Friday, June 27, 2014

Set Your Hearthstone To Fun!

Seriously, that's the title of the post and I'm non-ironically sticking with it.

Back a few years ago, I suggested that I would soon be writing a post about Hearthstone. That soon has come and it is today. So let's get to it!

I will assume, for the sake of focus, that you know how to play the game. You really don't need any pre-teaching, in my opinion, as the in-game Hearthstone tutorial does a good job of introducing you to the game slowly and unveiling the mechanics of play as you go. By the time you fight Illidan, you are quite prepared.

This post will focused on the advice that I think will be useful for new players; those who have just begun playing, have finished the tutorial and would like some tips on being efficient from the get-go. These tips won't be sufficient to push you to Legend rank, but they should help you avoid some common pitfalls.

What Are Your Resources?

The most obvious resource you have with which to do things is mana. You get one extra mana crystal of capacity per turn and you need mana to do almost anything in Hearthstone. So yes, mana is a resource and a very important one.

There are a couple of other less-obvious resources that you need to be aware of, though, and a couple of related concepts that're not precisely resources but should be discussed along with resources.

The first non-obvious resource to discuss is your hero's health. Many inexperienced players don't look at their life as a resource but rather as a gauge to determine who's winning (and, eventually, who won). That's the wrong way to look at is a coin that you can spend and you should spend it for the right things. While it's not quite this cut-and-dried, there's something to be said for the idea that life doesn't matter until it hits 0.

So what are the right things to trade life for? Why, the things I'm about to discuss.

The second non-obvious resource is cards. The more cards you draw and play, the higher your chances to win go. Having more cards means having more options. Options help you in a few ways. One is that you can handle more varied threats that your opponent develops on his side of the board. "Board states" (what you and your opponent each have on the board at any given time) are problems, puzzles to be solved. Solving them means turning them to the greatest advantage possible for your chances of winning. Cards in hand (and on the board) are answers. The more cards you have available at a given time (and not hidden somewhere in your deck), the more answers you have, giving you a better chance of high quality solutions. Drawing cards is highly favorable. Your opponent drawing cards is highly unfavorable. Each of you has a base card draw of 1 every turn...anything beyond that can really generate a significant advantage.

Now we reach the "related concepts to resources" part of our program. The first one we should discuss is board control. Board control is simple: having a superior set of minions on your side of the board than your opponent has on their side of the board. This can be as simple as having one minion out when your opponent has nothing, or as complex as each of you having five minions out but your minions being capable of more favorable trades. Trading is the act of using one of your minions to kill one of your opponent's. It's a cornerstone of Hearthstone play. If you have a minion with 4 attack and 5 life (by convention denoted as a "4/5") and your opponent has 3/4 minion, you can make a favorable trade, since your minion will kill theirs and leave you with an injured but still very much alive minion (now a 4/2, since it took 3 damage in the trade). Consistently trading smartly and maintaining a stronger board presence than your opponent is often a path to victory.

The final important basic concept is what is known as tempo. Tempo is arguably the most confusing and hazily understood of the basic dynamics and I've seen many stabs at trying to define it, many of them confusing it with card advantage, which we've already covered. I think the easiest way to explain and understand tempo is as such: Tempo is the pace that you effectively use mana over the course of the game to impact the board as compared with your opponent. An example or two should help flesh this out. 

The rogue card Sap is a classic tempo card. At first blush it may seem to accomplish little; you don't destroy the minion, you simply defer it. But let's look at it through the lens of tempo, when used properly. You and your opponent have relatively equal boards, though yours is a bit better set up for trading, going into turn 8, but your opponent gets to go first on turn 8. They use all of their mana to drop an Ironbark Protector. Knowing that you have to trade into it due to its taunt, they attack you directly with their minions. Your life drops to a still-robust 20, but they now seem to have a much stronger position. However, on your turn 8, you sap their Ironbark Protector. That costs you 2 mana. You then use your remaining 6 mana to drop a Boulderfist Ogre. You make those favorable trades that you were set up for before they summoned the Ironbark Protector, destroying their board and leaving several of yours up, as well as the ogre. The next turn, they can summon the Ironbark Protector again, sure. But if so, you've won a few things. First, they very likely lost 7 mana relative to you. 6 mana was lost in summoning the Ironbark Protector the first time, which cost them 8 mana, and you removed from the board for 2 mana. In addition, they mostly likely did not have a 1-mana play to go along with the Ironbark Protector on turn 9, so the 8-mana card is an inelegant fit for turn 9, whereas it fit their mana capacity perfectly on turn 8. The other thing is that now they're summoning their Protector into an empty board (on their side). That means that you've stolen the initiative. You're well set up next turn to run your ogre and a small minion that survived your merciless reign of terror against their board on turn 8 into their Protector (assuming you don't have an even better way to destroy their Protector), possibly leaving one of your surviving minions on the board plus 9 mana to add to your board.

Going the other direction (and hopefully dispelling some confusion), a card like Arcane Intellect is an anti-tempo card. You use three mana and don't affect the board at all. That's not to say it's a bad does generate card advantage (you've turned one card into two) and card advantage is a very important thing. But so is tempo. 

