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April 20, 2015

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‘Playing to Win’ Part Three: The Art of Bluffing


Hi Guys! Welcome to my third and final installment of my ‘Play to Win’ Series. Today I’m going to talk to you about Bluffing in Hearthstone. As always, likes & comments are welcome.

In the spoiler directly below I have summarized Parts One and Two. If you haven’t read those parts or if your memory needs jogging, I would recommended you read the spoiler. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead.

For those of you not familiar with Part One let me offer a quick overview of it. Basically, David Sirlin wrote a book about fighting games entitled Playing to Win. I took a number of his concepts and applied them to Hearthstone. My article (and his book) is all about attitude; in particular, it is about developing a winning mentality: many players are simply unaware of the vast number of mental barriers that are hindering their success.

The entire purpose of Part One was to mentally prepare you for Parts Two and Three. Some may argue the tactics I talk about are ‘dishonourable’ and/or ‘cheap’. To those players I can only suggest that you read Part One.

In Part Two I focused on two ideas: [1] That you should always be the last player to mulligan your cards. Why? Because this is the only way to prevent the leaking of free information. [2] That you should always go the rope each turn. Why? Because it can annoy your opponent into submission, reduces the possibility of misplays and can help avoid the leaking of free information.

As we shall soon see, the concept of free information is integral to bluffing. Therefore a lot of what I said in Part Two will be directly relevant to this discussion as well.


Okay, preamble over. Let’s get Part Three started!

Bluffing as Art, as Science, as Psychology

In many respects, bluffing is a very broad subject that can be studied on many fronts: Logic, Human Psychology, Mathematics (especially probability), and so on. I am not qualified to talk about bluffing on all (if any!) of these fronts.

Furthermore, my background is playing Chess, not Poker. Ergo I cannot profess a great deal of personal experience with bluffing. But, as a Philosophy graduate, I do have a pretty good understanding of Logic & Game Theory and so– true to my experience– I am going to talk about bluffing mostly from that perspective. Poker pro’s and Psychology professors reading this please feel free to leave comments explaining bluffing from your point of view!

So if logic, probability, etc explain the Science of Bluffing where can we find ‘the art’? Well, the art of bluffing lies in the execution. I’m sure plenty of you have heard the proverb “…it’s not what you say it’s how you say it that counts.” I think this proverb neatly captures the nature of bluffing: we can use statistics and logic, etc to find the optimal time to bluff, but ultimately we must convince our opponent to fall for it! And that requires a completely different skill-set.

In short: Science answers the ‘what/when/why’ of Bluffing. Psychology answers the ‘how’. ‘The art’ of it is successfully weaving everything together.

The Three Basic Rules of Bluffing

In this section I am going explain three ideas that I think are essential to good (i.e. logical) bluffing.

The first idea stems from something Sun Tzu said in “The Art of War“:

In Poker, if you have a strong hand you would love nothing more than for your opponent to ‘Call’, ‘Raise’, or better yet — go ‘All-in’ against you. But how do you convince your opponent to perform those actions? Well, one thing you could try is feign weakness. In both Poker and war, the smart player/general is the one that capitalises on any and all opportunities that arise. Therefore, should they sense weakness they are likely to strike– into the trap they then fall!

When bluffing the opposite is true: we want to avoid our opponent ‘calling’ or ‘raising’ the pot. So how do we convince them to fold? Well, we could try to feign strength. After all, no smart general attacks the enemy at his/her strongest point.

There is however a problem: If your opponent(s) learn that you are following the above rule, then there is a risk that the moment you try ‘act strong’ your opponents will ‘Call’ and if you ‘act weak’ your opponents will learn to ‘Fold’. Notice now that in order to successfully bluff we need to do the exact opposite of what Sun Tzu suggested!

Whenever you find yourself with contradictory advice you know you have a problem. How can we fix this issue? Well, one thing you can do is learn to randomise. When we have a strong hand we try to ‘appear weak’ most of the time, but some percentage of the time we try to ‘appear strong’ (for the technically minded: One way you can work out the correct percentages is to try and solve for the ‘Mixed-strategy Nash Equilibrium‘ of the game). By adding in that randomisation process an opponent cannot reliably infer how strong your hand is based upon your play. And so, the occasional bluff here and there will work.

To be a bit more precise, your bluffing pattern should be inversely proportional to your expectation that you will be called. So, if you are playing a game and your opponent calls your bluffs 80% of the time, you should try to bluff only about 20% of the time.


