Note: Check out /r/competitiveHS on reddit for daily Hearthstone strategy discussion!
There is no tl;dr for this, so if you don’t have an attention span or a willingness to read, turn back now.
1. Fundamental CCG Concepts
Tempo vs. Value
If you have not read the original Who’s the Beatdown? article by Mike Flores, read it. If you have no idea what Magic: the Gathering is, this slightly worse but applicable version will also suffice. Alternatively, read both, read them 5 times, read them 10 times until you fully understand the idea of the beatdown and the control role.
The beatdown and control roles are actually very clearly defined in Hearthstone. If I have a Mana Wyrm in play T1 and my opponent plays nothing T1, I can then go Unstable Portal -> Ogre Brute (example) and be incredibly ahead on board on turn 2. I am clearly in the beatdown role here, as my opponent has played nothing and I have a 2/3 and a 4/4 in play while my opponent has to remove my threats before being able to safely develop his own threats. Alternatively, he develops his minions, which gives me the POWER OF CHOICE. I can either remove his minions and continue to attack his face, or I can trade off some of my minions and re-develop my board since I have the initiative.
Tempo is a concept that’s more easily defined by example than with words. Say I am Mage against a Warlock. I play Mana Wyrm turn 1 and he responds by playing Flame Imp. I have a 1/3 and he has a 3/2. I can do 1 of 2 things, given my hand: I can play Unstable Portal and have a chance at trading my 1 for his 1 and getting a 1-3 drop off of portal; alternatively, I can play Flamecannon, remove his Imp, buff my Mana Wyrm and hit face.
Flamecannon is the better play in a vacuum because my opponent has no minions in play to contest my now 2-drop Mana Wyrm (2/3 stats). Since I have control of the board, I am in the beatdown role here and I have a tempo advantage over the Zoolock. However, I got low value off of my Flamecannon; I used a 2-mana, 4 damage spell on a 1-drop 3/2 minion. Despite this, it is still the better play, as your goal against Zoolock is to remain in control of the board.
In this match-up, I play for tempo on the board rather than playing strictly for value. I’m willing to use some of my removal spells on lesser targets in order to control the game from early on. Knowing when to play for tempo and when to play for value is an important skill in CCGs. More often than not, it has to do with your deck and how it functions as a whole, but your opponent’s deck and its capabilities are something that must also be considered when you are formulating your game plan.
In another more obvious example, say I am Paladin against Rogue. If I play Tirion Fordring on turn 8 (8 mana) and my opponent counters by casting Sap (2 mana) to bounce my Tirion, my opponent has a 6-mana advantage over me and can use the rest of that mana to clear my board or develop his own board, leaving me in a disadvantageous position.
Card Advantage vs. Board Position
Card advantage is a fairly simple concept that many people seem to get wrong. Card advantage occurs when you have more resources available to you than your opponent. The easiest example of this occurs when you’re against a Mechwarper and a Spider Tank and you play Chillwind Yeti. Without any interaction, the Chillwind Yeti can clear both of the mechs before dying. It therefore trades itself (1 card) for 2 of your opponent’s cards, yielding you +1 card advantage. However, those 2 mechs were played long before your Yeti can come down (barring Druid shenanigans); they were able to get in for several points of damage, putting you on the back foot. The player with the mechs has a board advantage in this scenario, while the player with the trading yeti has card advantage. An aggressive deck like Mech Mage may not care about card advantage in certain match-ups like Handlock; instead, the player may just opt to rush for board position in order to assert the beatdown role in the most efficient manner possible.
Board position is ultimately what determines who is in the beatdown or control role when you are playing Hearthstone. For example, a Control Warrior (fitting name, yes) is in the control role against Zoo until the player lands that well-timed Brawl that empties the board and allows him to stabilize. Once the Zoo player runs low on gas and the warrior drops Shieldmaiden into Dr. Boom, the Warrior will enter the beatdown role and the zoo player will be playing on the back foot.
Deckbuilding and Understanding Each Card
Every deck and class has a different play style and a different game plan against other decks with other game plans. For example, Face Hunter and Control Warrior are on drastic opposites of the spectrum; one deck aims to deal 30 damage as quickly and efficiently as possible, while the other plans to outlast the opponent through efficient answers, gaining a lot of armor, and card advantage gained through weapons or other means.
Knowing your deck, the cards in it, and the deck’s win condition (what needs to happen for you to win the game) is crucial to understanding how to play and mulligan for each match-up in the metagame. When you understand your deck inside and out, you become better with it, but when you understand both your own deck AND your opponent’s deck, your win condition in that match-up becomes much clearer, and you stand a better chance of making the correct choices in given scenarios based off of your extensive knowledge.
