(Author’s Note: How did we get here? Take a look at the first installment of Life at the Low End: Finding Success as a Free-To-Player)
The Pain of Failure
It happens to every Hearthstone player – one day you are trucking along, making good progress with your latest deck design(s), and then the next day: WHAM. All progress stops. For whatever reason, the current meta seems to have shifted to the exclusive purpose of defeating your every move. You can do nothing but plummet downward through the rankings, no matter what decks you play, no matter what changes you make.
I recently had this experience. In mid October I was well on my way to a single-digit Rank month, when suddenly, it happened. I couldn’t win. My strategies were instantly foiled, my game ending creatures were hit instantly with Polymorph or Hex or Execute, my game-winning combos were never drawn. I had been drawn into the death spiral, where after one particularly pain-inducing day I had lost 17 out of 20 matches. Nothing I did worked.
The Hearthstone company line for long, losing stretches like this one goes something like this: “Don’t be so competitive. You are playing this game for fun.” This is the core concept that keeps people buying cards and building decks even when their Ranking never improves. But, let’s face facts: no matter the game, there is nothing remotely “fun” about losing a game 85% of the time. In fact, this is the kind of result that leads people to stop playing a game entirely. Being faced with a future outlook of no progress, most players will simply throw in the towel and go looking for something else to do.
I was not in that boat just yet. I still wanted to continue playing and learning, I just wanted to stop constantly losing. Not being willing to quit, exactly, I still had to come up with an alternative solution. One was presented to me in the form of an alternate account of mine that I had created shortly after the release of the Goblins and Gnomes expansion, and then forgotten about. The interesting thing about the G&G expansion was that early adopters were given 3 free packs of G&G boosters – just for logging in to the game during the roll-out. After creating this particular account (named “Barfoogle” after an old Dungeons and Dragons character of mine) I had apparently logged in, collected my cards, played through the tutorials – and then never returned.
Design from the Ground Up
I began to consider that this might represent a blank slate of sorts. A chance for me to start rebuilding my confidence at the same time as I re-learned how to build a deck. So, I logged into the Barfoogle account, took a look around, and decided there was some room to grow here. I had not yet gotten any Class to level 10, and would have some potential for development by going after some of the remaining “low-hanging fruit” in terms of free gold and free packs still available just for playing through the early portions of the game. Collecting every card in the Basic Set (the “Got the Basics!” achievement) and winning 100 games in any mode (“Chicken Dinner”) were each worth 100 gold, while disenchanting any card for the first time would earn me 95 extra Arcane Dust (“Crafting Time”). I also had a free pack coming to me just for playing the game on an Android tablet (“Android Tablet”), after leaving my PC in disgust after my losing streak, for fear I would break something important and expensive.
These goals in mind, I decided to take a look at what was lying around in my card library. My 3 Goblins and Gnomes packs had been good to me, apparently – I already had access to some excellent cards like an Annoy-o-Tron, two copies of Harvest Golem, a Piloted Shredder, an Anodized Robo Cub, a Flamecannon, a Shielded Minibot, and a Defias-Ringleader. These gave me excellent starting points for Druid, Mage, Paladin and Rogue decks. Accordingly, I then took a look at my available Daily quests. As it turns out, one of them was “Win 2 Victories with a Druid or Rogue deck.” After some consideration, I decided to go with Druid, based almost entirely on the strength of the Anodized Robo Cub card.
Decisions made, it was time to look for guidance on a bare-bones Druid deck design. Conveniently, such guidance was available right here on Hearthstone Players, in the form of Sheng’s Basic Deck Collection: a starter deck for each class, all costing a whopping 0 Arcane Dust to get started. Looking over the Druid deck, it looked straightforward enough – a Ramp Druid design, built around early Innervate and Wild Growth use, designed to get Big Critters out on the board well before your opponent is prepared to deal with them, forcing them to react to your moves and strategies the entire match. It looked solid to me, so I prepared to implement it.
A slight technical difficulty arose when I realized that I didn’t actually have access to all the cards Sheng was recommending yet. The only time I had spent on this account was in going through the tutorials, meaning that the only Class I had any experience in was the Mage. My Druid was still only level 1 – he had yet to be involved in a single match. I was going to have to make some changes. Thinking in terms of stretching out matches long enough for my critters to take hold, I slotted in 2 Healing-Touch. I inserted my 2 Harvest-Golem due to the difficulty opponents have in removing them. 2 Mark-of-the-Wild were used to turn minor minions into legitimate threats, and my Anodized-Robo-Cub would be able to create an early atmosphere of board control with its Taunt ability. These selections seemed to work to fill in the gaps in Sheng’s deck design, and I was ready to go.
Once More Into the Breach!
