What Makes a Deck Good? Part 1: Features of Good Decks

Hello everyone! Today’s article will be about the traits and features of very good decks. Identifying the best decks or strategies in a card game will always be crucial to success, and especially once the new Standard comes out with the set rotation and nerfs, knowing what makes a deck very good will be very […]

Introduction

Hello everyone! Today’s article will be about the traits and features of very good decks.

Identifying the best decks or strategies in a card game will always be crucial to success, and especially once the new Standard comes out with the set rotation and nerfs, knowing what makes a deck very good will be very important in the first days. Therefore I really hope that the new Standard format rolls out quite late in an upcoming season, because good deckbuilders and players will have a very big edge against the rest of the competition.

You could say that a good deck is a deck that gives you a good winrate against the field and that is true, but I think there is a lot more to it, that people miss or don’t know about. A lot of people are having a tough time reaching Rank 5 or Legend or Top 100 Legend at the end of the season, although they are decent or good players. A big part in their failure of reaching a particular goal comes down to not playing good decks that give them a high enough winrate.

In this article I will give you my personal opinion on what I perceive as good decks.  I have a very high threshold for what I consider a good deck and therefore I would pick up for the ladder or tournaments.

I hope that this article will be a good tool for you and helps you identifying good decks.

What makes a deck good?

In this section I will list the features of good decks in no particular order. If you pick up a deck and check mark every trait the deck has with the following list, you have an indicator of how good the deck is. The more traits you can check mark the better your deck is. Almost every broken deck that got nerfed, had every trait of my list.

Sunshine Hunter, Patron Warrior and Alexstrasza -Warrior Control OTK (when she removed armor back then and Charge costed zero mana)  had every trait of my list.

So whenever you want to find out if a deck is truly broken and unhealthy for the game, just come back, check this list and when the particular deck has every trait of a good deck, it is broken.

1. Has potential for skill to make a big difference

It is not a secret that there a lot of games with various level of skills. Coin tossing is 100 % luck based, whereas Chess has 0% luck and is only about skill. And then there are games with a decent amount of luck, but enough skill for a competitive scene to develop and prosper. A good example would be Poker, which is a game with random elements you have no control over, resulting in the fact that even a professional Poker player can lose. Poker has existed in various forms for quite some time now, and there is even a lot of scientific research that proves that the game is skill intensive, although it has elements of luck (from a mathematical point of view, there is no such thing as good and bad luck, there is only variance).

The same is true for Hearthstone. Although I think that I play Poker at a very high level, I’m still not sure if Poker or Hearthstone is more skill intensive. Games without variance, like Chess are currently having a very hard time and are dying, because they are not very appealing for the casual crowd, which is the majority of the player base in every game. Variance not only creates different situations and exciting moments and stories to tell, it also results in the fact that even the best players can lose to bad players in a short sample size.

What is exactly my point? My point is that if a game is 100 % luck based you can only expect to win 50 % of the time (with a high enough sample size, obviously there will be downswings and upswings with a higher/ lower winrate, but with a large enough sample size it will approximate to 50 %).

To have a consistent advantage over your opponents in Hearthstone, you need to be better than them, you need skill. There are various forms of skill that can give you an advantage. You can adapt to the metagame by changing your decklist (f.ex you mainly play Secret Paladin and face a lot of other Secret Paladins, and then you put Aldor Peacekeeper in your deck to get an edge) or simply switching to a deck that has a better position in the metagame (=higher winrate). These advantages are rather time sensitive, it does not take too long for other Secret Paladins to also put Aldor Peacekeeper in their deck, and the advantage you get is first and foremost also not that big. And if for example Face Hunter is that good in the metagame that you win 70 % of your games, it won’t take that long for other players to also switch to Face Hunter and diminish your advantage.

The biggest advantage you can get as a player in Hearthstone is picking up skill intensive decks, so decks that give you an advantage over your opponent by making smart maneuvers and giving the opponent a lot of room to make mistakes.

In Hearthstone there are more skill intensive decks and less skill intensive decks. A deck like Secret Paladin is not a very skill dependant deck, there is slim difference between a Rank 5 Secret Paladin and a Legend Rank Secret Paladin player. On the other hand there is a big difference between a player that makes Legend with Freeze Mage and a player that is consistently reaching Top 100 Legend with it.

Although there is a rather big room of potential of errors your opponent can make, when you play Secret Paladin, this advantage decrease more and more, the better your opponent is. Once you reach something like Rank 5 it is impossible to consistently get a higher winrate than 60 % with Secret Paladin, unless you are very lucky.

In case you are reading this article, I’m quite sure you want to increase your overall winrate at Hearthstone and decrease the impact luck has on your games. To achieve this consistently, I recommend to gravitate towards decks that give you a skill advantage over your opponent.

