Lesson 1: The Learning Mindset
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Richard Feynman
My name is J_Alexander, and this is a guide for everyone who plays Hearthstone. From the novice through to the expert, many of the same principles will help us continuously improve in the game and have a better time playing. So long as you have things you’re trying to achieve in the game - whatever they are, from memeing to competing - getting better at the game will help you achieve what you set out to do more regularly.
I want to begin these lessons with a more general, overarching point: we are all humans. Inside our heads are very human brains, evolved over our history as a species for solving a great many problems. Most of the problems you will face when playing Hearthstone are not those same ones. Because we did not evolve to solve these particular problems, our brains will be doing the best job they can with the tools we have available, but the fit will often be tenuous. You can think of it as trying to open a can when you have no can opener. While you can probably find ways to get the job done with what tools you do have (bust it open with a rock, chop it open with a knife, or something similar), these solutions will probably not be as easy or clean as they could be if we had the right tool for the job.
Because of this mismatch between task and brain, we are going to attribute power to under-performing cards that doesn’t exist, just as we will fail to recognize the strength of others and overlook viable options entirely. You will go on a ten game winning streak with a deck and come to think it’s better than it is, just as you will go on a ten game losing streak with another deck - or perhaps even the same one - and come to believe it is weaker than it is. You will experience tilt and play poorly without knowing it. You will reactively change your decks to deal with problems in your immediate past and make your long-term win rate worse.
Our brains simply aren’t well-suited for understanding the variance in a game like Hearthstone. While 50 games might seem like a lot when you’re playing them, they’re a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to understanding the full potential of a deck and its standing in the game, let alone understanding which specific cards of the 30 are doing well or poorly.
We are apes using mismatched cognitive tools to do the best of a bad job. We are going to mess it up. It’s not a matter of “if” we will; it’s simply a matter of “how much” and “how often”. This is true of novice players and pros alike. Even the best players make mistakes regularly.
I tell you this because the first step in improving and learning - no matter your current level of performance - is truly believing you always have things to learn and are capable of making mistakes, and believing this on a deep, internal level. If you think you have things already figured out, your motivation to learn and find better ways of playing will decay. After all, if we think we have the correct answer, why would we keep looking for a different one? It would be a waste of our time and energy.
Figuring out what we need to learn and improve on is no easy task. This difficulty will largely arise because we’re usually blind to the mistakes we are making. In Hearthstone, the ability to recognize correct performance will usually correspond to the ability to produce it. When we make a mistake and cannot recognize it as one, we are liable to make the same mistake again. Part of the problems we will face, then, is the matter of knowing what we need to learn. Ironically, we need to know what to learn before we can learn it. There are countless numbers of possible things you might learn: many are irrelevant and many more are wrong. If you can cut the possible number of learning opportunities down into the most useful ones, you will come to improve far quicker than if you needed to sort through them all yourself via trial and error.
Making matters more complicated is that your own brain will fight you when it comes to self-improvement at times. Admitting fault is generally difficult, as it can be embarrassing, lowering our standing in the eyes of others and changing how they respond to our needs. For example, the person who has their car wrecked because a tree fell on it gets more sympathy and help than the person who wrecked their car because they were driving recklessly. Our brains will thus tend to provide plausible-sounding excuses for our failings - like, “I did the correct play but lost anyway because of something beyond my control” - in order to help maintain our status in the face of adversity. We will try to argue in favor of things we wish were true, instead of things that actually are. In short, part of our brains will fight against self-improvement in the interests of helping us convince others things weren’t our fault. Unfortunately, making excuses, instinctual as it might be, can interfere with our ability to get it right next time.
If that sounds like weird behavior that you don’t think you do, remember that our brains have a number of tools that evolved to solve problems completely unrelated to Hearthstone. They tend to operate rather automatically and autonomously. When we face problems in the game (like a loss), our minds will try and fit the tools it has to the problem, even when they’re not completely appropriate, or detract from other goals we’d like to accomplish (like convincing others you were not at fault).
Because our brains will often not spot their own mistakes and justify their failures instead of learning from them, this means you need to be able to step outside of your own experience and beliefs to find correct (or at least better) conclusions a lot of the time. You will need to play matches from both sides of the table to understand them more fully. You will need to watch others play the game and draw on insights from the data acquired from your fellow players. You will need this because your sense of the game will be wrong, you will trick yourself, your experiences will be too limited, your perspective too biased, and your brain not as statistically savvy as you need it to be. You will need to learn what to learn and how to learn it. These problems are too big to solve on our own, and the chances you reach a good solution without outside assistance are exceptionally low. We need each other to get better.
Of course, it’s not as easy as just going to watch others and learn from them (because why would it be?). After all, they’re also apes trying to open their metaphorical cans with their limited set of tools. Just like you will get things wrong, so will they. As such, it’s worth mentioning that there are times you will put too much stock in the opinions or experiences of others, most typically those who are better at the game than you. You will see a high-performing player make a claim and come to believe they know something you don’t (they may or may not) and also to believe they’re correct (when they may not be) because they win more games than others.
Now this is all probably sounding a bit daunting at this point, perhaps making some players want to tap out. No doubt some of you are reading all this and thinking, “I don’t know why I should care, since I only play the game for fun and don’t care about maximizing my win rate.” You don’t necessarily want to turn your video game into your video job. However, I think the exact opposite is true: if you adopt a learning mindset and seek to improve your understanding of the game, you will actually come to enjoy your time playing more. You will find there are all manner of nuances to the game you never noticed before, and come to appreciate them in ways you wouldn’t have imagined.
So while it’s true enough that not every player has the same goals when it comes to their gaming experiences, the lessons here apply to players of all types, so long as you have goals you seek to achieve.
Let’s say your goal is to channel your inner hipster and play some lists you made yourself. You saw a combo you think is powerful or funny and want to win using it. Perhaps you think the artwork for a certain card is awesome and you want to play with it so you can stare at it and feel cool. You want to show off some unique facet of your personality or interests through your in-game choices.
If these are your goals, you’ll find yourself enjoying the game a bit less if you never get to use the cards you put in your deck. If your combo isn’t able to be played because you keep losing before it’s possible, I suspect you’ll end up having less fun than if you made it your big payoff. Well, by improving at the game and understanding important concepts related to its play more deeply, you will more often reach that game state you’re after. The better you are at understanding the game, the more freedom you have to play it on your own terms.
These points will even apply to the more casual gamers out there who are just playing for fun in their downtime or to combat some boredom. It’s a fairly-regular occurrence to see a novice player get frustrated with the game and abandon it altogether because they don’t adopt a learning mindset. Perhaps it’s one particular game they lose, or perhaps it’s the mounting frustration of losing many, but they begin to blame the game for their frustration, rather than their own lack of understanding. They are making mistakes which are costing them wins and, in turn, enjoyment, but rather than learning and improving they begin justifying their losses in ways that make them feel blameless.
It wasn’t their own poor choices that are responsible for their frustration, you see; it’s the game that sucks. And what do you do with games that suck? You just stop playing them. You stop caring about improving and learning. These players are letting