The Deck Archetype Spectrum

If you’ve played a deckbuilding game before, such as Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, you may have heard other players talk about deck archetypes. Usually it’s in the form of an argument about what archetype a given deck falls under, or which one is the best/most fun to play. But the thing is, deck archetypes can be confusing and sometimes the lines between them are fuzzy. So today, I wanted to propose my way of classifying deck archetypes: The Deck Archetype Spectrum!

There are two axes to my spectrum: Speed and Synergy. Speed refers to how quickly your deck intends to win the game. For example, an aggressive deck that aims to defeat their opponent as quickly as possible would be a fast deck, whereas a deck that intends to make every card count and to outlast their opponent would be a slow deck. Synergy refers to how much individual cards rely on the other cards in the deck to be powerful. An independent deck would be a deck where the cards in the deck are powerful in their own right. By contrast, a synergistic deck may use cards that are fairly weak on their own, but that can be used in specific combinations to become extremely powerful.

To give some examples, I have plotted some of the most common deck archetypes onto the spectrum below. I’ve also given some brief descriptions of those archetypes in case you’ve never heard of them. If I missed one of your favourite archetypes, leave a comment and let me know. Or even better, see if you can figure out where it should go on your own!

Spectrum Image.png

A few final notes about this spectrum:

  • Both Speed and Synergy are relativistic terms. This means that where exactly a deck falls depends on what other decks exist in the game. So while one day a deck might be classified as Aggro, if faster decks get created it might shift to being considered Tempo or Midrange by comparison.

  • No deck archetype is inherently more or less fun than any other. Fun is subjective, so play whatever kinds of decks you want. We here at Cloudfall won’t judge you for the decks that you like to play, even if we personally don’t enjoy playing them.

  • I consider this spectrum a work in progress. If you have any suggestions for making it better, let me know in the comments below!

Aggro (Fast, Independent)

Your typical aggressive deck. Its goal is to finish the game quickly by playing lots of cheap, strong cards. It will sometimes interact with what the opponent plays, but will prioritize attacking the opponent directly.

Face/Burn (Very Fast, Independent-Synergistic)

A hyper aggressive deck where it only cares about beating their opponent as quickly as possible. It will always attack the opponent directly unless it is immediately apparent that it will lose otherwise. Cards in the deck tend to be independently powerful so that the deck can be more consistent, but will sometime utilize synergies.

Midrange (Average, Independent-Synergistic)

The middle ground between Aggro and Control, Midrange decks can adjust their speed based on what they’re facing. This allows the deck to be the aggressor or play defensively depending on the matchup. These decks vary a lot in terms of synergy.

Tempo/Zoo (Fast-Average, Independent)

Similar to Midrange, Tempo decks can adjust their plan somewhat based on what they are facing. However, their goal is to control the speed of the game and push incremental advantage over time. This means that in most matchups it tends to be the aggressor. Cards in the deck are independently strong since the goal is to play the strongest thing possible each turn, and synergies can make achieving that goal inconsistent.

Control (Slow, Independent)

Your classic slow deck. The goal of the deck is to clear the opponent’s threats over and over again until you can play a few large threats to end the game.

Fatigue (Very Slow, Independent)

An extreme version of Control that plays for the long game. Unlike typical control, Fatigue doesn’t run a specific win condition, but rather doubles down on survivability to outlast anything their opponent can throw at them.

OTK/Combo (Slow, Synergistic)

Similar to other slow decks, OTK decks also try to stall the game. However, their goal isn’t to outlast but rather to draw a very specific set of cards which, when played together, instantly win the game. This means that they often run a lot of card draw in order to reach their combo quickly.

Tribal (Fast-Slow, Synergistic)

Tribal decks are a difficult type of deck to classify. They can be any speed, though typically they are fast-average. Their defining trait is that all of the cards in the deck are highly synergistic, such as all being the same tribe or card type. Often this means that individual cards are relatively weak, but grow significantly more powerful the more of them are played.

