Shortly after I began playing Hearthstone in mid 2016, I started dabbling in the local and online tournament scene. Despite Hearthstone growing as an e-sport over the past two years and Blizzard updating the HCT process recently, I’ve had some small successes in these tournaments. A significant reason for this is that I’ve come up with and improved upon a seven-step process to prepare for these tournaments in a systematic way, and that’s what I’ll share with you today. As a part of the explanation process, I’ll walk through a real example of how I used these steps to prepare for my last tournament, the 2018 Spring Chicago Tavern Hero tournament.
Just a disclaimer: I’m by no means a professional Hearthstone player, but I’m hopeful that most of these steps (to varying extents) would be helpful for many players looking to make a splash in a tournament somewhere.
1. Make a list of playable decks
The first thing I do is make a list of decks that I could possibly bring to the tournament. The rules of the tournament should state obviously how many decks you need (it’s usually 3-4) to bring and if there are any bans, but you don’t need to think about that right now. This step is going to largely dependent on two things: the size of your collection and what decks are prominent in the meta at this point. For the second step, I recommend Tempo Storm, HSReplay, or Vicious Syndicate to get an idea of what decks are currently the strongest.
Don’t think too hard about tournament matchups at this point. In fact, this step should require very little thinking; just figure out the 5-10 meta decks that you can play from the cards in your collection. In the Spring Tavern Hero tournament, I chose the following six decks at this step: Spiteful Druid, Secret Mage, Aggro Paladin, Murloc Paladin, Spiteful Priest, and Zoo Warlock.
2. Generate a match-up matrix
The next three steps will help you whittle down the list of decks from step 1 into the number you need to bring for the tournament. First, generate a match-up matrix of my decks. While you can get this data from Vicious Syndicate, I find HSReplay’s interface (above) much more intuitive and easy to use. You can star particular decks to make them display at the top of the list and sort by various columns. You can also assign various weights and exclude (“ban”) certain classes, which is exactly what we’ll do in Steps 3 and 4.
Using this matrix, I can get a better idea of which of my decks are the strongest versus other meta decks, as well as their effective win rate (EWR in right-most column), both of which are valuable to my deciding which decks to bring to the tournament. At this point for my last tournament, my decks in EWR order were: Murloc Paladin, Aggro Paladin, Secret Mage, Spiteful Priest, Spiteful Druid, and Zoo Warlock.
3. Enter custom weights
One thing you’ll notice in HSReplay’s match-up chart is that they have weights automatically generated at the bottom from the deck prevalence data they have in their match database. It’s these weights that are used in a sum-product formula for each deck to calculate its effective win rate. However, we want to use “custom weights” since the deck distribution in a tournament will likely be very different from the one on ladder. It’s at this step that I think a good tournament player can really shine in their assumptions of the matchups they’ll be facing in a particular tournament.
To figure out these weights, many top players can use their intuition and coaching/game sense to make these decisions. For the rest of us, a good place to start is to look at players’ deck lists in recent tournaments that are published online. To help you get a better sense of what this looks like, I’ll walk through an example of how I did this for my Spring Tavern Hero tournament in February 2018:
- I knew that every single player would probably bring Warlock, so I gave that entire class a weight of 10. However, I needed to separate this out to the different Warlock decks. So in HSReplay, I gave weights of 5, 4.5, and 0.5 to Control Warlock, Cubelock, and Zoolock, respectively. In other words, I believed that out of all of the Warlock decks, 50% will be Control, 45% will be Cube, and 5% will be Zoolock.
- For Priest, I thought that most people will bring the class but maybe not every single player. Let’s give the class a weight of 8. The Priest class has more variation, so out of those 8 “points”, I split them up the following way: 3.5, 2, 1.5, 1, for Combo Priest, Spiteful Priest, Big Priest, and Control Priest, respectively. In other words, I believed that out of all of the Priest decks, 44% will be Combo, 25% will be Spiteful, 19% will be Big, and 12% will be Control.
I won’t go through every class, but it’s important to assign the weights relative of each other, especially when thinking about the less common classes. For example, I was thinking about Rogue and how it probably wouldn’t be very common in most people’s line-ups, but out of the people who brought Rogue, most would bring Kingsbane Rogue. Let’s say I set Rogue’s weight to 2 and subsequently, Kingsbane Rogue’s weight to 1.5. Do I really believe that I’ll see as many Kingsbane Rogues as Big Priests and more of them than Control Priests? I didn’t think so, so I lowered Rogue’s weight to 1 and Kingsbane Rogue’s weight to 0.75.