Okay, let’s now look at central idea number two:

Unlike most terms in Game Theory, ‘Credible Threat’ is pretty simple to explain. It doesn’t matter what game you are trying to bluff in, in order for your bluff to be successful it is a necessary condition that your opponent is scared of something you could do.

 In Poker, if your opponent looks at their own hand and the board and observes that there is no combination of cards you could possibly have that would win the game, then your opponent will always call your bluff: they will call regardless of how clever the execution was.

In Hearthstone, as a Druid, I could try and bluff my opponent into thinking that I have Force of Nature + Savage Roar combo in hand. Let’s imagine two possible cases:

  • Opponent thinks I have the combo and is at <14 life.
  • Opponent thinks I have the combo and is at >15 life.

In both cases the bluff is successful and now our opponent believes we have combo in hand. In the first example, the combo threatens lethal (i.e. the bluff is ‘credible threat’) and therefore the opponent may now take drastic measures to try and play around the combo. In the second case, Force of Nature + Savage Roar combo is not lethal (i.e. the bluff is not a ‘credible threat’) and so therefore the opponent is likely to ignore the bluff (at least for now).

In short: When a bluff represents a credible threat, a smart opponent will take your bluff seriously and will be scared to call it. However, when the threat is not credible they will typically just ignore it/’call you out’.

When we look at actual gameplay footage this notion of ‘credibility’ will be much easier to understand, I promise. :)


The third central idea to good bluffing:

When you sit down and think about it, bluffing almost always assumes a certain level of skill/understanding from your opponent. At the most basic level, your opponent needs to recognise that your play is consistent with having X in hand.

Consider the Druid combo example above. Not only does the threat need to be ‘credible’ for the bluff to be successful, it also requires that your opponent thinks to him/herself “hold on! I could lose the game if…”. If they don’t think about what you could have, they will often end up calling your bluff without even realising that is what they are doing!

Dave: “Well Played. How did you know I was bluffing?”

Bob the Surprised Simpleton: “You were bluffing!? I just played that card because it’s nice and shiny!”


Okay, so that serves as a reasonable introduction to bluffing. What I am now going to do is talk about some examples of bluffing in Hearthstone. I’m going to divide the bluffs into a few different categories, but it should be noted that these categories are not mutually exclusive.

“I Have Lethal…Honest!”

  • SETUP: This bluff occurs when your opponent expects you to have lethal, but as a matter of fact you do not.
  • THE PLAN: Try to convince your opponent that you do have lethal, but instead of finishing the game quickly you have decided to go for the slowest, most ‘BM” play possible. The hope is that your opponent prefers to concede instead subjecting themselves to a minute or so of BM torture (“BM” stands for “Bad Manners”).

Let’s watch the tactic in action:

The funny thing about this clip is the Warrior didn’t actually count: At 24 effective health, Force of Nature + Double Savage Roar + hero power is not enough damage for lethal (it’s only 23 damage), which means that the Druid would need to use another card (e.g. Claw) instead of hero power in order to win. Given that few Druids run a <=2 mana spell that can do 2 damage to the opposing Hero, the Druid’s threat isn’t actually that credible. So to recant an earlier statement: Does a bluff need to represent a ‘credible threat’ in order to work? Apparently not!

The ‘science’ behind this type bluff is very easy to explain, but the ‘art’ of it will take time and experience to master. For maximal results you would need to deeply understand human psychology, since there are a multitude of factors that could increase/decrease the probability that the opponent chooses to resign instead of allowing the BM finish. Here are some possible factors:

  • The time you spend (on the whole turn, and the time between playing cards).
  • The emotes you spam (which ones and how often).
  • The order you play the cards in.
  • How you ‘hover over’ game items.
  • Cultural differences (e.g. Do Asian players respond differently to ‘BM’ than EU/NA players?).
  • Time of day
  • Ranked (what rank?), Arena (number of wins).
  • …and so on…

I honestly do not know how these factors influence a player’s decision to concede. Here is a Youtube clip for you to watch. Notice how the Hunter used emotes and paused between playing cards.

In the spoiler below I have a concocted an example whereby the goal for the Hunter player is to try and force the concede. I go through the steps and try to highlight how I think we can put the most amount of psychological pressure on the opponent to resign (it is not necessary that you read this example in order to follow the rest of the article, however).

