Now that we understand the importance of roles, it’s time to learn how to construct a solid plan which will guide us through tough decisions.
Legend in the Making: Part 2
Ranks 15 to 10 – Having a Plan and Playing to Outs
Welcome to part two of “Legend in the Making”, my four-part series on all the skills you’ll need to reach Hearthstone’s highest rank.
I’m of the opinion that anyone can reach Legend so long as they have a solid grasp on the fundamentals and are willing to commit the time and effort. I can’t promise to help you find the time and motivation it will take to play the 300 or more games it takes to reach Legend, but I can certainly help you learn the fundamentals.
In part one I discussed the importance of identifying your role as the aggro or control player in every game of Hearthstone. Commonly referred to as “who’s the beatdown?”, I can’t possibly overstate how critical it is to understand this concept before moving on to more complex topics. If you don’t have a solid understanding of “who’s the beatdown?” then you should go back and read part one before part two, even if you’re already rank 15 or higher. Part two builds upon the ideas of its predecessor and is written under the assumption that the reader understands the terms I defined in it.
In part two we’ll be covering two highly related concepts: “having a plan” and “playing to outs”. If understanding your role in a matchup is what separate the beginners from the intermediate players, then “having a plan” and “playing to outs” are what separate the intermediate players from the advanced ones.
“Having a plan” is a framework for making tough decisions in tight games, and to have a plan is to consider the past, present, and future of our current game when making decisions. “Playing to outs” is the framework for making decisions in games where one player is clearly ahead. To play to your own outs is to ask and answer “how can I win this game?” when playing from behind. Conversely, playing to your opponent’s outs is to ask and answer “how can I lose this game?” when you have the lead.
By having a plan we can make more informed decisions in the present by making choices which guide ourselves towards a desirable future state. It’s always better to have a plan than to not have one, so we should begin each turn by asking ourselves a series of questions to determine what the best plan is and what can we do right now to get there the fastest.
People who aim to rapidly improve at Hearthstone tend to adopt a heuristic-based approach to their decision making. They adopt hard and fast rules such as “never Coin into Wild Growth” or “never play turn one Northshire Cleric against a Warrior”, but in Hearthstone there is no such thing as “never”. Decisions in Hearthstone, just like decisions in real life, depend entirely upon the context in which they are made. “Having a plan” and “playing to outs” require that you have the ability to make decisions based solely on the texture of the current game, regardless of how stupid these decisions might look in another one. In a vacuum its a terrible idea to attack a 10/1 into a 1/1, but there are many contexts in which this attack is the only way to win the game.
It’s time to throw out our old toolbox for making decisions and replace it with a newer, more complete one. Let’s learn how to break the rules.
Watching Replays and The Art of Learning
As I mentioned in part one, a large part of how I was able to reach Legend in my first month of competitive play were the lessons I learned from a book called The Art of Learning. It taught me how to critically analyze my own decisions, relentlessly hunt down my mistakes, and create systems to prevent myself from repeating these mistakes. Many readers have reached out to thank me for recommending The Art of Learning to them – I promise you won’t regret reading it.
If you learn only one thing from this entire series then let it be this: watch your replays. The quickest way to learn and improve at Hearthstone (and at life in general) is to make mistakes, identify those mistakes as quickly as possible, and never repeat them. The best way to identify our mistakes is to watch replays of our games. You’ll need a deck tracker to watch replays, so if you aren’t using one already get a deck tracker installed right away.
One of my readers commented on part one with a question about replays. They noted how much time it normally takes to reach Legend and asked if it would take them even longer if they had to watch their replays all time.
In a word, no. In two words, hell no.
Every time you make a mistake and it goes unnoticed you set yourself up to make the same mistake again in the future. Games are often won or lost on the back of a single mistake, and every game loss on the ladder requires an additional win just to get you back to where you started. If you’re hoping to reach Legend in any kind of timely manner then you simply can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes over and over.
