On Mastery of Arena (Play – Fundamentals)

ADWCTA shares his excellent guide on improving your Hearthstone Arena play and solidifying your fundamental gameplay skills.

The Three Plays You Make in Hearthstone.

Most Arena articles focus on drafting and not gameplay. Perhaps it’s because the draft is one of the defining differences between Arena and Ranked, or perhaps it’s because it’s much easier to teach someone to draft well than it is to teach someone to play well. Whatever the case, that approach is, I think, misguided. This is Hearthstone! While Ranked matches between competent players often play out similar to a monte carlo simulation, there is a world of choice, uncertainty, and RNG in the Arena world that you can bend to your advantage with good gameplay. Your gameplay fundamentals matter *more* in Arena than in Ranked, and it certainly matters more than your draft. In the unforgiving Arena, your gameplay skills *will* be exposed by a better opponent, and while a lesser player may sneak away with a superior deck or good RNG, over time, they will even out to an unspectacular win rate, while the better player will be able to consistently achieve high win rates and 12-win runs.

So, what is this mystical Hearthstone “gameplay fundamentals” I’m talking about? The theory behind it is rather complex, and there are better sources out there than this guide if you want to delve very deep into the game design. But, its practical applications to Heathstone is rather straightforward, and so this guide will focus primarily on how to win games, going only so deep into the theory as necessary.

Arena play in Hearthstone can be viewed as a constant choice among only 2-3 legitimate options: tempo, value, and face damage. Note that these are the same three card values that you draft, as described further in the drafting companion to this series “On Mastery of Arena (Draft – Fundamentals)”. This should make sense, as you are always playing the cards that you draft (whoa. . . deep, right?). If you choose wisely each turn, you will maximize your chance to win each match, and thus, your chance to go on long win-streak runs in the Arena. So, let’s go ahead and familiarize ourselves with the three fundamental Hearthstone Arena plays.


We will start where all Hearthstone theory should start: Tempo. Tempo is our effectiveness in translating resources onto the board. It is a relative concept, which means that tempo is gained to the degree to which you have converted more resources (mostly mana, but also cards and life) onto the board than your opponent has. The key concept here is the board. Resources spent doing other things, such as healing, drawing cards, making time move faster (I’m looking at you Nozdormu), do not improve your board tempo. When you play a Flame Imp, you convert 1 mana, 1 card, 3 life into a 3/2 minion on the board; when you play a Bloodfen Raptor, you convert 2 mana, 1 card, 0 life into the same minion on the board; when you play ADWCTA’s Teaching Tool (let’s say it’s a 3/2 that draws a card), you convert 3 mana, 0 cards, and 0 life into the same minion on the board. All of these cards resulted in the same tempo gain, despite different mana costs, because in addition to putting a minion on the board they also either used up another resource (your life) or gained you non-tempo things (a card). The tempo gain only considers what ends up on the board, and not the actual resource you spent to get it there, so even inefficiently converting resources onto the board where you otherwise could not have is still very good for your tempo!

It’s also helpful to think of tempo in concrete numbers to know exactly how much pressure each player is exerting on the board. In Hearthstone, especially in Arena, where there are much less tricky plays and one-turn-kill combos, it is important to be able to look at the board and say “Currently, I have +X tempo on my opponent”. Let’s take a look at how we solve for X.

Generally, for minions on the board with no abilities:

+0.5 tempo = 2 total stats

+1.0 tempo = 3 total stats

+1.5 tempo = 4 total stats

+2.0 tempo = 5 total stats

+2.5 tempo = 6 total stats

and so on…

For example, Flame Imp will be +2 tempo, because a 3/2 creature has 5 total stats (see chart above) and would generally cost 2 mana (a shorthand way to think about it). Similarly, playing a Fiery War Axe would give you an expected +4/5 tempo, even though it only costs 2 mana (assuming you are removing two 3/2s or 3/3s) at the cost of 2-3 life per each additional 1 tempo you gain above the mana cost, and Venture Co. Mercenary would give you +6 tempo, even though it only costs 5 mana (13 total stats = 6 tempo). On the other hand, some cards cost more mana than the board tempo they give. For example, a Priestess of Elune costs 6 mana, but only puts a 5/4 body on the board, typically worth 4 mana (so, you have used 6 mana to gain +4 tempo). An Arcane Intellect uses 3 mana to gain +0 tempo. Finally, the Paladin, Shaman, Mage, and Druid hero powers played on the board gives +0.5 tempo, and the Mage and Druid hero powers give the tempo value of the minion when removing the minion. The Rogue and Priest hero powers when played on the board to their full potential give +1.0 tempo, because they affect +/- 2 total stats.

