What Makes a Deck Good? Part 2: An Analysis of Current Decks

In Hearthstone a lot of people are affected by the Dunning-Krugger effect: The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their […]

Introduction

In Hearthstone a lot of people are affected by the Dunning-Krugger effect:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

Therefore it is important to be critical with yourself, especially when it comes to deck choices.

The first part involved a lot of theory. The second part is going to be more practical, because I’m taking a look at a couple of decks and make an analysis, which traits of good decks they have and lack.

As with every article, I hope to improve your understanding of the game and also for you to enjoy reading it. Let’s get started!

Combo Druid

Combo Druid is a deck that has been around since Beta. It is an incredible strong and consistent archetype and even saw a decent amount of play when Hearthstone was dominated by some truly broken decks like Miracle Rogue or Naxxramas Hunter (2 mana Starving Buzzard).

Combo Druid is at its heart a Midrange deck. A Midrange deck is something rather simple, it has some early game and some lategame, but is most effective in the midgame (Midgame=Turn 4-7).

Building a Midrange deck is quite easy, you just take an aggressive shell, remove some cheap minions to replace them with more expensive minions and have something that is between Aggro and Control: a Midrange deck.

If we take a look at a standard Combo Druid list, you will find out that it actually does not have that much early game when compared to something like Midrange Shaman or Patron Warrior. The reason for that is that both Wild Growth and Innervate act as some sort of virtual early game by pumping out expensive cards earlier.

Wild Growth is a good, but completely fair card in a vacuum. You spend one card to get one extra mana crystal. Innervate on the other hand is completely broken. Cheating on mana is absurdly powerful in Hearthstone.

If the story would end here, we would just have a decent deck.

The reason why Druid is so exceptionally powerful in the current card pool is one big design flaw. First of all Druid not only has some very good Midrange minions with Druid of the Claw and Ancient of Lore, it also has access to good removal with Keeper of the Grove, Swipe and Wrath.

In addition to that it also has the best card in the game: Innervate. A card that allows you to cheat on the mana crystal system and play minions earlier. But with powerful Ramp and good midgame minions the story does not end. Druid only needs four card slots to incorporate a very powerful combo: Force of Nature and Savage Roar. Other combo decks like Freeze Mage need to build their entire deck around the combo, while Druid can just slam four cards in an already very good Midrange Ramp deck. Things get even more crazy when you consider that other combo cards like Sinister Strike (in a Malygos deck) cannot impact the board. Well both Savage Roar and Force of Nature can act as some sort of minion removal if you want to.

Which traits of good decks does Combo Druid have? :

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

Combo Druid gets hated out very hard, because not only can the deck have the most busted draw of all classes in the game (always a pleasure to meet Dr. Boom on Turn 3), it also attacks the opponent from three different angles: potential high tempo plays, good minions that provide value or card advantage and the deck’s burst. Therefore it is very hard in a tournament setting to find three decks that have a good winrate against Druid.

Not One Dimensional

If Combo Druid only would have Ramp and good minions, it would be a completely fair deck. The fact that it can also very easily incorporate a combo finish makes it pretty close to a broken deck.

Proactive Game Plan

Combo Druid is not doing fancy things, it wants to finish the game rather quickly. A turn 2 Piloted Shredder is a common sight, if you played against Druid often enough.

Tries to play  a longer game – capitalizes on mistakes more

Combo Druid is at its name suggesting threatening some sort of combo finish. That is obviously a theoretical advantage, but it is also a big psychological advantage against a lot of players. If the Druid’s opponent plays too much around the combo kill and is therefore playing very inefficiently against the Druid (healing yourself from 14 to 16 as a Priest and passing your whole turn in favor of other plays), the Druid can get a huge advantage if they don’t have the combo. A prime example I encountered a couple of times, when I was coaching other players was that the fear of Druid’s combo, made them be too defensive and then lose anyways.

Imagine if you are playing Control Warrior versus Druid. It is your Turn 9, the Druid has a Piloted Shredder on the battlefield, while your board is empty and you are at 20 life. Your hand is stacked with removal and only one minion: Ysera. A lot of players will instantly kill the Shredder and the leftover to play around their combo, but that is simply a game losing mistake the majority of time. You play this game to win, so you have to seize this moment and play Ysera to win the game. Control Warrior is bad versus Combo Druid and given the opportunity you have to finish the game rather quickly. You can’t give the Druid enough time draw into more combo pieces and more minions. So the correct play the majority of time is to make the Druid have the Combo finish, because if he does not you are now a favorite to win, otherwise you are just waiting for the inevitable doom.

