How to win at Hearthstone by playing dirty: 5 deceptive tactics inspired by online poker 38

As a veteran of online poker, with over a million dollars in profit, I’ve learned that in turn-based online games, there’s a great amount of value in concealing information and deceiving your opponent. Poker players need not look far to find lengthy articles on how to profit from timing tells and deceive opponents through timings.

Such tactics really shine in Hearthstone because there are an incredible number of interesting ways to abuse Hearthstone’s user interface to hide information, cause confusion, and lure your opponents into making sub-optimal plays. Whether or not you decide to use these tactics, I hope you’ll find them interesting.

Before we begin, a couple of disclaimers:

Disclaimer 1: These tactics will irritate your opponents. These tactics are controversial. Many of them involve completely unnecessary stalling. People will think you’re an asshole if you employ them. Using them on your friends (assuming you want to keep them) is not recommended.

Disclaimer 2: These tactics aren’t for everyday laddering. They’re not gonna help you climb fast from rank 20 to rank 10. They’re not gonna help you grind faster to earn gold and unlock heroes. These tricks are for tournament matches and legend-level ladder games that you really want to win.

Disclaimer 3: These tactics are not for everyone. These tips are for the soulless masochists among us—those willing to sacrifice our integrity to squeeze out every last advantage possible in every match. They’re not fun. They may waste your time, and may encourage your opponents to grief you. But if you crave every possible edge you can possibly get, these tips are for you!

  With that out of the way, let’s get straight to it.

1) Never mulligan until your opponent does, waiting until the last second if necessary

In fact, don’t even touch your cards until your opponent has already replaced his or her opening hand, or there’s one second or less remaining on the clock.

Why do this? The answer can be explained in two words: concealing information. Let’s have an example:

1 murloc mulligan

Seriously? Murlocs? People still play that deck?

In the above example, I am already in great shape, having essentially lucked into a god-draw running my degenerate murloc zoo deck (don’t judge me!) If I instantly keep all the cards in my hand, my shaman opponent will likely assume that I have a really strong zoo hand, and their response will likely be to mulligan extremely aggressively for a hand with a ton of early removal (Earth Shock, Lightning Storm, Rockbiter Weapon, Lightning Bolt, etc.) in hopes of beating it.

I don’t want my opponent to do that.

If I contain my excitement and wait until my opponent mulligans first, or wait until it’s too late for them to see how many cards I want to keep, they’ll be much more likely to keep an average hand with a good curve—likely, a hand that’s completely dead to this draw.

In general, a competent opponent plays very differently if you keep your whole initial hand instead of tossing it, so never reveal that information until it’s too late for your opponent to change their mind. Unfortunately, if your opponent employs the same strategy, you’ll both be waiting for the mulligan clock to hit zero every game.

I never said that this was going to be fun!

2) Take extra time in situations where the only legal action is to end your turn

If the last tip didn’t convince you that maximizing your chances in Hearthstone requires a masochistic tendency, this one surely will. Let’s jump straight to the example:

A warlock zoo mirror match. Here, I don’t have Soulfire in my hand. But I’m going to sit here for 60 seconds anyway.

This is one of those situations where, if I had Soulfire, I’d have a difficult decision to make. Are either of my opponent’s minions worth my Soulfire? With Soulfire in hand, many players tend to sit here for a few moments, thinking about whether it’s worthwhile to play it. Players who ultimately choose not to play Soulfire often leak information to their opponent (because of their hesitation to end their turn). Opponents, aware that we must have been thinking about something while sitting there with zero mana available, inevitably infer that we must have Soulfire in hand.

Here’s the trick: we can hijack our opponent’s tendency to make this inference even when we don’t have Soulfire by sitting here for a moment to bluff. Essentially, we pretend we’re a player who had Soulfire in hand, but decided not to use it. Our opponent, fearing us having a Soulfire, might deliberately avoid some very strong plays—such as coining out a Dark Iron Dwarf—and instead opt for a more conservative play that is more likely to lead to a victory for us.

