Deep Dive: The Art of Planning
A long time ago I played Magic: The Gathering. It was merely a hobby, but I really enjoyed it and invested quite a bit into of money the game. I stopped for many years, but when I got back into it, I did so with a vengeance. I read many articles, followed tournaments, played online a bunch, etc. I remember reading a great article about planning, and it really took my game up a notch!
Although Magic and Hearthstone are not the same game, there are certainly a lot of general gameplay theories that apply to both games. The concept of planning is one of these theories I learned about from playing Magic, and I’m writing this to share with you what I’ve learned, and how it has transferred over to Hearthstone.
In my opinion, planning is one of the most fundamental aspects of deck building. I realize that the whole idea of building a deck IS planning, but that’s not exactly what I mean. There are many ways you can start building a deck, but all of them, at some point, involve developing a game plan.
Is your goal to kill your opponent as quickly as possible, to burst your opponent down in one turn, or perhaps to stall the game until you drop a steady stream of haymakers? These game plans probably sound familiar, as they describe aggressive, combo, and traditional control decks respectively. When you start adding cards to your deck, you need to make sure everything revolves around your game plan.
Let’s take a look at the idea as it applies to each of those basic deck archetypes. If you’re playing an aggressive deck, then your goal is to kill your opponent quickly. You don’t care about area of effect damage, you don’t care about removal that can’t go face, and you don’t care about late game legendaries. I know you want to use that shiny new Ragnaros the Firelord you just opened, but that doesn’t fit into your game plan. Your plan involves winning the game before you could play a card for eight mana.Your cards need to be mana efficient, but not necessarily card efficient, and you need a quick return on your mana investment. You want cards that kill your opponent quickly, and there isn’t room for much else. Legendaries designed with this archetype in mind include Millhouse Manastorm and King Mukla. The face hunter deck is a fairly pure example of this if you’re the type who loves a good deck list.
For a combo deck, your goal is to kill your opponent with a sudden burst of damage. Thus, your plan dictates that you need cards that support assembling your combo, lasting until you can execute your combo, whittling your opponent down to where your combo is lethal, card draw to find the combo, and, of course, the combo cards. Sometimes combo decks also have a contingency plan in case they don’t draw it. Because some combos take longer to assemble and execute than others, there may be some additional cards necessary to support your plan.
Regardless, you need to recognize all these factors, and pick supporting cards that fit this plan. Leeroy Jenkins and Malygos are legendary cards that fit this archetype pretty well, although they accomplish the task in very different ways. If you want to see a deck that falls under into this category, then check out a miracle rogue deck list.
My favorite deck archetype is control. The plan is to stall the game until you can play your extremely powerful, card efficient minions and spells. Control decks have the most reactive game plans of all, because you need to be able to deal with your opponent’s threats until you reach the stage of the game where you have enough mana to make your power plays. Essentially, the main categories of cards that fit this type of plan are area of effect and single target removal, taunt minions, healing/armor building, card draw, and your haymakers. Most class legendaries, as well as Ragnaros the Firelord suit this archetype very well. Control warrior fits nicely into this category if you want to see an example.
Trimming your deck down to thirty cards is often tough to do. You need to decide what cards best fit your plan, and cut the fat from there. You need to envision what happens on your first few turns, and maybe even imagine how an entire game plays out. For example, let’s say you’re building a control deck, and thus you’re okay doing nothing turn one, and hero powering turn two most of the time. That let’s you know you don’t really need any proactive turn one and two plays. Thus, these portions of your mana curve can consist entirely of reactive cards.
Depending on how much removal you have at your disposal, you’ll have to decide where on the mana curve you need to start including more proactive minions and spells. Chillwind Yeti is a great example of a strong four mana card that can fill in a removal gap, as it tends to be very difficult to remove, and fights profitably with virtually every other minion at the same mana cost. It’s also a powerful enough card that it can be a relevant end game threat if you draw it many turns into the game.
The first steps, listed above, describe picturing your ideal draw. Of course, your opponent is going to try to do things to disrupt your game plan, either in the literal sense of the word, or by killing you before you can execute it. This is where higher level thinking comes on board. Now that you’ve figured out a plan, you need to figure out how to make that plan harder to disrupt in a real game. Figure out what weaknesses your plan has, cut cards the exacerbate that weakness, and include cards that fix it.
As an example, when putting together the Paladin deck I wrote an article about recently, I cut some of the cards you often see suggested. People include cards like Argent Squire because it helps shore up your early game. Although this is kind of true, it’s an incredibly weak card after the first couple of turns unless you build around it a bit more. Instead, I included two Humility as a mana efficient means of dealing with heavy early tempo plays, while remaining relevant late into the game. This fits the plan much better, and it’s one of the best changes I’ve ever experimented with in the aforementioned deck.
