Hearthstone - an appreciation

A significant proportion of my leisure time in the last 3 months has been spent on Hearthstone, the Warcraft card game. I first saw my housemates play this in my senior year at Brown, and picked it up earlier this year after reading an article about it. I think it is one of the most successful games that has been built in the last 3-5 years, and will be a case study for an elegant blend of casual and competitive gaming.
There are four reasons why I like this game very much:
  1. - MATHEMATICAL ELEGANCE. The objective is simple, to reduce the opposing hero from 30 to 0 life before he can do the same to you. Most of the game mechanics are deterministic (though there are a lot of mechanics), and the random mechanics are probabilistic, allowing for smart calculated plays.
  2. - GAME THEORY. One can guess at the opponent's cards for the next turn, and make the play most likely to succeed given the assumptions the opponent has certain cards. There is an element of playing around the opponent
  3. - WIDEST POSSIBLE AUDIENCE The game is turn-based, which allows it to appeal to the widest possible audience. Starcraft and other Real-Time Strategy games are often reflex based, and exclude the older demographic due to their need for a large amount of clicks per minute. Hearthstone's turn-based mechanics make reflexes irrelevant.
  4. - AN OPTIMAL BLEND OF SIMPLICITY AND COMPLEXITY - Simplicity and complexity. Simplicity comes through minimal resource types (three resources: cards, mana, and existing board state through minions and weapons), and complexity comes through a large number of interesting effects for those cards, minions, and weapons.
    1.     - the simplicity draws the casual gamers in. the complexity makes the money. Because the standard cards are good for winning certain games, but you will win it in the same way most of the time. The cards generally just do damage. To get complexity, you will need to invest in card packs, to get the more interesting effects. And you get access to multiple game mechanics.
Why it is so addictive?
- You can get better incrementally at the game by understanding and memorizing the opponent's plays
- You can come up with new concepts and decks based on the wide variety of cards and mechanics available.
I see Hearthstone as a kind of chess, where the top players fascinate through being able to look 2-4 moves ahead, as well as predict the opponent's deck and their moves.

Some inside baseball now for players of Hearthstone.Two of the best players are Kolento and Strifecro, and their Twitch streams/Youtube videos are well worth viewing for anyone who has a passing interesting in top class competitive gaming.

Kolento is I think the world's best player, and his solutions are often very elegant. See this video for example:

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tawimgtiVIA In this video, the opponent has exactly 17 health. Kolento has 9 damage on board, and can increase it to 14 damage with Nightmare (0 mana) and 16 with Auchenai + Heal (6 mana). He knows the boombot will deal at least 1 dmg to whatever is remaining on board if it dies, but he needs to ensure that nothing else remains on board. How can he guarantee lethal?
  • - The solution is elegant: Nightmare the boombot (+5 /+5) to ensure it survives the first circle of healing (becomes 4 dmg to all minions with Auchenai), hit with all other minions. Auchenai, heal, then double circle to wipe the board and ensure the opposing hero is the only one remaining. He even has time to do the unnecessary play of wild pyromancer
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoELc-Jg8yc . Calculation of damage using the priest hero class

Strifecro's style is recognizably different. He often thinks 1-3 turns ahead, and worries about all the possible cases. See this example with the Doomsayer card: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpDyu1objgg


Hearthstone - Some notes on Zoolock and Freeze Mage

Hearthstone is a game where the aim is to reduce the opposing hero from 30 to 0 before your opponent can do the same to you.

There are three forms of resources:
1. Mana (On each turn, you get X amount of mana, where X is turn number e.g. turn 1 = 1 mana, turn 2 = 2 mana) until it maxes out at 10 mana
2. Cards (Every turn you get a card unless you have special cards/minions that draw additional cards for you)
3. Existing board state
    3a. Minions. Creatures you have player on an earlier turn
    3b. Weapons. Weapons are persistent burst damage spells that can last across multiple turns, with restrictions on their use (e.g. a weapon must hit a Taunt minion)

There are two forms of damage possible.
1. Minion damage. You can play a minion (a form of capital investment), and the minion will deal a continuous stream of damage indefinitely until killed. (Health goes to zero)
2. Burst damage (weapons, spells, certain hero powers). This is a one-time investment of resources (cards and mana), to deal damage.
There are two dimensions of burst damage
- Single target vs multiple targets vs area of effect (AOE) - can hit 1,2 or multiple targets
- Restrictions on use. Some can only hit minions, some can hit only heroes, some can hit both.

