Understanding Match-up Theory, Part Three: ‘Anticipating the Curve’
Hello guys! Welcome to Part Three of my Understanding Match-up Theory Series (please see reference section at the end of article for links to Parts One and Two).
Usually when I write Hearthstone articles (as, no doubt, many of you are aware) I tend to spend thousands of words explaining some fairly advanced stuff. Indeed, it has been joked that if I was made into a Hearthstone card my text would be: “Battlecry: give somebody a major headache”.
Well today I’m going to try to write a general theory guide that is aimed at beginners, and that (hopefully) means fewer headaches.
As always, comments & likes are welcome and appreciated.
Okay, preamble over: What is this article going to be about?
Well today I am going to look at a very simple concept; the idea that you should anticipate that your opponent will play ‘on curve’. For example, On Turn Six you should anticipate your opponent playing a 6 mana minion/spell. Thus, on your Turn Five, you need to consider how you want to play against that 6 mana card.
Yes, today I am looking at a very simple idea that everyone thinks they understand. An idea that Everyone understands; And yet, I bet the majority of readers will come away learning something!
At the end of this Article I have provided three test positions that you can use to help check/cement your understanding. Okay, let’s get to it!
A Technical Note on Language
Throughout this article, you will see me repeat a number of words: ‘anticipate’, ‘consider’, ‘counter’, ‘play-around’, ‘ignore’. Before diving head-first into the material I thought I would spend a few sentences explaining some of the terminology I frequently use:
- ‘Anticipate’ : is fairly straightforward; when I use this term I simply mean that you should expect your that your opponent might do X on their turn.
- ‘Consider’ : was the most accurate word I could think of; the reason I like asking you to “consider what happens if…” is because the word itself is neutral and does not prescribe a solution; the word ‘consider’ tells you that there is something you need to be aware of but makes no claim regarding what you should do about it. Whereas a word like ‘prepare’ implies that some sort of action is necessary; and the problem with implicitly suggesting action needs to be taken is that sometimes the best play is to just ignore the opponents threats (see Here).
- ‘Play-around’ : Play around can mean a lot of things in different contexts, but basically it means that you are in some way prepared for some eventuality. This may mean that you keep cards in your hand (e.g hold onto Big Game Hunter in order to counter Dr. Boom), or that you play minions bigger than your opponents threats (something that survives AoE, for example), or maybe you play-around something by just pushing damage (e.g Ysera cannot be played if you are on very low life against a Hunter). Basically playing-around X means that you counter X, sometimes directly and clearly, and at other times indirectly and subtlety.
- ‘Counter’ : Imagine that playing-around a card is like a jab in Boxing. Well, that would make a ‘counter’ a massive funking Haymaker. For example, I would say that playing a 6 health taunt ‘plays-around’ a Death's Bite, whereas Harrison Jones is the outright counter. Basically, in my mind these two terms only really differ by degree.
- ‘Ignore’ : a straightforward term. I use this to describe situations where you shouldn’t even remotely care about something the opponent can do: “You wanna Pyroblast my 1/1? Have at it, Hoss.”
And that is everything I want to say about my use of Language in this article. Funk the Salad, let’s get to the meat.
Expecting The Curve
Okay, so ‘expecting the curve’ is an incredibly simple idea: on Turn Five you anticipate you opponent playing a 5-drop, on Turn Six you anticipate them playing a 6-drop, and so on. The simple reason you should expect your opponent to play on curve is because spending all your mana on any given turn is, generally speaking, the most powerful thing you can do on any given turn. Moreover, expecting the best moves possible from your opponent is simply good habit to get into.
Okay, so expecting the curve requires us to follow a few basic steps:
- Recognise the Match-up (i.e. work out what deck list your opponents is playing).
- Count their Mana crystals.
- Consult their deck list; if they have X mana crystals, then you should anticipate them playing card (Y), whose mana cost is X.
- Consider what you want to do about about card Y: Pre-emptively counter it? play-around it? ignore it?
- Repeat steps 2-4 until the game ends.
