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July 2, 2015

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Arena with Stone: Playing Around Cards (Theory and Neutral Cards)


“Darn! My board got Consecrated again! Maybe playing that fourth 2 health minion wasn’t a good idea after all…”

Today I want to talk about one of the most basic concepts of the game – playing around opponent’s card. It’s important in all game modes, but in Arena it’s much more tricky. In Constructed, once you see a couple of enemy’s cards, you usually know their whole list. It’s easier to play around the cards when you know what you can expect. For example, when you play against Warlock and see a Flame Imp on turn 1, you can assume it’s some sort of Zoo and play accordingly. Arena decks, however, are random. You don’t know enemy list, and even if you’ve seen 29 cards already, the 30th is still a mystery.

Though, there are certain cards that you see more than the others. You draft them very often, and almost every opponent you play against has them. And then, there are cards that you see for the first time even when you’ve already played one hundred Arena games. I want to talk about all of those, when to play around them and how you should approach that.

The Price

Let me explain one thing at the start. Playing around cards is not free. If you can’t afford to play around something and you still do that – that’s a wrong move. And that’s a mistake Arena players often make. But what is this price, exactly?

One of the most Common cards you play around – Flamestrike. The cost to play around it is tempo and board presence. You can’t play more creatures on the board = you waste your mana. You have less total attack on the board = it’s less threatening and it takes longer to kill your enemy. But what if you’re playing an Aggro deck and your aim is to finish the game fast, because you have a low-cost curve? Playing around Flamestrike might be a losing play then, because the cost is too high. If you play around Flamestrike, enemy will out-value you with his big minions and you’ll run out of steam, which will result in a certain loss. Even though he didn’t use Flamestrike, he still won the game in the end. If you however, don’t play around it and flood the board, you might be able to out-tempo enemy and rush him down. In that case, imagining that Flamestrike doesn’t exist is a better play, a play that gives you more chance to win. Price to play around the card is too high.

Another example. Let’s say you play a Rogue, you’re at 11 health and have a 5 attack weapon. You have two 3/2 minions on the board and enemy Mage plays a 5/5. Opponent is still at high health, so there is no point in ignoring a minion. You’re both playing top deck war. You might take two approaches. Either you use your weapon to kill it, and get down to 6 health, or trade 2 of your minions. If you use your health as a resource – you’re losing almost half of your current health. It means that you die to Fireball top deck. You can play around it, but the price is your board presence. If you want to kill enemy, you need to keep your minions alive. Depending on the rest of your deck, playing around the Fireball might be a bad play here, because your aim might be to finish the game in 2-3 turns from now. And you need to remember one thing – even if in that particular case enemy top decks it and you lose, it doesn’t make the play bad. The good play is the play that wins most of the times. Price to play around the Fireball was bigger than the average chances enemy will draw it. Because if you sacrificed both of your minions, the game would last couple turns longer and enemy would have much more opportunities to draw it.

Concept of “price” is really important. You need to compare how much it’s gonna cost you to play around something to the potential chances enemy has it. For example, Deathwing. The card is Legendary, so you’re gonna see it once in a couple hundred of games. But the cost to play around it is incredibly huge. You can’t overextend on the board AND you need to keep a hard removal to get rid of it in case enemy drops it. You need to pay a really high price to play around the card you almost never see. Obviously, it means that you should not care about Deathwing and pretend it doesn’t exist. Yes, you’re gonna lose one in a thousand games, because enemy played Deathwing and you had no answer. But on the other hand, if you’d always play around Deathwing, you’d lose 100 in those 1000 games.

You can never be sure that enemy has certain cards, so it’s always a guessing game. But there are some Arena mechanics that make the guessing game easier for you.

Card Rarity

The rule is pretty simple. Higher rarity of the card = less chances enemy is gonna have it. Average Arena deck consists mostly of Commons, with about 6-7 Rares (it’s minimum 4, without any maximum, but you aren’t likely to draft a deck with more than 10 rares). Every second Arena deck has at least one Epic and every fifth has at least one Legendary. It means that most of the cards you play against are from Common and Rare slots. You should play around Commons as much as you can. As the above examples show, even price to play around Commons is sometimes too high. But generally Common is the rarity slot you play around most often. You might play around Rares, depending on the situation. Cards like Mind Control Tech can swing the game around. You might play around Epics only when it costs you almost nothing. For example, there is no point in dropping that fourth or fifth big minion against Priest if there is a chance he has a Lightbomb. You won’t lose the game when you have 3 big threats on the board (versus 0), but you can lose the game if you overextend and he finds a perfect answer. But the rule is to generally not care about Epics and not play around them, because you don’t see many of those. And at last, you NEVER play around Legendaries. Only 1 in 5 decks on average has a Legendary card, and the variety of Legendaries is so high, that you might end up playing against card like The Black Knight in 1 in 200 or 300 games. It’s never enough to justify making suboptimal plays.