Okay, so we are playing Hunter and the Priest is just outside our range (hero power + Arcane Golem is only 6 damage). The question is, how to we maximise our chances of forcing the concede? *In what follows, we are going to assume that Tracking WILL NOT draw us a game- winning card.* 

  • Problem one: Should we [1] play Arcane Golem first or [2] play Tracking first? 

I would argue that it is better to play the Golem first. Why? Because if we use Tracking first and our opponent was not keeping an eye on our cards, he/she may mistakenly assume that we got the Golem from the tracking. If our opponent believes that, then he/she might think that the other card in our hand is something useless (such as a Hunter's Mark) and is therefore less likely to concede.

  • Problem Two: Should we [1] play Arcane Golem, attack, and then use Tracking, or [2] play the Arcane Golem, use Tracking, and then attack?

Here I think it is better to use Tracking before we attack. Doing things this way increases the number of possible ‘outs’ (e.g. Abusive Sergeant, Dire Wolf Alpha).

But let’s suppose we do not actually increase our ‘outs’ because we have already used all our copies of those cards: Our opponent might not know that!

  • Problem Three: Do we [1] play Tracking and pick a card as quickly as possible, or [2] do we play Tracking and take a long long time to pick a card? 

Here I think we should pick a card from Tracking as quickly as possible. The reason being is that if we take our time thinking about it, our opponent might infer that we do not have an easy decision. And if our decision is not easy, that suggests we have not drawn the one damage we need to win the game. Basically, make the decision look easy and the Priest is more likely to be convinced we have the win.

Some of you may remember that in Part Two of the guide I explored this idea of what ‘play-speed means’ in some detail.

  • Problem Four:  Do we [1] start spamming ‘Well Played’ emotes, or [2] use the Hunter hero power, or [3] attack with Arcane Golem?

And now knowing what to do to maximise the chances of a concede is not so easy: If we attack with Arcane Golem, in our opponent’s mind we have reduced our outs “Phew! if he is attacking now that means he doesn’t have Dire Wolf Alpha…so that’s one less card I have to worry about!”. Let’s rule that option out. That means the choice is between using hero power first, or spamming emotes first. What will scare the Priest more? I just don’t know.  For arguments sake, let’s suppose we spam emotes for a while and then play hero power.

  • Problem Five: When is the best time to stall? Should we [1] drop the Priest to one health and then let the rope burn out, or [2] should we let the rope burn and attack at the very last second?

Again, I don’t really know the right answer, but I think it might be better to drop the Priest to one health and then start stalling out the game. Why? Because psychologically speaking, having your health at one probably makes you feel scared and incredibly vulnerable. The more time you spend in that mental state, the more likely you are to concede. I am simply guessing that the Priest feels safer at 7 life with the Arcane Golem yet to charge, than being at one health post-charge (such a belief would be illogical, but since when have human emotions cared about what’s logical?).

Long story short, if you want to attempt this sort of bluff think about how you play your cards and how you use your emotes and so on.


  • How to defend against: As it so happens, this sort of bluff is very easy to defend against: Simply make sure that you always endure a BM attempt, right to the very last second. For example, if you are at 14 life and a Druid plays Force of Nature, do not concede; even if he starts spamming the “I’m Sorry” emote and/or hovers over various cards. Wait until you see the Savage Roar, only then is it safe to concede.

“I Haz Sekrets…”

This sort of bluff is also pretty simple: all you do is play a secret.

  • SETUP: This bluff occurs when your opponent expects you have played a certain secret (e.g. Explosive Trap), when in fact you played some other secret (e.g. Snake Trap).
  • THE PLAN: Your opponent will play around the secret he/she thinks it is. By playing around the wrong secret we hope to gain additional value.

Let’s start with an easy example: It’s Turn 9 and the only minion you have in hand is Ysera. Your ‘Mech Mage’ opponent played a secret on the previous turn. How scared are you to drop Ysera in this situation? Presumably you are very scared since Mirror Entity triggering on Ysera is likely to end the game. Let’s imagine though that the secret in play was actually Ice Barrier. In this case, the bluff got a lot of value: not only does the mage gain 8 armour (when the secret is finally triggered), the fear of mirror entity also gained a significant lead in tempo and development (i.e. The Druid didn’t play Ysera).

For bluffs like this to work, there must be a reasonable expectation that the secret is in fact ‘X’. This expectation can be set at the meta-level and/or during play.

For example, most Mech Mages run Mirror Entity, and therefore this is what your opponent will expect. But if your version of Mech Mage runs Duplicate instead, you are likely to trick a number of opponents.

