Hey Hearthstone forum! The one person who reads the credits at the bottom of our articles already knows this but I am one of the editors who helps behind the scenes here. When we -- the Hearthstone team -- write our guides and articles we do so assuming that many people are new to the online card game genre. That said, it is not possible to define every term in the context of each article: this post will hopefully clear up some commonly used terms you may encounter.
Below you will find a list of terms from other TCGs (trading card games) that have been around for awhile and that you may bump into while reading posts here. The first two sections -- Deck Archetypes and General Terms -- are fairly self explanatory. The final section on more advanced concepts is more focus on explaining the ideas that have been around for awhile but don’t fit into the other two groups. Where General Terms mostly pertains to the cards themselves, Advanced Concepts concerns itself more with how the game is actually played.
Disclaimer: I've played Magic: the Gathering for basically ever. Most terms were defined by this game so there may be some allusions: though we will hopefully make them clear.
- Aggro: The deck that seeks to take initiative and close out the game. This archetype is obviously well established and pretty straight forward. One distinction we have to make, however, is that Aggro does not always mean fast or swarm style. "Stompy" or "Big Aggro" are slower decks that still fit into this category: their goal is to set up in the early game and then play bigger than average threats through the rest of the game. Chillwind Yeti is a good example of a “Big Aggro” type of card because he will usually be the biggest body on turn 4.
- Control: Another well established deck already in Hearthstone. The control deck plans to survive and win out with a smaller number of more powerful threats in the late game. You are a Control Deck if you only play Ragnaros/Ysera/Lord Jaraxxus as win conditions and the rest of your game is just surviving until one of these big threats can win the game for you. In the beginning of Hearthstone there was a bit of confusion surrounding this archetype as it was often confused with the next category.
- Midrange: Many of the decks which get classified as "Control Decks" are actually Midrange. To be fair, the line is not hard and fast; however, there are still some distinctions to be drawn. A midrange deck is characterized by trying to gain incremental value on every play: a prime example would be Argent Commander or the buffing creatures. If your deck is built to play solidly throughout the game and bury your opponent in incremental advantage, you have a Midrange deck. The defining aspect of a Midrange deck is that it has to play Control vs. Aggro and Aggro vs. Control if it wants to be successful.
** Aside: Some of the confusion between Control and Midrange is that the midrange deck will often try to “control” the board with bigger creatures/better value spells. This will be elaborated later, but just because you are playing a controlling role in one game does not make you a Control Deck.
- Combo: This is the hardest category to build because true combos are hard to find as game designers usually kill them before the game launches. Hunter OTK is the best known Combo Deck we have had to date. Hunter OTK is the less frustrating of the two true Combo branches: interactive and non-interactive. Non-interactive combo is something I would be surprised to ever see in Hearthstone but -- in the interest of fully covering the topic -- it would be described as "do x+y+z and you win the game." It may seem like Hunter OTK is like this, but since your opponent does actually have ways to stop you if they set up for your big turn, it is still an interactive combo: Taunts or Ice Block for example usually prevent this combo from winning outright.
** Another aside: Based on how Hearthstone is designed -- with no real to act on your opponent’s turn -- I don't think any broken/non-interactive combo will make it past R&D. They exist in some Magic formats but only because the combo player has to determine when it's safe to make their play because their opponent may always have counterspells etc.
- Aggro-control: This is an archetype more possible in Hearthstone than Magic because of how combat interactions work. An Aggro-control deck will revolve around smaller threats but locking your opponent out quickly. These decks will be slower than pure aggro, but will have more game against a wider variety of decks. I can see weapon based classes fitting this role most easily: they can attack with creatures and control the board with their weapons. Most of the decks being classified as “Board Control” are variations on the Aggro-control theme: their goal is to control the board and lock out the opponent while getting progressively better trades.
- Tempo: Tempo is one of the hardest archetypes to build. Tempo is a non-conventional archetype in that it mostly does away with Card Advantage. The goal of Tempo is to get one or two fast threats out -- Mana Wyrm being the perfect example -- and then prevent your opponent stopping it for the rest of the game. Tempo cards are often things like Freezing Trap or Frost Nova, these cards will never gain Card Advantage, but if you only need to buy your Mana Wyrm an extra turn or two then it’s fine. The ideal form of a Tempo Deck would be composed of creatures Mana Wyrm/Faerie Dragon/King Mukla and then be filled with spells like Sap/Counterspell/Conceal/or Frost Nova.
- Board Wipes: Cards like Flamestrike or Holy Nova that deal damage to multiple targets. Many Hearthstone discussions use the term AOE which -- while not inherently wrong -- does not apply to TCGs as well as it does to Starcraft because the "area" concept is a bit weird. One could make a case for calling Cone of Cold or Explosive Shot AOE, but they are better described as having splash damage or being “multitarget removal”.
- Bounce: The term for "return a creature to its owner’s hand". This is very common in Tempo decks but do note, this is Card Disadvantage. Bouncing is far worse than killing a creature because they get to keep their card: be careful building with these.
