On Mastery of Arena (Play – Advanced)

In this part of the series, ADWCTA (74% Win Rate Arena player) takes us through advanced Hearthstone Arena gameplay strategies.

Advanced Hearthstone Arena Gameplay.

This article will discuss a handful of advanced gameplay considerations that will (hopefully) elevate your game to the next level.  It is highly recommended that you read the first part of this series “On Mastery of Arena (Play – Fundamentals)” before reading this article, as many of the fundamental concepts detailed in the first article will be repeated here without explanation. Even advanced players could use a refresher, and I may approach certain traditional CCG concepts from a different perspective.

Because much of these advanced tactics are situational, and Arena throws a different situation at you each play, they are incredibly difficult to describe in detail. The goal of these tips is to allow you to realize yourself when these situations are happening, and begin to absorb what the right situations are in which to consider these plays. Most players use these tactics to some degree in their play, but an advanced player is always considering all perspectives on every single turn.

These tactics have general applicability, but are more effective in Arena than in Ranked, because gameplay skill is more important in Arena than in Ranked. Unlike top Legend Ranked players, top Arena players do not have every top decklist in the current meta memorized, they do not switch decks and tweak decks to adjust for a meta, and they most certainly do not exclusively compete against other top players in a rock paper scissors mindgame match. What drives good Arena play is instead a consistent adaptation of solid gameplay fundamentals over an ever-changing landscape. Ultimately, your gameplay matters much more in Arena than in Ranked play, because:

  1. A typical Arena match involves easily more than double the decisions of a typical Ranked match, any one of which could snowball into victory or defeat;
  2. A diverse set of cards each run means you have to squeeze synergy out of your cards, instead of having them handed to you in well-crafted netdecks; and
  3. A diverse set of opponent skill levels each run means you will actually be able to consistently outplay our opponent, allowing the larger disparities in skill to more frequently determine the actual outcome of games, whereas the ladder system in Ranked play continually sets you up with similarly skilled players, where small disparities in skill level struggle to make an impact over well oiled deck construction and meta-navigation.

This leads us to another fundamental difference between skill in Arena and skill in Ranked. In Arena, no matter how good you get, you will never have to consistently beat the very top players, and your runs will remain a healthy average win so long as you consistently beat above average players. A top 1% Ranked player must consistently beat other top 1% Ranked players, while a top 1% Arena player must instead beat top 25% Arena players more consistently than other top 1% Arena players do. This is a crucial distinction. While these gameplay strategies are a secondary consideration in Ranked play, they remain the most important component of Arena play, because they bring consistency to otherwise mediocre Arena decks.

Mind Vision.

This is the fun part of any HS game: Screwing with your opponent. Because the game is played with two people, your opponent’s decisions provide you with information as to how your opponent wants to play, what his deck is, and what the cards in his hand are. Let’s start with the easiest way to obtain information: Trial and error.  In Hearthstone, you can often know what cards your opponent is holding. Is it magic? Nope, it’s just common sense. Let’s illustrate this with a couple of examples:

  • Example: Your opponent has a Bloodfen Raptor on the board, and you have a Chillwind Yeti. Your opponent plays a Chillwind Yeti.

    Mind Vision: Your opponent does not have a Dark Iron Dwarf.

  • Example: Your opponent has an Amani Berserker on the board, and you have an Ironfur Grizzly. Your opponent plays an Injured Blademaster.

    Mind Vision: Your opponent does not have cheap removal or Shattered Sun Cleric.

  • Example: Your have three minions on the board. Your opponent removes two of your minions (and perhaps plays a minion himself).

    Mind Vision: Your opponent does not have Mind Control Tech. Note, this would not be the right conclusion if your opponent only removed only one creature.

These are common situations that occur, without you ever making a play that you would not have made otherwise. With the power of observation, we can know exactly which cards we no longer have to play around. Can your opponent top-deck that card the very next turn? Sure, but the odds of that are so low that it is usually better not to play around it. A good player is constantly thinking about what his opponent could have that would be very good to play, and then when his opponent does not play it, he has gained a free mind vision.

