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Adapting to the Metagame in Hearthstone

Last updated on Jan 10, 2018 at 21:10 by Aleco 3 comments

Table of Contents

Here on Icy Veins we provide a number of highly competitive Constructed decks for each class in Hearthstone. In theory, these decks should have what it takes to allow a skilled pilot to climb the top of the ladder, all the way to Legend rank.

In practice, however, things are not so simple. Copying a deck from a website or from a successful player, no matter how good that deck may be, is not a guarantee for success. Hearthstone is a dynamic game with an ever-evolving game environment, known as the metagame, or meta, which is capable of transforming a once powerful strategy into a weak one.

In this article, we will give you some ideas and tips for how to best adapt your decks to the meta you are currently encountering.

1. Why Is Adapting Important?

Nothing in Hearthstone happens in a vacuum. The value of cards is constantly shifting based on the other cards that are popular at the moment. In other words, the value of many cards is dependent on the state of the meta, or which other cards are currently popular or unpopular.

Each deck is only at its best when taking on the style of deck that it was designed to beat. No deck in Hearthstone is capable of boasting a favorable matchup against everything, which means that the best deck for any given moment is the deck which has the most favorable and fewest unfavorable matchups against in the current meta. If you take a certain successful deck, perhaps a deck that was played by the winner of a Hearthstone tournament, you might find that the deck does very poorly in your current ladder environment. This is because the meta at the tournament will almost certainly be different than the meta at you current spot in the ladder.

If you want to be successful at Hearthstone, you need to be constantly aware of the meta so you can tweak and alter your deck to improve your chances of defeating the decks you are most likely to encounter. In the sections that follow, we will try to give you a good idea for how to do this efficiently.

2. Identifying the Meta

The first step to fighting a meta is to determine exactly what it is. No amount of research (reading articles, watching streams or videos, etc.) can accomplish this for you, as the meta in Hearthstone changes very quickly and varies vastly from rank to rank. The kinds of strategies you encounter at rank 5 are notably different from the ones you'll see at rank 20, while the entire meta is capable of changing in a heartbeat after a strong tournament result or a prominent streamer popularizes a new strategy.

Ultimately, the burden is on you to determine what the current meta you are facing looks like. Try to always keep track of which decks you are encountering on the ladder (a deck tracker can help immensely with this), and take special care to note which decks you are struggling the most against and which decks you succeeding against. Ultimately, the decks you are weakest to and the decks you encounter the most frequently are the decks you should be adapting to beat, while you can likely afford to make some sacrifices in the matchups you are naturally strong in.

After you have a decent picture of what the meta looks like, attempt to find some common elements between the decks you are frequently encountering. Try to look for the problematic, game-changing cards that appear in multiple decks, or for certain cards that are common and do a good job of countering your own. Perhaps most importantly, try to identify if certain archetypes or strategies are persisting across multiple decks in the current meta, as this can allow you to attack multiple decks at the same time with minimal changes to your deck.

3. Your Deck Structure

Before we can talk about how to change your deck to work best in the current meta, we need to talk a bit about how decks are structured.

Whenever you build a deck, there will be two categories of cards in it: core cards, and flex cards. Core cards are the most powerful cards in your deck, and define your deck's inherent strategy. Flex cards are either filler cards (the most powerful options available to fill out the remainder of your 30 card deck) or tech cards, which are cards that are put in your deck to counter specific strategies in the current meta.

Before making changes to your deck, it is critical that you understand which cards are considered core and which are considered flex. It is almost never correct to swap out a core card to adapt to the meta, as this will dilute your deck's synergy and hold it back from succeeding in the matchups it should be strong in. To best adapt to the meta, focus on swapping out your under-performing flex cards.

It's worth noting that some combo and aggro decks are made up entirely of core cards, and do not have any room for adaptation to the meta. Consequently, these decks are highly dependent on the meta to be successful and should be abandoned, not modified, if the current meta proves to be toxic for them.

