The second installment of this series focusing on the importance of personal improvement and competitive psychology (you can find the first part here) will look at why you (yes, you!) are the most important variable of the gameplay experience and how understanding this can permanently change your competitive outlook for the better.
“Why do they always have it?” – if I got a penny for every time I heard someone exclaim this over a turn two Wild Growth or an on-curve Aluneth, I’d have a complete golden collection in Hearthstone. It is the quintessential example of the difference in perspective that separates a successful player from a struggling one. Looking at it logically, the notion that your opponents consistently get better draws than you over the long run is a laughable one – it’s not how the game or basic probability works. So what else could factor into that phenomenon? Your opponents could very well have a better understanding of what cards to look for in the mulligan than you do. In my case, Aluneth was a very good example of that: I wasn’t very experienced with Tempo Mage and was astounded by how often my opponents managed to find the weapon by turn six.
As it turns out, I wasn’t aware of the fact that the card is strong enough to be kept in your opening hand, even though it’s the single most expensive one in that particular deck – I kept trying to find a cheap minion in its place, exasperated that I hardly got it back by the time I really would have liked to play it. Once I realized that it’s well-worth keeping (or even hard-mulliganing for in certain matchups), I’ve started doing a lot better in the deck and the discrepancy between my on-curve Aluneths and my opponents’ essentially disappeared. The game didn’t change – my decisions did.
We’ve already touched on this matter in the introductory article of the Hearthstone Psychology series, but experiences like playing a game are fundamentally about injecting yourself into a pre-existing system and trying to maximize your own performance inside it. 99.99% of us will never get into a position where we get to change the design or the rules of Hearthstone, meaning it’s very counterproductive from a player standpoint to complain about it. (Of course, very different rules apply to prominent community members and notable professionals, but that’s again something that won’t affect most of us.) Treat Hearthstone as its own distinct entity and try to do your best in the environment that is presented to you. Once you understand that you are the only variable you have actual control over in the game, you’ll take a massive step towards reaching your goals.
This is also why reviewing your own games is such an effective learning tool. You’d think that playing another one and facing the same sort of decisions would grant you the same or even more experience than exercises like this, but you’d be surprised how many of your own mistakes you’ll spot after the fact once you’ve removed yourself from the game. Everyone tunnel-visions on certain options and the competitive environment always takes a toll on your capabilities, even when it’s just a ladder game. Have you noticed how you easily spot plays on someone’s stream that you would otherwise miss out on? It’s perfectly normal, and it isn't exclusive to Hearthstone psychology. In fact, reviewing your own games is one of the fastest ways to learn and improve as it gives you a very direct snapshot of your blind spots. Spending some time with your earlier matches instead of playing two or three extra ones can help you a lot in the long run.
Focusing on your personal play also helps you avoid one of the largest pitfalls inexperienced players tend to encounter. Many shoot themselves in the foot by thinking about the metagame in the wrong way. While it is true that it is an ever-shifting component of the ladder experience, it’s almost never a good idea to try and “beat” or “break” it in a bid to increase your winrate. You’re going up against the entire ladder at the same time, facing the collective wisdom of all netdeckers: even if you can find a few extra percentage points with the perfect archetype choice, you can easily make up for it with good decision-making with the ones you’re familiar with, especially on the lower ranks. Cracking the code is a much more viable option when you’re facing a narrower field, either in a tournament setting or very high up on the ladder. Otherwise, straying away from the conventional wisdom is likely to hurt more than help. Good decks are considered good for a reason.
While we’re at it, your personal preferences also don’t matter in this regard: if your goal is to improve at the game and win more often, it’s completely self-defeating to shun strong decks just because you don’t like playing them. It would be impossible to go through this series without name-checking David Sirlin, whose excellent Playing to Win book has been one of the cornerstones of my research (and I highly recommend it to all of you as it’s available online for free): as he put it, don’t be a scrub. The game isn’t played by imaginary extra rules of “fairness” that only exist in your head. If a powerful tool is available to everyone, you’re simply giving up percentage points by not playing it. If it really is “too good”, the developers will take care of it at some point. We’ll look into player personalities in the next installment of the series in more detail, but let’s just emphasize that no professional player makes line-up choices based on moral imperatives: they go with the decks they consider to be the best against the field.
Trying out that strong deck you dislike can also improve your strategy against it: for instance, I never realized how bad my strategy was against Quest Rogue with aggressive decks until I played the matchup from the other side. I respected their playstyle too much and overtraded all the time so they couldn’t return their cheap minions to their hand, missing out on a lot of face damage in the process. Of course, as experienced Quest Rogue players will testify, you’ll bounce the minion yourself if you want to complete the quest with it in the future, and nothing makes you happier than the extra time your opponent gives you by making unnecessary trades. It would have taken me a very long time to figure this out just by playing against the deck – but it became fairly obvious early on that the best way to beat Quest Rogue is really to maximize the pressure and deal as much face damage as possible, at least in the standard scenarios. Again, this discovery was all about me overcoming my personal biases and not the wisdom of a deck guide.
Now that we’ve established how important you are when it comes to your Hearthstone experience, the next step is to try and get a better understanding of you as an individual and competitor. This may sound very esoteric, but there are a surprising amount of specifics we can efigure out even without forking out for a therapist – and the lessons learned from such an exercise can prove to be very useful far beyond the Hearthstone ladder. This is what we’ll be looking at in the next episode of this series, so stay tuned for that. Until then, may you mulligan into a Wild Growth every time you play as a Druid!
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