A standard aggressive (aggro) deck would look like this:
  1. 1. Trade minions and maintain board control (having equal or more minions to your opponent, when your turn begins) while punching face (maximizing face damage of your opponent.) to set up a turn where you can, with "minion damage" and "burst damage" in your hand, be able to bring your opponent down to zero.
  2. 2. Make a difficult for opponent's spells to wipe your board. Here is the "stamp-collecting" part of Hearthstone ("All science is either physics or stamp-collecting") - you need to know the burst damage of the 9 hero classes your opponent is likely to have. (e.g. the Rogue is likely to have a SI Agent which can do 2 damage when put on the board)
  3. 3. Occasionally one can Set up a lethal two turns in advance. One may choose to ignore the opponent's board and go straight for the kill. However this is risky because the permutations for opponent to clear your board and regain initiative is increased. Usually one goes for an intermediate compromise, where we leave 1 enemy minions on board, and go for a play where we are 90-100% sure we have enough damage to kill the opponent. We can increase the odds with taunt minions, which forces the opponent to attack them, leading to inefficient trades..

  • - The zoo warlock is a standard aggressive deck that fulfills conditions 1 and 2 very well.
  • - Minions are easy traded because (1) there are multiple minion spawners (little minions are called "tokens") and (2) there are multiple attack increasers ("activators") that increase the value of those minions.
  • - Boardwipes difficult due to deathrattles. Because of its numerous "deathrattle" minions, (i.e. do something on death) which summon other minions, it is difficult to wipe the zoolock's board.
  • - However the zoolock has a very big downside. If the opponent ever gets board control, the zoolock is very unlikely to win the matchup (<5%). The only comeback cards are Implosion (generates board presence of 1/1s while killing the opponent)and bane of doom (deal 2 dmg and summon a random demon). Those are the only cards likely to give back board control. All the good cards for zoo assume that board control is with zoo, because they buff existing minions, like Power Overwhelming. If you have no board, then you have almost no chance of winning.
  • Zoolock becomes boring after a while, because the win conditions are always the same - take board, hit face, win or lose depending on board control. For the month of June, when I was playing Hearthstone, this was my main deck. I was also stuck around Rank 4 with this deck, since it was very predictable for opponents to face. So I recently tried a completely different deck.

What makes Hearthstone enthralling is that different heroes have multiple ways to win. Take one of the most atypical plays, the freeze mage. It relies on a "Secret" card called "Ice Block" that can save you from fatal damage on your opponent's turn. In that one turn, you will need to either draw the second "Ice Block", or be able to finish the game with "burst" damage from the hand. Therefore the key is to prevent the Ice Block from triggering before Turn 10, such that you have two turns to kill the opponent with a full 20 mana:
  • (A) BURST DAMAGE THROUGH ANTONIDAS. Archmage Antonidas is a 7 mana card that generates a Fireball spell everytime you play any spell. If you have cheap spells, you can stock up enough fireballs to kill a player over two turns. There are two lines of play with Archmage, either
    • (A1) expect him to live. Bait out the opponent's hard removal* earlieror soft removal** and use 3 manafrost nova to prevent him from dying
      •           * Hard removal =  (Polymorphs, Hexes, Siphon Soul, Brawl, Priest Shadow Word Death...)
      •          ** soft removal = (Ironbeak Owl, Mage Fireball + Heropower, Warrior Execute/Shield Slam, Rogue Sap, Paladin Equality Consecrate, Druid Silences,) - they will typically run at most 2, maybe 3.
    •      (A2) Expect him to die and get one turn of value. Then it is necessary to get cheap spells with him. Ice Lances, Frost Bolts, maybe discounted with Thaurissan
  • (B) Bring the opponent down to burst range with Alexstraza. 15 life
    •     Save 15 damage in your hand (Fireball, fireball, frost bolt)
  • (C) Use burn spells in a standard way to bring him down to zero life
    •  We have 12 dmg from fireballs, 6 dmg from frost bolts, 8 potential damage with ice lance, and 10 from pyroblast.
    • This can be increased with the Bloodmage Thalnos or Azure Drake (spell damage +1)
  • The rest of the deck should be used to cycle through the deck of 30 cards aggressively (drawing for your combo, and stalling to prevent dying)
But this makes it particularly vulnerable to a one-card counter, Kezan Mystic, which steals secrets. If it steals Ice Block, then it is very difficult to win because you are generally relying on a one-turn-kill.