Rather simple stuff huh? If you need help with (1) above you can always read Part Two of this match-up theory series (although beginners beware that that article is aimed at more advanced users than this article is). Steps 2-3 should be incredibly simple; which means that the real work and complexity comes in at step 4. Indeed, beginners make no mistake; understanding when to ignore a card or when/how to play-around it is both a difficult concept to teach and a time consuming one to learn. This article will only touch on this issue somewhat briefly.
Examples often help right? Think back to the last time you played against Druid:
- On Turn Eight, did you consider Turn Nine Savage Roar + Force of Nature combo?
- On your Turn Six, did you consider what happens if Druid drops Ancient of Lore?
- What about Turn Five Druid of the Claw, did you (on Turn Four) consider that too? Cat form AND Bear form?
- I suppose that you also considered (On Turn Three) Swipe, Piloted Shredder, AND Keeper of the Grove
- If you did all of these things that’s fantastic. Well Done.
How many of you can honestly say that you regularly play-around all of the above when Facing Druid on a regular basis? I bet most of you play-around some of these cards some of the time. The rest of the time? The rest of the time you are probably deciding what you want to do in the position and neglecting to ask yourself what your opponent wants to do.
Okay, so you should have a good grasp of what this article is about by now. If you are the sort of player that does consider everything your opponent might do in response to your turn then this article is probably too elementary for you. But for those of you still reading…
…In the spoiler below I have two decks lists (Mech Mage, Control Paladin) posted side-by-side. Using my crazy-good photoshop ‘skillz’ I have chopped the lists up a bit and put them into little boxes.
Quick Quiz Time!
It is Turn Three and you are the Paladin. Next Turn the Mage will have 4 mana. Question: What cards should you anticipate?
Okay so let’s suppose that our hand has Muster of Battle in it. Should we play it? To awnser that question we need to consider how well the card fairs against the Mage’s 4-drops:
Fireball is terrible vs Muster for Battle; it achieves almost nothing. Therefore, if we play muster we can simply ignore fireball.
Muster spawns 3 minions, and since the Mage cannot cast Hero Power at the same time as Shredder we know that those little guys are going to be able to trade with the first half of shredder. This turns about to be a rather even exchange.
On an empty board, muster works really well against a Blastmage; the 3 dudes + weapon hit clear the board. Since we used a 3 mana card to deal with a 4 mana card (and considering the fact we have a weapon remaining) we can say that Muster counter’s Blastmage. But if, on the other hand the Mage has a mech or two on the board then Blastmage counter’s Muster since that battlecry is likely to kill a handful of our dudes.
So if the board is empty, it seems as though muster for battle performs decently against all of the Mage’s 4 drops. But if, on the other hand, the board is not empty then you need to consider (a) how well Muster does in the current board state (a question which this article does not discuss) and (b) supposing there are Mech’s and you anticipate Blastmage; is muster for battle still your best play?
The above discussion is the sort of thing I am recommending that you do on every single turn. Yes, it is very basic advice but I bet that at least half of you don’t follow it consistently! Moreover, you can’t really master the advanced stuff until you have the basics down.
Alright, let’s now more on to a slighty more advanced idea.
Expecting The Curve – 2
Okay so you understand why you should expect the opponent to play ‘on curve’. In this section I’m going to throw another idea at you: on Turn Six, not only should you anticipate the opponent playing a six mana card, but you should also anticipate your opponent playing a four cost cast, leaving two mana untouched.
Now, unlike Magic the Gathering, Blizzard when developing Hearthstone made a design decision that essentially means that you always have something to spend your mana on. Of course I am refering the Hero Powers. It doesn’t matter what deck you are facing, it is simply a fact that the player is always able to spend a least two mana each turn.
As a general rule of thumb (as no doubt all of you readers are aware) it is usually a good idea to be as mana efficient as possible. And moreover, due to the randomness involved in drawing cards you are not always going to have a six mana card to play on turn six. In such instances, it is often a good idea to ‘weave in’ Hero Power with a smaller minion (in this case a 4-drop) in order to maximise mana efficiency.
For example, on Turn 6, it is often better to play 4-drop + Hero Power than it is to cast a 5-drop and waste one mana. This sort of play sometimes allows you to be mana efficient on future turns as well; In this case, for example, we can play 5-drop + Hero Power on Turn 7 (whereas 5-drop on 6 followed by 4-drop + Hero Power on Turn 7 wastes 2 mana over two turns).