Card Strength

This is another simple rule. Each Arena card you face was the strongest among the 3 options presented (assuming enemy drafted correctly). It means that the above average cards are much more common than those below average. Enemy’s not gonna take Flying Machine or Core Hound when he gets Unleash the Hounds offered. That’s why you should first play around the cards that are the strongest and thus most commonly picked. That’s why you’re less likely to play around cards like Blessed Champion or Abomination, which aren’t exactly worst, but it’s less likely that you’re gonna encounter them than cards like Stampeding Kodo or Mind Control Tech, even though they’re all from the same rarity.

You usually shouldn’t play around low-tier cards like let’s say Sacrificial Pact if you’re playing in Warlock mirror. Yes, some enemies are gonna have it, but the number is low enough to not care about it.

There is also correlation between this rule and the number of wins you’re at. You might assume that if you’re at 7 wins, either opponent’s deck is good, or the player is good (or both). If you’re at 10 wins, you can be almost sure that enemies play really strong decks here. Solid deck usually means that most of the picks are above average. That’s why for example it’s much more likely that enemy Paladin at 9+ wins will have Truesilver Champion on turn 4. Or that his deck has some Consecrations.

On the other hand, if you play against someone at 11 wins, and his deck is really weak, you should assume that he has an ace up his sleeve. Something that carried him so high. It happens that an average deck gets to 12 wins on the back of big swing cards, Legendaries like Dr. Boom or Ragnaros the Firelord.


Now that you know the basic concepts, you need to know how use them in practice. Most of that comes with the experience, and the thought process is different for each deck and even each match.

To decide whether enemy has a certain card or not, you need to think about couple of things:

  • What is your score? If it’s high – enemy is more likely to have good cards. If it’s low – enemy is more likely to have bad cards.
  • How many cards enemy has in his hands / how many cards is he holding for couple of turns? When enemy is holding a card for couple of turns, you can assume it’s a situational card. The more cards enemy keeps in his hand, the higher chance is that he’s gonna have the card you want to play around. You’re much more likely to play around Holy Nova when you face Priest with 8 cards hand and you probably won’t care about it that much when you’re both top decking.
  • How far it is into the game? You don’t keep most of the situational cards in your starting hand. For example, Druid won’t keep his Starfall even if he gets one, he’s gonna mulligan it away. The further it is into the game, the higher chance is that enemy will draw into his situational cards.
  • Did enemy have a good opportunity to use that card in last turns? You need to think about your turns since he drew the card. For example, if you played a big minion and enemy had to trade 3 of his minions into it, you can assume that the card is not a Hex – because enemy would just use it. And if you had a board that was a good target for AoE, and enemy didn’t do it, you can assume that it’s not AoE. You can’t be too greedy in Arena, so you usually use your situational cards when you get a good opportunity.

All of those are only assumptions, but they should be pretty accurate. Experienced player can often tell what cards enemy is holding. Whether it’s a big removal, an AoE or let’s say Mind Control Tech. The more information you have – the better. Sometimes you have little to no information, so you need to just guess. After you’ve made the assumption, you need to ask yourself a question – “Can I afford to play around it?” Let’s go back to the previous Flamestrike example.

