FTP Journeyman Guide: The Mire
No, NOT the tile-matching game which goes by the other, lesser-known translation of the word Majhongg; “the busy receptionist”. I’m referring to the four player game of skill that is similar to rummy, on which the Japanese black market economy was built in the pre-WWII era. Anyone who enjoys this tile game should learn the Japanese Rules, as by far the most interesting version of the game remains the original. A bit like the first version of, well, everything.
And if you haven’t watched a sub-titled version of the anime Akagi, well, you really should.
In this game there can arise a situation called “No Ten” – “no way to win”. This occurs when the only tiles you can draw to complete your hand have already been discarded or used by other players, and you cannot change your hand because any discard from the tiles you have would let someone else win. Some observers translate this into English as: “You’re #$@!ed”, but your mileage may vary.
It occurs in Hearthstone as well:
Here my opponent has exhausted his library, has two 2-attack creatures in play, and one card in hand. My creature in play can remove both of his, I have a fistful of cards in the library and 30 health plus 9 armour. You can just about make out the Grim Patron attack at the bottom of the history list – his last play of any note. How did I manage to beat a top deck (though one not playing all the right cards – note the Ironbeak Owl) with the Warrior deck I presented last time, and by such a wide margin?
Routes to Victory
In order to avoid No Ten your deck needs to have multiple routes to victory. At the lower ranks, decks like Patron Warrior are piloted by players who not only do not have all the cards (eg Grommash Hellscream or Death's Bite), they also do not know how to adequately replace them. The result is a deck that either wins in the aftermath of its combo (which will get played on turn 8 at the earliest without Emperor Thaurissan) or it doesn’t win at all. Your purpose when playing against such glass cannons is to either a) win before the combo comes out [not possible most of the time with a new FTP collection], or b) prepare ways to wipe out the Patrons once they’re there. Let him have his cake – just don’t let him eat it.
What happened in this game was my opponent could only make 2 extra Patrons onto his empty board the first time, so I picked off the full health one that remained with a larger minion in play (Chillwind Yeti), played and used Fiery War Axe to kill the Warsong Commander, and then had Cleave for the two, damaged stragglers. The second iteration of the combo (with the duplicate copies of the key cards) is much harder for the Patron player to assemble, so in the intervening time I attacked to face as hard as I could to force my opponent to use them to try stabilize the board rather than to try win. Once the second Warsong was dead my opponent was already in No Ten; the finish as seen above, trivial.
Although my deck doesn’t have powerful cards, and the pressure it can mount isn’t great against the top decks as a result, it does have the tools to deal with “narrow” decks that have too few routes to victory. So although concepts like Tempo (strong early plays every game) and No Ten (avoiding having no way to win) are not explicit in deck building, they are key elements of successfully playing weaker decks against stronger ones. Work out how your opponent plans to win and stop him from executing it, and there’s a good chance of victory.
The Final Three Decks
Let’s peruse the last 3 decks in my gauntlet before we summarize how everything performed as a whole during the season. Sick children are time sponges, the very opposite of what you want to loot in a Greater Rift, and for my sins I have collected the “bonus” for a completed set of them (aka involuntary insomnia). Therefore the past week or so I’ve just been doing the bare necessities to complete daily quests, all the while applying cosmetics to hide my zombie pallor. With few packs opened I only added 4 significant cards to my collection: my second Earthen Ring Farseer, Dread Corsair, Cruel Taskmaster and Stampeding Kodo. Only the Farseer put in an appearance as I paid little attention to deck changes at the time.
Core: Sadly, to the other Hearthstone heroes Shaman is the often overlooked runt of the litter. Blizzard churn out nice-looking but ultimately weak cards for it set after set, and as a result very little has changed in the deck core. Shaman decks are rarely terrible due to the hero power, but making a good one requires quite a few rares: Lightning Storm, Azure Drake, Mana Tide Totem, and Feral Spirit to name but a few. Shaman also needs its set of legendary minions to really shine.
