The entire post is basically an application of the principles of deliberate practice laid out in the book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson is a psychologist at Florida State University who’s devoted the bulk of his professional career investigating the psychological mechanisms that underlie human expertise and the acquisition of expertise.
Why it matters how you practice in Hearthstone
People tend to hold on to the belief that all that is required in order to get better in Hearthstone is to play a lot of games. Some might go a step further and add the qualification that getting better in Hearthstone requires that you not only play games, but play them mindfully, i.e. without distraction.
While I agree that playing a lot of games with the right mindset is a necessary part of the process, I don’t believe that this is the end of the story on Hearthstone practice. Nobody believes that the best way for athletes to improve is simply to just play a lot of matches in their respective sport. There is so much more that athletes can do, including performing drills, conditioning their body, studying game film, etc. I believe that Hearthstone is no different in principle than these sorts of activities.
Perhaps this is unconvincing to many. That’s fine. My intended audience is not those who need to be convinced of the importance of a certain kind of practice. Rather, this post is directed towards those who find themselves “stuck” at a certain level of ability even after playing this game for an extended period of time. Maybe you’ve been playing since beta, but can’t get past rank 10. Your experience shows that simply playing the game is not sufficient for improvement. If you’re interested in getting better, then read on.
Practicing effectively requires a baseline level of knowledge. This baseline includes not only the fundamentals of how the game is played, but also how card effects resolve and the order in which they resolve. This type of knowledge isn’t beneath anyone, including pros. (See this video, as well as this one for cases where pros forget how cards work.)
Furthermore, practicing effectively requires at least a low level familiarity of core concepts in Hearthstone like tempo and value. (Trump’s basic teachings videos are a great resource for relaying these concepts to beginners.)
Finally, preliminary knowledge includes at least a working knowledge of the deck(s) that you’re playing. You’ll want to know what a “win condition” is in general and what your deck’s win condition is in particular. You’ll also want to know at least in general how the cards in your deck work together to achieve the deck’s win condition.
For beginners, the best way to practice is just to play games and have fun. Build your collection and begin familiarizing yourself with the cards, especially ones that you see relatively often while you play. Once you’ve gotten a feel for the game, you can supplement your knowledge by availing yourself to many of the excellent resources that are available online. The moderators of this subreddit have curated a list of excellent articles that can be accessed by clicking the “Timeless Resources” link on the banner. (Note to moderators: The sidebar link, “Hearthstone Resources” is outdated.)
Once you generally know how the game is played, the next step is to practice. Most people pretty much stop here. They just play a lot, and wonder why they don’t improve. My theory is that they don’t deliberately practice. The next section gets into what exactly deliberate practice is.
What deliberate practice is
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
Vince Lombardi, Six time NFL champion coach.
First, we start with the notion of “naïve” practice. Naïve practice is just what I described above. It the unreflective repetition of tasks that are more or less related to the activity at hand. Many individuals who are motivated to improve their Hearthstone play probably just practice in this way.
No one denies that you have to put in time to get better at Hearthstone, and that usually means that you have to play a lot of games. The argument here is, that while time spent might be necessary condition, it is not a sufficient condition. In order to really improve in Hearthstone, i.e. get off the skill plateau that you’re experiencing, you have to put in time AND invest that time in an effective way. Spending your time effectively is what deliberate practice is all about.
There are six principles of deliberate practice. I will describe each and apply them to Hearthstone.
1. Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations.
A mental representation is any kind of mental structure that corresponds to an object, idea, or a collection of information. A chess master who is able to “see” a checkmate in ten moves given a certain board state relies on a mental representation. A concert violinist who can “hear” how a piece should sound before playing it is also relying on a mental representation.
Top Hearthstone players have accumulated thousands of mental representations. Given a certain match up and board state, then can “see” the different ways in which the series of turns can pan out. Not only do top Hearthstone players (as well as other experts) have access to many mental representations, their representations are typically very refined. When they “see” a game unfolding, they are capable of processing all of the details, including cards played, ways in which effects resolve, how minions are played, etc.
Deliberate practice is all about the acquisition and refinement of mental representations. In Hearthstone, this representation comes down to being able to “see” how games resolve, just like a chess master can “see” checkmate given a board state.
2. Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically.
Skills and mental representations work together to form a virtuous circle. Good mental representations aid in the acquisition and development of skills. Skills will help to develop good mental representations. What sorts of skills are involved in Hearthstone play?
The skills used in Hearthstone can be sorted roughly into two broad categories: acquiring information and making decisions.