Additionally, certainly abilities that affect the board may give additional tempo, such as Taunt (+0.75) or Divine Shield (half the value of the attack of the creature).

The highest value cards are all either tempo-neutral or some may even gain you tempo.  For example, if you remove a Bloodfen Raptor and an Ironfur Grizzly with a Chillwind Yeti, you have traded 4 tempo for 2 + 3 = 5 tempo, for a net gain of +1 tempo.  Tempo may also be gained by trading up a Bloodfen Raptor for an Ironfur Grizzly (3 – 2 = +1 tempo), or using a Fire Elemental to kill an Ironfur Grizzly, and then trade with a Spiteful Smith (5 + 3 – 6 = +2 tempo).  Note that even if you use all of your mana, you may still effectively lose board tempo on a relative basis. For example, using an Assassinate on an Ogre Magi technically gains you +3.5 tempo on the board, but actually loses -1 tempo compared to what you potentially could have done with your resources.  If you “trade down” like this continuously, your opponent will amass a large tempo lead over you over the course of the game.

One more important thing that greatly affects tempo is the coin. Over the course of the game, Player 1 will have the opportunity to convert 9 more mana into tempo than Player 2, so Player 2 must use the coin wisely to take the board and make favorable trades from it, or to stall for value in the late game with his extra card.

So, with that said, what is a “tempo play” anyway and why did we just spend 2 minutes reading about tempo? A tempo play is just the play that maximizes your tempo on the board this turn. Tempo on the board is important because it allows you to get the “initiative”, which in turn allows you to dictate how trades are made to your favor, or attack to the face for damage.  At the end of each turn, you can expect tempo to swing to the favor of the player who’s about to start his turn by at least the amount of mana crystals he will have.  You have the “initiative” any time you have more tempo than your opponent at the start of your turn, and “board control” if at the end of your turn you would still have more tempo on the board than your opponent after his anticipated turn (so, 2x+ tempo compared to your opponent’s available mana crystals).  For example, if at the start of your turn, both players have a Bloodfen Raptor on the board, then you have the initiative, but not board control, because your opponent can be expected to at least match whatever you play on his next turn.  While removals, minions with charge, and weapons have innate initiative, these cards are limited in quantity.  In Arena, you will get the initiative for the most part on the board by having more tempo than your opponent.  Ultimately, if you have two Chillwind Yetis to an empty board by the end of turn 6, your opponent will be hardpressed to even out the tempo differential on his next turn, at which point, you are almost certain to continuously have initiative on the board each turn that you are considered to have board control.  With board control, you should be able to clear your opponent’s board with your own board while dealing some face damage.  Then, you can play enough additional tempo to put your opponent in the same position next turn, and so on.  This puts you in full control of the game.  Of course, larger than anticipated swings are possible if your opponent has cards with high tempo value.  You can also have board control by holding a hand with enough cards with innate initiative (removal, charge, weapons) that you can counter anything your opponent puts out.  However, because these cards are one-use only, you will also need to continuously draw these cards to maintain board control (unlike minions, which are persistent on the board).  In Arena, this is generally an unsustainable playstyle unless you were offered and drafted a very high number of cards with innate initiative.

The tempo play is the easiest play to make in HS, because you will usually end up making the tempo play by default so long as you “use all your mana” to play the board. If you make the tempo calculations described above in your head, you can quickly figure out which cards to play that would maximize the relative tempo gain. An aggro deck would almost exclusively use tempo plays (think Mage turn 1 Mana Wyrm, the Coin, Mirror Image). A late-game deck would use tempo plays early on only when needed to stabilize the board, and would generally instead prefer to play cards that use their mana to gain other resources (like Gnomish Investor) or to use their hero power.