Strategy: There are 3 primary strategies: aggro, mech aggro (requires GvG staples such as Whirling Zap-o-matic, Piloted Shredder, Powermace and the obligatory Mechwarper), and control (requires Neptulon, Dr. Boom and Al'Akir the Windlord). Since I’m not going to be building the control version any time soon, and I’m not doing GvG, I’m stuck playing aggro because nothing else works. As a result I’m heavily reliant on keeping small minions in play, making totems as often as I can, and pumping the heck out of them with Flametongue Totem, Rockbiter Weapon, Abusive Sergeant and especially Bloodlust. A word on Windfury – it’s dire. Ok, two words, then. Outside the two cards mentioned already, those that have or grant this ability are uniformly terrible, so don’t try to force it as a strategy unless you fancy the Morpheus look. Dunemaul Shaman looks great, but it doesn’t perform an awful lot better than Mad Bomber.
Progression: Perhaps the most interesting thing about this deck is the list of cards I own that I’m not playing, such as Lightning Bolt and Forked Lightning. I consider these cards “skill testers”, which is an old Magic: the Gathering term for a card that appears good, but isn’t. If your opponent has them in his deck his ability most likely isn’t great as he’s failed the “skill test”. That won’t stop you losing to them occasionally, and perhaps having more direct damage spells isn’t always a bad thing for the Shaman, but in general one’s deck performs better without them. The overload mechanic allows one to split the cost of a spell across two turns at the total cost of an extra mana crystal (compare these with Frostbolt and Cleave respectively). Even Leper Gnome is arguably better than Forked Lightning, as it splits its damage between the opposing player and a creature without the overload attached, with the added benefit that it can attack each turn. This is a completely playable deck, as long as you don’t expect it to take you to legend rank.
Core: There really are only 2 ways to play Warlock – draw more cards than the opponent and play them as fast as possible, or draw more cards than the opponent in order to abuse cards related to hand size (eg Twilight Drake and Mountain Giant). Since the former plays many minions, Sea Giant makes an appearance, and since the life total will be lower than average the Warlock loves him some Molten Giants as well. Ahhh, you can just taste the entry level purple. Yup, folks, Handlock is completely beyond our budget, so there go the free wins against Patron Warrior. Oh, wait, there’s Demonlock as well. You know? The one that plays: Doomguard, Voidcaller (Curse of Naxxramas), Lord Jaraxxus and Mal'Ganis.
Strategy: So, yeah. “Zoolock” it is. Technically, I can’t even build Zoolock because I lack some staple cards that are in Curse of Naxxramas (which I’ll come to later in this piece). In essence I’ve just built a Tempolock, and it’s done pretty well for itself. The Siphon Soul really helps, though I must admit some frustration with both Floating Watcher and Void Terror, both lacking the synergy granted by Flame Imp and Voidcaller respectively. The deck would be a lot better with Darkbomb too, and it cries out for Defender of Argus. All in good time, all in good time, I keep telling myself.
The essence of the deck is to draw many cards and dump them into play, hoping to overwhelm the opponent. Cards like Abusive Sergeant and Mortal Coil are quite important in maintaining tempo. The key play that the Warlock player must never, never forget is to use the hero power to draw a card first in any turn where an extra card will be drawn. Having the card in hand often presents the better play than the good play that one intended, and using the better play all the time can be quite vital to the deck’s success. Don’t fail to note the synergy between Dread Infernal and Acolyte of Pain or Raging Worgen. Shadow Bolt is also something of a skill tester, but a) I don’t have anything else, and b) it’s as expected as the Spanish Inquisition.
Progression: There isn’t much to say about the deck that wasn’t covered last week as regards Tempo decks. It performs well enough that it doesn’t need to shirk ranked play like that appalling Druid deck.
The problem with having too little of something is that someone invariably gets left out. Until two weeks ago I had not opened a single Rogue class card in a Classic pack. Let’s list what I had then. 2 each of: Backstab, Deadly Poison, Sinister Strike, Sap, Shiv, Fan of Knives, Assassin's Blade, Assassinate, Vanish, and Sprint. Notice anything unusual about that list?
There is not a single minion among them. And that is why Rogue got left until last.
In my last 2 or 3 packs before the end of the season I managed to open 3 class cards for the Rogue: Headcrack and 2 Defias Ringleader, none of which are particularly devastating and the Ringleader is really only good when it’s in your opening hand and you have the Coin. Oh dear!
