The short guide to playing Hearthstone well

hearthstone 10 - The short guide to playing Hearthstone well

In order to learn something efficiently, I use this self improvement loop:

  • self assess and identify the skill (or two) that would improve performance the most
  • study to clearly understand how to improve in that skill
  • practice and pay conscious effort to use of that skill
  • once the skill is internalized, repeat

Without conscious effort into developing skill, most people’s learning plateaus after just 50 hours. You have to put in conscious effort to improve, and there’s a limit to how many things you can consciously consider so focusing on one or two skills at a time is optimal.

To help with this, over the years I’ve maintained a list of skills and insights I find crucial to playing Hearthstone. It’s a collection of gems I’ve picked up from articles, guides, streamer commentary, reddit and my own experience.

I’ve added a few lines to each point to make the meaning clear, but this is not intended to be a complete instruction on how to play. It’s a list to go through to identify the aspects of your that you could benefit from improving on.


Chasing better decks

Focus on learning your decks properly – if you’re struggling with a tier 1 or 2 deck, the problem is you, not the deck. If you’re only winning 35% of your matches, you won’t solve it by switching to a deck with 2% better win rate. It’s a waste of time and mental effort, time that could be spent actually learning to pilot a deck well and improving your skill.


Having fun

Remember to have fun. A deck you don’t like, you’ll play it less and tilt more. A deck that you like, you’ll want to learn the ins and outs of it.

I like to have 2-3 decks that in combination check all these boxes: fast, easy, complex, fresh. That way I get some variation and always have a deck that fits my mood.


Knowing the meta

Study the meta and focus on:

  • What decks are popular?
  • When you see class X, what are the chances of it being deck A, B, C? This is so you can mulligan correctly
  • How do I ID decks? Focus on what early cards are different between various decks.
  • What major threats and removal does each deck have?
  • What is their win condition and gameplan?
  • What is my deck’s win rate against them?


Know your mulligans against each class

Don’t be in doubt when you’re mulliganing. Think about mulligans before you queue up. Especially late game keeps can really make the difference in some matchups and you won’t intuitively pick those. HSreplay is a great resource for this.


Tempo, value, fatigue or combo matchup?

Know your matchups and what aspect determines the winner and play aggressively for it.

  • Tempo matchups are about board control and you can’t afford to fall behind – playing for value loses you the game. It’s an extremely common misplay to hold cards for value when you need tempo.

  • Value matchups are about matching up your cards versus his and coming out ahead with more 2-for-1 or better trades – think about how everything in your deck lines up with his instead of worrying about being behind on board or health. The winner is determined by who has the last thread standing.

  • Fatigue matchups are when both decks run more removal than threats and the person who draws more loses to fatigue damage; aside from stupidly drawing the loser is often determined by being forced to draw to find answers. Every single card matters, draw as little as possible, take every chance to put more cards in your deck and keep your opponent from doing it. Note that some matchups regularly go to fatigue without being fatigue matchups because they are not decided by fatigue damage but by who has the last threat standing – those are value matchups and confusing the two will lose you the game.

  • Combo matchups revolve around racing to draw into and set up a combo. Draw rate for the combo deck is much more important than tempo or value, for example a druid racing to combo will dump their hand and not get value from MCT, spreading plague etc. just to make room for UI draw.


Macro lines

A macro line is the overall strategy you have to adopt for a game to win it. Often this is just playing like you would normally, but in some matchups it is different and hugely important.

Sometimes it is just handling the few power turns they have (like a spell hunter’s 2 spellstones and zul’jin), sometimes it’s an overall gameplay (deathrattle hunter versus odd warrior, the hunter can lose to fatigue so never drawing and always picking raptor hatching from the DK hero power).

Sometimes it’s a very specific thing, like facing a hakkar druid. You have two ways to win. One is to kill him before he can get his combo off. If your deck (or the board state/hand) won’t allow you to do that, you need 9 cards in hand at the end of each turn – then he can’t swap decks without burning the bloods.


Play focused, play slowly

Hearthstone is deceptively simple and you can be tempted to just play reflexively. However, this will lead to many misplays and at least as importantly, you will learn much slower. Your brain is not a black box that will magically become better at hearthstone just by playing it. You have to take time, each turn, to analyze the situation and consider your plays. Play with focus, play slowly.


Think about what your opponent will do

Reading meta reports and knowing the popular decks is not enough. You actively have to consider what your opponent’s best lines of play the next couple of turns (at least) are. Think about what threats he will develop and what removal he will use if he has those cards on hand. This will give you a much clearer picture of what to prepare for and what to play around, how much damage you need to get on board, what health values will play around aoe or cover his future minions.


Hand reading

If your opponent doesn’t do what you think he would, it means that he doesn’t have the best cards or that he’s setting something up. There’s a huge amount of information in this. What is his hand like? Think about what cards he can have in hand to have made such a play. The more awkward his play, the more you can reason about his hand. If you get the read that he doesn’t have certain removal or minions in hand, you can make much better plays the following turns.