The mulligan phase is where you have more control over your card selection relative to any other phase of the game. It’s extremely important to take advantage of this fact, and your plan should factor into that. Most people know they should mulligan really mana intensive cards, except in really specific situations.
However, simply throwing back every card with a cost of five mana or more is not going to cut it. For example, let’s say you’re playing an aggressive warlock deck and your opening hand is Voidwalker, Shattered Sun Cleric, and Harvest Golem. This would be a terrible opening hand to keep, and the reason is that you are forced to hero power on turn two, and turn four you are wasting a mana. It would be much better to mulligan aggressively for a turn two play. Although there are better turn one plays, I would say it’s greedy to pass up the one you were given, as there is a similar likelihood of losing your turn one play entirely.
All the decisions I talked about in the preceding paragraph are mostly being considered in a vacuum. This is only one half of the equation; just as I mentioned with deckbuilding, you need to picture what cards your opponent is likely to keep when they mulligan. That is, you need to have a grasp of their game plan, and their specific picks against you. Pick cards that help you execute your plan despite them playing those cards. These are things that either disrupt their plan or bypass attempts to disrupt your plan. For example, Wolfrider “ignores” removal to some extent because it can attack before the opponent can interact with it. However, the same card is weaker to a strategy revolving around stopping aggression with taunt creatures. Thus, if you’re running an aggressive hunter deck that utilizes cards like that and your opponent is playing druid, which typically has lots of large taunt creatures, then it might be wise to prioritize very early plays, direct damage, and some kind of tool that can help punch through a taunt like Ironbeak Owl or Hunter's Mark.
Recognize that their critical turn for dealing with is turn five, and maybe earlier with Innervate, where they can play a Druid of the Claw. If you don’t think you can kill them before that turn with your current hand, then you need to find a way to deal with that situation should it arise.
During the Game
Once you have passed the mulligan phase, you need to re-evaluate your plan with each turn. You need to decide if the cards you choose to play now make your next few turns good or bad, and that changes with every new card you draw. You have a variety of resources at your disposal: cards, life, damage, and mana. There are plenty of others you could name, but these are some of the basics most players should understand and recognize. Sometimes sacrificing a bit of one affords you some kind of benefit. It may be a better play to not use all your mana this turn if it means that you create a really powerful board state.
By the same token, it might be necessary to “overkill” (e.g. deal four damage to a minion with two health) a threat because you recognize that threat can quickly get out of hand if left alone. Scavenging Hyena is a good example of such a card. There is a lot of information that goes into deciding what the best play is with respect to all of these resources, and much is outside the scope of this article. However, awareness of these factors means you can start examining them in your owns games, and you canbegin to recognize which resources are most important in a given situation/matchup.
Thinking multiple turns ahead is absolutely key to always using your mana consistently and interacting positively with the board state. Most newer players make plays that focus on getting the most value out of a given turn. That is fine, but sometimes you have to sacrifice some efficiency on the current turn to make sure the next couple of turn operate smoothly.
Let’s take a situation where you decided to keep a hand with Innervate, Chillwind Yeti, and Druid of the Claw. There is great temptation to play Chillwind Yeti on turn two. However, if you do this, then you have nothing to do for turns three or four. By the same token, if you’re patient and just hero power on turn two, then you can play Druid of the Claw on turn three using Innervate, and Chillwind Yeti on turn four. Make sure you re-evaluate this with every draw, as it is constantly changing.
As previously stated, once you get used to planning out your turns, you need to take their game plan into consideration. Maybe you know they are going to play something really powerful later that you need to deal with. A card like Alexstrasza is a fantastic example. Although it might be mana efficient to heal yourself any time you have two spare mana to play a card like Holy Light, that efficiency becomes gross inefficiency when sets you to fifteen health no matter how much you started with. It ends up being a complete waste of a card, and falls right into your opponent’s game plan. This requires a lot of experience, as you need to know what decks are popular, and you can easily get thrown off by people who use unorthodox cards. However, you will see general trends, and you can plan your turns out based on these critical points in your opponent’s game plan.
To recap, step one is to evaluate what is best for your current turn. The next level of thinking is extending this plan for multiple turns ahead. The final step is to start factoring in what you expect your opponent to be doing over the course of the game. Once you start taking all of these things into consideration, you will notice your win rate go up substantially.
Playing Around Cards
Have you ever had one of those games where you just pull every card you need exactly, and you’re able to build a solid board while eliminating the opponent’s? It’s a beautiful thing, and it really feels good when things go so smoothly. Have you ever had one of those games where, all of a sudden, you started top decking like garbage and the opponent seemed to get everything they needed? It sucks, and it can be so disheartening.
