Making the Late-Game Push in Hearthstone’s Arena

Read enough about Arena, especially since Goblins vs Gnomes released more than a year ago, and one piece of advice will rise to the top: fight hard for early game board control. Just on this site alone: Sheng calls early game board control “what wins Arena games.” Smashthings has an entire article on Turns 2 and 3 in Arena, including […]

Introduction

Read enough about Arena, especially since Goblins vs Gnomes released more than a year ago, and one piece of advice will rise to the top: fight hard for early game board control. Just on this site alone:

  • Sheng calls early game board control “what wins Arena games.”
  • Smashthings has an entire article on Turns 2 and 3 in Arena, including a great section on why these turns “are of critical importance.”
  • Asmodeus lists early game board control cards like shattered-sun-cleric, flame-juggler, and stormforged-axe as some of the most frequently appearing cards in 12-win decks.

This advice is very good advice, but it’s also only part of the picture. Early game board control is crucial to winning Arena games, but what you do with that early game board control is also very important.

This guide—intended for beginning and intermediate Arena players—covers how to make the push from early game board control to victory at the end of the game. In particular, it is written for those times when you have drafted a fast Arena deck. If poorly constructed and/or played, these kinds of decks can easily run out of steam. Read this guide to learn more about how to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Three Kinds of Fast Decks

I’m going to cover drafting for the late game, then playing the late game, but it’s important to start by identifying how your deck wins games. Since this guide is directed at fast decks, let’s take a look at three different types of fast decks, each of which manages the early game and late game differently.

Aggro decks are generally minion heavy with lots of low-mana drops and a preference toward high-attack/low-health minions. They develop minions pretty much constantly throughout the game. A typical early game series for a straight aggro deck looks something like: clockwork-gnome into huge-toad into ogre-brute into mechanical-yeti.  Aggro decks win by pushing for face damage quickly, mostly ignoring the opponent’s board and allowing the opponent to trade into them. Because of their tendency to flood the board and have high-attack/low-health minions, aggro decks often don’t care about how their opponent trades. Instead, they pressure the opponent to have efficient answers, often pushing the opponent into lethal range within 5 or 6 turns.

Aggro-control decks are less minion heavy than aggro decks. Instead, these decks have a lot of small removals and/or board clears. Like aggro decks, they develop minions early, but instead of playing more minions, they generally strive to clear an opponent’s board with those removals and/or board clears. A typical early game series for an aggro-control deck looks something like: clockwork-gnome into glaivezooka into quick-shot into mechanical-yeti. Like aggro decks, aggro-control decks win by pushing face damage quickly, but instead of relying on their escalating minions, they tend to stifle their opponent’s board development with efficient removals.

Tempo decks provide the best balance of minions and removals. Unlike both kinds of aggro decks, tempo decks don’t necessarily need lots of low-mana drops. Instead, tempo decks rely on high-tempo cards to provide a swing turn and take control of the board in the early game. A typical early game series for a tempo deck looks something like: pass into backstab + huge-toad into ogre-brute into mechanical-yeti. Tempo decks win by gradually chipping away at the opponent’s health much more than both aggro decks (especially straight aggro). While aggro decks close out the game quickly, tempo decks tend to be more gradual, building up an advantage that is insurmountable for the opponent, and sometimes even dealing the last 10-20 points of face damage in one turn.

Drafting Late-Game Cards

Perhaps the simplest way to ensure your deck can handle the late game is ensure you have enough late-game cards. Many top-tier Arena players, including popular Arena streamers, will count their late-game cards during and after a draft. Later in this section, I’ll talk about how many late game cards you should have, but how do you identify a late-game card in the first place?

Arena games can be divided into four phases: mulligan, early game, mid game, and late game. For more about these four phases, check out Sheng’s Beginner’s Arena Guide: How to Win Games. Perhaps the simplest way to identify late-game cards is to simply count your cards that cost more than 5 mana (i.e., cards that you could only play 1 of per turn).

This can be deceptive, though, since not all late-game cards cost more than 5 mana. In a broader sense, late game cards are cards that have a relevant impact on your likelihood to win in the late game. More specifically, this can take several forms:

  • Minions with lots of stats: sea-giant, force-tank-max, fearsome-doomguard
  • Board clears: flamestrike, elemental-destruction,
  • Large removal: [card]hex, gorehowl, flame-lance
  • Minions that also remove: fire-elemental, north-sea-kraken, argent-commander
  • Board developers: kodorider, obsidian-destroyer, anyfin-can-happen
  • Buffs: blessing-of-kings, bloodlust, dark-wispers
  • Card draw: cult-master, nourish, sprint
  • Reach: doomhammer, fireball, reckless-rocketeer

Why does having these cards matter? With the notable exception of Hunter (whose Hero Power counts as reach), most classes do not have reliable ways to kill even a mediocre opponent without these cards. If you don’t have enough late game cards, you may find yourself gaining early game board control, but eventually losing that board control and struggling to deal enough damage to kill your opponent.

