How to e-sports: Watching a Hearthstone match

Last Updated January 23rd, 2022

The North American and European Spring Preliminaries for Hearthstone are over and we are heading into the championships. If you were lost during the recent tournament streams, don’t worry, you’re in luck. This week on How to e-sports, we dive into the Hearthstone lexicon! We are here to tell you all there is to know about watching a competitive Hearthstone match.

The Basics

Hearthstone is a digital card game in which both players attempt to reduce the other’s life to zero. Each player starts with 30 life and a deck of 30 cards. A player may include no more than two of any card in his deck, except for legendary cards which are restricted to one copy only. Each deck belongs to a certain class. The deck may be build out of neutral cards and cards from that deck’s specific class. Usually, each class has a theme, such as Warrior’s reliance on weapons, or Priest’s ability to heal. Classes also come with their own hero ability that may be used on every turn.

Each card costs mana. Players start with one mana and then get one extra mana to spend every turn (turn one lets you spend one mana, turn two lets you spend two, three lets you spend three, and so forth up to 10). The first player starts with three cards in his hand, of which he may reshuffle as many as he likes and draw to replace them (aka mulligan.) The second player starts with four cards and a temporary spell called “the coin” that gives them a temporary mana to spend. This lets them get ahead of the first player for one turn, hopefully playing a threat they have to deal with. Hero abilities cost 2 mana, but they tend to be less efficient than every single card in the game.

There are three types of cards in Hearthstone – minions, spells, and weapons. Minions have attack values, health values, and possibly a special ability. All minions can attack once per turn, except for the first turn they are played. This is the main method of doing damage to your opponent, and also the main way you remove their minions from the board.

Spells are much simpler than minions. You simply pay the mana cost and whatever is written on the card happens. Certain spells, called secrets, are played like traps and they trigger once your opponent fulfills a certain condition.

Weapons allow your hero to attack your opponent or his minions. You “equip” them by playing them, and then your hero operates the same way that any other creature does, for a limited number of attacks.

Efficient Trades and Value

You would think that the main goal of a Hearthstone match is to race your opponent to 0 life, but you would be wrong. The main goal of Hearthstone is not to damage your opponent quickly, but rather to set up the board in such a way that the player cannot help but die to your onslaught.

To accomplish this, players attempt to use cards in a way that gets the most value out of them. For example, if you have a 3/3 creature on the field, and your opponent has a 2/3 and a 3/1 on the field, its more wise to attack and kill the 2/3 than the 3/1. Why? Because killing the 2/3 will leave your 3/3 at 1 health, allowing you to attack with it again, either to kill the 3/1 or hit your opponent in the face. If you attacked his 3/1 your 3/3 would just die and his 2/3 would still survive. In one scenario, you use one card to take out two of his cards, and in the other you trade one for one.

This is important because players do not have infinite mana. If your 3/3 card cost 3 mana, and his 2/3 and 3/1 each cost 2 mana, you will have “traded up”. Basically, you forced your opponent to spend more mana and cards than you for a similar effect. If you continue to make efficient trades like this, you will eventually be able to play more and stronger cards than your opponent, slowly overwhelming him until your minions steamroll over him.

By the way, if you ever hear people making jokes about how awful Magma Rager is, this is why. Magma Rager is a 3 mana 5/1, meaning it can be killed by 1 or even 0 mana cards. This tendency toward inefficient trades makes its high attack pretty much useless.

Board Position

Think of board position as taking a snapshot of the game without knowing what is in either player’s hand. It’s a question of “if both players do nothing, who has the upper hand?” The player with board position has the advantage because his opponent needs to spend mana to overcome what he has already played in order to get ahead.

As I stated before, many Hearthstone matches come down to obtaining board position and keeping it. As long as you have board position, you have leeway to hit your opponent in the face instead of dealing with the threats he plays that will hit you in the face.

Playing on Curve/Curving Out

Playing on Curve means playing something that uses up all the mana you have available to you every turn. Roughly, cards are more powerful the more mana they cost. A 3 mana card will generally give you more value than a 2 mana card. But mana doesn’t stick around when your turn is over, so if you only spend 2 mana on turn 3 you are wasting mana and making a weaker play (most of the time.)

One of the fundamentals to good Hearthstone is playing on curve from the beginning of the game. If you do this and your opponent doesn’t, most of the time you will find yourself incrementally building power over him, and your board position will grow stronger and stronger.

Missing a Drop

This is when you not only can’t play on Curve, you can’t play anything at all. For example, if it’s turn two and you only have cards that cost three mana and up, you are stuck using your hero power which is usually weaker than any other card you could play. Missing a drop usually means your opponent has either played one more minion than you, or removed one more of your minions from the field with a spell. Either way, the result is the same: an increase in board position for them. Missing a drop is terrible, especially in early turns. A painful missed drop might set up a board position that is nearly impossible to overcome.

