Table of Contents
II. Basic Concepts vs. Specific Strategies
III. Card Advantage
V. The Curve
VII. Board Position
IX. Card Evaluation
X. Basic Deckbuilding
XI. Closing Words
Who am I and why should you listen to what I am trying to tell you?
Well, I’m no big name or some former pro player of any CCG. All I have are a few years’ worth of experience with different card games, such as Magic: The Gathering (on which most of the theories and knowledge presented in this thread is actually based), Yu-Gi-Oh and Duel Masters. Okay, that and a terrible love for theory crafting. This, quite frankly, is incredibly handy to make winning (or just playing well in general) a lot easier.
You should be reading this if you are unfamiliar with some of the basic concepts of card games. It won’t instantly make you a godly player and it won’t teach you how to play Hearthstone in particular. All I want to do is share some knowledge that is applicable to most, if not all, CCGs and TCGs. Because, frankly, I think that Hearthstone could bring forth a great community – and I’d like to be part of that. I’d like to help building a community that’s welcoming new players and members. As such, I would love to help with what little I can provide to make Hearthstone enjoyable for as many people as possible. The more players master the game, the better, in my opinion.
Oh, one more thing: English isn’t my native language. Thus, I’d like to apologize for some of the awkward phrases and mistakes I’ll be sure to make.
II. Basic Concepts vs. Specific Strategies
This is one big thing I want to get straight early on: I might use some rather specific example to explain some of the concepts presented here, but this thread isn’t about specific strategies. My goal isn’t to explain how a Rogue’s Combo Deck should work. At this point, I wouldn’t be able to anyways, even if I wanted to. Feel free to discuss such stuff, though. I just don’t want to get someone’s hopes up without delivering, that’s all.
So, what I’m going to explain (or will at least try to) is why some strategies work and what the underlying concepts are. Very basic, maybe a bit abstract. But it is, in my opinion, much more versatile than such specific information.
III. Card Advantage
Ah, card advantage. Probably the most important concept to master if you want to be a good player. Thankfully, not a very hard concept, either.
Card advantage is, basically, all about resources. Now, if you asked an experienced player what their resources in Hearthstone are, they’d probably answer with something like “well, duh, Mana Crystals, obviously!” And that’s undeniably right, of course. There are, however, other things to consider as well. In this case, I’m talking about the cards in your hand.
Think about it like this: The cards in your hand represent a bunch of offensive or defensive actions. Every card could potentially get you a step closer to victory or prolong your defeat for a turn, or more. It’s the cards that make your Mana Crystals meaningful in the first place – and oftentimes, a single card can b equal to a rather large amount of Life Points, the difference between winning and losing.
You could very well liken the cards in your hand to the bullets in a gun’s magazine. Not every bullet might hit your target and even if you do, it’s not guaranteed that the other guy won’t shoot back. You might still go down first, no matter how many rounds you shoot and whether that’s more or less than he does. However, having more rounds in your magazine will give you an advantage. A significant one. You wouldn’t want to be the guy to run out of bullets in a fire fight, right? You want the other guy to run out of bullets. And that is basically what card advantage is about. Making sure your opponents runs out of bullets = cards first. If you can do that, he’ll have to fight an uphill battle. Good stuff, right?
How does one get there, though? Card advantage can be gained in various ways. Some easily done, some more complicated.
The easiest way to gain card advantage would be to draw more cards than your opponent does. By playing cards like Arcane Intellect or Adrenaline Rush with its Combo will draw you more cards than you played – you end up with more cards in your hand. It’s pretty straight forward – if you do this repeatedly and your opponent doesn’t, you’ll be sitting on more cards than he does. Easy, right?
It is, but it comes with a downside. Playing such draw spells will make it hard for you to actually something else on your turn. At least until you’re way into the late game. Playing Arcane Intellect on turn five leaves you with two Mana Crystals to spend on something else – not a lot to match something your opponent could potentially play with five Mana Crystals at his disposal. As such, it’s key to know when to play draw spells like these and when it’s best to save them for later.
A second way to facilitate card advantage is trading. Not the trading of cards with another player/collector, silly! That’s no in Hearthstone, anyways. What I’m talking about is trading card for card in the game. If you attacked the opponent’s Angry Chicken with your Angry Chicken, both would end up as part of a KFC bucket. That’s a 1 for 1 trade: Nobody gained an advantage, as both players invested the same amount of cards as they have lost.
