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Everything you'll need to dominate ranks 10 through 5 on the ladder.
In part three we learn about "line up theory", the art or matching up threats and answers. We also explore the importance of mulligans and why it may not always be correct to ship away expensive cards.
Legend in the Making: Part 3
Ranks 10 to 5 - Line Up Theory and Mulligans
The first two parts of this series taught a top-down approach for approaching decisions in Hearthstone. Mastering these broad and fundamental concepts of Hearthstone gave us the weapons to dominate any opponent attempting to fight us unarmed. Knowing your role at rank 20 is like bringing a knife to fist fight, and having a plan at rank 15 is like bringing a gun to knife fight.
Understanding the big picture concepts which are relevant in nearly every game creates a huge degree of separation between ourselves and our opponents, but as we progress up the ladder and begin to learn about more and more narrow topics this margin begins to shrink. The massive advantage which comes from “having a plan” against an opponent who doesn’t is much smaller than the advantage you’ll gain from learning about “line up theory” in part three against an opponent who hasn’t learned this same concept.
This is the nature of progress. The gap which separates us from our competition grows smaller and smaller as we get better and better. The margin for error shrinks. The difference between victory and defeat is no longer a misunderstanding of the matchup, it’s attacking the wrong minion on turn 7 or shipping away the wrong card in our mulligan. This is why it is critically important, now more than ever, that we internalize the broader lessons from parts one and two before moving on to the more specific concepts which I cover in parts three and four. You stand to gain a much bigger by mastering the broadest skills first.
Section 1 - The Essence of Progress
Making Smaller Circles
As we gain experience and internalize concepts on a deeper and deeper level, questions which were once complex and demanded a significant portion of our thinking power start to be answered instinctively. The macro becomes second nature and our minds become free to begin worrying about the micro, then the old micro becomes our new macro and the process repeats itself. This is a process called “making smaller circles” in The Art of Learning, a book which I’ve recommended ad nauseum in this series.
To turn the macro into the micro we should endeavor to learn depth, not breadth. Our goal isn't to collect new heuristics, it's to completely master the lessons we are still learning. By seeking to understand the finest details of every concept we will eventually be able to internalize them on a subconscious level, and this is what will ultimately enable us to answer difficult questions instinctually and automatically.
As it applies to Hearthstone, the biggest advantage which will come from making smaller circles is the amount of thinking time it will buy us. By gaining the ability to quickly evaluate something which would have once taken us a long time we free our minds to focus on something new. We get to think more, and thinking more is often thinking is smarter.
The higher up we climb the ladder the smaller our margin for error becomes. A great way to minimize on these errors is create more time for ourselves by making smaller circles. But there is another, much more simple way to buy ourselves more thinking time.
As the margins between defeat and victory tighten the costs of making mistakes are greatly magnified. There’s a huge difference between a mistake due to a lack of understanding a making a mistake due to a lack of focus. Mistakes made from a lack of understanding can only be corrected with time and practice, while mistakes made from a lack of focus are entirely preventable.
A turn in Hearthstone times out after 75 seconds, and with 20 seconds left the rope will appear across the middle of the screen. There is no penalty for taking each turn to rope and there are no bonus points for playing quickly. However, there is a massive penalty for playing too fast and making mistakes as a result. The most your opponent can do to complain about how long you are taking is emote “Hello”, so what do you have to lose by taking more time?
I can’t teach you how to be smarter or have better focus, but I certainly share with you a framework for making the most out your time each of turn. More time means more thinking, more thinking means smarter decisions, and helping you make smarter decisions is the entire goal of the “Legend in the Making” series. Here are some steps you can take to ensure that you’re using time to your advantage:
Decide what the plan is. If there is still time left in the turn before you must act (the rope hasn’t appeared yet), see if you come up with a different plan. If there is no other plan, use the rest of your time to plan out future turns and consider the outs for you and your opponent. If there is another plan, compare and contrast the advantages of both plans to decide which one is better. If there is still time left in the turn after you’ve compared the two plans, try to see if you can come up with another plan and repeat this process. There will probably be many turns where this process feels laborious and unnecessary. Your first instinct will often be the correct one and might feel as though you just wasted time and effort for no benefit. The beauty of this process is that it doesn’t truly matter if your decisions don’t change as a result of this extra time and focus, because to reflect and ask yourself questions is the fastest way to internalize the finer details of the game! This is how you make smaller circles.
Think of the effort you’re spending now as effort you won’t need to spend again in the future if you encounter a similar situation. Taking the extra time to reflect on your decisions in the present not only decreases the likelihood that you make mistakes (which allows you to win more games), it encodes your patterns of thought into instincts which will free up additional thinking time in the future for you to do even more. This enables the cycle of learning and improvement to repeat itself. Self reflection is not only key to ensuring we don’t make mistakes, it the essence of progress and rapid improvement.
Section 2 - Line Up Theory
Hearthstone is a game of threats and answers, both of which can come in many forms. A threat might be a wide board of buffed-up Murlocs thanks to Murloc Warleader, and answer to this threat might be a single Dragonfire Potion. A 12/12 Edwin VanCleef is a threat which can be answered by 12 power worth of minions.
A threat is anything a player can use to win the game if their opponent doesn't have an answer for it, and an answer is any way to remove a threat. The battle of aggro vs control is fundamentally a battle of threats against answers. It’s the aggro player’s job to present the threats their opponent is least likely to have an answer to, and it's the control player’s job to answer the threats presented by the aggro player in such a way that they will still have the ability to handle the next one.
