Hearthstone 101: Building and Playing Your Deck

20 Sep

Hello, fellow traveler! I’m GreatWyrm on BattleNet (#1807), and I’ve been playing HS since season 4 (July 2014). This is my follow-up blog to HearthStone 101: Tips for Beginners. Here I’m going to get into the basic strategy and tactics you need to know to get a head start in this great game:

Tactical Resources

Before we get into deck-building, it’s helpful to explain a game fundamental: At its root, HS is a game of resource-management. You begin each match with 30 life, a hand of 3-5 cards, and 1 cumulative mana per turn. If you can use these resources better than your opponent uses his, you win the match!

Life: Most beginners instinctively avoid life-loss at all costs, but this is a faulty instinct. Your life total is a resource that you can use to win…so long as it doesn’t reach 0, of course. The obvious example of this is Lifetap, which allows a warlock to spend his life to gain a benefit. (And Lifetap is in the running for best hero power!) Because life-loss has no consequence until a hero reaches 0, many deck strategies include spending it in order to win.

Cards: You begin each match with 3-5 cards, and gain 1 more per turn. Card (dis)advantage is how many cards you have in your hand compared to your opponent. If you have more, you have the advantage; if you have fewer, you have the disadvantage. Certain cards, like Arcane Intellect, increase your card advantage. (One card spent to gain two = +1 cards.) Other cards, like Novice Engineer, are said to be ‘card neutral.’ (One card spent, one card gained.)

Tempo: Each turn, you gain 1 mana, plus the mana you had last turn. Tempo is how efficiently you use that mana compared to your opponent. For example, say your opponent has just used his first turn to play a Murloc Raider. On your first turn, you then kill the Raider with an Elven Archer. You’ve foiled everything that your opponent did on his turn, and put your own minion into play; you’ve gained tempo!

Deck-Building: Have a Strategy!

Before you start throwing cards into your deck, you should have a strategy in mind. The five basic deck strategies are:

Aggro: This strategy is very straightforward, minion-centric, and luck-dependent. An aggro deck seeks to win via elimination of the life resource; it floods the early board with small minions, and uses them to bring the opponent’s life to 0 before he can effectively react. The aggro strategy is popular among beginners because luck favors the underdog, aggro decks are cheap to make, easy to play, and quick to win or lose.

Midrange: As the name implies, this strategy is the midpoint between aggro and the following strategy (control). Against aggro, midrange plays like control; against control, midrange plays like aggro. This tactical variety makes the midrange strategy the favorite of many players.

Control: This is the slowest, the least minion-centric, and the most tactical strategy. A control deck seeks to win via the card resource; it eliminates early- and mid-game threats with tactical use of spells and minions, slowly building card advantage. When the opponent has played out his hand, the control deck then uses a big minion or two to win the match. Control is my own personal favorite strategy.

Tempo: A tempo deck seeks to win via tempo, by using card synergy to use its mana more efficiently than the opponent. For example, a tempo deck might play a Cogmaster on turn 1 (T1), followed by a Mechwarper and a Clockwork Gnome on T2, resulting in 3 damage and 3 minions by T2! Tempo decks win by creating a ‘snowball effect,’ where card synergy creates a quickly mounting threat which keeps the opponent on the defensive until his life hits 0. However, because card synergies are somewhat luck-dependent and can be interrupted, this strategy requires good deck-building skill and can be inconsistent in play.

Combo: Not to be confused with the rogue’s unique card mechanic, which is actually an example of card synergy, the combo strategy uses combinations of specific cards to spectacular effect. For example, a druid might play Force of Nature followed by Savage Roar, winning the game in one dramatic turn by dealing 14+ damage all at once! This strategy is even more skill- and luck-dependent than the tempo strategy: Building a good combo deck is difficult, and in play it tends to either win hard or lose hard.

Deck-Building: Pick the Right Cards!