And that brings us to an important thing to understand about Hearthstone: even more than minion trading, Hearthstone is, at heart, about trade-offs. Arcane Intellect trades tempo for card advantage. The warlock hero ability, Life Tap, trades life for card advantage. The rogue hero ability, Dagger Mastery, trades life for board position. Each time you make a decision on what you wish to play, you have to hold these competing dynamics in your head and figure out which dynamic helps you at this time to give you the best chance to win the game down the line.

Win Conditions

Remember that old fad that came into popular consciousness around the 1970s or 1980s that exhorted people to envision success to achieve success? See it and be it? No? Okay, that was just a test to ensure that you're super young and cool, just like me. Thank goodness you passed.

Ahem, in any case, my point here is that whenever you play a deck (whether it's one that you designed yourself or one that was shared by someone else) you should have an idea of how that deck wins. In some sense, you need to be able to envision how that deck succeeds, because your plays should be such that you avoid shutting off those avenues to success. If your deck is built around using the Gadgetzan Auctioneer drawing you tons of cards until you get the ones you need, then you probably don't want to trade your auctioneer into an opponent's minion if you don't have to. If your deck wins by fireballing your opponent to death, you probably don't want to use a turn 4 Fireball on your opponent's 3/3. Resist the temptation and try to get a minion out soon to deal with that opposing minion.

You always need to know how you're going to win and play as if that win condition is coming to come about. If your deck's win condition(s) are too narrow (for example, you need exactly these 5 cards to win and you don't have a lot of ways of staying alive for 20 turns), you won't win a lot and you'll need to tweak your deck to make your win conditions a little broader, hopefully containing multiple ways to win the game.

Learn To Play The Mid-Range Game

There are a few well-established playstyles in Hearthstone (and other card games, like Magic: The Gathering). Not every deck that people play fit perfectly into these archetypes, but they do a good job of generally splitting up the universe of collectible card game decks.

These archetypes are as follows:

Aggressive/Rush: Often shortened to "aggro" and also often called "zoo," these decks aim to flood the board with small minions, the better to overwhelm their opponent quickly. The win condition is to do enough damage to the opponent to kill them before the opponent can get out enough large minions and/or spells to wipe the board clear and stabilize things.

Control: These decks are trying to control the board, generally through spells and "utility minions" (minions with special powers rather than threatening stats), until the late game, which is when they start using their major (and costly) threats to kill their opponent. The win condition is generally to stay alive for 8 or more rounds without much minion trading before crushing their opponents with beefy minions or a flurry of damaging spells.

Mid-Range: This can also sometimes be called "value," but the general idea is to build a balanced deck with a good distribution of early-game, mid-game and late-game minions. Generally the minions this deck will play for a given mana slot are good "value" minions...minions that have good stats for their cost (after considering any special powers or lack thereof). The win condition is to build your lead through incremental victories on the board until your opponent simply runs out of life.

I'd strongly recommend that a beginning player start their Hearthstone adventures with a mid-range deck and work on playing that style of deck as skillfully as possible. There are a few reasons for this.

First of all, it's the most straightforward type of deck to play. Control decks and aggressive decks often involve somewhat tricky look-ahead--what you play and how you use your minions should be strongly influenced by projecting future turns and how you see the game proceeding over the next X turns (granted, this is more true of control than aggressive). Neither deck should really be played purely as "what puts me in the best position this turn?" Whereas, with a mid-range deck, that's a perfectly reasonable way to play. Even with a mid-range deck, look-ahead and being better able to predict what your opponent might do is useful and the more you hone such predictive powers, the better you'll do with any deck. However, with a mid-range deck, optimizing your board state for each particular turn with absolutely no consideration for what your opponent might do in the next turn or two will hurt you the least. I think that learning to optimize your board state on a given turn is a very important skill to learn and the best skill to work on first. Predictive play requires experience, which you don't have yet...optimizing board states doesn't require experience, it's much more an exercise in logic and resource management.

The second reason is that the Arena is a very useful tool to expanding your collection of cards and Arena play is pretty much all about mid-range play. The reason for that is that control and aggressive decks are extremely hard to build when you're given random choices for cards. The Arena gives you 30 choices of 3 cards (choosing one card out of each 3 card slate gives you your 30 card deck), and you never know what your choices will be later in the draft. You may want to build an aggressive deck and take 3 cheap minions in your first four choices...and then end up being offered mostly medium and large minions and spells the rest of the way. Similarly, the chances of you getting enough spells and late-game threats to build a viable control deck are vanishingly small. The only way to handle the randomness of the Arena's deck building process is to take the highest quality card from each slate, adjusting your choices slightly later in the process based on what you've already selected (if you've already selected a lot of expensive minions, you may want some cheaper ones; if your deck is more spell-heavy, you may want to prioritize more minions). The result of doing this should be a relatively balanced deck with some cards for the early, mid and late game. That's a mid-range deck!

