discovering_hearthstone_archetypes

Understanding Deck Archetypes in Hearthstone

If I were to hazard a wild guess, I’d suppose that most Hearthstone players have a fuzzy concept of a “deck archetype” at best. The way all collectible trading card games go, where your beginner attempts are limited by your card pool, you’re lucky if you can assemble any kind of deck that works. When you do get a viable deck going for each class, you’re more prone to think of them as “the deck I play this hero with.”

Intermediate players eventually start hearing about one deck archetype or another and begin to pick up the concept that there’s different strategies to focus on in a deck, not just “cards that win.” But there lies a snare, for nobody really explains this stuff well on the Internet. We’ll clear up some misconceptions below and explore deck-building philosophy, which can apply to any collectible trading card game and not just Hearthstone.

While we will name-drop cards when they’re a good example to demonstrate a concept, we’re not going to focus on particular sets or formats, because those change all the time. You can apply general deck archetypes to Standard, Casual, Wild, and Classic. We’re out to transcend the domain of individual cards, and zoom out to the big picture. We will learn not just how to design a deck, but how to be the deck. We’re going to get spiritual!

Special note: No matter how common a deck archetype is, Hearthstone‘s constantly evolving meta-game and formats sometimes doesn’t allow for an archetype. There’s no guarantee of what’s available at any given time in any collectible card game.

Aggro

HS_aggro_egg_paladin

Aggro stands for “aggressive,” and is one of the most common general deck archetypes. Everybody thinks they understand aggro, if they think that “play threats and deal damage” is all there is to it. To be aggro, a deck needs (1) minions that attack, and (2) the occasional spell as long as it deals damage. “Big deal,” you might say, “every deck has those.”

damage_is_damage

No, but it’s the way you do it. In Hearthstone, an Aggro deck’s goal is to win flat-out by turn 5. Maybe turn 4 if the meta favors, and also turn 6 or 7 is acceptable. But anything past there risks defeat. Aggro decks play fast, low to the ground, and persistent. For that reason, they run out of gas quickly. You want to attack from turn one, keep the opponent on the back foot, keep them too busy countering your game plan to play their own.

Because your deck has to come out swinging from turn one, you want a very low mana curve, max at 4. Things an aggro deck wants:

  • Card draw to keep the gas coming (Warlock is very big with aggro)
  • Threats that stick past spot removal (reborn, divine shield, deathrattle summons)
  • Immediate damage (charge, rush, battlecry damage, damage spells)
  • Pump for turning small threats into bigger threats

Aggro decks are notoriously weak to control. If the opponent has a way to gain back life, stall your attacks, or repeatedly wipe out your board, then they can stabilize. Once your opponent is stabilized, aggro might as well concede.

How to play Aggro: Like a pocket calculator. You want to ignore your opponent threats, because you are just flat out racing life-totals and your deck is designed to wear your opponent down faster. For this reason, you should always keep an eye on the potential damage in your hand. If your opponent is at 15 life now, you can attack for 8 damage to the face this turn, and have a total of 7 spell damage to the face in hand, you have won.

Aggro examples: Warlock Zoo is an enduring archetype which transcends formats and sets. Face Hunter is another popular variant that crops up from time to time.

Tribal

HS_dragons

Tribal deck are decks that only play one type of creature, with minor exceptions. Tribal decks are usually a subtype of aggro, although other variations of tribal decks are possible. What makes tribal decks stand-alone is that they depend on synergy between the individual minions.

