Drafting and Playing Terrible Cards in Hearthstone’s Arena
Angry Chicken, Ancient Watcher, Coldlight Seer. At some point in Arena, you’ll encounter a pick like this one between three terrible cards. When that happens, it takes a particular kind of skill to minimize the damage done to your deck. Drawing or playing that terrible card at an inopportune moment can easily lead to a defeat or two, chipping away at your winrate. In this guide, I will examine different strategies for handling these terrible cards, including drafting, mulliganing, and playing terrible cards.
Some Quick Explanations
Terrible here is defined as cards with extremely low impact (e.g., Target Dummy, Eye for an Eye) or poor stats for mana cost (e.g., post-nerf Warsong Commander). Terrible cards are the ones you never want to see in an Arena draft, the ones you’re happy to see your opponent play. This guide assumes that you can identify terrible cards and is instead intended to help you deal with situations where you’re essentially forced to draft a terrible card. If you find yourself wondering why any of the cards listed in this guide are terrible, read Sheng’s Beginner Arena Guide series or ADWCTA & Merps’ On Mastery of Arena series.
Most suggestions assume an average Arena deck. Extremely poor Arena decks are unlikely to be significantly affected by a single terrible card, as are extremely good Arena decks. It’s the decks in the middle where terrible cards have the most impact.
Identifying Your Path(s) to Victory
As with most Arena decisions, playing effectively with terrible cards requires you to know how your deck wins games. In general, winning in Arena comes down to one of two strategies: tempo or value. Decks that win on tempo work to build an advantage in board state and—either gradually or suddenly—translate that advantage into face damage, killing the opponent with minions on the board or direct damage spells. Tempo-oriented decks tend to win by Turn 10. Decks that win on value strive to make their cards have as much impact as possible in relation to their opponents’ cards in order to eventually starve the opponent of cards. Value-oriented decks tend to win after Turn 10, often when both players have few remaining cards.
Very few Arena decks win solely on tempo or value, but all decks have some blend of tempo and value in their construction. The best decks are ones that can move easily between tempo and value or can make plays that actually work for both tempo and value (e.g., playing Argent Commander to kill a Lost Tallstrider). Average Arena decks, though, usually fall fairly clearly on one end of the spectrum or the other. An aggresive Hunter deck is almost certainly going to lose the value game but can often win on tempo. A Mage with several high-cost Area of Effect (AoE) spells may not be able to win on tempo, but is likely to be able to outlast her opponent once she begins casting those spells. Even a “standard” Arena deck, such as a midrange Druid, tends to lean one way or the other: a couple of Druid of the Claws and Ironbark Protectors could tilt the deck toward value, while a couple of Living Roots and Druid of the Sabers could tilt the deck toward tempo.
So, take a minute to ask yourself: how am I most likely to win games with my deck? That answer should drive almost all your decisions, including how you play with terrible cards.
Drafting Terrible Cards
When you’re faced with a decision between three terrible cards, which should you choose? One way of making this decision is to look at a card’s best and worst case scenarios, what I will call the ceiling and floor.
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn. Going back to the pick at the beginning of this guide, each of those three cards has some potential. Angry Chicken can be buffed by cards like Houndmaster and survive to deal significant damage. Ancient Watcher can be taunted up by a Sunfury Protector, silenced by Wailing Soul, or sacrificed by Shadowflame for efficient AoE. Coldlight Seer can be preceded by a Murloc Tidecaller and a Murloc Tidehunter for a powerful start. All of those potential scenarios are extremely rare, but they are the cards’ ceilings. Ancient Watcher’s ceiling is almost certainly the highest, since its large amount of stats for the mana cost mean that it can be extremely powerful if activated. Coldlight Seer has likely the next highest ceiling, followed by Angry Chicken. Angry Chicken is also almost certainly the least likely of those cards to reach its ceiling.
On the flip side, those cards all have a worst case scenario. Ancient Watcher’s is certainly the worst: without activators, it is a completely dead card with the exception of Mirror Entity shenanigans. Angry Chicken’s floor is slightly higher, since at the very least, it will either soak up damage from an enemy minion and deal 1 damage to that minion or consume 1 or 2 mana from the opponent in the form of a ping spell or power. Coldlight Seer’s floor is even higher still, since it will at least have some slight impact on the board state. It’s clear that Ancient Watcher wins out on flexibility and ceiling, but its floor is so bad that it is only occasionally the best pick.
Whether or not you preference a card’s ceiling or floor should depend on the overall quality of your deck so far. In a deck with quite a few bad cards, a card with a higher ceiling is often the correct choice, since that ceiling can win you the game occasionally (e.g., Sacrificial Pact in the Warlock mirror). In a deck with strong cards, drafting the card with the highest floor helps you mitigate the effect of that card on your deck. Of course, you may be faced with these choices early in your draft, in which case you should consider both a card’s ceiling and floor. On the first pick of your draft, Coldlight Seer is almost certainly the correct choice between those three cards because it has the best combination of ceiling and floor.
