On Mastery of Arena (Draft – Fundamentals)

ADWCTA shares his excellent guide on improving your Hearthstone Arena draft and solidifying your fundamental drafting skills.

The Three Cards You Draft in Hearthstone.

Let’s start with Arena Value Rankings for cards. I’m sure the first thing anyone’s ever told you about how to draft for a HS Arena run is to look at Ant1gravity’s chart, or Trump’s chart, and draft based on the Value. That’s fine advice, but ever wonder why certain cards are ranked higher than others? HS is such a complicated and generally well-balanced game, that surely most cards are not *that* different in value. Well, when you look at how cards are valued, you’ll see that things are really not that simple at all, and understanding the basic underpinnings of what gives a certain card its value will lead to understanding when those cards will have more or less value than the almighty value Rankings indicate. This guide hopes to show you what the true value of each card is at each drafting spot, based on your class and the archetype of your deck, starting with the fundamentals of what constitutes the Value you see in Value Rankings.

The goal of every advanced HS arena player should be to make at least 5 “anti-Value” picks (picks that go against the Value rankings by at least 2 tiers for Ant1gravity, or 1 tier for Trump) in each draft. You’re not actually losing any Value when you do this, you are simply recognizing the value of the cards in their proper context and drafting to maximize your subjective value for your unique Arena deck. Had you drafted based on the Value rankings in these spots, you would have actually drafted lower Value.

A Hearthstone Arena draft can be viewed as a constant choice among and mixing three types of Values: card advantage, tempo and reach. You will notice, that these three cards types we’re drafting look very similar to the three plays we make archetypes as described in the gameplay companion to this series “On Mastery of Arena (Play – Fundamentals)”. This is not a coincidence! Because you’re drafting in order to play your cards, it should make sense that your draft fundamentals should be very similar to your gameplay fundamentals (whoa. . . deep, right?). If you choose wisely each turn, you will maximize your chances to create a coherent decklist, and thus, your chance to go on long win-streak runs in the Arena. So, let’s go ahead and familiarize ourselves with these three fundamental Value considerations for a Hearthstone Arena draft.

Card Advantage.

If we’re going to talk about value, then we should start at the source. The main source of value, very highly rated by Ant1gravity/Trump, is the ability of 1 card to trade for 2 cards, card advantage value.

This can be done via a Chillwind Yeti or Sen’jin Shieldmasta, which will generally trade positively on the board with a 2-mana or 3-mana minion currently on the board, and then still hang around to either severely injure or outright remove another threat.  Reversing the logic, hard/large removals such as Hex and Fireball can also gain you effective card advantage by removing 1 for 1 an opponent’s minion that would otherwise have traded for two of your minions.  As a general rule, bigger things and bigger removals give you more effective card advantage, because big things can either eat multiple smaller minions, or remove a big thing that would have eaten multiple of your smaller minions.

Note that there will be no actual tempo gain if your Yeti trades for two 3/2s, because you have traded evenly in mana spent.  Nonetheless, you would have certainly obtained +1 in card advantage.  Card advantage, although often linked with tempo when it comes to play on the board, is a separate (and easier) concept.

Card advantage value is also the primary value of multi-removals such as Assassin’s Blade, Multi-Shot, or Flamestrike.  Because these cards are played on multiple targets, they naturally generate card advantage by removing two things for one card.  Further, removals attached to minions also generate 2 for 1 card advantage, by removing something while leaving a body behind.  Examples include Argent Commander and Fire Elemental.  The idea here is the same as with the Chillwind Yeti.  You want one card to remove two cards.

Cards that give you card advantage have high value because at some point in many Arena games, you will be top-decking or effectively top-decking (holding only cards that are suboptimal to play on the current board). The main benefit of card advantage is that it will provide you with tempo late game, when you would otherwise have nothing to spend your mana on. This is very important and I will say it again. Card advantage leads to more tempo, later in the game. However, if both you and your opponent curve out perfectly (2-drop turn 2, 3-drop turn 3, etc.) and never play out most of your hand before the game ends, then the card advantage that you have generated is of low value. In order for card advantage to significantly matter, there has to be a “later”.

We will not delve into which minions/removal give the best card advantage, because for the most part, you can just go straight down the value rankings for that information. Our baseline assumption for card value is card advantage value. Cards that seek to give you high card advantage value will form the backbone of most Arena decks.

Card advantage can also be obtained in a more direct way via card-draw battlecry/deathrattles, such as Loot Hoarder, Gnomish Inventor or Azure Drake. Finally, this can be done with straight up card draw, such as Sprint or Arcane Intellect.  Card draw is a specific type of card advantage that also provides you with the side benefit of more options to play, and higher possibility to draw into combos, but unlike in Ranked play, this is a much smaller consideration in Arena. Options have decreasing value in Arena as many cards will have duplicate and generic functions. Combos in Arena are also weaker, and even if you have them in your deck, your likelihood to draw them will be much smaller than in Ranked, while your loss of tempo from drawing cards will be equal. Although card draw gives guaranteed card advantage, there is a reason pure draw cards are not the best card in the game (even though a card like Sprint guarantees you a 4 for 1). . . and that, is the most important aspect of Hearthstone: tempo.