It is often the case that a specific answer lines up against a specific threat in such a way that one player comes out of the exchange at huge advantage. A classic example is the threat of Tirion Fordring and the answer of Polymorph. Casting Polymorph on Tirion cleanly answers his big body, his Divine Shield, and his Deathrattle trigger. Without a Polymorph, answering a Tirion might require a combination of your hero power, some spells, and minion attacks just take down his body 6/6 Taunt body, and when everything's said and done your opponent still gets a 5/3 weapon. Sounds like a disaster! Cards like Polymorph and Hex line up very well against Tirion while most other answers line up against him poorly. This is “line up theory”, a method for assigning specific answers to specific threats in an effort to create advantages and avoid disasters.
Lining Up Decks
We can use line up theory to help us understand the correct approach to most matchups. Through line up theory we can determine which matchups are “ask and answer”, or classic aggro vs control games where the lining up of threats and answers is determined most by the present, and we can also discover which matchups are dictated more by a deck vs deck approach to lining up threats and answers. Let’s see an example of a matchup where threats and answers are far more important than roles, and where the “plan” is to have the correct answers to line up against the correct threats.
Giant Miracle Rogue is a deck with some very powerful threats and the ability to quickly cycle through its deck to consistently find them. It also runs a very limited number threats due to the density of its cheap spells. They typically look to set up a single turn where they clear their opponent’s board and play out a massive Edwin VanCleef and/or multiple Arcane Giants and overwhelm their opponent on tempo with the size of their creatures.
Evolve Shaman is a deck which looks to control the board early with cost-effective creatures and board clear spells. By keeping their opponent’s board empty in the early game they seek to take over the mid to late game with a powerful Doppelgangster + Evolve play or to kill their opponent outright with Bloodlust and a wide board of minions and totems.
It would be accurate to say that both of these decks are midrangey and have combo elements to the way they play. Depending on the way the cards line up on a game by game basis either deck could be the aggro deck or the control deck if you approach the matchup purely from the perspective of roles. However, due to the way that the threats from Miracle Rogue line up against the threats from Evolve Shaman, this matchup has the potential to be incredibly lopsided if the Evolve Shaman player understands line up theory.
Let’s look at the threats that the Miracle Rogue is packing:
Edwin VanCleef Sherazin, Corpse Flower Two Arcane Giants The rest of their minions in the deck aren’t there to end the game on their own but to facilitate the strategy of the deck. Though the deck could also manage to drudge up a threat with a Hallucination or Swashburglar, the likelihood that they find anything which threatens to end the game on its own from these cards is quite low.
If we look at how the answers from Evolve Shaman up against these threats, we find that the Evolve Shaman is perfectly suited to answer these threats at a tremendous advantage. The Jade Lightnings line up well against the Gadgetzan Auctioneers, while the Lightning Storms, Maelstrom Portals, and Volcanos can easily clear up the other roleplayers. The two Hexes can handle Sherazin, Edwin, or an Arcane Giant at a mana advantage, the Devolve can handle the Edwin or Sherazin at a mana advantage, and a combination of minions and spells can add up to the 8 damage needed to finish off the final Arcane Giant.
When you line up the two decks against each other the default strategy for the Evolve Shaman player should be clear. The Evolve Shaman just needs to be able to deploy each of their lined up answers against the Miracle Rogue’s lined up threats and they will eventually be able to run them out of gas. From the perspective of line up theory, any Shaman deck running two Hex and one Devolve should be favored against a Giant Miracle Rogue which is light on threats. Their answers are naturally advantaged against their opponent’s threats, and they will be heavily favored in any game where they can deploy these answers on time. Whenever you can identify a matchup where your threats line up favorably against your opponent’s answers or vice versa, your best bet is to approach the matchup from the perspective of line up theory and aim to win the game by abusing the natural advantages of your specific threats and answers against theirs.
There will be the occasional game where one of the Shaman’s much needed answers is on the bottom of their deck or where the Miracle Rogue draws well and is able to play their threats too quickly, but the chances of losing a game to these circumstances are much lower than the chances of losing in a more traditional midrange vs midrange matchup. Generally speaking, decks which have more answers than their opponents have threats are favored in games which go long when playing with line up theory in mind. This implies that decks with fewer answers than their opponents have threats should try to find a way to end the game quickly before they get overwhelmed by their opponent’s threats.
The Narrow Answer
When lining up decks against one another you’ll often find that there are only one or two key cards in either deck which demand specific answers from their opponent. Polymorphs for a Tirion Fordring, or Volcanic Potions for a Living Mana, for example. It may not always make sense to mold your entire strategy from the perspective of line up theory, but the knowledge of how these threats and answers line up against each other still has an impact on the way you play out the game.
When playing against an opponent who has a threat in their deck which demands a specific answer from your own, the goal is to hold onto your narrow answer for as long humanly possible. Patience is key, especially if your opponent also understands how line up theory works. Whoever bites first and plays their threat into a narrow answer or uses their narrow answer on the wrong threat will often lose as a result. Unless you’re under direct threat of dying, hold onto that narrow answer at all costs and find a different way to answer your opponent’s other threats.