It is worth nothing every class has a different Hero Power (Thankyou, Captain Obvious!), and that different decks utilises those powers differently (e.g. ‘Face Hunter’ uses the Hero Power more aggressively than a Control/Midrange Hunter would. Another example: ‘Handlock’ spends the first few turns of the game using Hero Power to get big things on the board, whereas ‘Zoo’ uses it much later in the game to restock the hand). Therefore, it is not easy to make any general claims about how (and when) a Hero Power might be ‘weaved into’ a turn. But with that said we can say a few basic things about some classes and decks:
- Mage/Rogue/Druid will often try to weave in a Hero Power when it means that they can pick off a minion of yours. For example if you play Magma Rager then it is much more likely that the opponents Turn 5 will be something like ‘3-drop + Hero Power’ rather than playing a 5-drop.
- On Turn 3, a ‘Face Hunter’ is probably just as likely to play Hero Power + Leper Gnome as they are to play Turn 3 Animal Companion.
- …and so on…
Once you feel as though you are considering your opponents curve threats sufficiently well expecting Hero Power is the next step toward Hearthstone greatness. But let’s take one step even further than that.
Expecting Basic Addition
Okay so you have reached a point where you are now, on every damn funking turn, consistently considering what happens should your opponent play on curve and curve -2. The next step is to consider basic addition.
For example, on 7 mana you can:
- Cast a 7 mana card (e.g. Dr. Boom).
- Cast a 6 mana + a 1 mana card (e.g. Shieldmaiden + Shield Slam).
- Cast a 5 mana card + Hero Power/a 2 mana card (e.g. Hero Power + Quartermaster).
- Cast a 4 mana card and a 3 mana card (e.g Flamewaker + Polymorph).
- …and so on…
During the later turns of the game the sheer number of possibilities can be overwhelming. And so therefore, I would recommend that instead of trying to anticipate every single possibility just try and remember a few of the more powerful combinations in that deck/class.
For example, against Priest I would not bother considering:
But I would bother considering:
The Cards That Funk You Up
Thus far this article has essentially been about learning about the ways in which very elementary arithmetic (i.e. counting) can help you improve at Hearthstone. Well, in this section I am going to point out a handful of cards that make the techniques described above that much more difficult:
The problem with these cards it that they can allow your opponent to make a wide variety of plays that are not possible under normal circumstances. So for example, under normal circumstances a Lightbomb Priest/Control Warrior would have to choose between developing their own threat (e.g. Sylvanas Windrunner) or using board clear (e.g. Brawl, Lightbomb). But with Thaurissan, sometimes it will be possible to play both of these cards on the same turn, and sometimes that will be absolutely devastating.
Unfortunately, there is not a great deal you can do about this, your best bet is just to track cards (e.g ask yourself “How many Innervates has my opponent used this game?”) and learn some of the more common uses for the cards. For example, while Preparation can be used in a variety of different ways on different turns, a common play with it is a Turn 4 Sprint. Or, if it is a Malygos Rogue, expect turn 9/10 Preparations into Eviscerate.
And that basically concludes the article. But before leaving I thought I would offer up some test positions….
About the Test Positions…
Okay, so I have provided three ‘test positions’ to compliment this article: Each test position is a self-contained puzzle that is meant to test your understanding of the material. Unlike my In-depth Turn Analysis series (which has a more advanced readership in mind) these positions are intended to be suitable for beginners, and so therefore I will gloss over some of the abstruse or more difficult ideas.
Furthermore, my analysis here is much more narrowly focused than the ‘In-Depth series’ stuff is: These test positions are meant to try and showcase the ideas and concepts contained within this article, not overwhelm you with a wide array of new ideas. And so therefore, talk of ‘win-conditions’, ‘match-up considerations’, etc is kept to a bare minimum (but with that said, I will give you a little taste of it! ).
Alright, thats enough waffle; let’s get straight to business!
Test Position #1
Mech Mage vs Control Paladin (see above for specific decklists). Paladin will have 5 mana next turn. What do you anticipate? Consider your response(s).