You’re playing a fast, Aggro deck. You know that Flamestrike is gonna mean you lose the game. But what are your chances to win if you actually play around it? It depends on your hand, on your deck, on how big card advantage enemy has. Let’s say in that particular scenario, you won’t have more than 25% chances to win the game if you play around the Flamestrike. That’s pretty low. And now, you need to make a deduction. What are the chances enemy is holding a Flamestrike? Your score is 3-2, enemy has 5 cards in his hand, 2 of which he keeps for a long time. You didn’t play any big minion, so this might be Polymorph or some other big removal, because wouldn’t play them on a 2-drops or 3-drops. Those might be some minions you will get good trades with, so he decides to keep them in his hand and drop big ones instead. This might be some source of Card Draw, but he didn’t have the opportunity to use it, because he can’t slow down on tempo. This might even be something like Pyroblast he just can’t use until he tries to finish you. Since he’s playing on the backfoot, he might have used a Flamestrike on your board of 2-3 small creatures if he had one. So, you assume that the chances he’s holding or is gonna top deck a Flamestrike are about 30%. It means around 30% of time when you play your whole hand onto the board, it gets cleared and you lose the game.

And now, you need to deduce what are your chances to win the game if he doesn’t have Flamestrike. You’re gonna have 5 small minions on the board, he’s at 18 health, you should be able to kill him in 2-3 turns even if he drops something bigger. You’re probably going to lose to something like Antique Healbot, but it’s not that common in Arena. Your chances to finish the game if he has no AoE are really high, probably around 80%.

Now, the choice is to take a “safe” way, which has a small chance to win you a game or to take a “dangerous” way which may instantly lose you the game, but if it doesn’t, your chances to win the game are much higher. Decisions like that often make you win or lose the game.

In this case, I think that not playing around Flamestrike is a good move. The most important thing when making such decisions is knowing limits of your own deck. Even identyfing the archetype of your deck (and your opponent’s deck, to certain extent) is important and should give you an idea of how to play it. When you’re playing Aggro, you have to make a lot of risky moves that depend on enemies not having certain cards, like board clears.

“But Stone, how can you calculate the chances of enemy having Flamestrike? You don’t know his deck, you don’t know his hand, it’s impossible!” That’s true. You can only make a rough assumption. It’s much easier when you’ve already played thousands of Arena games. You know the frequency of enemy having certain cards, you know how he behaves when he’s holding a Flamestrike, you know on what board he would use it. Things like that come with experience, so don’t worry if your predictions won’t be accurate at the start.

Thinking process when it comes to playing around cards is really complicated. If you want to read about what cards you should consider playing around, check out the next section.

Which cards to play around?

It’s really hard to make an accurate list, because like you’ve just read whether to play around certain card or not depends on so many things. But I’m gonna give you some more popular examples of situational cards people might play in Arena with an explanation and my thoughts. This part is gonna cover Neutral Cards, if you want to read more about Class Cards, be sure to check out the second part of the guide!

Neutral Cards

Mind Control Tech

Probably the most popular Neutral card you should play around. Having more than 3 creatures on the board at one time is dangerous, and you should play around Mind Control Tech if enemy is holding couple of cards. Don’t play around him when you’re in top decking wars, you’re playing an Aggro deck that needs a strong board presence to push for damage or when stealing your minion won’t have any impact on the game (e.g. you have 20 power on the board and enemy is at 5 health, stealing one minion won’t matter). If you overextend to 4+ minions, be sure to have a way to deal with anything he might steal.


Both Mad Bomber and Madder Bomber are popular Arena picks. Don’t make bad trades just to leave your remaining minions at high health, but on the other hand having a lot of 1 health is dangerous in many ways. Generally, you shouldn’t go into turn 5 with a lot of low health minions, because Madder Bomber can easily punish you for that. Sometimes it’s better to have let’s say 2 minions at 2-3 health than 3 minions at 1 health.

Shattered Sun Cleric

It’s really hard to play around Shattered Sun Cleric later in the game, and the +1/+1 buff isn’t that impactful. You should however think about it on turn 3. If enemy drops 2/3 minion on his turn 2, dropping your own 2/3 is really scary. If he has Shattered Sun Cleric to buff his, he kills your 2-drop for free and leaves his at 2 health, which means that it can’t be pinged. So if you’re playing a class that can ping and you have a choice between dropping 2/3 or 3/2 into their 2/3, the second option is better. It leaves the buffed minion at 1 health after the trade, so you can finish it off easily.

Cult Master

Cult Master is really strong in Arena. If enemy manages to get a couple of small minions on the board and then follow it with Cult Master, 3-4 draws may completely change the outcome of the game. It’s really hard to play around Cult Master and you shouldn’t do that most of the time. You should, however, try to keep the board relatively clear and those two things are corelated. If you clear enemy board – Cult Master will be a dead card.

