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There are various articles on Hearthstone opening strategy which suggest it's a bad idea to use early-game spells and summons to damage your opponent directly, and that you should instead save them for minion removal.

An example: your starting hand contains an Elven Archer, a 1-cost 1/1 minion that does a point of damage when summoned. I've seen it advised that if going first, with that card in your hand, you should not play it, but save it for minion removal.

Another example: Going second against a Rogue with a 2-cost 2/1 Loot Hoarder, Deathrattle: draw a card in your hand. The advice was not to play it and save the coin, because on her second turn, the Rogue can generate a dagger and kill the Hoarder.

I understand why, in most circumstances, it's better to remove a minion than damage the enemy. What's bugging me about these particular opening examples is why they're a better idea than doing nothing and ending the turn.

In both cases, you've wasted a point of mana, and the chance to take the initiatve. By having a minion on the board first, you can use the following turn to attack with that minion, possibly removing an enemy summon and leaving you clear to summon onto an empty board.

The Loot Hoarder one I find particularly puzzling. If the Rogue gets a dagger and kills it, you still have the initative, you've forced the Rogue to make what's possibly a suboptimal turn-2 play, you've done 2 damage to the Rogue and you got a card into the bargain. Sounds like a pretty good use of the coin to me.

What am I missing here?

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In the specific Loot Hoarded example, I would play the Loot Hoarder with coin ONLY if you got a good follow-up like a Fairie Dragon or something. If you play the Loot Hoarder alone you would use your coin for 2 bonus damage on the enemy Hero, which is just not worth. – Werdli May 2 '14 at 13:06
Don't forget to consider that by playing the Hoarder, your opponent is forced to hold off playing any 2-health minions and spend a turn and their mana taking care of your minion. Even if you can't do anything on your normal 2-mana turn, they now probably only have 1 minion for you to deal with on turn 3 instead of 2. – dpatchery May 2 '14 at 13:52
@MattThrower The problem with the hoarder is that its a 1 toughness creature, so its very easy to deal with. If I had, for instance, a faerie dragon or as a rogue, a ringleader I would totally coin that on my first turn. – l I May 2 '14 at 14:04
@MattThrower if you don't have anything better to do than a loot hoarder, then yes. That coin is more useful on turn 3 when you can bring out a powerful 4 drop than it is on turn 1 for a throwaway 2/1. – l I May 2 '14 at 14:13
It's less about wasting the hoarder (since that's what he's for anyway) and more about wasting the coin. – Studoku May 2 '14 at 15:19
up vote 56 down vote accepted

The key concept at work here is that of Card Advantage. The basic premise is that cards are extremely valuable, and having access to more of them than your opponent is a strong advantage.

Perhaps counterintuitively, card advantage is more important than mana advantage (especially in Hearthstone where mana is pretty normalized), and card advantage is more important than life advantage (especially in the early game, when a few life points doesn't affect anything). If you think about it, one minion card can be worth 10 life points if it gets some good attacks in. A spell card can also be worth a lot of life, if it kills another creature which can potentially wreck you.

Framing your examples using card advantage:

Elven Archer

  • Option 1: Play on first turn, then get steamrolled by a 2/2 or killed by damage. Net effect: Gain 1-2 life advantage, but lose 1 card advantage.
  • Option 2: Play when it can kill an X/1, then maybe even attack or block before dying. Net effect: Break even on cards (though note you may have sniped a far better card than your 1-drop), as well as maybe gain some life advantage.

Loot Hoarder

  • Option 1: Burn the coin to play turn 1, then die to a Rogue. Net effect: Break even on cards (due to the deathrattle draw), 2 damage to the Rogue.
  • Option 2: Save for later, try to block an X/2 or sneak in an attack. Net effect: potentially up one card (you lose the hoarder, draw one, but you killed their minion and/or made them burn a card) and some life. Worst case is the same as option 1. And you keep the coin!

Now of course there are exceptions, and there are aggro decks that eschew long-term card advantage in favor of agression. But the theory there is they are setting up a "ticking clock" that the opponent is forced to deal with, probably by making non-ideal decisions as far as his/her card advantage.

In general, the main idea is: Cards are powerful resources, far more than a few points of mana or damage. Treat them as a scarce currency, and spend them wisely to get as much bang for your buck as possible.

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I feel like this perhaps should be marked as the best answer, due to going into more depth of explaining why card advantage is important, as well as weighing risks vs reward very clearly. – Waterseas May 2 '14 at 20:45
Basically, mana is an infinite resource. Cards are very limited. You keep getting mana, but once you're out of cards, you get DEATH. – bombcar May 2 '14 at 21:19
@bombcar I choose DEATH! *explodes* – allquixotic May 3 '14 at 22:17

For the Elven Archer, 1 damage to the enemy is negligible, you gain almost nothing if you use it against the enemy hero. But there are many other situations in which this 1 damage can be very useful:

  • Killing a X/1 minion
  • Popping a divine shield
  • Enraging one of your own minions
  • Finishing off an enemy minion after an attack

A 1/1 minion on the board is simply too small to really matter. The Elven Archer battlecry is rather useful, though. So playing it without a good target for the battlecry is usually a bad idea.

For the Loot Hoarder, the argument seems mainly that you're providing a reasonably good play for the enemy rogue even if they didn't have a good one for turn 2, and that you're forcing them to either don't attack the Loot Hoarder on turn 3 or make a suboptimal play due to the mana waste.

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