Scion's School: Basics #2 - Playing for Advantage

Let’s talk about Dennis.

If you don’t know who Dennis is, a brief rundown: he’s a legend rank Hearthstone player who was, at one point, a total newbie, just like you and I.  During his time as a total newbie, he came up against one of the more popular Hearthstone streamers, Kripparian, and made a standard newbie play that became, somewhat unfortunately for Dennis, called THE Dennis.  

Dennis is a great guy. THE Dennis is not a great move.

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To explain The Dennis in Eternal terms: It’s turn one, and you are Dennis.  You have a deck that can loosely be described as a pile of cards with a theme.  You play a Fire sigil. Now you have one power and one fire influence. Well, what do you know?  There’s a fire card in your hand that costs one (A Torch). Great! Now you play the Torch, and deal 3 damage to your opponent’s face.

That’s it.  That’s the whole thing. Not that bad, right?  And yet anyone with a modicum of experience in card games reading this just hunched up their shoulders and made this noise with their mouth, like “eaugh…”.

 

So on the one hand, props to Dennis for being proactive.  As we said in Basics #1, decision paralysis is the worst threat to a new player in Eternal, and Dennis has very decisively decided.  He’s made a mistake. Good for him. As we know, Dennis is going to go on to do just fine in his card game of choice.

On the other hand, this IS a mistake.  Dennis is right about this move maaaaybe 1% of the time, and we’re probably not going to talk about that 1% until… something like Scion’s School #317.  And it’s just the Torch - if Dennis had an Oni Ronin in hand, he’d 100% have made the correct decision to play it instead, even though Torch is generally considered to be a more powerful card.

 

So why is this a mistake?  Because now Dennis doesn’t have a Torch anymore.

This is a central card game concept called advantage.  When you play a power, unit, relic, or weapon you are creating a resource that you can use against your opponent. When you play a spell like Torch, it’s one use - you can take away a resource your opponent has, but you can’t add anything to the board with it.  A Torch does 3 damage and an Oni Ronin does 2, but the Oni Ronin can attack again and again and again, unless your opponent has the resources to prevent that attack. When you play something onto the board, you have more than you started with. When you send something into the void, you have less.

To see why this matters, let’s look at turn 2 and 3.  Our fantasy Dennis now plays a Rakano Outlaw, and our opponent responds to that with an Argenport Instigator.  The opponents unit is bigger, and therefore the advantage is his - Rakano Outlaw can’t attack without getting beaten in a fight.  Now, if Dennis still had a Torch, he could spend it here to remove Instigator from the board, putting himself back on top. With Instigator gone, Rakano Outlaw could attack, deal 2 damage, and generate a +1/+1 for a card in Dennis’ deck.  That’s more value than the Torch offers by itself.

Advantage can do two things:  It can increase your available options, giving you better plays in any situation, and it can improve the strength of your plays, allowing you to do more damage or accomplish a particular goal.  If your play isn’t part of an immediate plan to win you the game, it should be to improve your position on the board.

There are all sorts of types of advantage: 

Health Advantage:  Health is the least important resource to gain because you can’t often spend it - to put it simply, the only important point of health is the last one. However, if you have low health, your decisions are limited because certain plays can kill you, like attacking too aggressively.  You might have to throw creatures away to defend your health total because being reduced to 0 will, of course, kill you. 

Card Advantage: Count the number of cards you have on board and in hand.  These are all the tools that you have to use. If you have more tools, you have a wider variety of decisions available, and you also can put your opponent into a situation where they have NO tools first.  The quality of the cards matters too - more expensive, impactful cards can be meaningful the longer the game goes.

Board Advantage: Probably the most important, since most cards aren’t actually valuable until you play them.  A wide board (more units than your opponent) can swarm past blockers and deal damage that way, or take advantage of board-wide buffs like Rally or Xenan Obelisk.  A tall board (bigger units than your opponent) can block without losing units and make big attacks where blocking is very difficult.  Which one you need depends on what your plan is.

Power Advantage: Playing enough influence and power doesn’t help your board position, but it will allow you to cast larger, scarier cards if you’ve got them to play. The higher the power cost of the card, the more likely it is to have a serious impact on the game, sometimes bordering on outrageous finishers.  For example, most big Rakano decks try to establish 7 power (and 3 influence of both Fire and Justice) as fast as possible since they have a lot of ways to play Icaria, the Liberator. Larger power cost cards often have more impact on the board, so a deck that loses in other areas in order to cast the mountainous Aid of the Hooru might have a distinct idea of what to build.  

Advantage isn’t always cut and dried.  Going back one last time to poor Torchless Dennis: he takes turn 3 to play a second Rakano Outlaw, while his opponent plays Scheme, establishing nothing new on board.  Now his opponent still has Instigator, so defensively, he can block and kill a Rakano Outlaw on the attack, going up one card worth of advantage. However, if our opponent chooses to attack with Instigator, Dennis can block with BOTH Rakano Outlaws.  The Instigator, with its three strength, can only kill one of them, and it will take 4 damage in the process, trading Instigator for Outlaw and leaving Dennis with the board advantage.  A stalemate, and one that Dennis might be able to capitalize on!

So, hold on to that Torch. If you want more practice learning how to get board advantage, play some Gauntlet and watch the Eternal AI.  The AI is utterly without guile and only ever blocks or attacks when it is the optimal play based on what is on board and in its hand (although it doesn’t know, and will never try to guess, the contents of your hand, making it easily duped). It never throws a unit under the bus unless that unit would die otherwise, and for a semi-competent computer assigns blocks like a champion.  Once you understand how it treats combat, you can take that information and start applying it to the more complicated world of bluffs and tricks that human players bring to the table.