Okay so what should we anticipate the Paladin Playing?
- Harrison Jones
- Sludge Belcher
- Coghammer + Hero Power
- Muster for Battle + Hero Power
Against Sludge Belcher, Loatheb, Harrison, etc we are probably okay IF Goblin Blastmage survives the opponents next turn (note that the Paladin currently has 7 damage showing). Things like Coghammer can also be ‘played-around’ by trading off valueble minions (e.g. Coghammer on Knife Juggler is a lot more dangerous than Coghammer on a 1/1 recruit). And then there is the big threat; Quartermaster. If we don’t kill off at least some of those 1/1’s then Quartermaster may just win the game.
Okay, so we have considered a bunch of Paladin cards next turn and have realised that the Paladin is likely to be in a strong position next turn unless we start to do some trades.
So first things first: let’s kill off Knife Juggler with the Clockwork Gnome.
And now we have two basic options;
Once we have made either of those plays, we must decide whether we want to attack the face with Blastmage or kill off a 1/1.
#1: Harvest Golem + Hero Power
So with the Harvest Golem play we can use Hero Power to ping off a 1/1. Let’s also suppose that we play extra safe and kill off a 1/1 with Blastmage too. In this case, the Paladin only has two damage showing which means that the Blastmage is probably going to survive and be able to trade with the likes of Loatheb, Harrision Jones, etc. This is a fine outcome for the Mage.
Against Quartermaster, the Paladin only gets one recruit buff and that can be used to kill off Blastmage. This leaves Harvest Golem vs a 2/5 but with the Mage to play; In my opinion the Mage is looking okay (but not great) here.
But what if we went face with Blastmage? In this case Quartermaster could buff two 1/1’s. One of which could kill off the first half of Harvest Golem and the second one (with the help of weapon) can finish off the Blastmage. This leaves a 2/1 vs 3/1 + 2/5 with the Mage to play. In terms of Board Control this is a lot worse (than the above two cases) for the Mage, but on the flip-side Blastmage was able to do 10 face damage (and remember that Mech Mage is an aggressive deck), so maybe the Mage is happy to trade board control for damage in this case (this article doesn’t discuss concepts like ‘playing to win’ and/or what ‘win conditions’ are. But if you want to understand why Mech Mage may be happy to trade face damage for board control then these are the concepts that you would have to learn about ).
But what if the Paladin doesn’t play Quartermaster and instead just drops Sludge Belcher. In this case the Blastmage is likely to be able to trade into Sludge Belcher next turn and the remaining 1/2 taunt is easily mopped up with the Harvest Golem: This is a rather good result for the Mage.
In short, if we go face with Blastmage then we (sort of) get punished by Quartermaster but we are strong against the other 5-drop plays (e.g Sludge Belcher). If we kill off a 1/1 with Blastmage then we are strong against other 5-drops plays but we still remain vulnerable to Quartermaster. Since we are vunerable to quartermaster either way the question of what to do with Blastmage comes boils down to what we value more: Board Control or 10 Face Damage.
Okay, but is there a better play? What about just dropping Loatheb?
At first glance we know that Loatheb’s battlecry doesn’t actually counter anything (i.e. there is no 5 mana spell in the Paladin’s deck) so in this instance Loatheb is probably just a ‘vanilla’ 5/5 minion.
Now, we need to consider two basic possibilities; (1) What happens if Quartermaster (2) What happens if the Paladin plays some other 5 drop (e.g. Harrison Jones).
At first glance Quartermaster looks really scary, but notice that since the Paladin is at 15 life (and we have 10 damage on board) he probably needs start trading. But notice how awkward trading is! 5 health and 4 health are awkward life totals when you only have a bunch of 3 attack minions to do the trading with.
If the Paladin smacks his weapon and a 3/3 into Blastmage then you are basically committed to throwing the other two 3/3’s into Loatheb (because you simply cannot afford to take 5 more face damage from Loatheb). The result of all of these actions is that the Paladin has a 2/5 on board (vs an empty Mage one) and is at 10 life. All things considered this looks like a strong position for Paladin to be in (in spite of how inefficient those trades where).
