Ever since you unlocked every card, you decided that your arena days were over. Since then you’ve been finding yourself climbing up in the ranks of the Hearthstone ladder, maybe even achieving Legend, and you start thinking to yourself “Hey, I’m pretty good at this game!”.
It starts off as an itch, but with each and every win streak you go on you begin to wonder what to do next with your time – what is the next great adventure? Have you accomplished everything you wanted to in Hearthstone, or do you crave an even higher level of competition? This article is for those gladiators among you who crave the complexity, strategy, and the glory that only a Hearthstone tournament win can provide.
Similar to when you switched over from playing arena to constructed and realized that constructed decks have to be much more focused around a theme to be successful (rather than just taking the “value” cards) tournament decks have to be even more pinpointed.
A good tournament deck is designed with what decks you need it to beat in mind. This sounds like the description of every ladder deck, except that in tournaments the range of which decks you will run in to is much more narrow, and you will be able to control which of your opponents decks you face with each of your own.
This means that in the deck designing phase you can take more liberties with which cards you include, because the deck doesn’t have to be as “safe”. You can get away with cards like Big Game Hunter, Acidic Swamp Ooze, & The Black Knight to gain huge advantages without the setback of having them be dead cards against some of the decks you see on ladder.
This article is not intended to be a manual on how to build decks however, so from here on out we will jump into the live tactics of playing in a tournament. First of all, let’s begin by defining the different tournament formats that Hearthstone has had so far so that we may specify the correct strategies for each, respectively.
Where each participant uses one deck and faces off against a variety of opponents (Managrind Friday Night Swiss).
A. Best of X – Predetermined Class
Where each player chooses their class before the tournament starts and is free to sideboard before each game (MLG Open).
B. Best of X – Predetermined Decks
Where each participant has a pool of pre-determined decks and can only select from those, usually the winner cannot change his deck (ESGN Fight Night).
Let’s start with the swiss format – this format is best for players who are new to tournaments because it is pretty much the same as creating a ladder deck. In this format you just create a balanced deck that you think has a chance to beat anything else.
You can cut some corners when making your deck in this format because it is likely that you will only be facing the classes that are balanced enough to beat anything (For example you will see a lot of druid, warlock, and some warrior, and not a lot of shaman or hunter – at least how the current metagame stands).
While not being specific to the swiss format, it is important to “measure the way the wind is blowing” before a tournament so that your deck can capitalize on what you believe the field will be weak to. Other than crafting the deck, there is not much complexity to playing in this type of tournament because once you have your deck you just play the games out until completion.
One tip though is to not play key cards that are unnecessary for victory so that in game 2 or 3 you have cards your opponent still doesn’t know about, causing him to willingly play into your hands.
A. Best of X – Predetermined Class
In this kind of Best of X, 1 class with sideboarding allowed, there are two playable strategies. The first is to just treat it like swiss and go into the tournament with the most versatile class, the second is to choose a class that has multiple competitive archetypes.
Again, druid will always be strong because standard druid decks have a reasonable chance against anything, but classes like warlock & paladin will always have the advantage of being able to throw your opponent off their game with huge archetype shifts. For example say in game one you start off with the warlock giants deck, in game two you could all of a sudden be playing a board control warlock style and completely mess up whatever your opponent side boarded to counter your first deck.
Similarly with paladin, you could be playing a Divine Favor rush deck with all one drops, and then suddenly be playing a slow paladin control style in game two or three. As for the individual cards and the art of sideboarding, it depends on the specific deck you are facing and comes with a lot of practise.
If you play a class a lot, you will know which cards are key to the deck and which can be swapped in or out depending on what you are up against. Knowing which cards to sideboard in will just come with experience – obviously things like Aciding Swamp Ooze, The Black Knight, and Big Game Hunter are prime candidates for sideboards.
B. Best of X – Predetermined Decks
In a best of X where each player prepares three decks beforehand, the difference between the winners and the losers is their ability to plan and execute a solid three stage strategy that will carry them to the deeper stages. What is a three stage strategy? You want to have three decks that all compliment each other and have an overarching plan that has high expected value. There are two primary approaches to this type of tournament, with a third more situational approach.
Game One Strategy
The two primary approaches to a best of X are differentiated by what type of deck you plan to play in game one.
For example, a solid three stage strategy would be the following: Deck A is a deck that has few if any counters, deck B counters the counter to deck A, and deck C counters the counter to deck B.
The other primary strategy is to play a deck in game one that has a huge counter, but the counter is not expected to be played by the villain in game one. Logic assumes he wants to save it to counter that specific deck and won’t use it until he sees that deck is played.
The third strategy is to use a counter-deck in game one, expecting that your opponent will pre-emptively open with the deck that you are intending to counter. This strategy should be used very cautiously and requires a very accurate read of your opponent to pull off successfully. Maybe you know what he played in game one the previous round because he beat a friend of yours; maybe you have played him in tournaments before and he opened with it before (be careful, as he may try and trick you into thinking this); maybe he is a popular and outspoken player on his personal preferences; and lastly, his three deck structure suggests the deck you want to counter as the most logical deck for him to open up with.