If you ever lose a game and feel as though there was a way you could have won if you played the game perfectly, take this as a very strong signal that you should watch the replay before jumping back on the ladder. Keep an eye out for the mistakes you made, embrace these mistakes as a valuable learning opportunity, and find a way to make sure you don’t repeat them.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Intermediate level Hearthstone players love to make “high value” plays. They have just enough experience with Hearthstone to know what a high value play looks like, but they lack the wisdom to know if their high value plays are actually helping them win the game. These players tend to get angry when they lose because they have convinced themselves that they deserve to win every game. They’ll rationalize each defeat by telling themselves they had terrible luck or that their opponent’s deck is overpowered. There’s always a reason these players lose, and it’s never their own fault.
What I just described is a well documented phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect states that the less knowledgeable someone is the more likely they are to believe they’re an expert. This extremely common cognitive bias (which I have been very guilty of in the past) occurs when someone knows just enough about something to understand it better than a beginner but not nearly enough to understand how much they still have left to learn.
Have you ever met someone who only knows how to play Wonderwall and the intro to Stairway to Heaven on their new guitar but they’re already talking about the fancy car they’ll buy when they become a famous guitarist? That’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. The guy who posts on the official Blizzard forums the same day a new set comes out claiming to have solved the entire meta? Dunning-Kruger effect. That buddy of yours who claims the only reason they didn’t hit rank 5 last season is because Pirate Warrior is overpowered? You guessed it, Dunning-Kruger effect. By convincing themselves they know more than they actually do these people have become their own biggest obstacle to improving at Hearthstone. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the poison pill to progress.
Section 1: What’s the Plan?
The Difference Between Roles and Plans
Many of you who have just arrived from part one may be wondering something along the lines of:
Well, not exactly. Knowing your role certainly factors into your plan, but it’s not what I’m talking about when I use the word “plan” in part two. “Beatdown” is no more of a plan for winning at Hearthstone than “going fast” is a plan for winning the Tour de France.
Your role in a matchup is the big picture, long-term reason for why you should be making the decisions you’re making. Your plan is the shorter-term, context dependent method for determining how you should make your decisions. Roles inform decisions over the course of the entire game while plans inform decisions over the course of the next few turns.
Let’s walk you through an example:
Here I am playing Aggro Token Druid against Jade Druid. You’re hard pressed to find more clearly defined roles than this matchup, I gotta kill ‘em!
I had an incredible first turn of double Innervate into Bittertide Hydra plus Coin into Enchanted Raven (note: this play was made before the nerf to Innervate, so the card adds 2 mana instead of 1). I’ve been pushing as much damage to his face as I can but I’m faced with a difficult choice on turn five. Do I play Living Mana or Druid of the Claw? My role is obvious, but what’s my plan here?
Living Mana has the potential to get blown out by Innervate + Primordial Drake, which could potentially allow my opponent to turn the corner on me if he has any number of cards (such as Jade Behemoth or Earthen Scales) the following turn. Another thing to consider is that my Bittertide Hydra will have 3 life on his next turn and could be killed by a Wrath. If I wanted to play the Druid of the Claw as a 4/4 with charge then my opponent would need to have Wrath plus another spell which dealt with my 4/4. I remembered that my opponent had already played a Wrath, a Swipe, and a Feral Rage this game, so I decided that the odds that he could deal with my Hydra plus my 4/4 were lower than the odds he had Innervate + Primordial Drake. I ended up going with the Druid of the Claw play and winning the game.
What Goes Into a Plan?
Continuing with the above example, let’s take a look at some of the factors which went into formulating my plan:
My role in the matchup.
The cards in my hand.
The state of the board.
My opponent’s life total.
The specific cards my opponent had already played this game.
The amount of health my Bittertide Hydra will have after attacking the Tar Creeper.
The amount of mana my opponent will be able to produce the following turn assuming he has an Innervate in hand.
The cards which are likely to be in my opponent’s deck which I haven’t seen yet.
All of this just to choose which card I play on turn 5! But what if I didn’t “have a plan”? What would the factors for my turn 5 decision look like then?
My role in the matchup
The cards in my hand
The state of the board
My opponent’s life total
Without a plan, decisions are made through the lens of how they impact you from the data you can see right now.