So, what you want to do is trade favorably. Or force your opponent into trading unfavorably. Or both, of course. There are a lot of ways to do so. A very basic example would be playing an Elven Archer to take out the opposing Angry chicken with its Battlecry, attacking the opponent’s second Angry Chicken with the Elven Archer itself later on. In this example, your opponent just lost two cards, while you only invested one. You traded two for one and are up one card. Feral Spirit works in a similar fashion: Play one card, get two wolves, kill two dudes on the other side of the table, profit.
The kings of these trades are board wipes, though. Think about a card like Blizzard. Assuming your opponent kept playing relatively cheap minions, but a lot of them, you can secure yourself a huge advantage by playing a card like Blizzard in a timely fashion. If the other player was committing too many minions to the board (overcommitting or overextending), a single Blizzard-like spell could be trading with three, four, five or even more cards your opponent plucked from his hand.
Taking advantage of unfavorable trades is also huge. It’s more based on punishing your opponent’s mistakes than actively playing cards that are bound to grant you card advantage. Overextending, as described in the previous paragraph, is one such mistake, but there are others. Let’s say the other guy slams down a Senjin Shieldmasta’ and casts Power Word: Shield on him. Now, what happens if you take the sucker out with a Siphon Soul? Exactly, he’s dropping dead, despite the PW:S on him. That way, you can get a two for one trade, too. And be all the more vile about it, if you wanted to.
A surefire way to get card advantage is to use cards that give you multiple bodies to work with. Examples of these cards include the Defias Ringleader or Feral Spirit. Each of these gives you two minions to work with (if the conditions are met, in the case of the Defias Ringleader), which means that you are potentially able to take down two opposing minions. This might be a little harder to spot, since, on the battle field, it’ll look like an even trade – a minion for a minion. But you still got away with investing a card less than your opponent, exactly what you want to happen.
There are other, more complex means to card advantage, but I do think that this is enough to get the concept across and, most importantly, what makes it so meaningful in a game like Hearthstone.
Synergies, in and off themselves, aren’t hard to understand and are best summed up by a simple saying: “The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.”
Two cards have synergy if they work well together – that’s why synergy is something you want in your deck. This doesn’t sound too complex, but the important bit is to keep your eyes peeled to actually notice synergies between cards. At first, this is somewhat tiresome and you’ll surely miss a lot of the potential card combinations. This, I suppose, is absolutely normal. As you get more used to it, you’ll inevitably stumble across some fantastic interactions everywhere.
There are quite obvious examples: Using a +Spellpower card such as Kobold Geomancer with Arcane Missiles, or triggering Amani Berserker’s Enrage with Cruel Taskmaster’s Battlecry. On their own, these cards have a good effect, but when combined, they’re exponentially better.
Synergy does become a very powerful tool, as you can see. Take it to the extreme and you’d end up with a combo than might end the game on the spot – not yet possible in Hearthstone, as far as I am aware, but commonplace in other established card games (Magic: The Gathering, for example, has some decks that specialize in comboing the opponent to death in a single turn, potentially even one of the first three turns).
There is, however, a downside to synergy. It’s a thin line you’ll be walking between building a synergistic deck – and a clunky one. Let me fall back on the example above: Amani Berserker and Cruel Taskmaster. You’ve got two pieces that can work well enough on their or at least by interacting with other cards. That’s something you have to consider, too: Not drawing your combo at all, or being forced to play have the parts in order stay in the game. Stuffing your deck with cards that are weak on their own but can end up blowing your opponent out of the water if everything falls into place is a huge gamble.
For example, you don’t want stuff like Angry Chicken + Powerword: Shield + Cruel Taskmaster. It requires a lot of cards (well, three technically isn’t that much, but you get the point) to operate. It would potentially give you a bigger reward than just combining Amani Berserker with the Cruel Taskmaster, but acquiring an additional combo piece makes it all the less likely to happen in the first place. Furthermore, you’ve got a few cards in your deck that aren’t very impressive on their own – especially when the combo sets you up for an unfavorable trade (as mentioned in Chapter III).
The key to success is to find a balance between cards that are individually strong and synergistic cards. Having some mini-combos in your deck can be hugely benefitting, but it could become a massive disadvantage if taken to the (wrong) extreme.
V. The Curve
This isn’t news to you, of course, but you do start out in Hearthstone with just a single Mana Crystal and accumulate more of them as the turns go by. The longer the game lasts, the more mana will be available for you to play your stuff – again, very obvious information I’m handing out here. There’s an implication that comes with it, though: You want to see the cheap spells early on and the big spells later on. And there’s The Curve to help with that.
