Tempo in Hearthstone (part one)

My girlfriend loves watching me play Hearthstone. Being a gamer herself, she’s perfectly content to sit back and watch me play. To keep it interesting I try to narrate and explain my every choice. “I lose too many cards if I do that,” I explain when I don’t Crackle and Lightning Bolt my opponent’s Fen Creeper. “I can’t ping the Loot Hoarder,” I tell her when I have to play my Mechwarper.

After a while, though, I noticed she was struggling with a certain concept: tempo. And I noticed I was winning way too many of my games because my opponents would play in a way which optimized their card-advantage, but not their tempo advantage. Many people simply don’t weigh their choices and the consequences of their every play, instead taking shortcut after shortcut, relying on old tenants of game theory they learned from their first days of playing Hearthstone or Magic all those years ago.

I’m here to fix that.

Card Advantage:

It’s impossible to talk about tempo without talking about card advantage. Card advantage is the most important concept in collectible card games and one that almost every Hearthstone player understands at least intuitively. Card games like Magic: the Gathering and Hearthstone have a number of fundamental limitations, and the most basic is the number of cards you have access to in a given game. For example, in Hearthstone, you start the game with three cards (four if you’re going second). This means to begin the game you have three available cards.

Card advantage is easy enough to understand. You kill your opponent’s Mana Wyrm with your Lightning Bolt, you traded a card for a card. That’s a 1:1 exchange. Your Forked Lightning killing two of your opponent’s creatures? A 2:1 exchange.

It is generally correct to optimize your card advantage. For example, you’re not going to trade your Bloodfen Raptor into their Mechwarper if there’s a perfectly good Museum Curator which you can eat for free. Most players understand this: players with a strong understanding with how the game works will strive to get the most value out of their cards they can.

However, there are times where card advantage doesn’t matter. After all, your average Hunter is going to be thrilled when you don’t have a two-drop and you play Arcane Intellect on turn three. Everyone’s had this experience at some point – the awful mulligan where you draw all your late game minions and you die on turn six with seven cards in your hand. Sure, you won the card advantage game. But that’s not how you win in Hearthstone.

Which leads us to…


Before being able to talk about tempo and its complex implications, it’s necessary to think about what, exactly, tempo even is. Simply put, tempo is similar to card advantage, but instead of wanting to get an advantage in cards, your goal is to gain an advantage in mana. Another way to think about it could simply be mana advantage.

I think conceptually this is pretty easy, but the applications of tempo are a bit more nuanced and difficult to understand. It’s easy enough to know that it’s efficient to Sap your opponent’s Tirion Fordring – after all, your opponent spent 8 mana, and you only spent 2, netting you six mana in exchange. But even though this play is mana efficient, it’s not card efficient: by using Sap on your opponent’s Tirion, you effectively spent a card without getting one in return.

There are situations where you have to choose between something being card efficient and tempo efficient, and this balance of decisions is what ultimately wins or loses players the game. It’s not every time you get an answer as simple as “Sap the Tirion.” To gain a better understanding of tempo and decision-making, we will go through a handful of examples, their solutions, and outcomes.

Here’s an age-old dilemma, one you’ve probably encountered in your arena matches before:

Dillema 1(all images created with puzzle creator)

It’s your turn two. Your opponent just coined out a Loot Hoarder. Do you ping it, or do you play your River Crocolisk?

If you ping it . . .

If you ping it, you’re not up a card – Loot Hoarder gives your opponent their card back. You also net zero mana, as Loot Hoarder and your own hero power cost two mana. This is a perfectly fine play, but it’s not efficient. At best, you’re breaking even.

Card advantage: 0 (+1 Loot Hoarder death, -1 Loot Hoarder deathrattle)

Mana advantage: 0 (+2 Loot Hoarder, -2 from own hero power)

Outcome: Empty board

If you play your River Crocolisk . . .

Here, there’s no efficient way for your opponent to deal with your River Crocolisk. If they decide to send their Hero Power at it, not only do you get two mana out of them (as well as their entire turn), but you also get a free point of damage. Here’s the catch: while your opponent is spending more mana, they actually “get” a free card out of the exchange, as you are now down a card, and your opponent’s Loot Hoarder has drawn them a new one.

Card advantage: -1 (-1 River Crocolisk, +1 Loot Hoarder death, -1 Loot Hoarder deathrattle)

Mana advantage: +2 (+2 Loot Hoarder, +2 Opponent’s hero power, -2 River Crocolisk)

Misc: +1 damage (from opponent attacking River Crocolisk)

Outcome: Empty board

The answer to what you do, of course, is entirely dependent on your hand. In this example, you play the River Crocolisk despite it being inefficient in terms of card advantage – sure, you will lose a card, but the advantages will more than make up for it. If you ping your opponent’s Loot Hoarder and they play a two-drop on turn two, you’re now playing catch-up: your opponent has the first minion on the board.