How many should you have, though? That depends on several factors. First and foremost is how your deck wins. If your deck is a pure aggro deck—constantly developing minions and pushing face damage—then you likely only need a couple late-game cards, especially if those cards represent a lot of potential damage (e.g., savannah-highmane or north-sea-kraken). If your deck is more of an aggro-control deck—developing early game minions, then keeping those early game minions alive with single-target removals and board clears—then you should have more late-game cards, since if you face a deck that tends toward removal more than minions, you will run out of steam very quickly without late-game cards (e.g., imagine the aggro-control opening I mentioned before, but up against a Mage with a hand of arcane-missiles, frostbolt, and flamecannon). Finally, tempo decks have less of a well-defined path to victory than aggro or aggro-control decks, so they can often accommodate either small or large numbers of late game cards.

Second, the number of late-game cards you have should depend heavily on the quality and impact of those cards. A single dr-boom or tirion-fordring can allow you to speed up the rest of your deck much more than a war-golem. In general, though, you should not choose a high-quality or high-impact late-game card and then call it a day, since in an average game, you are less than 50% likely to have that card in your hand at a time when it is relevant. For instance, think about a Rogue deck with sprint. Sprint is obviously a very high-impact late-game card, but what does that deck do when it doesn’t draw Sprint? If you can’t suitably answer that question—such as it wins through assassins-blade burst or a couple of shado-pan-riders—then, your deck likely won’t last more than 3-4 wins. In general, though, if you have high-quality or high-impact late-game cards, you can get away with 2-3 late-game cards, whereas cards of lower quality or impact means you’ll often need more like 5-6.

A list of notably high-quality and/or high-impact late-game cards is below. Almost all high-cost legendaries are also applicable here, but I didn’t include them, since you won’t see them very often:

  • Neutral: sea-giant, north-sea-kraken, stormwind-champion, piloted-sky-golem, kodorider, fel-reaver, kvaldir-raider
  • Druid: ironbark-protector, volcanic-lumberer, ancient-of-lore, ancient-of-war
  • Hunter: savannah-highmane
  • Mage: pyroblast, flamestrike, ethereal-conjurer
  • Paladin: lay-on-hands
  • Priest: mind-control, temple-enforcer
  • Rogue: sprint
  • Shaman: fire-elemental, earth-elemental
  • Warlock: dread-infernal
  • Warrior: obsidian-destroyer

Finally, the number of late-game cards you needs depends on your class. For instance, Hunters and Warlocks can get away with very few late game cards. For Hunters, this is because their Hero Power basically counts as reach and can be a win condition in and of itself. Hunter is one of the only classes that can lose steam, lose the board, and still win the game. When playing Warlock, life-tap allows you to refill your hand basically infinitely. While you can go too low on your curve for Warlock, it’s very hard to do so. Mage and Warrior can also act a little bit like Hunter if you draft a Pyroblast, several fireballs, or a bunch of weapons, but because the Hero Power isn’t a win condition like it is with Hunter and Warlock, it is susceptible to the issue of not drawing that reach. For classes other than Hunter and Warlock, try to stick to the other two points when figuring out how many late-game cards you need.

Drafting to Cover for Weaknesses

Drafting late-game cards isn’t just about picking the right number. You should also select cards that cover for the common weaknesses of your deck type. The strongest Arena decks are versatile and balanced ones that can respond to different situations. While a straight aggro deck without any real balance toward other types may be successful at low win rates, once it reaches the stronger decks above 7 wins or so, it is likely to start losing unless it is perfectly constructed.

So, to help with this, let’s look at how each of the three kinds of fast decks lose:

  • Aggro decks are particularly weak to AoE, especially low-cost AoE like consecration. They can be weak to healing and Taunt, but most healing in Arena is inefficient (e.g., guardian-of-kings) and most aggro decks will defeat their opponents before cards like ironbark-protector become relevant. Mid-game Taunts like fierce-monkey, sludge-belcher, and druid-of-the-claw can be problematic for aggro decks. Aggro decks can usually handle one AoE, but they may struggle to push damage after a second AoE spell.
  • Aggro-control decks are weak against decks with sticky minions (since their efficient removals become less efficient, requiring more trading for board control). Aggro-control decks are also weak against removal-heavy decks. Basically, aggro-control decks will often lose if their early gameplan of developing a board then removing their opponent’s board falls apart, meaning their opponent has time to build card advantage and win the late game.
  • Tempo decks are weak to fewer things than aggro and aggro-control decks, since they can adjust their play style to survive the early game of an aggro or aggro-control opponent or play into the longer game against a slower opponent. However, tempo decks are weak against other tempo and mid-range style decks, since they will just straight up lose to more powerful cards. I’ve seen plenty of bad aggro decks beat decent slower decks, but a tempo deck relies on its quality to win.