Murloc_joke

Tribal decks have minions that buff other minions of that type, receive buffs from other like minions, or give you other bonuses for running a lot of that tribe. A minion that buffs other minions of that type, in collectible trading card game parlance, is called a “lord.” However, it’s possible for every minion in a tribe to be a lord in its own right. Popular tribes that have been known in Hearthstone include:

  • Murlocs – based on the Merfolk from Magic: the Gathering
  • Beasts – Hunters and Druids almost always have a few beast lords available
  • Pirates – Both Rogue and Warrior have had access to pirate synergy cards
  • Mechs – Mechanical robot minions are an enduring tribe in different formats

Tribes may come and go, depending on what’s in the current meta. Often Hearthstone will introduce some new minion tribe with strong synergy, then phase it out a couple releases later. Tribal decks tend to be weak in the same areas as aggro, except even more so. Board wipes are the enemy, because many tribal synergies depend on having several members on the field at once. Tribal decks typically aim for a fast game, because their strength is in their numbers and they don’t want opponents having time to draw into a board wipe.

How to play Tribal: Like a fanboi. Most tribal players are in the game for the flavor. They may accept that they’re not always going to win, but they don’t care because dragons are so cool! Whatever, love your tribe and look for the meta where they can come back.

Tribal examples: Dragon Priest is an enduring popular archetype, even though it isn’t always available in Standard format. Muloc Paladin ties with Shaman for most popular Murloc tribal deck.

Control

HS_control_priest

Control is the polar opposite of aggro. Control, as the name suggests, tries to remain stable against aggressive strategies and finish the game off with larger threats that are harder to answer. Dump a handful of aggressive weenies and the control deck responds with a board wipe. Play a big whopper threat and the control deck will simply freeze it, silence it, or otherwise stall until it finds an answer.

The-Amazing-Reno

Control decks’ whole strategy is to slow down the game tempo, forcing the other player to play around their answers until the control deck can win out of nearly nowhere. Control decks thrive on:

  • Card advantage and tutors – having an answer in hand whenever needed
  • Damage control – a way to regain life or tank up with armor
  • Card efficiency – The Mage’s card Flamestrike is a perfect example, killing many minions for just one card
  • Taunt minions – Taunts force the opponent’s creature to die crashing into the taunt instead of directing their damage at the face

Because control is the strategy which most players decry as “unfun,” Hearthstone and other TCGs try to reign in control decks so that one doesn’t always dominate the meta. Control decks are limited in the card choices in a format, and there won’t always be an immediately viable control deck available. However, at least three heroes, Mage, Priest, and Warrior, are uniquely suited to control strategies at all times.

How to play Control: Like a bureaucrat. You have to be in charge of the game, carefully deciding which threats to ignore and which ones need an answer, counting your life points and planning ahead to survive future turns. When you do finally turn to the aggressor role, you have to be confident that the opponent isn’t also packing an answer to your win condition.

Control examples: Freeze Mage is a near-perpetual favorite in any Hearthstone meta, using ice attacks to stall opponents. Control Warrior typically gets powerful board wipes plus taunt minions to secure a win.

Combo

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Combo decks are a different breed in Hearthstone compared with other TCGs. There are few actual “infinite” combos in the game due to minions being limited to 7 spaces and mana capped at 10. Instead, combo in Hearthstone simply means having 2 or more cards that work in synergy to make a fast and powerful threat.

Shudderwock_combo

Combo is a subset of control, since the deck’s win condition revolves around playing a fast finishing move. Thus, a combo deck has to control the board, draw and hunt for cards, and stay stable until they can assemble the formula. Note that Rogue (and some dual-class cards) gets her own cards marked “combo,” but this just means “play it as the second or later card in a turn to get the best effect.” True combos involve several specific cards that work together for a unique effect.

Often, combos are hunted out over a season, with players finding loopholes in the rules that were never intended by the game’s designers. If a combo deck proves to be too dominant, it may get nerfed.

How to play Combo: Like a mad scientist. Combo players have to accept that sometimes the cards just don’t come together, so they don’t always win. But when they do, it is just so satisfying. Combo players are usually engineers at heart, getting their deepest satisfaction from exploring the game engine and discovering neat tricks. A whole deck with good synergies can function as a multi-combo deck too, which is nirvana for a combo player.

Combo examples: Druid Elise Combo seeks to create infinite mana and duplicated cards, using a spam of cheap face damage spells to finish the game. Miracle Rogue is a common occurrence across seasons and meta, where Rogue uses cheap spells and a draw engine to dish out major damage in just a turn or two.