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it, but I would argue that most of the time this situation can be avoided to some extent. When you are ahead, you gain a luxury. That luxury is the ability to play around cards you suspect your opponent has in their hand. When you are ahead, you need to start focusing more on how you can lose, and less on how you can win.
The winning is part is well under way, but you need to picture how your opponent could turn the tables, and play around whatever that is. There is a limit of course, but if it doesn’t mean doing things that are completely unreasonable, like trading three for one, then do it. In fact, you can even make low value trades if you have way more cards between your hand and board.
Remember, playing around cards is a luxury. When I am behind, I don’t allow myself that luxury. Playing around stuff is something that often means you lose some tempo and damage efficiency. That’s all well and good when you’re just trying to secure your dominant position. However, when you’re in a crap position, your plan can no longer involve playing around cards. If you don’t start achieving maximum value plays all the time, then you are never going to catch up again. You might have to hope they don’t have that AOE spell, or hope they don’t have their finisher combo in hand, and that’s all you can do. It’s a shit position to be in, but I assure you that if you go out of your way to avoid something and lose tempo, then you are just going to bury yourself deeper.
Winning is Different than Not Losing
This section expands a little on the concept I mentioned above. Sometimes you are on the back foot, and you are forced to play in a more reactive/defensive fashion than you would like at this stage of the game. Maybe you’re a control deck that could never quite feel comfortable enough to start making proactive plays because you’re worried their next top deck will kill you. Maybe you’re a combo deck that took longer to assemble your combo than you liked, and you’ve had to expend resources not dying. These are situations where you are being forced to respond to your opponent, but you’re going to have to shift to being proactive at some point to win.
Sometimes stalling might be a perfectly viable tactic. It truly depends on what tools you have at your disposal. For example, stalling until you draw Lay on Hands might be a perfectly viable game plan. That life and card gain can really give you the resources to mount a fight after you’ve been using everything you have not to die. However, not all decks have cards like this that create a really swingy effect and restock your hand. You’re going to be the only one who truly knows every card in your deck, so you have to be the judge as to whether or not this tactic can work.
When dealing with a situation where you’re on the defensive, you need to determine how many more turns you can last against their onslaught. Even with that information in mind, you still need to envision some sequence of cards that can allow for a win before they do. If you think there is only one or two sequences of cards that will win you the game, then you need to play like you have those cards already. Stalling until inevitable death will still result in death in the end.
However, playing as though you are going to draw you the right cards will win you any game where you actually draw those cards. Maybe you have a few sequences that work this way, and maybe only one. Either way, if your only way to win is to draw what you need while they brick, then you need to make plays like that’s exactly what is going to happen. It might even cause you to make plays that seem completely ridiculous with only the cards you have now, but if it’s the only 20% chance you have to win, then you have to take it.
Commit to Your Plan
Even though your deck might be designed with a particular play style in mind, you may have to adapt this a bit depending on the cards you start with and the type of deck your opponent is running. Perhaps you know that your opponent starts doing really broken things about turn nine or ten, and you can’t deal with them. You decide that you need to play really aggressive to win the game. As such, you start going for the face more than normal and ignore board control outside of really favorable trades. Six turns in the game they drop something that scares you a bit, and you decide you’re now going to start fighting harder for board control. However, you’ve already sacrificed board control for damage. You’re diluting your game plan in this particular game by shifting gears, and you may very well screw yourself.
I’m not suggesting there’s no time to adapt your game plan. If you do it early enough, or without investing heavily in a particular plan, then you can switch if it makes sense. As I said earlier in the article, your plan should change to some extent depending on your draws. However, once you’ve committed to a certain degree, I advise you don’t change your plan. You need to stay the course once you’ve gone to a certain point. If you lose, then just learn from it and move on.
This Game is Complicated
I hope all this blather about planning hasn’t confused you further. If a lot of this is new to you, then just try to apply one concept at a time. As you play more games, experiment with applying more of those concepts. There may even appear to be a bit of contradiction in these suggestions, and the reason is that this game is complicated and there are always exceptions to every suggestion or gameplay theory/philosophy. Sometimes there are so many possibilities that it is just overwhelming.
You need to not kill yourself with paralysis by analysis, and as you get used to analyzing situations you instincts will improve. Sometimes it is worth it to count numbers to see if they might have lethal, or see if you can push for lethal, or whatever. However, sometimes there are so many possibilities that you just need to trust your gut. The more you practice some of these essential concepts, the more your intuition will guide you correctly in those overly complex scenarios.