Lethal

You “have Lethal” when you have enough minions on the board (or damaging spells in hand) to kill your opponent. In general, if you don’t have Lethal it’s more important to increase your board position than it is to do damage to your opponent’s face.

Card Advantage

Every turn you draw a card, but depending on their mana costs you can play more than one card a turn. Do this too many times and you’ll eventually find yourself running out of cards. Card Advantage is when you have more cards in your hand than your opponent. It means that you have been handling his threats by using fewer cards than him. If this pattern continues, you will soon have several cards to play when he has none, securing you board position.

Top-decking

When you run out of cards in your hand you can only play the card you draw off the top of your deck every turn, hence the term “top-decking.” Top decking is bad because you aren’t choosing the cards you play based on any strategy. You are simply playing what the deck gives you. This is usually very random and not very effective. If you can force a player to top-deck before he has reduced your life, then you will likely win the game. However, if your life is already low, he can always rip a fireball or something else random off the top of the deck to finish you off.

Fatigue

Fatigue is what happens when you run out of cards in your deck to draw. At this point, the game puts you on a clock by dealing damage to you every time you try to draw a card you don’t have. The first missed draw deals one damage, the next two, and so on. Last enough turns and fatigue damage will eventually kill you.

Removal

Removal is any spell of effect (outside of a minion directly attacking) that can remove another minion from the field. This can be damage, a “destroy” effect, an effect that bounces a minion to your hand, or in some circumstances the “silence” effect. Removal is one of the biggest sources of value in any deck, as you can take care of huge 7+ mana minions with 3 or 4 mana spells. When a player thinks their opponent has removal in their hand, they will try to bait it out by playing a less powerful minion before playing the one they want to stick on the board.

Board Clear

Board Clears are removal spells that target every (or almost every) minion on either your opponents side of the board or both sides of the board. Board Clears tend to be more expensive then single target “spot removal” but can be incredible sources of value, taking out several cards and lots of mana’s worth of minions in one shot. Board Clears are best used when the opponent has a huge board. To counter them, payers will try to not overcommit, holding back minions in their hand if they already have board position.

Ping

Whenever a creature attacks a creature of one mana rank below it and survives, it tends to do so with only one HP left. Pings are cheap effects that deal one damage. Using a ping can finish off a minion after a favorable trade, preventing them from getting further value and possibly getting you a benefit  (some pings draw cards or summon creatures.) The Mage is notable for having a reusable ping as her hero power.

Going Face

Going Face, or Hitting The Face, or anything else with the term face in it usually refers to using a minion to hit the opponent rather than to establish board position. Knowing when to go to face is important, because sometimes you can sacrifice a little bit of board position to secure a lethal next turn. Focusing too much on going to face, however, will allow your opponent to make favorable trades with you and eventually overwhelm you.

Burst Damage

Burst Damage is anything that can be done to the opponent without waiting a turn (like most minions have to). Burst Damage is powerful because your opponent doesn’t see it coming. If you have two 4/4 minions on the board, and your opponent is at 14 life, they might think they are safe for another turn, but pulling out a fireball to do a sudden six damage will net you the game. Burst Damage tends to be either direct damage spells, or minions with the ability charge.

RNG

RNG stands for Random Number Generation. Many cards have abilities with RNG built in, attacking random opponents or casting random spells. Favorable or unfavorable RNG could mean the difference between a win and a loss. For example, the card Flame Juggler deals one damage to a random enemy target when it comes into play. You are likely hoping that it kills one of your opponent’s minions with 1 health left. That would be good RNG. If hit hits their face and allows their minion to attack you or the juggler next turn, that is bad RNG.

Counterpicking

Counterpicking is a fighting game term that can be applied to Hearthstone. Basically, it means picking a deck that has a favorable matchup against your opponent’s deck. In Hearthstone tournaments, players are usually allowed to change their decks between matches in order to get an optimal counterpick. However, every single deck you have has to win once in order to win a match.

Abilities

Sometimes the power of a minion is in the abilities it has. Here is a rundown of a few key abilities in the game.

