Aleco

Legend in the Making - An Advanced Guide to Competitive Hearthstone: Part 4

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The decisions we make outside of games are often just as impactful as the ones me make inside them. In the final installment of "Legend in the Making", we cover the meta-skills you'll need to conquer the most difficult stretch of the ladder.

Legend in the Making: Part 4

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

I’d like to start off the fourth and final installment of “Legend in the Making” by letting you know that I most certainly have not saved the best for last. In fact, I’ve done quite the opposite. The concepts I’ll discuss in part four aren’t necessary for reaching Legend at all, I know this to be true from of all the comments and messages I've received from readers who were able to reach Legend for the first time after reading just the first three parts of this series. Part four doesn’t set out to reinvent anyone’s approach to the game of Hearthstone, if you’re capable of reaching rank five then I believe you already have the knowledge you need to reach Legend.

The first section of this article aims to help players who are struggling with the final push to Legend get the most out of their laddering sessions. Sometimes the biggest challenge isn’t knowing the right thing to do, but having the ability to keep your composure and put together the things you already know while maintaining a winning mindset.

We’ll wrap up this series by covering “reads”, or the art of analyzing the human element of Hearthstone. Once we have a thorough grasp on the fundamentals we can look beyond the X’s and O’s and begin analyze the subtle things our opponent’s do which reveal their true intentions.

Let's get started.

Section 1 - Tools for Optimizing Your Climb

It’s obvious that the decisions we make throughout the course each game are important, but have you ever thought about the impact of the decisions you make outside of them? In-game decisions affect the outcome of the game they’re made in, while the decisions we make outside of games have the ability to affect the outcome of an entire ladder session. Let’s take a look at the things we can do between games to avoid losing streaks and to prepare ourselves for tough decisions.

Avoiding Tilt

Quote

Tilt

A term usually applied to video games, tilt is an emotional state which can occur after a repeated process produces repeated negative results. Tilt is an emotional breakdown caused by hard work not resulting in success which is deeply craved. When you or someone you know is tilted, the best thing to do is take a break from that activity.

- Edited from Urban Dictionary

I’ll be honest you, I struggle with tilt.

I nearly always get a bit angry after losing a game which was completely out of my control. I can happily accept a loss which came as the result of a mistake I made, but I absolutely hate it when I lose a match where there was nothing I could do and there were no lessons to learned. Card games can be uniquely frustrating as they are one of the few competitive outlets where it is possible to do everything right and still lose.

The worst thing about tilt is that it is self-perpetuating. Tilting causes mistakes, mistakes cause losses, and losses cause more tilt. Playing on tilt can dramatically drop your win percentage and lead to a string of losses which put you even further away from your goal of reaching Legend. It could very well be that your win percentage while you maintain composure is more than enough to carry you to Legend, but that the losses you accumulate while on tilt are dragging your overall win percentage down low enough to keep you from the promised land.

So what can you do to prevent tilt? The solution is incredibly simple, and I’m almost embarrassed that it took me so long to do it myself:

Stop playing!

That’s really all there is to it. Whenever you find yourself on tilt, the best thing you can do is take a break, even if it’s just for a short time. What works best for me is to fully close the program and take a break until I’ve fully calmed down. If that’s simply not an option, the absolute minimum you should do is stand up to stretch your legs, get some water or going to the bathroom, take a few deep breaths, and consider changing decks before jumping back on the ladder. Slamming the “play” button as fast as you possibly can is a recipe for disaster.

For some, the trickiest part will be convincing yourself that it’s the right idea to stop playing. How could not playing Hearthstone be the best way to rank up? If you ever feel this way while on tilt, try to remind yourself that every loss puts you one step further away from your goal, and that stopping yourself before an impending stretch of losses is functionally identical to going on a win streak.

For others (and I include myself in this category), the tricky part isn’t stopping but recognizing when tilt is starting to become a problem. How can you know when to stop if you don’t even recognize that you’re angry? Self-awareness is the best tool you can have for avoiding to tilt, but it's also one of the most difficult meta-skills to cultivate in life, let alone in Hearthstone.

The trick I’ve taught myself for catching tilt before it becomes a problem is “three loss” rule. Every time I lose three consecutive games I ask myself if I am starting to go on tilt before hitting the play button again. I found it to be a bit excessive and self-patronizing to check myself after every single loss, and that I was almost always starting to go on tilt after losing three consecutive games. If you find a better trigger for yourself to check if you're going on tilt then I encourage you to use it, the three loss rule is just something which worked for me.

I’m far from an expert at dealing with tilt, so I would highly recommend that you seek alternative resources for dealing with tilt if it’s a problem you deeply struggle with. Tilt isn’t unique to Hearthstone, it’s a problem which is shared by nearly all competitive online games. There are thousands of articles and videos on the internet which are written by people far more qualified than myself to give advice on the topic, so if you need help (and you know who you are!) I encourage you to go out and find these resources before proceeding any further in your quest for Legend. Your biggest obstacle for reaching Legend may not be your ability, but your mindset.

Local Metagames

One of the very first things I discussed in part one of this series was the importance of deck selection, where I encouraged readers to ditch their homebrews and play popular decks for a variety of reasons. One of biggest reasons to play a popular deck is the vast amount of data which you’ll gain access to about your matchups. Thousands of matches between top tier decks are logged by deck trackers and uploaded to various Hearthstone sites for statistical analysis on a daily basis, providing us with a powerful tool we can use to avoid unfavored matchups. Now that we’ve reached the stretch of our climb to Legend where the tiniest margins make the biggest differences, we should be very interested in any tool which could potentially increase our win percentage by multiple points over the span of multiple matches.