As for a ‘during play’ example, well, you can make Freezing Trap look like an Explosive Trap by casting Hunter’s Mark on their biggest minion. Likewise, you can make Snake Trap look like Freezing trap by killing off all of their small minions… and so on…

Let’s watch Amaz give this technique a go:

So here Amaz bluffs with the secret (it’s Spellbender). Amaz has 6 life, so all the Shaman needs to do is attack the face to win the game. But unfortunately for the Shaman, the decision to attack face is not an easy one.

Just look at the board from the Shaman’s perspective:

  1. Amaz chose to play a secret instead of other card(s) in the hand. Either he is bluffing, or the secret was played precisely because it is useful. I (the Shaman) must be cautious of the latter possibility.
  2. There are three secrets that save Amaz: Ice Block, Ice Barrier, or Vaporize. In other words, by playing a secret Amaz can set up a ‘credible threat’.
  3. …and if it is one of those secrets listed in (2) above: do I lose by proc’ing it?

The answer to question (3) may in fact be yes, at 17 life with 9 damage on the board the Shaman could die to a few things, such as Pyroblast.

The Shaman is in a difficult spot, it seems initially that there are two possible outcomes (after testing for secrets like Mirror Entity and Counterspell):

  1. Shaman attacks face and it’s a bluff. Shaman wins the game.
  2. Shaman attacks face and it’s not a bluff, in which case Shaman could easily lose the game.

There is a third option for the Shaman, which is to go for board control. What makes Amaz’s bluff so good is that this option is really tempting for the Shaman: being ahead on cards means that if he just trades the board he can probably win the long game (meanwhile, the bluff means that Amaz has gone from being in a completely lost situation to one where he still has a chance).

In the end, the Shaman opted for the ‘long-game’ route, and for what it’s worth I think that the Shaman played this position well. Bluffs like this are at their very best in those situations where the opposing player has really good reasons not to call.

  • How to defend against: Unfortunately it is not easy and there will be plenty of times where you end up falling for a bluff of this type. This sort of bluff is not a ‘pure bluff’ (like the “I have lethal” example above), rather, this sort of bluff has teeth. What I mean by that phase ‘has teeth’ is that the penalty for calling when they aren’t bluffing is often severe, and even when it is a bluff and you call they can still get a good chunk of value from whatever the secret actually is. The best defense is to be pre-emptive: pay close attention to the meta, and when in-game hold good ‘trigger cards’ back (e.g. Zombie Chow/Doomsayer are a great targets for a mirror entity). And against Counterspell, it is better to lose a Holy Light than it is to lose a Lay on Hands.

“I have *this* card in my hand…Honest!”

  • SETUP: This bluff occurs when you act ‘as if’ you have a certain card in your hand (i.e. you deliberately leak information to the opponent).
  • THE PLAN: Your opponent will play around that card. The hope is that we gain value by the opponent playing around card(s) we currently do not have in hand.

Before I can explain this bluff I need to give you a bit of background information. Let’s do that now…

In Hearthstone, there are basically four separate types of targets that spells and abilities can take aim at: [1] Friendly Minions, [2] Enemy Minions, [3] Enemy Hero, [4] Friendly Hero.

Some spells/abilities are limited to one type of target (e.g. Sinister Strike is type [3]), while other cards can be used on multiple types (e.g Mark of the Wild is type [1] and [2]), and then there are cards that can attack all types of target (e.g. Darkbomb).

Cards that can be cast on multiple types of target are obviously more powerful due their added flexibility. But such cards also have ‘hidden property’: they can disguise themselves as something else!

When your opponent sees all those little red arrows light up they will start trying to interpret what it all means (good players will be able to predict just from the arrows alone what card(s) you are thinking about). Basically, the little red arrows serve as a source of free information. 

For example: Imagine that you are playing against a Shaman and every turn you see them hover over one of their minions with a card. I have two questions for you: [1] What do you think the card is?  [2] What could the card be?  

In answer to the first question I would expect that most of you guessed Rockbiter Weapon. Nine times out of ten your guess would probably be correct.

In Part Two of the guide, I tried to make the point that giving your opponent free information is never a good idea. In this case, the Shaman telegraphed Rockbiter Weapon and now you can use that information to improve the potency of your turns.

There is however, a small caveat one needs to make to that statement: giving the opponent free information is perfectly fine if the information leaked happens to be false!