Okay, but let’s consider what happens if Sludge Beclcher. The Paladin can now clear the Blastmage by trading all of his 1/1’s in plus the weapon. This leaves a 5/5 vs a 5/3 taunt. On the Mages turn then, the Sludge Belcher is easily killed but truth be told a 5/2 loatheb probably isn’t going to get much more value/live much longer either. So this position is probably roughly equal.
What if we Play Loatheb and kill a 1/1 with Blastmage? Well in this case the Blastmage is at 3 life, which means a buffed recruit (i.e. Quartermaster) easily trades into it. But unfortunately for the Paladin this leaves Loatheb alive and kicking. So this seems to be a good result for the Mage.
But what if we kill a 1/1 and the Paladin responds with Sludge Belcher? Well, this transposes to a position I have already analysed; things are roughly equal here.
Okay so what is the best play? Well, we have considered a bunch of ‘on curve’ plays and our responses to them. And unfortunately from the analysis it would seem that there is no easy way for the Mage to counter the 5-drop threats of Paladin (specifically Quartermaster). But with that said, Quartermaster is a threat too powerful to simply ignore. Thus we should either take a risk (that is, simply hope they don’t have Quarter master in hand) or minimise its impact via trades.
From my analysis, it would seem that Loatheb + Blastmage attacking a (1/1) is best. But with that said, Hearthstone is a complex game and things are not that simple; When playing an aggro deck can you really afford to miss 5 face damage, especially against a Control Paladin that packs a lot of heal (e.g. Lay on Hands) ? Perhaps not, and so maybe winning the game requires a few calculated risks.
Test Position #2
Druid Decklist on right-hand-side of Image. Druid will have 7 Mana next turn. What do you anticipate? Consider your response(s).
Okay so our Druid opponent seems to be running some sort of Ramp Druid list (we need not concern ourselves with how good the list is). Alright, so what plays should we anticipate?
- Hero Power (i.e. Shapeshift) + Druid of the Claw
- Hero Power + Loatheb
- Hero Power + Sludge Belcher
- Dr. Boom
- Ancient of War (Taunt mode and 10-5 mode)
- Ancient of Lore
- Innervate + Cenarius.
Innervate + Force of Nature + Savage Roar(Since the board is empty and we are at 30 life, we can ignore this threat).
Okay, so let’s imagine we play Sludge Belcher. Notice that Ancient of War, Ancient of Lore, Loatheb, and Dr. Boom all counter this card (‘counter’ in the sense that they kill Sludge Belcher and live). And so at first glance it might be tempting to play something else such as Acolyte of Pain + Cruel Taskmaster. Moreover, in conjunction with Death’s Bite our minions can trade some with some of the Druid’s plays (e.g Loatheb, Druid of the Claw, A.of Lore).
On the downside, with the Acolyte + Taskmaster play we will be one point shy of dealing with an Ancient of War and we can’t really deal with Cenarius (the 2/2’s are killed easily enough, but the 5/8 body remains tricky)
But wait a minute! we forgot that the 2nd Charge of Death’s bite effectively deals 5 damage, so maybe we can play Sludge Belcher!?
- Loatheb, A. of Lore, Sludge Belcher are all countered by the 2nd Charge of Death’s bite.
- Against Dr. Boom we have Big Game Hunter. That or Death’s Bite + Sludge Belcher attack.
- Against Ancient of War (5/10 mode) we can always play Cruel Taskmaster + Big Game Hunter.
- Against Druid of the Claw we can attack and finish it off with Cruel Taskmaster.
- Against Innervate Cenerius we once again have Cruel Taskmaster + Big Game Hunter for the 5/8 and the 2/2’s are easily removed.
As a beginner, you might have learnt that it is not a good idea to go face with weapons, and this advice is broadly true. But on this occasion it is probably right to go face, and that is because it means we have easy answers to the majority of the Druid’s Turn 7 plays.
“But Smasthings!”, you cry; “I don’t actually have go face with the first charge, I could kill something like an Ancient of Lore by dealing 4 damage and then finishing it off with Cruel Taskmaster.”