This tactic is far less useful in places where it’s completely obvious that Soulfire should be used, but a small fraction of our opponents might just assume we’re bad players and believe us anyway, so it doesn’t hurt to try. The worst that can happen is our opponent getting angry.

4 obvious no soulfire

Pro tip: You can always squelch your opponent if you don’t want to hear complaints.

Another common example occurs when playing Druid, when you spend all of your mana to draw 2 cards using an Ancient of Lore on turn 7. By waiting a long time before ending our turn, we can fake having drawn an Innervate.

5 bluffing innervate

I wonder… should I Innervate + Hero Power here? Or perhaps Innervate + Wrath? Oops, I don’t have an Innervate. But you don’t know that.

Yet again, by waiting a long time and pretending we have a tough decision to make, we can mislead our opponent into erroneously believing that we have a specific card in our hand—this time, Innervate. On average, this will cause our opponent to make weaker plays, as they may play around threats that don’t exist.

3) Take a long time when playing Tracking, to disguise the quality of your find

This is effectively the Hearthstone version of a really irritating poker tactic known as “hollywooding”. As a professional poker player, I’ve seen this quite often, especially when playing live. Allow me to take a quick detour to explain the trick (if poker bores you, skip ahead to the Hearthstone example below):

Poker Hand

Here, there are only two options: [go all-in], or [wait 30 seconds, then go all-in]. The latter is a better option.

Here, the player acoimbra has the best possible hand in no-limit texas hold-em poker: a pair of aces. It’s definitely correct to go all-in with this hand. In fact, acoimbra likely wants other players to also go all-in as well, to maximize the amount he wins on average. But if he goes all-in immediately, his opponents will know that his hand is strong, and they will be more likely to fold. If acoimbra spends a minute sitting idle before going all-in, his opponents will likely assume that he has a more marginal hand, and will hence be more likely to go all-in themselves with cards that are disfavoured against acoimbra’s pair of aces. By hollywooding—acting like he has a tough decision when he has an easy one—acoimbra can mislead his opponents, much to his own profit.

Hollywooding is frowned upon because it wastes time, but many professional poker players employ it, as it can yield a substantial return on investment. As it turns out, the same trick can be useful in Hearthstone:

6 tracking timing part 2

When playing against zoo, Tracking should really just read “If Unleash the Hounds is in the top three cards of your deck, draw Unleash the Hounds”

Many Hearthstone players would instantly select Unleash the Hounds here, as it’s clearly the best pick. But we can hollywood here, taking a longer time to make our Tracking decision in order to convince our opponent that we failed to draw Unleash. This may encourage our opponent to commit more minions to board, giving us a better chance of a massive Unleash play next turn.

4) Think for a long time before playing Secrets… most of the time

This situation actually comes up quite often if you play Hunter.

7 trap timing

Explosive Trap is clearly the best play here. But I’m going to wait a minute before playing it. Because FUCK YOU ZOO.

Here, it’s almost certainly optimal to lay down the Explosive Trap, even if we have a Freezing Trap or Misdirection in hand. In fact, it’s rare that we ever encounter a better option than Explosive Trap here. However, if we take a long time to play our Explosive Trap, the probability of our opponent attacking into it increases dramatically.

There’s actually a situation where it’s optimal to play an Explosive Trap as fast as possible—when we do so as a bluff:

8 grommash

Time for a desperation play!

In the situation depicted above, the Explosive Trap would enrage my opponent’s Grommash, causing it to instantly kill me if my opponent attacked. But I played it with no hesitation. My opponent, believing it to be a Freezing Trap or Misdirection, chickened out of going for the kill (with Cruel Taskmaster or Whirlwind) for a couple of turns. This gave me time to topdeck the second Kill Command for the win!

5) Use buff cards to fake having removal spells

Admittedly, this is pretty stupid. But it can still be useful sometimes, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s a cool trick:

9 fake targets part 1

I’m not actually going to play the Abusive Sergeant here; I’m just holding my cursor over my opponent’s minion.


9 fake targets part 2

This is what my opponent sees.

