Aleco

Legend in the Making - An Advanced Guide to Competitive Hearthstone: Part 3

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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.

Slow Down!

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:

  1. Decide what the plan is.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. If there is another plan, compare and contrast the advantages of both plans to decide which one is better.
  5. 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:

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.

Mana Cost

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.

The Matchup

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% or .5 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% or .5 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.

50% Theory

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.

Curving Out

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.

The Checklist

To recap, here are a list of questions you should ask yourself about each hand while mulliganing:

  1. Based on my opponent’s class and the local metagame, which decks could my opponent be playing?
  2. Is this a line up theory matchup? Are there any narrow answers or threats in my hand?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. Does this hand curve out? Does it have a game plan?
  6. Do I have any expensive cards which I should mulligan away for something less expensive?
  7. 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".

Conclusion

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.

- Aleco

Part 1 - Ranks 25 to 15 - Knowing your Role and Embracing Mistakes

Part 2 - Ranks 15 to 10 - Having a Plan and Playing to Outs

Part 4 - Ranks 5 to Legend - Tools for the Climb and the Art of the Read

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Good post.

I also try to start thinking about line up theory when im halfway through arena, when I get to five plus wins, what major threats am i going to face from the three most picked classes?

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(I didn't comment on all of your posts.)

Generally speaking: Your guides and tips are great, thx a lot for your effort!

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The 50% theory is something I didn't do and will do from now on. Thank you! Overall your guides are good reads and I am eager to read how to advance from Rank 5 to Legend. :)

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I want to say thank you, your first two guides have lead me to my first rank 5 ever, so I will continue to follow you until legend!

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On 8/16/2017 at 7:14 PM, Synesthesy said:

I want to say thank you, your first two guides have lead me to my first rank 5 ever, so I will continue to follow you until legend!

Grats on the climb and good luck with going further!

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Could you explain the math you did for the matchup section (skulking geist)? Not sure why you divided 50/10 and 50/9. 

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On 9/21/2017 at 8:27 AM, persa said:

Could you explain the math you did for the matchup section (skulking geist)? Not sure why you divided 50/10 and 50/9. 

Tagging @Aleco

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On 9/21/2017 at 2:27 PM, persa said:

Could you explain the math you did for the matchup section (skulking geist)? Not sure why you divided 50/10 and 50/9. 

For sure! So what we want to do is calculate the decrease in win percentage from keeping a hate card such as Skulking Geist against the wrong deck. For the sake of this argument let's assume 3 things:

1. Keeping Skulking Geist against non-Jade Druid gives us a 0% win percentage.

2. Our win percentage is 50% if we keep Skulking Geist against Jade Druid.

3. 9/10 Druids we see are Jade Druid.

This means that in 1/10 games we win 0% of the time and in 9/10 we win 50% of the time. Over 10 games this would give us a 45% win percentage. Pardon my haphazard formatting, but the math there is ( (.5 * 9) + (0% * 1) ) / 10. What I said in the article was that we're giving up 5% win percentage here over the course of ten games, which is equal to .5 (50%) divided by ten. I wasn't super clear with my wording here so I will go back and clear that up.

In this scenario all we need to do is increase our overall win percentage in the 9 games against Jade Druid by an amount which is greater than the 5% we lose across the 10 game. This number is .5 (50%) / 9, or 5.56%. Hope that clears things up!

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      In my previous sunset article (written for LiquidHearth) I wrote that I would “[make] fun of my own terrible predictions in the next sunset article”. I made good on my promise to make a video set review for KFT, so how did I end up doing?
       
      The Rating System
       
      I decided to try something different with my first set review by using a different rating system than the rest of the Hearthstone community. Instead of assigning each card a one to five star rating based on its anticipated impact on the upcoming metagame, I rated cards on two different categories: power and versatility. The power rating was intended to reflect how big of an impact the card had on the game when played in a vacuum, while the versatility rating was meant to reflect how many decks the card was capable of slotting into.
      Looking back on the set review, I was very pleased with the way that the review system panned out in practice. The dual rating categories did a pretty good job of identifying cards which were powerful in a vacuum but were unlikely to find a proper home once the meta matured, but they weren’t so vague as to unspecific. In my opinion, predicting an entire metagame is simply too difficult of a task to be a practically useful metric for pre-set rating systems, and I believe that the Power/Versatility ratings did a good job of communicating which cards I believed to be worthy of building decks around, experimenting with, and crafting on day one. I look forward to using this rating system again in my set review for Kobolds and Catacombs.
       
