Do you keep your opening hand, or do you redraw it?
Hex asks us this important question every time we begin a game, and our answer often sets the tone for most of the game. However, it’s not always simple to evaluate the chance that our deck will meet its goals given only the top seven cards of our deck. Sometimes we are hasty in our decisions, sometimes we second-guess our chances, and sometimes we throw all caution into the wind.
While these whims can make more calculated players cringe, taking risks in the face of variance is what make card games fun for many. So with that in mind, let’s take a moment to review what we look for in starting hands. This may especially be useful for players where Hex is one of their first forays into a deep, strategic card game.
First, we have to define one very important thing:
The goal is to have a playable starting hand, not necessarily the perfect starting hand. That means, we don’t redraw hands to try to improve an already good hand, and we don’t redraw hands to find certain cards unless they are essential to our deck’s strategy. Redrawing a hand incurs a one-card penalty, so we want to avoid redrawing hands that are more than borderline acceptable.
Am I on the play, or am I on the draw?
The player going first starts does not draw a card on their first turn, and this is pivotal when evaluating how likely an opening hand will find the cards it wants to be effective. One of the key turns for many decks is its third turn, when most decks are able to play 3-cost cards that shape a deck’s main strategy.
On the play, going first, risky hands and redrawing are riskier. A starting hand will draw only two more cards by its third turn. Especially for 2-resource hands, a risky hand that doesn’t draw what it needs may be slowed enough to lose the advantage of going first, allowing the opponent to catch up. Redrawing a slightly dangerous starting hand could be just as risky, however.
On the draw, going second, it is slightly easier to keep a risky hand or redraw. A starting hand will draw three cards by its third turn, and that one additional card can make a huge difference. In terms of opening, it does allow more leniency when deciding to keep a riskier opening hand, as the player on the draw gets that additional card for a larger pool of cards to work with.
If your opponent redraws first, risky hands and redrawing become slightly safer. Another slight benefit of being on the play, if one is on the fence about keeping an opening hand, a redraw puts the two players on even card footing. Keeping a riskier hand also becomes easier, as the card advantage can make up for a few turns of non-ideal draws later.
How many resources should I look for?
The first and rightfully most important part of a starting hand are its resources. Many take a mathematical approach to evaluating resources in a hand, and DeckOfManyThings covers this in a previous article. But numbers confirm what we often infer with intuition.
Good starting hands get close to the resources to play much of the deck as soon as possible. While this is the most basic premise in a resource-based game, it’s worth restating. In practice, most decks work best with 3 resources on turn 3, and many want 4 resources on turn 4, making hands with 3 or 4 starting shards usually ideal.
Decks can vary from this, of course. An aggressive deck with a low curve can get away with starting with less shards, such as a Dwarf/Robot aggro deck running cheap troops like Electroid and Construct Foreman. And a prime example of a deck that doesn’t mind having more shards than needed are Draft decks featuring Mightsinger Alyndra. Extra resources are progress toward another Gigantisaur for your opponent to deal with.
But in general, a hand with 2 shards risks being short on resources, and a hand with 5 shards risks having too many. Keep your deck’s uses for extra resources and charges in mind when deciding whether to keep such hands.
Good starting hands have the thresholds to play much of the deck as soon as possible. Some decks play mostly single-threshold cards, making ideal starting hands as simple as having one of each threshold. This gets trickier if your deck involves more dual-threshold cards, or if your deck involves three or more different thresholds.
Ideal starting hands have as close to your desired threshold ratios as possible. If your deck relies on cheap dual-threshold cards like Rot Cast or Pious Paladin—and especially if they are in the starting hand—be mindful of how many cards it might take to meet those thresholds.
Risky starting hands need a specific threshold to make the hand very playable. In a deck with 40% resources, a deck will average drawing 2 resources every 5 cards. Using this as a guide, a hand that needs a specific resource has a pretty low chance of finding that resource.
Powerful cards with two or more thresholds required are tempting to mix together, like Countermagic and Crocosaur—and if you can meet the thresholds, they are potent. But especially with low-cost cards with two threshold, hands without the thresholds to ensure they can be played are a judgement call on whether to keep.