You might also find yourself in a situation where you have access to a threat which can completely take over the game if your opponent lacks the narrow answer. In an ideal world you would construct a situation where your opponent is forced to deploy their narrow answer on the wrong card, but you won’t always have this luxury. If time is not your side, it’s often correct to throw your threat out there and pray that they don’t have the answer in hand. If time is your ally, then it’s probably best to hold onto your threat until you’re sure the coast is clear.
Section 3 - Mulligans
Mulligans are among the most complex and important decisions in the entire game, yet they are often overlooked or taken for granted as deterministic.
The majority of deck guides I’ve seen around the internet list cards which are considered “keeps”, but this completely fails to recognize the importance of matchups when it comes to mulligan decisions. More thorough deck guides will list the cards which are keeps in every matchup, and though this is certainly a step closer to the truth it still doesn’t tell the entire story.
To be to fair to all the excellent deck guide writers out there, there are certain decks which will almost always want to keep certain cards. For example, I very rarely mulligan away Wild Growth while playing as Ramp Druid. It’s a card you can play early and is simultaneously critical for the deck’s gameplan, but is it always correct to keep two Wild Growths? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. There are certain matchups where double Wild Growth is the stone cold nut, but there are other matchups where it might be more important to dig for something that impacts the board.
In this section I’ll attempt to teach you all of the different factors I’ve discovered for informing mulligan decisions. Factors can vary wildly in importance from matchup to matchup, hand to hand, and deck to deck, so the real talent to mulligans is knowing when each of these factors takes precedence over the others.
The level zero, most basic mulligan tip that everyone learns first is to mulligan away your expensive cards so that you can find cheap ones that you can play early. It makes sense why you’d want to do this as it’s very advantageous to curve out (use all of your mana on cards which cost as much mana as you have available that turn), and you can’t exactly curve out in the first few turns if you are sitting on a hand full of expensive cards.
You can think of all the other factors I discuss in this section as reasons not to mulligan away more expensive cards for cheaper ones. If you were to enter into a completely unknown matchup then the mana cost of your cards would almost certainly be the most important factor, but at these ranks we are never entering into an unknown matchup.
Line Up Theory
The time you have to mulligan is the all the time you have to determine if your current matchup is "ask and answer" or is dictated by line up theory. Before sending away a single card you should have a decent idea of whether or not line up theory is the axis by which you’ll be attacking this game, as this will completely dictate your mulligan decisions.
It should be fairly straightforward to understand how line up theory impacts your mulligans. If you’re in the position of the player who has more answers than your opponent has threats then you can’t afford to ship a single answer from your opening hand. You have inevitability on your side if you can assemble all of your answers before they can assemble all of their threats, so you shouldn’t be too concerned if your hand appears to be slow.
If you’re in the position of the player who has fewer threats than your opponent has answers you likely can’t afford to ship a single threat. The way you win is by playing one more threat than they have an answer for, so you’re also in the market for any cards which might force your opponent to spend one of their precious answers on the wrong target.
Some cards have the ability to completely take over a game on their own in certain matchups. If you know exactly which deck you’re up against then keeping these cards in your opening hand is always the correct decision, regardless of whether they cost 10 mana or 1. If nine of the last ten Druids you faced were playing Jade, then you stand to gain much more by holding on to Skulking Geist in your opening hand than you do by mulliganing it away. Let’s explore why.
In this example nine of the last ten Druids we faced were Jades, which extrapolates to a 90% chance that the current Druid you are currently facing is also a Jade. If you assume that keeping the Skulking Geist drops your win percentage from 50% to 0% against all other Druids (which it doesn’t), you’re still only giving up 5% win percentage over the course of 10 games (50 divided by 10). This means that keeping the Skulking Geist would still be the smarter decision if getting to play the card increased your overall match win percentage against Jade Druid by more than 5.6% (50 divided by 9), which I’m almost certain that it does. Though it might seem greedy to keep an expensive or narrow card in your opening hand without being certain what you’re up against, the numbers show that it’s often correct to do so.
Try to resist the urge to mulligan away an expensive card in your hand before considering the odds that it could tilt the matchup in your favor. Consider the prevalence of each deck in your opponent’s class, as well as the impact an individual card has on the overall win percentage in each matchup. It’s far too complex to calculate exact numbers, but with time and practice you can start to get a sense for when and why you should keep certain narrow or expensive cards in your opening hand.
Conversely, there are cards which are typically strong in opening hands but must be mulliganed away based on your opponent’s class or the expected matchup. These cards might line up poorly against the enemy’s Hero Power or common class cards. For example, minions with one Health are typically miserable against Mage, and early Deathrattle cards like Kindly Grandmother with 2 power or less can get blown out by Potion of Madness. The ability to recognize when it is correct to mulligan away cards that are typically strong is just as important as the ability to recognize when it is correct keep cards that are typically weak.
It is often correct to hold onto a card which might not be ideal but is just above the cut. In what I call “50% Theory”, I always try to stop and ask myself if there is a greater than 50% chance that the card I’m thinking about mulliganing away will turn into a worse one. I often find that my first instinct is to mulligan away a less than perfect card to try and find something better, but that when I apply 50% theory I realize that my odds of improving my hand actually decrease by shipping the card away.
Another reason to keep potentially expensive cards is because your hand can naturally curve into them. For example, let’s say you’re playing a deck which typically always mulligans away 4 drops in the dark. If the other two cards in your hand are a 2 drop and a 3 drop, then it could potentially be worth keeping the 4 drop so long as it is a natural follow-up to the other two cards.