Core: Rogue is Tempo personified. Everything that can give an edge needs to be used. There is a simple rule with playing the Rogue – maintain a board presence, keep opposing minions off the board, and draw extra cards regularly. If the opponent lets you do that you win. If you fail to control even one of those elements, you’ll probably lose. Yes, Rogue is very, very difficult to play well. And I’ve managed to handicap myself by having no copies of Eviscerate, Cold Blood, Shadowstep, Blade Flurry, Azure Drake or SI:7 Agent, all of which are vital to the Rogue player depending on how he or she chooses to play. And like Druid and its relationship with a key epic such as Ancient of Lore, Rogue really needs Preparation before it starts to do much of anything. So if you see a large number of familiar faces in that decklist on the right don’t be overly surprised – this is vanilla Tempo with Sap.
Strategy: Outside the obvious factors for Tempo, there are two things that most newer players simply don’t understand about Rogue that need mentioning:
- When you have Wicked Knife from the hero power, do not attack to the opponent’s face unless you have lethal damage or can remake the knife without losing Tempo. Rogue plans to power up the damage of the Knife with Deadly Poison, Goblin Auto-Barber, or especially Tinker's Sharpsword Oil. If you draw the key element but only have 1 durability on your Knife you will rue that wasted attack – especially if the plan is to power it up, attack with it, and then play Blade Flurry for lethal damage. Whoopsy.
- Relentlessly attack enemy minions with your Wicked Knife if you can kill them. A Rogue player facing several enemy minions is a dead Rogue unless they’re all dead by the end of turn. Expect to frequently defend with your face, so pack aspirin in the shape of Earthen Ring Farseer and Antique Healbot.
Progression: It performs as expected for a Tempo deck, but gets slightly better results than other heroes using the same strategy because this is what the Rogue does best. But there’s only so much one can do with the tools at hand, and there has not been too much progression from the Basic Deck.
So how did these decks do last season overall? After all, my goal for the first full season was to reach and stay at rank 15, remember?
Aaaarrrgghhh, maties! A pirate I be. I sailed the stormy waters to rank 13 – within the top 20% of players – despite having opened a mere 30 packs. I’d say it’s been a great start, and never mind the Legendaries!
I did open 2 more packs after the season had ended, one containing the obligatory Savagery and some equally unplayable commons, while the other was something of a bumper crop: Flame Imp, Inner Rage, Unleash the Hounds, Aldor Peacekeeper and Big Game Hunter!
But during the season I hit …
By far my most successful decks over the past 6 weeks since creating this account on the US server were my Paladin, Priest, Mage and Warrior. But once I got to Rank 13 the wheels pretty much fell off even for these powerhouses. Here I was playing exclusively against the top decks (or at the very least close facsimiles thereof), and my win rate dropped below 50%. Down to Rank 14 and my win rate recovered into “positive” (more than 50%) due to higher instances of weaker decks. My stars were trapped in a Newton’s Cradle. I persisted with some of my weaker decks here, eg the Rogue deck, which dropped my rank quite a bit until the big boys returned me to rank 13 via win streaks.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was in my opposition. Personally, I would be ashamed to suit up with Control Warrior and spend my time in double figure ranks playing it – and not just double figure, rank 15 with only a few days to the end of the season! That’s like saying you’ve spent $500 on the game but can barely earn the season card back. It’s a pity that my opponents don’t even notice how many basic set or common cards I played on my way to victory over their epics and legends. C’mon, Blizzard – “pwned by FTP” taunt in the next release!
But there is no way I can delude myself; none of my decks can handle Rank 12, and that isn’t something that can be fixed by one or two new cards. On my current path I need to significantly improve my fortunes at opening rares; my Epic and Legendary cards are outstanding, but my rares wallow in a pit of karmic balance. Without better luck over the next month I might merely reach Rank 12, and that doesn’t seem appealing somehow. Perhaps I need a different approach now that the foundation has been built.
The Lure of Naxxramas
The Curse of Naxxramas set has a staggering effect on the metagame. While I believe it can only really make good decks better (as opposed to making bad decks good), there are simply so many defining cards in the set that one ignores it at one’s peril. But, wow, 700g per wing is pure extortion. Perhaps if we look at everything piece by piece it will all appear that much clearer.
Assuming one has a collection sufficient to complete each task (and by and large the normal difficulty bosses are not too arduous to overcome) then the first wing will yield the following cards (playsets [2 copies] of all non-Legendary):
Haunted Creeper – This is a core card in Zoo decks regardless of hero, any Hunter, and most Shaman decks. You will use it all the time. Period.