Consider alternate lines of play


Force yourself to consider alternate lines of play. It happens regularly that the best play is unintuitive. You have to go through all the options to see all the plays, we all get tunnel vision for the obvious plays so you have to actively force yourself to go through the lines.


What is the punish? Set up awkward boards

Very often the correct line of play is determined by how your opponent can punish you. It comes down to how many ways you can be punished and the odds of him having those cards, and how bad those punishes are. Playing around punishes or at least to the most favorable odds improves win rates greatly. Setting up awkward boards that are difficult to remove is a crucial skill and often you rather want an awkward board than a great value trade. Thinking about how he can punish you makes it a lot easier to play around it.



Be careful about overextending into AoE (or overbuffing into single target removal). Against control you will often want to keep some value in hand to reload the board. If your board is strong enough to win or bait out AoE, often holding back is better. Other times, to win you need to play out everything to win – if he has drawn his removal you’ve lost anyway and holding back is just giving him more time to draw it.

The key here is to understand the match up and when you’re overextending – spending all your mana shouldn’t be done on autopilot if you’re way ahead on board.


Beatdown or control? Think about clocks

If you don’t know what beatdown and control is, google it. It’s crucial. To get really good at it, think about clocks – the amount of turns left until lethal. Put your opponent on a clock, force him into control. Count the exact numbers: next turn lethal is enough face damage, anything additional can be used for board control. Factor in his healing and removal, can you set up board states that he can’t have the cards and mana to survive? Know his reach and count so you know what clock you are on. The benefit from working with 2+ turn clocks is huge, very often you can go full face and be as good as certain of a win in a few turns.


Face or trade?

Face. Face. Face. It is so easy to be lazy and just go for board control and value trades when there wasn’t any punish and your opponent would make the trades for you. Be the beatdown whenever you can.

Conversely, sometimes as the aggro deck you should be going for board control. Don’t go face on autopilot.

It is extremely important to know the punishes when deciding to go face.


Know how to win and how to lose

Ask yourself while playing: How do I win? How do I lose? Understand your win condition and your opponent’s win condition. Throwing away your only chance to win for a tempo gain is a huge mistake that is easy to make. When you’re behind, ask yourself “how do I win from here”. When you’re ahead, ask yourself “how do I lose from here”. Think it through, and respect it, even if it means skipping a turn, or playing a card for very little value.


Lining up threats and removal

Decks have limited number of threats and removal. Whenever possible, line them up – keep your removal for his threats, try to bait his out and understand when his removal is gone and the options it gives you.


Know your matchups

It is very important to know your matchups, as your chance of winning should reflect how you play. If your matchup is poor (or you’re in a bad spot in general), you will only win if you’re lucky and draw well while your opponent draws poorly. Play into that, so if RNG is on your side you’ll win, instead of playing it safe and not having an option for winning.

Poor matchups: play to your outs, take chances, don’t play around cards, mulligan for the perfect hand.

Good matchups: play safe, play around cards, don’t overextend


Playing from behind

We all avoid overextending and play around removal, but let’s take a matchup that you’re strongly disfavored in. If you just play it out normally, you’ll lose. How do you win? You win by mulliganing into a perfect 1-2-3 curve, with your threats snowballing out of control and your opponent not having removal for it. That’s your only shot, so you play to your outs. Take chances – toss away a good mulligan to get a perfect one. Don’t play around removal, if he has removal you’ve lost anyway. It’s the same if you’re behind in a game, figure out your outs and play for them so you have at least a chance of winning instead of going for a sure loss by playing around his removal. I win so many more of my unfavored matchups because I take huge risks for the occasional high reward. If you’re behind, take risks.


Understanding variance

RNG plays a big part in HS. Sometimes you’ll get a lot of bad matchups and bad draws in a row. Sometimes you’ll make the statistically right play but just be unlucky. Don’t read too much into bad luck, or the opposite.

And forget about pocket metas. It’s a myth.



Learn to avoid tilting, and be careful playing when tilted, instead just take a break. Tilt will decrease your performance drastically.


Not knowing what to do

Learn to recognize that feeling of not knowing what to do, and remember the situation – screenshot it or record the replay. Figuring it out is often the key to understanding something new.

Don’t confuse this with having two good options and not knowing which one is best. That can feel like a difficult decision, when often the reality is simply that both are practically equally good.



Always evaluate the match, what misplays were made. Especially losses. Often it is just a short mental review, sometimes it is something you should study more.


Watch streamers actively

Looking at pro players and trying to work out the correct plays before they make them is a great learning tool. Pause the VOD, decide and then hear his explanation. Just watching them play is not very helpful, at best you’ll pick up a few pointers but you’re not learning nearly as much as you could.


Finding advice

The daily ask thread on r/comphs is a great resource, but also some of the pro streamers with small audiences are very willing to answer questions. Find them and use them.

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