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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 to take down his 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.