Checking the curve of our hand can also help us catch when we might have too much of a good thing. Many cards which are typically excellent in opening hands might not pair well with the other cards in our hand, or even with a second copy of itself. N'Zoth's First Mate is typically the best card for Pirate Warrior on turn one, but the second copy should almost always be shipped away. The same can often (though not always) be said for Innervate, depending on what the final card or cards in your opener are. If you’re on Aggro Druid and your opening hand is double Innervate + Bittertide Hydra, then you have a potentially game winning play on turn one. If your hand is double Innervate + Living Mana, then you’ll want to ship both the Living Mana and one of the Innervates to try and find yourself a better curve.
To recap, here are a list of questions you should ask yourself about each hand while mulliganing:
Based on my opponent’s class and the local metagame, which decks could my opponent be playing? Is this a line up theory matchup? Are there any narrow answers or threats in my hand? Do I have any cards which are very powerful against one of these decks? Am I increasing my overall win percentage by keeping these cards? Do I have any cards which are very weak against one of these decks? Am I decreasing my overall win percentage by keeping these cards? Does this hand curve out? Does it have a game plan? Do I have any expensive cards which I should mulligan away for something less expensive? If so, is there a greater than 50% chance that getting rid of one of these cards will yield a worse result? It’s important to note that the de facto “most important factor” of mulligans, the mana cost of the cards, is the second to last question when working down this checklist. This isn’t to say that the mana cost of the cards in your opening hand isn’t important, it's just that there are many other things you should be thinking about as well.
Another thing of note is that I never stop to ask if I have cards in my hand which should be automatically kept. I believe that you can get yourself into trouble by thinking about cards as “automatic keeps”, and should instead start off by viewing each card through the lens of the specific matchups you’re anticipating. Granted, to this day I have still never mulliganed away the first copy of Flametongue Totem, but I’d like to think that’s because I have yet to encounter a matchup where it isn’t good in my opening hand and not because the card is an "automatic keep".
Line up theory can help us think about our boards, hands, and decks as distinct sets of limited tools. By lining up our tools against our opponent’s problems we can attempt to organize our game plan into the most effective and thorough plan possible. Some matchups are dictated entirely by line up theory, while in other matchups we can use the lessons we've learned from line up theory to gain small edges in efficiency.
Mulligans are an often overlooked or misunderstood facet of the game, but they are sometimes the most important decision we make in the entire game. By taking the time to carefully consider all the reasons why we should or shouldn’t keep each card in our opener, we are adding one more edge to our game which will help propel us to the next stage of the ladder.
For the fourth and final installment of Legend in the Making, I will discuss all of the subtle ways that game behavior can inform the exact content of player’s hands. By analyzing the ordering decisions and tiny mistakes our opponents make we can glean much more information about our their game plan than you might think. Please join me in part four as we make the final push towards our ultimate goal of reaching Legend.
Now that we understand the importance of roles, it's time to learn how to construct a solid plan which will guide us through tough decisions.
Legend in the Making: Part 2
Ranks 15 to 10 - Having a Plan and Playing to Outs
Welcome to part two of “Legend in the Making”, my four-part series on all the skills you’ll need to reach Hearthstone’s highest rank.
I’m of the opinion that anyone can reach Legend so long as they have a solid grasp on the fundamentals and are willing to commit the time and effort. I can’t promise to help you find the time and motivation it will take to play the 300 or more games it takes to reach Legend, but I can certainly help you learn the fundamentals.
In part one I discussed the importance of identifying your role as the aggro or control player in every game of Hearthstone. Commonly referred to as “who’s the beatdown?”, I can’t possibly overstate how critical it is to understand this concept before moving on to more complex topics. If you don’t have a solid understanding of “who’s the beatdown?” then you should go back and read part one before part two, even if you’re already rank 15 or higher. Part two builds upon the ideas of its predecessor and is written under the assumption that the reader understands the terms I defined in it.
In part two we’ll be covering two highly related concepts: “having a plan” and “playing to outs”. If understanding your role in a matchup is what separate the beginners from the intermediate players, then “having a plan” and “playing to outs” are what separate the intermediate players from the advanced ones.
"Having a plan" is a framework for making tough decisions in tight games, and to have a plan is to consider the past, present, and future of our current game when making decisions. “Playing to outs” is the framework for making decisions in games where one player is clearly ahead. To play to your own outs is to ask and answer “how can I win this game?” when playing from behind. Conversely, playing to your opponent’s outs is to ask and answer “how can I lose this game?” when you have the lead.
By having a plan we can make more informed decisions in the present by making choices which guide ourselves towards a desirable future state. It's always better to have a plan than to not have one, so we should begin each turn by asking ourselves a series of questions to determine what the best plan is and what can we do right now to get there the fastest.
People who aim to rapidly improve at Hearthstone tend to adopt a heuristic-based approach to their decision making. They adopt hard and fast rules such as “never Coin into Wild Growth” or “never play turn one Northshire Cleric against a Warrior”, but in Hearthstone there is no such thing as “never”. Decisions in Hearthstone, just like decisions in real life, depend entirely upon the context in which they are made. “Having a plan” and “playing to outs” require that you have the ability to make decisions based solely on the texture of the current game, regardless of how stupid these decisions might look in another one. In a vacuum its a terrible idea to attack a 10/1 into a 1/1, but there are many contexts in which this attack is the only way to win the game.
