Understanding Match-up Theory, Part One: ‘Game-Plans’
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Hi guys, welcome to Part One of my match-up theory guide. If you have spent any time studying Hearthstone you have probably heard someone say something like “DECK X is a favourable match-up for DECK Y”. For example, ‘Freeze Mage’ is a favourable match-up for ‘Control Warrior’. But why are some match-ups favourable?
This article aims to explore that ‘why’ question from a theoretical perspective. It is my hope that by the end of the article you will be able take any two decks (X,Y) and be able to understand why one deck is favoured over the other, without even playing the decks in question.
Crucially, answering the question of ‘why X beats Y’ usually reveals far greater Hearthstone truths: By understanding why a match-up is favoured/unfavoured/50-50 for any particular deck, you can begin to understand how you should play against the other deck. Getting a solid understanding of the ‘why’s and the how’s’ of match-up’s can do amazing things for your win-rate.
Before we begin I want to make two things crystal clear:
(1) This article aims to be more theoretical than practical.
Basically, I do not intend to answer specific meta related questions like “How should Combo Druid fight against Control Warrior”. Rather, I try to make far more general claims that can be applied to any meta and any future expansion. But with that said, providing actual examples is often the best way to to illustrate theoretical concepts, ergo you will see some actual examples of match-ups in this article.
(2) This article is NOT about tweaking a deck list to improve the win-rate.
If you have a Priest Deck and you want to try and beat ‘Handlock’ you can always tweak the deck by adding Shadow Word: Death. Unfortunately though, by adding that card you have to remove something else (a Holy Smite, perhaps?) which may of course adversely affect one of your other match-ups (e.g. ‘Face Hunter’): There is, as they say, ‘no such thing as a free lunch’.
Tweaking your deck to improve its standing in the Meta is a crucial skill to develop. However, as I have clearly stated above, this is not the function of this article (for that sort of content, I’d recommend checking out Modded’s two part series on Meta gaming). Rather, this article is about taking some established deck list and– without tweaking the list — trying to match the win-rate of ‘the professionals’. In the next section, I will explain a bit more about what this means.
Okay, let’s get started!
You vs. the Pro’s
Let’s suppose you see your favourite Hearthstone Pro (e.g. ‘Kolento’) play 100 games with Deck X against Deck Y. He scores a 60% (i.e. 60 wins out of 100 games) win-rate in this match-up. Now let’s further imagine that you copy the deck card for card and, just like the pro, with Deck X you play 100 games versus Deck Y. You get a win-rate of 40% (i.e. 40 wins out of 100 games). That’s a difference of 20 games which would suggest that the pro is doing something different one in every five games that turns a game you would have lost into a win.
This hypothetical example illustrates what this article aims to achieve: the pro’s score X% win-rate in some match-up because they are good at the game and they understand the match-up, your win-rate however is likely to be lower. I hope that what I teach here will help you close that gap.
Now, given such information there is a really obvious question we should ask ourselves:
“Why is this a favourable match-up for the pro but not for me?”
To which, there ought to be only one answer:
“I must be playing the match-up wrong!”
Yes, you are doing something wrong, and this is the only answer I will accept. In our hypothetical example we have played a large number of games which thus makes any other excuse you may have (such as ‘bad luck’) a poor explanation. The key factor that explains the difference in win-rates between you and ‘the Pro’ is skill.
For some of you the idea that there can be only explanation (i.e. that you are playing incorrectly) maybe a difficult idea to accept — maybe you do genuinely feel that you are the unluckiest person to play Hearthstone ever– but once you come to accept that you make mistakes then you might find yourself feeling liberated: ‘bad luck’ is not something we as players have any control over, but we do have agency when it comes to our decisions. And with agency, comes the power to make things happen.
If you dream of becoming a strong player then a quick tip I can give you is to try and develop a great attitude toward the game. Upon learning of misplays/inaccuracies in your own games you should feel excited. Why? Because the road to improvement is in this case obvious!
In this article, that is all I want to say about Hearthstone Psychology. But if you want to know more then I would recommended you check out Part One of my ‘Play-to-Win’ series.
I have only one more thing to say in this introductory section, and that is the problem with interpreting real data. I put it in a spoiler because it can be skipped, if you so wish.
