At first, the idea that the control archetype could soon go extinct seems ludicrous. We are playing through an era that could be described as a Golden Age for slow, controlling decks. Reno and Kazakus have pushed Highlander archetypes to the dizzying heights of Tier Two for Warlock, Mage, and Priest. Control Warrior’s ability to punish hyper-aggressive Patches decks along with Miracle Rogue has seen it have solid, if inconsistent, win-rates. Even Anyfin Paladin sees a degree of high-level play. However, great changes are coming to the delicate ecosystem that is Hearthstone’s meta; and Control decks could be affected catastrophically.
The definition of a Control deck may differ, but most understandings of the archetype centre around one key concept; the idea of outlasting and outvaluing the opponent with a variety of flexible removal, especially hard removal, board clears, lifegain, and a few key late-game threats or other “win-condition” cards. While some may include pro-active cards and strategies, the overwhelming idea holding the deck together is to be fundamentally reactive. Combos and threats are either painstakingly slow to assemble (like Paladin’s Anyfin can Happen/Bluegill/Warleader strategy, or Reno Mage’s Antonidas/Alexstrasza strategy) or require the opponent to be out of resources or low on life to be effective (Control Warrior’s Grommash, or Renolock’s Jaraxxus). So what changes are coming that endanger these decks?
Let’s look at the Control decks currently competitive in Hearthstone’s post-Mean Streets metagame; Anyfin Paladin, Control Warrior, Control Shaman, Reno Mage, Reno Priest, and Renolock
No Reno, no way?
You can start to see a problem with the upcoming standard rotation by simply looking at the name of half decks. Reno Jackson is not just a powerful card; it’s a card that so utterly negates certain class’s long-game weaknesses that it created and is currently sustaining decks that simply wouldn’t make sense without it.
We see this in Warlock and Mage especially, with their incredible synergy with Lifetap and Ice Block respectively (alongside a lack of class healing). Reno Priest may potter along thanks to its great class heal options; but when Reno rotates out, what will happen to decks that can’t counter the incredible early-game damage capabilities of modern Aggro decks?
Perhaps more class or neutral healing will be released for these classes, but I’m not too hopeful. Class identity is a key part of hearthstone, and Team 5 have clarified their desire for certain classes like Mage and Warlock not to have access to the same level of efficient healing as others. Omni-present single-purpose neutrals seem to be going out of fashion as well, with no replacements for Antique Healbot on the horizon to shore up these class’s anti-aggro abilities in the long game.
So are classes like Mage and Warlock going to be pigeonholed into fast decks purely from lack of access to healing? Well, perhaps. A way to avoid this is to give thematic, interesting survivability tools that do not involve healing. Maybe a Molten-Giant-esque replacement to reinvigorate Handlock-style strategies, or more defensive Mage secrets á la Ice Barrier. Outlandish ideas like giving your Hero “Can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers” might help those classes survive burst. Whatever the solution, it’s clear that defense against reach and burn is key to the survival of controlling variations of these archetypes.
This also ties into the problem with Jade decks; as the Combo-based counters to these mid-range, continually ramping minions are largely restricted to these two classes.
The Rise of the Golems
The other huge challenge arising for Control from the upcoming rotation is the incredible power of Jade Decks against slower opponents. The long term power of these constantly-ramping and in many cases infinite threats can lead to absurd situations. For example, forcing Control Warrior to play an aggro gameplan, or Aggro Shaman out-valuing Renolock card-for-card well into the late stages of the game. Even in a meta overwhelmingly dominated by hyper-aggressive Patches decks, Jade cards are seeing a huge amount of play. There are two things that could lead to Jades becoming even more ubiquitous and even more dangerous to Control.
The first includes hints of an upcoming balance change to the early-game pirate package. In interviews and streams, both Ben Brode (Hearthstone’s Game Director) and Mike Donais (Principle Game Designer) have expressed concern for Small-Time Buccaneer in particular. This might not be a huge deal immediately, as aggressive non-pirate decks like Tempo Mage, Dragon Warrior, and Midrange Hunter could arrive to fill the piratical power vacuum. Things might change, however, once the year of the Kraken is over. Mainstays of these decks, cards like Flamewaker, Quick Shot, and Sir Finley Mrrglton (not to mention the entire Dragon package!) will leave; their replacements will struggle to be fast enough to catch up to the rapidly-growing Jades.
A Jade meta would be more forgiving on Mage and Warlock due to their plethora of game-ending combo options. But the matchup would remain unfavoured, other decks would likely be even worse off.
An Idol threat
This could have dire consequences for Paladin, Priest, and Warrior’s hopes of retaining late-game relevance. With the loss of Anyfin can happen, Paladin is left only with N’zoth as a way to convincingly end games. Paladin’s N’zoth package may be somewhat effective against Jade Druid occasionally. But it is unlikely to be fast enough to matter once Druid can drop consistent mid-game threats that Paladins struggle to remove. Meanwhile, Mid-Jade Shaman’s Hexes and Devolves ruin any chance of late-game success for Paladin. They could easily see themselves consistently out-valued in the early game, mid game, and late game!
Warrior, on the other hand, is losing almost all of its late-game options. Elise Starseeker and Justicar Trueheart were previously all Warrior needed to out-value almost any deck by simply removing all enemies and tanking up to a Golden Monkey finish. With the loss of those two key cards, Control Warrior will struggle against almost any deck in the late-game. Even now, Warrior struggles against any deck that isn’t pure aggro due to a lack of late-game options. Old mainstays like Ysera and Ragnaros sufficed in the old days, and can still sometimes steal games versus poorly opening Druids. However, against Shaman’s plethora of removals and constant board pressure, there seems no way that Control Warrior can do anything but lose incredibly slowly.
Control Shaman may survive, but with the loss of Elemental Destruction, Healing Wave, and Lava Shock, it seems unlikely that any future build will be distinguishable or superior from standard Midrange jade options. Priest will be in a similar rough spot to warrior, with simply no cards that can force a switch to a proactive strategy.
The key issue is that these classes have no late-game options that are powerful enough to out-tempo a ramped-up Jade Druid while not being countered by Hex and Devolve from the Shamans. Control Warrior, Priest and Paladin’s late game are in dire need of support if they are not to be forced into obscurity.
In order to prevent a steep decline in control’s viability, the next set of cards will need to ameliorate some of the weaknesses of existing control decks post-rotation; namely survivability for Mage and Warlock, and late-game power for Warrior, Paladin and Priest. They do not need to be so powerful as to make the decks perfect all-rounders, but they do need to be strong enough to give them a fighting chance against multiple archetypes (and particularly the power of Jade Golems).
Maybe hold off on giving great cards to Shaman for a few seasons though. Not to say a viable Control Shaman isn’t desirable, but in recent times they seem to be controlling the opponent’s face more than anything.
Title Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment and hearthstone.gamepedia.com