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Damage as a Resource

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The intention of this article is to articulate a concept that has existed but not been particularly clearly defined in Hearthstone.


That concept is damage as a resource (as distinct from something you do, or an effect generated by your cards), and the maximization of that resource.


I created a deck, based around Flamewalker, last month. The deck is fun, and very explosive. Your opponent can have out three creatures and what appears to be nothing in opposition to those creatures, and on your turn, you can wipe out their board, deal 4 damage to their face, and have two firewalkers facing them. It’s a lot of fun.


As I played this deck, I started to notice a resource that I was making use of, that I’d never really thought of in this way: Damage.


My pedigree is Magic the Gathering. In Magic, damage is certainly a resource, but not one as important as your mana curve (tempo) or the cards in your hand.


One of the most significant distinctions between Magic and Hearthstone is that damage is not healed at the end of the turn. As a result, damage takes on a far greater significance in Hearthstone than it does in Magic.


Consider the following situation:


Your opponent has a Spellbreaker and a Lost Tallstrider on the board. In your hand, you are holding a Frostbolt and a Flamecannon, and have 6 mana.


The good news is, it’s hard to go wrong. You can use Flamecannon, see what gets hit, and then Frostbolt whatever is left behind. If the Tallstrider is the card remaining, you can finish it off with your hero ability.


Consider that your hand has resources equal to 7 points of damage. With your ability, you have an additional 1 point of damage, making a total of 8 points of damage, one of which will go away forever at the end of this turn (although using your ability is something you can do every turn until you or your opponent dies, you can only use it once each turn, and if you fail to use it that turn, you never get the opportunity back).


Therefore, you want to maximize your use of these resources.


Flamecannon is a brilliant card for a few reasons. First, 4 damage for 2 mana is very high in terms of tempo. Very few cards in Hearthstone provide 2 damage for 1 mana. (For comparison, Fireball is 1.5 damage for 1 mana, and Pyroblast sulks in at 1 damage for 1 mana). Further, you’re guaranteed to hit a minion instead of the opponent, and so you can stack the odds in your favour by controlling what the targets are when you cast it.


This mana to damage efficiency is made up for by the fact that the card randomly targets allowing your opponent (and you) to set up the board to maximize or minimize it’s impact.


I see many players use up their Flamecannon on my 3 toughness creature when it’s the only one on the board because they want to ensure they kill something with it. They fear the situation where I have a 1/1 and a 2/4 up, and their cannon barbeques my 1/1.


These players prize choice as a resource above optimizing damage. This is problematic and leads to suboptimal plays.


Unlike Magic, where damage that does not kill the creature is lost forever at the end of the turn, the only way to undo damage is by healing, and only a few cards and one class provide reliable access to this. As a result, In Hearthstone every single point of damage makes a difference (there are exceptions to this rule, but we will come back to them).


Therefore, all other things equal, the player that most efficiently uses his damage is the player that will win the game.


This doesn’t mean that you should never waste a point of damage, any more than it means you should use all of your mana up every turn at the expense of playing a better card. If you are facing down a 7/4 Stalagg and a 1/7 Mogu’shan Warden, your are probably better off casting your Starfire on the Stalagg, even though it will waste one point of damage.


What it does mean is that this is another resource that requires consideration. The player that is not considering how they spend and allocate their damage will lose out, and make wasteful decisions.


Let’s look to the classes that deal with this most directly. There are two classes with hero abilities that directly interact with the use of this resource: Priest and Mage (okay, there’s others, like Hunter, but let’s ignore them for now). 


Let’s first look at Mage.


The Mage’s ability grants them the opportunity, once per turn, to exchange two mana for one point of damage. Before we go any further, this is obviously a great ability, given everything I’ve discussed. It creates a lasting impact on the board almost every time it is used. Where it truly shines is it’s ability to maximize how you dole out damage. If I have a Flamecannon, a Frostbolt, and an Arcane Missiles, my ability lets me ensure that I get the most bang for the buck. With judicious use of the Mage’s ability, you can ensure that your flame cannon (and any other RNG type damage effects, such as Bomb Lobber) are used to their maximum effect by clearing out and killing any lower toughness creatures before hand.


Let’s look at two situations where this applies for Mage.


Your opponent has a 1/2 and a 3/4 on the board. You are holding Arcane missiles, and Flamecannon, and you have 5 mana available.


What is your optimal play?


This scenario requires some calculated risk taking. On the one hand, you can gamble with flamcannon and hopefully kill the 3/4. You have a 50% chance of doing so. If the RNG doesn’t like you, then you’ve just wasted 2 points of damage. So, on average, if we use expected value calculations (this is getting a little bit mathy), that play, on average, does 3 points of damage (Expected Value = 0.5 * 2 + 0.5 * 4 = 3). That’s not bad, but it’s subpar for the card. On average you lose a point of damage every time you make that play.