It’s time to throw out our old toolbox for making decisions and replace it with a newer, more complete one. Let's learn how to break the rules.
Watching Replays and The Art of Learning
As I mentioned in part one, a large part of how I was able to reach Legend in my first month of competitive play were the lessons I learned from a book called The Art of Learning. It taught me how to critically analyze my own decisions, relentlessly hunt down my mistakes, and create systems to prevent myself from repeating these mistakes. Many readers have reached out to thank me for recommending The Art of Learning to them - I promise you won’t regret reading it.
If you learn only one thing from this entire series then let it be this: watch your replays. The quickest way to learn and improve at Hearthstone (and at life in general) is to make mistakes, identify those mistakes as quickly as possible, and never repeat them. The best way to identify our mistakes is to watch replays of our games. You’ll need a deck tracker to watch replays, so if you aren’t using one already get a deck tracker installed right away.
One of my readers commented on part one with a question about replays. They noted how much time it normally takes to reach Legend and asked if it would take them even longer if they had to watch their replays all time.
In a word, no. In two words, hell no.
Every time you make a mistake and it goes unnoticed you set yourself up to make the same mistake again in the future. Games are often won or lost on the back of a single mistake, and every game loss on the ladder requires an additional win just to get you back to where you started. If you’re hoping to reach Legend in any kind of timely manner then you simply can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes over and over.
If you ever lose a game and feel as though there was a way you could have won if you played the game perfectly, take this as a very strong signal that you should watch the replay before jumping back on the ladder. Keep an eye out for the mistakes you made, embrace these mistakes as a valuable learning opportunity, and find a way to make sure you don't repeat them.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Intermediate level Hearthstone players love to make "high value" plays. They have just enough experience with Hearthstone to know what a high value play looks like, but they lack the wisdom to know if their high value plays are actually helping them win the game. These players tend to get angry when they lose because they have convinced themselves that they deserve to win every game. They’ll rationalize each defeat by telling themselves they had terrible luck or that their opponent's deck is overpowered. There’s always a reason these players lose, and it's never their own fault.
What I just described is a well documented phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect states that the less knowledgeable someone is the more likely they are to believe they're an expert. This extremely common cognitive bias (which I have been very guilty of in the past) occurs when someone knows just enough about something to understand it better than a beginner but not nearly enough to understand how much they still have left to learn.
Have you ever met someone who only knows how to play Wonderwall and the intro to Stairway to Heaven on their new guitar but they're already talking about the fancy car they’ll buy when they become a famous guitarist? That’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. The guy who posts on the official Blizzard forums the same day a new set comes out claiming to have solved the entire meta? Dunning-Kruger effect. That buddy of yours who claims the only reason they didn’t hit rank 5 last season is because Pirate Warrior is overpowered? You guessed it, Dunning-Kruger effect. By convincing themselves they know more than they actually do these people have become their own biggest obstacle to improving at Hearthstone. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the poison pill to progress.
Section 1: What’s the Plan?
The Difference Between Roles and Plans
Many of you who have just arrived from part one may be wondering something along the lines of:
Well, not exactly. Knowing your role certainly factors into your plan, but it’s not what I’m talking about when I use the word “plan” in part two. “Beatdown” is no more of a plan for winning at Hearthstone than “going fast” is a plan for winning the Tour de France.
Your role in a matchup is the big picture, long-term reason for why you should be making the decisions you’re making. Your plan is the shorter-term, context dependent method for determining how you should make your decisions. Roles inform decisions over the course of the entire game while plans inform decisions over the course of the next few turns.
Let's walk you through an example:
Here I am playing Aggro Token Druid against Jade Druid. You’re hard pressed to find more clearly defined roles than this matchup, I gotta kill ‘em!
I had an incredible first turn of double Innervate into Bittertide Hydra plus Coin into Enchanted Raven. I’ve been pushing as much damage to his face as I can but I’m faced with a difficult choice on turn five. Do I play Living Mana or Druid of the Claw? My role is obvious, but what’s my plan here?
Living Mana has the potential to get blown out by Innervate + Primordial Drake, which could potentially allow my opponent to turn the corner on me if he has any number of cards (such as Jade Behemoth or Earthen Scales) the following turn. Another thing to consider is that my Bittertide Hydra will have 3 life on his next turn and could be killed by a Wrath. If I wanted to play the Druid of the Claw as a 4/4 with charge then my opponent would need to have Wrath plus another spell which dealt with my 4/4. I remembered that my opponent had already played a Wrath, a Swipe, and a Feral Rage this game, so I decided that the odds that he could deal with my Hydra plus my 4/4 were lower than the odds he had Innervate + Primordial Drake. I ended up going with the Druid of the Claw play and winning the game.
What Goes Into a Plan?
Continuing with the above example, let’s take a look at some of the factors which went into formulating my plan:
My role in the matchup. The cards in my hand. The state of the board. My opponent's life total. The specific cards my opponent had already played this game. The amount of health my Bittertide Hydra will have after attacking the Tar Creeper. The amount of mana my opponent will be able to produce the following turn assuming he has an Innervate in hand. The cards which are likely to be in my opponent’s deck which I haven’t seen yet. All of this just to choose which card I play on turn 5! But what if I didn’t "have a plan"? What would the factors for my turn 5 decision look like then?
