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Regression to the Mean

Tobold and others are fundamentally correct about Hearthstone’s metagame essentially being reduced to a small set of cards. The speed at which the metagame changes in response to pro-player feedback also approaches the speed of light; Argent Squire went from being something I never saw in the last three months to something I now see every game. In fact, if you want to win damn near every game you play, all you need to use are these cards:

  • 2x Novice Engineer
  • 2x Loot Hoarder
  • 2x Gnomish Inventor
  • 2x Shattered Sun Cleric
  • 2x Acidic Swamp Ooze
  • 2x Faerie Dragon
  • 2x Dark Iron Dwarf
  • 2x Chillwind Yeti
  • 2x Defender of Argus
  • 2x Argent Commander

I cannot begin to tell you how many games I have lost due to Defender of Argus. Some of these cards will be nerfed soon, but not all of them (including Defender of Argus), and I’m not even convinced the nerfs will hurt their inclusion in nearly every deck.

The funny thing though, is how simply using these cards does not necessarily mean you win automatically. They are strongest possible cards for their cost, no doubt, but what they do not do is tell you is who’s the beatdown. They do not tell you whether you should play the Faerie Dragon or the Loot Hoarder on turn 2. They do not tell you which class to play, which class cards to choose for the rest of the deck, and whether to spend mana on removal this turn or send everything to your opponent’s face. In short, they don’t tell you what to do in this scenario:

So many possibilities...

So many possibilities…

As I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, sometimes Hearthstone can be played by a monkey. Sometimes you only have one rational move, and sometimes you will win no matter what you play because your opponent got screwed by RNG. And vice versa. But none of this should suggest there is not room for skill, acumen, and calculated risks. It’s not about seeing the same pieces day in and day out, it’s how those pieces interact with one another.

Hearthstone has its issues – Blizzard can’t pretend that Mage isn’t OP for too much longer – but a metagame revolving around X number of cards isn’t one of them. It would be better if more cards were viable, sure, but there is plenty of meat and marrow on these bones.

Hearthstone Arena Strategies

So, you’re a little hesitant to step into Hearthstone’s Arena mode, or perhaps you already have and the games did not quite go as planned. I’m going to level with you: I’m not some grandmaster Hearthstone Arena player, although I break even (6+ wins) more times than not. What I can offer you is a collated batch of Arena strategies collected from either personal experience, from streams, and/or random tidbits from players better than myself. So read on, absorb what’s useful, and critique the rest in the comments.

Make Peace with the RNG

You will be screwed right out of the gate on occasion. From a poor selection of Heroes at the beginning, to a drafting process that offers you zero removal cards, to being faced against opponents with 2-3 Legendaries and all the right answers. It happens. So make your peace with its inevitability, and endeavor to learn something useful as you struggle uphill both ways.

Understand Card Advantage

Card Advantage is a concept that came out of Magic: the Gathering theory more than a decade ago, and is a key component in virtually all CCGs since then. The Wikipedia page on the topic is pretty robust, and I recommend taking the time to read through it – the concept of card advantage underpins every other strategy that follows.

Know Your Enemy

There are nine classes in Hearthstone, each with very specific Hero abilities and class-specific cards. Just like in any PvP situation in WoW or other games, the more you know about your opponent’s repertoire, the better your chance of predicting his/her moves and playing around them.

My creature placement turned a 2:1 into a 1:1, saving two critical cards.

My creature placement turned a 2:1 into a 1:1, saving two critical creatures.

For example: when facing a Rogue or Mage, the positioning of your creatures matters. Betrayal is a potentially devastating Rogue card whose power is entirely dependent on how you order the creatures on your board – if you have a high-attack power minion inbetween two other creatures, bam, that Rogue just got a 2-for-1 because you got careless. Cone of Cold is more difficult to play around, but you can do funny things by placing your strongest creatures on the outside (forcing the Mage to choose which to become Frozen) or even mucking up the math by playing a Faerie Dragon intelligently. For example, if I had been facing a Mage in the picture above, the Cone of Cold could only ever hit two creatures since the Faerie Dragon couldn’t itself be targeted.

If you haven’t taken the opportunity to look up all the class-specific cards already, go ahead and click My Collection and then Crafting Mode (and make sure All Sets is on at the bottom). This will show you all the non-Basic cards for every class. As far as I can tell, the only way to see all the Basic cards is to earn them by leveling each class up to 10 yourself… which is a good idea anyway.