What do I have? What’s on the board? Can I kill him right now? No? Then I guess I’ll do whatever kills him the most this turn!
Playing with a plan means you consider not only what going on right now, but what has already happened in the past or is likely to happen in the future. It also means that you realize your own cards are only half of the puzzle and that your opponent plays just a big a role in determining the outcome of the game as you do. Playing with a plan is a holistic approach to decision making which accounts for the past, the present, the future, and the player on the other side of the table. If these four factors are all the pieces of a puzzle, then having a plan is the act of putting the puzzle together.
During a recent server maintenance on NA I decided to play on EU for the first time. After I played through the mandatory tutorial missions I slapped together a budget Hunter deck and hopped onto the ladder for the first time.
I got paired against a rank 25 Mage and was on The Coin. Turn one my opponent casts Arcane Missiles into an empty board and sends three damage to my face. I right click Rexxar.
I passed my first turn with no play. Turn two he casts a Frostbolt to my face.
I won the game handedly. I played minions, he couldn’t kill them, and he died.
Did I win because my opponent didn’t have a plan? Not at all. My opponent had a plan, a very popular one in fact. I call it the “play stuff” plan. Many new players default to the “play stuff” plan because they don’t know any better, but this plan is doomed to fail because it only considers one stretch of time: the present.
Do I have a one drop? Cool, let’s play it! Is that a two drop? Frostbolt to the face, take that! Ooh look, I’m at 30 and my opponent is at 24. I’m winning!
Playing a card because it’s in your hand is like getting on a bus because it’s the first one at the bus stop. Sure, sometimes you’ll get lucky and step on the right bus (play the right card without realizing it), but if your plan is to always get on the first bus you see then you’re going to eventually end up in the wrong part of town (turn one Arcane Missiles to the face).
Newer players tend to play the game as it presents itself to them. They don’t consider the past or future when constructing their plans, they just look at what’s in their hand and go for it. They play cards because they can, not because they should. They’re completely trapped in the present.
Intermediate players fall into a different kind of trap. They think the present isn’t very important because games they believe that games are won in the future with superior card advantage and bigger stuff. They opt not to cast Shadow Word: Pain on a Vicious Fledgling so that their Dragonfire Potion will get max value the following turn, so they die to a Savage Roar the next turn and take to forums to whine about how mindless Aggro Token Druid is (courtesy of the Dunning-Kruger effect). These people are trapped in the future.
People can also get trapped in the past.
They already played one Brawl and one Sleep with the Fishes, so there’s no way they have another board wipe. I’ll play out my entire hand to set up lethal next turn.
Section 2: Past, Present, and Future
Since we don’t have to worry about the past changing on us, factoring the past into our plans is actually quite simple. We just have to remember to do it.
The past gives us access to all kinds of useful information. It can tell us which kinds of cards have been put into our opponent’s hand by effects like Cabalist’s Tome or The Curator. It can tell us which cards have died this game and are able resurrected by effects like N’Zoth, the Corruptor. Most importantly, the past tells us which of our opponent’s cards have already been used and we no longer need to worry about playing around. We shouldn’t have to spend much tracking the cards we’ve already played as our deck tracker (which you’re totally using to watch replays, right?) can help us out with that.
Having access to more data enables us to make smarter decisions, and one of the bests ways to unlock all the data we have available to us is to ask ourselves smarter questions. Here a few examples of the kinds of questions we can start to ask ourselves about the past:
You want to commit more minions to the board and your opponent has already cast a Swipe. If your opponent had the other Swipe in hand would they have cast it last turn?
You want to know if you should kill your opponent’s Alexstrasza or push damage to your opponent’s face. An Alex attack would put you at 7 life and dead to the following: Fireball + Hero Power, double Frostbolt + Hero Power, Firelands Portal + Frostbolt, and Pyroblast. Which of these spells has your opponent already cast this game? Are you likely to die next turn if you don’t kill the Alexstrasza?