So in the Hypothetical example, I suggested that the Pro plays 100 games versus Deck Y. In real life though, most of time we don’t even play 100 games (in total) with a deck during a season, let alone 100 games in a single match-up! Thus, when studying real data is can sometimes be very hard to work out how well you are doing unless the difference is massive.
So for example, during the February season one of us at HSP peaked at about Rank 80 Legend (on NA). Let’s call him ‘Dave’. Dave shared his stats and his deck list (Mech-Mage), so I decided to give it a go (on EU). I gave up on the deck at around Rank 2 or 3 (which is where I finished the season). Same deck list, but with a stark difference in outcome. I wondered, was I playing the deck wrong? I decided to compare stats to find out:
Okay, so now that I have explained what this article is about and what it does/does not intend to cover we can at last actually start studying the content. Let’s start with an easy question: “How does Control Warrior consistently beat Freeze Mage?”
Starting with the Basics: Control Warrior vs. Freeze Mage
Fortunately, in this case it is rather simple: Freeze Mage is only capable of doing a set amount of damage (about 15-20 in a single turn). Since 15-20 isn’t 30, they need to use Alexstrasza to bring the enemy into lethal range. The problem that the Mage has however, is that Alextrasza’s battlecry does not have any effect on armour and so therefore the Warrior can easily be at 20+ effective health AFTER Alextrasza has been used. In short, since the Mage is almost never able to bring the Warrior into lethal range, the deck has no way to win the game.
At heart, this is a very basic point that most experienced Hearthstone players are fully aware of. But once you understand this basic point you may come to realise a few other (more subtle) things as well:
- Because the match-up is (mostly) bad due to Warrior armour gain, even ‘Aggro Warrior’ decks can probably report good results vs Freeze Mage. That is of course assuming the Aggro Warrior changes how he/she plays the matchup! For example, by being less aggressive and squeezing in Hero Power it may be possible to have enough effective health post-Alextrasza that the Mage deck lacks a win condition.
- In the Freeze Mage Mirror, nobody wants to trigger Ice Barrier since giving the opponent 8 armour is a huge deal (it is a huge deal because it is hard to do 8 damage to face with minions as a Freeze Mage). Thus, somewhat counter-intuitively, minions almost never attack the face!
From these two observations, you might try and make a third claim:
- Since Druid Hero Power grants +1 amour, Druids can push themselves outside of the Mage’s lethal range as well.
However, if you actually tried to squeeze in Hero Power each turn as a Druid in order to get yourself outside of lethal range you would probably find this technique ineffective. Why? Because Freeze Mage will just play Hero Power as well, negating your +1 armour gain. This conclusion suggests that we have a lot more to understand about ‘Freeze mage’ than we have covered so far. Don’t worry I will keep on returning to this deck, adding a little more detail each time I examine it. But let me just say here that it’s not as simple as saying “Mage Hero Power negates Druid Armour Gain”, rather, we have to understand that the Mage deck can often afford to play Hero Power every other turn. The deck can do this because — outside of a few key turns — the Mage has no need for tempo/initiative.
And regarding the first bullet point, when I said the Aggro-Warrior can beat Freeze Mage by a liberal sprinkling of Hero Power I must admit that this was actually a bit of an over-simplification. Let’s quickly add a layer of detail: One of the reasons you can get away with using Hero Power as the Warrior-Aggro deck is basically because the Freeze Mage mostly controls the board with at set of very reactive spells, and even when it does play minions most of the time they are tiny little things that are easily brushed aside (e.g. Novice Engineer). Ergo, the Warrior-Aggro deck in this particular match-up can play slowly without jeopardising board control (whereas if the you played Aggro-Warrior slowly versus a Druid you would probably find yourself very quickly out-gunned by huge minions).
What we can clearly see then is that one card can change what a deck is capable of rather dramatically, and when a new expansion comes out we will probably see Freeze Mage evolve once more. Clearly then, if this article went into great detail about the subtleties and nuances of any deck it would quickly become obsolete and thus be of little instructional value once the meta shifts or when new cards are added. This is why I want to talk about general principles rather than deck specifics. But to talk in general terms necessitates a good degree of simplification.
