Elements of Strategy – Evaluating Cards
(aka Why Ariannwyn loves Demolisher)
by Bryan “Kraska” Castro
A key skill in Hearthstone is the ability to determine the value of cards. Understanding which cards are good and which cards are not so good will help you select the right ones for your decks. Similarly, as you play Hearthstone, being able to evaluate cards will help you make quality trades and other gameplay decisions. In this article, we will discuss how to evaluate cards so you can improve your deckbuilding and gameplay skills. You can read the first 2 articles here: The Casual Competitor #1 & The Casual Competitor #2.
One of the primary truths of Hearthstone as well as any collectible card game is that you have a limited deck size. Therefore, you cannot always put all of the cards you want into a deck. Therefore, being able to select the right cards that give you the most value over the many games you play is just as essential as being able to make the correct decisions when you are playing. As more cards come out, being able to assess its value will become an even more valuable skill, and will set players apart over time.
The Vanilla Test
The value of a card is determined by what you get in terms of stats and abilities compared to what you pay for it in mana. We will discuss how the value of a card changes due to specific synergies in a deck or due to the current meta one may be facing, but let’s start with the basics – the Vanilla Test.
The Vanilla Test is basically a way to measure whether or not the stats of a card are worth the mana invested. The basic formula for the Vanilla Test is (Mana Cost) x 2 = (Attack Value) + (Health Value) – 1. Simply put, Your stats should equal twice the mana cost plus one.
The classic example for a Vanilla minion is the Chillwind Yeti. It has an attack of 4, health of 5, and costs 4 mana. So 4 (mana cost) x 2 = 8 = 4 (attack) + 5 (health) – 1. The Chillwind Yeti passes the Vanilla Test.
Before considering the cards text if it has any, we also need to consider the distribution of the stats on the card. In general, stats where attack and health are nearly equal are better than stats where one is much greater than the other. For example, consider Druid of the Flame – a Druid card that can either take the form of a 5/2 or a 2/5. Although it passes the Vanilla Test (3 x 2 = 6 = 2 + 5 – 1), it is slightly less desired than a 3/4 or a 4/3 minion. Partly this is because as a 5/2, Druid of the Flame can be traded very efficiently by a lot of 2-cost minions, many of which either have 3/2 or 2/3 stats. For this reason, the 2/5 form is often preferable to the 5/2 form, but in both forms, the stats are sub-optimal.
When minions do not pass the Vanilla Test, we need to assess whether the minion’s abilities are worth the loss in stats. We will consider this next, and perhaps finally understand why Legend of the Innkeeper co-host Ariannwyn loves the Demolisher.
Beyond the Vanilla Test
There are many minion cards that do not pass the Vanilla Test. However, their impact or potential are so great that they still provide excellent value for their mana cost. We’re going to explore a few examples of this and how we can evaluate these cards. I often delineate cards that have immediate impact – providing value right away – and cards that have potential with the ability to provide great value in the future.
To understand the concept of impact, look no further than Ragnaros the Firelord. Ragnaros is an 8/8 for 8 mana, so he’s short 1 stat point. However, his ability reads “Can’t attack. At the end of your turn, deal 8 damage to a random enemy.” This means that after you hit the End Turn button Rag is going to hit something for 8 damage. If it’s your opponent’s face, that’s nearly a third of his life total. If it’s a minion, it’s most likely going to die. Considering that you’re already getting an 8/8 body on the board – albeit without the ability to attack – you can see that you’re getting a lot of value right from the turn you drop him on the board. Rag’s impact can be felt immediately and can’t be prevented the turn it is played.
So in general, when you are assessing a card that has an immediate impact, you want to analyze whether or not its ability or benefit is worth the loss in statistics for that mana cost. Otherwise, it would be better to just play a card with upgraded stats.
Some cards provide value right away because of their immediate impact – like Ragnaros – while other cards provide value over time. I consider this the potential for the card, and to understand whether or not this is a good card requires you to determine the “breakeven” point for that card.
The breakeven point for a card with potential value is how much you need that card’s abilities to trigger for you to make up for the otherwise inferior stats. Let’s take a look at an example of this.