Theme

HS_taunt_druid

Theme decks are a footnote in Hearthstone strategies, usually deliberately provided by Hearthstone designers. They are in between tribal and combo strategies, only instead they rely on one in-game mechanic. There’s really not much else to say about them except to show examples. Well-supported themes may constitute a whole deck, or a deck may have a sub-theme with just a few cards working together.

CThun_meme

Popular Hearthstone deck themes include:

  • Deathrattle – minions that do something special when they die, such as dealing more damage or summoning another minion. Then they play N’Zoth, the Corruptor for a finishing move, which resurrects a full board of previous deathrattle minons
  • Tokens – A popular strategy with Druid and Paladin, which seeks to fill the board with a cast of small summons and then pump them up in one devastating attack
  • Weapons – Rogue and Warrior have many cards that buff an equipped weapon
  • Secrets – Mage, Paladin, and Rogue may use minions which receive a buff from playing secrets
  • Deck-building limits – Certain cards reward a deck constructed around a limitation, such as even or odd mana cost cards which grants a special buff from Genn Greymane or Baku the Mooneater at the start of the game

Themed decks are always intentionally engineered by the development team. They may or may not become popular depending on their support, power level, and current meta. If a theme feels too forced (Helloooo, C’Thun!), players are turned off by the monotony of having every deck matchup be the same.

How to play Themed decks: Like an opportunist. There is usually a different themed deck available in every set, which is partially there to get players excited for a new set and the mechanics introduced. Depending how it plays out, your strategy will be to use it somewhere between a tribal and combo strategy.

Themed deck examples: Secret Paladin makes a frequent appearance every few sets, depending on what cards with secret synergy are current. During Year of the Dragon, Lackey Rogue became so dominant that it had to be nerfed.

Midrange

HS_midrange_shaman

We come down to the two most misunderstood deck archetypes in all the trading card games. You will find 99 different definitions of “Midrange” in terms of TCG decks, let alone Hearthstone. We’re going to have to throw up our hands here and say “take our word for it.” When a word gets misdefined over and over on the Internet, it ends up meaning nothing.

Malfurion_meme

So… Originally, the accepted definition of “midrange” was “slower than aggro, faster than control.” Meaning that we try to have a balance between offense and defense. Our troubles begin with this definition being too simplistic. A deck that tries to do all things ends up being good at nothing. Instead, the focus for a midrange deck should be “best value per card” in both playing threats and answers. In other words, “goodstuff.”

What do we mean by “best value”? Our threats should be threat-ier and our control options control-ier? Do we accept nothing but legendary and epic rank cards? That’s the wrong way to think of it. Instead, we should think of card quality in terms of “useful in the greatest number of different scenarios.” A removal spell is worth nothing if the opponent has no minions on board. A 1/1 vanilla minion is no good against a player gaining 2 life every turn. But a card with flexible options is good in many situations.

Which is why Druid is the king of midrange in Hearthstone. Many Druid cards allow you to choose an option, balancing between control and aggro strategies. Some examples:

  • Druid of the Claw – Can be a 4/4 with charge for an aggressive face rush or a 4/6 with taunt when you’re behind
  • Power of the Wild – Can be a 3/2 minion when you need boots on the ground, or a +1/+1 buff for your board when you already have plenty of minions
  • Cenarius – A legendary which can either buff your board for +2/+2 for offense, or summon 2 minions with taunt for defense

Several other cards have multiple functions outside the “choose” mechanic. Rogue’s combo cards can be played alone for a minor effect, or in combination for more power. Corrupt cards have more powerful effects if they’re in hand while you played a higher-mana-cost card first. There are also a class of cards which upgrade when played later in the game when you have more mana.

Then there are cards with the “discover” mechanic, allowing you to pick from three options on the spot, often with some flexibility in strategy. But we’ll go much deeper into the implications of “discover” on the next archetype.