Your deck’s place on the tempo/value spectrum should also drive this decision. Decks leaning toward tempo should generally preference low cost cards, while decks leaning toward value should generally choose the highest impact card (usually high cost cards). That said, if your deck is tilted extremely strongly one way or the other, a good strategy can be to choose a card that fits on the opposite end of your mana curve. For example, Mogor's Champion is generally a terrible card, but in a heavy tempo deck, dropping it on Turn 6 when you already have a strong board advantage can mean that your opponent has to choose between dealing with several smaller minions, removing a source of 8 potential face damage, and developing their own board. Likewise, a value heavy deck can often survive playing an Angry Chicken, since its other cards will generate enough value to offset the lost value of playing a low-impact 1-mana-cost card.
To Mulligan or Not to Mulligan?
You’ve drafted a terrible card, and you start your first game. That card pops up in your opening hand, and you’re left with a choice: to mulligan or not to mulligan?
If the card is a utility or situational card that has an impact only in specific situations (e.g., Bolster, Savagery, etc.), you can pretty much always toss it back. If it costs at least three mana (e.g., Thrallmar Farseer, Stoneskin Gargoyle), you can pretty much always toss it back. But what do you do with one-mana minions and two-mana minions?
You should usually keep one-mana minions, unless your deck has a high number of better one-drops. Two-drops are trickier. Your first thought with a terrible two-drop should be: how bad would this card be if played on Turn 2? If the card is likely to contest your opponent’s Turn 2 play (usually a 2/3 or 3/2 minion) at least somewhat often (e.g., Mad Scientist in a non-secret class at least kills 3/2 minions), then it’s a good idea to keep the card with the intention of playing it. If drawn and played after Turn 2, that card is likely to lose its window of effectiveness. If it is unlikely to contest a 2/3 or 3/2 minion (e.g., Mana Addict often dies to any decent two-drop), you are often better throwing that card back and looking for a two-drop that will contest your opponent’s likely Turn 2 play.
You may also want to mulligan cards with Taunt, since Taunt cards pretty much always can have some impact at any point in the game, whether it be by protecting an important minion on your board and preventing face damage to help you stabilize.
These are general rules, though. Specifically, tempo-oriented decks can afford to be more ruthless with their mulligans than value-oriented decks. If your deck is likely to win by Turn 10, then the chance you will see that card again is roughly 1 in 3. Heavy tempo decks also cannot afford cards with poor stats (with the exception of one-drops), since their entire advantage comes from contesting the board state in the form of minion attack and health. Value-oriented decks, especially ones that tend to win in the late game, can often afford to play a terrible card as long as it is on curve.
When deciding on whether to mulligan a terrible card, also consider your record in the current Arena run. Opponents with better records are more likely to punish terrible cards than opponents with worse records. If you are 0-2, you can almost always keep that terrible card, because your opponent is very likely to have terrible cards, too. If you are 11-0, you can almost always mulligan that terrible card, because it has a high chance to lose you the game, and even a 50-50 chance to not see the card again is worth the gamble.
Playing Terrible Cards
The biggest skill in playing terrible cards comes in finding the window for playing that card that will best minimize its terrible-ness. Playing an Angry Chicken on Turn 1 against a Hunter who has played a Webspinner may not be good, but it’s not going to outright lose you the game.
This window differs heavily for tempo-oriented and value-oriented decks. Identifying the tempo window means finding the time when you can afford the tempo loss of playing the terrible card. Often this is later in the game, when you have built up a significant enough board advantage and can afford to slow down a bit and play around AoE.
This window doesn’t necessarily have to be late in the game, though. Some players will wait to play a terrible card until it is the very last card in their hand, and this isn’t always the correct play. If there is an earlier time in the game when playing that card would only represent a small tempo loss compared to other alternatives, playing it earlier would be the right play.
On the other end, identifying the value window means findings the time when playing the terrible card will at least require the opponent to spend half a card. One-for-one value trades on terrible cards are very unlikely, so be willing to compromise and take the least bad value trade.
Finding the right window also means anticipating your opponent’s on-curve power plays. A Warlock headed into turn 3 has a reasonably good chance of playing an Imp Gang Boss. If you played a Dalaran Mage prior to that, you may just lose the game because of it. Similarly, if you have a Cobalt Guardian and no mechs in your deck, playing the Cobalt Guardian prior to a Shaman’s Turn 6 could swing the game if your opponent has a Fire Elemental.
As I mentioned before, minions with Taunt present a unique case. Target Dummy, Goldshire Footman, and Silverback Patriarch have some of the worst stats in the game, but those stats can be mitigated if they are played at the right time. Be on the eye for out situations when playing one of these cards will allow you to make things awkward for your opponent. A Goldshire Footman with a Cult Master on board is better than many other one- or two-drops. A Silverback Patriarch is almost as good as a Sen'jin Shieldmasta when you have plenty of card advantage and simply need to prevent face damage.
Next time you’re faced with a decision between three terrible cards, fear not, wanderer. We all get Angry Chickens sometimes, but the satisfaction you can get from winning games with a chicken in your deck is unlike any other feeling in Hearthstone. Now go out there and draft some terrible cards with confidence!