Unfortunately however, to simplify means that detail is lost and so therefore general claims often ended being ‘incorrect’ in some sense. To take a simple example; if I said “…Decks with a lot of heal counter ‘Burn/Face decks’ ” as a general claim this is true. However, once you look at the specifics we can see that the claim has some flaws: since you can’t heal past 30 health, a ‘heal deck’ does not counter a Freeze Mage, should they happen to draw into their 7-card 32 damage combo!
Thus, when reading the rest of this article whenever I make a general claim please understand that there will often be a specific situation(s) where such a claim turns out to be incorrect.
The Pyrrhic Victory
“One more such victory, and we are undone.” ~ King Pyrrhus
These were the words King Pyrrhus used to describe his victory against Rome at the Battle of Asculum. Even though Rome took heavy casualties (twice as many, by some estimates) than the Greeks, the Romans had significantly more manpower and so therefore found it far easier to replace its casualties. In short, Rome could afford to lose men in huge numbers whereas Pyrrhus could not ergo the ‘victory’ at Asculum proved to be bitter-sweet.
This is where the term “Pyrrhic Victory” originates from. It is used to describe situations where the cost of victory is so high that the thing in question was hardly worth winning. Another phrase, which basically means the same is; “Winning the battle but losing the War”.
But you are not reading this article because you are interested in history! You are probably asking yourselves “What on earth does this have to do with Hearthstone?”
To answer that question all you have to do is think of a game in Hearthstone as a war, and then think of each turn as a ‘battle’ within that war. And now the connection should be obvious: When playing Hearthstone, we need to ensure that the battles we win do not cost us the war.
In the spoilers below, I have two actual examples for you.
Okay so the above image shows us a potential situation we could find ourselves in. It is a ‘Handlock’ mirror match and it is our turn: What should we do?
Experienced players who know how to play the ‘Handlock’ mirror match would probably go for option  here (for a variety of reasons). But beginners and the inexperienced may find themselves tempted to make the value/tempo play : after all, silencing an Ancient Watcher gives us– in effect– a four mana minion (i.e. Chillwind Yeti) a turn early AND a 2/1 on board. Moreover, we could then kill Zombie Chow to clear the enemy board. This would result in us having complete board control, gaining five health, and gaining a bit of card advantage! Which begs a very simple question: “What’s not to like?”
I want you to think of play  as ‘winning a battle’. And now, the pertinent question becomes whether this particular victory is a genuine win that helps the war effort or ‘pyhrric’ in nature. How could the victory be ‘pyhrric’? Well, all you have to ask yourself is how you plan on countering the opponents Twilight Drake without an Ironbeak owl.
The opponent will have four mana next turn, and should the Drake be as large as a 4/8 then we can quickly see that the 2/1 owl and the 4/3 watcher are not going to be strong enough to fight it, which means the gains we got by silencing the watcher can all be quickly and easily undone.
In this particular match-up the owl has a rather specific role (it is ‘supposed’ to counter Twiglight Drake and Sylvanas Windrunner), and to use the card in any other capacity is tantamount to ruin.
A few months back I was coaching someone and we arrived at a position which not too dissimilar to the above. Before I could say anything she instinctively slammed the Chow down and was somewhat surprised to hear me chastise her for making such a play. Basically, the problem Ramp Druid has against Mech mage is two-fold:
1. That by the time you manage to stabilise on board you are often just dead to the Mage’s direct damage (e.g. Fireball)
2. Given the large number of big creatures in the deck, there is often no easy way to counter Mirror Entity.
Notice that Zombie Chow deals with both problems neatly, ergo, there is some merit to not playing Zombie Chow on Turn One, preferring instead to hold onto it and trigger the secret with it.
With that said however, Ramp Druid has another problem vs. Mech Mage:
3. The lack of board clear means that once the Mech Mage establishes a good board it is hard for the Druid to fight against it.
If you are playing a deck unable to control the board via board clear then the next best thing is to prevent the board from being developed in the first place! Playing Zombie Chow on Turn One would help achieve this aim.
In short, there are good reasons for playing or not playing Zombie Chow in this match-up. What you should do depends on a number of factors (e.g. your exact deck list, how many cards the Mage mulliganed, the rest of your hand, etc).