Now this is true, you can do that and in some cases that might be the best play. But in this situation, I think it might be better to hold onto Cruel Taskmaster because it is a flexible card. For example, suppose the Druid plays Turn 7 Loatheb + Hero Power, you Axe it + Taskmaster. But then on Turn 8 they drop the Ancient of War, what do you do now? Big Game Hunter no longer works!
Okay so to conclude what can we learn from this example? Well, Sludge Belcher would normally be bad because it gets countered by 5+ attack minions. But in this case we need not worry since the 2nd charge of Deaths bite can take care of that.
We also considered things like Ancient of War, and we realised that we can play-around that possibility by keeping Cruel Taskmaster + Big Game Hunter in hand.
As it turns out, we can counter all of the Druids major plays. But in real games it is rarely this simple and you must choose what you make yourself strong against and what what your are week against. Okay, next example!
Test Position #3
Paladin Decklist on right-hand-side of Image. Paladin will have 8 Mana next turn. What do you anticipate? Consider your response(s).
(Random bit of trivia for those interested: the actual decklist is my failed attempt at Dragon Paladin)
Okay, so in the about the test positions sections I claimed that I didn’t want to introduce too much new material. Well, unfortunatly understanding this position is a bit complicated and requires that you understand concepts far beyond those expressed in this article.
So here’s what I hope you guys where considering: “Turn 8 Tirion Fordring is scary. If I use the Keeper of the Grove to Silence Sylvanas Windrunner now I have no easy way of dealing with a follow-up Tirion.”
Thus, pat yourself on the back if your play would have been to:
- Attack Sylvanas with the 4/6,
- Trade the 5/5 into Sylvanas
- Hero power the recently stolen 4/1
- Play Piloted Shredder
- If Next turn is Tirion, we Silence. Else: Draw cards with Lore.
Not only does this play demonstrate that you grasp the material contained within the article is also demonstrates that you have (a) a well developed sense of how powerful Tirion is, and (b), it demonstrates an understanding that sometimes the ‘best move to win the game’ is actually –somewhat counter-intuitively– to make a sub-optimal play on a specific turn (for a more advanced explanation on this idea see the section on ‘Pyrrhic plays’ in this article).
Unfortunately though, this play is probably incorrect; I suspect the better idea is to silence Sylvanas and then attack her with Hero Power + the 4/6 Bear. Once we have done that, we simply hope that they don’t play Tirion next turn. In a nutshell, I feel that it is better to take a risk than it is to bend-over-backwards trying to defend against Tirion. But as I say, these concepts are beyond the scope of this article, so don’t feel bad for not spotting this.
In conclusion, this is a position where you need to carefully weigh-up the immediate value of silence (on Sylvanas) versus the long-term value of Silence (e.g for as long as the card is in your hand, you have a way to play-around to Tirion).
So today we have looked at the very simple idea of anticipating the opponent playing mana efficiently (e.g. 7-drop on Turn 7) and then considered the numberous ways in which we may want to respond to such threats (be that countering them, ignoring them, etc).
Some of you may have noticed a glaring flaw in this sort of analysis however; in plenty of games (especially in control match-ups) where people do not play on curve! Force of Nature is seldom played on Turn Six, Grommash Hellscream is rarely seen on Turn Eight, Big Game Hunter is not played on Turn Three, and so on. This is all true, there are plenty of occasions where playing ‘off curve’ is the correct play. And since people are playing ‘off curve’ what use is anticipating them playing ‘on curve’?
In response to this criticism I would say that there is only so much one can put into a single article, Part Four shall tackle a number of these issues.
Anyway, thats it for today, hopefully I’ve helped a bunch of beginners step-up their game. As always guys, comments, likes, questions, etc are welcome.
Further Reading & References
Understanding Match-up Theory Series:
- Smashthings, Understanding Match-up Theory, Part One: ‘Game Plans’
- Smashthings, Understanding Match-up Theory, Part Two: ‘Recognition’ & ‘Adjustment’
- Smashthings, Understanding Match-up Theory, Part Three: ‘Anticipating the Curve’ (<— YOU ARE HERE!)
- Smashthings, Understanding Match-up Theory, Part Four: (*Pending*)