You want to get into Hearthstone, but you're scared. You hear the stories of intricate deck-building and elaborate mind games, and you wonder: Is there a 100-hour wall of learning, research, and abject failure standing between me and having a good time? Quite to the contrary, I would argue that the most fun part of Hearthstone is when you're learning to play.
Perhaps you're already in the ignorant bliss of casual playerhood: It's a place with few stakes, a place where it's OK that you don't know what "control" or "midrange" mean because you're just there to make weird decks and have fun, not reach Legend. On the other side, there's the Hardcore: A hellhole of tryhard geekery, endless cash spend, and that terrible urge to check the Hearthstone subreddit on a regular basis.
To exist on one side of the rift is to lose perspective on the other. Newbies can't know the joy of grinding out a 25-minute control game and playing around traps that lesser players would walk right into. Conversely, longtime players can't remember the wide-eyed optimism of Hearthstone ignorance, pulling out unlikely wins against superior decks because of reckless all-in plays, building shitty off-meta decks and even winning with them every once in a while.
The truth is, there's fun to be had with each approach. The plurality of Hearthstone — the fact that it legitimises both styles of play without picking favourites — is one of the main reasons for its popularity. "Deceptively simple, insanely fun," as Blizzard sells it. But there's no reason to stay casual forever, because Hearthstone is most fun when you decide to cross that divide.
There's an extent to which this is true for every competitive game. In something like League of Legends, you set milestones for yourself — say, killing 10 minions per minute. When you achieve them, you feel accomplished. But Hearthstone takes the process a few steps further. In League of Legends, you can't watch an informative three-hour stream and come back to the game as a drastically better player; for the most part, you'll have to actually practise your mechanics to pull off the strategies in your head. Hearthstone, on the other hand, requires almost zero mechanical skill, so whatever you see on a stream can be absorbed and applied directly to the game.
The nearly linear relationship between educational content and Hearthstone skill makes for a more vibrant community whose content is just as helpful as it is entertaining. You have mad deck-building scientists such as previous Hearthstone World Champion James "Firebat" Kostesich, whose brilliant "Deck Doctor" series gives offbeat homebrew decks a professional makeover. Then you have educators such as Jeffrey "Trump" Shih's "Trump Teachings" videos and Tempo Storm's "Deck Introductions" series, which help introduce basic concepts to new players. Finally, you have masterclass streams such as the ones Cong "Strifecro" Shu makes, where simplified explanations and meticulous turn planning can transform even a complete Hearthstone scrub into a formidable opponent in no time at all.
The crown jewel in the joyous Hearthstone learning experience is that it actually pays off in a tangible way. A player who knows the basic theory of how the game works and how different decks interact with one another will do significantly better than a player who uses a turn 2 Frostbolt on the enemy's face. Once you start to learn the more granular aspects of the game, such as how to pilot your favourite decks against different matchups, you can actually reach the game's top Legend ranks with tens, not hundreds, of hours.
The problem with learning Hearthstone is that it can be tough to learn how to learn. Blizzard itself doesn't do a great job of guiding players on the path across this chasm, so if you want to know the differences between aggro, midrange and control archetypes, you have to do the Google-fu yourself.
To help get you started on the wonderful path to learning Hearthstone, here's a seven-step curriculum that will help you optimise your educational experience for efficiency and capital-F Fun.
Think about whether or not this is something you really want to do. Once you've crossed the threshold, there's really no turning back. Still here? Cool.
Learn the basic concepts and vocabulary of Hearthstone. When you grasp the concept that the enemy Warrior is an "aggro" deck trying to kill you as quickly as possible, you might decide to take out that turn-1 N'Zoth's First Mate instead of getting greedy and waiting for turn 4 to Swipe it. To learn the conceptual basics, check out guides on places such as the Hearthstone subreddit and Hearthhead.
Find a couple of favourite streamers and watch them play. I like subscribing to multiple streamer channels on YouTube and watching their videos while I eat, since YouTube versions typically cut out the dead silence that comes between turns. The experience of mainlining four Hearthstone videos while eating peppered chicken breasts is not unlike that training montage in The Matrix where Neo learns jiu jitsu in like 10 minutes.
When it comes to deck variety, decision-making, entertaining personalities and quality explanations, I recommend subscribing to Strifecro, Firebat, Thijs, Trump, Hafu, Brian Kibler and Ratsmah. Alternately, head over to Twitch's Hearthstone page and click on whatever streamer looks most interesting to you.
Start putting together some competitive decks. This is a tough one, since most decks will require either cash or in-game grinding to build, but there are budget decks that you can perform really well with. Even if you don't have very good cards, you can still get pretty high up in the ranks with a sufficiently good deck and a knowledge of basic Hearthstone theory.
If deckbuilding is something you're interested in learning, I suggest checking out guides and following the great Hearthstone deckbuilders, such as Trump, Kripp, Firebat and Reynad. If you'd rather skip the deckbuilding part altogether, no worries — someone has probably put together a way better deck than you ever could anyway!
Check out sites such as HearthPwn, HearthHead and Tempo Storm to find decklists that interest you, and work to gather the stuff you'll need to make them. For beginners, you can always search for decks with "budget" in the title, and there's usually a lot of options to choose from.
Practise, practise, practise. And try not to get salty. Once you've followed a few Hearthstone pros, you can start playing the game with their knowledge in mind. Remember that time Thijs lost a game by miscounting his mana and accidentally Life Tapped in a reflex attempt to increase his odds of winning? Yeah, don't do that.
As for avoiding saltiness, the primary destroyer of fun, I recommend putting on a playlist or podcast while playing, which helps take some of the edge off. Secondly, try not to see winning as your main goal, and focus on learning. It sounds cheesy, but if you come out of a game having learned something, at least your loss to some bullcrap RNG doesn't feel as bad. Over the long haul, you'll get to high ranks even if you have a few unlucky losses. If you do start getting frustrated, log off and do something else, or just watch a stream while you cool off. You'll get back on the horse fresh and ready to take on the Quest Rogues.
Learn more about the current Hearthstone metagame and dive deeper into the abyss. Using Tier Lists such as Tempo Storm's Meta Snapshot, Hearthstone MetaStats and Disguised Toast's Meta Deck Rankings, you can see what decks are most powerful and either use them for yourself, or find new ways to counter them.
There's one last step in the Hearthstone curriculum, and it comes when you've already spent months and months completing the above steps. Almost everyone who chills out on the Hearthstone subreddit, I'd wager, has hit this point, and it's a bit of a frustrating one because at that point, it doesn't feel like there's much else to learn. Unless you have professional-level hours of play to commit Hearthstone on a daily basis, it feels like all you can do is reach high ranks over and over every month, with not much else in the way of rewards. Further education feels useless.
I still haven't quite figured out how to solve this problem yet, and to be honest, I don't think Blizzard has either. It's a primary reason, I think, for why Hearthstone has become such a cycle of saltiness. But I can offer a couple of quick tips to help you counter the feeling that you've seen it all.
First off, try to become a deck-builder if you haven't already. While you might not put together the Next Great Archetype, it's still fun to try out new things, and a lot of the time, you can climb pretty high even with a meme-heavy, off-meta deck. Next, really focus on fine-tuning your play. As long as you're still making mistakes (and I can guarantee you are), there's always something positive to be gained from a match.
Finally, if all else fails, just bide your time until the next expansion rolls around. With a whole library of new cards added to the collection every few months now, you'll again have new things to learn, and more chances than ever to experience that childlike curiosity you once had. While there's no turning back the clock, a new expansion is pretty much the closest you can get, and the opportunity to learn the game anew is always welcome.