      Strikeouts
       

       
      Updated Rating:
      Power: 5 Versatility: 4 One of the most meta-defining cards in the entire set, Prince Keleseth is a card that I’m certainly not alone in reviewing poorly. The Hearthstone community at large was hating on all the three of the princes before the set was released, and there were very few set reviewers who had positive things to say about the unique deckbuilding restrictions imposed by the Princes battlecry trigger. Looking back, the key thing I underestimated about Prince Keleseth was the massive increase in win percentage that occurs whenever this card is played on turn two. The upsides of Keleseth vastly outweigh the downsides when amortized over a large enough sample of games.
       

       
      Updated Rating:
      Power: 5 Versatility: 3 My entire approach to evaluating this card was totally off. I viewed the Battlecry as a largely symmetrical effect that had a smaller effect on the board than that of the other Death Knights, while in reality this couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s quite easy to gain tremendous value off of Shadowreaper Anduin's Battlecry trigger with smart play and creative deckbuilding. Though I was well aware of the combo with Raza the Chained, I assumed that a Highlander deck needed to be built as more of a Control deck than a Combo deck and greatly underestimated just how powerful the upgraded Hero Power would be.
       

       
      Updated Rating:
      Power: 5 Versatility: 5 Arguably the most powerful Death Knight of the entire set, the key to my underestimation of Bloodreaver Gul'dan was the true power of Voidwalker. I took a hard look at all the Demons that would be in standard and determined that a lack of Taunt minions would be this card’s downfall, yet the pesky 1/3 Taunt proved to be more than enough to stabilize a board for a long enough time to take over the game with Bloodreaver Gul'dan's upgraded Hero Power. Surprisingly, this card sees play in every single Warlock deck in the meta, including Zoo Warlock. How many of you at home would have given this card 5 Stars in Versatility before the set was released?
       

       
      Updated Rating:
      Power: 2 Versatility: 1 I thought the Enrage deck was going places, but there’s no denying that this archetype ended up being a total dud. In practice, the Enrage deck has far too many moving pieces to consistently assemble a powerful board state and does a terrible job at recovering when behind. I also gave Animated Berserker a Power rating of 3, yet somehow gave Blood Razor a rating of 2 for both Power and Versatility. Oops.
       


      Updated Rating:
      Power: 2 Versatility: 2 I can count the number of times an opponent has played Howling Commander against me on the ladder on one hand. Despite the fact that this draws some of the most powerful Paladin cards, it turns out that the tempo hit suffered from playing this underwhelming body on turn 3 is just a little too much to overcome. It also didn’t help that the Divine Shield deck implied by Bolvar, Fireblood (another card I totally whiffed on) never came to fruition.
       


      Updated Rating:
      Power: 1 Versatility: 2 I should have listened! The vast majority of the Hearthstone community was down on Ice Walker, but I wanted to take a contrarian opinion on what I perceived to be a highly versatile card. In my actual testing of the card I found that the body was far too small to actually accrue value in a Control deck, while Tempo decks never had enough leftover mana to get use the Hero Power on their opponent’s biggest threat turn after turn.
       
      Home Runs
       

       
      Updated Rating: Unchanged
      Most set reviewers pegged Uther of the Ebon Blade as the top Death Knight in the set, but the highest ranked Death Knight in my own set review was Malfurion. I had a hard time seeing when this card wasn’t phenomenal - it’s great when you’re behind, great when you’re ahead, and fits in every deck that’s interested in taking the game past turn 7. While I’m tooting my own horn, I also pegged Druid as the “most improved” class coming out of Journey to Un’Goro, noting that Malfurion the Pestilent and Ultimate Infestation were two of the top four cards in the entire set.
       