3.1. Identifying Core Cards

Core cards are critical to your deck's strategy, and should almost never be swapped out for situational cards which are only powerful in a given meta. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself if you are ever unsure if a card is core or not:

  • Would you keep this card in most opening hands? If so, it is a core card.
  • Do two or more other cards in your deck rely on this card to be powerful? If so, it is a core card.
  • If you went the whole game without seeing this card would you be upset? If so, it is a core card.
  • Is this card strong against multiple kinds of strategies (aggro/combo/midrange/control)? If so, it is probably a core card (or at least a card you should probably not remove from your deck).
  • If you swapped this card for a similar card of the same cost, would it significantly change the power level of your deck? If so, it is probably a core card.

3.2. Identifying Flex Cards

If a card is not core, it is flex. As flex cards are the ones we are looking to identify for potential meta-adaptations, it is important to be able to distinguish our flex cards from our core cards. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help identify if a card is a flex card:

  • Do you never keep this card in opening hands? If so, it might be a flex card.
  • Is this card only powerful against a specific deck or strategy? If so, it is probably a flex card.
  • If you went the whole game without drawing this card would you be upset? If not, it is a flex card.
  • If you swapped this card for a similar card of the same cost, would it significantly change the power level of your deck? If not, it is probably a flex card.

4. Adapting Your Deck

Hopefully we have impressed upon you the importance of being able to constantly adapt your deck to best counter the decks you are most frequently encountering on the ladder. In the sub-sections that follow, we will give you some practical advice for how to adapt to some of the more common types of decks you can expect to see in the meta.

4.1. Adapting to Aggro Decks

Typically, aggro decks are strongest whenever the meta has slowed down enough to allow them to prey on the control decks, or when a new combination of cards has been discovered (or introduced into the game) that makes them particularly potent.

If you are coming up against a large number of aggro decks (be they Hunter decks, Warlock decks, or even decks belonging to typically less aggressive classes), there are two solid options available to you:

  1. Start playing an aggro (or midrange) deck which has a slightly more powerful late game than their aggro deck. The most lopsided matchups in Hearthstone tend to be between two decks which are similarly powerful in the early game but of unequal power levels in the late game.
  2. Tweak your current deck to be better at stopping early-game aggression.

4.1.1. Going Bigger Than Aggro Decks

The most effective counter to an aggro deck is a slightly bigger aggro deck. These decks will have the board presence to weather the storm in the early game, and the superior tools to take over the game as it goes late. It is not always easy to identify how aggro decks will line up against each other, but there are a few things you can consider when selecting a deck to combat an aggro-heavy meta.

Firstly, there is little point in selecting an aggro or midrange deck to combat an aggro deck if it is incapable of consistently surviving the early game. To ensure your deck can survive the early game, be sure that the minions you are playing in the early game are capable of trading with the minions you are expecting to face in the current meta. The goal is not necessarily to "win" the early game, but to be able to consistently survive it so your more powerful late-game cards can take over. The only way to survive the early game is to keep the enemies' board as clear as possible, and to do this you will need to be able to cost-effectively trade with what your opponent is presenting you.

Next, you need to be sure that the deck you are playing will be doing bigger and better stuff than your opponent will in the late game. After the early game, aggro decks dip drastically in power level and will likely be drawing low-impact cards for the remainder of the game. To beat these anemic late-game cards, you probably do not need to change your deck as much as you think. A single powerful legendary (such as Tirion Fordring) is often enough to secure a game against aggro decks on its own, while a pair of curve-toppers like Bonemare are often enough to seal the deal. The key is to go slightly bigger than your opponent, not significantly bigger, so do your best not to over-modify your deck and sacrifice the speed which will keep you alive in the early game.

4.1.2. Protecting Yourself Against Aggro Decks

The alternative to swapping decks is to tweak your existing deck in such a way as to be less vulnerable to whatever the current popular aggro decks are. How you go about this depends entirely on what class you are playing, so we will provide you with a few examples cards to help get you started.