For example, assume a villain has Druid, Hunter, and Shaman as his three decks – in the current tournament metagame Hunter and Shaman are counter-decks and Druid is a strong all-around deck. This suggests that the villain is going to open safely in game one with Druid to try and feel out the hero. If the hero is well versed in the metagame, he will be able to pick up on this three stage structure and abuse it by going into game one with his strongest deck against Druid. This opens up the floor for players to play mind-games and open up game one with a deck that their three-stage structure would not suggest they are going to play.
For example, let’s assume the same villain from the previous example instead, expecting his opponent to try and counter Druid game one, opened up with Shaman in an attempt to hard-counter the deck that the hero opened with in his attempt to counter Druid. I apologize for the wordy-ness of the description, but you can see that there is a lot of complex decision making that goes into which deck to choose for game one.
It is important to remember to only try next-level openings against players who you have strong reason to believe it will work against. Generally it works best against good players who will be working on a similar level of thought as you, otherwise you may end up just levelling yourself and opening with a deck that gets countered in game one.
Game Two & Three + Strategy
Game two is all about whether you won or lost game one. If you win game one and lose game two the best thing you can do is play the deck in game three that counters the second deck he played.
In tournaments that let you use any deck you want at any time, in game three you should use the deck that is countered by one of the decks you’ve already eliminated. Say he plays Warrior Control in game 1 and you beat it with Giant Warlock; he then plays Shaman in game two and counters you for the win, you should then go Burn Hunter because a) it counters Shaman and b) In longer best of X series he can no longer hard-counter Burn Hunter because his Warrior Control deck has been eliminated.
If you lose game one in a best of three, you should choose a deck for game two that *can* beat the deck he played in game one, but doesn’t get straight up hard countered by one of his remaining decks. If you play a deck that auto-wins game two but auto-loses game three, you win the battle but lose the war.
I recall a series I played in a tournament vs Zrusher where he beat me in game one with Burn Hunter in a mirror match, and I went into game two with Giant Warlock despite it being a below average matchup in terms of expected value. Why would I do that? Had I tried to counter him with my Druid deck (that had no Big Game Hunter) I would have surely been countered by his Warlock Control deck in game three so I would have most likely lost anyways. By deciding that I would rather take my chances with warlock vs hunter I put myself in better position in the scenario where I made it to game three.
The result was I ended up winning that series in an epic Giant Warlock vs Giant Warlock mirror match and got to second place in that tournament. Hopefully this example outlines the importance of long-term planning in regards to deck selection in the cases of a game one loss.
Examples of Different Applicable Three-stage Strategies
1. Safe deck, Counter deck, Counter deck
2. Strong deck with specific counter, Counter deck, Counter deck
3. Counter deck, Counter deck, Counter deck
4. Safe deck, Safe deck, Safe deck
It’s important to note that the same deck can be a counter-deck or a safe deck to open with depending on what you intend to use it against and what your other decks are weak to.
In example one the druid deck is a safe deck to open up game one with, and in example two the druid deck is a counter deck. Why is this? In example two we’re playing Giant Warlock in game 1 expecting the enemy to try and counter us with Shaman in game two, which we would then follow up with hunter to counter the Shaman. In a best of 5 we could then follow up with the Harrison Jones + BGH Druid to counter any Warrior decks that are trying to counter our Hunter deck.
The way you use decks, whether they are safe or counter-decks depends largely on what you expect to face in the tournament. Even within the same three-stage-plan you can open with a different deck in each series depending on what your opponent’s three decks are. Try to mix up your plan and see what works best for you!
This next point wasn’t originally going to be included in this article, but in hindsight I feel like it is important to note. Some people play card games and have their favourite class, favourite cards, or favourite deck and can rarely be convinced to stray from it.
When you are playing to win, you have to let go of every emotional attachment you have to any of these things and solely focus on what you can do to increase your mathematical expectation of winning each game.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that in a tournament everyone should play the deck that they think has the best chance of winning, not what is deemed morally acceptable. A player with Burn Hunter and Zoo Lock in his arsenal is a lot more deadly in a tournament than a player who only plays decks that aren’t “cheap/not fun/unfair/overpowered/arbitrary excuse”.
Hopefully this article has shed some light on the amount of varying strategies one can use in tournaments, and gives newer players some perspective on how they should be approaching a tournament. The amount of creativity possible in a card game like Hearthstone is near infinite, especially when Blizzard starts adding new cards – so by no means take my word as gospel. Get out there and start playing and I hope to see you all by the fireside! 🙂
MLG tournament 5: 1st place.
MLG tournament 6: 1st place.
Managrind Open 5: 1st place
Managrind FNS 4: 1st place
2p.com Open 4: 1st place
2p.com Open 5: 1st place
Team Killing Spree Open: 1st place
+ many Top 8’s
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If liked this article and want more of Kisstafer, you can follow him on twitter @Kisstafer1, and follow his stream at www.twitch.tv/kisstafer for updates on when he goes live.
He streams mainly constructed, including tournaments on the NA server, but sometimes plays around in arena on the European server.
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