Deriving Information (Reads)
In my opinion, this is the most important skill to apprehend in CCGs. This skill is a combination of all other concepts with added metagame knowledge and knowing what your opponent is capable of doing in a given situation. The most basic of reads is watching your opponent’s mulligan. A common practice is to always watch your opponent’s mulligan if they are a Warlock. Generally, Handlock players will mulligan larger portions of their hand on a consistent basis, while Zoolock players will generally keep most of their opening hand, only opting to send away higher-costing cards. However, if you watch ALL players’ mulligans, you can derive information about their hand based off the number of cards they mulligan. If they mulligan their entire hand (or all but 1 card), you can determine that their hand was not very strong to start and that they are working with cards that might not be suited to the match-up. However, if they only mulligan 0-1 cards away, it’s very likely that their hand is going to be strong, and you should plan accordingly.
The next kind of read is the one that separates good players from great ones; deriving hand information during the game. Let’s say I’m on Paladin, and I play Muster for Battle turn 3 against a Hunter. If he has a direct answer to it (Explosive Trap, Unleash the Hounds + Knife Juggler, etc.), it’s very likely that he will play it on his turn to counter our turn. However, if on his turn, he just plays a Haunted Creeper and hero powers your face, you can derive information that he either doesn’t have those answers or isn’t willing to use them at the time. At this point, you can choose to overextend your board, potentially walking into his bluff, or you read him successfully and he is unable to answer your board before you can trade away or buff your recruits with Quartermaster, leading you to win the game.
The easiest way to read your opponent is to create scenarios where casting a certain answer could be strong for them, but not so strong that you lose the game (giving a Druid the perfect swipe as aggro can be a death sentence). This way, you can fish for information while developing your board. With the information you gain, you can determine if a more aggressive or conservative line of play is applicable in the given scenario.
2. Understanding the Metagame
What is a “Metagame?”
The terms meta and metagame often get thrown around without people actually knowing what they mean. A metagame develops around the (perceived to be) strongest decks available in constructed. It becomes a game of rock paper scissors, only with aggro, midrange and control. A new deck rises to the top of the standings, and new counters become viable. A perfect example was the rise and fall of Zoolock/Handlock. Before Imp Gang Boss came out, the Zoo match-up was so bad against hunter (one of the most popular decks on ladder) that the deck was considered dead for a long time. With the revival of Zoo, the classic counter, Handlock, also returned to the ladder; additionally, Handlock’s match-up against Patron Warrior (widely considered the best deck at the time of this post) is pretty good, meaning Handlock has become a tier-1 deck in the meta again, despite being irrelevant in ladder/tournament play for the last couple of months prior to BRM’s release.
On ladder, the metagame is different at every single rank. As you approach the top of the ladder and enter single-digit rankings, more players will be playing the decks that are commonly perceived as the best decks in the metagame. As a result, other decks pop up that deal with common decks in the metagame until the metagame recreates itself in a never ending cycle. In order to reach legend, you have to play a deck that’s well positioned in the given metagame on the given day that you’re grinding.
Learning About Your Local Metagame
I personally use Track-O-Bot, but get one of these trackers and become familiar with how it works as soon as humanly possible. I cannot express how important these tools are for players who truly want to reach the top. It makes data analysis and adapting to the metagame so much easier than doing it by hand.
Using the power rankings on sites like Tempostorm or LiquidHearth can help you understand the common decks that are being played at the top of the ladder, as well.
Tracking your statistics against certain decks and understanding what decks you’re seeing on a given day allow you to make deckbuilding choices that benefit you the most in your given meta. Understand that even a 20-game sample size is not enough to effectively determine the entire metagame around you, but you can start making predictions based off of what you see and changing your deck to adapt to what you’re seeing in a given time period.
This season, I exclusively played 1 archetype to legend (Waker Mage), and I was able to do it by consistently adding and removing my flex cards based on the metagame I was encountering in the given day; for example, when Hybrid Hunter first came out, I added a Kezan Mystic and Polymorph to deal with Freezing Trap, counter-Kezans and Savannah Highmane. I went 6-2 in games that day and finished my legend grind with 210 games played for the month.
Applying Fundamental Concepts to the Metagame
Knowing your opponent’s deck and their win conditions, knowing when to play for tempo or when to play for value, and knowing the best deck to play in a given metagame are all skills that you apprehend from understanding the basic principles of the game. Being able to read that your opponent is not playing Explosive Trap and only playing 1 Unleash the Hounds in their deck (Hybrid Hunter anyone?) means you can be a lot more liberal about dumping minions onto the board without being punished for it as often as you would be against a more aggressive Hunter variant. Your decision making and game sense (core fundamental skills) adapt and change based off the metagame itself.
3. “The Grind”
Opening “Real Talk”
I’m including this section because I have to be honest and blunt (it’s who I am)… you are not entitled to hit legend. There are a plethora of reasons why; you may not be skilled enough, or have a big enough collection to adapt to the metagame, or you may not have enough time to grind 200-400 games a month at a high level. Regardless of these reasons, Legend is an elite status that only a few thousand players out of 40+ million can actually obtain. Do not feel bad if you can’t reach it every month, or even once in your Hearthstone career.