       
      Updated Ratings: Unchanged
      There was a surprising amount of hype surrounding Rogue’s new weapon cards before KFT was released. What I saw was a group of underwhelming cards with way too much setup cost for their actual effect on the game. Runeforge Haunter may end up having its day in the sun if Rogue gets a few new powerful weapons, but as things stand today these two cards are nowhere close to competitively viable.
       


      Updated Rating:
      Power: 2 Versatility: 2 Forge of Souls picked up some of the highest ratings in all of KFT from other high-profile set reviews, but I just didn’t see it. I realize that the Fiery War Axe nerf ended up severely hurting this card’s stock in the long run, but that doesn’t change the fact that the deck-building restrictions for this card are quite prohibitive and that drawing multiple copies of this card is absolutely dreadful - the secret tech is to play just one copy in your decks that are naturally interested in running 4 or more weapons.
       


      Updated Rating: Unchanged
      Another one of the most hyped-up cards in KFT, Drakkari Enchanter requires far too much set-up cost to ever be effective. I’d sooner expect Howling Commander to make a splash in the metagame than this total dud of a card.
       


      Updated Rating:
      Power: 5 Versatility: 5 I’m counting this one as a home run. One of the most powerful cards in the entire set, my 4 and 4 rating of Bonemare was somehow way higher than that of the average reviewer. To quote Reynad in his set review, it’s “not really a constructed card, not really worth talking about when it comes to Standard.”
       
      KFT’s Launch and the Early Metagame
       
      The first few weeks of the KFT metagame were a glorious, glorious time of greed and experimentation. Especially at the higher ranks, the meta was almost entirely made up of extremely slow control decks that lent themselves to long, fun, and brainy games of Hearthstone. A popular post on reddit noted that Hearthstone games had become so long that it was no longer possible to play the while pooping - a small price to pay for the magnificent reward of a true control meta. To illustrate just how greedy and beautiful the early KFT meta was, I once watched on Twitch.tv as Team Liquid’s Dog put N'Zoth, the Corruptor into his Control Mage deck while the only Deathrattle minions in his entire deck were Sindragosa's Frozen Champions.

      The good times couldn’t last forever though. As the meta began to settle down it became quickly apparent that Druid was in a tier of its own. Spreading Plague gave Jade Druid the tool it badly needed to survive the early game, while Ultimate Infestation enabled the deck to overwhelm Midrange and Control decks in the late game. Jade Druid was made even more powerful by the fact that Aggro Druid and Kolento’s Midrange Taunt deck were also tier 1 options, making it nearly incredibly difficult to mulligan against Druid. Should you mulligan for your early game cards to counter Aggro, or mull for your heavy hitters to outpace Jade and Midrange? The mulligan phase became a dangerous guessing game that benefited all three popular Druid builds equally, and the versatility of the class made it nearly impossible to construct a single deck which had game against all three Druid variants. Murloc Paladin managed to post some solid winrates against Druid on the whole, but the other classes just couldn’t manage to keep up with both ends of Druid’s Aggro/Control spectrum.
      As Druids continued to dominate, Highlander Priest began to emerge as the clearcut “second best deck” in the meta. Quest Mage had a few weeks where it was able to prey on unrefined Jade Druid and Highlander Priest lists, but an uptick in Aggro Druid and Pirate Warrior brought a swift end to the brief dominance of Archmage Antonidas. With no apparent answer to Druid in sight, the meta quickly devolved into a toxic environment of never-ending, unrelenting, overpowered Druid decks. The higher you climbed the ladder the larger the Druid menace grew... I distinctly recall a ladder session where I encountered nine consecutive Jade Druids at ranks 1 and 2.
      The golden age of the early KFT control meta was long dead. The age of Druidstone was upon us.
       