You can kill your opponent next turn with a Jade Lightning if you send every minion at his face this turn. Has he already used a Greater Healing Potion? How about the Shadow Visions he used on turn four? Has he already cast the spell he found from it? If he hasn’t, how likely is it that he would have chosen Greater Healing Potion when he cast Shadow Visions?
Your Warrior opponent played The Curator and drew two cards. Can you use the data from the past to determine exactly which two cards they are?
The present is everything you can see on the screen. The life totals, the cards on the board, the cards in your hand… I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you these things should factor heavily into your plans.
Playing correctly in the present is largely a matter of knowing your role. If you’ve read part one of this guide then you should already have the blueprint for putting together a plan when the present is the only thing that matters. As the present is the most important stretch of time in the majority of situations, playing your role is quite often the correct plan. In fact, present data should be weighed most heavily when roles are most clearly defined. Are you getting your face pounded in by Murlocs? No time like the present to not get killed! Are your opponent’s Jade Golems starting to get out of hand? Better to not waste any time worrying about the future, kill ‘em dead! The trick comes in knowing when not to focus on the present.
There are many situations where the present is far less important than the past or future. The present is often the least important stretch of time in control vs control matchups, and many combo decks tend to play the majority of their games in the future as they attempt to assemble a specific combination of cards. As a general rule of thumb, the less clearly your role is defined the more heavily you should be weighing the past and future into your plans.
If you’ve ever watched a professional player stream Hearthstone on twitch.tv you may have noticed that they spend a huge amount of time talking about the future. What is my opponent going to do next turn? What do I need to draw here? Which cards can kill me? This is not necessarily because the future is the most important stretch of time, but that the future is far and away the most difficult to assess. The past and present hold a wealth information, but with few exceptions their data is fundamentally immutable. In the future nothing is a guarantee.
A newer player might be forced to use the majority of their thinking power to make sense of the X’s and O’s on the board in front them (the present). A pro player looking at the same board might have already seen one just like it a thousand times before. This allows them to swiftly recall the data they need about the present on a subconscious level, while a newer player is required to use their thinking time to generate the same data. This allows more experienced players to free up their thinking time and point their attention elsewhere, most likely towards the future.
Note: What I just described is a process called “making smaller circles” in the Art of Learning. You can read more about making smaller circles here.
Predicting Your Opponent
Everything you can do in future turns is impacted by actions your opponent may or may not make. Planning for the future is just as much about analyzing your opponent’s future as it is about analyzing your own. To be able to predict your opponent’s actions you’ll need to know which cards are likely to be in their deck, and to know which cards are likely to be in their deck you’ll need to have a fairly deep understanding of the current metagame.
By the time you’ve climbed to rank 15 you’re already likely to have encountered every deck in the meta at least once. The vast majority of players on ladder simply copy their decklists off the internet (and so should you), which makes it much easier to perform the kind of future-oriented planning I will talk about in this section.
You should already have the ability to guess which deck your opponent is playing after seeing the cards they’ve played in the first few turns. Even if you aren’t able to determine the exact 30 cards they’re running you should still have some kind of sense for the cards you’re likely to encounter. Shamans almost always have Flametongue Totems, Priests almost always have some combination of Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Word: Death, Rogues almost always have Backstab and Eviscerate… you get the picture. This knowledge alone should factor heavily into your plans for the future.
Let’s take look at some questions we can ask ourselves to help collect as much data as we can about the future:
Which cards are capable of killing me in the future? Am I capable of playing around them?
Example: You’re playing against an Evolve Shaman. On turn five they drop a Doppelgangster and pass the turn. Are you dead to a Bloodlust? Can you stop it? Will your opponent take over the game if they have an Evolve? Can you stop it?
Note: This is called “playing to your opponent’s outs”, which I will talk about in detail in the next section.
Are there any cards my opponent has been unable to play so far but will be able to play soon?
Example: It’s turn six, you went first, and you’re playing against Dragon Priest. How likely are they to play a Dragonfire Potion next turn?
Are there any cards I want to play right now which are my only answer to a card my opponent hasn’t played yet?