Since playing the Chow was a reasonable play you may wonder why I chastised my student. Well, I was critical not because the Zombie Chow was played, rather, I thought that the speed at at which she slammed the chow down revealed a certain amount of carelessness and/or ignorance. It is important to note that this is the sort position where strong players will hesitate whereas weaker players will cast chow after little (if any) thought. Thus, if you want to improve at Hearthstone, you would do well to recognise these sorts of positions.
In short, a Turn One Zombie Chow wins the battle but may cost us the war since once the chow leaves our hand we no longer have a clean way to refute Mirror Entity (most Druid lists only run one copy of Zombie Chow, by the way).
This position on first glance seems so simple, but as they say, “appearances can be deceiving”.
If you want to get better at spotting good plays from ‘Pyhrric plays’ then I would recommend you do three things:
- Read Good deck guides. A good deck guide will cover the various match-ups and they will tell you how to use particular cards.
- Check out the ‘In-depth Turn Analysis‘ Series. In this series we take a complex position and suggest a move. Crucially however, our suggestions are based on our understanding of the match-up (which means we will frequently spot and discuss ‘Pyhrric Plays’).
- Watch the streams of strong players. Concentrate especially hard at the Mulligan decisions. Why? Well thats basically because the Mulligan stage frequently reveals how the pro-player intends to play the match-up.
In short, playing the strongest move right now can come at a huge cost if such a play is in some way inconsistent with your long-term strategical goals. This is what a ‘Pyhrric victory’ looks like in Hearthstone. In the rest of the article I do make heavy use of this idea but I do not always make the connection explicit: It’s up to you to connect the dots!
Of course, in the paragraph above I mentioned “long-term strategical goals”. In order to spot ‘Pyhrric Plays’ we need to first understand what our long term goals actually are. The next few sections aim to study and explain this concept.
Game Plans I: Introduction
Definition: ‘Game Plan’
A ‘Game Plan’ refers to the general strategy of a deck: “How does this deck aim to win the game?”. In order to be good at Hearthstone, your game-plans must be flexible; you must adapt your plans ‘on the fly’ (i.e. on a turn-by-turn basis) as well as at the match-up level (e.g. play versus Druid differently than you play versus Rogue).
When Playing Hearthstone, it is important that you understand the game plan of both your deck as well as your opponents. Let’s look at a few examples:
- The game plan of ‘Freeze Mage’ is to stall the game via Freeze spells (e.g Frost Nova), and then set up the combo (Alextrasza, Ice Block, Burn Spells) in order to kill you over two turns.
- The game plan of ‘Fatigue Mage’ is similar to ‘Freeze Mage’ in that they both aim to stall the game with freeze spells, but they differ in terms of win condition: while Freeze Mage wins by ‘combo’, the Fatigue Mage is content on just grinding you down to fatigue and win by ‘out-healing’ you.
- The ‘Face Hunter’ deck is all about rushing the opponent down as quickly as possible: this aim is achieved by smacking the minions straight into the face of the opponent. Indeed, the deck is almost incapable of playing in any other fashion (e.g trade minions = lose game).
- The game plan of ‘Face Hunter’ is actually quite different from ‘Warlock Zoo’: while both decks are distinctly aggro in flavour, the former deck doesn’t care one iota about board control whereas Zoo desperately tries to control the board.
- The game-plan of ‘Mech Mage’ is somewhere in-between the Face Hunter and Zoo: it is an aggro deck that pushes hard for board control (like Zoo) but the deck also has (just like Hunter) a decent amount of direct face damage (e.g. Fireball) and so therefore after a certain point it can ignore board control and just go face.
- …and so on…
Of course, the game plans above are only a rough sketch: each deck can be discussed in much greater detail. And don’t worry, I will be delving into some of that nuance and detail a little later on. But before I do that, I want to cover another idea first: after figuring out your own game-plan and that of your opponents, you need to ask a rather critical question: “How do these two ‘game plans’ interact with each other?”.
Game Plans II: Who’s the Beatdown
Let’s be a little bit more theoretical with our examples this time: Let’s say I have a control deck of some description and am about to play against an Aggro deck. In this example, the game-plan of the aggro deck is to win the game as quickly as possible. But why? The naive answer to this question would be to say something along the lines of “…because being fast is what aggro decks are designed to do!” But such a statement is actually a little confused (albeit in a subtle way), I shall now try and explain why.