      Patch 9.1: The End of a Plague
       
      On the fateful morning of September 5th, a beacon of brilliant light beamed through the dark, Druidic clouds that had enveloped the sun for weeks on end. Blizzard announced they would be nerfing five cards, among them Innervate and Spreading Plague, in an effort to curb the historically high winrates for Druid and shake up the rapidly deteriorating meta.
      The Hearthstone community was completely split on the nerfs. The majority of players were happy to see Innervate struck by the nerf hammer, but many were claiming that the nerfs to Druid didn’t go quite far enough. Ultimate Infestation, the card that most believed to be the true source of Druid’s power, was left untouched in Patch 9.1. Blizzard was well aware of the huge target on Ultimate Infestation's back, but had some solid reasoning for not changing the card:
      The majority of the community had little to say about the nerfs to Murloc Warleader and Hex, but many were furious about the change to Fiery War Axe. It appeared as though several healthy and compelling warrior decks (such as Fatigue Warrior and N’Zoth Warrior) were paying dearly for the sins of Pirate Warrior. These healthy Warrior decks ultimately suffered a near-fatal blow, but is that such a bad price to pay for a ladder without Pirate Warriors? It’s regrettable that so many fair Warrior decks fell by the wayside due to the nerf to “Free Win Axe”, but I’m optimistic that Blizzard is well aware of Warrior’s downfall and will address the class in a future set. For the time being, try your hardest to enjoy a metagame largely free of N'Zoth's First Mate and Brawl.
       
      The Post-Nerf Metagame
       
      Most would have expected the de-facto “second best deck in the game”, Highlander Priest, to completely dominate the ladder in a post-Jade world free from Pirate Warriors. The metagame had something else to say about that.
      A handful of previously overlooked decks quickly emerged as top contenders, including Tempo Rogue, Midrange Hunter, and Zoo Warlock. Safe from the toxic Innervate turns of Aggro and Jade Druid decks of old, these new-look contenders were able to keep both Highlander Priest and post-nerf Jade Druid decks in check. The weeks following Patch 9.1 were a time of experimentation, evolution, and adaptation which ultimately led to a healthy and stable metagame. It’s hard to argue that the nerfs were anything but totally effective at restoring balance to the competitive ladder.
      With the play rates for dedicated aggro decks (namely Aggro Druid and Pirate Warrior) as low as they’ve been in years, the door opened up for slower and bigger decks to prey on the Midrange kings which had begun to dominate ladder. The top choices in today’s ladder environment (after Highlander Priest and Tempo Rogue) appear to be Big Druid, Big Priest, and Freeze/Burn Mage. Though none of these decks appear to have unhealthy effects on the meta at present, the new Recruit mechanic is looming on the horizon. Will Kobolds and Catacombs see the Old Gods reign supreme in their last hurrah before rotation?
       
