The Fall and Rise of AOE
The concept of mass damage or AOE is core to Hearthstone’s conceptual identity. The ability to deal damage to multiple minions simultaneously allows for immense counterplay possibilities. Currently, AOE is at the core of a huge number of decks, providing a key counter to new, powerful flood decks. But it wasn’t always this way; once, AOE was almost universally underwhelming, and restricted only to the most extreme examples in the most controlling decks.
Taking a look back to an early Tempostorm Meta Snapshot, the only AOE being used by the top 10 decks are a single Brawl, two Whirlwinds, and a Baron Geddon in a Control Warrior, one Lightning Storm in Mech Shaman, Blade Flurry in Oil Rogue (arguably more of a face damage tool) and Consecrates in Midrange Paladin. Now, AOE is nearly omnipresent in all kinds of midrange as well as control decks. Not only are there more decks with AOE, but those decks use it more. What changed?
A Sticky Situation
Between Naxxramas and GvG, a worrying trend emerged amongst the most powerful minions, especially neutral minions. Cards like Haunted Creeper, Sludge Belcher, and Piloted Shredder were all incredibly potent minions that were the result of fundamental and systematic undervaluing of a Deathrattle effect that summoned smaller minions. Meanwhile, class minions like Shielded Minibot and Imp Gang boss had effects that left behind minions even after they were initially damaged.
This lead to a fast ramping up of the levels of “Stickiness” of minions and boards. “Stickiness” is a loose term that roughly describes how difficult it is to completely remove a minion. AOE becomes significantly worse in the face of these “sticky” boards, as dealing with only part of the board and leaving large numbers of minions behind is often not worth the mana and card cost of playing the AOE, let alone including it in your deck.
The Post-standard world still has its fair share of sticky deathrattle minions. However, a combination of the existence of N’zoth and a greater balance understanding of the value of Deathrattles has reduced their omnipresence. Hunter still has deathrattles above the power curve, but as part of the class identity that’s to be expected. Other decks, especially flood decks, rely more on continually refilling the board rather than being highly resilient to clears. This rewards AOE, rather than punishing it.
The dynamic that this creates is that AOE now is a valid and potent meta choice outside of the traditional class auto-includes. Mages can take additional Volcanic Potions, Shamans can mix and match Volcanos, Maelstrom Portals and Lightning Storms to suit their needs, and Warriors can utilise Sleep with the Fishes, Whirlwinds and Ravaging Ghouls alongside the traditional Brawl. In the end, more diversity, counterplay and skill-testing.
Bursting the Bubble
One problem with over-investing in AOE in the past has been the presence of burst and burn in the meta. While clearing, say, an old-school Aggro Shaman might buy you a turn or two, you’ll still die to Lava Bursts, Doomhammers, Leeroys and the like. Even board centric decks like Midrange Druid and Patron Warrior could simply bide their time and unleash huge damage combos with little counterplay available. With limited deckslots available, it was simply more efficient to invest in lifegain rather than additional clear opportunity. With strong Neutral heals like Antique Healbot readily available, this wasn’t limited by class either.
Consistent balance efforts and rotations have significantly reduced the threat of burst and burn. While Pirate Warrior and Mage still rely on burn, their ability to deal huge amounts is more limited. In this way, board clears become more relevant by increasing the ability to stabilise faster.
Meanwhile, against the new aggressive decks like Druid or Shaman, AOE is less mandatory if you’re not following an aggro strategy yourself. But if you’re able to repeatedly clear the board, it’s possible to stabilise even at extremely small life total. This is because their huge burst potential is entirely focused around interacting with the board. Bloodlust and Savage Roar are scary, but not if you can deny your opponent’s big boards and halt their development in advance.
Efficiency is Key
Finally, board clears have simply gotten better. Be it attaching solid minions to the effect or just making competitively costed spells, AOE is more competitively statted than ever. Primordial Drake sets the new bar for Neutral AOE, while class cards like Dragonfire Potion and Sleep with the Fishes are both flavourful and superbly powerful for their effect.
Team 5 has recognised the inherently risky, situational nature of AOE, and as a result has been costing cards far more aggressively, to great success. With balance decisions like these, we can hope to see a healthy balance of AOE in the meta for a long time to come.
Title art by Mike Sass, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com
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