Information acquisition more or less comes in four types:
- Information about your opponent’s hand
- Information about your opponent’s deck
- Information about your deck
- Information about how card effects resolve
The first is fairly straightforward. Two includes knowledge of the meta, and what kind of deck that your opponent is likely playing. This in turn influences information about the likelihood that your opponent has a certain kind in their deck and the likelihood that they will draw into it. The third is basically about the probability that you draw into your outs, i.e. drawing into a card that you need in order to further your deck’s win condition. The fourth can vary. Examples include what your opponent might have chosen from a discover mechanic, or the likelihood of a certain kind of minion being summoned from a battlecry (e.g. Barnes, Faceless Summoner), deathrattle (e.g. Piloted Shredder), or inspire mechanic (e.g. Confessor Paletress).
Decision making in Hearthstone also more or less comes in four types:
- Whether to play cards, and if so, what cards to play (I count the hero power as playing a card.)
- If cards are played, where to target card or minion effects
- Whether to attack with minions and if so, where to target them
- The order in which the above three actions are done
Deliberate practice in Hearthstone zeroes in on these skills and focuses on activities that effectively improve these skills.
3. Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement.
Having discussed skills and mental representations above, the idea of goals in deliberate practice should be clearer. In deliberate practice, goals should in some concrete way address the improvement of skills or mental representations.
There are many goals that can be set in Hearthstone. The important thing here is that they are well articulated and address the improvement of some skill(s) or mental representations. There should be a well defined path starting with practice and ending with the attainment of the goal. Examples of desirable goals could include being able to predict an opponent’s turn 1-4 plays, or being able to correctly decide whether to trade or go face on a particular turn. Examples of bad goals would something attaining the rank of legend. Such a goal is bad because it is far too general. Getting to legend is fine as a long term goal, but it is unhelpful for the purposes of deliberate practice.
4. Deliberate practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.
In order to improve at a skill, you need to address areas of weakness and unfamiliarity. Furthermore, areas in which you are strong need to be challenged further. Speaking of strength, consider strength training. You’re not going to get any stronger if you don’t handle weights that are heavy, and thus out of your comfort zone. As Omar Little from The Wire eloquently puts it, “How you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?”
This principle is more or less straightforward, but how does it apply to Hearthstone? It involves putting yourself in situations where your inadequacies are challenged. Do you find that you decision making difficulties? Practice by playing a decision heavy deck like Miracle Rogue or Yogg Druid. Are you having trouble predicting your opponent’s plays. Watch a stream or VOD and pause it to predict what the opponent will play.
5. Deliberate practice requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions.
This is one is also straightforward, and the principle that Hearthstone players are most familiar with. If you’re practicing, then focus all of your attention on the practice. Don’t watch videos or TV while you’re practicing Hearthstone. Don’t try to practice while distracted.
6. Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback.
It’s easy to see why feedback is important in deliberate practice. If you’re trying to acquire skills and mental representations, then you need to make sure that those skills and mental representations develop correctly. Naïve practice without feedback generally leads to the formation of bad habits that become harder to undo over the long run.
Getting the right kind of feedback can be difficult in Hearthstone. For most, the only kind of feedback that registers is a win or loss. If you lost a game, then there may be something that you did incorrectly that led to that loss. Likewise, if you win, you probably did some things correctly that led to the win. However, this sort of feedback is generally unhelpful. It can be difficult for many players to correctly identify misplays. As a result, people are left wondering why they lost a game. Worse still, they may be tempted to blame factors outside of their control, like card draw or the opponent high rolling some RNG mechanic.
I’ll have more to say on how one can get good feedback in Hearthstone below.
Now that I’ve gone over the principles of deliberate practice, we can now see how this might be applied concretely in Hearthstone.
Deliberate practice in Hearthstone
How can you deliberately practice Hearthstone? Many fields have practice methods that have been refined for decades, even centuries. Hearthstone is not one of those fields. As far as I know, there is no such thing as “best practices” when it comes to deliberately practicing Hearthstone. All I can offer here are two suggestions to maybe get the ball rolling.
1. Identify your weaknesses
If skills and mental representations in Hearthstone can be more or less summarized as I did above, then locate which are the ones where you are deficient. Identifying your weaknesses sets the agenda for your practice. Your goals will be to shore up your weaknesses by developing the appropriate skills and developing the right mental representations.