Acidic Swamp Ooze

Acidic Swamp Ooze is pretty common card in Arena. Once again, you can’t really play around it if you use a weapon with more than one charge. The important thing is that you generally shouldn’t pre-equip weapons and not attack with them. It has its benefits, but Ooze is popular enough that you often see even 2-3 of them in one deck. If you’ve killed something with your weapon already, it’s 1 for 1 (you aim your weapons to be at least 2 for 1, but 1 for 1 it’s not that bad). If it gets destroyed for free, you lost both a card and tempo. So be careful.

Abusive Sergeant, Dark Iron Dwarf

Both Abusive Sergeant and Dark Iron Dwarf can get great value in Arena, because they let the minions trade up. The only real way to play around them is to take the initiative and make the trades yourself. If you make the trade – enemy has no way to buff their minions. Dire Wolf Alpha server the similar purpose. It only gives +1 attack, but can buff multiple minions instead. If you keep enemy board relatively clear, none of those should be really scary.

Kezan Mystic

Kezan Mystic is not a common pick, because if you don’t play against a class with Secrets (Mage / Hunter / Paladin) it’s a 4/3 for 4 mana, which is pretty underwhelming. Even when you play against Secret class, they don’t often draft or draw any of them. You only need to remember that a card like that exists. It’s almost impossible to play around it, the only thing you want to do is not play a Secret that is gonna completely screw you if you have other options.

Bomb Lobber

Really solid pick in Arena, you’re gonna see Bomb Lobber in a lot of decks. Best way to play around it, like against any other RNG effect, is to give him more targets. If you have some tokens on the board, enemy might decide to take let’s say 1/4 chance to hit the correct target. And since you have a 3/4 chances to win the RNG roll, it’s fine. You probably shouldn’t play 4 health minions into enemy’s turn 5. It’s the killer of 4 health 4-drops like Lost Tallstrider. So if you have a 5 health 4-drop, you might consider going for it instead.

Stampeding Kodo

Stampeding Kodo is pretty common in Arena. The card is good, because it usually gets you 2 for 1. Once again, it’s pretty hard to play around it. You might trade your 1 and 2 attack minions going into turn 5, or on the other hand, flood the board with many 1/1’s (as a Warlock or Paladin fo example). Also, playing Oasis Snapjaw or Gurubashi Berserker into enemy turn 5 when you have no other small minions on the board is really dangerous. If you have a choice, you might want to play something with 3+ attack.

Molten Giant

You want to play around Molten Giant when you know that enemy has it. It’s easier in Constructed, but in Arena you have no idea whether opponent drafted it or not. Since it’s Epic, and not the best one, you shouldn’t play around it. Only exception is when you know that enemy has it. For example, you’re playing second time against the same enemy, or you’ve gained this information through something like Thoughtsteal.

Big Game Hunter

Generally I don’t recommend trying to play around Big Game Hunter. You might slightly adjust your plays if you know that BGH can ruin your advantage, but you’re usually gonna have to play your biggest Threats anyway, sooner or later.

Blood Knight

You shouldn’t really try to do anything about Blood Knight. You usually want to trade your Divine Shields as soon as you can anyway, since they can be pinged or taken down in some non-optimal way. If you don’t keep Divine Shields around for no reason, you shouldn’t fear that you’ve misplayed if enemy uses Blood Knight.


This is the end of the first part of the guide. If you want to read more about the Class cards, the second part is gonna come out soon!

I hope that after reading this you’re gonna understand the theory behind playing around the cards better. I’ve coached some my friends in the Arena, and I see that trying to play around too many cards is a common mistake that intermediate players make. They tend to think that playing around everything makes them safer, thus increasing their chances to win the game. They don’t realize that Arena is not only a value game and playing too safe (especially with Aggro or Tempo decks) often leads to a defeat. Knowing what to play around and when mostly comes with the experience. If your reads aren’t strong yet, don’t worry, you’re gonna improve in the future!

If you have any questions, suggestions (cards you’d like to see on the list, topics you’d like me to write about), or you’ve just liked my article, write in the comment section below! =)

Enjoyed this article?

Playing Hearthstone since September 2013. Infinite Arena player. Hitting Legend rank on EU each season, with multiple high Legend climbs during the season and top 200-300 finishes.

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