Good card draw – Consistency

I always prefered the more draw heavy Combo Druid versions with double Azure drake. In a lot of matchups, you want to have access to your combo finish on Turn 9.

The versions without Azure Drakes obviously can run out of steam more easily, so it is no wonder that the majority of Druids now play two Drakes.

Optimal mana usage throughout multiple stages of the game

If you hit your Ramp, the Druid is always busy playing cards.  Combo Druid is the nightmare of every slow Control deck, not only can the deck play an early Druid of the Claw, it can also use even more than 10 mana in one turn for an even more powerful combo finish, thanks to Emperor Thaurissan and Innervates.

Doesn’t need to play many situational cards

Unlike other combo pieces like Sinister Strike for Malygos Rogue, the Druid’s combo pieces can be used to simply remove minions, which makes them very flexible.

Which traits of good decks does Combo Druid lack? :

Has potential for skill to make a big difference

Although the deck is not as easy as Secret Paladin ( mainly because of the Ramp and being able to identify how to use your combo pieces in order to give yourself the best chance to win the game), it is still rather easy to play and lacks depth, when compared to other decks like Oil Rogue, Control Warrior, Freeze Mage, Control Priest etc.

You just try to hit a good minion curve to get a tempo advantage and then ride that to victory with or without your combo finish. There are very rarely any fancy plays. As a “bonus” the Druid mirror is probably the most draw dependant matchup in Hearthstone (who is better at drawing Innervate and Wild Growth).

Highly Interactive

Blizzard is well aware how close Druid is to being a broken and unfair deck, so it never got any very good removal in the past expansions. Therefore Druid is kind of handicapped at interacting with the opponent’s board. Druid lacks an elegant solution at dealing with a board flood (like 4 Grim Patrons). The deck also has a tough time removing opposing minions, while at the same time playing their own minions. The majority of time if the Druid wants to remove a minion, he will spend almost his whole turn using a removal spell. Other classes like Rogue, Mage or Warrior have a much easier time to kill minions, while developing at the same time their board presence.

Backstab and Eviscerate for Druid would in a heartbeat fix this problem, but that would also make Druid broken at the same time. And the developers are aware of that.

Freeze Mage

When I started playing Hearthstone, I thought the game was the stupid man’s version of Magic the Gathering. Well I was wrong.

Freeze Mage was one of the decks that convinced me that there is a high amount of skill and complexity. Complexity that can rival other card games like Poker or Magic the Gathering. I consider myself a very good Freeze Mage player, but my play skill is inferior to Freeze Mage experts.

From a theoretical stand point, Freeze Mage is a very beautiful Control deck. Like every Control deck it is busy in the early game with preventing the opponent from doing what he wants to do. Only in the late game Freeze Mage makes a push to finally win the game. But why is it such a fantastic “Control” deck? Your win condition is killing the opponent with damage, and unlike the win conditions from other Control decks (like Ysera), your win conditions (all the burn damage spells like Fireball) are highly flexible, because you can also use them as removal for minions. High end minions are just a dead card for a very long time, which is a severe drawback, especially if you draw too many of them.

Which traits of good decks does Freeze Mage have? :

Has potential for skill to make a big difference

A lot of people pick up Freeze Mage, because they heard that it is very good against Secret Paladin, only to then painfully realize that they somehow don’t win ~70 % of the time against it. A lot of humans have some sort of defensive mechanism out of fear that they are stupid and then claim that Freeze Mage is not that favored and people were lying or they simply got very unlucky.

The truth is that Freeze Mage is very hard to play, if you and your opponent both suck at Hearthstone and you are playing Freeze Mage and he is playing Secret Paladin, the Secret Paladin will be favored.

The deck takes a lot of practice and to make look Freeze Mage not the worst deck ever, you have to play it decently well and even that is not enough in some matchups. The matchup against Reno Jackson– Warlock is favored for Freeze Mage, but feels unfavored if you don’t play Freeze Mage very well.

Highly Interactive

As mentioned in Part 1,  interactivity is not minion combat, it is being able to respond to the opponent throughout multiple stages of the game and stopping him from doing what he wants to do. One of the worst gameplay experiences is the Secret Paladin mirror, because of the lack of interactivity. If your opponent draws well, while you draw badly you can’t do anything. You just lost the game. Whereas Freeze Mage has a lot of ways to combat a good hand, because the deck gives you amazing tools to respond to your opponent’s plays.