Hearthstone also allows you to use one more neat trick. If you pay attention to your opponent’s hand at the top of the screen, you can know exactly how long your opponent has been holding each card for. This allows you to do two things. First, you can check your mind vision predictions. If you predicted that your opponent did not have a Dark Iron Dwarf, but then he played a Dark Iron Dwarf two turns later, it is useful to know whether that card was played from the right or second to right position in his hand. If it was, then your prediction was correct! He just top-decked it in the last two turns. This provides a constant feedback loop for you to evaluate your mind vision without letting lucky top-decks ruin your confidence. But, more importantly, your opponent will likely only hold certain cards for a long period of time. Seeing that a card has been held for so long narrows down the possibility of what that card might be. Think back to all the situations where it might have been appropriate to play each type of card, and you can have a pretty darn good idea of what card your opponent could be holding. You’ve basically performed at least one mind vision analysis for each turn he’s held that card and by now eliminated most cards in Hearthstone!

Needless to say, these observational techniques are extremely helpful in Arena, where your opponent can theoretically have any card in his hand. Without the ability to more or less know your opponents’ deck ahead of the game, Arena players must rely on mind vision far more than players in Ranked matches. By taking away your opponent’s greatest power in Arena (unpredictability), mind vision provides you with an often decisive edge in tempo and value that will snowball into victories.

Mind Blast.

So, once you’ve diligently gathered your mind vision information, what do you do with it? Well, you use it to ruin your opponent’s day. All else being equal (tempo, value, face damage), the best play you can make is the play your opponent doesn’t want you to make (or be able to make). Mess with your opponent, by doing the exact thing that he cannot effectively counter.

  • Example: You know your opponent has no mass removal and no Mind Control Tech, because he inefficiently removed your large board in a prior turn.

    Mind Blast: Over-extend your board over playing a larger minion. All of your reasons not to over-extend are now gone, and over-extending will give you not only more pressure, but more options how to most effectively trade. Don’t go crazy, but there’s no point in holding back as much as you would have.

  • Example: Your know your opponent does not have a large removal spell, because he inefficiently traded multiple minions into your large minion in a turn prior.

    Mind Blast: Play your largest minion as opposed to multiple smaller minions. Remove all of his minions that could be buffed to take out your large minion.

  • Example: You know your Mage opponent does not have a 2-drop, because he used his hero power on turn 2.

    Mind Blast: Put out a creature with 1 health, or make a trade to leave one of your creatures with 1 health right before your opponent’s turn 4. He can’t (or at least shouldn’t) use his hero power, because it would provide you with a very large 4-mana tempo swing.

This concept extends even further than knowing what cards your opponent doesn’t have. You can also use information about your opponent’s overall goals gained from how your opponent has played thus far.

  • Example: Your opponent attacked you to the face instead of taking a good trade.

    Mind Blast: Heal. Taunt. Remove all his minions. Do not overextend your board. Stop this as soon as your opponent starts taking +1 tempo differential trades.

  • Example: Your opponent traded evenly with your minion instead of attacking to the face.

    Mind Blast: Push tempo/face hard. Hold back hard removal for the inevitable late game large minion, time this with your tempo push to win game. Stop doing this as soon as your opponent attacks your face.

  • Example: Your opponent brings one of your minions down in health without killing it.

    Mind Blast: Heal / buff /trade that minion. Figure out what spell, charge creature, weapon would deal that amount of damage and presume your opponent has it.

While you should start the game following your gameplan and pushing tempo / value / face damage, by mid-game you should have enough information on your opponent that your calculus for what gives the most tempo / value / face damage has changed. Good Arena players adjust their play accordingly.

Mind Control.

A very important component of any competitive game is the fact that you have an opponent. And, whenever you have an opponent, your opponent’s mistakes are as good as your gain. Because your opponent is not playing cards at random, and is trying to play smart (aka: predictable), we can use this to cause him to make more mistakes. Your opponent makes a mistake every time he would have made a different play, had he seen your hand. So, knowing this, how can we cause our opponent to make more mistakes?

1) Bait. This is a simple concept, designed to get the most value out of your cards.

The most basic way to bait is to play the less valuable minion first, if you suspect that your opponent will use a removal, or that you will need to trade with it the next turn, saving your better minion.  If your opponent knew your hand, he would have saved his removal, so he has made a mistake by taking your bait. This is done to protect your more valuable minion, which is generally the larger minion or the minion with the better ability (such as a Knife Juggler). Note that by definition, bait plays are anti-tempo, and so must be carefully managed.