I did, of course, have the option to just go up against the Innkeeper with this not ready for prime time deck, in the “Solo Adventures” section of Hearthstone, but decided against it. I instead elected to enter Ranked Play immediately, though my deck was substantially underweight. At Ranked Level 24 (Leper Gnome!) I would be mainly getting matched up against players new to the game, and I felt that my incomplete deck design would handicap me a bit against them, making it more of a fair match. While this might define me as a “scrub” according to the definition located within Smashthing’s excellent article on Playing to Win, I was willing to be a scrub in the name of good sportsmanship. It is a weakness, I know.
Playing a Ramp Druid deck can lead to some card-heavy matches, and my first duel was no exception. The side benefit to playing through a lot of cards is that I was able to earn a LOT of experience, catapulting me all the way to level 2 in a single match. Becoming a Level 2 Druid unlocked the Starfire card for me, and I was able to remove the defensive-oriented Healing-Touch cards from my deck in favor of the powerful offensive and card engine effects of Starfire.
A couple matches after this deck change, I got to witness one of the many truly weird things that seem to occur daily in Hearthstone. The events recorded here all took place on Tuesday, October 20: the day of the Warsong-Commander nerf. However, at the time these matches were taking place the nerf had not yet taken effect. Surprisingly, down here at Rank 24, I got thrown into the arena against a fully built-out Grim-Patron deck. Once I was able to identify what type of deck I was up against, I was able to use my new Starfire spells and careful placement of only Minions with greater than 3 attack to defuse the majority of his threats, and was able to actually win the match. Whether this person was trying out a Grim Patron deck for the first time, or was a veteran looking to use his deck a few last times before the nerf took place, I do not know. I do know I still have no idea what a massively successful deck like this one was doing down at Rank 24.
A few wins later I reached level 4, and unlocked Savage-Roar. While this is an excellent card, a cornerstone of the “14-Health Kill Combo”, this particular deck was not really in a good position to use it effectively. I actually considered attempting to re-engineer the entire deck around the mechanics built into Savage Roar, maybe using a group of much smaller, multi-minion summoning spells such as Razorfen-Hunter. However, after a long period of consideration, I reluctantly passed it up, and elected to not change ships mid-stream. I went forward with no deck changes.
Level 6 gave me no such emotional conflict. Level 6 unlocks Moonfire, which in my opinion may be one of the worst cards ever released for Hearthstone. No positive deck changes could come out of the use of this card, so I immediately relegated it to the “Ignore” compartment of my brain, and went forward with my leveling.
Somewhere between Level 6 and Level 8 I completed enough matches to earn the reward from with the Beat Down daily quest, adding another 40 gold to my income for the day. This was immediately followed by reaching level 8, unlocking the ever-so-versatile Swipe. As noted in Sheng’s article, a Swipe combined with any kind of + Spellpower minion (such as our Kobold Geomancer) gives us the combined effect of a Starfire and a Consecration at the same time. Adding this tool in was a no-brainer. I removed my extra Mark of the Wild, but hesitated over the removal of the Anodized Robo Cub, which had been serving me marvelously well so far. I instead chose to remove one of my 2 Bloodfen-Raptor minions, and left the Cub in its place.
At last, I reached Level 10, with a record of 7 wins and 5 losses. Not bad, considering I did it without the full complement of Druid cards available to me from the start. With the unlocking of my Ironbark-Protector came the ceremonial removal of the Harvest Golems that had been filling their slot in the deck for the last 12 matches. I will not lie – it made me a bit sad, as the Golems had been integral to my success thus far. Having gotten to this point, I went back to Sheng’s guide, to investigate recommended upgrades for this deck. Lo, and behold – one of his primary recommendations was to replace my Shattered-Sun-Cleric minions with Harvest Golems. I was able to gleefully reinstate my stalwart Golems and their “stick-to-the-board” mechanics. Following this theme, I also substituted a single Piloted-Shredder for a Chillwind-Yeti.
Though this might have been a good place to stop, I just couldn’t bear not trying the deck with my Ironbarks a few times. I stuck it out long enough to get to 10 wins, resulting in a 10 – 6 record, unlocking my monthly card back and ending my experiment at 2 stars into Rank 20.
Looking Ahead After Starting Over
When everything was said and done, I had spent a couple of hours unlocking a playable class on a new alt account, and had rediscovered a lot of the joy and interest of building a new deck from the ground up, with very few resources available to me. This, of course, it truly what Hearthstone is about to me, as a Free-To-Player – exploration and experimentation. The gold earning achievements are still waiting to be unlocked on this account, which will provide resources for Booster Packs or Arena entry fees, giving access to new cards to further trick out these very basic decks. I also now have 7 more classes waiting for me to try unlocking them using the same mechanism later on – starting with a basic design and inventing successful substitutions for those cards I might not have access to yet. Just like out there in the higher levels of the Ranked world.
My mojo restored, I headed back over to my main account, and took another hard look at the Buff Paladin deck I had been previously using to climb the ranks. I noted my synergies, identified a few places where I could use cards more intelligently, and settled myself in for another attempt at Ranked play.
I immediately went 3 -1 in my first 4 matches, and re-committed to the slow and steady climb back up the Ranked ladder.