- Burn: "Deal x damage to y." Fairly straightforward, we just have a word for it. Also see, "burning them out" or "reach": these are things an aggro deck would do if they get you close to dead and then finish you off.
- Cantrip: Anything that has the text "draw a card". These cards are obviously good because they replace themselves; therefore, gaining card advantage off of them is fairly straightforward as you are already "card neutral" if you will.
- Clock: This is term is rarer but is an important concept nonetheless. The "clock" your threats represent is how fast you can kill your opponent if unanswered. On an empty board and at 12 health, an Argent Commander is a 3 turn clock. This is most important to Aggro and Tempo decks, but a Control may consider it in the context of "what kind of clock/how much pressure am I under?"
- Curve: or Mana Curve, how your spells look when you sort by mana cost. This is most important to aggro decks, but each archetype has its own type of curves: Aggro will tend to be short and high whereas Control will be longer with more top end.
- Filtering: Filtering is going through some portion of your deck and picking what you need now. Similar to cantripping, this is card neutral, but you can gain an incremental advantage by getting the right card if you do this right. This is a very powerful effect for Combo decks and some Control decks. An example would be Tracking.
- Going Off: A Combo deck "goes off" on the turn they kill you. This one is fairly straightforward.
- Mulligan: The process of replacing certain cards in your initial starting hand.
- Ping: An action where you deal only a single point of damage to a single target -- Mage Power or Shiv -- to finish it off, let a weaker minion trade with it, or kill a low health high attack minion.
- Ramp: Ramping is the process of using a card to gain resources in the future. This is mainly the function of Druid cards and can be built into a strategy of its own. The function of ramping will allow you to play more -- or larger -- threats faster than may be anticipated. The Coin is -- in essence -- a one off ramp spell.
- Synergy: First of all, this is not synonymous with combo. A "combo" is something that will win the game when it hits -- Hunter OTK for example -- a synergy is a set of cards that work together to be bigger than the sum of their parts: an Enrage minion plus Cruel Taskmaster for example. This is a subtle difference but it's important.
- Top Deck: This term comes in a two forms: either getting a Top Deck, or playing off the top. It originates from physical card games and refers to the top card on your deck. When you "need a Top Deck xxxxx" or your opponent "got the perfect top deck" it means that the situation on board swung because of the card that was just drawn. When you are "playing off the top", you are playing with no cards in your hand and are relying on whatever your top card is to make plays.
- Beatdown vs. Control: This is one of the most important concepts in 1v1 TCGS and you should read this: Who's the Beatdown, by Mike Flores
This article is relevant to almost any type of gamer, but in essence it states that in every matchup there is a Beatdown and a Control player. This is what was referring to above when discussing the Midrange archetype. It doesn't matter if you are control in 99% of your match ups, sometimes when decks line up you have to be the Beatdown in order to win. To elaborate upon the Midrange comment, it is called Midrange because these decks are built to be between Beatdown and Control in most match ups and pick whichever is appropriate.
- The Vanilla Test: A cool test that Magic players use. It states that "if this rules text was blank, how is this card?" Monk alluded to it in the second trends article with Shattered Sun Cleric, and this is the perfect example: a 3/3 for 3 is perfectly fine, and in the cases where the rules box is not blank? that is pure upside. This test also works in reverse: that Ancient Watcher is a 4/5 for 2 is too good, so we expect a downside.
- Card Advantage: This is a very commonly discussed term, but it is not always properly described. The most controversial example is Novice Engineer. When you cast this card, you get a 1 for 1: you get one card of value -- through the cantrip -- for the one card you used to cast it. This is a reasonable baseline for the Novice, but does not make it great on its own. The reason why Card Advantage is a bit weird right now is because the "Value of a Card" is not yet an established in Hearthstone. In my opinion, a 1/2 on its own is not worth a card; therefore, to be able to trade up or get additional value out of the Novice to call it a 2 for 1. Azure Drake on the other hand, is a "straight up" 2 for 1 because it replaces itself and you get a big body on the field from it. Casting Flamestrike to remove two of your opponent’s minions is the cleanest example of a 2 for 1 that exists in Hearthstone and should be the standard for explaining this concept to new players: you cast one card to undo what your opponent did with two cards.
A common misconception of Card Advantage is using it to describe “cards in hand” or “minions on the battlefield”. The correct way to think about Card Advantage is to image a scoreboard where players are scoring points for being more efficient with their resources in card form. The central tenet of Card Advantage is that cards are a resource, just like Mana Crystals or life. A player is winning in terms of Card Advantage if and only if they are being more efficient with this resource.
- Expected Value: Expected Value is a term used across many games but is most common in Poker. Expected Value is a property of a play that can be calculated by considering the average outcome of any play or series of plays. Most often, Expected Value is calculated in reference of what percent chance a play gives you to win the game: here is an example.
If you are a Mage and you have only draw step left to win the game -- by virtue of Ice Block -- and three cards left in your deck -- which you know to be Pyroblast, Fireball, and Leper Gnome -- the Expected Value of making a play resulting in putting your opponent with 6 life is 66% whereas a play resulting in your opponent going to 10 life is only 33%.