Over the course of my time playing Hearthstone, I have introduced about half a dozen people to the game. My method is always the same: I ask them what they would do at the beginning of each of their turns, figure out how they came to their decisions, and discuss how these decisions might be improved. After sitting back and watching them, I have found that the beginner consistently makes the same mistakes.
To clarify, these players understand the rules. They know that winning means reducing the opponent’s health to zero, they understand the interaction between cards and mana, and they can differentiate between each card type. In a very literal sense, they know how to win, but they don’t know how to get there. The newest Hearthstone players have a long way to go in many directions, but generally, they often demonstrate three weaknesses. Throughout most of this guide, I’ll focus more on instruction (how to do things right) than the mistakes themselves, but I go into further detail on them at the end of the guide. Let’s get started!
How to Win the Game
Unlike many with backgrounds in card games, my competitive experiences were not primarily from Magic: the Gathering, but rather from the Yu-Gi-Oh! (or Yugioh) trading card game. As a whole, the skill set is very similar, but one element of my experience left me unprepared for Hearthstone: the inability in Yugioh to attack the opponent directly when they possess monsters. Because of this new freedom, my first several games in Hearthstone consisted of gleefully attacking the opponent with Bluegill Warrior on turn two (because it costs two mana, and I was still becoming accustomed to a proper resource system, absent from Yugioh) and wondering why I was losing.
Many players just like me make this mistake. They reason that a card like Arcane Missiles is best used as soon as possible to allow more time on later turns to use more cards to directly damage the opponent. While this point of view is not fundamentally incorrect (there are decks like Aggro Shaman and Aggro Mage that do like to send most of their spells straight at the opponent), it neglects the other options the card offers. Primarily, it often allows the user to take out one or several weak or weakened opposing minions. This example brings up a larger decision that permeates almost every turn and every game of Hearthstone: is it better to attack the opponent or their minions?
The answer is not as clear as it may seem. Hearthstone may seem like a race to finish off the opponent as soon as possible. However, let’s bring in a bit of game theory. If the opponent knows that you will use your minions to attack him directly, he’ll prevent this by destroying them with his. Depending on who is “ahead” or “behind” on board, this means that the aggressor will usually yield zero to one direct hit with his minions, while the defensive player will respond by destroying them with his own. What’s so bad about this, though? If the aggressor gets in his hits and the defender is forced to waste his attacks on playing clean-up, won’t the players be even on the board, with the aggressive player ahead on the damage race?
Not necessarily. It is easy to overlook in this scenario, but the defensive player chooses the specific targets of his attacks. While he may be falling low in life early in the game, he is often able to “trade” favorably. This means using weaker minions to destroy stronger ones, using a single minion to destroy a minion and have it survive to battle again, or just in general, “winning” individual minion skirmishes. By doing so, the board will tend toward his favor, as he can attack strategically, and the aggressive player is put on a clock to finish the opponent, not only before he is killed himself, but also before all of his cards are neutralized.
This is not to say that attacking the opponent’s hero is necessarily wrong. Aggro decks are often some of the best in the game, but they are carefully built to contain enough damage to follow this strategy through the whole game. Even for non-Aggro decks, there are times when trading is the wrong choice. If a player is a) not in any danger of dying and b) not in danger of giving the opponent very strong trades the following turn, sending a minion straight to the face might be the right choice. While beginners often mindlessly attack the hero, intermediate players often mindlessly attack minions, wasting valuable life pressure by sending their strong attacks into minions that pose no real threat.
With the reference to Aggro decks, we’ve touched on consistency in strategy, so let’s consider that principle with a newbie favorite, Nightblade. On its face, Nightblade might be appealing, doing two good things. It contests the board with a solid 4/4 body, and it does three damage to the opponent. However, it falls short for several reasons. First of all, it tries to do too many things (and none of them well.) Playing Nightblade does have board impact, but compare it to Pit Fighter, which also costs five mana but clocks in at a 5/6. Is the one attack and two health really worth only three direct damage to the opponent? Nightblade is a prime example of lack of consistency in strategy. It tries to be a mid-range minion and pressure life totals, which isn’t a good package. Rather than winning the mid-game, Nightblade dies to the opponent’s stronger minions for free, and the three damage is meaningless if the loss in tempo loses the game.