Firstly, there are many Neutral cards which are very good at warding off early aggression.

  • Doomsayer is one of the strongest anti-aggro tools in the entire game. At worst it will trade for 7 points of damage (or a removal spell) and slow down your opponent's board development, while at best it can trade for multiple minions and set you up to play your own minions into an empty board. Doomsayer is particularly effective when coupled with Taunt minions to protect it, or Freeze effects.
  • Tar Creeper is perhaps the most cost-effective defensive card that can be played on turn 3, and is so efficient that it frequently finds its way into aggro decks as a tool for protecting key early minions. If your deck is light on minions that meaningfully interact with the board in the early game, try throwing a Tar Creeper or two into your list.
  • Mistress of Mixtures does double duty as an anti-aggro tool, providing both a meaningful body and a much-needed source of life gain. The card is excellent in Deathrattle-focused decks, and often finds its way into Warlock decks as a tool for combating the downsides of Life Tap.
  • Plated Beetle has most of the same upsides as Mistress of Mixtures, but comes with an additional point of health and is capable of padding your life total even if you're at 30.

Each class typically has one or more cards which are capable of slowing down aggro decks. If you are frequently encountering aggro decks on the ladder, make sure to include some of these cards in your deck:

4.2. Adapting to Control Decks

Control decks thrive in slower metas, where they can prey on decks which fail to finish them in the early game with their superior late-game power. By drawing additional cards, getting maximum value out of their board wipes, and packing a number of cards with powerful effects in the late game, control decks look to win by gaining an overwhelming card advantage over their opponents.

4.2.1. Going Under Control Decks

Whenever the meta swings far over to the control side of the aggro/control spectrum, players are left with several options for taking on the field. The first, and likely easiest option is to play the strongest available aggro deck. By nature, control decks tend to be weak in the early game and will often draw cards that are unplayable until the late game. The best way to punish a control opponent who is sitting on a hand full of 8, 9, and 10-Mana cards is to beat them down before these cards are ever playable.

4.2.2. Beating Control With Control

If playing an aggro deck simply isn't an option, your best move is to play an even bigger and badder control deck than what you are likely to face on the ladder. As mentioned in a previous section, some of the most lopsided matchups in all of Hearthstone are between two decks that are similarly configured but one is slightly bigger than the other. For example, a Cubelock deck that runs a single N'Zoth, the Corruptor should always beat a Cubelock deck that does not run a N'Zoth, assuming the game goes long. In this context, the best tech card for a control-heavy meta is the biggest, nastiest, slowest card you can add to your deck. As control mirrors tend to go long and will often reach fatigue, you can be confident that you will consistently find these "tech cards" in control mirrors. The trick is to modify your deck just enough to consistently go over the top of the other control decks you expect to see on the ladder, but not so much that you will weaken your aggro matchups. Assuming you are capable of adding a few more heavy-hitters to your already late-game oriented control deck, it shouldn't take more than just a few small changes to your deck to improve your matchup against control.

Here is a brief list of powerful, neutral legendary minions which pose problems for control decks:

  • The Lich King provides a threatening body while guaranteeing at least one Death Knight card of value after coming. If it is ever able to linger on the battlefield for multiple turns, most control opponents will have a difficult time recovering from the card advantage it accrued.
  • Ysera is similar in many ways to The Lich King, but costs one more Mana, has Dragon synergy, and generates slightly more powerful cards (on average) than The Lich King. The majority of decks will want to add The Lich King to their deck before they add Ysera, but some will find that both are necessary for taking on a control meta.
  • The Black Knight is the perfect answer to the powerful taunt minions you are likely to face against control.
  • Alexstrasza is one of the best late-game options for turning the corner and finishing off control decks. As many control decks will pack a healthy amount of life gain, Alexstrasza is frequently able to connect for a significant amount of damage with it's Battlecry trigger, often setting up a win on the following turn.