The reason you want to win quickly with aggro (when facing slower control decks) is because the longer the game drags on the more likely it is that you will be over-whelmed by the raw power of the control decks late-game cards and it’s ability to generate card advantage.
But what about when the aggro deck fights another aggro deck, what ought to be the game plan here? Well, since both decks are similar we need to understand that as the game drags out — very much unlike when we face control decks — we are not likely to be overwhelmed by raw power nor crushed under the weight of card advantage. And so therefore, the major reason we need to be quick no longer applies! It might actually be the case that you can win more games in aggro vs aggro match-up by not trying to play the ‘tempo-game’ (as you would versus Control) and instead play in a slower ‘value-orientated’ fashion.
Mike Flores, explored this idea in his famous Magic Article; “Who’s the Beatdown” (link in further reading section). In that article he basically makes the point that in any given match-up one player needs to play ‘control’ and the other player needs to play ‘aggressively’ (in the case of the mirror match, those roles will most likely be assigned by the starting hands and/or RNG). Misunderstand your role in a match-up and you will lose.
But first, let’s consider the roles: Who should play control?
At first glance you might think that the Warlock ought to play the control role, after all, Life Tap will help the deck amass card advantage. However, after further thought we would release that this is a terrible misunderstanding; the warlock must be the ‘beat-down’ player. Here’s why:
- While the Warlock Hero Power can amass card advantage it does so at the cost of life. In other words, the Warlock Hero Power promises to end the game: The Warlock must find a way to win the game quickly or be killed by his/her own Hero Power.
- The Mage has a higher curve which gives the deck the much better end-game (e.g Archmage Antonidas, Dr. Boom)
And now let’s look back at the second question: “Who needs board control the most?” Answer: The Warlock. Here’s why:
- When the Mage deck gains board control, it generates value from its cards (e.g Goblin Blastmage, Tinkertown Technician). Whereas the only real benefit the Warlock gets from having a strong board is the ability to push for more damage and a cheaper Sea Giant. Basically, should the Mage gain board control the Warlock will find its minions out-classed.
- If the Mage loses board control they have an alternate win condition (e.g Burn face with Fireball), the Warlock does not.
In short, the Warlock is the the ‘beat-down player’ and he/she must aggressively fight for board control. Whereas the Mech Mage is afforded more flexibility: it can win by having board control, it can win by burning face with fireball(s), or it win simply by dragging the game out.
With all this said, in the Blackrock expansion Warlock got a new card that fits the Zoo theme nicely (i.e. Imp Gang Boss). Since this minion is a demon, Zoo can now justify running Voidcaller…and if you are running Voidcaller it is tempting to find room for Mal’Ganis. The point I am making here is that some of the new Zoo lists have added a bit more late-game potency to the deck (e.g. Mal Ganis, Dr. Boom). Thus, it is no longer the case that Mech Mage has a better late-game.
This once again demonstrates why it is so important to focus on the theoretical ideas my examples are supposed to teach instead of focusing on the examples themselves. My examples quickly become dated, but the principles do not. Anyway, onto the next section!
Game Plans III: Phases
Every deck has a game plan and every game-plan consists of several ‘sub-plans’ (or ‘phases’) which must be completed before the main objective can be achieved. If you want to improve at Hearthstone then you ought to endeavour to not just understand the ‘over-all game plan’ of a deck but you must also insist in learning its ‘phases’.
Let’s return to ‘Freeze Mage’. Here are its ‘phases’:
- ‘Match-up Recognition’ Phase: “What deck is my opponent running?”
- ‘Match-up adjustment’ Phase: “Now that I know I am playing against X deck, how do need to play against X deck?”
- ‘Stall & Draw’ Phase: In this Phase the aim is slow the opponent down. The Mage also tries to draw as many cards as possible.
- ‘The Alexstrasza set-up’ Phase: Play Ice Block and work out how you can avoid the secret being pro’ced.
- The ‘Alexstrasza turn’ Phase: Alexstrasza opponent, setting up lethal for next turn.