Another part of value is the ability to control the board, tempo value. We discuss extensively the importance of tempo and its mechanics in “On Mastery of Arena (Play – Fundamentals)“. It is probably worth reading that section, as I define tempo a bit differently than others, and calculate exact tempo values. I also separate out the concepts of “tempo” versus “initiative” and “board control” to make the discussion clearer. The ultimate goal of tempo is to gain the initiative on the board for full board control. When you have the initiative by having minions on the board when your opponent does not, you can make more favorable trades to snowball into more tempo and more card advantage. This so important that I will say it again. Tempo leads to more tempo and more card advantage. This is why top-cards such as Fire Elemental, Swipe, Fiery War Axe, not only give card advantage, but also gives more tempo than their mana cost would typically give. The best way to obtain card advantage is through trades on the board because it also allows you to keep tempo. Other great tempo value cards may not give you card advantage, but they trade 1 for 1 and generally cost less resources than what they trade for, such as Deadly Shot, Shadow Word: Pain, and Worgen Infiltrator, or convert a non-mana resource into tempo, such as Flame Imp, Soulfire, or Heroic Strike. In any case, we will not delve into which minions/removal give the best tempo, because for the most part, as with card advantage, you can just go straight down the value rankings for that information.

However, there is another series of cards that provides similar, or in many cases, even better tempo than top cards, but are universally panned by the value-judges because they rarely recoup the card cost itself, and so will always have poor card advantage value. These cards are what I will call “tempo cards”. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

  • Example: Hunter’s Mark and Humility.

    Tempo Analysis: Using a Hunter’s Mark on a large minion, say, a Boulderfist Ogre, and trading a small minion, say a River Crocolisk (we’re not even going to use Unleash the Hounds here), creates a tempo shift on the board of -2 + 6 = +4 free tempo. Whoa! That’s like two Innervates. Even if we used the River Crocolisk to remove a Chillwind Yeti, that’s still +2 free tempo, which is the same tempo gain as Innervate. Humility operates the same way, where if you trade an Ogre Magi into another Ogre Magi, you can use 1 mana crystal to preserve a 4/3 on the board with +1 spell damage, for a gain of +3.5 tempo (+2.5 “free” tempo if you subtract the 1 mana cost of Humility). Using these cards will help you claw your way back onto a board you have lost, or to fight your way to board dominance. To put this in perspective, even if your Yeti magically trades with 3 Bloodfen Raptors, that would not improve your board position as much as using one Hunter’s Mark or Humility in a highly inefficient manner. When used in an efficient manner, these cards allow you to run away with the board, as if your one Yeti was able to take out 4 Bloodfen Raptors. The (tempo) value!

  • Example: Sap and Freezing Trap.

    Tempo Analysis: Sap is the charge version of Freezing Trap, that’s less vulnerable to taunts. But, ultimately they both do the same thing for tempo as Hunter’s Mark and Humility, just without any board requirement at all, and for a little bit more mana. Sapping a Sunwalker is a +6 gain in tempo for 2 mana cost, or a net +4 gain in tempo on the board. Note how that’s more or less the same tempo gain we were getting from Hunter’s Mark and Humility. What a balanced game Hearthstone is.

  • Example: Light’s Justice.

    Tempo Analysis: Light’s Justice operates a bit differently than what we have previously looked at. For one mana, Light’s Justice has the potential to remove 4 minions from the board. Even assuming that all of those minions are 1/1 minions, that would be a +3 net tempo gain. The tempo gain gets ridiculous if we start removing 5/1 minions (that’s a +2 tempo gain in and of itself, accounting for the mana cost of Light’s Justice itself; and you’ll have 3 charges left). The cost here is, of course, your life total. Light’s Justice doesn’t just use an extra card as a resource (this card it will actually most likely get a card back in its life cycle), but it also uses your life total. It is actually the most mana-efficient tempo card in the game that costs more than 0 mana.

  • Example: Secrets.

    Tempo Analysis: Secrets provide some of the most underrated tempo value in the game. Secrets cause your opponent to play their hand and board inefficiently, which often causes them to lose tempo (and potentially value). Even better, because secrets (and weapons) cannot get removed by mass removal, yet can nonetheless affect the board and a future turn for mana investment now, they allow you to play cards to improve your tempo without risking over-extension.

So, if these cards (and dozens more like them I will not go into detail on here) have such high tempo value, why are they so frowned upon in the value rankings? I don’t know, but I think it’s a mistake. The value of having a couple of tempo cards in your deck to help you hold the board or take it back is immensely high because the board snowballs into more tempo and more card advantage and more face damage. Primarily tempo-value cards are systematically undervalued in the rankings. In a deck with good card draw and late game, tempo cards are often free cards that can be played when needed, and held without penalty when they are not needed. In a deck with a low mana curve and good tempo, tempo cards help establish and keep the board to hit lethal faster. Regardless of the deck you are constructing, it is always a good idea to have a couple of tempo cards.

