each action with the deck archetype you’re using in relation to your opponent’s likely deck archetype.

Unconscious Competence – Playing Hearthstone is now second nature and you can now play through the majority of your games on auto-pilot achieving a respectable win percentage, processing most of your turns quickly, and pausing only to deal with unusual edge cases (board and hand states that occur rarely in normal play, or that require particularly demanding calculations). The more unconsciously competent you are, the less of these edge cases you will need to slow down and switch back to consciously competent mode for. If you fire up your zoolock deck, meet our friend the shaman again, and fire out your Nerubian Eggs and Haunted Creepers to make it unfavourable for her to use her standard removal – yet you do it without thinking about it – and in the same situation against a class without early AoE removal you go for the Flame Imps and Leper Gnomes instead to get that early face damage in – again without consciously thinking about it – you have become unconsciously competent.

Moving forward: Accepting your own weaknesses

Moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence is mostly a question of stepping back and just looking rationally at the facts:

  • Other people are successfully using the same decks as you
  • Your opponents don’t always have all the answers – it’s just that you remember these games more vividly
  • RNG good and bad luck streaks are evenly distributed across the entire player population in the long run
  • Many other people are at higher ranks than you, therefore the meta is beatable
  • Some people consistently have high win rates in arena, therefore it can’t be pure luck

The point of the bullet list is to highlight the rational facts of reality which can be easily verified. Accept these, and the process of learning can begin in earnest.

By the way, there is no shame in admitting failure. Failure is part of the package when it comes to self-improvement in any area of life; we learn far more from our failures than we do our successes. Try not to think of it as a final result that is negative; merely a stepping stone that we all go through to help obtain a better outcome later, including in Hearthstone!

Moving forward: From incompetence to competence

The process by which people learn varies considerably from person to person, and the problems players encounter with their performance can come from many sources, some of which may be surprising. Real-world issues such as depression can cause just as poor if not worse in-game performance than a lack of skill at the game itself, so consider all possibilities when you try to narrow down why your game isn’t as good as it could be.

Sticking purely to in-game decision-making, a lot of research and introspection may be required. Review your games and try to determine why you lost. Of course, you may not be competent enough to do this: Hearthstone is a game of inches, and a seemingly minor error early in the game can lead to a near-inevitable loss via a kind of butterfly effect cascade. Something as simple as an incorrect use of the coin leaving you with no turn 2 play – for example – can be almost automatically game-ending in some match-ups. If you can’t identify the problem, try to read sites like Hearthstone Players which will have articles tailored to your problem areas, watch popular steamers to see where your plays would differ from theirs, and so on.

Some problems have more concrete solutions than others. Do you have trouble remembering all the hero board wipes and the mana levels they occur at? Try writing them down one at a time as they happen to you in-game. Do you keep forgetting that Auchenai Soulpriest + Circle of Healing combo, or the most popular secrets in the current meta? With all these types of memory problems, taking notes can help. The process of writing something down at the point it happens in the game can help to form an association in your mind, as opposed to if you just make a cheat sheet in advance from a website.

Of course, if I could explain in a couple of paragraphs how to go from being incompetent to competent at Hearthstone, everyone could do it, so instead I’ll be writing an entire series about my ongoing journey between these two stages in Hearthstone specifically, and try to fill your heads with useful tips as we go along!

Moving forward: Why does unconscious competence matter?

Time for an experiment! Try standing up, then walk five paces away from your computer and then five paces back again. Hopefully, that wasn’t too tricky! Now do the same thing again, but this time, think about each of the steps required one at a time just before you take them: the lifting of your upper leg, an outward extension of the lower leg, a slight lean forward, placing the tip of the foot down and so on. The vast majority of people will move very slowly, rigidly and quite awkwardly when trying to walk in this way. This is the difference between conscious and unconscious competence. When you don’t have to think about something to accomplish it, and it becomes second nature, you become much better at it by default and make fewer mistakes.

The road from conscious competence to unconscious competence is the same in Hearthstone as for everything else: relentless practice. Although a lucky few of you may become unconsciously competent at Hearthstone in a 3-figure number of games, the vast majority will need to play many thousands of matches to reach this level. After almost 2,000 tracked matches, I am just starting to feel like I am becoming unconsciously competent with one deck in one meta, but that is certainly subjective.

However long it takes you doesn’t really matter, because if you are still reading this then you are already in the right mindset to improve your game. Let us not forget also that Hearthstone players have different goals and play for different reasons; for many, being proficient is not important as long as they are having fun, and they will be sure to remind us that there is more to life than a virtual card game 🙂

Katy will soon be hosting a new regular stream called The Katy Hearthstone Show on Twitch, playing constructed and arena with full draft explanations, summarizing the week’s Hearthstone news, as well as viewer match-ups, comedy drafts and lots more fun stuff in a unique TV show format to differentiate herself from current Hearthstone streams.

Check for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube links, and follow the Twitch channel to be notified when the show goes live.






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