Nerub'ar Weblord – I’ve seen it used once, and that wasn’t in a game against me.
Nerubian Egg – One of the most-heavily played cards in the current metagame, it finds it’s way into just about any aggro deck.
Maexxna – Something of a niche card that pops up occasionally for it’s ability to deal with enemy threats without dying immediately.
Poison Seeds – Combines well with Starfall and has some interesting interactions with other cards that generally turn out too clunky. It feels a bit like something that’s almost really good, but in the end is slightly sub-standard right now (this may change as new cards are brought in).
Anub'ar Ambusher – As close to unplayable as they come for Rogue.
In other words, the first wing is all about 2 key aggro cards that go everywhere. Given that the baseline for starting collections is Tempo/aggro these will make major improvements in the rather sparse 2-drop slot for at least half our decks; if we’re getting rid of Bloodfen Raptor we’re getting somewhere.
Stoneskin Gargoyle – Almost as good as Anub’ar Ambusher.
Unstable Ghoul – If you want to aspire to playing Patron Warrior this is a must-have. A bit low on value for other decks though.
Sludge Belcher – Just about good enough to play 2 in every single deck, this is the only card worth spending 800 dust on just to have Golden (apparently).
Loatheb – Literally goes in every deck until you have half a dozen other Legendary minions. Maybe even then you find space for it.
Duplicate – Not as popular post-Blackrock Mountain, but still very much playable.
Webspinner – Goes into mid-range Hunter decks, always.
4 out of 5 cards are excellent in at least 1 deck? Sign me up!
So for 1400g we will get playsets of 5 of the most commonly played cards in the game, as well as a key Legendary minion. In 14 packs most people would struggle to get any Legendary minions, never mind one as potent as Loatheb. Don’t be fooled by the low card count and the fact that you’ve missed out on 14 rares – only the very lucky among us would get a pair of as versatile a rare as Sludge Belcher in 14 packs.
And you know what? For another 700g for the first wing of Blackrock Mountain you guarantee 2 Grim Patron, 2 Quick Shot and Emperor Thaurissan. 2100g might be a lot (and it is), but to take such massive steps towards a top Warrior deck (Patron), a solid Hunter, any Zoo strategy, plus Belchers and Loatheb that go everywhere, is an opportunity not to be missed.
So the plan for the next while is simple – farm gold for these cards.
So what is the most efficient manner of getting 2100g before July? Short of being an amazing Arena player there are no short-cuts. But the daily quests have one element that can help. Each day one can reroll any one daily quest. For every quest one can reroll from 40g to 60g we gain 6 wins! So the plan is to complete any quest that offers 60g or more (or the free Classic pack from Watch and Learn), but to reroll any 40g quest. If we “miss” – ie get a different 40g quest – we do not complete that quest that day (get our 6 wins some other way) unless it is unavoidable (kill 40 minions, deal 100 damage, 3 wins any class). The idea is to let it roll over to the next day, so that we get a chance to reroll it again should we get a new quest that is 60g or better. Naturally the 40g quests are more common, so there will come a time when you have three 40g quests, in which case it’s best to do only 2 of them to restart the cycle. Typically 68g is the average for the 6 win per day strategy; if rerolling quests can get us 5g more per day we can get the gold we need in a month. Let’s do this thing!
Oh, note that Total Domination offers 100g for “7 wins in any mode”. Note the wording: “any mode” includes games against the AI. This is helpful if you’re battling to beat humans that day, even though it means you’ll fail to get the 6 wins for 20g daily target.
Naturally, the first quest I get on this gold drive is “Watch and Learn”. I suppose I can put off gold farming until tomorrow…. Well, hello Doomguard!
Going forward I’ll focus more on individual heroes rather than the 3-at-once approach I’ve used until now. As it stands you have an appreciation of the strength of my collection and an idea of what I’m playing and why (ie Tempo unless I’ve got something better). Once I have some Naxx cards I’ll take a look at how I could shape the collection to get better use of the new cards, and we might have to abandon the “craft only Legendary minions” rule if we want short term gains.
As ever, thanks for your time. Comments and criticisms welcome (and praise – thanks dadezander!). I’d love to hear from fellow FTPers on how they handled, or are handling, the Journeyman stage.