Let’s consider one of the cards beloved by our favorite podcast co-host Ariannwyn. The Demolisher is underpowered stat-wise by 2 stat points. However, it’s ability to deal 2 damage to a random enemy at the start of a turn makes this a minion with potential value. Essentially, the Demolisher has the potential to do 3 damage on that turn (2 from its ability, and 1 from the minion), which would be the same as as 3/4 minion like the Spider Tank. The comparison can get more complex – for example, Demolisher gains value because it doesn’t have to attack to do damage to minions (and thus avoids taking damage) but loses value when it trades with another minion (since it only does one damage to the minion that attacked it). However, for this illustration, let’s say that we need the ability to trigger once to break even over playing a vanilla stats minion (like Spider Tank).
The idea is that once you’ve figured out what needs to be done to break even – to provide value to make up for the insufficient stats – you can determine whether or not you can make that happen to make the card worth it. This is done by how you build your deck and the strategy and tactics you plan to use during your games.
Ariannwyn plays a Mech Shaman deck which has two aspects that help her obtain good value out of Demolisher. First, she often plays Demolisher after she plays Annoy-o-Tron, which protects it from being traded by minions. Second, she uses her Power Mace to enhance it with a +2/+2 buff to make it a 3/6 monster! So whether or not you like Demolisher, you can see how she uses her deckbuilding and gameplay tactics to gain value from this minion.
Now we’ve discussed the Vanilla Test, and how the impact and the potential of a minion can help make up for minions that fail the Vanilla Test. Now it’s your turn to take a look at a card and try to apply these concepts.
Consider the Cult Master. Assess its value and what types of decks and cards would synergize with it. Also, what would be the breakeven point for this card? Take a minute to think about it before you read on!
My View: First, we see that it is 3 stat points off the vanilla test. Also, the card itself does not have an immediate impact without you doing something else to trigger its ability, so we are assessing the potential value of the card. So the question for us is how many cards do we need to draw to break even? Well, to help with this I consider the spell Arcane Intellect which allows you to draw 2 cards for 3 mana – or about 1 card for 1.5 mana. We know that 1.5 mana would equal about 3 or 4 stat points approximately from the vanilla test. With that in mind, we really only need to draw 1 card to break even (although I think a more ambitious goal of at least 2 cards is great before you think of adding this to your deck).
Because this minion’s ability triggers when your other minions die, it synergizes well with decks where minions die often! So this would include decks like midrange hunter, which have Unleash the Hounds which can provide instant value as you can create several 1/1 hounds to draw cards. Another card that works well with this card is the Paladin spell Muster for Battle – which can give you several draws when you drop Cult Master before you start trading. It is less synergistic with Control decks because typically those decks will have fewer – albeit larger – minions on the board to trade.
Overall, I consider Cult Master to be a great card in certain decks because you can often draw at least one card while often drawing two or three before you opponent removes him. As you can see, evaluating cards must often be done within the dynamics of specific decks.
Before I finished this discussion, I wanted to speak briefly about the importance of playtesting your card choices. Theorycrafting – or the process of theorizing about cards and decks – is important for coming up with the ideas for your decks, but you need to test your ideas in actual games to see if they actually stand up to the scrutiny of an uncooperative opponent. There are some cards out there that look great “on paper” but are found to underperform when actually played. Does it mean these cards are horrible? Maybe, but perhaps they just need a few other cards or better tactics to make them work. In either case, you won’t know until you test it out in your games.
I hope I’ve provided some clear guidance on how to evaluate minion cards for inclusion in your decks. Start with the Vanilla Test to determine whether a minion’s stats are sufficient for its mana cast. If not, then look to see if it’s abilities have impact or potential value that makes up for the stat shortage. Finally, you always want to assess the cards within the context of the decks and cards that will be played with it. If you do these things, you will be able to easily assess cards both within your current collection and as new cards come out with future Hearthstone expansions. Until next week, good luck and have fun!
Here are few things to think about to better apply the concepts discussed today:
- Look at your current decks. Are there cards at specific mana slots that would perform better for you?
- Look at your cards that gain value through immediate impact – are they worth the cost? Are there specific decks that would synergize with them?
- Look at your cards that have great potential value. What is their breakeven point? Can you find or create card synergies and tactics to reach or exceed the breakeven point?
Last Week’s Puzzle Solution
Here is the solution to last week’s puzzle.
We are facing lethal damage ourself, so we need to win on this turn. Luckily there is a way:
- Darkbomb your opponent’s face (sorry Jaraxxus)
- Silence your Ragnaros with Ironbeak Owl.
- Attack your opponent’s face with Ragnaros for the victory!
Hearthstone Puzzle #3
Try out this week’s puzzle. As before, you’re looking the lethal solution. Enjoy!