Example: You have a Hex in hand and are playing against a Paladin. They haven’t played Tirion Fordring yet, but you want to cast Hex on their Wickerflame Burnbristle. Can you beat Tirion Fordring without a Hex?
Note: This is called “line-up theory”. I will be diving deep on this topic in part three.
How do I lose this game?
Example: You’re playing an aggro deck and are clearly in the lead. Are you more likely to lose if you play out your hand into a board wipe, or if you don’t play out your hand and have your minions killed by removal spells?
How do I win this game?
Example: You’re playing Freeze Mage and are clearly losing. Your opponent’s board is getting out of control and the only way you can win is if you peel a Blizzard off the top of your deck next turn. How does that impact the decisions you make right now?
How would things change if your opponent was a literal goldfish? Seeing as goldfish lack the dexterity to play Hearthstone all they could do is pass.
When playing against an opponent who takes no actions whatsoever Hearthstone morphs from a game into a puzzle. The solution to the puzzle is to kill your opponent in the fewest number of turns possible. In an exercise known to many MTG players as “goldfishing” the past and present lose all relevance. What we’re left with is an entirely future-oriented approach to planning out our turns.
When goldfishing it’s better to deal zero damage in the first four turns and kill on turn five than it is to deal twenty damage in the first four turns and kill on turn six. The same is often true when playing against a real opponent. Goldfishing can teach us that our number one priority when it comes to killing our opponent is time. Though it would be foolish to play against every opponent the same way we would play against goldfish, there are actually quite a few situations where it’s correct do so.
If the game ever lines itself up in such a way that your opponent’s cards don’t matter and the future is the only important stretch of time, then you’re goldfishing! This situation can arise when an aggro player is so far behind their opponent that they can’t afford to play around a single card. It can also occur when a combo deck plays against an opponent who is unable to pressure their life total in a meaningful way, affording them the time to goldfish until they are able to combo off or are forced to deal with their opponent’s pressure.
Making the Most of Your Mana
With all things being equal, it’s generally best to play your most expensive cards first. Bigger cards tend to have more powerful effects, but the main reason we want to do this is mana efficiency. Using more mana than our opponent is one way we can build up a lead, and playing our most expensive cards first allows us to use our mana more efficiently in the future.
The Critical Card
It’s all too common for a game to be won or lost on the back of a single a card. Sometimes these cards have a devastatingly powerful effect on the game, while other times they provide a narrow answer to a specific situation. If a critical card is waiting in your hand a plan might be as simple as constructing a situation for it to take over the game.
If the plan is to win with a card like Bloodlust or Savage Roar, then the plan is to set up a single turn where you’ll have a lethal number of minions of board. Nothing else matters. If your only hope is to combo kill your opponent with Tundra Rhino and a massive Scavenging Hyena out of nowhere, then you simply can’t afford to let your cheap beasts get killed before your Hyena bursts onto the scene. Plans like these are where classic concepts such as card advantage and “who’s the beatdown?” go out the window. All that matters is you can shape the game in such a way that your critical card can do its job.
It’s easy enough to understand how to construct a plan around a critical card if it’s already in your hand, but what should you do if the card is lurking somewhere in the depths of your deck? And how about the player on the other side of the table? When can we afford to play around their critical cards?
Section 3: Playing to Outs
Some of the best players in the world have a reputation for getting lucky at critical moments in big games. If it happens once it’s a coincidence, but if it keeps happening then it’s a pattern. What’s going on here? Is Pavel naturally luckier than the average human? Of course not! Pavel understands how to play to his outs, a finely honed skill which creates the illusion of luck.
I often think back to a quote I heard on Limited Resources, a Magic: The Gathering podcast co-hosted by Luis Scott-Vargas (one of the greatest MTG players of all time), which helped me grasp the importance of playing to outs. Here’s what Luis had to say about why one of the best MTG players in the world was so special:
It’s time to get good.
Playing to Your Outs
When the chances of victory start to dip into the single digits many players have a tendency to concede the game before they’re actually dead. They think they’re saving themselves time by getting a head start on the next game. This is a tremendous fallacy.