One peculiar phenomena of the Hearthstone ladder is the “local metagame”. If we use the term “metagame” to refer to all of the decks which are popular at a given time, the term “local metagame” refers to a group of decks which are likely to be encountered at a specific rank. Especially between ranks 5 and Legend, I’ve found that it is quite common to play a stretch of games against the same two or three decks for the span of an entire rank. I won’t pretend to understand why this phenomenon occurs, but I’ve encountered it more than enough to be confident that it exists.

Let’s take a look at a recent screenshot from my deck tracker:

screen1.jpg

This nice run of wins began in the middle of rank 3, where almost every deck I encountered on ladder was either Jade Druid or Kazakus Priest. Playing as Pirate Warrior, a deck which is favored against both, I was able to go 7-1 and climb all the way up to the the top of rank two! Not bad, eh?

Let’s see what happens next:

screen2.jpg

Same deck, new local meta, and I’m right back where I started. Four of the five Druid games you see above were against Aggro Druid, a deck which is massively favored against Pirate Warrior but was nowhere to be found in rank 3. After losing to two Aggro Druids in three games, what I should have done was switch to a deck which wasn’t so unfavored against it. Switching decks at this point could have prevented two future losses, which is absolutely massive!

The best tool I’ve found for battling local metagames is the Data Reaper Live Report. To use the report, scroll down to the bottom of the screen and select “Top Archetype Matchups”. This will reveal a chart with matchup winrates for all of the most popular decks in the format, which should allow you to select the best deck from your collection for conquering whichever local metagame you are up against. I understand that most of you won’t have the cards you need to play every deck on that list (I certainly don’t), but you probably have the cards to play at least two or three of them. Even if you don’t have access to the best deck for your local meta, you can still use the report to select the best from the ones you have access to.

Are you facing 90% Jade Druids? Play one of the three aggressive decks which have favorable matchups against it. Are you seeing only Murloc Paladin and Aggro Druids? Token Shaman would be a solid choice for this local meta.

The same tool I use for preventing tilt, the “three loss” rule, is the very same tool I use for detecting local metas. Any time I lose three games in a row I check to see if my deck choice may be a part of that reason (in addition to checking if I’m starting to tilt). If I ever find that I lost the same unfavorable matchup more than once during a stretch of three games I’ll probably change decks to something more favored against the local meta.

I’m sure there are some experts out there who will vehemently disagree with my suggestion to regularly switch decks. The counterargument for why you should stick with one deck through thick and thin is that by frequently changing decks you will never master a deck well to the point where you can play it at a high level. This is a fair point, but I wholeheartedly disagree with it.

From a competitive perspective, I believe that you stand to improve more as a player by playing multiple decks. Having a thorough understanding of a deck certainly provides you with an advantage when you play with or against it, but this advantage is predicated entirely on the effectiveness of that specific deck being effective in the meta. If you only ever play Pirate Warrior, will your advanced deck knowledge be able to make up for the massive disadvantage you’ll have in each game against a local meta of Aggro Druids and Golakka Crawlers? I find it highly unlikely that you’ll be able to string together wins from your advanced deck knowledge alone if the metagame becomes toxic towards the deck you've planted your flag in.

The other reason I advocate for switching decks is that it’s more fun! After an hour or so with the same deck I frequently find myself wanting to play something else, local meta be damned. I enjoy winning as much as the next guy, but even I will get bored of winning if it means that I have to play the same matchup over and over. I enjoy Hearthstone the most when I’m able to play a wide variety of decks and strategies, something I’ll never be able to do if I only play one deck on my climb to Legend.

The Winning Formula

The number of variables which can factor into a single decision in Hearthstone is staggering. Even if you only take into account the tools I’ve discussed in series, you’ll still need to evaluate up to five highly nuanced and loosely related concepts to reach a single conclusion:

  1. “Who’s the beatdown?” and knowing your role.
  2. Data from the past, present, and future of the current game.
  3. Having a plan.
  4. Playing to outs.
  5. Line-up theory.

Collectively mastering each of these concepts should be more than enough to carry you to Legend, but it’s no easy feat to keep track of them in the middle of a game. Even if you understand each concept individually, finding the thinking time to thoroughly evaluate and weigh them against each other before each decision is no easy feat.

I discussed the topic of “making smaller circles” from The Art of Learning in part three, which is the process of internalizing complex topics on an instinctual level. Through this process it is possible to greatly reduce the amount of mental throughput it takes to evaluate each of the concepts I’ve discussed, but even this doesn’t account for the varying importance of each concept in different matchups.

Knowing your role might be the most important concept by far in one matchup but the least important another. Certain decisions might require you to weigh all five against each other at once, while other matchups might demand to be approached from another angle entirely. Attempting to factor each concept into our decision making process at all times is a fool’s errand, as it is neither the most effective use our limited thinking time nor the most efficient way to arrive at smart conclusions.

Instead of trying to balance the importance of everything we’ve learned at all times, we can frontload this entire process into something I like to call “the winning formula”. Within the context of a specific matchup but outside the context of a specific game, we have all the time in the world to weigh the factors and data against each other to determine what the keys to victory are. Let’s explore an example from my own past where I was able to overcome my instincts to determine the winning formula for a specific matchup.