Let me quickly return to the second part of the Shaman question above: what could the card be?  The answer: Almost anything!  It just so happens that most of the shaman spells can take aim at multiple types of target (e.g Earth Shock, Hex, Crackle, etc).

This then leads to an interesting consideration: does the Shaman actually have Rockbiter Weapon, or does the Shaman simply want us to think that there is a Rockbiter Weapon in hand? In other words; is the Shaman bluffing?

In order to be successful when attempting this sort of bluff we must once again consider the idea of a ‘credible threat’. Check out my awesome Photoshop skills below :)

In the picture above, the goal was to try and make Hex masquerade as a Rockbiter Weapon. On the left hand side, we have an example of a situation where the bluff may work: the reason it might work is because casting Rockbiter on the Argent Squire to trade with the Harvest Golem is a reasonable play (i.e. the threat is credible). However, the situation on the right hand side is an example of doing it wrong: Outside of the ‘dennis ranks’, nobody is going to buff a Squire with a Rockbiter Weapon just to go face. In short, this threat is not credible.

Update: 2015/04/20:  It has come to my attention that I have made a small error; the image on the left doesn’t actually demonstrate a threat that is very ‘credible’ because most good players would probably cast the Rockbitter on the Hero in order to kill the Golem (which keeps the 1/1 alive). Thus, soley for the purposes of this example just imagine that Rockbitter Weapon can only target friendly minions. If you do that, then the example works. :)

Before moving on, one last thing needs to be said about this sort of bluff: The play you actually make needs to be better than, or roughly equal to the card(s) you are pretending to have.

For example, let’s imagine that I have spent much of the game convincing my opponent that the Hex in my hand is actually a Rockbiter Weapon. And now, we arrive at a situation where I have a 1/1 minion on board and my opponent has humongous 30/3 minion on board. In such a scenario Rockbiter Weapon on the 1/1 seems like an strong play. Ergo, if I want my opponent to continue to think that I have Rockbiter Weapon, I need to find a play that deals with that 30/3 minion as well as (or better than) Rockbiter (e.g. Lightning Bolt).

Similarly, If I have a Doomhammer equipped and my opponent drops to ten (or less) health minion then the “My Hex is actually a Rockbiter Weapon” ruse is over (since if I had Rockbiter then I would win the game outright).

Let me show you a funny clip of me attempting this bluff:

DOH! Let’s talk about the theory behind what I was trying to do before we talk about what actually happened.

By targeting my 1/1 recruit with Hammer of Wrath my intention was to try and suggest to my opponent that I have Blessing of Kings. The first thing to note is that this threat is ‘credible’ since the buffed recruit will take out the 3/5 Raging Worgen. The plan was to go to the ropes, and at the last minute I would equip the Truesilver Champion, dealing with the Worgen that way. Basically, I was trying to make my opponent think I have a hard choice to make: “Do I Blessing of Kings or Truesilver Champion here?” But in reality, there was only ever one option (play Truesilver). 

The hope was that over the next few turns my opponent would ‘play scared’: With Blessing of Kings, lowly 1/1’s quickly become 5/5’s and that is something the Priest would need to consider on future turns. Notice also how this clip exemplifies the theory I explored in the paragraph above: Truesilver Champion is roughly equal to (and possibly better than) the Blessing of Kings line of play. This clip is a text book example of how to perform this style of bluff.

Okay, so now let’s talk about what actually happened: I mis-clicked…instead of putting the card back down, I managed to spend Turn Four Hammering my own face for 3 damage. The game ended up being — unsurprisingly — a crushing defeat, and so I had to retire my Paladin at 11-3. :(

Let this be a lesson to you! When using this sort of bluff don’t f***ing mis-click!!

  • How to defend against: The best defense against this sort of bluff is to keep your wits about you. Consider how ‘credible’ the threat is, and when you see your opponent highlight targets with red arrows do not convince yourself that they must have X card. In short, you just need to be a bit careful and make sure that when you are making decisions you are not giving undue-weight to the information obtained via the little red arrows.

Mixing-up the play-speed

This shall be a short section since much of what I need to say has either been said in Part Two of this series or in the above section.

  • SETUP: This bluff has one of two setups: [1] you play a turn very quickly, or [2] you play the turn unnecessarily slowly.
  • THE PLAN: In either case, you hope that your opponent assumes that your hand is far stronger than it actually is; and as a result, plays more cautiously than they need to.