Mill (Average, Synergistic)

Several card games have the rule that if your deck runs out of cards, you lose the game. In those games, some decks are created specifically to force their opponent to draw too many cards too quickly so that they deck out and instantly lose. These decks tend to play similar to OTK decks, except that they can often reach their goal faster.

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Stay lofty!

Design Tips: Power Curves

For a while now I’ve been working on a power curve analysis of the collectable cards in Hearthstone. I started out trying to prove if specific cards/classes/mana costs are overpowered, but it’s evolved into a really valuable design exercise on understanding game balance. Hopefully one day I can share all the lessons I’ve learned, but today I wanted to take a moment to talk about one of the valuable things I’ve been learning about power curves. But before we get into that, let’s first establish what a power curve is.

What is a Power Curve?

Put simply, a power curve is the average value a player gets in exchange for spending a given amount of resources. It’s most often used when discussing card games like Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Gwent, and of course Hearthstone, but it is still applicable to most games. As a general rule, the more resources you spend the more value you should get, and this relationship tends to be linear.

Power Curve.jpg

A fairly ideal powercurve.

To give a simple example, take a look at these three cards I made:

Underpowered Bomb.png
Balanced Bomb.png
Overpowered Bomb.png

Thank you Hearthcards for making it so easy to make custom Hearthstone cards.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that in Hearthstone dealing 3 damage is worth about 2 mana (similar to an existing card Dark Bomb). This means that Balanced Bomb would be right in line with the power curve of the game because it’s cost (2 mana) is in line with it’s value (dealing 3 damage). Underpowered Bomb would be below the power curve because you’re paying the same cost while getting less value than you should. Finally, Overpowered Bomb is above the power curve because you’re getting more value than you should for the cost. Seems straightforward right? Here’s where it gets a little bit more complicated.

Independent vs. Contextual Power Curves

So far we’ve been comparing cards to an Independent Power Curve. An independent power curve assesses the power level of cards in a vacuum, and it does not factor in positive or negative synergies between cards. Using what we know, what’s the independent power level of this card?


Probly one of the best cards ever made.

Seems pretty terrible, right? I mean, 10 mana for a 1/1 that can’t attack is awful. However, this is when we need to consider a Contextual Power Curve. A contextual power curve assesses the power level of cards in conjunction with one another, factoring in things like synergies and the metagame. Now imagine we were assessing the power of Useless Ooze if this card also existed in the game:


See? I told you Useless Ooze was good.

Suddenly Useless Ooze seems pretty busted. But remember Useless Ooze is only strong in a world where something like Useful Ooze exists. If that card didn’t exist, it’d go right back to being trash.

Why does this matter?

This matters because all cards have two different power levels and you need to consider both when balancing a game. For example, it’s possible to have a card that is independently overpowered but contextually underpowered. Let’s take a look at Alien Queen as an example:


“Wait…aren’t I supposed to be human now? Make up your mind, Blizzard. Human. Zerg. Human. Zerg. Pick one!”

Independently this card seems extremely strong because it’s a 3/3 for 3 mana AND it gives +3/+3 to all your other Aliens. Assuming all your other minions in play are Aliens, that means she could be giving +3/+3 to 6 other minions for a total of +18/+18 (for context, a 3/4 is roughly worth 3 mana, as shown by the existing card Spider Tank)! Alien Queen seems pretty broken, right? Well, contextually speaking, maybe not. What if Alien Queen was the only Alien in the entire game? Suddenly it’s very difficult to get any value out of her battlecry, to the point where she might as well be a 3/3 for 3 with no additional text. Now she’s not only no longer overpower, but she may in fact be underpowered!

So let’s say we’ve determined a card too weak or too powerful. How can we fix it? Well, based on what we’ve learned today here are two approaches we can use when balancing cards:

  1. Adjust the card’s independent power level (i.e. decrease the value you get per resource spent); or

  2. Adjust the card’s contextual power level (i.e. create new cards that have positive or negative synergy with existing cards)

Both approaches are completely valid and have their own pros and cons. But make sure you’ve compared your card to both your independent power curve and your contextual power curve before making any changes. Otherwise you might make the problem worse than it was before.

TL;DR: Context matters when balancing your game.