For the turn in question, the tempo play is always the best play. However, the game is usually played over many turns, so tempo plays suffer from three things:

  1. Overextending the board allows your opponents to trade up in both tempo and card advantage with multi-target spells like Cleave or Flamestrike, or play Mind Control Tech.
  2. Building your board gives your opponent more options for more efficient use of his resources on the next turn, to get maximum value out of his cards, and maybe even flip the tempo. For example, if you play a Chillwind Yeti first, your opponent will choose to play a Stranglethorn Tiger instead of his Silver Hand Knight.
  3. Tempo plays themselves can be low value use of your cards, which you can get better use out of later. For example, using your last remaining mana on Arcane Missiles to kill a Leper Gnome is not ideal for value when you can use the Mage’s hero power on a later turn, but it’s still +1 tempo when compared to ending your turn.

The ideal time to make a max tempo play at the expense of value is when you have a clear goal for what you will do with the board once you get it. Having the board is almost always a good thing, but you have to balance the price of getting it with what you are getting out of it. Are you a Mage with a Fireball in your hand and are just a couple of damage away from dealing lethal? A tempo play on an empty board could get you the board position needed to make the strike. On the other hand, if you have a couple more cards than your opponent, and no reach, does having the board right now really matter? Then again, if you have a *lot* more cards than your opponent, maybe getting value out of your cards isn’t even a concern at all, so you might as well go ahead and make the tempo play. After all, if the only way you can lose is through a sudden tempo shift into lethal, then that’s what you need to prevent, even if the odds are low. Or, maybe your goals are much more modest, for this turn only. Maybe you really need that Leper Gnome dead, because you just put out a Cult Master, and Arcane Missiles is your only choice because you only have one mana left this turn. Either way, you want to have a clear vision of the goals for your tempo plays, and the rewards have to be worth the risks, before you play into a possible negative scenario described in the paragraph above. One of the biggest rookie mistakes is to “over-tempo” by making repeated tempo plays for the sake of having more tempo. Usually, +20 tempo is not all that different from +16 tempo when you have board control, and could very well cost you a card and an additional -4 tempo swing on your opponent’s next turn (if not also losing an extra card). Depending on the cards you have in your hand and your deck construction, there is an optimal amount of tempo you look to keep against your opponent. This over-tempo threshold is usually the same as the board control threshold described above, perhaps with a small additional buffer for some extra initiative on the board or in your hand. It is very important to know exactly what this threshold is at all times, because it will guide your play and when you should aggressively trade cards and life for tempo, and when you should hold back to play for value.


The other play you will often make in Hearthstone is a play for Value. Value plays are designed to get the most out of each individual card.  The key concept here is card efficiency.  If it only takes a 2/4 to kill a 3/2, why play a Chillwind Yeti when you could play a Gnomish Inventor and get that extra card for future options? If your opponent drops a Sen’jin Shieldmasta that you need to take care of, a Tiger would do just fine, and you don’t need a Boulderfist Ogre. While using Mortal Coil on that 1/1 on the board would use all of your mana for this turn, maybe it’s best to save that card to use on a larger damaged creature (say, when your Chillwind Yeti matches up with another Chillwind Yeti). These are value considerations, and they oftentimes go against tempo.  For example, after your Gnomish Inventor trades with the 3/2, it will be a 2/1 (+1 tempo), while the Chillwind Yeti making the same trade will be a 4/2 (+2.5 tempo!).  While value plays put less presence on the board than tempo plays, they generally nevertheless get the benefits of card advantage and good trades because you are only looking to make one specific trade with each creature you put on the board, and you hold back your removal and utility cards to maximize their value in a tempo swing. One of the highest value plays is to use your hero power when appropriate.  Improving the board without using a card or drawing a card for 2 health, are both very good for value.