When I first played Midrange Murloc Paladin my approach to the deck was the same as most other midrange decks. Against Control decks I played aggressively and flooded the board with early murlocs, and against Aggro decks I attempted to control the board early so I could stall out the game until my heavy hitters could take over. Unfortunately, the mirror matchup completely baffled me.

“Knowing your role” told me that Midrange mirrors tended to be won by outvaluing the opponent and trading two-for-one as often as possible, so I originally approached the matchup by keeping cards like Finja, the Flying Star and Stonehill Defender in my mulligans. These cards have “value” written all over them, and they fit perfectly into my initial plan of accruing card advantage over the course of a long game.

This sounded like a nice idea in theory, but in practice it got completely destroyed. It took me four or five losses in the mirror match before I realized that the matchup wasn’t about value at all, but tempo. I noticed that the player who got control of the board first was frequently able to snowball their early lead into a massive tempo advantage. The vast majority of Midrange Murloc Paladin decks simply lacked the tools to catch up from behind once they were already behind on board. Even Sunkeeper Tarim, an all-star against other aggressively slanted decks, was often too little too late.

When it comes to formulating a gameplan in the Midrange Murloc Paladin mirror, locking on to concepts like “who’s the beatdown?” was actually doing me more harm than good. Understanding “who’s the beatdown?” still helped me out on a decision by decision basis, but the big picture formula for victory was dictated by something else entirely. Regardless of the past, present, and future, mulliganing aggressively for one and two drops and playing to establish early control over the board is the plan. In this matchup, the “winning formula” is to grab control over the board early and never let go of it.

The goal with a winning formula is to be able to be able to enter each matchup with a solid understanding of the specific factors which contribute most towards victory and defeat. By front-loading this thinking before we ever enter into a game we free our minds to ignore unimportant concepts and allow ourselves to hone in on the most critical pieces of information. Here are some examples of what a winning formula might look  like for a variety of matchups:

  • As an aggressive deck, kill the opponent before they are able to play their board wipe. If this is not possible, don’t over-commit to the board and attempt play around the board wipe as much as possible while applying pressure.
    • Example: As Evolve Shaman against Kazakus Priest, Dragonfire Potion is the single card which is capable of causing you the most problems. Plan A (obviously) is to kill the Priest before they get the chance to play the card on turn 6, but this isn't always possible. Barring an early kill off Bloodlust, apply pressure while not over-commiting to the board until they use their Dragonfire Potion.
  • Avoid getting beat by a specific card. Conversely, set up a scenario where a specific card dominates the game.
    • Example: As Evolve Shaman against Aggro Druid, Devolve is the most important card in your entire deck. Devolving a board of Mana Treants is often game winning, while Devolving a board of cheap minions which are buffed up by Mark of the Lotus or Power of the Wild can buy you enough time to take over the late game with your superior cards. Understanding that you are the control deck in this matchup is important, but perhaps not quite as important as understanding the value of Devolve.
  • A singular concept from this article series, such as “who’s the beatdown?” or line up theory.
    • Example: In the Pirate Warrior vs Jade Druid matchup there are really no mysteries about the correct plan for either player is. Kill ‘em dead, and don’t get killed.
    • Example: As discussed in part 3, Shaman decks with double Hex and double Devolve can attempt approach threat-light decks such as Miracle Rogue from the perspective of line up theory.

Finding a winning formula takes equal parts out-of-game preparation and in-game experimentation. The winning formula might be immediately obvious from the first time you play a matchup, or it might some thought or trial and error to put together. Regardless, if we spend some time outside of the game thinking about the factors, concepts, and circumstances which contribute most to winning or losing a specific matchup, we are able to spend far less time in the middle each game worrying about concepts which might not even matter. The goal isn’t to be able to remember every single concept I’ve discussed in this series at all times, it’s to understand which factors supersede these concepts and which concepts don’t deserve to be considered at all.

Section 2 - The Read

By paying close attention to the behavioral quirks of our opponents we can occasionally catch a glimpse of their working mind. We have already trained ourselves to consider what our opponent is doing, but there is much to be learned from how our opponent goes about doing those things. By carefully watching the cards our opponents almost play and the moments they choose to pause, we can often use the information we already know about their deck to determine the exact cards in their hand.

In this section I will briefly cover a variety of situations where we can take advantage of the mistakes our opponent’s make in sequencing to gain information about the contents of their hand. This list of reads is not intended to be exhaustive. Reads are much more of an art than a skill, and this section is meant to make you aware of the kind of minutia you are free to shift your attention towards once you have hard coded the fundamentals into your play.

It bears repeating that being able to read your opponent is a completely unnecessary skill for reaching Legend. It provides you with a small advantage at best, and can even get you into trouble if it takes away focus from more important matters. With that said, once you’ve reached a point in the ladder where both players are able to maintain their focus and have a total understanding of the fundamentals, the information which can be gained from reads is a way to create separation between you and an otherwise evenly matched opponent.

Read #1 - The Awkward Pause

You should always try to formulate a complete plan before making attacks or playing cards, yet in practice this doesn’t always happen. The reason it’s important to make all of your decisions before taking any actions is because of the information you accidentally reveal when pausing in the middle of a turn.