Proactive Game Plan

Freeze Mage’s game plan is not dealing with all opposing minions and making card advantage. It has a very linear game plan. It wants to use his burn to kill you. Unlike other Combo decks, like Murloc Paladin with Anyfin can Happen, you don’t need Alexstrasza, Archmage Antonidas or any other specific combo piece to win. Your deck is full of combo pieces (the burn), you just need to get a critical mass.

Tries to play  a longer game – capitalizes on mistakes more

When you start playing Freeze Mage more, you will realize a lot of fine nuances. When you play against slower with a lot of heal like Reno Jackson Warlock  or Priest Control, you have a big room of potential game losing errors. Something as simple as just dropping that Alexstrasza on Turn 9, can be game losing if you don’t evaluate the game state (cards in your hand, on the board, cards played etc.) and matchup correctly. Ideally you want to use Alexstrasza, when you have a good amount of burn damage in your hand, and after your opponent used a heal card.  A Freeze Mage can consistently deal 20 damage in one turn, if he assembles a critical mass of combo pieces, and out of fear of this happening you can force your opponent to use heal before Alexstrasza. Why am I mentioning this?

A lot of people play wrongly against the combo finish of Freeze Mage. I’ve won a lot of games, where Alexstrasza was waiting in my hand to be played for about 5 turns. Sometimes a Reno Warlock feels safe and comfortable at 20 life, only to then lose to the burn, whereas on multiple other occasions he assumed the worst and played Reno Jackson too early, only to then lose to Alexstrasza.

Frost Nova combo’d with Doomsayer can also be especially devastating for your opponent if he does not play around it. For example pinging Imp Gang Boss to make the opponent unable to play any new minions (because the board is now full) can prevent an Ironbeak Owl from silencing your Doomsayer.

Good card draw – Consistency

Out of all decks in Hearthstone, Freeze Mage has the highest amount of card draw. And it has Mad Scientist, a card that is ridiculous (a 2/2 for 2 mana with the Deathrattle: get Ice Block or heal for 8 life).

Optimal mana usage throughout multiple stages of the game

Between all the card draw, the expensive board clears and the flexibility of the combo pieces (1 Frostbolt + 2 Ice Lance+ 1 Fireball+ 1 Bloodmage Thalnos deals 21 damage, and it gets even more crazy with discounts from Emperor Thaurissan) a Freeze Mage has always good use for its mana.

Doesn’t need to play many situational cards

The deck is very streamlined. As already mentioned the decks win condition, the burn, can also be used to remove snowball minions like Knife Juggler.

Which traits of good decks does Freeze Mage lack?:

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

Freeze Mage has some horrific matchups and is vulnerable to tech cards.

Both Control Warrior and Patron Warrior are a huge favorite against Freeze Mage, while Kezan Mystic can be backbreaking (but only if you pair it with enough pressure, otherwise you give the Freeze Mage enough time to just pop the stolen Ice Block and then kill you anyways).

Not One Dimensional

Although the deck is reactive and very adaptable to different game situations, it still has a very linear winning strategy: win with burn. If the opponent hard counters this strategy with an abundance of life gain (f.ex Warrior) you can’t shift the focus of the game in order to give yourself a better chance to win the game.

Secret Paladin

I have played almost every single Hearthstone deck, and out of all Hearthstone decks, even the now extinct ones, this is my least favorite to play. It lacks any kind of depth, is very straightforward and is very draw dependant. I have no idea why I have this deck full golden. It mainly was a result of me thinking that the deck would then be a little bit more enjoyable.

Well surprise, the deck is still very unfun for me. In addition to that it is criminally overplayed for my taste and people give it way too much credit. Although the deck is definitely powerful, I don’t think it is a Tier 1 deck, it is a Tier 2 deck. The deck is not played that much, because of how powerful it is, it is mainly played so much, because it is extremely easy to play.

The main objective for a lot of players in Hearthstone is to win games (who would have guessed!!). If we also consider that Hearthstone has a lot of bad players (that is also true for Poker and Magic), it is no wonder that so many people gravitate towards Secret Paladin. If you have the nuts (you draw well and your opponent draws very badly), you don’t have to be any good to win against every deck.

So decks like Secret Paladin give bad players a much better chance to win. If you play something like Control Priest and you are not a good player, you will do horribly and win very few games. With Secret Paladin you have to try really hard to lose more than 30 % of your games.