However, note that you rarely want *more* than a few tempo cards in your deck in the same way you rarely want to have too many of any type of situational cards. While tempo cards have a broad range of uses, they are still situational, so drawing multiple tempo cards at once will force you to use tempo cards inefficiently, defeating the whole point of the exercise. These cards work best in small doses, and should be held and played for their highest value, and not on a curve.


Finally, one of the most underrated aspect of value is the potential reach provided by a card. Whether you are in a top-decking situation, or you trying to set up for lethal damage, the ability to end the game a turn or two earlier or top-deck some direct damage is often the difference between life and death in the unpredictable world of Arena. Let’s start with the basics. Offensive reach value is the value a card has because it can be used to end the game earlier to your favor. This includes direct damage spells/abilities, charge minions, weapons, and even spells/abilities that buff the attack of minions on the board like Blessing of Kings or Windspeaker. Defensive reach value is the value a card has because it can be used to put the game out of your opponent’s offensive reach. This includes heals, armor, taunts, and even removal/charge.

Reach is an important concept in card value because players play with certain built-in expectations as to how much their health (and your health) is worth. Reach cards screw with this calculus, and so when used at the last moment, can often completely disrupt your opponent’s gameplan, making it so that in hindsight, your opponent had actually misplayed his last 2-3 turns! This is an incredibly powerful tool, and up to a certain point, reach becomes more valuable the more of it you have. While most players account for a Fireball when playing facing a Mage, few would play around a Pyroblast, and almost no one would play around 2 or 3 Fireballs. In the same vein, because heals are so rarely used in this game, rarely do players play around it. Earthen Ring Farseers and even Priestess of Elunes are incredibly useful to have in Arena, and can seal up a game when you have the tempo and card advantage to back them up.

Another type of reach value that is not typically thought of as such are Taunts. Cards with Taunt function as both offensive and defensive reach. Besides allowing for good trades to gain you more tempo on the board and/or more card advantage, a well timed Mirror Image or Shieldbearer can also allow you to deal another turn or two of face damage, or prevent such damage. These cards have a built-in card disadvantage, but they do have high offensive reach and defensive reach value. More valuable cards such as Fen Creeper can serve the same purpose.

Keep in mind that the value of most other reach cards are only applicable in a late-game situation where you are either closing in on lethal, or close to being dealt lethal yourself. In these late-game situations, offensive reach has especially high value if you do not have the initiative on the board, and defensive reach has especially high value if you do have the initiative on the board. In practical terms, this means that fast tempo value decks that run out of steam do well with some offensive reach, while slow card advantage value decks that take over the board in the late game do well with some defensive reach. This is very important. It means that offensive reach has little value if your deck expects to dominate the board before winning (or lose altogether without dealing much face damage), and defensive reach has little value if you expect to win without the board in the late game (for example, with offensive reach).

Finally, because reach value is only applicable in the late game, you can more reliably draw your reach cards, which means you don’t need as many of them. It is often a waste to have more than one dedicated reach card such as Sinister Strike or Ice Barrier. Flexible reach cards such as Fireball or Earthen Ring Farseer are a different story. In order to promote board interaction, unlike pure tempo cards, dedicated reach cards have very little additional reach value compared to their flexible counterparts, so there should be a high preference to fill your reach needs with these more flexible cards that can also provide reach if necessary.

On Drafting.

The most important point to remember about card advantage, tempo, and reach value in a Hearthstone Arena draft is that, for each type of value, you only need to reach a certain threshold to get its near-maximum value. For card advantage value, if you have a couple more cards than your opponent, you will likely win the game if it drags out. For tempo value, if you have board control, you are likely to win the game. For reach value, once you have enough reach to break through your opponent’s perceived “safety” life total or to thwart your opponent’s burst damage calculation, more is useless. So, in a draft with good value in card advantage, value in tempo and defensive reach become disproportionately more valuable. In a draft with good value in tempo, value in card advantage and offensive reach becomes disproportionately more valuable.

With a proper balance of these three card values, your deck should play significantly smoother than the sum of its parts. And, RNG luck aside, isn’t that what drafting a good deck is all about? Read on to the next part of this series “On Mastery of Arena (Draft – Advanced)” to take your draft to the next level.


About the Author

ADWCTA enjoys long runs in the Arena, yelling Lok’tar Ogar! in public places, and thinking deep thoughts about Hearthstone’s game design.  He started playing Hearthstone in open beta and has been an infinite-level Arena player since launch. He is also a Legend-level Ranked player, but thinks that’s way less awesome than his Arena record.

ADWCTA live streams “the Arena Coop” with friend and fellow infinite-level Arena player Merps, providing in-depth commentary on every pick and play to give the stream a coaching vibe.  He thinks watching the Arena Coop is the very best way to improve your game.  He may be wrong, but why you take that risk?   You can watch all of the Arena Coop’s archived runs on: youtube.com/adwcta, and follow live at: twitch.tv/adwcta.

As of November 12, 2014, the Arena Coop is averaging 9.0 wins per run (78%+ win rate), with 30%+ runs ending in 12-wins; ADWCTA personally averages 8.5 wins per run (75%+ win rate) with his top six classes post-Naxx.  In the interest of full transparency, the Arena Coop’s full and current record can be found here, and ADWCTA’s full and current record can be found here.