The basic math behind it is simple: You’ll have access to more mana as time goes by and you will cycle through more cards the longer the game lasts. Thankfully, Hearthstone’s formula on that is relatively easy as long as we’re ignoring card draw and cards that manipulate your Mana Crystals in some fashion.
You draw a card on every turn and your Mana Crystals increase by one. You’ll start with one Mana Crystal and five cards. The next turn, you’ll have seen six cards and have two Mana Crystals. Seven cards and three crystals afterwards, and so on.
C | MC
5 | 1
6 | 2
7 | 3
8 | 4
9 | 5
10 | 6
11 | 7
12 | 8
13 | 9
14 | 10
This is basically what it looks like. But what do these figures mean? They mean this: The more expensive a card, the more chances will be there to draw it in time for you to cast it. Assuming you’re not drawing additional cards, you’ll end up with a 47% chance to draw that single card in your deck that costs 10 mana to cast (because you’ll have seen 14/30 cards of your deck = 47% chance [rounded up]).
Let’s look at the opening hand, though: You’ll only have five cards, a sixth of your deck. If you only had one card to play with that lonely Mana Crystal, there’d only be a chance of about 17% (5/30 cards seen) to have it in your opening hand. In 63% of games, you wouldn’t be able to do a thing on your first turn. Not a great thought, right?
Thus, what you want to do is make sure that you have a sufficient amount of cheap cards to not run into that situation. Statistically, you’d want six cards that cost only one mana to cast so you can do that on most of our first turns. However, you would only want two cards that cost ten mana to cast – that would (statistically) ensure to get it once you reach ten Mana Crystals.
And that is where the name hails from. The higher the cost of a given card, the lower the number of cards that are included at that price point in your deck. The amount of cards included curves downward towards proportionally to the increase in mana cost.
(Link to the table I created in my Word document)
The table above shows the percentages of drawing a given card in time for you to be able to cast it as soon as you hit the given number of Mana Crystals. The number on the far right represents the amount of cards you’d need to get close to a 100% chance to see a card of the given mana cost in time. The total would be 35, meaning it’s impossible to get that “perfect curve” into your deck.
As such, different decks will tend to alter their curve according to whether they want to play most of their spells during the early phase of the game, the middle phase or the late game phase.
Someone once told me that there is nothing more abstract and full of misinformation than CCG players talking about the concept of “tempo”. True enough, to be honest.
Put simply, ‘tempo’ just describes the rate at which you move along the curve. The faster you move along, the better your tempo is. As you might imagine, being further ahead on the curve than your opponent means that the cards you’re playing are more powerful than the ones the guy has access to.
One of the easiest ways to get an advantage in terms of tempo would be to increase the amount of Mana Crystals a player can use. This might be easier to do with the resources found in other card games, but in Hearthstone, stuff like that will occur, too. Let’s say I am at three Mana Crystals. At that point, I would be able to play a Razorfen Hunter. If I was to play Innervate, though, I’d be able to cast a Silver Hand Knight, though. Essentially the same thing, but instead of getting 3 Attack and 4 Health across two bodies, I’m getting 6|6 across two bodies. Now, if I was doing that, I’d be (hypothetically) facing down the 3|4 my opponent has on the field with the 6|6 I’ve got. A huge advantage for me, because my tempo is greater – I’m further along the curve. If my opponent played an Arcane Golem, this effect would be temporary, to boot.
Another important thing about tempo is understanding that there is a rough “baseline” of what to expect from a card at a given point at the curve. Let’s assume that 3|4 is the baseline for a minion that costs three mana to cast. If I had a card that gave me a 4|5 for three mana, it’d be ahead of the curve. Playing such cards is also a way to get a tempo advantage, although a more abstract one. It also isn’t as easy, as such strong cards are usually not without a downside of some sort.
I’ll use the Razorfen Hunter as an example again. Remember, 3|4 across two bodies for three mana. For three mana, I could also play Feral Spirit and get 4|6 across two bodies and Taunt on top of it. Clearly ahead of the curve, compared to what we established as the baseline, right? It is, but it does come with a downside, as it comes with Overload 2, diminishing your mana on the next turn and thereby punishing you for being ahead of the curve the turn before.
Exploiting tempo is a tough thing, but also very rewarding. Across different card games, a lot of decks tried to use this concept to their advantage, in one way or another. By increasing the amount of resources the player has access to permanently or by playing highly efficient cards that are ahead of the curve, attempting to finish the game or lock the opponent out of it before he can recover.