Assume the Removal

This is a subset of the previous point. Know what kind of removal that your opponent may have access to, assume that they have it in hand, then force them to use it. It’s Turn 7, and the Mage will likely devastate your board with a Flamestrike. Can you do anything about it? Yes, actually: force them to use it. Worst case scenario is that they generate a lot of card advantage by crippling your offense. But they were going to do that anyway. Best case is that you had enough threats on the table to force them to use it when you were expecting them to, and not at their leisure.

If you play conservatively and they don’t use the Flamestrike, all you’ve done is given up damage in exchange for nothing.

Assume the worst, hope for the best.

Assume the worst, hope for the best.

Here is a rough guide:

  • Hunter: Multi-Shot at Turn 4. If it’s a Secret, assume it’s a Fire Trap.
  • Mage: Sheep on Turn 4, Blizzard on Turn 5, Flamestrike on Turn 7. If you are at 11 HP or 7 HP, assume you will die next turn from Pryoblast or Fireball.
  • Paladin: Consecration on Turn 4. Blessing of Kings on Turn 4.
  • Rogue: Betrayal any time you have 3 creatures. Assassinate on Turn 5.
  • Shaman: Bloodlust whenever they have more than 3 creatures out. Lightning Storm at the worst possible moment.
  • Warrior: Assume a 2 or 3-power weapon the next turn, and/or creatures with Charge. Any useful creature that has taken damage will die.
  • Priest: You will likely lose after Turn 8. Win before then.
  • Druid: Swipe starting on Turn 4. Starfall on Turn 5 (it’s a rare card though). Assume 8/8 or 5/10 Taunt creatures after Turn 8.
  • Warlock: Assume Hellfire whenever they don’t have a creature out.

Draft Bombs

A Drafting environment is worlds different than Constructed. You might be able to play around one Mind Control, but can you play around three? Ever face a Warlock with four Hellfires before? This is not meant to discourage you from doing Arena, but to recognize that you will encounter all sorts of outlandish situations. The only real thing you can do is draft the strongest possible cards you can, play them intelligently, and hope for the best.

Pictured: an insanely tough first pick.

Pictured: an insanely tough first pick. Went with Knife Juggler.

What are the strongest possible cards? Good question. I suggest starting with Trump’s Arena Card Rankings as a jumping off point, as it covers all Basic/Common cards. The fundamental take-away though, is asking yourself how any given card you play stacks up with other cards for the same cost. Does it trade favorably? While a Kobold Geomancer can turn an Arcane Explosion into a Consecration, it will have its lunch eaten by a vanilla 2/3 River Crocolisk who will still be a hungry 2/1 creature after the trade. Chillwind Yeti is the least interesting creature ever that turns entire games around with his big, dumb 4/5 for 4 self (bonus points for immunity to most Priest removal).

Of course, given the choice, I would take Amani Berserker over the River Crocolisk every day of the week. Point is: don’t discount efficient creatures. Considering it is entirely possible to have no opportunity to draft any removal, you may have to make due with what you have on the board.

Know When to Race, and When to Coast

It’s your turn 4 and you have two 3/2 creatures compared to your opponent’s lone 1/1 creature. What do you do?

If you said “It depends on what class your opponent is,” you win.

The difference between dealing 6 damage this turn and a Paladin casting Blessing of Kings on his 1/1 and taking out one of your creatures (and likely forcing you to trade next turn) is huge. If you manage to keep that Paladin’s board clear each turn, the Blessing of Kings is a dead card until at least Turn 6, and by then you’ll either have this game wrapped up or have something to deal with a 5/5. There have been more than one game where I lost simply because Dark Iron Dwarf was stranded in my hand (unlike the Shattered Sun Cleric, the dwarf has to target a creature if one exists, even your opponent’s).

At the same time, a commitment to killing everything your opponent plays every turn means that every creature they cast gains the text “and gain X life, where X is the HP of this creature.” At the end of the day, you win by reducing your opponent’s HP to zero, not keeping his board empty. Sure, there are many times in which I was trying my best to Jedi Mind Trick my opponent into attacking my face rather than killing creatures I had plans for, but giving a Control deck room to breathe is exactly what they want you to do.

Get Ahead, Stay Ahead… But the Long Game is Good Too

I once lost a match where the only creature that survived more than one turn was my opponent’s Faerie Dragon, which he/she had coined out on Turn 1. Every turn thereafter consisted of us trading cards and creatures. Which might have been okay, if it were not for the fact that trading one-for-one favors the person who played first. In other words, the early game matters. A lot.