So how can you cover for weaknesses? Let’s use the example of aggro: since aggro decks are generally weak against AoE and mid-range Taunt minions, you should be thinking about what cards can allow you to win against those cards. There are several good possibilities here:

  • Sticky minions allow you to recover from AoE while still having something on the board (which can push more face damage).
  • Large removal cards like deadly-shot can get you past a pesky Taunt.
  • Cards that summon other cards allow you to develop a board without spending very many cards (e.g., murloc-knight is fantastic in an aggro Paladin to reload after a board clear).
  • Reach cards, especially spells, help you deal those last few points of damage, even if your opponent plays a senjin-shieldmasta.
  • Card draw allows you to basically flood the board another time. Your opponent survived and cleared two separate floods, but can they really manage to clear a third?

If you highly value late-game cards that actually cover your deck’s weaknesses, such as selecting a piloted-sky-golem or north-sea-kraken in an aggro deck, then you can generally afford to make the rest of your draft lean more heavily toward the early game.

Drafting Card Draw

While drafting big minions and reach spells is pretty straightforward for a fast deck, card draw is a completely different affair. It’s a fact that not all card draw is created equal, and there are absolutely no hard and fast rules for card draw in Arena. So, how do you value card draw in Arena decks, particularly fast decks like aggro, aggro-control, and tempo decks?

Essentially, card draw helps you win in one of three ways:

  • Refueling: fast decks tend to put a lot of minions on the board and force the opponent to deal with those minions. Card draw can allow you to continue to add to that board flood either all at once after your opponent casts an AoE spell or with one or two extra minions.
  • Digging for reach: sometimes, you just need those last few points of face damage, and card draw allows you to dig through your deck for that reach.
  • Card advantage: this is the least common scenario of the three, but occasionally fast decks can use card draw to flip the game they’re playing from rushing their opponent down to playing the card advantage game. For example, I’m currently playing a very fast Hunter deck with 2 copies of ball-of-spiders, and it’s made this flip twice already.

Most cards fit one or two of these roles better than others. Large card draws like sprint and nourish are the only cards that can really fulfill all three, depending on the situation.

Aggro and aggro-control decks in particular should value card draw that either helps with refeuling or digging for reach (or both). Straight card draw—arcane-intellect, ancestral-knowledge, etc.—is great for both, but something like tomb-spider, which gives you an extra minion to increase the pressure and flood the board further, is great, too. It won’t help much if you lose your entire board and need it to build an entire board, but it can allow you to extend your push an extra turn. In fact, that’s a great way to think about card draw in these kinds of decks: every instance of card draw gives you an additional turn to continue to put on the pressure.

However, it can be easy—especially with all the Discover cards introduced in League of Explorers—to pick too much card draw. While too much card draw is rarely a problem for a late-game focused control deck, fast decks cannot afford to have too many card draw cards. Aggressive decks generally need to play on curve and play lots of cards early, and if you draft too many card draw cards as an aggressive deck, you’ll end up with awkward hands that don’t actually fit your aggressive gameplan. At that point, you’re likely to just lose to better control decks. Ideally, I prefer to have 2-3 card draw cards in a fast deck, but you should adjust based on just how streamlined of an aggressive gameplan your deck has.

Making the Late-Game Push

Okay, so drafting with the late game in mind is the hard part here, right? In some ways, that’s true, but playing with an eye for the late game can be very tricky. When do you go face, and when do you trade? When do you hold back minions, and when do you flood the board and play into AoE? There are no easy answers here.

Let’s start with the first question: to trade or to go face? This is best answered with another question: what does trading accomplish? An easy example: you play a 1-mana 2/1 minion, and your opponent plays a 2-mana 3/2 minion in response. Your next play is a 2/3 minion. If you trade, you basically upgrade your 2/1 to a 2/3. If you go face, the best case scenario is that your opponent trades their 3/2 into your 2/3, and you’re left in the same position as before, with a 2/1 on board. In this case, it’s pretty obvious that trading benefits your board.

Thinking in this way generally requires you to think ahead at least one turn. For instance, if you are heading into Turn 4 against a Paladin, trading can help you mitigate the damage consecration would do to your board.

In general, aggro decks will trade less often than control decks. In essence, if your opponent does not have any clearly favorable trades on their end, then going face is often correct. It can also often be correct to do a mixture: if your opponent has one favorable trade, you trade one of your minions in order to remove that favorable trade, then go face with the rest.