These are the reasons why it is so popular and I will explain, why I don’t consider Secret Paladin as a good deck.

Which traits of good decks does Secret Paladin have? :

Proactive Game Plan

One of the few things I like about Secret Paladin is that it punishes bad decks. If your deck is inconsistent and can frequently stumble, Secret Paladin will destroy you. The game plan of Secret Paladin is to get board control and snowball it to victory. The high-end minions put a lot of pressure on the opponent and if he fails to answer them, he loses.

Tries to play  a longer game – capitalizes on mistakes more

The first versions of Secret Paladin did not play high end cards like Tirion Fordring. Instead they had a much lower curve and the deck was way more aggressive. Nowadays the deck is more an aggressive Midrange deck and plays a much slower game than its first incarnations.

Although the deck’s pilot can mess up very little, the opponent can actually mess up a lot. Misjudging the game state or the usage of board clears will result in inevitable doom. Divine Favor is also especially vicious, if the opponent gets way too greedy at drawing cards. The benefit of drawing 5 cards for 3 mana is big, because the deck has some very threatening high-end minions.

A lot of people also have the urge to attack with every minion, even when it is wrong. I had a couple of games where my opponent was playing Control Warrior and attacked with Armorsmith in order to decrease my life total from 24 to 23. That only triggered Avenge and Noble Sacrifice and increased the pressure for him.

Optimal mana usage throughout multiple stages of the game

The curve of the first versions of Secret Paladin ended with Mysterious Challenger. That was a severe drawback, because they deck lacked very powerful minions besides Mysterious Challenger. Therefore it was very reliant on drawing Divine Favor and was overall less consistent and powerful, because the longer the game went, the more inefficient it would spend its mana.

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

Although there are a lot of tech cards against Secret Paladin, none of them are as potentially devastating as a Loatheb against Oil Rogue or Freeze Mage (It is worth noting that it takes skill to identify the correct timing of Loatheb). Although you can tune your deck that you win almost 90 % of the time (I did that with Freeze Mage, right after The Grand Tournament came out, when the deck was even more popular than today. I incorporated Duplicate, Unstable Ghoul and Explosive Sheep in my Freeze Mage; which resulted in a very smooth Legend grind), your deck will lose too much against other decks.

Nowadays there is not a single deck that wins more than 70 % of the time against Secret Paladin.

Which traits of good decks does Secret Paladin lack? :

Doesn’t need to play many situational cards

For a good reason Paladin’s secrets saw zero competitive play, before Mysterious Challenger was unleashed. Besides Avenge they are not only bad, but also situational. For my taste there are way too many games where you draw too many secrets and/ or Mysterious Challenger does not show up.

Not One Dimensional

You need to hit a good minion curve and build up a good board. If you fail to do so, you have no Plan B. It does not matter if you play against Face Hunter or Control Warrior, if you have a slow board development, because you draw bad, you just lose.

Good card draw – Consistency

Besides Divine Favor the deck does not have any good card draw. Also keep in mind that Divine Favor can be a dead card in the more “coin flipping focused”- matchups (“board focused deck without board clears”- mirror is similar to professional coin tossing)

Highly Interactive

Imagine four Grim Patrons on Turn 5 on an empty board. How do you respond? What is your counterplay? Nothing. you lost.

Has potential for skill to make a big difference

…………..

Patron Warrior

The Inn is full of bad players. If you need any kind of proof, just look at the representation of various decks. Before the Warsong Commander– nerf the deck was just the best deck in the game, but was not adequately represented, because it was very hard to play. Back then I encountered four times more Secret Paladins than Patron Warriors. And for good reason, if you did not play the deck well it was anything but a good deck.

Nowadays the deck is still very powerful, although it lost a very important feature, which was the 30+ damage burst. That added another dimension to deck, and made the deck not only too powerful, but also more hard to play. The current version of Patron Warrior is much easier to play than the old version, because correctly  evaluating for example Whirlwind is much easier. Before the nerf you not only could use them for Grim Patrons, but you also needed them to enable a bigger Frothing Berserker burst.

Although I played the deck a lot post nerf, I have to say that I have little experience with the Midrange builds of Patron Warrior. I played more the Raging Worgen/  Grim Patron– hybrids. The Worgen version is worse, but I enjoy playing it more than the Midrange builds.