At the same time, what you don’t want to do when drafting is neglect your late game. The vast majority of the Arena games I play end long after Turn 10. Having a front-loaded mana curve is great for punishing slower decks, but what are all your 2/2 and 3/3 creatures going to do when faced with a 8/8 or 5/10 meatwall with defender? Or a Flamestrike? There is nothing more frustrating in Hearthstone than running out of steam and watching your shot at victory slowly erode under the tremors of Stormwind Champions.

When I drafted a Paladin Aggro deck (e.g. zerg with cheap creatures) I about conceded on Turn 1 when the Mage I was fighting dropped a Mirror Image. I had a fist full of creatures, but many of them were 2/1s which would have died to a ping by the Mage’s Hero power before they could even attack once. If you mostly stick with the highest-value cards you can, you’re likely to walk out with a mid-range deck that can handle most situations. Specifically trying to shoehorn in a “theme” in an Arena environment is just asking for trouble.

Play Smart… Play S-Mart

While the exact depth of Hearthstone strategy is up for debate, there is absolutely opportunity to miss game-changing plays and/or epically screw yourself over by poor decision-making. For example, I am still facepalming over this scenario:

Don't get greedy.

Don’t get greedy.

My Turn 2, opponent had played a Novice Engineer. Staring at a hand with a Sword of Justice and four cheap creatures, I got greedy by using the Coin to power out the SoJ and passed the turn. And that’s when this happened:

"What's the worst that can happen? Oh."

“What’s the worst that can happen? Oh.”

I pretty much lost the game right there. My opponent’s 3/2 and/or 1/2 would eat any creature I played or eat my face if I delayed long enough to cast the Knife Juggler + Argent Protector. Indeed, it did not really matter what I played, because my opponent got a 2-for-1 just by playing the Ooze, and arguably a 3-for-1 since I had to deal with the creature eventually. That was not a fun game.

There are times when you may need to go all-in to win. If my opponent didn’t have the Ooze, my card advantage would keep ticking higher each turn the Sword survived. A smarter play would have been to cast my own Novice Engineer and then see what kind of creature he played in response. Depending on what he/she played, I could have coined into a Knife Juggler + Argent Protector, or dropped a Dire Wolf Alpha and killed his Novice Engineer, or boosted my Engineer to take out a x/5 creature or whatever. Point being, playing Sword of Justice and passing the turn is the dumbest possible move you can make. Sometimes it’s the only move you can make, but it’s still dumb.

Beyond that scenario, there are all sorts of little things to keep in mind. Knowing how powerful Silence can be, for example, especially against opponents who spent their whole turn casting that 6/5 with Taunt creature only to see your full board go right for their face. Faerie Dragon placement, as mentioned earlier. Knowing that mass removal like Consecration and Hellfire will not trigger Cult Master’s card-drawing power as long as it dies at the same time as other creatures. Facing the tough choices like this one, and realizing that the obvious plays are not always the best ones:

Coining into a Flamestrike seems obvious... but it's not always the best.

Coining into a Flamestrike seems obvious… but it’s not always the best.

I don’t remember what sort of nonsense the Druid played after I killed the Cult Master with my Water Elemental, pinged the imp, and then played Ogre Magi. All I remember is that I was quite happy saving the Flamestrike for the following turn when he dumped his hand and then later using the Coin with Archmage Antonidas to jump-start the Fireball cascade.

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Hopefully this guide has been of some use for you. The very bottom line when it comes to improving your Arena match outcomes is simple: learning from your mistakes. Did you really get screwed by the RNG, or was it the RNG + a bad early play on your part? Fix what you can and then try again.

Have fun… and maybe I’ll see you out there.

Reviews: Elven Legacy, QUBE

Game: Elven Legacy
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 71
Completion Time: ~21 hours
Buy If You Like: Hex-based strategy games, old games

The strategy bits weren't bad at all.

The strategy bits weren’t bad at all.

Elven Legacy is a somewhat more traditional hex-based strategy game featuring PS1 graphics, a somewhat abbreviated plot, and an incredibly brutal single-player campaign.

What I recognized early on was that I had not actually played many “strategy” games before, as opposed to more tactical affairs. The underlying mechanics were fairly simple: units can move and attack each turn, all units have 10 HP, sometimes there are special abilities or perks that can come into play, units gain XP and levels, and you can move your entire team each turn. When all the moving pieces come together however, you begin to realize how much the odds are against you on each and every map.