You should be evaluating every turn and asking yourself what combination of trading and face is best. However, many games have what Arena experts often call a “switch.” This switch is basically the point in the game when going face is beneficial to you, even if it hurts your board development. If you flip it too early, you can easily lose your board and not have enough damage to kill your opponent. If you flip it too late, you can drag the game on longer than it needs to, giving your opponent chances to claw their way back into the game.

Essentially, there are two times you flip the switch: when your board is well developed enough that your opponent will have a difficult time dealing with it, and when you are desperate and pushing for face damage is the only way you win the game.

In the first case, you have developed a board that is difficult for your opponent to handle, such as a board with several 5-health minions against a Mage. At this point, trading likely does you no good, since you will only have a limited selection of 5-health minions, and trading reduces your ability to keep a resilient board. If you start going face at this point, you force your opponent to have a combination of cards that can deal with your board. While this can occasionally cause you to get equality + consecrationed, you cannot generally afford to play around combinations of cards.

In the second case, your board may not be particularly resilient, but it’s clear to you that you will lose if you play the trading/value game. This is a pretty common situation, and while it’s not a comfortable position to find yourself in, good Arena players have to be willing to take lots of risks. You should ask yourself: will I definitely lose if I begin playing the value game here? If the answer is yes, then it doesn’t matter how unlikely your chances are if you go face: you should go face anyway. A small chance of victory is better than no chance of victory.

Most times you flip the switch and go full face will be a hybrid of these two situations: your board is reasonably solid, but it is weak against certain cards. In particular, if you find yourself with 3-4 minions on the board against your opponent’s 1-2 minions, this is a great time to ask yourself if it’s right to flip the switch.

Okay, but what about what you put on the board at these points? Say you’ve decided to go face with 3 small-ish minions against your Paladin opponent’s sole boulderfist-ogre. Obviously, if you have a big minion to back this up, you play it. But what if you don’t? Do you flood the board and play into Consecration?

The answer to this question actually depends on a lot of math. You should be thinking about:

  • How much damage do you have on your board already?
  • How much damage will you have on your board if your opponent just trades their existing minions?
  • How much damage will you have on your board if your opponent uses a common AoE or other form of removal?
  • How much damage can you place on the board next turn if your opponent manages to clear your board?

After you answer these questions, you’ll generally find yourself in one of three different situations:

  • You have a much stronger board than your opponent, and you will still have a lot of damage after your opponent trades their board into yours. At this point, holding back is usually correct.
  • Your board has a decent amount of damage, but it would take several turns for that damage to build up to lethal. In these cases, half measures are usually correct, when you play one or two minions, but don’t completely flood and empty your hand.
  • Your board has damage now, but it is likely to not have much damage at all if your opponent simply trades their board into yours. In these cases, flooding is generally correct. While it might lose you the game if your opponent has AoE, holding back and trying to play the value game will also lose you the game.

In simpler terms, you can simply look at your opponents board: if your opponent has a decent size board, flooding is almost always correct. If your opponent plays AoE in those situations, you are likely not going to be able to claw your way back onto the board. If your opponent’s board is weak, however, you can generally afford to hold back, since if your opponent plays AoE, you can simply refuel for another push.

Closing

I want to conclude this article by talking a little bit more about specific classes. While everything I said above certainly applies on a broader sense, you really need to be aware of the particular circumstances of every class match-up. Let’s just take two: Rogue-Warrior and Hunter-Mage. Arena Rogues often have a lower win rate against Warriors than against any other class. Why? Well, there are two main reasons: Rogues tend to play aggro-control fairly often, and good Warrior decks rely on weapons just as much as on minions, which disrupts the Rogue’s reactive gameplan. Second, Rogues tend to have a finite amount of damage with very little burst other than eviscerate. armor-up often helps Warriors survive the amount of damage aggro-control and tempo Rogues can generate, then win the late game on value alone.

What about Hunter-Mage? Well, this match-up is generally favorable for the Hunter. Mages have basically no class healing—animated-armor aside—and many of their best cards are equipped to handle large minions, something that Hunters don’t generally care about. As a Hunter playing against a Mage, though, you have to recognize that you will almost certainly lose the board at some point. If you take that as a forgone conclusion, then you can focus on getting face damage in and slowly chipping away with steady-shot after your opponent retakes the board.

These are just two class match-ups, and in order to plan your late game, you need to understand every match-up. For instance, as a Rogue against a Warrior, you usually need to take more risks and push harder for tempo and face damage than you would against other classes.

Next time you draft a fast deck, I hope you can take what I’ve said here into consideration and find a way to balance having a fast deck and having a late-game plan in order to seal out your games. Fast decks are an absolute blast to play, so go out there and have some fun with some super-fast decks!