VII. Board Position
The board position itself isn’t a very complex thing. Basically, it’s the status quo of what’s out on the field. The offensive and defensive capabilities provided by your minions and, of course, your hero him/herself (as long as s/he’s able to actually attack and stuff). The board position can vary from favorable to a draw to unfavorable, obviously – depending on whom’s got more minions out and who’s got more power at their disposal.
So far, it’s just a matter of watching the battlefield closely so you don’t overestimate or underestimate yourself or your opponent and what would be happening if either side attacked. What’s more difficult is to advance your position properly. Being aware of how much power you need to put down is key here – you don’t want to go overboard with your minions. Remember the bit about overextending in Chapter III? That’s precisely what you shouldn’t be doing, unless it’s your only choice to win or you’re sure that you’re safe. You don’t want to play an Elven Archer and two Defias Ringleaders only to lose them all to a single Blizzard, when the only creature your opponent has is a measly Kobold Geomancer. Using fewer minions would have been sufficient to ensure a favorable board position without risking a possible blowout.
As you can see, it’s quite helpful to know what to expect from the deck you’re up against. You will want to use your minions carefully if you’re up against a lot of board wipes. On the other hand, there might be decks that’d like to finish you off with a horde of minions and a timely Bloodlust; you absolutely want to have your board filled to the brim with (taunting) minions to absorb some damage.
Adopt to the deck you’re facing, always keep the board position in mind and how a possible play might change them. This isn’t as in-depth as some of the other concepts, but nonetheless essential.
The concept of impact describes how hard and how fast a card will affect the game’s status quo. The more powerful the effect and the more immediate it occurs, the better. That’s the rule of thumb, at least.
Some cards have a very immediate effect on the game, such as Lightning Bolt. It will deal three damage as soon as you play it, to whatever target you chose. Due to the nature of the game, there’s little that can be done about that, which is precisely why immediate impact is so good. You can reap the benefits without worrying about any possible interference. By the time you’ve played the card, the three damage will be a done deal.
Other cards might have a much bigger impact, but it might not be as immediate. Hogger, for example, will crowd the board with a huge amount of Gnolls if he’s left alone long enough. That’s the point: If. Your opponent does have a decent window of opportunity to interfere here. Killing Hogger immediately after he was played would ensure that you’re not getting a whole lot out of him – no more than out of the cheaper Silver Hand Knight. If left unchecked, however, the impact Hogger could have on the game is huge. Nobody likes to stare down a dozen Gnolls, taunting their minions and tearing away at their face. Those little rascals!
Cards that have immediate, moderate impact and cards that have delayed, powerful impact on the game obviously both have their disadvantages and advantages – the sheer possibility of outright winning on the back of that single, high-impact card is surely tempting. The immediate, undeniable impact another card has will slowly but surely get you there, as well, with much less risk, to boot. Balancing these kinds of cards against each other and build your strategy and deck accordingly is what you want to do.
The thing is, it’s hard to give some sort of rule of thumb here. The more powerful the impact, the more delay could potentially be tolerated and vice versa. It is, again, down to finding a baseline to base your decisions on. Thich, at this point in time, is hardly possible.
IX. Card Evaluation
I’ll keep this short.
A good card is a card that does well by the concepts mentioned thus far. The ultimate card would net you card advantage, be synergistic but strong on its own, ahead of the curve to provide a tempo advantage, it would improve your board situation and have a huge and immediate impact. This, of course, isn’t going to be happening, ever.
As such, try to think of what you want from a given card. Some might do more than one thing, sure, but when picking cards, give it a long, hard look and thing about what you want from it, what the baseline for these things are and whether it’s better than the baseline or not.
The last, but not least, thing to know about is broad cards and narrow cards. Narrow cards are typically useful in but a few situations, whereas broad cards are helpful almost every time you see them. The Bloodknight would be the very definition of a narrow card. It’s incredibly strong if your opponent has a few minions with Devine Shield out – it’ll be a huge monster once the shields are destroyed and the destruction itself will have a huge, immediate impact on the board position. However, the Bloodknight will be pretty lackluster if there are no minions with Devine Shield to pray on. Some decks might not even include such minions, making him a huge gamble.
Broad cards are the exact opposite. Feral Spirit, for example, can get you two bodies to attack and provide and offensive force. It also offers two bodies with Taunt, making it much harder for your opponent to kill you. The wolves can be used to kill opposing minion, too. They can even provide card advantage and can help with your tempo – that’s a lot of situations the card is good in. But it will never match a Bloodknight that’s dropped while your opponent has three minions with Divine Shield in play.