When deck-building, it helps to keep a few things in mind:

Stats: When picking minions, pay attention to its attack and health (its stats). The best value minions give you more than twice their mana cost in stats: The Acidic Swamp Ooze gives you 5 stats for 2 mana, the Chillwind Yeti gives you 9 stats for 4 mana, the Boulderfist Ogre gives you 13 stats for 6 mana, and so on. If a minion gives you fewer stats than this, it should have text to make up for its lower stats.

Balance Attack and Health: Many beginners are tempted to think that attack is more valuable than health, but this is not necessarily so. Some players favor slightly high health or slightly high attack, but a balance of attack and health is usually best. For example, the Chillwind Yeti is preferable to the Oasis Snapjaw because the latter can kill hardly anything, while the War Golem is preferable to the Core Hound because the latter is so easy to kill. Keep in mind, stats are relative to a card’s cost; a 2 attack would be perfectly acceptable for a 1- or 2-drop, and a 5 health would be completely adequate for a 4- or 5-drop. But not so for a 4- and a 7-drop, respectively!

Don’t Let Them Have Nice Things: As a beginner, you don’t have nice things, so don’t let your opponent have nice things either! Many beginners are tempted to simply fill their decks with their best minions, and then try to duke it out in play. While I’m sure there’s a deck out there that can win this way, HS is designed with the following concepts in mind, and learning them will help you win:

  • Removal: Cards, usually spells, which allow you to kill enemy minions are known as ‘removals.’ Virtually every deck benefits from removal; aggro decks use just a couple of removals to eliminate enemy taunts, while control decks use many removals to efficiently remove enemy minions. Fireball is the classic example of a removal card, while minions such as the Elven Archer include removal effects.
  • Hard Removal: While ‘removal’ refers to effects that merely deal damage, ‘hard removal’ refers to effects which kill or incapacitate minions regardless of their stats. Hard removals are especially important to control decks, whose big minions often can’t be easily eliminated any other way, and vice versa. Assassinate is the classic example of a hard removal card, while spells like Polymorph also qualify, and minions like the Big Game Hunter include hard removal effects.
  • Silencers: Though not as powerful as removals, cards which silence enemy minions can be very handy. You can turn a Piloted Shredder into a plain 4/3, Cairne Bloodhoof into a Yeti, Gruul into a War Golem, and so on. Silence effects waste your opponent’s mana, make his minions more manageable, and puts your own minion on the board. (Assuming you’re using Ironbeak Owls or Spellbreakers.) In other words, silencers gain you tempo much like removals do!

Mana Curve: After you’ve got 30 cards in your new deck, scroll your cursor over its hero icon to check its mana curve. (The little mana cost graph that pops up.) Depending on your chosen strategy, your mana curve should look something like this:

1: 10
2: 8
3: 6
4: 4
5: 2
6: 0
7+: 0
Total Minions: 24-28
Total Spells: 2-6

1: 8
2: 6
3: 6
4: 4
5: 4
6: 2
7+: 0
Total Minions: 22-26
Total Spells: 4-8

1: 6
2: 6
3: 4
4: 4
5: 4
6: 4
7+: 2
Total Minions: 20-24
Total Spells: 6-10

Don’t worry about slavishly adhering to these guidelines. They’re platonic ideals that don’t take individual cards into account, and virtually no deck ever matches any of these guidelines exactly. I, for example, always seem to end up with a spike at 4 mana no matter which strategy I’m building toward, because there are so many good 4-drop cards!

I’m not including guidelines for tempo or combo because these strategies are so variable, and because they require specific cards that you probably don’t have access to.

Remember Card Advantage: No matter what deck you play, you’ll find that your hand will run out all too quickly, which leaves you ‘top-decking’ — a very bad position. So even if you’re building an aggro deck, it’s usually wise to include 2-4 card-neutral cards. If you’re building a control deck, you need cards like Arcane Intellect which grant you positive card advantage. The exception to all of this is the warlock, who can Lifetap for card advantage.

Learn as You Play: As you play your new deck, pay attention to which cards worked well and which didn’t, and then tweak it as you go. As a rule of thumb, play at least three matches with your deck before changing it. The game’s randomness means that just one or two matches can easily give you a ‘false read’ on your deck.

Playing the Game

Know When to Play Which Card: Generally, you want to use all of your mana to play a single card each turn, and possibly use your hero power. If that card is a minion, you want it to be the best value-minion you can play that turn; if you play a spell, you want it to be the best buff or removal you can play that turn. Of course, this hardly ever happens just the way you want it to happen, and there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Just because a card costs 1 mana doesn’t make it a T1 play, just because a card costs 2 mana doesn’t make it a T2 play, and so on. This is especially important to remember at the start of a match, when you can ‘mulligan’ for different cards. For example, Abusive Sergeant is a 1-drop, but is usually a poor T1 play. Because barring highly unusual circumstances, the Sergeant’s ability will be wasted on T1. So unless you also have a more useful 1-drop in your opening hand, it’s probably wise to mulligan for that more useful 1-drop.
  • Keep Board-Wipes in Mind: Always assume that your opponent has the most inconvenient ‘board-wipe’ in his hand, and play accordingly. For example, if you’re playing against a mage who’s coming up on her 7th turn, assume she has a Flamestrike in hand. So if you already have a 4- health minion on the board, don’t play another one! Unless you plan to ‘trade’ the 4- health minion with one of hers, either play a 5+ health minion instead, or play a spell.
  • Keep Removals in Mind: Similarly, if you have a Yeti and an Ogre in hand on T6, play the Yeti! She probably has a Fireball or a Polymorph, which you want to ‘bait’ out by playing your Yeti. After she’s killed your Yeti, the Ogre you play next turn has a better chance of surviving!

Know What to Attack: It’s tempting to attack your opponent before his minions, and to heal yourself before your own minions, but it’s usually better to resist this temptation. Here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  • Trade Wisely: If you can ‘trade’ an enemy minion for one of yours on your turn, it’s usually wise to do it. Why? Because every enemy has access to cards that can either kill yours or buff their own. Leaving enemy minions on the board gives your opponent an opportunity to gain [more] board control. However, there are exceptions…
  • Avoid Bad Trades: If killing an enemy minion requires sacrificing two of your own, it’s often best to ignore that minion. Trade for other minions, or simply attack the enemy hero.
  • Taunts: If you have a taunt on the board, it’s often best to ignore some or all enemy minions. Unless your opponent has a minion on the board that can kill your taunt without dying, your opponent will probably have to trade for your taunt next turn anyway, so you may as well deal some ‘face’ damage!
  • Weapons: Weapons can be very useful, but are also tricky to use right. If you can kill an enemy minion with a weapon, it’s usually best to do so; that minion will either kill one of your minions or slam your face next turn anyway, so you might as well kill it now! However, if your weapon doesn’t have the stats to kill a minion with one attack, it’s probably best to either save the weapon for future enemy minions or take it to your opponent’s face.
  • Chargers: It’s best to think of chargers as removal cards, like damage spells. Barring class cards, chargers have such low health that they hardly ever last beyond the round you play them, so it’s best not to play one until there’s an enemy minion you want to kill.

Know What to Remove: It’s tempting to use your damage spells and effects to knock your opponent’s life down by a few points, but this is usually a mistake. Unless you can win by doing so, it’s best to save those removals for enemy minions! Here are a few more pointers to keep in mind:

  • Cost for Cost: Ideally, every removal you play should kill a minion that cost your opponent as much or more mana to play. Unless a cheap minion is causing you great grief, don’t kill it for more mana than your opponent spent to play it, because this loses you tempo.
  • Save Your Hard Removals: Even more so than other removals, hard removals are precious. At most, you have two per deck, so don’t spend them trivially! (Unless perhaps you’re a priest, but priest removals are weird.) The meaning of ‘trivial’ depends on your removal’s cost, what your strategy is, and what your opponent’s is, but as a rule of thumb save your hard removals for minions that cost more than the removal. This gains you tempo!

Additional Resources

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Posted by on 20/09/2015 in Uncategorized


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