Similarly, you can bait with your own removal by not using it on a juicy target (or targets) if you think he will put out an even juicier target or over-extend into more targets in the case of mass removal. After you pass up a 2 for 1 opportunity with Flamestrike, your opponent may extend further and give you a 3 for 1. Note that baiting with mass removal usually costs a hefty amount of life, and ultimately provides no additional tempo gain, and so should be used sparingly.

Another way to bait out one (or more) small minions is to drop a very large minion on an empty board (such as a Boulderfist Ogre), an Emperor Cobra or a Mage Secret.  Because your opponent has to play around your “big thing killer”, he will be forced to play low.  And then you Flamestrike.  On the other hand, putting out a large taunt (such as a Fen Creeper) forces your opponent to play a large minion capable of killing your minion on the board.  Because your minion would 2 for 1 any of his smaller minions, he will be forced to play high.  And then you Deadly Shot.

You can also bait with buff spells. For example, putting out a Gnomish Inventor while having a Dark Iron Dwarf in your hand a good bait because your opponent could drop a minion with 3 or 4 health (after all, Gnomish Inventor only has 2 attack).

A rule of thumb for baiting is that the less likely you are to have a certain card, the more effective the bait is. Everyone plays around a Flamestrike / Ironbark Protector, some people play around Mind Control Tech / Savannah Highmane, but no one plays around a Deathwing / Ysera.

2) Bluff. This is the flip side of baiting, designed to disrupt your opponent’s tempo. Whereas bait plays are made based on the cards you have in your hand, bluff plays are made based on cards you do not have in your hand, but could. This means that while baiting is easier with less commonly seen cards, bluffing is easier with more commonly seen cards.

A typical bluff is a Flamestrike setup. By playing cards that cannot be removed (such as secrets, Arcane Intellect, or stealth minions) and pinging a minion on the board down to 4 health, a Mage can bluff that he is baiting with the common Flamestrike card. The idea is that this convinces the opponent to play less optimal tempo the next turn, and so gives the Mage a 2-turn period to regain the tempo.

Secrets are another common bluff, where by the design of the mechanics of the card, you are bluffing the possibility of all possible secrets. This means your opponent has to play around all secrets, hurting his tempo. Secrets work the opposite way as other bluffs, because it is both a bait and a bluff. Thus, it is the rarer secrets that will be the most effective at disrupting tempo. For example, putting a Snake Trap out when your opponent has a minion with 2 health will convince him to trade that minion into your minion to avoid the much more common Explosive Trap, thus triggering your Snake Trap.

Bluffs should be used whenever it can be done without sacrificing significant value/tempo, or when you have no other way to regain the tempo. Remember that the point of bluffing is to regain tempo. If the bluff itself will lose you more tempo than you can reasonably expect to gain from the bluff, then the bluff (even if successful) will actually hurt you. Always be sure to do the tempo-math before you bluff.

3) Disrupt. Because our opponent is trying to play smart, he probably has some schemes going on in his head about how to play his deck for tempo, value, and face damage efficiency. He may even have a couple of combos up his sleeve. Silly him. The very fact that your opponent has a plan means that you can now disrupt his plans. The best part is, you can usually do this without even having a single clue as to what his plan is!

The theory is simple. Always make the unexpected play. If at any point your opponent ends his turn with a board in which you can make a positive trade that a typical player would opt to make, and you have the ability to use cards in your hand to change the board calculus so that you are making different (but similarly-valued) trades, you should do that move instead. For example, both heroes have 30 health, and your opponent has just put down an Injured Blademaster on the board to your Spiteful Smith. This is a highly suspicious move, because your opponent is willingly giving you a good trade and fully expects you to take it. *This is the best time to use a removal.* While you do not know what your opponent’s plan is, you can be darn sure it involves you using your Spiteful Smith to remove his Injured Blademaster. So, don’t do it. He could have an easy way to deal 2 damage (maybe a Stormpike Commando in his hand, maybe an Arcane Missiles), or he’s setting up for a Flamestrike/Consecration. In any case, you should do something that does not result in your Spiteful Smith ending up with 2 health. Assuming that this would not hurt your tempo, you could use a buff, taunt or just an outright removal. You should always look to disrupt the board if you can any time your opponent makes a suspiciously generous move. These setup plays for value are devastating for your opponent when they don’t pan out, because they provide you with a healthy boost of relative tempo. Disruption plays win games. Whenever your opponent tries to do anything fancy, make sure you punish him with a disruption play.