If you start the turn with ten mana, spend six of it to play a minion, then spend the next thirty seconds paused at four mana before making your next play, this unintentionally reveals to your opponent that you had choices to make about how you will spend your final four mana. Pausing with four mana for this long implies that you had at least one cards in your hand which costs four or less. By paying close attention to the amount of mana your opponent pauses at, the cards which your opponent has already played, and what your opponent accomplished with the play they eventually ended up going with, it should often be possible to determine the exact card that your opponent was considering playing.

A particularly obvious giveaway is a long pause at 0 mana while the player has The Coin in hand. Especially if you can see your opponent hovering over the coin several times, this should be a pretty clear signal that they have a 1 drop in their hand which they are thinking about playing. The same can be said for Druids who take a long pause at 0 mana with a potential Innervate in their hand.

Players at the highest ranks aren’t stupid. If your opponent paused for a long time to eventually make what seems like a totally obvious play it probably isn’t because it took them a long time figure out something obvious. They were most likely considering multiple choices, implying there may have been another play in their hand which costs the same amount of mana and at least deserved some consideration.

Read #2 - The Unplayed Card

A card is only capable of being dragged out over the battlefield if it is able to be played. Any time a player drags a card out onto the battlefield but doesn’t play it, this guarantees that the card costs equal to or less than the amount of mana they have access to, and implies that the card was being considered as a potential play.

On turn 10 it might not reveal a lot of information to you if your opponent accidentally drags a card out onto the battlefield without playing it, but in the earlier turns and at lower amounts of mana it is often just as good as if they revealed the card to you. By taking a look at the situation and using process of elimination, it is frequently possible to deduce the exact card which your opponent elected not to play.

Even more damning than a minion or spell which goes unplayed is a targeted minion or spell which goes unplayed. An arrow appears on screen for any spell or minion which requires a target to play, and there are many circumstances where it’s trivially easy to narrow down which card the opponent was considering playing based on their deck.

Read #3 - The Hovered Card

I try not to read heavily into cards which are merely hovered over but not actually dragged out over the battlefield. It is often just as likely that they are considering playing this card on future turns as they are considering playing it now. They could have simply left their cursor over the card for no particular reason, or could be merely checking out the art. You can sometimes notice behavior which suggests that they are heavily considering a card which is being hovered over (such as when an opponent hovers back and forth between two cards), but I found that I got into trouble a little too often by reading into hovered cards and choose to ignore this read more often than I choose to consider it.

Read #4 - Cards in Hand

There is a lot information to be gained from paying close attention to how long your opponent holds onto cards in their hand, starting at the beginning of the game with the mulligan. It’s safe to assume that cards which were kept in your opponent’s opening hand but are not played in the first few turns are key cards in their deck or in the matchup. If your opponent kept a card but it still hasn’t been played by the end of the midgame, you should adjust your plans accordingly to expect a heavy hitter. You can also expect that cards which were not kept during the mulligan and remain in the opening hand for a long period of time are likely to have expensive mana costs.

The longer a card sits in a player’s hand the more information you can glean as to what it may be. There are a limited number of cards in each player’s deck which are worth holding onto for a long period of time, and as more and more situations arise where these cards could be potentially played you should be able to systematically eliminate cards from contention until you are positive as to which card they are holding.

Read #5 - The Card Off the Top

Players at rank 5 and above are likely to consider cards which they would be happy to draw the following turn, but sometimes they are a little too eager to play those cards when they are actually drawn. Cards which are drawn and immediately played are likely to be cards which your opponent was quite happy to see. By slamming down a board wipe off the top deck, your opponent signals that they likely don’t have another board wipe in hand, and that coast is clear to dump your hand into play the following turn.

Reversing the Reads

Using this knowledge to your advantage, it is sometimes possible to construct a scenario where you can send a false signal to your opponent about the content of your own hand. Though this might sound tempting, the advantages you gain by attempting to trick your opponent with intentionally misleading behavior are so small that they are rarely worth pursuing. The majority of opponent’s might not notice your misleading actions as at all, and the thinking power which is required to construct these false reads is likely better spent elsewhere.

I suggest that you use your knowledge of reads not to mislead your opponent's but to avoid giving away information. Try to always formulate your plans completely before taking any game actions so that you can avoid pauses mid-turn. This will hopefully also prevent you from dragging cards out onto the battlefield which you won’t actually play. Lastly, be aware that slamming cards down immediately after they are drawn is a signal to your opponent that you were happy to draw the card, so try to exercise some patience before playing lucky topdecks.

Conclusion

For those of you who have stuck with me through all four parts of “Legend in the Making”, it is my sincerest hope that I have imparted you everything you’ll need to reach Legend. The fundamental card gaming concepts which I discuss in this series are hardly rocket science - the true challenge of the climb to Legend is overcoming the frustrations and setbacks of the competitive Hearthstone ladder.

This too is far from an impossible obstacle to overcome, and the formula for battling adversity in a competitive environment is to embrace your mistakes and adopting the mindset of a constant learner, but you don't have to take my word for it. These are ideas from Josh Waitzkin's wonderful book The Art of Learning, which I've recommended throughout this series to anyone who is interested in the learning methodologies of a world champion competitor.

If you were able to reach Legend after reading this series, you have my sincerest congratulations. Reaching Legend is a tremendous accomplishment which you deserve to be proud of. Not many people can claim they’re in the top .25% in the world at something which millions of people of do on a daily basis, but you can!