Your other options are to cast arcane missiles first and see what you hit. Notice that Arcane Missiles is always optimally allocated (by which I mean that it never wastes a point of damage — not that it deals damage the way YOU would most like it to be dealt); you can read more on this below.


The optimal scenario in this case is that arcane missiles hits his 1/2 once or twice, and your opponent once. Then you can either ping and kill the 1/2 minion, and then flamecannon for 4 damage, or, better yet, ping your opponent and flamecannon.


Obviously this scenario has a bit of luck baked in to it. Efficient allocation of your damage will not change that fact, but it bears consideration while playing. By doing so, you can make maximally efficient decisions, and use your damage more effectively than your opponent (which will give you a leg up). In a fast-paced game like Hearthstone, every single advantage counts in your favour. Whenever luck is on the line, the more you can maximize the other decisions and resources that are at play, the better you are to take advantage when the swings of luck are in your favour, and the minimize the impact when they aren’t.


Let’s look at Priest now.


Priest’s ability directly interacts with damage in the opposite direction. It undoes your opponent’s damage allocation, and so, every time you use your priest’s ability, you are diminishing the value that your opponent’s get from their spells and minions.


Put side by side with the Mage’s ability in a vacuum, the priest’s is simply better. If the priest had a target every single turn, they are able to spend 2 points of mana to undo 2 points of damage each turn, while the mage, at best in this laboratory scenario, is able to do only 1 point of damage per 2 points of mana.


However, the priest’s ability does not exist in a vacuum like this. It has a second requirement — there must be valid targets on the board. As such, the priest’s ability is maximized by creating viable targets for their healing ability and minions. This goes without saying when you have effects that trigger off of healing (such as Shadowboxer and Northshire Cleric), but even without the effects present, the priest maximizes their value by creating opportunities to use their ability.


As such, the true power of cards like Dark Cultist and Power Word: Shield are really brought to the fore. Not only does PW:S let you make a minion tougher to kill, cost only 1 mana, AND draw a card (wow, that’s a sweet package), but it also opens up new opportunities for the priest to make use of their ability to heal, and undo your damage allocation.


As such, a consideration with the priest is that you want to MINIMIZE the situations where you provide them with opportunities to heal. In particular, you want to minimize the number of creatures on the board that they can heal. When playing against priest, damage allocation is a little different. Whereas, against other classes, it is often the correct play to ping their 3/2 for one damage and hold on to the flamecannon (so that you can finish off the 3/2 next turn, and barbecue whatever bigger creature gets played), against priest, it might actually be a good thing to waste that point or two of damage if it means that the creature will die this turn instead of sticking around for them to heal.


Finally, consider that some cards are inherently optimized for damage allocation, whereas others are not. Any card that deals X damage, to X random targets (think Arcane Missiles or Avenging Wrath) will always ensure that its damage is maximized (consider that Arcane Wrath never takes a creatures down below 0 toughness. Once the creature has 0 toughness, the Wrath stops targeting it). Other cards leave the opportunity for damage maximization in your hands. The most wasteful card, damage wise, is likely Pyroblast. It is wasteful because 10 damage is difficult to allocate maximally unless you are targeting your opponent. Fortunately, that’s the intention of the card (it is generally used as a finisher, rather than board control). Fireball is another example of a card that is inherently wasteful. For its mana cost, the potential for waste is acceptable, but it is usually used to kill off creatures of 4 to 5 toughness, and rarely fully exploited.


Thoughts and comments on the subject are welcome!




P.S. To really get good at damage allocation, build the deck showed above and play it. You became very effective at finding the optimal way to spend out your mana and damage.

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Thanks for the article, deathsushi. It was well thought-out and informative. I smiled when I read your Flamecannon example as I find myself doing that very thing, taking out a minion with 3 health (or even less), to avoid wasting him on a 1/1. This may still be the best play, in particular if it removes a Northshire Cleric or Mana Wyrm (or any other potentially powerful minion with 3 health or less), but it's important to weigh every factor available when making these decisions. So I agree with you that damage as a resource is an important concept. I believe card advantage is still the most important resource in Hearthstone, but using each card optimally is a big part of that. It's important to make every point of damage count when possible.


Another point to consider would be preventing future damage by your opponent, as well enabling yourself to deal more damage in a later turn. Using my Flamecannon on a Mana Wyrm, for example, would not use 1 point of damage. However, getting rid of that Mana Wyrm with one card may prevent the Wyrm from destroying one or more of my minions. If the Wyrm goes 2-for-1 with my minions then I fall behind on cards, but by using the Flamecannon on him I stay 1-for-1. By using my Flamecannon I have prevented my opponent from dealing future damage with the Wyrm. Additionally, the damage that my surviving minions go on to deal will most likely make up for the 1 point of damage lost with the Flamecannon.


It would be similar with the Northshire Cleric, as I may fall behind on cards if my opponent uses her to draw. However, using my Flamecannon to get rid of the Cleric before any card draw occurs keeps us 1-for-1.

Edited by Darb

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