Many people often mistake a Control deck for being skill intensive and an Aggro deck for being easy to play. That is simply not true. There are easy Control decks like Ramp Druid and there are skill intensive aggressive decks like Warlock Zoo and the old, now extinct ( 🙁 !!! ) Aggro Rogue.

Skill does not have anything to do how fast or slow a deck is. A skill intensive deck is a deck that has a high amount of non trivial decisions. Playing Shielded Minibot and Muster for Battle on Turn 2 and 3 are trivial decisions, whereas finding the optimal usage of Ice Lance out of Freeze Mage or Whirlwind out of Patron Warrior in a matchup is a very complex decision with no absolute answer. Ice Lance can not only be combo’d with Frostbolt to deal four damage, you can also use it on a big minion to buy yourself more time, but you also can use it to generate Fireballs with Archmage Antonidas. Same is true for Whirlwind, you can use it to kill Leper Gnome on Turn 1, to draw cards with Acolyte of Pain, to make a bunch of Grim Patrons or to generate a lot of life with Armorsmith. You may have drawn Whirlwind or Ice Lance on Turn 1, but the perfect usage of them can be very late in the game. Identifying the optimal usage depends on a lot of factors: the matchup, the game state, the cards in your hand etc. There is no absolute answer on how to use either Ice Lance or Whirlwind, it all depends on the situation. And solving that little puzzle takes a lot of skill and will give you an edge over worse opponents.

As a bonus a skill intensive deck can also give you a big edge in the mirror. With a deck like Secret Paladin or Combo Druid it is very hard to get an edge, whereas an Oil Rogue mirror is highly skill intensive (I have  a 70% winrate in the Oil Rogue mirror pre Legend Rank).

For me the greatest feature of a good deck is that I get an inherent advantage against my opponents. For my Legend grind I usually pick up decks that give me at least a 65 % winrate, and I made Legend a couple of times with a winrate higher than 80 % (Oil Rogue, Control Warrior, Control Priest and Freeze Mage). Since I don’t consider myself as a very lucky person, or I would rather save my luck for Poker (haha!) I tend to pick up skill intensive decks once I hit Rank 5. Before that I usually play my full golden Hybrid Hunter, so that people know that I’m not a filthy casual, who can’t afford other decks 😀

2. Doesn’t get hated out easily / Doesn’t auto-lose to any deck

For me a good deck is a deck that has a very low amount of luck involved, but a very high amount of skill. If your deck can get hard countered by particular cards or decks, the impact of luck will increase.

Although a deck like Freeze Mage is very low RNG based deck, it actually is very RNG dependant before a game starts. RNG (Random number generator) is a synonym for “things you have no control over”. If you face an opponent who hates Secrets and especially hates losing to Freeze Mage and therefore puts two Kezan Mystics in his deck, you will have a very hard time as a Freeze Mage.

Freeze Mage is also an underdog against the two Warrior decks: Control Warrior and Patron Warrior.  The later is not that big of a deal, because the Patron Warrior has to play very well to have a really good matchup against Freeze Mage. But if the Warrior is a good player, you will face an extremely bad matchup, no matter what. So if you queue into a lot of Warriors, when you play Freeze Mage you are just a victim of things you have no control over also known as bad luck.

Another deck that is also highly vulnerable to tech cards is Face Shaman. It is not only vulnerable to a lot of heal spells and taunt minions, it is also vulnerable against weapon destruction ( Acidic Swamp Ooze or Harrison Jones). Doomhammer is an integral part of the decks strategy to burst the opponent down. If the opponent dismantled Doomhammer at a critical point of the game, the chances to win the game reduce greatly.

3. Not One Dimensional

The main objective in Hearthstone is to reduce the opponent’s life total to zero. There are multiple ways to achieve this goal, resulting in a big range of different deck types. Secret Paladin’s game plan is to get early board control and then snowball the board presence to victory. Face Hunter’s game plan is to rush the opponent’s life total down as quickly as possible. And Mill Druid’s game plan is to exhaust the opponent of cards and then win with… yeah whatever, you can beat your opponent with a wooden stick if he is out of cards.

All these three decks are one-dimensional, they have only one path to victory. If you lose board control early as a Secret Paladin with no chance to come back (f.ex 4 Patrons on an empty board), how are you going to win? You have no alternate path to victory. Same is true for Face Hunter. You can only kill your opponent with damage and rush him down with multiple small minions, if your opponent stops you dead in your tracks by playing Reno Jackson and removing all your minions, you have no alternate way to win. You can’t win by getting board control, because your minions suck and are very small.

And Mill Druid? Mill Druid wins by exhausting the opponent. The deck plays an abundance of removal and healing spells, but fails to win if it is an impossible task to exhaust the opponent of his resources (f.ex. Mill cannot win against an early Lord Jaraxxus).

