Hand Context and You: An Introduction to Fancy Plays

Hand context is a concept many players struggle with and is rarely discussed explicitly, even if the core concept is simple: The cards in your hand influence the game more than the cards in your deck.

A picture is worth a bunch of words right? Let’s jump right into a game.

Hoej and Kranich Duke It Out In A Malfurion Mirror


Hoej has done a good job at stemming Kranich’s aggression in the early game so he manages to be at a healthy life total in a bad matchup. That Blood Imp that was riding the Mounted Raptor seemed to be a total whiff. Unfortunately for Hoej his Swipe and Piloted Shredder mean that 9th healthpoint is very relevant.

Now, take a moment to put yourself in Hoej’s position. What’s your play and why? How are you going to try to win the game.

What's the play?

Who is the beatdown anyway?

Yes, Midrange Druid is out aggroing an Aggro Druid. This is something that good Midrange Druids do a often as they can. I’ve played against many druids who seem to think that because the deck runs large taunts and healing it’s more like Control Warrior than Midrange Hunter. Don’t let the huge butt of Ancient of War fool you, when you get an aggressive hand its often better to play aggresive. Can it play the long game well? Yes. Should it play the long game? Ehhh only if it really has to. The decision is usually taken out of your hands by the cards in your hand. You know that ‘you play the hand you are given’ cliche? Well, in Hearthstone its true. Get an aggressive hand, play aggro, get a defensive hand and take a slower approach.

The reason this is tricky is because aggressive hands and defensive hands can look very similar. If Hoej did not have Force of Nature in hand then trying to clear the Fel Reaver is more appealing. The correct play being aggressive or defensive can hinge on one card. This is the true value of hand context.

The poster child of this concept is Midrange Hunter. Just because Savannah Highmane is the best card in your deck doesn’t mean you should be playing as if you will draw it every game. Sometimes the deck curves out into say, coin Mad Scientist, Knife Juggler, Animal Companion, Quick Shot + a trap and the game is over. Your opponent is probably cussing out ‘that Face Hunter’ even if you run a full set of Houndmasters and Sludge Belchers. Other times you will draw enough Savannah Highmanes and Piloted Shredders to out value Control Warriors. A crucial part of playing this deck and any midrange or tempo deck, well is knowing the different roles your deck can assume.

Takeaway: Play the hand you are given. Every turn ask yourself if you have a better chance of winning by trying to win now or dragging the game out.

Enough theory for now.

Here is Purple Pondering His Best Play Against AKAWonder 


The high health of the Priest’s minions make this matchup rather awkward for the Patron Warrior, and here we can see why.  It should be noted that AKAWonder did not draw that Wyrmrest Agent off the Azure Drake.

What would you do in Purple’s shoes?

Click here when you know the play

The Value of 10 Damage

What is a Grommash Hellscream worth? Is he 10 damage to the face? A 4 damage removal spell? A way to prime an Execute? Big Game Hunter bait? A big minion? A minion to Battle Rage off? The looming threat of burst?  He is obviously all of the above in different proportions, but your hand will tell you what he is this game. Again we can see the role hand context plays into the play: if Purple did not have Battle Rage in the hand above it is a lot more likely that Death's Bite would have been played to get Acolyte of Pain draws the following turn.

This case is particularly interesting because Grommash Hellscream is a unique effect in the deck. People generally understand hand context better with cards that are more interchangeable. Sometimes Piloted Shredder is a good value minion, but it can also be a roadblock on your opponent’s next turn, a way to dissuade a certain 4 health 5 drop (*Cough*Azure Drake*Cough*) from being played, a Mirror Entity trigger, a hail mary play, Goblin Blastmage’s buddy and a million other things. With a card like  Grommash Hellscream that is used 90+% of the time as burst, it’s less clear when your hand context tells you to deviate from its most common mode.

Take away: Evaluate combo pieces as individual cards as well. Yes, even if you are holding the other combo piece.

Enough of that, let’s look at the next play.

Stancifka’s Control Warrior Against Ostakaka’s Aggro Druid

stancifka vs ostkaka1

For completeness’ sake, Ostaka has had 6 cards burned off from the previous Fel Reaver as you can see in the history.

Take a second to consider the play before spoiling it below.

Click me to see the magic

Aggro Control Warrior
For a deck that closes the game around turns 12-14, trying to win on turn 7 is an awfully aggressive line of play. That does not mean you should not jump at the chance when its your best shot at winning. Games that go longer give your opponent a chance to draw stupid hands like Force of Nature + Savage Roar + Innervate + Savage Roar. While absurdly specific hands like that are unlikely you should not be dragging out the game just because you are playing a ‘control’ deck.

Take away: Keep your eyes open for unusual avenues to victory.

Here are some examples:

If you can use a Freeze Mage’s Acolyte of Pain to burn a few cards off you might hit Alexstrasza, Archmage Antonidas or Pyroblast. Freeze Mage is a deck with about 50 total damage in it so if your deck has healing you can actually have more health than the total amount of damage left in the deck. The more Fireballs and Frostbolts you can force the Freeze Mage to use defensively the easier the task gets.

Oil Rogue is a deck that heavily relies on minions but actually runs a limited amount of them. In a slower game playing a deck with healing and repeatable damage like Patron Warrior, Priest or Midrange Druid its actually possible to kill every minion in their deck and just win by default.

These situations happen rarely and its even more rare that taking the weird win condition is better than your normal gameplan. It’s a trap to think that because you can try to win by abusing the Lorewalker Cho that popped out of the Piloted Shredder you should go for it. Being able to evaluate these strange situations on the fly is one of the things that separates the great players from the merely good ones.

Sign off

I hope you enjoyed my first article on Enter the Hearth! I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below. Comments on the content, site layout, the writing or anything else are more than welcome.

If you liked this article check out my other articles on the sidebar.

5 thoughts on “Hand Context and You: An Introduction to Fancy Plays

    1. I’ll second that comment, great job! Analyzing plenty of concrete in-game examples is what most articles lack. Hoping for more exactly like this one 🙂

  1. Great job! I learned quite a bit from this article. One minor tip for future articles: Please link a VOD so we can see how the games play out (I’m really curious).

  2. Amazing article, very very good and nice examples. I’m from Spain, so sorry for my english, but I enjoyed this article and I learnt from it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *