The Mechanics of Hearthstone – Strategies

I don’t understand why, but I’ve been watching a lot of people playing Hearthstone lately. More than any other game in recent memory, it’s incredibly easy to become an armchair tactician, analyzing every move they do and why they do it. It doesn’t hurt that the streamers and commentators for this game enhance the game itself to some degree as a viewing experience, probably presenting a more fun experience than the real game at points. As such, I decided to start playing Hearthstone in earnest (not yet spending money, though) after watching so much of it.

I think I can make a pretty solid judgment on the strategies required to win most games, though. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, so why not get into it and see how ignorant I actually am about all this? After all

The mind of man plans his way,
But the Lord directs his steps.

Proverbs 16

Perhaps I am less foolhardy than I think to write more about a game I both enjoy and despise in subtle ways. On with the show, then!

Board Control – An essential concept for just about every single trading card game in the entire planet, Hearthstone also relies on this concept. You want to control what cards remain in play, and what cards do not. This means clearing your opponent’s board as efficiently as possible every turn, forcing them to make unfavorable trades, and dwindling their hand or health down to nothing. Most of this sounds relatively straightforward, but trust me – a beginner will often think their health, or a particular card, or some magical combo will win the day. No, it will not; control the board, control the tempo, and you control the game.

The most effective classes in the game often have Hero Powers which, in some way, allow you to control the board more efficiently. Druids and Rogues can give themselves the ability to attack targets, while Priests can heal minions/himself and others can use it to summon new minions (Shaman, Paladin). Some classes do not directly control the board, but place pressure on an opponent via dwindling health (Hunter) or constant card draw and advantage (Warlock). I personally like the Warrior (as I do in World of WarCraft, no surprise there), who can armor up every turn as a form of health; this does not control the board, but the Warrior’s myriad weapon cards synergize with this particular ability. Most class cards that each deck type contains supplement the focus of these Hero Powers, making them more effective in combination.

Everything Is A Resource  – I think everyone makes the mistake of assuming that your 30 health total remains a primary concern while playing the game. Unfortunately, that minor mistake will often cost you games. Self-preservation in Hearthstone often leads to safe plays and losing; not being afraid to, say, attack with your face or trade health for cards will often win you the game at the most unlikely of times, and not just via luck. Health is just a resource to be used to establish board control; you can win at 30 health or one health, but the result will always remain the same.

This mean that you use weapons fiercely and precisely to control your opponent (even at the expense of high damage), that you take risks to maintain control of the board, and that you always play with the ultimate win in mind. Even the 30 cards in your deck are a resource; if you know all of the cards in your deck, drawing frequently means a higher chance for the card you need to show itself at the best times. You need to plan ahead, knowing that the random number generator will not always work in your favor.

I learned this lesson the hard way: don’t hold onto “good” cards for a nonexistent combo in your hand. That path ends in sadness and tears. If you cannot make an optimal play using all of your mana every turn, make sure that turn still takes board control. Play with efficiency, and more often than not you will win; play without it in the clutch moments, and you still might win a victory if you make the right judgment call. You gotta work with what you have, rather than a card that refuses to appear. In other words, manage your resources correctly, and you’ll probably eke out a win.

Better Cards Do Not Make a Better Player – It seems assumed, for the most part, that “better” cards win game, or that “top-decking” usually saves the day. From the hundreds of games I’ve seen, this is simply not true. Prior moves in the game put player into a winning situation, not the other way around. Yes, there will always be a random chance element to card games, but that doesn’t mean the game’s results are always random. Top player consistently rank at 75% win rates, which seems astonishing until you recognize that you can, indeed, play well with just about any deck with good synergy and card combinations.

If you want to think of it in a more abstract way, managing your resources means, in a sense, mitigating as much risk as possible under a paradigm of randomness. The gods of RNG will occasionally screw you over, of course, but the point is to remove as much risk as possible in those 30 cards. Assuming you construct a deck with a great ability to answer threats and respond to new problems, then the RNG will not affect you very much. If every draw contains a good draw, then is there a big problem? This, of course, comes down to the meta-game and its various shifts between power whenever new cards emerge onto the scene, but that does not determine a good player – using those cards well makes a deck powerful. I’ve seen a basic deck beat a Handlock, and plenty of other unorthodox deck constructions win the day through unpredictable plays (you never know what you’ll see, especially when people get bored of playing “the standard” decks) that leave a metagame abuser baffled.  In the end, a lot of the game comes down to your play, not the randomness.

This goes against my philosophy of games removing random elements, but the same really applies to most gambling games as well (or at least the ones that require skill and thought in betting). They are games of mitigating risk, and much the same is true of Hearthstone. Blizzard’s TCG does differ in a fundamental respect from most card games, though. Because of its character classes and card limitations, you can predict and respond accordingly; this is both a blessing and a curse, since good players will know the best cards of each class type by default. That leads us to some negative elements regarding the game…

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.