      Lessons from KFT: Class Legendaries Disappoint
       
      KFT brought us some of the strongest Legendary cards in recent memory: Prince Keleseth, Shadowreaper Anduin, Malfurion the Pestilent, Bloodreaver Gul'dan, and The Lich Kingto name a few. Despite this high volume of heavy-hitting Legendaries in KFT, the non-Death Knight class Legendaries unanimously and unquestionably failed to deliver. Have a look for yourself:
      Druid: Hadronox Saw fringe play in dedicated Taunt decks in the first weeks after launch. Was never featured in a popular competitive deck. Hunter: Professor Putricide Saw fringe play in dedicated Secret decks in the first weeks after launch. Was never featured in a popular competitive deck. Mage: Sindragosa Saw fringe play in some Control decks in the first few weeks after launch. Was never featured in a popular competitive deck. Paladin: Bolvar, Fireblood Saw fringe play in dedicated Divine Shield decks in the first few weeks after launch. Was never featured in a popular competitive deck. Priest: Archbishop Benedictus Featured in Hemet Highlander Priest decks for a couple of weeks. Briefly saw play at a few tournaments before completely disappearing from the metagame. Rogue: Lilian Voss Never saw play, even in the earliest days of the KFT meta. Shaman: Moorabi Never saw play, even in the earliest days of the KFT meta. Warlock: Blood-Queen Lana'thel Never saw play, even in the earliest days of the KFT meta. Warrior: Rotface Intermittently saw fringe play in Warrior decks as a finisher alongside Scourgelord Garrosh. The card eventually fell out of favor and hasn’t seen play since the first month of the set. Who would have guess before the set came out that the most competitively viable class Legendary would be Archbishop Benedictus, the walking meme? Despite a decent amount of hype surrounding Sindragosa, Bolvar, Fireblood, and Blood-Queen Lana'thel before KFT’s release, all nine of the non-DK class Legendaries can now be best described as “400 dust waiting to happen”.
      In defense of Blizzard, I completely understand the need for cards like Moorabi and Rotface. Not every Legendary should be a slam dunk, and the unique effects which are printed on these cards make the most sense on a Legendary minion. With that said, these kinds of effects rarely (if ever) find their way into competitive decks, and I struggle to see the logic behind wasting so many precious Legendary slots on such narrow design spaces.
      With the rising number of complaints surrounding the cost of the Hearthstone, I can empathize with the disappointment that many players experience when their pity timer is reset by one of these underwhelming Legendaries. The somewhat recent change to prevent duplicate Legendaries from being opened does little to prevent these cards from being opened again and again, as these cards have a tendency to be dusted almost immediately after being opened. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve opened Moorabi three times since the release of KFT. Opening a Legendary after weeks of pack opening and finger-crossing is supposed to be a moment of great excitement, yet I found the experience of cracking a third Moorabi in three months to be nothing short of tremendously frustrating.
      Adding on to the disappointment of the class Legendaries in KFT was an atypically high number of underwhelming Epics. By my count, only 6 of the 27 Epics in KFT saw any kind of consistent play: Ultimate Infestation, Obsidian Statue, Simulacrum, Dead Man's Hand, Corpsetaker, and Skulking Geist. I was overjoyed to see the number of powerful and highly-playable Commons and Rares in the set, and realize that if cards like Bonemare and Saronite Chain Gang were moved to Epic the cost of the game would be moving in the wrong direction. With that said, I would have liked to see more Epics like Obsidian Statue with safe, boring, and playable text boxes.
      Going forward, I’d like to see Blizzard shift the balance of Legendary minions more towards “playable” than “unique and interesting”. Cards like Archbishop Benedictus certainly have their place in Hearthstone, but whenever nine out of nine class Legendaries fail to find play for the duration of a set it’s time to change the formula.
       
      Aleco’s Knight of the Frozen Throne Awards
       
      Best Design: Deathstalker Rexxar

       
      Do you want to build a Zombeast?
      One of the first cards I crafted in KFT, It’s hard not to fall in love with the design of Deathstalker Rexxar. Despite being a sub-optimal option in many Hunter lists, I couldn’t help bet include this card in nearly every Hunter deck I built. Whoever designed this card deserves a raise!
       
      Worst Design: Prince Keleseth

       
      My problem with Prince Keleseth is not that he’s too powerful, though you could certainly make the case that he is. I have the same complaints about “Prince Two” as I do with Patches the Pirate - he leads to frustrating gameplay experiences for both players. The majority of games with Keleseth in it lead to one of two negative player experiences: 
      “I didn’t have Keleseth on two this game, how unlucky!” “My opponent had Keleseth on two this game, how unlucky!” A delicate balance needs to be struck when designing cards that impose deckbuilding restrictions. Though this is certainly a compelling design space which has led to a handful of healthy cards (such as Prince Valanar and Krul the Unshackled) this design space has also led to its fair share of meta-defining and incredibly frustrating cards to play against (such as Prince Keleseth and Reno Jackson). Future cards with deckbuilding restrictions stapled to them deserve to be more carefully tested.
       
      Most Improved: Raza the Chained

       
      Highlander Priest was pronounced dead after the departure of Reno Jackson from Standard, but the printing of Shadowreaper Anduin saw Raza’s fate quickly turn back around. Expect to see plenty of Raza for the remainder of the Year of the Mammoth.
       