But wait, you say. Don’t all three of these mind control plays basically negate all of your previous advice in this article? In other words, if my opponent is baiting, or bluffing, or disrupting, we’re just going to play right into that with mind vision and mind blast! This is 100% true, and this is why this is an Arena guide. You do not need to consistently beat top players to be a top player in Arena. You need to consistently beat pretty good players. This is why it is still recommended that you use mind vision and mind blast, even though a player using mind control will wreck your day. It quite simply will not happen often enough for you to give it heavy consideration, even for your 12th win in a run.

Thinking Ahead.

Ahh, the bread and butter of any competitive strategy game. In chess, players can think ahead as many turns as their brains (or computer chips) can process because chess is composed of entirely deterministic moves. Fortunately, you don’t have to do much of that in Hearthstone. In Hearthstone, especially in Arena, the RNG of deck composition, which cards you draw, and actual in-game RNG (for example, Mad Bomber) makes thinking many turns ahead progressively less useful proposition. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be planning out at least your next move. The rule of thumb is to always be making delayed plays that will maximize your tempo, value, and/or face damage over *two turns*, assuming that your opponent plays: 1) a minion (or two), 2) a removal (or multi-target removal), or 3) a removal and a minion.

Let’s take the most basic example of mana. Whether you are using the mana to maximize your tempo or value, you want to play cards in a way that you will also have something to play the next turn. For example, if on turn 5 on an empty board you have in your hand a 5-mana, 4-mana, 3-mana and 2-mana minion to play, you should give significant additional consideration to playing the 5-mana minion as opposed to the 3-mana and 2-mana minions. This is because if you play your 3-drop and 2-drop, the next turn, you will need to draw into a 6-mana or 2-mana card to use all of your mana, or you will need to use your hero power (which can be okay, if you expect your hero power to get you good value the next turn. but on an empty board, this is generally not a good idea).

This principle also applies to our three fundamental plays: tempo, value, and face damage.

The best tempo play isn’t the play that maximizes the tempo on that particular turn, but the one that does so through two turns. Weapons are a great example of this, where on the turn they’re played, they have okay-tempo (2-mana for 3 damage, 4 mana for 4 damage, 5 mana for 5 damage, etc), but on the turn after, they allow you to truly secure the board by providing free additional tempo to whatever else you want to do. Creatures with Deathrattles that affect the board work the same way. The best way to “flip the board” and take back tempo is not to play two tempo plays in a row, but rather to play one 2-turn tempo play that results in your with firm control of the board by the end of the second turn. In Arena, your opponent will rarely have enough resources to take back the board after such a thorough turn of events. Overload works the opposite way as weapons, in that it will result in a 2-turn net tempo loss compared to comparable cards, so the only appropriate time to use overload cards for tempo is when you can firmly control the board by the end of that one turn, sufficient to offset your opponent’s upcoming relative tempo surge.

Similarly, the best value play is to set up a target that is unlikely to be removed before you buff it, or put down a spell power minion to use a spell the next turn; or, to bait out additional minions before playing a mass removal; or to put out a less valuable creature first to bait out removal or set up a trade before putting out the valuable Knife Juggler. The best value will always happen when you consider your opponent’s natural reaction to your play the first turn. In Arena, your opponent will rarely have a series of continuous answers to foil your plans for value.

And, of course, unless you have lethal on this turn, the best face damage play is to consider how much damage you can deal over two turns, assuming no non-hero power healing, to see if that will bring your opponent (or you) into lethal range. This is straightforward, but it also applies in the reverse. If your opponent trades all game then attacks you to the face, it’s a clear sign that he’s setting up lethal and you should heal/armor/taunt up immediately if you can. In Arena, a heal to bring yourself out of lethal range is often exactly what is needed to give you the initiative to make the appropriate trades on the board and take back the board.

The great part about Hearthstone, and why we don’t have to be pro chess players to be good at this game, is that unlike chess, there are high diminishing returns for thinking too far into the future. Two turns from now, the board is often completely unpredictable, and your hand will have ~50% different cards. So, generally, it only pays to think one turn ahead (thank god).