This lesson tells us that consistency in strategy is important for card choice, but we’ll get to that later. More importantly for now, consistency in strategy is important during a game. A player should know their role, either as the aggressor or the defender, and only change when given a good reason to do so. A number of things can do this. Does the relative number of cards and/or card quality between you and the opponent look particularly grim? A Hail Mary of attacks aimed at their hero might be the only way to secure the win. Did the opponent heal out of reasonable range of your direct damage cards? You might have to play for value again. It basically comes down to this question: Can I increase my chances of winning by making a big push, or should I wrestle for the board to put myself in a better position to do so?
How to Play the Game
It may seem strange to consider how best to play after talking about how to win, but I prefer to work from the inside out. You have to know where you’re going before you can find out how to get there. Unfortunately, now that we have to consider the player’s role, how this translates into trading with minions or attacking the enemy hero, and when this role changes, things are a little more complicated. Fortunately, all players have to deal with these same questions, every turn, in the same seventy seconds.
Put broadly, the best advice I have is to plan. Hearthstone is full of unpredictability. What will I draw next turn? What will Mad Bomber hit with its Battlecry? What minion will come from Piloted Shredder? At the same time, it is also full of predictability. How much health will my minion have after this battle? Do I have lethal damage this turn, between the board and damage from my hand? Devising a plan at the beginning of every turn, before a single card is played, is absolutely critical to maximize the chances of winning.
As I start every turn, I consider several different things. First, again, do I have guaranteed lethal already, given my cards and available mana? If so, I go for it. If not, am I in danger of losing next turn to the cards the opponent already has in play? If so, can I prevent it, and how? If neither I nor the opponent can win this turn, it is where roles come in. The player should ask themselves what their role should be given the respective decks of each player, the turn of the game, the board state, and each player’s life total. This should be considered alongside the cards available. If I would like to take the defensive position to clear the board but I have limited ways to do so, I may have to reconsider and formulate a Plan B. This all seems quite complicated, but the process is streamlined by the cards available at any one point and starts to become second nature as a sort of flow-chart.
With this, I’ve brought up a few key points, which are thinking ahead, the order of decision-making (the flow-chart), and available mana. These considerations can be combined into mindfulness of the mana available for the turn. Given the available resources, how much can, and should, I do this turn? I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen players use their hero powers with no real impact, only to realize they can no longer play any cards from their hands. Each plan for the turn should be considered in the context of the mana available. The best turns tend to also use more of the available mana, since it’s lost at the end of the turn anyway.
Along with the cards played during a turn, players should also consider when and how they are played. Generally, some cards will have an unpredictable result, while others will not. For instance, against a Dr. Boom, is it better to send some minions at the enemy hero or Dr. Boom himself before clearing off the Boom Bots, to prevent lost damage? It depends. Is it better to play other minions before doing so? It depends, primarily on the risk vs. reward ratio of damage potential, minions in play, and minions in the hand. As a Paladin, for instance, using the hero power before trading with Boom Bots is often a good play, since it adds a low value target for their random Deathrattle effects. Other plays don’t introduce any additional uncertainty. It is helpful to know both what is guaranteed and what is possible every turn. As an additional aside, minion placement on the board is also important. This is relevant for cards like Defender of Argus and Wee Spellstopper, but it is also occasionally relevant in less obvious ways. Playing Piloted Shredder between other minions is often correct in case it spawns a Flametongue Totem or Dire Wolf Alpha.
Earlier, I offered ways to plan the current turn, but future turns are often just as important. Let’s start with an example. On turn one, the player going second will often have the opportunity to use the coin and play a two mana minion or the hero power. This seems powerful at first, since it means playing ahead of the opponent for that turn. However, does this set up a good turn two? If the hero power is the only option on turn two after coining out a two mana card on turn one, it’s quite weak. Also, perhaps a player has a two mana minion and a four mana minion. It may be best to skip turn one, play the two mana minion on curve, then coin out the four drop. These situations are not always so clear-cut. For instance, you might have to evaluate when to spend the coin with double two drops and a single four drop. Is it better to go coin with two, two, then have an uncertain turn three, or is skip, two, coin with four superior? These are evaluations that come with experience, but players should also be prepared to recognize these situations.
I laid out the beginnings of this earlier, but here is a more concise list of the things to consider with each turn. Different players have different thought processes, so feel free to take or leave what works for you. The point is the general scope of considerations on each turn, as well as the order in which they should be considered.
- Check for lethal with available mana and cards in hand/on board; take it if you can.