The vast majority of players will assume that I have Soulfire if I do this, so it can be used as yet another tactic to mislead my opponents and confuse them about the contents of my hand.

Of course, some good players will see through these tricks. If you become a widely recognized player and become known for employing these tactics, people may start to predict them. In such cases, you may need to bluff less often. Of course, one option, which guarantees that you leak the least amount of information possible, is just to take the maximum amount of time for every turn, no matter what.

Should you actually do this?

There’s a very reasonable argument against putting these tricks to use: the time required to execute them isn’t not worth the edge they give you. This is certainly true if you want to rank up as fast as possible on the ladder. Often, playing faster and making a slightly suboptimal play is better. But if you want to squeeze out every bit of value in a specific game, these tricks are mandatory.

But these tricks don’t even really help…

Each small advantage contributes to your overall win rate. I learned that from poker. Between doing deep analysis of critical situations, collecting statistics, and making detailed notes on commonly encountered opponents, there is nothing that people aren’t willing to do to gain an edge when money is on the line. And in the long run, small edges really do add up. The most important strategy I’ve employed in profiting over a million dollars over the years, was simply caring a lot about all the little things, both to maximize my winnings from weaker players, and to prevent more experienced players from exploiting any timing tells I might have.

If you truly want to maximize your win rate, you should relentlessly optimize your play, exploiting every edge you can find.

Bonus: How to disrupt an opponent trying to track your cards

OK, time for some serious strategy talk. Hearthstone is unique as an online CCG in that you can see your opponent’s mouse movements and timings as if you were playing in real life. This presents a very interesting opportunity in that you can, if you choose, keep track of exactly when your opponent drew and played each card. And you should, as it can lead to lots of really useful advantages (there even exists software that does this automatically). Many articles have been written concerning ways to make use of the information revealed by the order of the cards in your opponent’s hand. What I’m going to describe next is the opposite: a tip that can reduce the advantage an opponent can obtain from doing this.

Here’s a basic question that matters more than you think:

If you have two copies of the same card in your hand, should you play the one on the left, or the one on the right?

Assuming that your opponent has no specific knowledge about either of the cards (e.g. they weren’t placed into your hand as a result of your opponent’s Sap or Freezing Trap, for example), there’s a general rule of thumb that you should follow: play the one on the left.

Why? Because it reveals less information.

Your opponent has been recording information on the leftmost card for longer. They have seen more situations in which you have chosen not to play it. Consequently, they will have a better idea of what it is, and they’ll be more likely to predict what it is if you still have it in your hand next turn. Play it now. The copy you just drew? Your opponent has no idea what it is. Hang on to it.

The following key insight can make these types of decisions more clear:

Epiphany: Whenever you make a play that is not the best possible play that your deck is capable of making, you leak information about the cards that remain in your current hand.

Of course, it isn’t always correct to play the leftmost copy if you have two of the same card, especially if your opponent knows that you’re doing this (in which case, they’ll know you never have a second copy of any card you topdeck and immediately play). Moreover, you’ll sometimes be able to mislead your opponent by playing the other copy. However, against an observant opponent who doesn’t know your playstyle, you’ll leak less information about the contents of your hand if you always play the one on the left. So it’s not a bad habit to get into.

One final question…

joke at end

If you look closely at the play history, it’s clear that this game was not fabricated in any way…

Q: If you have two copies of Fireball and only one of them is necessary to win the game, which copy should you play?

A: It should be clear, depending on what your goal is. If you want your opponents to think that you out-smarted them, play the one you’ve been holding for most of the game. If you want your opponents to think that you out-lucked them, play the one you just topdecked. And if you just want to irritate them, play

About Will Ma

Will Ma strives to try vastly different things in life. During the four years of his undergrad, he profited over a million dollars in online poker, appeared everywhere in school music ensembles, and ran a marathon...while being a housing don. He quit his PhD at MIT to found Lunarch Studios, and explore his childhood dream of deterministic Magic the Gathering. Nowadays Will dreams about beautiful game scenarios in Prismata that allow for endless strategic transitions.