Allow me to present an example. During your turn, you move your spearman up to attack an enemy unit. Before committing to the attack, you see that you will deal 5 damage and take 2 damage in return. During the attack, the damage numbers were actually 4 and 3 – the projected numbers are simply the average range. The damage a unit takes is counted as either wounded or dead, with the spread being determined by perks and… well, I’m not actually sure how its counted. I noticed higher level units take more wounds than deaths, so I’m sure stats are somehow involved. Regardless, your now-7 HP unit will deal less damage than that same unit at full health. On your next turn, you can choose to order that unit to Camp, which will heal all wounded (not dead) units, at the cost losing both its attack and move phase.

Another wrinkle is morale. Units attacked below a certain baseline will Break, reducing their attack and defense scores by 4 until they Camp, while also retreating a hex away. Even units that do not Break will retreat a hex back when low on HP. This can wreck havoc with your plans should you attempt to attack with two units, only to have the first attack send the enemy out of range of your follow-up. This can lead to some odd behavior, like attacking with your weakest units first, probing for the breaking point, before sending in the big guns to hopefully annihilate the unit.

Then you have the hero/monster units, which can heal to full all the time. Then you have magic spells, which have unlimited ranges by only 1-2 charges per spell. Then you have terrain bonuses/penalties. Then you are picking one of three Perks for each level a unit gains. Then you are sending units around the map looking for artifacts that you can equip to give certain units more abilities/stats. Then you realize you often have a time limit to complete the map. And so on.

While the game was surprisingly strategic and all, literally everything else was forgettable. I have not dabbled much in the strategy game genre, but I know enough to know that there are likely better titles out there to buy. I purchased Elven Legacy at some ridiculous discount a year or so ago, and it is probably only worth that much (or less). It was fun while it lasted, but it really only succeeded in me wanting to look at other strategy games.

Note: I purchased the DLC along with the normal game, but was unable to get any of said DLC to actually work. The new campaigns showed up and were selectable, but none of the dialog or win conditions or any text was visible.

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Game: QUBE
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 69
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Portal-lite, FPS puzzle games

Aesthetically, it was quite nice.

Aesthetically, it was quite nice.

QUBE is a first-person puzzle game in the Portal tradition. In fact, basically all you need to know is that QUBE is Portal-lite. Throughout the game you can manipulate the behavior of a series of colored cubes that have standard behavior: red ones extend out one square at a time to a three-square distance, yellow ones make a step-ladder patterns, blue squares act as spring-boards, etc. Actually, why stop describing them now? Purple cubes rotate a section of the wall/floor, and green create either a block or ball, depending on the puzzle. Oh, and there are magnet walls. There, that is 100% of the set pieces.

While all this sounds simple, QUBE veers into some ridiculously fiendish puzzles before the end of its ~4 hours of gameplay. At one point, you have to solve a puzzle in the dark, with only one element at time being lit up. Another requires the fine manipulation of otherwise inert cubes of differing sizes by using magnetic walls. Yet another requires the navigation of a sort of Wheatley-esque robot that only makes right turns through a maze.

Overall, QUBE provides a lot more depth than I originally thought it could, but it did not provide enough to overcome the otherwise deserved “Portal-lite” title. Just image Portal minus GLaDOS, minus the threat of death, minus the ability to move blocks manually, and minus the ability to put portals almost anywhere. Oh, and minus about ~10 extra hours of gameplay.

Grab QUBE as part of a bundle if you can.

Reviews: Darksiders, Greed Corp, Nimbus

Game: Darksiders
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~19 hours
Buy If You Like: Devil May Cry/God of War meets Zelda meets comic book

There are zero complaints in the visual department.

Darksiders is a 3rd-person action game with puzzle elements that tries to straddle the line between Devil May Cry/God of War demon-killing and the sort of casual world exploration and puzzles of Zelda games. You control War, one of the four horsemen, who gets framed for starting the apocalypse party early, which results in the death of the entire human race. As you struggle to clear your name and/or figure out who was responsible, you kill a lot of demons and four-story bosses while uncovering new items and re-unlocking your prior abilities.

While it seems the most popular comparison is with Zelda games instead of Devil May Cry, I just felt the puzzle elements in Darksiders were curiously out of place. The visually stunning post-apocalyptic landscape is rife with ready-made puzzle elements, but I never got over the fact that War couldn’t just scale that wall with his big-ass metal hand. Are you telling me I can wield a car like a baseball bat, but I can’t just stack some debris in the corner and use that to reach the 2nd floor? Why aren’t I just punching down every door I encounter, especially when I unlock the Power Glove Gauntlet that lets me punch icebergs? While the puzzles do keep combat from growing too stale, after a while you realize that more than half of your game time is spent in empty rooms moving boxes around (etc). That might be fine thematically for a 14-year old elf-boy, but it never felt right for a horseman of the goddamn apocalypse.