4.3. Adapting to Combo Decks

Whereas midrange decks are the natural answer to aggro decks and aggro decks are the natural answer to control decks, combo decks are fragile by nature and can be attacked from a multitude of different angles. Though it can often feel frustrating to lose to them, combo decks naturally struggle against fast aggro decks and can often be picked apart by a well-tuned control decks.

4.3.1. Beating Combo with Aggro

The best way to beat a combo is to kill it before it ever gets the chance to assemble its combo. Very few combo decks will be capable of packing the defensive tools necessary to meaningfully slow down aggro decks, and even fewer will be capable of comboing-off against an aggro deck before the aggro deck does what it does best. Combo decks typically need to dedicate a significant number of slots in their deck to card draw spells which enable them dig for their combo pieces, and these cards rarely play to the board. It is very frequently a good idea to flood the board against combo decks and dedicate to killing them as quickly as possible, but be wary of the board wipes that some combo decks are capable of packing.

4.3.2. Beating Combo with Control

Combo decks are typically at their best in slower metas, just like control decks. As combo decks tend to kill in a single turn long before control decks are capable of taking over with their late-game cards, combo decks are often considered to be the natural enemy of control decks.

Fortunately for control players, there are very few combo decks which can't be disrupted by a few well-placed tech cards. There are no "one size fits all" solutions to beating combo decks, as each combo deck functions differently from others, but there will almost always be one or more axes that you can attack a combo player on. As combo decks rely on assembling a specific combination of cards to win, the best way for control decks to attack them is to find a way to remove a vital piece of their combo from the game entirely.

Many combo decks must assemble a specific combination of minions in a single turn, such as the Quest Mage deck. Against decks like this, Dirty Rat can expose one of their critical combo pieces to your removal spells, forever neutralizing the combo deck's ability to combo-kill.

Another way to attack combo decks is to attack their deck with tech cards. For example, Skulking Geist can remove problematic spells like Inner Fire from the game before they are ever even played. As combo decks frequently operate with a nearly full grip of cards, Coldlight Oracle can often be used to overdraw the opponent in an attempt to mill away one their vital combo pieces.

Ultimately, the best way to beat a combo deck with a control deck is to understand what makes the combo deck tick. Does the combo deck attack with charge minions to finish its opponent in a single turn? Then try to save your taunt minions until the threat of the combo exists and never let your guard down. Does the combo deck win by resolving a specific spell? Then save your Counterspell until the turn before they are forced to combo off. Though it will rarely be easy, intelligent play and smart tech choices will often be more than enough for control players to defeat combo decks.

5. Conclusion

Constructed play in Hearthstone will always present its players with a compelling challenge, as the constant need to balance and adapt decks to take on a diverse number of strategies is a never-ending game of cat and mouse. Cards that are strong against aggro decks are often weak against control decks (and vice-versa), yet players should always be ready to take on both aggro and control on the ladder. This delicate balancing act of sacrificing percentage points in one matchup to bolster percentage points in another is, in essence, the art of adapting to the meta.

Adapting to the meta is as much an exercise in deck selection as deck adaptation. Having a keen sense of which direction the meta is leaning (towards aggro or control) will allow you to select the best deck for the current meta, while paying close attention to the specific cards you encounter across multiple decks and archetypes will allow you to select the perfect tech cards to give you an edge against the field. If you ever find yourself struggling on the ladder, see if you can't find a way to improve your matchups against the field by swapping out one or more of your flex cards for appropriate answers.

6. ChangeLog

  • 10 Jan. 2018: Updated to reflect the current Hearthstone landscape.
  • 24 Oct. 2015: Updated certain areas of the guide to account for changes in the meta-game and for some of the new cards that were added in solo adventures and expansions.
  • 13 Mar. 2014: Removed some mentions of Tinkmaster Overspark, follow the card's nerf.
  • 19 Feb. 2014: Added a few mentions of Druid and Warrior Armor, in the section dealing with direct damage decks.
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