Being one-dimensional aka only having one path to victory puts you in a very hard spot if your opponents directly counters your strategy (there are multiple examples like Control Priest vs. Secret Paladin/ Warlock Zoo, where Priest is exceptionally good at clearing the board multiple times or Face Hunter vs. Control Warrior).

A very important trait of good decks is that they are not one-dimensional and can adapt their game plan to a strategy that gives them a better chance to win the game.

Take Combo Druid as an example. The deck has a high amount of burst, so you might think that putting a lot of healing cards in your deck may be a good way to counter Druid. If the Druid realizes that you are putting yourself consistently out of Combo range or you have way too much life points, he can shift the focus of the game to board presence/ card advantage by using Force of Nature and Savage Roar to clear your minions, and then grind you out with their good minions and card draw.

On the other hand if the opponent has dominant board control the Druid can shift the focus of the game to your life points by playing Swipe in your face and using Druid of the Claw in Charge mode.

Another good example is Reno Warlock with some sort of combo finisher ( f.ex. Leeroy Jenkins+ Power Overwhelming and Faceless Manipulator). The deck has an inbuilt card advantage mechanism with Life Tap, but also plays a decent amount of very good minions. So the main objective of the deck is not  the combo finish. You can win games by grinding your opponents out of resources or having superior board presence with your powerful minions. The combo finish just adds another dimension to the deck by providing another potential angle of attack with twenty damage from your hand.

It also has a huge advantage against other Reno Warlocks, who do not play any combo finish and instead play more high value minions, because suddenly at one point of the game the Combo Warlock can shift the focus of the game (=grindfest) to the life total.

What I’m trying to say is that multi dimensional decks are very hard to counter. If you want to beat a Combo Druid, not only need you to be prepared for potential high tempo plays (a big minion that gets played very early with the help of Innervate), their beefy Midrange minions, but also to their burst with Force of Nature and Savage Roar. Preparing for all these angles of attack is quite an impossible task, and that is mainly the reason why there is not a single deck that has a better winrate than 65 % (with a large enough sample size against good players) versus Druid.

As already mentioned Secret Paladin is one-dimensional, it can only win by superior board presence and riding that to victory, so it is very bad against decks that actively try to counter their board development. It does not have any sort of burst finisher or can suddenly play a value game against decks that stifle their board development and make powerful plays themselves. Therefore Priest Control can have a 70 % winrate not only against Secret Paladin, but also against Zoolock, because it directly counters their only game plan to win the game very effectively.

4. Proactive Game Plan

A deck is proactive when it poses difficult questions to the opponent. That can either be playing a good curve (Flame Imp ->Knife Juggler-> Imp Gang Boss), playing a powerful minion (like a Mountain Giant on Turn 4) or some huge burst (Alexstrasza followed up by Frostbolt and double Fireball).

If the opponent fails to answer one of these questions (dealing with the Mountain Giant or the three small minions or getting above 15 health), he will lose the game. A deck like Fatigue Warrior/ Mill Druid does not do anything proactive. Its game plan is just to kill everything and have an answer for everything.

And that is a huge inherent drawback of these decks. Not playing any threats or posing any questions to your opponent is a setup for a disaster in a lot of matchups, because you give your opponent all the time in the world to assemble a particular combo finish or to draw into key cards. In Hearthstone minions also act as some sort of pseudo removal, so if you play a very powerful proactive minion, it will help you dealing with your opponents minions.

Being able to do something proactive and powerful will overall increase your winrate against the metagame. Fatigue Warrior against Anyfin Can Happen Paladin is an unwinnable matchup for Fatigue Warrior. The Paladin’s late game is so exceptionally powerful, that the Warrior has no way to win in the late game. So in order to win he needs to pressure the Murloc Paladin and kill him before he can assemble the ultimate late game combo. Obviously Fatigue Warrior can’t do that because it mainly plays removal and very few proactive cards. So in this matchup, the Fatigue Warrior is only waiting for the inevitable defeat.

5. Highly Interactive

Being able to interact with your opponent is a good feature of a deck. If your opponent does something very powerful (like 4 Grim Patrons on Turn 5 on an empty board), you better be able to do something about these dwarfs by using removal spells. Healing effects  and taunts are also some form of interaction.

If your deck is not highly interactive, like Secret Paladin or Warlock Zoo you are gambling way too much for my taste. If my opponent has a perfect curve, gets dominant board control with a high enough life total or brings me down to a very low life total, what can I do to come back? Very little.

I want to give myself the best chance to win, and therefore I prefer playing decks that can interact with my opponent outside of playing a good curve and making good trades (Yes that Leper Gnome attacking into the Knife Juggler is a good trade!! Who would have guessed? :0).