How to play Midrange: Like a chess master. Midrange may not be for everyone, because some players get mentally exhausted with too many choices. It takes practice to get good at midrange. Many players start out with midrange expecting it to be an answer-anything deck, only to find that it’s not especially good at anything unless you’re a skilled pilot.

Midrange examples: As mentioned, Druid Midrange is basically a perpetual option. Shaman Midrange is an occasional meta choice, since Shaman gets stompier threats and removal spells that can also go to face, along with some flexible-use cards.

Tempo

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This is the other deck archetype that suffers an identity crisis in TCG culture. “Tempo” is also a general TCG playing concept, used to mean “having a viable play in hand and on-curve at every turn.” That’s great, but that’s just called “having a good mana curve” and is something every deck wants:

Manacurve01

The confusion about the mana curve arises from the original definition of tempo in TCGs, which was more aimed at “getting the maximum use out of your available mana on every turn.” The more naive players assume that means “pack a 1 drop and a 2 drop and a 3 drop, etc.” No, it doesn’t work that way! You can’t always count on having a 5-drop card on turn 5.

Here is the real secret of tempo decks: Having multiple cards in hand at once. Midrange is about card efficiency: I can do many things with this one card. Tempo is about mana efficiency: I have many cards in hand, so with 5 mana I can play a 5-drop, or a 1-drop and 1 4-drop, or 2 2-drops and a 1-drop. Obviously, to do this all game long, you need some form of card advantage. That can be a simple “draw cards” spell, but even better is the brilliant card generation mechanics in Hearthstone:

  • Tomb Spider is a beast that lets you discover another beast. It’s even possible to discover another Tomb Spider and repeat this
  • Venomous Scorpid is a 1/3 beast with poisonous – useful for board control by itself – which also puts a spell in your hand
  • Rinling’s Rifle is a weapon – again, useful by itself – which lets you discover and cast secrets
  • Brightwing is a legendary 3/2 which will pitch a random legendary in your hand
  • Mana Cyclone was very dominant in its standard season, restocking a full turn’s worth of spells
  • Underbelly Angler is the murloc tempo card, restocking your hand as long as you go on playing murlocs
  • Ysera is a legendary which is a popular finisher in control decks, adding random spells to your hand every turn

So you see in all these cases, they’re not all just spells that let you draw more cards. Paladin’s First Day of School just adds 2 1-drops to your hand, but it does nothing by itself (even though it’s still good for tempo anyway).

The point to tempo decks is to have your hand absolutely stuffed with options. That being said, tempo and midrange do get along together, but too many players call them the same thing. Tempo also works well for a control strategy, since you can use minions to maintain board presence while still getting spells to work with. Tempo decks aren’t as well-suited to aggro, which would prefer things to be more predictable.

How to play Tempo: Like a gambler. Your strategy isn’t as predictable as other decks; sometimes you don’t get the exact card you needed, but if you stay flexible you can have enough options open that you can often find a path to victory. Meanwhile, your opponent just has to sweat. There’s a lot of cards in your hand – what can you do? They have no idea what to play against. Tempo is one of the few strategies in Hearthstone that allow you to bluff, playing like you have more confidence than you could actually justify.

Tempo examples: As mentioned, Mana Cyclone Mage was a dominant archetype in its season. Lackey Warlock used cards that generate lackeys for extra tempo.

Conclusions

Because of Hearthstone‘s digital nature, it gets to redefine deck archetypes and card mechanics in ways that physical paper card games don’t. You can’t generate new cards out of the blue in Magic: the Gathering, for instance. On the other hand, there are thousands of infinite combos possible in Magic: The Gathering, while Hearthstone‘s arena is more limited.

So understanding the ways where Hearthstone is unique helps to understand how deck archetypes translate. More importantly, understanding deck archetypes helps you construct a deck with a winning strategy by maintaining a focus. The other half of the game is how you play it; your playing behavior needs to adapt to the deck’s strategy.

Happy draws out there! Peace out…

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