- Check for enemy lethal with current cards on board; avoid it if you can.
- Notice amount of mana available and the combination of cards and hero power that can be played.
- Evaluate your role at the current state of the game.
- Plan a play that fits your current role, preferably one that uses mana efficiently.
- Execute the play in the proper order, drawing first when possible and correctly sequencing uncertain events.
How to Build a Deck
As a new player, compared to the guided tutorial and game-assisted deck building, constructing a custom deck can be daunting. Outside of playing thirty cards, using only two copies of each card (and one of Legendaries), and only using a mixture of neutral cards and those available to the chosen class, there are no rules. Players can fill their decks with Wisps and Angry Chickens to their heart’s content. Then can play only cards that cost at least four or five mana, forcing themselves to skip their first few turns in every game. They can forgo playing any cards from their class whatsoever.
However, these players don’t exist. Everyone seems to have some inherent understanding of a balanced curve and relative power levels. In fact, this is often true to a fault, which is the first deck building mistake from new players: planning for EVERY situation. I almost take a sigh of relief when I take a look at a beginner’s deck that contains doubles of any cards. These players will use a single Crazed Alchemist “just in case”, a single Sinister Strike “just in case”, and a single Sacrificial Pact “just in case”. This strategy would be great, in the ideal world where every card is available at every moment and these cards aren’t competing against other ones in the collection for a slot.
The truth is that a little of everything equates to a lot of nothing. Filling up decks with single copies of situational cards will result in crazy situations some of the time but more often just be underwhelming. A deck should be seen as a living thing, with every card contributing to the same goal, alongside other cards in the deck. The mish-mash deckbuilding strategy forgoes the concepts of synergy and consistency in order to function as a Swiss Army Knife, a style not viable in this card game. It’s true, some players swing the opposite direction, filling their decks with beefy minions and no effects, but this is a problem they usually grow out of as they collect more cards and see what they’re missing. Players who never leave behind their unfocused mish-mash strategies often see bad luck or players with better cards as their downfall, rather than seeking improvement.
The other mistakes are made by a player of a higher caliber. While not quite intermediate, these players do understand the necessity of strategy in deck building. However, their weaknesses are lack of experience and too much ambition. The former will often set out to pilot a strategy that is nearly unattainable. For instance, a Taunt Hunter deck may be technically possible, but it has so little support (with Houndmaster and not much else), and it diverges so far from the traditionally more aggressive style, that it is unfortunately bound to fail. The latter tries to do too much in a single deck, aiming for a Pirate Miracle Oil Mill Rogue, not recognizing that the strategies are too different to function together as a cohesive deck. Like the mish-mash player, they may have their moments, but the YouTube highlight videos don’t reveal their overall dismal win rates.
To remedy these issues, players should follow logical steps when building any deck, no matter what kind. First of all, we’ll consider strategy, but in a more focused sense. Strategy can mean “buffing the health of my minions, so they’ll never be destroyed”, but this neglects an important point: How can this win the game? A strategy is only valuable if it makes up, or contributes to, a win condition. A better way to state the strategy is “I want to buff the health of my minions, so they’ll never be destroyed, I can control the board, and I can gradually whittle down my opponent’s health.” This is a win condition because it acknowledges the need to eventually finish the game and gives a way to do it.
Along with this, a class should be decided. I put it up to the player to choose a strategy or a class first, as one matters more than the other for some. In a game where every class is viable in its own way, simply playing one’s favorite class is perfectly fine. Maybe players like the World of Warcraft lore behind the hero. Classes can also be chosen for the specific options they offer, meaning their unique class cards and hero power. Often, the combination of the class cards and hero power already suggests a certain strategy or set of strategies, so it’s clear how this step ties into choosing a win condition. Again, as long as the win condition is a reasonable match with the class (and you have at least a good portion of the cards necessary for the combination), we can move on.
From here, classes will often have sets of cards that clearly contribute to the same goal, and hopefully in this case, also the win condition. Rogues have cheap spells to use many effects per turn, often drawing through their decks. Shamans have Overload cards and support for them, allowing strong plays this turn and the mitigation of painful Overload effects next turn. These sets of cards can be called “suites.” When one of these cards shows up, it usually does so in company with the rest of the cards in the suite. A Warrior wouldn’t play Shield Slam without also playing some other armor cards, like Shield Block, Bash, Justicar Trueheart, or Armorsmith. Recognizing these cards as blocks and running them in multiples adds some central synergy and consistency to your deck.