- The ‘Burn’ phase: Win the game with Frostbolt, Ice Lance, Fireball combinations. If this won’t work move to phase (6):
- The ‘long kill/last chance’ Phase: Your last remaining out is Pyroblast, so you now need to set up the Pryoblast kill with the phase (6) combos whilst keeping Ice block up.
So this is the game plan of Freeze Mage fleshed out in more detail than before (note that Phases  and  are true of ALL DECKS). When playing against Freeze Mage, it makes sense to think about the match-up in terms of ‘phases’ and ‘counter-phases’. A ‘counter-phase’ is simply how you intend to respond to the phases of the opponent. Let’s make a quick list:
- ‘Stall & Draw & Alex set-up’ Counter-Phase: Push for Damage. Try to steal/trigger Ice Block. Constantly threaten lethal.
- ‘Alextrasza’ counter-phase: Find a way to stop Alextrasza hitting the face for 8 damage (e.g. kill it, taunts). Defend against the impending burn. Trigger Ice Block
- The ‘long kill/last chance’ Counter-Phase: Defend against Pyroblast. Trigger Ice Block. Win the game.
Depending on your particular deck, those ‘counter-phases’ will mean that you are doing different things. Let’s break down the ‘Alexstrasza phase’ into four smaller sub-problems:
[A] A way to deal with Alexstrasza (e.g. Big Game Hunter or Aldor Peacekeeper, Noble Sacrifice, Freezing Trap, taunt. kill with minions, etc)
[B] Cast as much damage mitigation as possible (e.g. Healing Touch, Shield Block, Ice Block, etc)
[C] A way counter to the incoming spells (i.e. Loatheb, Counterspell,, etc)
[D] A way to remove/trigger Ice Block (e.g Kezan Mystic, Flare, direct damage, etc)
To counteract this difficulty, smart Paladin players will do a number of things. For example, they might have equipped Truesilver Champion on an earlier turn but then held onto a single charge of it until Alexstrasza, the idea being is that you then attack face and go up to 17 health (take care to note that the +2 life is not a trivial amount of life to gain since it forces the Mage to have multiple copies of Ice Lance). The Paladin player could wait until Alextrasza before playing Loatheb. This prevents the immediate next turn kill and may give yourself enough time to heal up outside of the Mage’s range on your following turn.
In every match-up every deck should have two plans:  It’s own game plan  Plans to counter your opponents moves. Moreover, you should also understand those two plans of your opponent as well. So here’s a really simple tip: if you want to understand a particular match-up construct a table like the one below and fill it in.
|Player One’s Deck||Player Two’s Deck:|
Before I finish this section I want to say that in some match-ups you will find yourself on the offensive and thus you may not need to use your ‘counter-plan’ a great deal (beyond playing around a bit of AoE). In other match-ups you will find the reverse is true; you constantly find yourself needing to counter your opponents ideas as opposed threatening with your own. And then there are some match-ups where you use your ‘game plan’ and ‘counter plan’ in almost equal measure.
I would strongly encourage you to try an exercise like this if you can find the time. The reason being is that that sort of exercise forces you to think practically and seriously about how you need to play a match-up. Maybe after some thought you will find a non-obvious and creative solution to a problem.
Let me try and help you see that. Pop quiz time!
QUESTION: Against ‘Freeze Mage’, What ‘phase’ can Dr. Boom help you counter?
In the spoiler below I have given my answer, but before you look at it have a good long think about how Dr. Boom can be used against ‘Freeze Mage’.
ANSWER: The ‘Alexstrasza set up’ phase. How? Well, at this point in the game (if all is going well) the Freeze Mage is probably very low on health and is trying hard to stop the Ice Block being popped, which typically requires the Mage keep the board clear. Enter stage: Dr.Boom. Secrets do not trigger during your own turn and so therefore, provided the Mage is at low enough health, the Boom Bot‘s threaten lethal should the Mage try to clear the board with Flamestrike.
UPDATE (2015/05/08): Here’s a funny Youtube clip that demonstrates a similiar idea:
That’s all Folks! As always, comments, questions, likes, etc are welcome.
Further Reading & References
- Smashthings (et al), “In-Depth Turn Analysis” (series)
- Mike Flores, “Who’s the Beatdown”
- Team DKMR, “Who’s the Beatdown — Hearthstone Edition.”