Enjoy the climb,

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 3 - Ranks 10 to 5 - Line Up Theory and Mulligans

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I read your guides but didn't reach Legend, so your guides must clearly be wrong!

 

Just kidding of course, thank you for the effort you put into thinking up and writing these guides, I am sure that at least some parts of it will be helpful to me (and others, ARGH!) in future games.

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Thank you for these great articles. Combined with The Art of Learning it has helped me reach new heights on the ladder. I have taken a slower approach to reach legend, setting goals for each season. 2 seasons ago it was rank 15, last season was 10. I finished last season as rank 9 and this season I'm already at 14 with a goal of 5. I am sure I will hit legend within a few months!

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Thanks for the great series of articles.

I initially went down the road of playing one deck only. I started playing a bit over a year ago; a few months before Karazhan. After watching Trump's FTP quest to legend with pirate-dragon warrior I picked that as my first attempt at Legend as it was cheap to craft. Eventually I ditched the dragons and played a more 'standard' pirate warrior (they were very rare in those pre-patches days, something like 1% of matchups - which meant your opponent never mulliganed for aggro). After a ridiculously long grind over the final weekend I scraped it to Legend on the last day. I played it pretty much exclusively until MSG, partly because I wanted to master the deck and partly because I felt I was playing it much better than anything else I played. I did start to tech the deck based on the meta I was in though. I remember playing the black knight quite a lot in a season that I was losing a lot to big Druid taunts (he wasn't bad against the popular midrange Shaman decks too). One season I almost gave up due to struggling against both secret hunter and tempo Mage that were popular; I found I was often narrowly losing out in race situations. I eventually made it after I tried sticking in two violet illusionists which helped conserve a bit of health and acted as soft taunts too (I didn't consider bash which might have been a good choice too).

I feel learning how to play one deck very well was beneficial, but I also think you benefit more in the long run from playing a variety of decks. It's much easier to find the right plays against a deck if you have previously played that deck. I think realistically for a low or moderate spending new player, you're likely stuck to one optimised high tier deck for a few seasons and I don't think that's a bad thing, but I do think you should be aiming to branch out as soon as you can after you feel like you're playing that deck very well.

Been playing midrange Murloc Paladin a bit recently btw. I absolutely hate the mirror matchup, agree with your comments about it but seems to me it's the most coin dominated matchup in the game (in that you really really don't want the coin).

Edited by Bozonik

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Thank you for the conclusion of a very fine serie of Guides. While the advice in the first three where easier to implement directly I find this last one just as full good of ideas as the others.

I normaly reach around rank 5 - 4. Basically doing what you described in your first 3 Guides. And I am battling finding time for 300 games a month.  To less time in the last part of the month frequently translates into loss streaks due to Tilt. I totally agree that the only thing that helps is a pause. But with limited time pausing awey good game time is frustrating.

And thanks for the advice of not wasting time on misleading. I do believe I once or twice have convinced a player to commit the wrong card by doing 30s hovering back and forth between 2 completely unplayable cards. But the energy used for something like that could be used better.   

.......

Now I am taking a Tilt pause after a 5 loss streak. I just checked Data Reaper. And guess what - My pirate warrior win stats have dropped considerable against more than 50% of the played decks. Murloc Paladin still looks good. I try that before anyone reads this.

best rgds

PanPan 

           

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On 9/4/2017 at 4:16 PM, PanPan said:

I normaly reach around rank 5 - 4. Basically doing what you described in your first 3 Guides. And I am battling finding time for 300 games a month.  To less time in the last part of the month frequently translates into loss streaks due to Tilt. I totally agree that the only thing that helps is a pause. But with limited time pausing awey good game time is frustrating.

I always find that, in the months where I don't have as much time to push, those loss streaks just feel so much worse. They lead to more losses, more misplays and it's just such a horrible, slippery slope. It's also so tempting to jump between decks and finding yourself losing because of the constant swapping and yeah. It's not good :p