My role in the matchup The cards in my hand The state of the board My opponent’s life total Without a plan, decisions are made through the lens of how they impact you from the data you can see right now.
What do I have? What’s on the board? Can I kill him right now? No? Then I guess I’ll do whatever kills him the most this turn!
Playing with a plan means you consider not only what going on right now, but what has already happened in the past or is likely to happen in the future. It also means that you realize your own cards are only half of the puzzle and that your opponent plays just a big a role in determining the outcome of the game as you do. Playing with a plan is a holistic approach to decision making which accounts for the past, the present, the future, and the player on the other side of the table. If these four factors are all the pieces of a puzzle, then having a plan is the act of putting the puzzle together.
During a recent server maintenance on NA I decided to play on EU for the first time. After I played through the mandatory tutorial missions I slapped together a budget Hunter deck and hopped onto the ladder for the first time.
I got paired against a rank 25 Mage and was on The Coin. Turn one my opponent casts Arcane Missiles into an empty board and sends three damage to my face. I right click Rexxar.
I passed my first turn with no play. Turn two he casts a Frostbolt to my face.
I won the game handedly. I played minions, he couldn’t kill them, and he died.
Did I win because my opponent didn’t have a plan? Not at all. My opponent had a plan, a very popular one in fact. I call it the “play stuff” plan. Many new players default to the “play stuff” plan because they don’t know any better, but this plan is doomed to fail because it only considers one stretch of time: the present.
Do I have a one drop? Cool, let’s play it! Is that a two drop? Frostbolt to the face, take that! Ooh look, I’m at 30 and my opponent is at 24. I’m winning!
Playing a card because it’s in your hand is like getting on a bus because it’s the first one at the bus stop. Sure, sometimes you’ll get lucky and step on the right bus (play the right card without realizing it), but if your plan is to always get on the first bus you see then you’re going to eventually end up in the wrong part of town (turn one Arcane Missiles to the face).
Newer players tend to play the game as it presents itself to them. They don’t consider the past or future when constructing their plans, they just look at what's in their hand and go for it. They play cards because they can, not because they should. They’re completely trapped in the present.
Intermediate players fall into a different kind of trap. They think the present isn’t very important because games they believe that games are won in the future with superior card advantage and bigger stuff. They opt not to cast Shadow Word: Pain on a Vicious Fledgling so that their Dragonfire Potion will get max value the following turn, so they die to a Savage Roar the next turn and take to forums to whine about how mindless Aggro Token Druid is (courtesy of the Dunning-Kruger effect). These people are trapped in the future.
People can also get trapped in the past.
They already played one Brawl and one Sleep with the Fishes, so there’s no way they have another board wipe. I’ll play out my entire hand to set up lethal next turn.
Section 2: Past, Present, and Future
Since we don't have to worry about the past changing on us, factoring the past into our plans is actually quite simple. We just have to remember to do it.
The past gives us access to all kinds of useful information. It can tell us which kinds of cards have been put into our opponent's hand by effects like Cabalist's Tome or The Curator. It can tell us which cards have died this game and are able resurrected by effects like N'Zoth, the Corruptor. Most importantly, the past tells us which of our opponent's cards have already been used and we no longer need to worry about playing around. We shouldn’t have to spend much tracking the cards we've already played as our deck tracker (which you’re totally using to watch replays, right?) can help us out with that.
Having access to more data enables us to make smarter decisions, and one of the bests ways to unlock all the data we have available to us is to ask ourselves smarter questions. Here a few examples of the kinds of questions we can start to ask ourselves about the past:
You want to commit more minions to the board and your opponent has already cast a Swipe. If your opponent had the other Swipe in hand would they have cast it last turn? You want to know if you should kill your opponent’s Alexstrasza or push damage to your opponent’s face. An Alex attack would put you at 7 life and dead to the following: Fireball + Hero Power, double Frostbolt + Hero Power, Firelands Portal + Frostbolt, and Pyroblast. Which of these spells has your opponent already cast this game? Are you likely to die next turn if you don’t kill the Alexstrasza? You can kill your opponent next turn with a Jade Lightning if you send every minion at his face this turn. Has he already used a Greater Healing Potion? How about the Shadow Visions he used on turn four? Has he already cast the spell he found from it? If he hasn’t, how likely is it that he would have chosen Greater Healing Potion when he cast Shadow Visions? Your Warrior opponent played The Curator and drew two cards. Can you use the data from the past to determine exactly which two cards they are? The Present
The present is everything you can see on the screen. The life totals, the cards on the board, the cards in your hand... I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you these things should factor heavily into your plans.
Playing correctly in the present is largely a matter of knowing your role. If you’ve read part one of this guide then you should already have the blueprint for putting together a plan when the present is the only thing that matters. As the present is the most important stretch of time in the majority of situations, playing your role is quite often the correct plan. In fact, present data should be weighed most heavily when roles are most clearly defined. Are you getting your face pounded in by Murlocs? No time like the present to not get killed! Are your opponent’s Jade Golems starting to get out of hand? Better to not waste any time worrying about the future, kill ‘em dead! The trick comes in knowing when not to focus on the present.
There are many situations where the present is far less important than the past or future. The present is often the least important stretch of time in control vs control matchups, and many combo decks tend to play the majority of their games in the future as they attempt to assemble a specific combination of cards. As a general rule of thumb, the less clearly your role is defined the more heavily you should be weighing the past and future into your plans.