Value plays and tempo plays are not mutually exclusive. It’s just not terribly interesting to discuss when they are the same play, because there’s no choice to be made in that situation.  So, we will only discuss here the value plays that are played in place of a tempo play alternative. This kind of anti-tempo value play suffers from the following three things:

  1. You will have less options on the next turn. For example, playing a Gnomish Inventor over a Chillwind Yeti to kill a 3/2 would mean you no longer have the option to remove an opponent’s 4/4 the next turn with your creature (say, an Azure Drake).
  2. Value plays are often vulnerable to burst tempo. Without the proper tempo / mass removal cards in your hand, an opponent’s burst of tempo on one turn can completely run away with the game.
  3. Value plays anticipate getting higher value in the future, so if such situation does not arise, then what looks to be a value play actually becomes anti-value and anti-tempo. For example, while you would prefer to save a Shadow Word: Pain for a Sen’jin Shieldmasta, Fen Creeper or Gurubashi Berserker, instead of that River Crocolisk on the board, your opponent will sometimes not have any of those juicier targets in his deck.

The ideal time to make a value play in favor of a tempo play is if you have the appropriate cards or combination of cards to address any threat that may come up, or if you have very good reason to believe that the threats you cannot handle will not come up. This means that you should either already have sufficient tempo where more would be unproductive, or have sufficient cards in hand with innate initiative (such as hard removals, mass removals, or certain tempo cards) so that you can regain tempo if things go poorly.

Because it is difficult in Arena to make a deck that has the variety of answers needed to consistently make value plays, this type of play should generally be considered a secondary option to tempo plays, to be made only when you have already achieved the desired tempo. However, this does not mean that you never make value plays over tempo plays. Being able to squeeze in a value play without severely affecting your board is a great way to get card advantage for late game.  A value play that does not backfire is strictly better than a tempo play.  The key is determining when losing a small bit of tempo is okay, and when it would be disastrous. This balancing act of tempo and value is 90% of what constitutes good play in HS Arena, and it will be different for each deck, and for each match.  Because value plays are most easily broken down by what your opponent does the next turn, a good way to test yourself is to recognize each time you are making a value play in favor of a tempo play, and then check your work a turn later to see how much the missing tempo hurt you that next turn.  This exercise will give you a good sense of what your opponents can do to punish your anti-tempo value plays, so you can avoid those situations in the future.

Face Damage.

The final type of play you will make in Hearthstone is a play for Face Damage, which covers both dealing damage to your opponent and avoiding / removing damage.  Dealing damage to your opponent is important, because fatigue damage aside, it is the only way to win the game.  But, even before we get to that point, your life totals affect how you are able to play the game.  A player who thinks he is in danger of being dealt lethal is forced to remove his opponent’s entire board each turn.  Thus, even if he has more tempo than his opponent and technically the initiative, such initiative will be hollow because he is hard-pressed to choose to attack to your face.  This allows you to dictate the game as if you had the initiative by simply dropping more minions on the board, an easy task in the Arena.  The key concept here is effective initiative.  Putting yourself into the position of effective initiative is important because of how quickly an Arena match may turn around if you let your opponent hang around. If you don’t deal face damage when you can, you have no recourse when you lose the board.  So, to the extent that you can attack your opponent’s hero directly without suffering bad trades on your opponent’s next turn, you should attack him to the face.

Face-damage Checklist:

  1. Your opponent has no threats on the board;
  2. You are not playing around multi-target removal or Mind Control Tech this turn;
  3. You are showing more damage on the board than they are after taking into account Hero health; and
  4. You do not need/want to protect one of your other minions.

But that’s obvious, ADWCTA! Of course we’re going to attack the face if our opponent has no minions on the board.  The key here is the word “threat”.  Your opponent may have a number of minions on the board, but unless they threaten your board, you can safely ignore them.  That’s right.  Clearing the board is not always the right play.  A minion on the board is only a threat if it can trade up in tempo or card advantage if you ignore it (unless you have evidence otherwise, assume each minion on the board can be buffed by +1 if you are playing aggressively, and by +2 if you are playing for the late game).  Sometimes, when you are pushing tempo, you can be comfortable letting your opponent use their hero power to trade up, because while it looks like they would be trading up, they’re actually not.  For example, a Bloodfen Raptor attacking your Ancient Brewmaster with a 2-mana Fireblast gives neither player a card advantage nor a tempo advantage. But, note that things like Dark Iron Dwarf or Dire Wolf Alpha do not suffer this tempo setback, which is why clearing the board is usually the safest play (you are preventing the possible loss of tempo). To make a face damage play while leaving an opponent’s minion within +2 attack range of your minion is to value the face damage higher than a possible -2 swing in tempo. This is generally to be avoided, and is only the correct play when you have significantly more than +2 tempo already (so, a loss of that amount of tempo would not hurt much), or if you are close to setting up lethal (at which point, holding the board no longer matters). Whether those situations are applicable, especially in the early game, will depend heavily on your deck, your hand, and the state of the board.

