Why Dead Man’s Hand is impossible to evaluate
Dead Man’s Hand is a card that does nothing. The 2 mana Warrior Epic spell is soon to be released as part of Hearthstone’s Knights of the Frozen throne, and has already generated hype, debate and wildly differing predictions.
But in terms of practical, immediate impact to a board state, the effect is zero. It draws no cards, deals no damage and summons no minions. In many situations its analagous to simply throwing a card away.
However, Dead Man’s Hand makes up for this by being quite simply the most powerful deck manipulation tool ever devised for Hearthstone. The ability to shuffle your entire hand into your deck would be fascinating enough on a singleton card; on a cheap spell that can have 2 copies per deck, it’s potentially gamebreakingly powerful.
A Brief History of Deck Manipulation
Deck manipulation crept into Hearthstone slowly. Completely absent in Classic and Basic, the ability to shuffle additional value to your deck beyond the traditional 30 cards began with GvG’s Druid Legendary, Malorne. This eternally recurring stag didn’t fit into the combo-focused Druids of the time however. In Blackrock Mountain, Gang Up spurred the Mill Rogue archetype to new highs of near-competitiveness.
Deck manipulation effects weren’t to grow to meta prominence until League of Explorers. Then, cards like Forgotten Torch and Elise Starseeker proved that shuffling valuable cards into your deck could swing games. Old Gods’ C’thun Warrior crushed Control with Doomcaller’s ability to shuffle up to 2 additional C’thuns per game.
Then, in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, Jade Idol provided a death knell to fatigue archetypes with its infinite threat generation. Un’goro furthered the list of competitive deck manipulation cards with Direhorn Hatchling and Elise Trailblazer, both of which saw extensive competitive play.
Infinite value, zero tempo
Against this rich history of successful deck manipulation cards, why has Dead Man’s Hand received such negative competitive evaluations from pros? Part of the reason behind players like Kolento’s near-instant dismissal as “100 dust” lies in the nature of the card. Other deck manipulation tools that saw competitive play have a body or effect attached. Forgotten Torch has 3 damage, both Elises are sturdy 5 health minions, and even Jade Idol has the option to create a massive minion rather than shuffle.
In contrast, Dead Man’s hand has no such effect. It would be a truly dead card in every matchup that does not go to fatigue. Lots of pro players then, quite reasonably, performed a quick mental calculation. They thought about the deck it might fit into (Control Warrior) and estimated the number of games that would likely be affected by fatigue (a very small percentage). From this perspective, it’s easy to see why many pros deem the card trash.
Bad card, good deck?
The fundamental flaw with this assessment is that it presumes that the card would most likely work in a deck that looked something like modern Control Warrior. But Control Warrior was built from the ground up around an assumption of limited deck value. Control Warrior sacrifices flexibility to maximize the total value of the deck. Incredibly powerful cards like Battle Rage are excluded in favour of solid lategame minions that can trade positively on a card-for-card basis.
While Dead Man’s Hand might be a nigh-unplayable bad card in Aggro matchups, it carries a hidden benefit. By guaranteeing potentially infinite late-game value, it allows every other card in the deck to be cheaper, leaner and more draw-focused. This allows Aggro matchups to improve while (in theory) remaining incredibly strong vs Control.
Not only that, but Dead Man’s Hand is unique in its abilities. This is the first time infinite duplication of any card has been available from hand. Minions have been able to be bounced once or twice, and Jade Idols can last forever, but until now it’s never been possible to play any specific minion or spell infinitely (at least without Lorewalker Cho shenanigans). This has the potential for some disgustingly powerful series of plays.
Although I’ve been overoptimistic on 2 mana Warrior Epics before, it’s worth considering what a deck that was built around Dead Man’s Hand would look like. The deck would likely look less like traditional Control Warriors of old, and more like Combo Warrior.
There have been a variety of Warrior decks that have utilized the class’s powerful draw engine and cheap, efficient spells. Patron, Worgen OTK and Arcane Warriors all got massive value from drawing through their entire deck with Battle rage. Unfortunately, they’ve all lacked reliable win conditions vs Control since Warsong Commander and Charge prevented Frothing or Worgen OTKs. Arcane Giants Warrior, the only surviving Standard deck, is currently unplayable due to the ease of which most classes clear or outvalue the 2-3 boards of Giants.
This all could change with Dead Man’s Hand. The gameplan would be simple; cycle to fatigue, then play overpowered cards over and over again until you win. But what cards? How could the deck be nimble enough to beat aggro, but weighty enough to beat Jade?
Building a Jade breaker
Assuming the deck would follow this gameplan, it would want strong end-game threats to play repeatedly concentrated into as few as possible card slots. The most promising tools likely include cards like N’zoth. A N’zoth win condition revolving around Loot Hoarders, Direhorn Hatchlings and perhaps the new Mountainfire Armor would be a strong, repeatable threat that would provide board presence, Taunts, lifegain and card-draw to sustain the infinite combo.
Other strategies would be Arcane Giants and Battle Rages, repeatedly clearing with King Mosh, or endless Grommashes to face. Coldlights Oracles could provide a fatigue win condition, but would be unable to deal with the infinite Jades. Testers could also try C’thun, but the Old God would likely require too many deckslots.
Regardless of how the final deck may look, it’s clear that we cannot evaluate the card in a traditional context. If the card works or not, it will be on the basis of whether or not its deck is strong, not down to the nature of the card itself. Its performance will be decided by meta and support tools rather than whether or not it’s mana efficient or a powerful effect.
While pros are free to guess at the power of the card, it’s important to remember that more often than not, cards like this are simply impossible to predict. Which may be annoying, but it makes that initial experience of experimentation and refinement all the more exciting. And hey, even if the card doesn’t turn out to be competitive, it will surely create some fantastic opportunity for meme decks.
Artwork courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.