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      Standing on the shoulders of the Star Wars: Battlefront II controversy, the Hearthstone community has been voicing their concerns over the game's rising costs louder than ever. What can be done to fix Hearthstone's payment model?
      The Hearthstone community isn't happy - what can Blizzard do to fix the rising costs of the game?
      Since the release of Star Wars: Battlefront II, EA Games has found itself in the midst of one of the most heated, unified, and prolonged attacks against a game studio in the history of the gaming industry. Infuratied by the game’s costly “pay to win” microtransactions, the online gaming community made a recent reddit comment by the EA Community Team the most downvoted comment in the history of reddit, an impressive accomplishment which EA can rest on their mantle next to their back to back "Worst Company in America" in awards.
      Hot on the heels of this controversy, Blizzard released an advertisement for Starcraft II to spread the word about its recent shift to free-to-play which appears to take some serious shots at EA. It's a funny and well-crafted advertisement which is certainly worth a watch:
      As we discussed on the Icy Veins podcast, it's a bit odd to see Blizzard to take an aggressive stance against other gaming studios. Not only does Blizzard have a tendency to play it safe with their marketing and advertising, but one could make the case that Blizzard is currently in the midst of a very similar (albeit far smaller) controversy over their payment model for Hearthstone.
      There has nearly always been a vocal part of the Hearthstone community speaking out against the game’s cost, but the complaints against Hearthstone’s payment model are currently as loud as they have ever been. Just as Blizzard decided to capitalize on the EA controversy to advertise StarCraft II, the Hearthstone community is using the Battlefront debacle as a pedestal to shout their grievances from.
      With such a significant portion of the Hearthstone community demanding changes to the current in-game reward systems and payment models, now seems as good a time as ever to have an honest dialogue about what kinds of changes will strike the fairest balance between our bank accounts and our Hearthstone collections.
      A Fair Price for Hearthstone
      Is there something fundamentally broken about Hearthstone’s reward systems and payment model, and what can be done to fix it? To answer that question, the Hearthstone community needs to be honest about what kind of game Hearthstone really is.
      It’s far too easy to draw unfair comparisons between the cost of Hearthstone and the cost of other games. Take Overwatch for example. It’s undeniable that you’ll get a vastly superior return of fun on your investment of 40 bucks for Overwatch when compared against the $49.99 it will cost you to pre-order 50 packs of the latest Hearthstone set, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to compare the cost of these two games against each other. First and third person shooting games (Star Wars: Battlefront II notwithstanding) rarely cost more than $59.99 for an entire game’s worth of content, while card games are expected to charge their customers for packs of cards instead of charging for the game itself. So how does Hearthstone stack up against other card games? 
      If you compare Hearthstone against the grandaddy of them all, Magic: the Gathering, Hearthstone is incomparably cheaper. Speaking for myself, the primary reason I switched from MTG to Hearthstone was to save money. Take a look at the average cost of a Standard deck, then take a look at the average cost of a Legacy deck (the rough equivalent of Wild). Want to play a round of draft (the MTG equivalent of the Arena)? That’ll cost you between 10 and 15 USD to play three matches of Magic.
      Is Hearthstone starting to sound cheap yet? Well, it shouldn’t, because MTG and Hearthstone are also totally unfair comparisons. Magic is a trading card game, not a collectible card game, which means that its individual cards hold value and can be traded to other players. Though Magic is undeniably more expensive than Hearthstone no matter how you slice it, the fact that its cards can be sold at any time for real money means that the two games should be held to very different pricing standards.
      It’s about as useful to compare the price of MTG to Hearthstone as it is to compare the price of a BMW to a John Deere tractor, yet I see comparisons like this being made all the time. I’m personally guilty of drawing comparisons between the cost of MTG and Hearthstone in a guide I wrote on this very site.
      If we want to have a realistic conversation about what a fair payment model should look like in Hearthstone, then we need to be realistic about what kinds of games it’s fair to compare Hearthstone with. Not FPS games, not trading card games (TCGs), but only other collectible card games (CCGs). These are Hearthstone’s true competitors. Games which are free to download, charge money to unlock cards at an accelerated pace, and have no system in place to trade cards between players.
      Here’s a quick list of the most popular non-Hearthstone CCG’s on the market:
      Shadowverse Gwent Eternal Elder Scrolls: Legends Ready for a controversial opinion? Hearthstone should be more expensive than the other CCGs. It’s the oldest and most polished game of the lot, it has the largest player base by a mile, and it has vastly more cards, expansions, and free single player content than its competition. Before we can begin to discuss ways that we can improve the reward systems and payment models for Hearthstone we need to accept that Hearthstone has earned to right to call itself the premier CCG in the world. As such, a fair price point for Hearthstone is something higher than that of the other CCGs and something lower than Magic: the Gathering, which is where Hearthstone currently lies.
      The Hearthstone community would probably complain far less about the game's cost if its players felt as though they were being appropriately rewarded for their investments of time and money; superior products are allowed to cost more than inferior ones. However, there is a tangible gap between the time and money players are investing into Hearthstone and the feeling of “reward and accomplishment” they are getting in return. This is a problem which, quite frankly, the other CCGs just don’t have.
      Win or lose, playing the Draft mode in Eternal makes me feel as though I’m steadily marching closer and closer to building the decks I want to play on the ladder. Creating a Shadowverse account bestows players with so many packs that it made me feel as though I owed the developers a debt of gratitude in return. Having played each of the other CCGs I mentioned earlier in this article (some much more than others), there is a strong sense of generosity and progress present in these games which is largely absent in Hearthstone. 
      The unfortunate truth is that Hearthstone is so much bigger and more profitable than the competition that these games need to be generous with their players in order for them to stand a fighting chance. It's an extremely common business practice for smaller companies to undercut their bigger and better-funded competition. If the Draft mode in Eternal didn’t tangibly feel as though I was progressing towards a complete collection of cards then I probably wouldn’t play it at all. If Shadowverse didn’t immediately shower me with packs for creating a new account then it may not have held my attention past the tutorials. These vastly smaller CCGs are fighting an uphill battle by attempting to compete in the same design space as Hearthstone, making it a virtual necessity for their developers to be overtly generous to their player base.
      Blizzard has earned the right to charge more and reward less to Hearthstone players than other CCGs do. What Blizzard has failed to do thus far is make its players feel as though the rewards offered by playing and paying for Hearthstone are worth every penny.
      In-Game Rewards and Player Psychology
      Blizzard has made some serious strides in the past few expansions by providing its players with more free content than ever. They’ve started giving out one free Legendary card per set, have started producing rich single-player content for every new expansion, briefly experimented with daily login rewards leading up to the release of Journey to Un’Goro, and have periodically run festivals that handed out free packs and Arena runs. These are certainly significant strides in a positive direction, yet players still feel guilty when purchasing packs from the shop. Why is that?
       
