How to apply Hearthstone metagame theory to understand matchups by SteemedMuffins

Understanding the Hearthstone meta is one of the most important aspects of improving at the game. First, we have to ask, what is a metagame? A metagame is the sum of the best decks in a format. Before a player can truly understand what a metagame is, they need to grasp the theory behind why metagames exist. 

Metagames form because some decks have inherent advantages over other decks. This principle is known as matchup advantage and is going to happen in any card game. Making sure that a metagame is healthy is the job of the game designers. Most decks in a metagame fall into five different categories.

The five categories of decks in card games

Aggressive decks in Hearthstone.

Aggressive – Fast decks that like to win the game as fast as possible. These decks can accomplish this in many ways, such as going wide (summoning many small minions early and then buffing them to close out the game) or going tall (summoning a few large minions early and closing the game with a few large tempo swings). 

Aggressive decks come in many shapes and sizes, but they often have similarities. Each of them will have a strong start, generally in the first few turns, and often lose in the late game. Aggressive decks tend to run out of cards (or gas) by the midgame. Aggressive decks also tend to run “finisher” style cards known as “reach”. When an aggressive deck plays into the long game, they may find enough reach to end the game.

Good examples of aggressive decks in the standard format are Murloc Paladin and Dragon Druid. Murloc Paladin is a good example of a “go wide” strategy, and Dragon Druid is a good example of a “go tall” strategy. Each of these decks would go “all in,” If their opponent removes enough of their threats, they have no real hope of winning.

The control playstyle

Control – Slow decks that are in it for the long game. For example, control decks will use removal and board wipes to slow down the game until they can draw one of their late-game win conditions. Control decks thrive on card advantage, drawing, or generating more cards than their opponent.

In addition to this, control decks also have “inevitability”. Inevitability is a concept that applies when certain control style decks win past a certain number of turns. The number of turns before inevitability comes into play is different for every matchup. 

The best control decks in the meta in the standard format are Egg Warrior and Galakrond Priest. Each of these decks tries to stabilize in the early game and win with later game threats.

Hearthstone’s middle ground, Midrange decks

Midrange – Decks that want to control the early game with removal, and then go aggressive with good-sized creatures in the mid to late game. 

Players design their midrange decks in Hearthstone with both aggressive and control matchups in mind. Midrange decks act like the control deck when facing a more aggressive deck, but play like an aggressive deck when facing a more controlling deck. 

The best Midrange decks in meta right now in the standard format are Highlander Hunter and Galakrond Rogue. Each deck uses removal in the early game and have reasonably sized threats to finish the game quickly.

What are tempo decks in Hearthstone

Tempo – Decks that play the best and most mana efficient cards every turn, and win off a strong early board presence. 

Tempo is often confused with aggressive decks because the playstyle is often similar. The difference is that Aggressive decks are more reckless as they ignore whatever the opponent is doing just to hit the face. A tempo deck will both make their board presence stronger while also diminishing the opponent’s board.

Good examples of tempo decks in the standard format include the notorious Tempo demon hunter. Tempo Demon Hunter removed most of the opponent’s board while also developing their board. 

The most exciting playstyle of Hearthstone, Combo decks

Combo – Decks that assemble some number of cards that win the game on the spot. Combo decks can fit all four of the other deck types; the only separation is how the deck closes out the game. 

Combo decks have been less common in standard since Hearthstone designers have attempted to print less of them due to their lack of interactivity. Old examples of combo decks include freeze mage (control), quest mage (Aggressive), and Patron Warrior (midrange).

How deck style choices affect the metagame.

There is a cycle that these decks fall into as illustrated here:

By default, aggressive beats control, control beats midrange, and midrange beats aggressive. By “beat,” this refers to having a good matchup that we can define as >60% winrate. Different metagames may have different results, but this is the default scenario. The reason matchups are like this is somewhat complicated.

Aggressive decks have the game plan of playing quickly and, therefore can often finish a control deck before they have time to stabilize. Aggressive decks also run out of gas very quickly, and a midrange deck can take advantage of that by out-valuing the aggressive deck and finishing them before they find enough reach.

Players build midrange lists to gain enough value out of their cards to set up for a mid-game finish. Control decks do well against midrange because control decks have few threats to remove, and so many of a midrange deck’s cards prove useless. 

Combo and Tempo decks on the meta triangle

Tempo is left out of the triangle because they are in a strange position. The reason for this, is that tempo decks do well against aggressive decks since tempo decks can manage the aggressive deck’s board state while also developing their own. However, tempo decks do poorly against control decks since they can outvalue the tempo deck at every corner and often stabilize before the tempo deck can finish the game. Tempo decks fare against midrange decks depending on how aggressive the list is. The more aggressive the midrange deck is, the better a tempo deck should do, and the opposite is true for more controlling midrange lists.

Since combo decks can fit anywhere into the triangle, they have similar styles as their non-combo counterparts. However, you need to make a few considerations first. Is the deck an onboard combo, or does it come straight from hand? Combo decks that require some on the board setup (think Divine Spirit – Inner Fire combos) will be weaker to decks with hard removal (shadow word death, etc.). Combo decks that kill from the hand do not have to worry about hard removal, but may need to be concerned about taunts or life gain. Old freeze mage and Miracle rogue are examples of this special consideration when looking at the matchups.  