Which traits of good decks does Patron Warrior have? :

Not One Dimensional

Although the deck’s main game plan is to make a bunch of Patrons, it also has multiple other angles of attack. With the help of the powerful weapons and very potent card draw, the deck can very reasonably grind  the majority of other decks out of resources. Grommash Hellscream– a Pyroblast in minion form, gives you also a fair amount of reach against Control decks, once you lose board control.

Proactive Game Plan

The deck is rather defensive in the early turns, because it is busy dealing with early aggression or simply drawing cards. In the midgame it can make a big push with a Grim Patron flood, that will spell doom over a lot of decks and simply win the game on the spot.

Tries to play  a longer game – capitalizes on mistakes more

There are a lot of small mistakes your opponent can make, that can add up and spiral into a loss for him. However the lack of big burst hurts the deck a lot and decreases the amount of game losing mistakes the opponent can make. With the old version something simple as playing a Sludge Belcher could be game losing because it could give your opponent exactly lethal. So in order to play very well against the deck, you also had to be a very good Patron player yourself (Back then, I spent a lot of time during my turn calculating the potential burst damage from my Patron Warrior opponent and whether it was reasonable to play or not to play another minion).

Optimal mana usage throughout multiple stages of the game

Unlike the version before the Warsong Commander nerf, the current version plays a much higher curve. In addition to that you still have a lot of ways to combo cards with each other. You can make Patrons on Turn 6, but you also can make them on Turn 9 to immediately draw cards with Battle Rage. Therefore the usefulness of the cards scales up into the very lategame, so you are always spending mana efficiently and have very few turns where do nothing.

Highly Interactive

Like every Warrior deck, you have a crazy good toolbox of removal available with Execute, Slam, Whirlwind and the four weapons.

Good card draw – Consistency

Battle Rage is the best card draw in the game, but you also have a lot of other card draw, which results in a very consistent deck.

Doesn’t need to play many situational cards

Whirlwind and Inner Rage are also useful, when the Patrons are hiding on the bottom of your deck. You can kill smaller minions with them, gain some armor, draw cards or even trigger the best single target removal in the game, also known as Execute.

Has potential for skill to make a big difference

Patron Warrior is a very flexible deck. Not only can it be proactive, it is also especially good at interacting with the opponent. Armorsmith for example gives the deck the possibility to easily generate 10 armor in one turn, which can heavily punish an opponent that neglects board presence in favor of reducing your life points.

The deck can also amass a critical mass of Whirlwind effects, which helps dealing with reckless board floods of smaller minions.

Which traits of good decks does Patron Warrior lack? :

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

It is uncertain if Grim Patron Warrior can be a viable deck in the upcoming Standard format. The loss of Death’s Bite is severe  for the deck. The games where you draw the weapon and where you do not, are very different. Death’s Bite is a key card, which in return makes the deck also very vulnerable to weapon destruction like Harrison Jones. Getting Death’s Bite destroyed at a key moment can be very bad for the deck sometimes, especially against aggressive Midrange decks like Combo Druid.

In addition to that, the lack of any major combo finish (20+ damage) makes it very hard for the deck to win against decks that have very good board clears (like Control Priest or Control Warrior) and can maintain a good life total.

Control Mage (Mage with Ice Block (key card) coupled with good minions, board clears and heals) is an absolute nightmare for the deck because you have a sub 20 % chance to win.

Conclusion

That’s it. I hope the second part helps you in identifying good decks and reevaluate your deck choices if you are not reaching your personal goals.

As a bonus:

If you are a good player, I would heavily recommend playing either Patron Warrior or Control Priest. Both of them are Tier 1 decks power level wise, and are criminally underplayed.

This is the deck I will be using for a Top 100 Legend grind at the end of the season (if I can motivate myself enough to play so much Hearthstone over Poker. Last season I played Control Warrior, which was great against Secret Paladin and Zoo, only to face 40 % of the time the green coin tossers err Druids on the last day-> Always ~ Rank 200, which was not fun. I know Control Warrior is not good, but I just like playing it too much).

The deck is great against every aggressive or board- focused deck (give me all the Paladins, Patrons and Zoolocks :D), while giving you a combo finish against Control: Auchenai Soulpriest+ Circle of Healing+2 Zombie Chow+ 2 Flash Heal is 20 damage without your hero power. Bad matchups are only Control Warrior, Freeze Mage and Oil Rogue. Even Reno Warlock is good. If you want to improve the Druid matchup (50/50), you can cut 1-2 Sludge Belchers for Injured Blademasters.

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