I’m sure there’s a few readers who, at this point, are raising an eyebrow. Wait a minute, they’re saying to themselves, that’s not necessarily the best play. There might be a time to catch up later in the game, where that extra card can make all the difference.

And they’re not wrong. Everything in Hearthstone is contextual. But look at that hand again – do you see a way to catch up? Sure, there’s the North Sea Kraken, but that’s not until turn nine. Given what’s in your hand, it’s better to gain control of the board now. You can always catch up in cards later—you have the Arcane Intellect. But if you don’t make a tempo-efficient play at the beginning of the game, there’s a chance you never gain control of the game, which leads us to one of our central tenants of tempo:

Tempo is at its greatest importance early in the game. The earlier you can gain a tempo advantage, the better.

There are games where once you gain tempo, you never let go of it. You end the game with a board full of creatures, a healthy life total, and fireworks flying across your screen. And there are games where you lose tempo on turn two because you had nothing to play and your opponent’s Annoy-o-Tron from turn two is staring at you across the board when the game eventually ends and you wonder why you never caught up. Simply put, tempo is at its best when it helps you kill your opponent.

Let’s take a look at the above example, but slightly modified:

Dillemma 2

We have the same exact board with nearly the same exact hand, but now we’ve replaced our Spider Tank with our Mechanical Yeti. How does this impact our decision-making?

If you ping it . . .

There’s certainly more upside than before. If we ping it and our opponent doesn’t have a two drop then we’re in great shape—we play the first minion on the board and we’re in control. However, if our opponent plays a two drop (remember, they coined out their Loot Hoarder), then they’re still playing the first minion.

Card advantage: 0 (+1 Loot Hoarder death, -1 Loot Hoarder deathrattle)

Mana advantage: 0 (+2 Loot Hoarder, -2 from own hero power)

Outcome: Empty board

If you play your River Crocolisk . . .

If we play our River Crocolisk on turn two and our opponent spends his turn killing it, not only are we down a card, but we actually have no good way to gain control of the board on our turn three. In the best-case scenario, we draw a minion we can cast, but more than likely we’re just casting our Arcane Intellect. By playing the River Crocolisk, we don’t actually get any closer to beating our opponent.

Card advantage: -1 (-1 River Crocolisk, +1 Loot Hoarder death, -1 Loot Hoarder deathrattle)

Mana advantage: +2 (+2 Loot Hoarder, +2 Opponent’s hero power, -2 River Crocolisk)

Misc: +1 damage (from opponent attacking River Crocolisk)

Outcome: Empty board

Generally, tempo is most important when it gives you control of the game. If tempo isn’t providing you with any clear-cut board advantage, then it may be correct to make a more card advantage-efficient play.

Now let’s consider a huge violator of tempo theory—Freeze Mage. Freeze Mage doesn’t care about tempo early in the game: they practically beg for their opponents to gain control of the early game. But just because they’re not throwing a Frost Bolt at your Knife Juggler doesn’t mean they don’t care about tempo. They just care about it at a much different point and in a much different way.

Consider the image:

Example 1.png

This is a pretty obvious example, really – everyone knows to play around the Flamestrike. But let’s think of it numerically for a second.

Card advantage: + 2 ½ (+½ Argent Squire, +½ Spectral Spiders, + ½ Imp-Gang Boss, +1 Brann Bronzebeard, +1 Knife Juggler), -1 Flamestrike)

Mana advantage: + 2 ½  (+ ½ Argent Squire, +1 Spectral Spiders, +3 Imp-Gang Boss, +3 Brann Bronzebeard, +2 Knife Juggler, -7 Flamestrike)

Outcome: Opponent left with two 1/1s

This is a tempo and card-advantage efficient play with a decent outcome. While it’s not the play I would personally make, it’s numerically fine. It’s important to note what this example shows: it is possible to catch up even after you’ve fallen behind. We see that tempo isn’t the end-all approach to decision-making.

Remember, it is essential to think about what your strategy is throughout the game. There may be times where it is in your very best interest to keep control of the board, as it is your path to victory. There may be other times where making tempo efficient plays offer you no tangible benefit on the board, in which case, it may be better to make card efficient plays. That said, every deck needs to gain control of the game at some point, and that’s almost always by gaining control of the board.

It would be impossible to cover tempo in its entirety in just one article, and yet for such an important concept, I see relatively few people talking about it. I’m definitely not done writing about tempo. Next time, we will get into some more advanced concepts. But in the meantime, I hope you’re thinking about your turn two a little more thoroughly. Don’t just choose the option which leaves you with the greatest card advantage – you may be dead before you ever get to cast those cards.


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