This gamble comes down to risk and reward – and, of course, what decks you are expecting to face. If you know everyone is running rampart with their Paladin-esque minions, Bloodknight will for sure be a valuable card to have. If you know that there are little instances of Devine Shield to be expected, it might be better to choose another card in its place.
X. Basic Deckbuilding
Now that you’ve heard about most of the concepts that you need to know, you should have an idea on what to do to make a deck good. You probably know what to look for in order to see whether a card is good or not; so, if you know good cards, you know a good deck, right? Well, it’s not quite as easy.
You have to realize that there are some scales on which a deck can move around. The first one that you should decide with is its pace. As mentioned before, there are decks that try to be fast and dominate the early phases of the game. These decks, typically aggressive decks (=aggro decks) that want to kill with cheap, yet efficient creatures will aim for a relatively low curve. Lots of one- two- and three mana cards and much less cards that cost four, five or even more mana. These decks don’t bother with costly spells, because, frankly, by the time they could cast them, they’re way past their prime, anyways. Hit’em early, hit’em fast, hit’em hard. That’s the motto here.
The opposite extreme of the pace scale would be late-game decks. These are usually control-oriented and try to lock their opponents out of the game for prolonged periods of time, with cards that can kill minions, stall or wipe the board (like, say, Blizzard). These decks will typically try to hold their opponent down until they get up and running themselves, far later in the game than most other decks – usually by dropping cards that could be described as bombs. A Mage aiming to play Malygos and win off of his +Spellpower would be doing exactly that. Again, there are different ups and downs to both strategies. Aggressive, fast strategies are far more immediate, but lack the huge punch. A controlling deck will have to bide its time until it finally is able to kick into gear, but it’ll kick super hard.
There are, of course, all kinds of variants in-between, mostly described as midrange decks. These try to bridge the gap between aggro decks and creature decks, trying to out-control aggro decks and out-aggro control decks.
The second scale you want to look at is the synergy. The two extremes here would be combo decks that can’t really do anything until they assemble their combo pieces. These decks are almost binary – they win big or lose big, there’s almost no middle ground, no close games. The cards are weak by themselves but literally explode in the opponent’s face upon being brought together.
The opposite of that would be a “good stuff” deck, a deck that consists of almost nothing but individually strong cards. Such a deck doesn’t need to get a specific combination of cards. Every single card has the potential to achieve what the player wants – to win. However, while it will never be as weak as a combo deck that fails to gather its pieces, it will also never be as powerful as a combo deck that does just that.
The middle ground here would typically be occupied by decks that incorporate some little combos into an otherwise “normal” gameplan of either controlling the opponent until the game can be finished safely or by beating the opponent down hard and fast. Tribal decks are part of this middle ground – a deck that focuses on Murlocs, for example. While it’s not breaking into pieces if you can’t get the synergies to work perfectly, it’ll still be considerably stronger when it does.
It’s important to note that, so far, there don’t seem to be any outright combo decks in Hearthstone. Not combo decks that could liken themselves to decks such as The Epic Storm, Grim Long or Doomsday in Magic: The Gathering. So, take that into consideration when thinking about this second scale.
If you manage to pinpoint where you want to be at concerning both scales, all you need to do is pick the cards that will fit your curve and provide the best combination of immediate impact and powerful impact. And voilà, you’ve build yourself a deck – or at least something that could evolve into a deck, with a lot of testing and fine tuning. This is, after all, just theory.
XI. Closing Words
Well, that turned out to be a bit longer than I thought – and even though it’s intended to be a beginner’s guide, it did get a little more in-depth here and there than I intended it to be. On the other hand, there are some topics which could be explored to far greater depth.
However, Hearthstone is not even out yet – so most of these concepts and theories aren’t really proven yet and have been extrapolated from experience with other card games. This, then, means that there’s bound to be a lot of new insights in the future and a lot of the stuff you’ve been reading is subject to change. Either because it’s not accurate for the situation at hand in Hearthstone or because there needs to me more information added.
I would also like to point out that I’ll be very happy to receive feedback, criticism and additions to this guide. It would be great to turn this into a little community projects to help those out who have less experience with card games than some of us.
With just over 5,000 words written, I’d like to thank everyone who’s taken the time to read this guide (despite my English) and especially those who’ve taken the time to give feedback and contribute.
I’d also like to thank the good folks at arcanedust.com for creating a great card database which I did consult quite often during the writing of this guide.