In Part Two I suggested that you should always rope, but now I contradict myself by claiming sometimes it is a good idea to play quickly. I guess the lesson here is that complex games are not easily reduced to simple rules of thumb. :)

But anyway, In his Mind Games article (see further reading section for link), Kamsh’s example of a ‘fast play bluff’ involves playing a secret at lightening speed, followed by a quick “I’m Sorry” emote. Here the hope is that the speed (and confidence) at which the move was played persuades the opponent to think that the Secret is Ice Block, and therefore play accordingly. For those of you that read my detailed Hunter BM example, you may remember my suggestion to instantly grab a card from Tracking as opposed to stalling/thinking about what card to take. This example follows that same principle. In short: playing at speed suggests confidence, and playing with confidence suggests strength. Do you remember Sun Tzu’s advice at the beginning of the article? ‘Appear strong when weak’; We have now found a way to do that in Hearthstone.

What about playing slowly? Well, by playing slowly and mousing over several cards your opponent may fear that you have several good moves. In short, your difficulty in finding the best option suggests to your opponent that you multiple good options in hand. In Part Two of this series, I offered up three reasons why roping each turn is a good idea. And now we can add a fourth: Roping can fool the opponent into thinking that our hand is far stronger than it actually is. In the spoiler below, I have an in-game example of this idea in action.

*In the image that follows, the Warrior should have 3 health, not 5.*

At 3 health and with only two cards, the Warrior probably didn’t really need to rope this turn; Alexstrasza must be played. Sure, it is an ugly move to make (especially since next turn Sylvanas Windrunner is probably going to convert Alexstrasza to the light), but it is nonetheless the only possible move.

…So why rope?

Well, put yourself in the Priest’s shoes: You see the Warrior mouse over two cards for his whole turn and eventually decides to play Alexstrasza. What could the other card be?

The Priest may reason thusly; “It can’t be Shieldmaiden, since playing that card is clearly better than playing Alexstrasza. It can’t be Acolyte of Pain, Cruel Taskmaster, etc because we know that the Warrior struggled to make his mind up this turn, and those cards don’t do anything…”

After a bit more thought the Priest might conclude something like; “…The other card is probably Sludge Belcher. While it sucks to play Alexstrasza into Sylvanas, it does have the benefit of playing around silence and cards like Shadow Madness. The Warrior must have spent a lot of time pondering this very difficulty.” 

In short: merely by playing slowly the Warrior convinces the Priest that the Wisp is a Sludge Belcher!

Is this bluff useful? Well, If the Priest has The Black Knight in hand maybe he/she is inclined to keep it there. This benefits the Warrior, since dealing with a 4/5 body is more scary than the Knight’s Battlecry.


  • How to defend against: If your opponent plays slowly, I would recommend that you first assume that they have a difficult decision to make and only then ask yourself whether you think they are bluffing. Basically, I wouldn’t worry about trying to defend oneself against this sort of bluff, because most of the time slow play will simply be the result of a sincere attempt to understand and navigate a complex position.

“That was a Mistake…Honest!”

I am going to end this article on a discussion of the “oops” Emote.

  • SETUP: You make a seemingly bad looking play (that is actually quite good). You then use the “Oops” Emote to inform your opponent of the mistake.
  • THE PLAN: The hope is that your opponent assumes that your emote was a sincere and earnest attempt to communicate an error. With their guard down, we hope that they have a little nibble at the cheese we left in the mousetrap!

At the end of the day, bluffs involving emotes only work since many players do not consider emotes ‘part of the game’. And thus, when they use emotes it is not part of a clever ruse; rather, it is a genuine desire to communicate.  Indeed, on numerous occasions I have used the “Oops” emote when I believe my opponent has made a bad play (after all, why not help another player improve at the game?) and in the past I have also apologised for fortunate RNG.

But this series is not about being helpful, it’s about winning. And as such, we should consider Emotes as just another tool we can use as part of a grand Machiavellian scheme to win at all costs.

Let’s see this idea in action: 

In this clip, the Mill Druid player hits the Cleric with hero power. The use of the ‘Oops emote’ was meant to say to the opponent; “oh crap! I just made a silly mistake, I forgot you can draw a card”.  Was the emote effective? It is hard to say, maybe the Priest healed the minion because they needed cards. In this case, maybe the use of the emote had no impact what-so-ever on the Priest’s decision. Then again, maybe the emote did convince the Priest to heal it up. In the end, you win games of Hearthstone by capitalising on your opponent’s mistakes.