What Defines a healthy metagame?

Healthy metagames are when a variety of decks are viable, and one style of deck does not overtake the rest of the format. There should always be three styles of competitively viable strategies in the form of an aggressive deck, control deck, and midrange deck.

We see a healthy metagame in the form of wild hearthstone now. Aggressive decks like Pirate Warrior and Zoolock do poorly against decks that have many board wipes. Decks that run many board wipes such as Raza Priest do poorly against non-interactive strategies like Mechathun Warlock and Quest Mage. These non-interactive strategies do poorly against fast, aggressive decks, and the cycle is complete. Even though the wild format may have unorthodox strategies compared to standard, the basic triangle is present. 

Unhealthy metagames form when one deck or style of deck oppresses the rest of the metagame. These unhealthy metagames occur when a deck is supposed to have a bad matchup but has cards included to shore up on these matchups. The only response is for a specialized decklist to arise that has a good matchup vs. the best decklist but has a bad matchup against everything else. This metagame would prevent other decks from being created and innovated, hence why this is considered negative. 

Recently in the standard format, Tempo Demon Hunter dominated the metagame. The reason being was that Tempo historically has bad matchups against Controlling strategies. However, Tempo Demon Hunter had cards to shore up on those matchups in the form of Metamorphosis, Skull of Gul’dan, and Warglaives of Azzinoth. These cards gave Tempo Demon Hunter the needed reach to finish games vs. controlling decks. After many rounds of nerfs, the standard meta mostly settled, but what can we learn from this?

When things are out of balance.

Metagame theory is not a rule, and different expansions may put all of this backward. A good example of this would be in the current standard meta after the most recent nerfs: an aggressive Murloc Paladin list has a great matchup vs. the midrange highlander hunter. Highlander hunter does not have many tools to fight such a wide strategy and, therefore, suffers. Even though the midrange matchup is supposed to be good vs. aggressive, this imbalance exists.

Often, the hearthstone meta-theory gets out of balance due to the poor design of cards. Too good of control cards often mean that midrange gets pushed out of the format. The same goes for midrange and aggressive decks, a format has one archetype that is too powerful and pushes another archetype out of existence. In the standard format Tempo Demon Hunter dominates other aggressive decks and did well against midrange and control. This imbalance shoved most aggressive decks out of the format: the best aggressive decks were Murloc Paladin and Pirate Warrior, but they struggled in the Demon Hunter matchup and were therefore unpopular. 

Since the dawn of hearthstone expansions, cards have been designed that put the Hearthstone meta-theory backward. Control heals so much that aggressive decks cannot keep up, the midrange decks have so much value that Control cannot stabilize, and aggressive decks go too fast for midrange to keep up. Understanding what metagames are like this is key to being a proficient Hearthstone player.

How can you benefit?

One of the most important reasons to understand basic metagame theory is deckbuilding. Early after a set is released, most players will agree on an established decklist as the “best deck.” To beat the masses of players playing a deck, each player needs the ability to comprehend what kind of deck beats another style of deck. For example, if the best deck in a new format is aggressive, a deck builder that was creating a list to beat that deck would likely need to start by looking at a midrange style list. 

Hearthstone meta-theory can also help if you need to shore up against a specific matchup. A control deck is naturally weak against aggressive lists so you can use your knowledge of the hearthstone meta theory and put cards that perform well against aggressive decks if they are a large part of the metagame. Eventually, these cards become natural inclusions in those lists. You need to understand what cards in a list help in each matchup can be vital to tweaking the list for maximum success.

Tech-card suggestions from Steemedmuffins

Anti-aggressive cards include cheap removal, board wipes, and life gain. When playing control, anything that helps you stabilize early will be your best bet against aggressive decks. Some examples include Doomsayer, Khartut Defender, and Penance. The issue is that putting in cards like this will make your other matchups more difficult. Anti-aggressive cards are useless in the control mirror and are only slightly beneficial in the midrange matchup, which control style decks already have the advantage. 

Anti-midrange is less about the cards you have, and instead about the deck, you build. Midrange interacts on the board, so building a deck that plays off the board, such as control or aggressive combo, will be the key to beating midrange. Another strategy includes playing faster than the midrange list can keep up. Using “go wide” strategies are particularly effective against midrange decks that rely on single target removal. 

Anti-Control cards come in the form of sticky minions or cards that generate card advantage and tempo. Sticky minions are generally minions that provide value after they die and are therefore less susceptible to board wipes. Examples of sticky minions include minions with reborn or minions with a deathrattle that summon more minions such as Murmy, Hench-Clan Hogsteed, or Serpent Egg. Cards that generate card advantage and tempo are harder to come by since they are so powerful. A good example of this would be Sky Raider or Pharaoh Cat, since they provide decent bodies on turn one, and generate an extra card to play later.

Metagame theory is simply the beginning of an understanding of how the metagame operates. There is much more depth to cover that each player will have to discover for themselves on their journey to become better Hearthstone players. 

Want to delve even deeper into metagame theory? Be sure to read all about it in Cowtipper’s advanced metagame theory blog. For more of AceGameGuides, be sure to join the discord and stay up to date with our latest projects and events!