      Let’s start by taking a look at the random Legendary reward which was introduced at the start of Knights of the Frozen Throne. It’s certainly a welcome prize, but how does it make players feel? I’d argue that in practice, the average Hearthstone player will end up receiving a shiny new Legendary card that they didn’t actually want. The majority of players will be crossing their fingers for a specific Legendary (such as the one belonging to their favorite class) and will feel disappointed when they receive one of the eight other Legendaries they weren’t hoping for. Newer players might only have enough cards in their collection to build a deck for one or two of the classes (I only crafted Druid cards for my first few months in Hearthstone) and will probably have no use at all for a random Legendary outside of those classes. What we have is a reward that is purely beneficial to players, yet somehow it often results in a negative player experience.
      Player psychology is an incredibly important issue in game design, and it’s an issue that Blizzard has demonstrated the ability to masterfully navigate in the past. A famous example comes from World of Warcraft, where Blizzard was able to successfully morph one of the most complained about systems in the game into a system which has since been copied by nearly every MMO after it:
      This notion of player psychology is undoubtedly playing an important role in the perceived gap between player investment and player reward in Hearthstone. The way that rewards and punishments are framed has a tremendous effect on player psychology, and it certainly seems as though Blizzard is losing the psychological battle with its player base. Without having to make any sweeping changes to the in-game reward systems, I’d argue that Blizzard could gain a lot of good will with its players by reframing the way that some of its current in-game rewards are presented. Let’s start by revisiting the random Legendary reward to see if it can reframed in a way which feels better its players.
      At worst, a random Legendary card can be turned into 400 dust; enough to construct four Rares or one Epic. Instead of setting up a large portion of the player base to be disappointed by receiving a random Legendary they may or may not have really wanted, how would players feel if they were simply given 400 dust instead? This reward would be strictly worse than receiving a random Legendary, but I would guess that it would have been received much better by the average Hearthstone player than the random Legendary reward currently is. It’s not so bad to receive a free reward you didn’t really want, but it feels downright awful to dust a Legendary into one quarter of its previous value. Taking this one step further, imagine how excited players would be if they received 1600 dust (or a Legendary of their choice) for trying out a new set. This would give players a feeling of agency and control which is wholly absent from the current in-game reward model. The single biggest problem with Hearthstone’s current in-game reward systems and payment models is a perceived lack of player control. 
      A Lack of Choice in Hearthstone’s Payment Model
      The slow trickle of gold players receive for playing games leads to a slow trickle of packs, and this slow trickle of packs leads to even slower trickle of dust, the only resource players get for constructing the cards they truly want. Outside of grinding away on the ladder, the only other tool at player’s disposal for getting the cards they need to build competitive decks is to pay for packs.
      The best rate that players can get on packs is $49.99 for a one time pre-order of 50 packs of the new set. The estimated average dust per pack is 102.71, assuming you dust every single card you open. 102.71 dust per pack times 50 packs equals 5135.5 dust, which is just enough to construct three Legendaries of your choosing but not nearly enough to build the vast majority of competitive decks in the current metagame.
      If you assume that most of the players who pre-order every new set have the majority of the most popular Legendaries and Epics from previous sets, then it’s fair to assume that 5k dust will be enough for these players to build one or two decks using cards from the newest set. For a newer player with a thinner collection, it’s much more likely that they will be at the mercy of the cards they open in those 50 packs and won’t be able to afford the luxury of dusting most of the cards they purchased. One could make the case that $49.99 is a fair price for a player with a deep collection to pay to be able to immediately build a couple of new decks, especially when you take into account the amount of free content that Blizzard has been rewarding players with of late. One could also make the case that it isn’t. Regardless, I have a very hard time believing that $49.99 is a fair price for a new player to pay to maybe be able to construct a single deck that they may or may not have wanted to build in the first place.
      Its debateable as to whether or not the issue with Hearthstone’s payment model is the actual value players are receiving from their purchased packs. One thing we can for certain is that there are no choices associated with opening packs that feel good for players to make. There’s really no two ways about it, dusting cards that you may or may not need in the future feels awful. A 25% rate of return for dusting cards feels like selling your grandmother’s jewelry to a pawn shop, yet choosing to dust or not dust cards is the only choice players are presented with after purchasing packs.
      Why is it that the only choice players are offered after paying money feels bad to make? There’s nothing intrinsic to the design of Hearthstone which has to prevent players from having more authority over the kinds of cards that are being added to their collection, and I seriously doubt that it is Blizzard’s goal to associate paying money with bad choices. Returning to the idea of player psychology, if we could reframe the current pack purchasing system to offer players more choices, to offer them better choices, perhaps Hearthstone fans wouldn’t feel as disenfranchised as they are feeling right now.
      An example of a way that Blizzard could offer players more choice in their pack purchases would be to give players the option to choose from one of nine “prerelease bundles”, one for each class. Each bundle could be guaranteed to contain one Legendary, two Epics, and four Rares belonging to the class of their choosing. Blizzard could easily adjust these bundles of 50 packs so that they have the same expected value as 50 normal packs. This would offer players with smaller collections a choice that maximizes the likelihood that they will actually be able to use the cards they open, while simultaneously offering the more hardcore players a better opportunity at opening the specific Legendaries and Epics they want most. All this upside can be offered to players without having to actually increase the total amount of cards and dust that players receive from their prerelease packs, and has virtually no downside for players when compared against the current prerelease bundle. I hope this example illustrates that Blizzard is highly capable of improving their existing payment model by providing players with more choices, and that sweeping changes to crafting and pack opening systems are likely unnecessary.
      Conclusion
      To recap, here’s everything we’ve discussed so far:
      Hearthstone fans are currently as upset as they have ever been with the cost of the game. As the premier CCG on the market, Blizzard has earned the right to charge more for Hearthstone than other CCGs. The onus is on other companies to undercut Hearthstone to attract players to their less popular products. The way that players feel about the rewards they receive is just as important, if not more important, than the quality of the rewards themselves. Hearthstone has room to improve from a player psychology perspective and should seriously consider reframing some of their current rewards if they are unwilling to increase them. The only choice players receive when purchasing packs is which cards they would like to dust after opening them. The very low rate of return on dusting cards means that the only choice associated with spending money on the game is one that makes players feel bad, yet there’s no discernable reason that pack purchases can’t offer players meaningful choices that actually make them feel good. Its undeniable that Hearthstone has some room to improve on the systems which are currently under fire from its player base, but at the same, the player base needs to be a little more realistic about what they truly deserve from Blizzard. Hearthstone is an incredible game which provides its players with loads of free content, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean that its devoted fans don’t deserve more than they are currently receiving for their money. It seems as though Blizzard and Hearthstone fans need to meet each other halfway.
      Blizzard doesn’t need to make sweeping changes to its in-game reward systems and payment models to silence their unsatisfied customers. By offering players a greater degree of choice than they are being offered today, players will feel as though they are getting a much better return on their investments of time and money. There will always be a vocal minority of the Hearthstone community who feel as though they deserve more for their money, but when that minority turns into a majority as it has in today’s Hearthstone community, it’s time to make some changes.
      - Aleco
    • By Aleco