To get from Rank 5 with 1 star to Legend, you have to win 25 more games than you lose without the assistance of win streaks. If you maintain a 67% win/loss rate from 5-Legend, it should take you ~75 games to hit legend from rank 5 (50 wins, 25 losses = +25 stars). If the average game lasts 7-8 minutes, that puts you at about 560 minutes, or 9 hours and 20 minutes, of gameplay time needed to hit legend from rank 5. Compare this to a player who maintains a 55% win/loss rate from 5-Legend, which requires ~250 games (137 wins – 112 losses = +25 stars). This requires nearly 30 hours of playing from 5-Legend.
And then you realize that you have to get to Rank 5 first BEFORE this grind even begins. Reaching rank 5 usually takes the same amount of time as going from 5 to legend, assuming your win rate does not fluctuate greatly.
Coming to Terms
Hearthstone, much like Magic, Poker, Monopoly or the lottery, is a game of chance at its core. Pre-Undertaker nerfs, deathrattle Hunter was easily the best deck in the game because of how consistent it could be, mostly due to Undertaker. Those of you who know the horror of turn 1 Undertaker -> The Coin -> Webspinner/Leper Gnome into T2 Mad Scientist/Haunted Creeper will understand the concept of the nut draw.
When you play hundreds of games on the ladder, you will inevitably run into games where you faceroll your opponent and kill them on turn 5 without them being able to interact much; the same will occur in reverse, where your opponent, a Hunter, has you at 12 life on turn 4. In a game of variance, you will inevitably mulligan into a hand full of 5-6 drops while you get rolled over by Flame Imps and Nerubians, or Leper Gnomes and Huffers. The sooner you accept that these outlier cases are a fringe part of the game and are a small amount of games out of hundreds, the easier it becomes to not get frustrated with losing.
I personally don’t know any players in Hearthstone who have ever maintained a winrate above 75% over the course of over 100 games. That’s because there is a variance factor in a game that’s based off of cards. No professional poker player wins every hand, but professional poker players exist; why? Because they consistently win more than other players do; they understand the core concepts of bluffing, playing the odds and reading your opponent(s). BUT, they don’t win all the time. The same concept applies here. You won’t win every single game you play, nor will you win 75% of the games you play as you play a larger amount of games (unless you really crack the meta or you’re really lucky). There are games like Hunter games where you will lose without much room for outplaying your opponent, but the difference between a rank 3 player and a rank 1 player is that the rank 1 player makes better decisions in games where that is not the case.
In games where you are in the control role, and you have to make a decision that might impact the overall outcome of the game (i.e. do I silence Mad Scientist with Keeper of the Grove, or do I deal 2 damage to the Knife Juggler next to it?), make notes or take screenshots so that you can review your decision after the game and determine if there was a better outcome. Then, when the situation arises again, you’ll have prior knowledge of what the best move is likely to be.
Effective Laddering Habits
I maintained a 64% overall winrate this season from rank 16 to Legend, playing 210 games total. I played 50 Handlock games with a 67% winrate and 160 Waker Mage games with a 62.3% winrate. I reached Legend on May 17th, despite being away from May 9th until the 17th. I also only played from May 5th to May 9th because of final projects and papers. I played 120 games on May 6th to get to rank 5 from rank 12. Now that I’ve graduated and I’m working, I don’t have time to do that anymore, or probably ever again unless I intend on giving up my weekends for video games (hint — not worth it, not doing it).
Play a fast and comfortable deck at the start of the season to reach single-digit ranks. Everyone else is going to be doing the same thing. People want to grind to the top very quickly, so they play games that end quickly in order to play the most games in a sitting. Once you’re at the top, you should look at the metagame, assess your own personal deck knowledge, and play a deck or two that fare well in the metagame that you know inside and out.
If you have a broader collection, one of my favorite techniques for learning how a deck operates is to play 10 games with it in casual mode. By learning what permutations and combinations of cards can be played together, you start to learn what to expect when you are sitting across the e-table from a Patron Warrior or a Control Priest.
Using a stats tracker, if you can determine your average winrate for the month, you can then calculate the number of games you need to hit legend in that month. Using the system of equations (x-y=25; x=WP(x+y)), where x is wins, y is losses, and WP is winrate percentage, you can effectively determine the number of games you’ll need to play from 5 to legend (if you are good at effectively determining your expected winrate percentage from prior months). Double that number and that is likely close to the total number of games you need to play in that month to reach legend. From there, you can plan your playing sessions and play a certain number of games every day in order to meet your goal.
When you lose 2 or more games in a row, if you find that you are frustrated or distracted by the previous outcomes, take a break. Play a different game, go to casual mode and troll with Combolock or Mill Paladin, take your dog for a walk, do some pushups, make some dinner, take a dump, literally do anything to distract you from your unjustified discontent. A clear mind makes clear decisions; a clouded mind makes clouded decisions. Gameplay is still an important aspect on the grind to Legend, and hindering yourself by not stopping when you’re on tilt only hurts your chances of reaching Legend.
Most important of all, make sure to have fun when you play. After all, Hearthstone is a game, and we play games for fun :)!