Which leads into …
Can I play the cards I am starting with?
The shards in an opening hand are only half of the story; the cards on the other side of the hand are just as important. In fact, it’s usually the allure of a powerful card or combination in a hand that tempts players to keep riskier starts!
However, keep in mind that the playable cards in starting hand are only a small part of the cards the deck will draw in a typical game. The starting hand doesn’t have to have everything a deck wants off the bat, and likely will not.
There’s less true “good starting hand” advice that always applies to non-resources, but there are tendencies. Good starting hands tend to have cards that allow a deck to play to its ideal early curve, or have cards that hamper its opponent’s early game plans. It’s often dependent on the speed and style of the deck being played. But we can summarize some advice as follows:
Good starting hands tend to have options resilient to resource variance. A good way to visualize this is if you can plan a line of play for multiple possibilities of draws. If a hand satisfies both “If I don’t draw any more resources, I’m fine” and “If I draw nothing but resources, I’m fine,” it’s likely a decent hand.
Risky starting hands often have a large gap in a deck’s overall plan. Examples of this include an aggressive deck missing low-cost troops in its initial hand, or a control deck lacking early ways to exert card or board advantage. In Limited format decks, this could be having only higher-cost cards. Often, this is a result of a larger number of resources in the starting hand.
Risky starting hands can be tempting to keep with a large variety of powerful cards, but lacking resources. While this is repeating some of what was stated above, this is often the cause of keeping low-resource hands: having many potential options that are playable with one or two drawn resources is tempting to keep. And if those resources are drawn, as is always possible, the starting hand becomes powerful. But it is always a risk, as failing to get resources needed can result in the dreaded resource-starved situation.
Do I have a hand that can prepare for what I expect from my opponent?
Starting hands don’t exist in a vacuum. We can see the opponent’s champion at the start of a match, and we will have seen cards from the opponent’s deck for games 2 and 3 of a match. While considering our opponent’s strategy is often secondary to how well we can execute our own strategy, it still can help us evaluate how risky or safe an opening hand can be.
Against aggressive decks, slow hands are riskier and early troops and answers are safer. A hand that contains a good number shards and mid-game troops, in the 3-5 cost range, is often a pretty safe hand to keep. However, sometimes such hands can actually be too slow to answer potential explosive aggressive starts. Seeing a champion like Urgnock in Limited or Morgan McBombus in Constructed could be a tip-off that slower hands may be too slow, and that a redraw for faster answers may be better.
Hands that contain a strong answer or counter to the opponent’s strategy or bomb cards can make an otherwise risky hand more keepable. This could be an Extinction against a Rune Ear Hierophant-packing opponent that builds a wide board, or a Gale Force that came in from the Reserves against a Diamond/Sapphire Flight-focused deck in Limited. Having such an answer, potent enough to greatly turn a game around or blow out an opponent, is often strong enough to decide to keep a hand that may not be as strong in other respects.
Less-potent cards can also serve similar functions, especially in Limited play. A swiftstrike troop like Stern Infinitor can stop an opponent’s swarm of low-DEF troops cold, for example. A lot of these are card interactions that we learn through experience and by playing with the card pool, and are much more rooted in general deckbuilding and metagame knowledge than being a simple guide for evaluating starting hands.
So, should I redraw my opening hand?
Assuming you’ve already taken care of the obvious hands that trigger redraws—usually hands with less than 2 or more than 6 resources—there is no seven-card starting hand that is completely safe from drawing badly. There’s always a combination of cards to draw that is perfect for a starting hand, and also a combination that’s literally the worst.
But with the guides outlined above, you can get a feeling of how safe or risky given set of opening cards are. Here’s where your intuition as a player applies: we all have different thresholds of risk. The choice is ultimately up to you as a player. And any given hand can draw cards to make it work, or fail to draw cards to be effective.
So make the choice, and own the choice. Sometimes it will work out, and sometimes it won’t.