Decks like Reno Warlock, Freeze Mage, Control Warrior are highly interactive and therefore less draw dependant than other decks. With such a deck your opponent can have an early nut draw, while you draw badly, but you still have a good chance to win, because you can later answer their cards. What is a hand full of shitty Secrets and some minions going to do against an onslaught of Grim Patrons?

Interactivity also has another big appeal for me. Being able to interact with your opponent, also can give you a big edge by making skill matter more. Board clears like Brawl or Lightbomb etc. can give the better player a huge advantage against a worse opponent, because if the opponent misjudges their importance he can lose the game on the spot.

6.Tries to play  a longer game – Capitalizes on mistakes more

Let me give you a quick example on this one. Personally I like playing Freeze Mage, because it is not only highly interactive (interactivity is not minions smashing each other, it is being able to respond to your opponents plays, by clearing their board, healing yourself etc.), it also plays a longer game.

First of all, imagine the Druid vs Face Hunter matchup. It does not take a lot of skill for both players to master this matchups, so to make skill a non deciding factor, because there is very little depth to it. So the majority of time the winner of this matchup is going to be the one who is better at drawing cards in the right order, which is nothing more than the equivalent of flipping coins. Such a fantastic play experience, if you like flipping coins of course and finding out if whether you or your opponent is the master of RNG.

Now let us compare the Druid vs. Freeze Mage matchup. Unlike the first matchup it is extremely rarely decided on Turn 3 or 4 (unless the Druid does Druid things and plays a Dr. Boom on Turn 3, but whatever you can’t win everything). This matchup is the majority of time decided very late in the game. Freeze Mage is a super defensive decks, which makes it really hard to kill early and Freeze Mage can’t kill the Druid early because it is busy drawing cards and being defensive before Turn 8.

These factors and a multitude of other factors result in an interactive and longer game. Interactivity and a longer game results in a lot of non trivial decisions for both players. As a Freeze Mage player using your freeze cards incorrectly can reduce your chances to win the game, whereas the Druid can lose the game if he misjudges the correct usage of Ancient of Lore (drawing cards or using as heal after Alexstrasza) and Keeper of the Grove (silencing Mad Scientist, Acolyte of Pain or waiting for Doomsayer, or even dealing two damage to the Freeze Mage can be correct).

There is no absolute answer on how to use Ancient of Lore and Keeper of the Grove, and there is also no absolute answer on how to use your freeze effects. It all depends on the situation. To correctly recognize the optimal usage of particular cards in this matchup, takes skill. And in this matchup there are a lot of tough situations where you have to find the right play and if you’re unable to find the right play, you will greatly reduce your chances to win the game.

Although the Druid is favored against Freeze Mage, that can shift to being favorable for the Freeze Mage if the Freeze Mage is better than the Druid.

7. Good card draw – Consistency

Being able to cycle through your deck and therefore seeing more cards in your deck, makes the deck more consistent. A deck with a high amount of card draw minimizes the randomness of drawing cards at the beginning of the game and during the game, because when the game ends you saw a bigger part of your deck than with a less card draw heavy deck. My most favorite decks, whether in Magic or Hearthstone are all decks, where I can reasonably expect to draw every single card in my deck, because drawing the right cards becomes a non factor if you draw your entire deck.

To summarize: The more draw, the less randomness becomes a factor and the more skill becomes a game deciding factor.

8. Optimal mana usage throughout multiple stages of the game

Using your mana crystals as efficiently as possible during the game is a big theoretical advantage for a deck. If your deck is not mana efficient several turns in a row, and your opponent is you will fall behind and will very likely lose the game. To be mana efficient throughout multiple stages of the game your deck does not need to have a curve from Zombie Chow to Deathwing.

It only means that your deck is capable of doing meaningful things with the mana available. A good example is the old Grim Patron Warrior, when it could deal 60+ damage in one turn. Although the decks curve ended with Emperor Thaurissan, it was still spending its mana very efficiently the majority of time on Turn 10, by dealing with the opponent’s board, making a bunch of Grim Patrons or drawing cards. And sometimes all these things at the same time!

There are a lot of decks who are not very mana efficient throughout multiple stages of the game, a good example is Face Hunter. The decks curve is very low and it plays almost zero card draw, resulting in a deck that is getting more mana inefficient the longer the game goes. And that is a severe drawback.

9. Doesn’t need to play many situational cards

A situational card is a card that is not very flexible. A lot of very powerful cards are situational, but if your deck plays too many situational cards it will get inconsistent and therefore bad. Examples are Circle of Healing, or Power Overwhelming. You need other cards to benefit from them, alone they do nothing.

A prime example of a deck that plays way too many situational cards is Inner Fire Combo Priest.

Conclusion

I hope you liked my article. In the next part I will make an analysis about a couple of current decks and will make an analysis which features of good decks they have or lack.

Also, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments! Feedback is also highly appreciated.

In conclusion avoid being this cat, when it comes to Hearthstone 😉