Next comes powerful class cards and singular win conditions. SI:7 Agent may not contribute directly to either a weapon suite or a spell suite enough to be a central member, but he still follows the same play style and is an outright powerful card. Grommash Hellscream isn’t part of an “engine,” per se, but in combination with self-damaging Warrior cards like Cruel Taskmaster and Death’s Bite, he can easily grow to ten or more attack, allowing some final burst damage. For many Warrior decks, Grommash is a finisher or final win condition, but controlling the board through the early and mid-game with weapons and other removal is the path to get there. Card suites, powerful class cards, and win conditions together will make up the “core” of the deck, which will then be supported by the cards from the next step.
After the core, it’s time to add contributing synergy. These are not members of any particular suite, but they still contribute to the game plan, in combination with the core or the hero power. For instance, Freeze Mage has a Secret suite, including Ice Block, Ice Barrier, and Mad Scientist, as well as a damage suite, including Fireball, Frostbolt, Ice Lance, Forgotten Torch, Archmage Antonidas, and Alexstrasza. However, as a combo deck, it also needs card draw to reach its necessary components, so it plays Acolyte of Pain. Acolyte may not fit into other direct combos in the deck, but in combination with the hero power, it often draws at least two cards. I often also have new players throw a copy of Bloodsail Raider into their Rogue decks, since it often is at least a 3/3 for three mana. It may not directly contribute to the weapon strategy, but it does benefit from it.
Finally, it’s time to fill out the curve. This is not always as easy as having the deck fit a bell curve, with most cards fitting somewhere in the middle. The curve is often skewed to fit the class. Aggressive decks tend to play cards primarily on the low end. Control decks don’t necessarily forgo cheap cards altogether, but they typically run fewer cheap minions than average. Some cards are particularly powerful when played on curve, and while they may not contribute directly to the win condition, they often help to establish board control, so it’s not completely unrelated. Piloted Shredder and Haunted Creeper are played in a variety of decks, since they are both valuable for the mana cost and annoying to deal with.
Finally, we’ve come to playtesting. Theory is important, but testing your deck against real players is just as crucial. Try to leave any bias behind as you test: selective memory can lead to overvaluation of situational cards or card combinations. In addition, I recommend playing several games before making changes. This allows a better sample set of games to average out randomness associated with draw rates and ensures that each iteration of a deck competes against several other types of decks. Also, when making changes, small tweaks of one to two cards are surprisingly impactful, so try not to completely overhaul the deck when something goes wrong.
Avoiding the Largest Mistake of All
I sometimes resent the audible “Job’s done!” that is played once all of the available mana is spent. While it fits the mood of the game, it also encourages players to play everything possible, not because they should but because they can. This is the largest mistake, playing without purpose, just following a rule or a pattern blindly. It’s exactly why I brought up “How to Win the Game” before anything else – there are all kinds of good habits to develop as a player, but if they’re not used to ultimately win the game, there’s no point.
I have a much easier time working with new players who play around obscure and unlikely scenarios than those who happen to make the right choices most of the time but never consider future turns or the opponent’s cards. No, a potential Hungry Crab might not be a good enough reason to play Abusive Sergeant over Murloc Raider on turn one, but a player who thinks this way will improve through experience. They have the instincts to consider an extra level of counter-play, whereas the player who is stuck in a mode of auto-piloting won’t improve nearly as much. Rather, this is the player who continues to blame lucky opponents for their losses.
I’ve covered a lot throughout this guide. Different roles and when they change, planning ahead for mana efficiency and potential counter-play, suites of cards when building a deck…it can be difficult to see how it all fits together. The central theme is that thinking, mindfulness, and planning are all necessary, and the more forward-thinking player will win statistically more often. For the sake of conciseness, though, I’ll give a list of the most common specific mistakes to avoid. Acknowledging and forsaking these habits will automatically give you a leg-up over other players of your caliber.
- Automatically attacking the enemy hero
- Automatically attacking enemy minions
- Misunderstanding the relative value of stats and different types of effects
- Neglecting to reevaluate one’s role throughout the game
- Forgetting the available mana
- Playing the turn in the incorrect order
- Neglecting to plan for future turns
- Building an un-focused deck
- Overlooking class strengths and weaknesses
- Making card choices based on a small and unreliable sample of games
Thank you for reading, and goodbye until next time!