Whatever the Priest’s reasoning behind his choice to heal the Cleric, I think that is worth pointing out that this sort of play is a gamble: either your opponent falls for your ruse, or they do not.

When playing any other Druid list, it is almost always a mistake to hit the Cleric. And so therefore the gamble is this: against a sufficiently smart opponent the ‘oops emote + cleric play’ gives free information to your opponent (i.e. with this play, the Druid ‘telegraphs’ that he is a Mill Druid and not some other Druid archetype). On the plus side however, if the bait is taken then the Druid is one step closer toward the deck’s win condition!

In short, you should use this bluff according to the probability that your opponent will fall for it: At Rank 20, players will probably genuinely believe you made a mistake in hitting the Cleric, and will therefore opt to draw cards. But at Legend Rank, the players will be more savvy and thus more likely to emote you a ‘thanks’ afterwards. But they won’t be thanking you for the misplay, they will be thanking you for giving them that big, fat, juicy, chunk of information about your deck.

Here’s another example of tactical emoting. This time it is taken from an Arena game of mine:

So as we can see, on Turn Three there are quite a few options for the Warlock (none of which are great). In the end, I decided to cast Darkbomb on the Spider Tank and immediately used the “Oops” emote. My hope was that my opponent would think I made a mistake “Oh, silly him! he must have miscounted and thought that Darkbomb would kill the Spider Tank”, as opposed to thinking that I was setting up a big Hellfire turn. As it so happened, my opponent offered his/her condolences for the ‘mistake’ and then got swiftly ‘reckt’ by Hellfire. As with the Druid example, we cannot definitively say whether the emote helped our cause or not. Moreover, my play did perhaps telegraph some sort of board clear, and so therefore this was a gamble too.

  • How to defend against: Knowledge of the meta can help a lot here, and so will having your wits about you. If someone emotes against you always assume that it is part of cunning plan first. Think about the ways your opponent could try to exploit the situation. If you can’t think of any good move for your opponent, then maybe the emote was in fact a genuine attempt to communicate.

Bonus Clip!

Before concluding this article, I’d like to show you a play Lifecoach made recently at Seat Story III (Twitch Vod):

Let me briefly explain what happened here:  Lifecoach wants to play Twilight Drake, but the problem is that the Druid can get a pretty strong board with silence (i.e. Keeper of the Grove).

Now, Lifecoach also respects his opponent (Maverick). ‘Respect’ in this situation basically means that Lifecoach anticipates that Maverick knows how to play the Druid side of the match-up, and that usually entails holding onto a Keeper in order to counter the Turn 4 Drake.

Knowing that the Druid is likely to  have Keeper of the Grove in hand makes playing the Drake a weak play. And so, Lifecoach essentially decided the ‘bluff’ with the Voidcaller. The aim of this  bluff is to hope to bait out a silence from the Druid; making the Drakes much safer when played later on.

Since there are no Demons in hand the Voidcaller does not actually need to be silenced (it is basically a Spider Tank in this situation), but crucially the Druid doesn’t know that.

From the Druids perspective, simply trading into the Voidcaller is risky since if a good Demon pops out then the Warlock can end up with a huge lead in tempo, And so therefore, Maverick decides to Silence the Spider Tank!

So in this case, the bluff ended up being successful.


And that concludes Part Three of my ‘Play to Win’ Series. Hopefully you have learned a thing or two about bluffing that you can incorporate into your own games for fun and profit. As always, likes & comments are appreciated.

But before I finish the guide, there is one elephant in the room that I haven’t really tackled: How effective is bluffing?  Indeed, I spend all this time teaching you how to bluff, but never directly address why you should bother.

To answer this charge, I want to reiterate something I said in Part Two of the series:

[How effective is bluffing?] My answer is somewhere in-between “I don’t know” and “it doesn’t matter”. Remember that in Part One I tried to convince you that ‘playing to win’ is about taking any advantage we can get: the size of the advantage is less important than the simple acknowledgement that there exists an advantage for us to exploit.

And on that note, I shall bring this article to a close.

Further Reading & References

Smashthings, “Playing to Win Part One: Defeating the Scrub Mentality”
Smashthings, “Playing to Win Part Two: Ropes & Mulligans”
Kamsh, “Mind Games (not the Priest card): How to Next Level Your Hearthstone Opponent”
Andrew Klawitter, “Can You Bluff in Hearthstone?”
Moldran, “Hearthstone – Emotes & Psychology
Tobias Kretschmer, Competitive Strategy

About the Author

2x Legend, Infinite Arena Player. Click here for my Youtube channel and click here for a list of all my published HSP articles.