Finally, by playing a deck of "value" cards (I strongly suggest you look around on the web a bit for discussion of which cards are high value, because it's not always apparent to someone new to the game what offers the most value in Hearthstone), you start to understand why those cards provide so much value. Understanding why "value cards" are valuable is a crucial step to being able to evaluate cards in general and you'll really only understand that by playing those cards and seeing when they shine.

While this isn't a Hearthstone blog, I may write a post on card value. Something to think about, anyway.

In general, when constructing a mid-range deck, you want your deck to have a mana curve that somewhat resembles a bell curve. Your mana curve is a bar graph of all the cards in your deck organized by mana cost. Having it resemble a bell curve means that you have less of the least expensive and most expensive cards, a few more of the slightly more and less expensive cards and the most cards of roughly average mana cost (3 or 4 mana). You can see your deck's mana curve, while you're building it, by mousing over the name of the deck at the top right of the screen, just above the card list. In the Arena, the mana curve of your deck as you're building it will be prominently displayed in the bottom middle of the screen

Here's an example of a somewhat compulsively balanced deck:

But don't get too concerned over it looking exactly like that. Here's another example of a reasonably well-balanced deck minus the pretty-looking curve:

Just frightfully ugly as a curve, right? But think of your deck like this: cards that cost 0-2 mana are "early game," cards that cost 3-4 mana are "mid-game," and cards that cost 5 or more mana are "late game." In this case, you have 8 early game cards balanced by 8 late game cards and then you have 13 mid-game cards, and you generally want the largest proportion of your deck to be in the 3-4 mana range.

That's simplifying it, of course. There's no particular reason to call a 5 mana card late game rather than mid-game. A 3 mana card could be considered an early game card. But if you organize your deck that way, you'll generally find that your deck costs out well--that is to say, you usually have an appropriate card, or combination of cards, to play for the amount of mana you have on a given turn.

These aren't hard and fast rules. When you're starting out and building a mid-range deck, it may be helpful to balance your deck like the curves I've described here. However, as you play and generate your own sense of things, you may want to fiddle with your mana curve. Maybe you play a mage most of the time and you often find that you like to use your hero power on turn 2. If so, maybe you feel comfortable dropping some early game cards in favor of some more mid-game cards. I'd just caution you not to make your deck too top-heavy--it's very hard to recover from a starting hand comprised mostly of 5 and 6 cost cards unless you get supremely lucky with every draw after that.

But experiment! You learn a lot from science experiments, even the ones that blow up.

RNG Gonna RNG, Amirite?

My final advice to you is to embrace the fact that there is a fair amount of RNG (short for "random number generation" and shorthand for "built-in randomness in computer games") and you should embrace that fact--correctly.

Let's be honest--there's a very random element to any game in which your assets in game are handed out, well, randomly. No matter how good a deck you build, when you get the cards in it is completely subject to luck. You can mitigate that randomness by building (or getting from someone else) a deck design that can work with many card orders, but no deck is immune to just getting the wrong cards for the situations that present themselves.

There are two common pitfalls for newcomers to these types of card games when they come to grips with that randomness. One is to underrate exactly how random the game is and get frustrated by every loss, wondering what they did to lose a game that may have been unwinnable. The other is to overrate exactly how random the game is and assume that every loss they suffer was just due to "bad luck" (or, conversely, their opponent just getting very lucky).

So how random is the game? Well, Trump, a very popular Hearthstone livestreamer, a very experienced collectible card gamer (going back to Magic) and someone with a pretty good grasp of numbers, has estimated that the game is somewhere around 20% luck. How he came to this conclusion, I don't know, but I trust his evaluations of the game and the number seems reasonable to me. Let's assume that that's right for the moment and consider what that means.

Here's one way to look at that number: If Hearthstone is 20% luck, we could use that percentage to divide all the games we play into 20% of our games being determined entirely by luck and 80% of the games we play being determined entirely by skill. This is not the way it would actually play out in reality (in reality, every game would be partially luck, partially skill), but in the abstract it's a valid way to understand how 20% luck would impact us.

20% of games is 1 in every 5. No matter how good one is, you'd expect to lose 1 game out of every 5 just because life sucks sometimes. It's in the other 4 games out of 5 that you rise and fall based on your skill (again, in the reality, things don't divide up that neatly).

The best way to wrap your head around the game being random is not to think of it like a game of chess, where it's purely skill deterministic and if you play flawlessly, you'll win. Even if you play a game relatively flawlessly in Hearthstone, you might still lose. Your opponent may just get exactly the right card at exactly the right time. No, you should consider every good decision as pushing the odds slightly more in your favor. Every mistake you make push the odds further against you. Your only goal when playing the game should be to keep piling the odds in your favor with good deck design and smart decisions each turn. Do that and let the chips fall where they will. This is the mentality of professional poker players. No matter how good they are at the game, they know that they can't be sure of winning any given game. All they can do is keep making smart decisions, incrementally build the odds in their favor and then hope more games fall in their favor than don't.

I look at Hearthstone as a logical puzzle game with a random element. Keep trying to solve the puzzles and don't get frustrated when you lose. Set your Hearthstone to fun. (Again, seriously. Not even a bit ironic.)