But. . . an interesting phenomena occurs when you look very deep into the future. Far far into the future of a match, the statistical odds of drawing a particular card in your deck nears 100%. At this point, you can once again begin to reliably play on the assumption of future turns. Playing for the draw is just an extreme version of thinking ahead. You can be fairly sure that you *will* eventually hit that Sprint or Pyroblast in your deck. You don’t want to be completely out of luck if you don’t hit it, but there’s significant value in doing things like playing for even card advantage even when you’re a card or two down (because you will Sprint and get ahead), or getting the opponent to 10 health or lower.

If you have two or more copies of a card, you have *very* high odds to eventually hit at least one of them. This can guide your play as you save certain cards for combos, or look for a reach card, or play for the late game because you have yet to draw a large minion. Note that the odds go higher the more functionally equivalent cards you have in your deck, so depending on your needs and deck composition, you can be pretty sure to hit your combo, reach card, or large minion.

Beware that this only works deep into the late game. Fishing for a 3-drop on turn 2 should only get minor consideration (so, don’t coin out that 2-drop with no follow up!). The proper tempo, value, and face damage considerations each turn should take into account all possibilities for the next turn, and also all possible draws for the late game, but nothing in the middle.

All In.

And sometimes, none of this matters. You have unfortunately found yourself in a position where if X happens (whether this is your opponent having a card, or you not drawing a card), then you will lose the game, period. At this point, you are “all in” by default. Even if X has a 95% chance of happening, you must play as if X is not going to happen, because otherwise you have a 100% chance of losing. By going all in, you give yourself a slim chance of victory where there otherwise was none. The key, is recognizing early when you must go all in. This is Arena, crazy things can happen. You need to always put yourself in the best % chance to win, even if that chance is slim.

The most common scenario for going all in is when you are running out of cards in your hand with no card draw in your deck and few large minions. You will lose the topdeck war, and your opponent is already ahead of you by one or two cards, with potential for him to gain even more cards (you don’t know his deck). When you recognize this (should be a number of turns before you actually run out of cards), it’s time to be more aggressive with tempo and face damage. Over-extend into that Consecration for a turn or two, or attack to the face instead of trading and see if he really does have that Dark Iron Dwarf. The earlier you recognize this, the earlier you can go all in on tempo. This can be as early as turn 3 if you suffered a couple of unlucky 2-for-1s with Mad Bombers or Argent Protectors, and do not have card draw or an overabundance of large minions in your deck. But this is more often caused by a turn 4+ setback with combos, rare mass removals, Mind Control Tech or Big Game Hunter.

Other times, you may take a calculated risk, at the possible cost of your board or life, to set up lethal for the next turn under favorable assumptions (he won’t remove my creature, he won’t heal, and he won’t have enough burst next turn to deal lethal himself; or, if desperate, even on a draw), if you feel that you will lose the top-deck war. Your other choice is to continue trade off your minions, getting slight tempo and card advantages, and knowing that you will ultimately fail and lose the game. This is the worst move you can make. I see this all the time, and unless you’re waiting on that Deathwing, it’s the wrong move.

Of course, this also applies in less dramatic situations. In general, high variance and RNG plays should be used when you are behind, and low variance, safe plays should be used when you are ahead. If you have confidence that you are the better player/deck, you should continue to favor low variance plays, even when you are slightly behind.

Finally, defending against the all in play should also guide your play. If your opponent can only win with certain cards, then you must assume they have, or will draw, those cards, even if they don’t and won’t. This means that when you are in a commanding lead, it is correct to play around a much wider net of possible threats (including common combos), where you otherwise wouldn’t. This includes Equality-Consecration, Starving Buzzard-Unleash the Hounds, Mind Control Tech, Big Game Hunter. I would still never play around a Legendary, but anything short of that is fair game.


Whew. We’re done! Congratulations. I hope you enjoyed this series and that my ramblings helped clarify some concepts you were already starting to incorporate into your Arena play. While no guide can teach you how to play well in the diverse minefield that is the Arena, I hope these strategies give you a good basis for analyzing your own gameplay to determine for yourself where you can improve on your next run.


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.