If you’ve ever watched a professional player stream Hearthstone on twitch.tv you may have noticed that they spend a huge amount of time talking about the future. What is my opponent going to do next turn? What do I need to draw here? Which cards can kill me? This is not necessarily because the future is the most important stretch of time, but that the future is far and away the most difficult to assess. The past and present hold a wealth information, but with few exceptions their data is fundamentally immutable. In the future nothing is a guarantee.
A newer player might be forced to use the majority of their thinking power to make sense of the X’s and O’s on the board in front them (the present). A pro player looking at the same board might have already seen one just like it a thousand times before. This allows them to swiftly recall the data they need about the present on a subconscious level, while a newer player is required to use their thinking time to generate the same data. This allows more experienced players to free up their thinking time and point their attention elsewhere, most likely towards the future.
Note: What I just described is a process called "making smaller circles" in the Art of Learning. You can read more about making smaller circles here.
Predicting Your Opponent
Everything you can do in future turns is impacted by actions your opponent may or may not make. Planning for the future is just as much about analyzing your opponent’s future as it is about analyzing your own. To be able to predict your opponent’s actions you’ll need to know which cards are likely to be in their deck, and to know which cards are likely to be in their deck you'll need to have a fairly deep understanding of the current metagame.
By the time you’ve climbed to rank 15 you’re already likely to have encountered every deck in the meta at least once. The vast majority of players on ladder simply copy their decklists off the internet (and so should you), which makes it much easier to perform the kind of future-oriented planning I will talk about in this section.
You should already have the ability to guess which deck your opponent is playing after seeing the cards they’ve played in the first few turns. Even if you aren’t able to determine the exact 30 cards they're running you should still have some kind of sense for the cards you’re likely to encounter. Shamans almost always have Flametongue Totems, Priests almost always have some combination of Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Word: Death, Rogues almost always have Backstab and Eviscerate… you get the picture. This knowledge alone should factor heavily into your plans for the future.
Let’s take look at some questions we can ask ourselves to help collect as much data as we can about the future:
Which cards are capable of killing me in the future? Am I capable of playing around them? Example: You’re playing against an Evolve Shaman. On turn five they drop a Doppelgangster and pass the turn. Are you dead to a Bloodlust? Can you stop it? Will your opponent take over the game if they have an Evolve? Can you stop it? Note: This is called “playing to your opponent’s outs”, which I will talk about in detail in the next section. Are there any cards my opponent has been unable to play so far but will be able to play soon? Example: It’s turn six, you went first, and you’re playing against Dragon Priest. How likely are they to play a Dragonfire Potion next turn? Are there any cards I want to play right now which are my only answer to a card my opponent hasn’t played yet? Example: You have a Hex in hand and are playing against a Paladin. They haven’t played Tirion Fordring yet, but you want to cast Hex on their Wickerflame Burnbristle. Can you beat Tirion Fordring without a Hex? Note: This is called “line-up theory”. I will be diving deep on this topic in part three. How do I lose this game? Example: You’re playing an aggro deck and are clearly in the lead. Are you more likely to lose if you play out your hand into a board wipe, or if you don’t play out your hand and have your minions killed by removal spells? How do I win this game? Example: You’re playing Freeze Mage and are clearly losing. Your opponent’s board is getting out of control and the only way you can win is if you peel a Blizzard off the top of your deck next turn. How does that impact the decisions you make right now? Goldfishing
How would things change if your opponent was a literal goldfish? Seeing as goldfish lack the dexterity to play Hearthstone all they could do is pass.
When playing against an opponent who takes no actions whatsoever Hearthstone morphs from a game into a puzzle. The solution to the puzzle is to kill your opponent in the fewest number of turns possible. In an exercise known to many MTG players as “goldfishing” the past and present lose all relevance. What we’re left with is an entirely future-oriented approach to planning out our turns.
When goldfishing it’s better to deal zero damage in the first four turns and kill on turn five than it is to deal twenty damage in the first four turns and kill on turn six. The same is often true when playing against a real opponent. Goldfishing can teach us that our number one priority when it comes to killing our opponent is time. Though it would be foolish to play against every opponent the same way we would play against goldfish, there are actually quite a few situations where it’s correct do so.
If the game ever lines itself up in such a way that your opponent’s cards don’t matter and the future is the only important stretch of time, then you’re goldfishing! This situation can arise when an aggro player is so far behind their opponent that they can’t afford to play around a single card. It can also occur when a combo deck plays against an opponent who is unable to pressure their life total in a meaningful way, affording them the time to goldfish until they are able to combo off or are forced to deal with their opponent’s pressure.
Making the Most of Your Mana
With all things being equal, it's generally best to play your most expensive cards first. Bigger cards tend to have more powerful effects, but the main reason we want to do this is mana efficiency. Using more mana than our opponent is one way we can build up a lead, and playing our most expensive cards first allows us to use our mana more efficiently in the future.
The Critical Card
It’s all too common for a game to be won or lost on the back of a single a card. Sometimes these cards have a devastatingly powerful effect on the game, while other times they provide a narrow answer to a specific situation. If a critical card is waiting in your hand a plan might be as simple as constructing a situation for it to take over the game.