      Nine new Kobolds and Catacombs cards were revealed today on the spoiler kick-off stream, including two Rogue Secrets!
      Spoiler season for Kobolds and Catacombs officially began today with the spoiler kick-off stream, featuring game designer Peter Whalen and commentator Brian Kibler. Nine new cards were revealed during the stream, highlighted by the first two Rogue Secrets to join the game:


      The latest class to gain the Secret card type, it will be very interesting to see if the full crop of Rogue Secrets in Kobolds and Catacombs will be strong enough to support a new archetype. The first two secrets, Cheat Death and Sudden Betrayal, certainly lend themselves to some exciting play patterns.
      Peter Whalen's favorite card of today's lot, the team wanted to create a card which hearkened to the feeling of being swarmed by tiny monsters in a dungeon. Regardless of whether or not this card is actually good, it's certainly awesome.
      The card I'm most excited to get my hands on appears powerful enough to make Dragon Priest an instant contender in the K&T metagame. Expect this card to receive strong ratings in upcoming set reviews.

      Expanding on the skill-testing "Choose One" mechanic, Branching Paths doubles down by allowing players to choose from three options twice. The same option can be chosen both times.
      Kathrena Winterwisp's text box reads as a one-way ticket to Valuetown. The only Hunter card with the powerful new Recruit mechanic, will Kathrena be enough to bring diversity to the one-dimensional Hunter class?
      The design team knew that a set about dungeon crawling had to have a card with the name "Level Up!". Getting this to stick on three on more Silver Hand Recruits could be devastating, but how easy will that be to set up in an actual game?
      The Legendary Shaman weapon comes in at a whopping 8 mana, implying that it packs a serious punch. It reads a little underwhelming for its high mana cost, but Shaman has quite a few spells that are untargeted and therefore purely beneficial. If The Runespear can consistently find Volcano or Lightning Storm it may be strong enough to see play in slower Shaman decks.

      Warrior's Spellstone can deliver a whopping 15/15 worth of stats for 7 mana, but only if you can play two weapons while holding it in your hand. Mithril Spellstone plays excellently with the new Recruit mechanic, implying that the true strength of this card may be its ability to play to the board without being a minion. With spoiler season now in full swing, be sure to check back to Icy Veins for the full reveal schedule and stay up to date on the newest expansion in our Kobolds & Catacombs hub.
      Card images courtesy of Hearthpwn.com
    • By Zadina

      A new epic Kobold minion has been uncovered.
      Italian streamer JackTorrance90 made this reveal. Without further ado, here is Rummaging Kobold:

      Screencap from the stream
      It is hard to evaluate this card before actually seeing it in action, as is the case with most of the pre-expansion reveals. I'd expect players to experiment with this card during the first weeks of the new expansion.
      The obvious first point to be made is Rummaging Kobold's synergy with the new Legendary weapons this expansion will bring. People are expecting Harrison Jones, Acidic Swamp Ooze and Gluttonous Ooze to be run a lot in the new meta and this card ensures that you get a second chance with your legendary weapon. What if your opponent doesn't run these tech cards, though? Some of the revealed legendary weapons do not lose durability, making Rummaging Kobold not that useful.
      Apart from decks containing legendary weapons, this card can also be useful for the traditional weapon classes of Hearthstone. Paladin and Warrior look like they can benefit more from it, whereas Rogue is probably the weakest of the bunch given that Rummaging Kobold can return a Wicked Knife. Perhaps an interesting combination could be created with Rummaging Kobold and Doomerang.
      We have already had another reveal today and we are expecting another three now. We'll return soon with another article; until then, you can check out the reveal schedule as well as our Kobolds & Catacombs hub.