  • Charge – Charge allows a minion to attack the turn it is played. This allows it to act as a source of burst damage, usually to end the game.
  • Taunt – Minions with taunt have to be attacked and killed before any other minions or players can be attacked. Taunt minions are a good way to stall the game, and can protect smaller minions from efficient trades.
  • Battlecry – Battlecry effects happen when you play the minion from your hand.
  • Deathrattle – Deathrattle effects happen when a minion dies. “Sticky” minions are minions that replace themselves with other minions via a Deathrattle effect.
  • Divine Shield – Minions with Divine Shield negate the first source of damage that hits them, giving them effectively more health. 
  • Stealth – Stealth minions cannot be attacked or targeted by spells or abilities until they do damage. Usually used to protect an otherwise vulnerable minion.
  • Silence – Silence removes all of a card’s text as well as any abilities or buffs it has. This can turn huge minions into easy to kill 1/1s if used correctly. It also removes taunt and other important abilities.
  • Freeze – Frozen minions characters cannot attack for one turn.
  • Enrage – Enrage abilities are active when the character who has them is damaged.
  • Inspire – Inspire abilities trigger when your hero power is used.
  • Windfury – Characters with Windfury can attack twice per turn.
  • Combo – Combo effects trigger if you already played another card this turn.
  • Overload – Cards with Overload lock out some of your mana for use next turn. For example, a card with overload 1 would give you one less mana to spend your next turn. This allows high mana effects to be put on otherwise low mana cards, like the 3/4 Totem Golem that casts for 2 and overloads for 1, or everyone’s favorite Flamewreathed Faceless, which gives you a 7/7 for 4 mana, and 2 overloaded mana. Everyone likes dealing with him!

Deck Archetypes

Finally, here are some of the common decks you will see in a Hearthstone tournament.

Aggro – Aggro decks have one purpose, to kill you before you kill them. They tend to include several powerful low mana cost minions and curve out around turn 5. Their card draw is limited and if the game goes too long, they will find themselves top-decking, but their goal is to end the game before then.

Face – A face deck is a specific type of aggro deck that has one purpose and one purpose only, hit the opponent’s face. It usually includes weapons, creature buffs, and charge minions, and it doesn’t care about keeping board position because all of their damage tends to come out of hand anyway. They too run out of gas quick, even quicker than more traditional aggro decks, but they find themselves routinely winning on turn 5 or 6 depending on the deck. Unfortunately, decks like this are weak to bad draws and if they don’t play on curve they will likely lose.

Control – While the aggro philosophy is “I win if I kill them first” the control philosophy is “I win if they can never kill me.” Control decks are loaded with removal, board clears, and large powerful minions that are hard to remove themselves. They also tend to use abilities like the Warrior’s armor up, or the Priest’s lesser heal to keep restoring their HP. The entire goal of the control deck is to render all your opponent’s threats null.

Fatigue – Fatigue decks are a specific type of control deck that has no real win condition. Their goal is to make the game last to fatigue after neutralizing all of their opponent’s threats, and then let fatigue damage kill them.

Midrange – Midrange decks attempt to play on curve through as many turns as possible. Their threats continue to grow as the game goes on, and they respond to how the opponent is playing. If the opponent is playing a control deck, they head for his face and try to kill him before he can devastate their board. If the opponent is playing aggro, they use their powerful creatures to make favorable trades and make them run out of steam before they can push to lethal. You could look at the Midrange deck as a jack-of-all-trades deck, but unfortunately it is weak to bad draws and removal, as playing off-curve will severely weaken the deck’s potential.

Tempo – Tempo decks are a strange hybrid of aggro and control. The goal is to get one or two threats out on the field and then use control cards to neutralize anything your opponent could play to stop it. Enough hits to the face by those one or two threats will win you the game quickly, but run out of gas and you’ll lose your threat, and likely your board position.

Attrition – Attrition decks like to play “behind” other decks on this list, and for good reason. They are loaded with powerful high-mana creatures. Their only goal is to not die. If the game lasts to turn 6+ without pushing them into lethal range, they will drop an amazingly beefy minion with a great ability nearly every turn.

Zoo – Zoo is an archetype characterized by flooding the board with low and medium cost minions that are sometimes then buffed to become better. These minions never cost much, so they almost always trade up. Unfortunately, they are very susceptible to board wipes, but the most famous version of Zoo, the Zoolock, can use it’s hero power to draw up again and regain momentum.

Combo – Combo decks revolve around a specific type of synergy between cards to win the game. N’Zoth decks that utilize Deathrattle synergy can be considered a combo deck.

OTK – OTK or One Turn Kill decks use specific combos of cards to kill you suddenly without board position at all. Two common OTK decks are Miracle Rogue, which utilizes the combo mechanic and lots of card draws to deal lots of damage to your face after playing only a few creatures, and Freeze Mage, which repeatedly locks down and wipes your board in order to burn your face to death with direct damage spells boosted by spell damage enhancers.

Ramp – Ramp decks, unique to the Druid class, utilize spells and abilities that get you more mana than you usually would have. This allows you to play high level minions earlier in the game getting board position quick. Their weakness is that they run out of gas and start top-decking quick, because the cards that usually would be used as drops are now being used as mana acceleration.

Reno – finally we have the Reno archetype, one of the strangest artchetypes in the game. Reno Jackson is a card that, if there are no duplicate cards in your deck, restores you to full life. This makes decks using him random and scattered, however the ability to essentially have two full life bars allows you to draw a good portion of your deck and last till the end of the game when you can play anything you draw.