That said, I did end up enjoying my time in Darksiders. The game is incredibly stylistic, the visuals are fantastic, and the action is pretty serviceable in a button-mashing way. Although I just pooh-poohed the puzzles, that is mainly because of the tone of the game, rather than the puzzles themselves being annoying. Indeed, while demon locks do appear on some doors arbitrarily, the majority of the puzzles are based on more “realistic” scenarios. You know, assuming that it’s realistic to punch subway cars into place but not use that same power to knock some tree limbs out of the way.

On a final note, if you play on the PC as I did, the port job is not especially keyboard-friendly; in terms of lazy port, it ranks up there with the original Borderlands for PC. I still WASD’d my way through the game anyway, but it was seriously annoying how anyone thought “Tab + number” was a good button combo to select abilities while running around.

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Game: Greed Corp
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Symmetrical puzzle/strategy games

Definitely more Checkers than Chess.

Greed Corp is a strategy game that is a lesson in efficient and frugal design. Whereas in an RTS-style game you can have three factions with totally unique units and hundreds of different forms of interaction, Greed Corp is pretty simple; there is one walker unit, one factory that builds walkers, one cannon, one consumable unit that flies walkers to a different hex, one harvesting building, and the resources being harvested is the terrain itself. The goal is to use all of those things to remove your opposition from the map, sometimes quite literally.

Regardless, there is can be a surprising bit of depth to the shenanigans. For example, the harvesters knock its own hex and all surrounding hexes down one level at the beginning of your turn (hexes brought below level 1 crumble apart). There is no way to remove a harvesters other than self-destructing it, which knocks another level off each surrounding hex, along with sinking the main hex down into the abyss. What this can lead to is sending a single unit flying into your enemy’s island territory, plopping down a harvester, and laughing maniacally (or sobbing in frustration, depending) as that whole island eventually breaks apart.

Eventually though, my enjoyment evaporated once the late-game Expert-level AI opponents started demonstrating the weaknesses of perfectly symmetrical maps. Namely that it didn’t matter how clever your own strategy was when all it takes is one of the three random opponents to opportunistically ruin your day. When the outcome of your best-laid plans devolve into “whoever moves last wins,” it is time to move on.

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Game: Nimbus
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Twitch-based puzzle “platformers”

Kinda like a flying Super Meat Boy.

In essence, Nimbus is a pretty simple twitch-based puzzle-platformer… sorta. You control a ship that has no means of self-propulsion, and thus must rely entirely on environmental objects and inertia to ensure you do not become stranded on the ground (which kills you). Some of those objects are bumpers that always gives you a set amount of boost when collided with, some are speed squares that can accelerate you to dizzying velocity if you loop into them multiple times, and still others are little cannons which give you some respite along with directional control over your exit. The end goal is to touch the exit checkerboard squares as fast as possible, while also grabbing the secret coins hidden (sometimes diabolically) around the level if you are so inclined – doing so can sometimes unlock bonus levels.

It did not take me long to confirm that the old adage of “quick to learn, difficult to master” is fully applicable to Nimbus. While successful execution is the most important aspect of the game, Nimbus does a phenomenal job at keeping each level feeling fresh and unique like a brand new puzzle. Just when you start feeling comfortable with all the deadly spikes on the walls, you encounter a map that requires you to ram into spheres to trigger gate openings like a physics-based platformer. And just as you are getting used to some of the spheres having spikes on them, you are faced with a level where all the walls are made of deadly lasers. And then there are the ridiculous reverse-gravity levels. In short, Nimbus deftly avoids new puzzle elements feeling like gimmicks and more like natural progression.

I did not end up completing Nimbus though, as the later levels quickly outstripped my twitch abilities, even after ditching the keyboard for an Xbox controller. If you are not a fan of twitch platformers like Super Meat Boy, unfortunately you aren’t likely to enjoy Nimbus at all; there are few things more frustrating than knowing what you have to do, but running into that same goddamn spike wall for the 13th time in a row and redoing the entire level from scratch (there are checkpoint cannons, but sometimes only past certain points).

If you do happen to enjoy those sort of games though, Nimbus will certainly give you a run for your money. Not only are there secret coins to collect, but each level has a Steam leaderboard to compare best times as well.