If the plan is to win with a card like Bloodlust or Savage Roar, then the plan is to set up a single turn where you’ll have a lethal number of minions of board. Nothing else matters. If your only hope is to combo kill your opponent with Tundra Rhino and a massive Scavenging Hyena out of nowhere, then you simply can’t afford to let your cheap beasts get killed before your Hyena bursts onto the scene. Plans like these are where classic concepts such as card advantage and “who’s the beatdown?” go out the window. All that matters is you can shape the game in such a way that your critical card can do its job.
It’s easy enough to understand how to construct a plan around a critical card if it’s already in your hand, but what should you do if the card is lurking somewhere in the depths of your deck? And how about the player on the other side of the table? When can we afford to play around their critical cards?
Section 3: Playing to Outs
Some of the best players in the world have a reputation for getting lucky at critical moments in big games. If it happens once it's a coincidence, but if it keeps happening then it’s a pattern. What’s going on here? Is Pavel naturally luckier than the average human? Of course not! Pavel understands how to play to his outs, a finely honed skill which creates the illusion of luck.
I often think back to a quote I heard on Limited Resources, a Magic: The Gathering podcast co-hosted by Luis Scott-Vargas (one of the greatest MTG players of all time), which helped me grasp the importance of playing to outs. Here’s what Luis had to say about why one of the best MTG players in the world was so special:
It’s time to get good.
Playing to Your Outs
When the chances of victory start to dip into the single digits many players have a tendency to concede the game before they're actually dead. They think they’re saving themselves time by getting a head start on the next game. This is a tremendous fallacy.
Every loss you suffer on ladder requires at least one more victory to get you back to where you started. By conceding away all the games where you’re only 9% to win you cost yourself 9 wins out of every 100 games. What do you think will take longer, playing those 100 games to their conclusion or playing the extra games it would take to net yourself 9 more wins than losses? Unless you’re a god at Hearthstone it’s probably the first. With a 60% win percentage you should expect to play 45 games to net plus 9 wins. 45! Think about that for a second. Unless you’re 100% to lose, you’re almost certainly saving yourself time by playing each game out to the best of your ability.
I will only ever concede a game of Hearthstone under two conditions:
My opponent has lethal on board and I can’t stop it. I would still lose the game if I could choose the exact card I drew every turn for the rest of the game. If there’s a chance you can win if your deck is stacked then there’s still a chance you can win. So what's the plan when you your only hope is to topdeck Arcanite Reaper into Leeroy Jenkins? That’s the easy part! Just make all of your decisions as though the top two cards of your deck are guaranteed to be Arcanite Reaper into Leeroy Jenkins. You’ll still need some luck to pull out the victory, but wasn’t that already the case? You already know your favorite deck well enough to realize which cards need to be on top of your deck in order for you to mount a comeback. The only thing that’s left to do is play as though they are there.
An unlikely plan is much better than no plan at all. Playing to your outs is how you can make the most out of your unlikely plans.
Playing to Your Opponent’s Outs
Inexperienced players tend to relax their focus once they determine their odds of winning are sufficiently high. This is an even bigger logical fallacy than conceding when you still have a chance of winning, because playing from ahead is even more difficult than playing from behind.
When playing to your outs you have the privilege of knowing exactly which cards in your deck are capable of getting you back in the game. Your opponent’s outs can be in their deck or their hand. You also have to consider if you can afford to play around cards which may or may not even be in their deck at all. I’d go as far as saying that there is no worse time to relax your focus than when playing while ahead.
In the word’s of the great Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski: "When you’re ahead, get more ahead."
Artosis said these famous words about Starcraft II, a game where the best way to get “more ahead” is to eliminate every one of your opponent’s potential avenues to victory. Hearthstone is no different. The way to turn your 85 percenters into 90 percenters is to ask yourself “how do I lose this game?” and work backwards from there.
Generally speaking, the more you’re winning by the more aggressively you can afford to play around your opponents outs. You don’t get bonus points for winning by a larger margin, so the best way to increase your win percentage when you have the lead is to dot all your I’s, cross all your T’s, and make all of the small sacrifices you can afford to ensure your opponent’s outs won’t let them back in the game.
Outs in Close Games
In a tight game it will never be possible to play around every combination of cards your opponent could have. If that were possible then by definition it wouldn’t be a close game. It's generally wise to ask yourself “how do I lose this game?”, but you can’t afford to lose sight of how you'll actually win.
In tight games you’ll often have to decide which of your opponent’s outs you are most comfortable losing to. Remember the example from earlier when I had to choose between playing Living Mana or Druid of the Claw on turn five? My decision ultimately boiled down to which combination of cards I was more comfortable losing to. Do I want to lose to Innervate into Primordial Drake, or do I want to lose to two removal spells? The only way I can ask myself this all-important question is to understand my opponent’s outs. The only way I can answer this question is to have a plan.
Whether we're behind, ahead, or at parity, smart decisions are come from asking ourselves the right questions. By looking to the past, present, and future of ourselves and our opponent, we gain access to all the data we need to ask ourselves those questions.
Part three of “Legend in the Making” will be about the specifics. The first two parts of this series have discussed broad and general topics but have largely ignored the interplay between specific classes, cards, and deck archetypes. Now that we’ve looked at the bigger picture it’s time to dive into the little details.
Good luck on the ladder!
Not sure if it would be okay to start a thread like this on here...if not, feel free to remove it.
But i was hoping we could start a thread similar to other forums so that people can get in touch with others who have the 80g challenge a friend quest so that we can get double the reward from it.
Please post your name and battle tag number, along with region.
Battle tag: Dustintime #11885
You go first, please.