At this point, I had a new list of decks with updated effective win rates based on tournament weights instead of ladder weights. I could now move to my ban strategy.
4. Ban strategy
Ban strategy does depend somewhat on the tournament format (Conquest vs. Last Hero Standing), but the general principles are the same. Before I think about my own playing style and preferences, I first use the tournament-weighted match-up matrix above and “ban” classes using HSReplay’s awesome feature. By clicking the class logo, you can ignore all of the decks belonging to that class and the matrix will automatically recalculate your expected win rates. So what I did was this: ban every class one at a time (well, I didn’t bother with Shaman and Warrior…) and see which ban gave me the highest average win rate across the top 3 (or 4) decks I needed to bring to the tournament.
For me in the Spring Tavern Hero tournament, this ban was Paladin (which makes sense since I didn’t have the cards for Control or Cube Warlock decks) and this ban would imply that I should take Secret Mage, Spiteful Priest, and Murloc/Aggro Paladin. However, it’s important to note that personal play style and preference definitely should be given serious consideration when deciding bans and decks to bring. If you’re really terrible vs. Warlock, even if the numbers say otherwise, maybe you should consider banning Warlock. Likewise, if one of your top decks is Spiteful Druid but you have very little experience with the deck (and don’t have time to practice), maybe you should delete that deck from your list before this step.
5. Tech cards
At this point, you know which decks you’re going to bring to the tournament. However, the decklists are fluid and we can add tech cards as needed. This step is mainly used to cover any holes in matchups that we could have after our initial ban. Since tech cards are more situational, it’s best to walk through an example for this step.
In my situation, I knew that after banning Paladin, my most difficult/common match-up would be Warlock. I wanted all of my decks to improve in the Control/Cube Warlock matchup, so first, I added an Acidic Swamp Ooze to my Spiteful Priest deck. For Secret Mage, even though that’s alerady a good matchup, I knew that personally, my win rate with Secret Mage against Warlock wasn’t that great, so I decided to add an Ooze in there as well. Lastly, for my Paladin deck, I found an interesting Aggro Paladin list (“Garden Paladin”) that ran Stubborn Gastropods, Dire Moles, Blessing of Mights, and two Spellbreakers that was meant to do “less worse” against Warlock than the traditional Murloc or Dude Paladin.
It’s important to get some practice in with these decks before the tournament, especially if you’ve added any tech cards to the lists. In an ideal world, you’d find yourself a practice partner, but as a last resort, ladder is better than nothing. Just be prepared to lose 60+% of your games against the class you’re planning to ban if that class is prevalent on ladder. For me, this was horrendous since everyone was trying to speed-climb with Paladin in February before the first 4-rank ladder reset this month. I think I played Paladin 40% of the time and lost 80% of the games (try not to let it get to your head…); for my remaining games though, I had a 70% win rate.
7. Remember your match-up matrix during the tournament
This last piece of preparation actually happens during the tournament. Remember some important parts of your matchup matrix during the tournament to help inform your deck picks (or bring your spreadsheet if that’s allowed). For example, after I knew that my opponents decks were Paladin, Warlock, and Priest, I banned Paladin and had my Mage banned. Between my Aggro Paladin and Spiteful Priest, the latter has a better matchup spread against all the potential Warlock and Priest decks in the matchup chart, so I knew I would open with Spiteful Priest.
Another important note is to figure out which classes you want to ban if your original banned class isn’t among your opponent’s decks. For me, since I was targeting Warlock, my second worst matchup after Paladin was actually Hunter, due to Secret Mage and Aggro Paladin’s poor matchups with Spell Hunter. After Hunter was Druid, and after Druid was Warlock. So I made a note to myself before each tournament set to ban in the following order: Paladin, Hunter, Druid, Warlock.
In the end, following this process does nothing if you don’t play well in the tournament. However, with this systematic method, I am hopeful in every tournament that I’m at least squeezing a few extra percentage points in my matches due to my knowledge of the matchups, bans, counterpicks, and tech cards. I hope these steps can help you too and I’m definitely happy to hear any constructive criticism!
So I’m sure some of you are wondering how I did in the Spring Tavern Hero tournament. Unfortunately, I did not win, but I did finish first in the 6-round Swiss among 47 players. I then proceeded to choke in the first round of the single-elimination bracket, to my great disappointment. In both of my losing sets, Big Priest was the bane of my existence with turn 4 Barnes pulls. I can’t wait until that deck is out of Standard.