Remember, this applies to anything that can trade up in tempo or card advantage if you ignore it.  So, if you are facing a Priest, you should expect +2 health from Power Word: Shield throughout the entire game, and +3 health after turn 6.  These cards are especially popular because like a Fireblast or a Dark Iron Dwarf, they do not use a card.  So, practically speaking, this means it is almost always correct to remove the Priest’s entire board.  Actual buffs like Blessing of Kings or Mark of Nature should only be considered to the extent they can swing the tempo by more than their mana cost, because they use up a card.

Another consideration is whether you can even fully remove your opponent’s threats. If your Mage opponent has 2 Bloodfen Raptors and you have only 1 Bloodfen Raptor. On your next turn, if your play is a Violet Teacher, there is no point in trading your minion to remove one of his, because you have not eliminated any of his options to potentially trade up. In this case, while your opponent technically has 2 threats on the board, they should be considered non-threats, and you should attack to the face if the criteria outlined above are also met (unless there is some pressing reason to be protecting your Violet Teacher). Similarly, if you have 2 River Crocolisks on the board with no removal in hand and your opponent has a Chillwind Yeti, you should treat the Chillwind Yeti as a non-threat because it will kill one of your minions in any case, and you do not care which one gets killed.

Finally, you also need to put yourself out of range of being dealt lethal, even at the cost of tempo/value; for example, healing or using Earthen Ring Farseer to heal your hero instead of a minion. The best way to avoid lethal is to know your opponent’s class cards that could give him/her burst, and track to see if he’s playing as if he had a certain reach card. At any time, unless you have good evidence otherwise, you should expect your opponent to be able to deal at least 2 extra damage compared to what he is showing on the board. Depending on the class, and how the board looks, most classes can burst for much more with very commonly drafted cards. If you are using Warrior or Priest (and to a lesser extent, Druid), it is sometimes a good idea to anticipate damage and heal/armor a turn or two before expected lethal.

On Gameplay.

The most important point to remember about tempo, value, and face damage plays is that you should never rely purely on one type of play for your entire game. This is not a Ranked match. One of the biggest differences between Arena and Ranked is that the decks in Arena are extremely unpredictable, whereas the decks in Ranked are extremely predictable. Because we do not know what is in our opponent’s decks (and they are often forced to take cards that don’t fit what they’re trying to do, if they’re trying to do anything at all in the first place), it is critical to not get too carried away with playing a role you set for yourself. Roles in Arena reverse in an instant. You could be up in cards when your opponent plays an Azure Drake, a Sprint, or a Weapon and completely flip the roles. You could also be down in cards, only to eventually find out your opponent was holding only small minions, while you had big minions. Tempo shifts happen even more frequently. There is no Freeze Mage vs. Shockadin battle in the Arena. Because roles are highly likely to change over the course of the game, while the concepts behind MTG articles such as “Who’s the Beatdown?” remain technically correct, their applicability is limited to extreme situations. In Arena, there is always diversity and uncertainty. Over-committing to your perceived role is usually just as bad as not recognizing it.

That’s it! The above is the game of Hearthstone Arena in a nutshell. If you keep these concepts in mind and balance the tempo, value, and face damage plays in your match, you should be well on your way to being an infinite Arena player. But, there are more complex considerations to Hearthstone Arena gameplay that can make your journey to the next level even smoother. Read on to the next part of this series “On Mastery of Arena (Play – Advanced)” to take your play 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.