      Most Potential: Shadow Ascendant

       
      Shadow Ascendant is clearly quite powerful, and has recently begun to see an uptick in play during the final weeks of KFT. Aggro Priest decks are starting show some potential, and could easily be on the verge of competitive if Kobolds and Catacombs gives the deck a few more goodies to work with.
       
      Best Art: Bearshark

       
      With my sincerest condolences to Snowflipper Penguin, I simply couldn’t bear to choose anything else. Half bear, half shark, 100% awesome.
       
      Worst Art: Dark Conviction

       
      Upon closer inspection I can see what the artist was going for in the picture, but something about the way this piece was comes together makes it look like a jumbled mess of knees and elbows. I also have a hard time connecting the art of the card to its name and effect.
       
      Best Arena Card: Bonemare

       
      Both Ultimate Infestation and The Lich King are certainly more powerful in a vacuum, but Bonemare's status as both a Common and a Neutral made it an ever-present threat that demanded constant consideration in the Arena. Now synonymous with turn 7, Bonemare has arguably had an even bigger impact on Standard than Arena.
       
      Deck of the Format: Tempo Rogue
       
      Though it’s undeniable that Jade Druid was the most powerful deck in KFT before the nerfs to Innervate and Spreading Plague, patch 9.1 just one month into the set. Tempo Rogue is the deck that wore the crown of “best deck in KFT Standard” for the longest time, boasting incredibly strong winrates for multiple, uninterrupted months. Just one set removed from ruling Journey to Un’Goro Standard with The Caverns Below, Rogue has proved itself to be the class most capable breaking powerful neutral cards. As the best Prince Keleseth deck in the game, Tempo Rogue is poised to remain a powerful option for many months to come.
       
      Card of the Set: Ultimate Infestation

       
      KFT is bursting at the seems with powerful cards, but in a set of stand-outs only one card can claim the title of “most powerful Hearthstone card of all time”. Ultimate Infestation was the coup de grâce in pre-nerf Jade Druid, one of the most devastating standard decks in history, and has been the source of more ire than any card in recent memory (including Prince Keleseth). Though it may not be the KFT card with the highest overall winrate, I have little doubt that Ultimate Infestation was the card from KFT responsible for the most tears, sweaty palms, and cell phones thrown across the room.
       
      Wrapping Up KFT
       
      Knights of the Frozen Throne was a set of highs and lows, of flaws and success. The early toxicity of Jade and Aggro Druid proved to be the catalyst for positive changes in Patch 9.1, paving the way for a stable and healthy metagame to exist for the majority of the set. The nine class Legendary minions will go down as unmitigated disasters, but the nine Death Knights were a resounding success.
      With spoiler season for Kobolds and Catacombs off to a shaky start, debates raging over Hearthstone’s pricing model, and complaints are mounting over the game’s increasing propensity for random effects, nothing would silence the critics more than a strong launch for K&C. One of the biggest reasons for optimism in K&C is the surprisingly dynamic nature of the aging KFT metagame, a sign that its cards still have plenty of gas left in the tank. I have a good feeling that KFT will be looked back on with much fonder eyes than it was ever seen with during its reign as Hearthstone’s newest set.
       
      - Aleco
    • By Zadina

      Mage gets another useful Secret in Kobolds & Catacombs.
      ShtanUdachi revealed this spell card on his YouTube channel. It's a 3 mana rare Secret that reads: "After your opponent plays a minion, deal 6 damage to it. Deal all remaining damage to your opponent". The card's name hasn't been officially confirmed, but it should be Explosive (or Fire) Rune(s).
      The video is in Russian, with English subtitles available.
      This is a great card and fits perfectly into Secret Mage or any aggressive Mage deck. Essentially, it's a cheaper Fireball, that can potentially splits its damage to the enemy hero too! The only question that is raised is how this secret is going to work with minions with Divine Shield. Lastly, Explosive Rune(s) can benefit from Spell Power.
      Let us know what you think about the newest addition to Mage's arsenal of powerful spells. Final versions of all cards will be posted in our Kobolds & Catacombs hub.