Every loss you suffer on ladder requires at least one more victory to get you back to where you started. By conceding away all the games where you’re only 9% to win you cost yourself 9 wins out of every 100 games. What do you think will take longer, playing those 100 games to their conclusion or playing the extra games it would take to net yourself 9 more wins than losses? Unless you’re a god at Hearthstone it’s probably the first. With a 60% win percentage you should expect to play 45 games to net plus 9 wins. 45! Think about that for a second. Unless you’re 100% to lose, you’re almost certainly saving yourself time by playing each game out to the best of your ability.
I will only ever concede a game of Hearthstone under two conditions:
My opponent has lethal on board and I can’t stop it.
I would still lose the game if I could choose the exact card I drew every turn for the rest of the game.
If there’s a chance you can win if your deck is stacked then there’s still a chance you can win. So what’s the plan when you your only hope is to topdeck Arcanite Reaper into Leeroy Jenkins? That’s the easy part! Just make all of your decisions as though the top two cards of your deck are guaranteed to be Arcanite Reaper into Leeroy Jenkins. You’ll still need some luck to pull out the victory, but wasn’t that already the case? You already know your favorite deck well enough to realize which cards need to be on top of your deck in order for you to mount a comeback. The only thing that’s left to do is play as though they are there.
An unlikely plan is much better than no plan at all. Playing to your outs is how you can make the most out of your unlikely plans.
Playing to Your Opponent’s Outs
Inexperienced players tend to relax their focus once they determine their odds of winning are sufficiently high. This is an even bigger logical fallacy than conceding when you still have a chance of winning, because playing from ahead is even more difficult than playing from behind.
When playing to your outs you have the privilege of knowing exactly which cards in your deck are capable of getting you back in the game. Your opponent’s outs can be in their deck or their hand. You also have to consider if you can afford to play around cards which may or may not even be in their deck at all. I’d go as far as saying that there is no worse time to relax your focus than when playing while ahead.
In the word’s of the great Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski: “When you’re ahead, get more ahead.”
Artosis said these famous words about Starcraft II, a game where the best way to get “more ahead” is to eliminate every one of your opponent’s potential avenues to victory. Hearthstone is no different. The way to turn your 85 percenters into 90 percenters is to ask yourself “how do I lose this game?” and work backwards from there.
Generally speaking, the more you’re winning by the more aggressively you can afford to play around your opponents outs. You don’t get bonus points for winning by a larger margin, so the best way to increase your win percentage when you have the lead is to dot all your I’s, cross all your T’s, and make all of the small sacrifices you can afford to ensure your opponent’s outs won’t let them back in the game.
Outs in Close Games
In a tight game it will never be possible to play around every combination of cards your opponent could have. If that were possible then by definition it wouldn’t be a close game. It’s generally wise to ask yourself “how do I lose this game?”, but you can’t afford to lose sight of how you’ll actually win.
In tight games you’ll often have to decide which of your opponent’s outs you are most comfortable losing to. Remember the example from earlier when I had to choose between playing Living Mana or Druid of the Claw on turn five? My decision ultimately boiled down to which combination of cards I was more comfortable losing to. Do I want to lose to Innervate into Primordial Drake, or do I want to lose to two removal spells? The only way I can ask myself this all-important question is to understand my opponent’s outs. The only way I can answer this question is to have a plan.
Whether we’re behind, ahead, or at parity, smart decisions are come from asking ourselves the right questions. By looking to the past, present, and future of ourselves and our opponent, we gain access to all the data we need to ask ourselves those questions.
Part three of “Legend in the Making” will be about the specifics. The first two parts of this series have discussed broad and general topics but have largely ignored the interplay between specific classes, cards, and deck archetypes. Now that we’ve looked at the bigger picture it’s time to dive into the little details.
Good luck on the ladder!
Part 1 – Ranks 25 to 15 – Knowing your Role and Embracing Mistakes
Part 3 – Ranks 10 to 5 – Line Up Theory and Mulligans
Part 4 – Ranks 5 to Legend – Tools for the Climb and the Art of the Read