Enjoyed this article?

Hi. I like to hit various things with blunt implements. 3x Legend, Infinite Arena. You can find on Youtube as well. :)

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Leave a Reply

  1. alkapwn says:

    in the video example of the Warrior that concede for nothing, since his concede doesnt make any logical sense did it cross your mind that he conceded for something OUTSIDE of the game? I personally think he conceded because he had to go or his child began crying or his mother called for diner. I dont think you knstilled fear in his heart.

  2. Erick says:

    Amazing series, Smashthings !! Lots of interesting theories in here, actually found this and the second part ver useful, already started using the rope concept more deeply myself than I actually did, contemplating every possibility :)

    I read them all at once, so that’s a lot of info I have to let sink in… but I’m really glad the community have people like you, willing to take the time and effort to think about and write insightful articles like these and the turn two arena, which actually improved my game as a whole, not only on the turn two :)

    My thanks, to you !

    • Smashthings says:

      Well, Its always nice to know that my effort is appreciated. :) I don’t plan on stopping any-time soon either (my next planned article is about understanding match-ups).

      But yeah anyway, lets hope the boss see your comment and gives me a raise. lol.

  3. k3lv says:

    Awesome article man, well done! All that game theory talk took me right back to Economics days in University :)

  4. Anonymous says:

    Smashthings, more articles like these please! I’ve learned so much from these myself, and I know that others have as well. Parts 1 and 2 have inspired many people to comment and discuss the content, and that is just amazing! The videos and spoiler explanations were super helpful, and the content lends itself so easily to further research and to testing it out for oneself. On one hand, I’d like anyone interested in Hearthstone to have a look at this series, but on the other… well, let’s say that the more people know about ‘playing to win’, the less effective it is. Keep up the great work and I look forward to your next article!

    • Smashthings says:

      Well, I’m glad you liked the series.

      My current projects are the In-depth turn Series and at some point I aim to finish a theoretical piece on how to play match-ups.

      But regarding something you said: “the more people know about ‘playing to win’, the less effective it is.” This is only partially true: as we can see from the comments there are plenty of people that would rather have fun than win (and there is nothing wrong that). Plenty of people flatly refuse to use the sorts of devious things I advocate.

      Moreover, I myself don’t bother using half the tactics I discussed, when you are at say rank 15 on ladder you don’t really care about winning, you just want quick games.

      With that said, If you ever see me on the Blizzcon stage I’ll be the slowest, most annoying opponent possible :)

  5. Onenutmcgee says:

    I read this article today and it already won me a game. I never actually thought about bluffing until today. So here’s the setup. I’m playing hunter against a shaman. He has a full board with 6 minions, all with 1 or 2 hp. I got him down to 3 health. He has 3 taunt minions up, I only have 1 minion. He’s setting up for a bloodlust. My turn comes, I draw a snake trap. A worthless, game losing snake trap. So I kill a tuant with my minion (clearing my minion off), clear another taunt minion with my bow, hit him with hero power (now down to 1 hp) say “Well played” and then play my trap. I didn’t hit end turn immediately, instead I just wait. He conceded. I won a game I had lost because he thought I had an explosive trap.

    Thanks, Smashthings. You’ve given me another tool in my toolchest.

    • Smashthings says:

      Technically reading this article has probably won you two games: If you happen to play against a Hunter and they try to do this trick you know to test for the explosive trap!

      But anyway, I’m really pleased that you were able to apply the contents of this guide — with good results — in such a short space of time. :)

  6. Anonymous says:

    So what would your advice on squelching the opponent be? On the one hand, straight turning them off is a great way to not get unhinged by the opponent being annoying or trying to help their bluff, but on the other hand you also said you can try to use their emotes to read information.

    • Smashthings says:

      Good question.

      I think the answer depends on you ask an individual.

      For example, people spamming emotes doesn’t annoy me. I am also confident enough in my abilities that I don’t think I could be fooled by a simple emote.

      So, for me personally, I think squelching the opponent is a bad idea: I’m giving up the potential to learn something about my opponent.

      If however, you are the sort of person that does get annoyed by emotes and/or think that you may fall for an emote bluff then maybe it is best to squelch them and just concentrate on playing your cards.

      Basically, my advice boils down to a very simple idea: “Know thyself”.