How do you identify your weaknesses? This is where game review comes into play. There are some awesome tools available for evaluating your play. First, there’s Track-o-Bot. Track-o-Bot is the best program out there for keeping track of your stats because it is the most fine grained, it will log your win-loss record not only against classes, but also against deck archetypes. So instead of seeing that you’re 36-54 against Warrior, it’ll tell you that you’re 25-20 against Dragon Warrior and 11-34 against Control Warrior. This is extremely important because improving as a Hearthstone player is largely a function of developing refined mental representations of various match ups. You really need to know which match ups you’re doing poorly against in order to best direct your practice efforts.
Another excellent tool is Hearthstone Deck Tracker (HDT). Aside from the nice overlay, what makes HDT such a great tool is its new HSReplay feature. Once you download their newest beta client, all games that you play while the client is on gets uploaded to your account on the HSReplay website. From there, you can review your individual games turn by turn. It’s an excellent tool that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Once you’ve downloaded these programs, how do you use them? In general, what you want to look for are patterns and tendencies. Is there a certain kind of deck or class that you are playing poorly against? Track-o-Bot will help you find that out. Are you consistently making similar kinds of misplays? Review enough games on HSReplay and you’ll find out. Once you’ve found certain negative tendencies, you’ll have your practice goals.
2. Engage in practice activities that directly address your weaknesses
Deliberate practice must abide by the following principles:
- It must have specific goals (those goals being determined by your weaknesses).
- It must take you out of your comfort zone.
- It must have feedback.
Are there activities in Hearthstone that meet the above criteria? At this point, we unfortunately don’t have a lot of options. Basically the options that I’m aware come down to three:
- Play Hearthstone matches
- Watch streams or VODs.
- Do “What’s the Play?” kind of puzzles (like the ones done here on weekly basis).
The problem with these activities (particularly the first two) is that they may not directly address a weakness that you’re trying to improve. For instance, suppose that you have trouble identifying lethal. Playing games or watching VODs may place you in a position where you have an opportunity to identify a lethal play that isn’t obvious, but will not do so consistently. What would be better is to be able to sift through screenshots of board states that present lethal puzzles. This would directly address the issue.
One goal that I would like to see the Hearthstone community pursue (and one that I would certainly be willing to contribute to) is to develop resources in the form of exercises and drills that would directly improve important skills and mental representations in Hearthstone. This could come in the form of a database filled with screenshots of board states. An expert or community of experts could identify the correct play for each screenshot. This can be hidden from the viewer. The viewer can then try to identify the correct play, and then click a button to reveal the experts’ answer in order to receive immediate feedback. This would basically be something like the weekly “What’s the Play?” thread in this subreddit, but expanded, sorted, and curated. This is of course one suggestion among many possible options.
An example of a practice routine in Hearthstone
Let’s say that you have an hour each day to practice Hearthstone. What would be the best way to spend that hour? Here’s one sample routine:
Review games from the previous day and identify any trends in misplays or weak match ups. (10 min)
Practice exercises, drills or activities that directly address the above identified weaknesses. (20 min)
Play more games, to be reviewed the following day. (30 min)
I believe that getting into a practice routine like this would be far more effective than simply just playing games, even if you were to play those games mindfully.
The importance of coaching and player community in Hearthstone
As a beginning to intermediate player trying to get their bearings in Hearthstone, it can be difficult to be able to assess yourself and identify the activities that would address your shortcomings. In many other areas in which expertise is sought, beginners don’t concern themselves with these sorts of things. Instead, an instructor or coach is the one responsible for identifying their flaws and putting together a practice regiment to address those flaws.
There are plenty of coaches out there in Hearthstone. (Here’s a good place to look for one.) The services they offer are valuable. If you’re interested in getting coached, however, you should keep the following in mind. Don’t settle for a coach that just watches you play and tells you what to do. This is an important part of coaching, but it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the only part. A good coach will not only provide immediate feedback of your in game decisions, but will also assess where you are as a player and formulate a strategy on how to deliberately practice so that you improve as a player. Every other coach or instructor does this. Hearthstone coaches should be no exception. When looking for a coach, make sure that he or she is someone that can help you deliberately practice. Even if these coaches cost more, it’s totally worth it if you are serious about improving.
Being in a community of players can also be very beneficial for improvement. For one thing, having friends to play with means you can practice a particular match up without having to hope that you run into it on the ladder or in casual play. Friends are also provide feedback, and being able to play with others and talk through your plays allows you to develop and refine your own mental representations.
Another great resource is the website Zero to Heroes. You can upload your games to this website via Zero to Heroes plug in for HDT. Once your games are on the site, community members can offer comments about the game. You also have the option of flagging the game and having a pro review it for a fee. The website is great if you’re having difficulty reviewing your own games and identifying misplays.