Could there be a Unicorn Warrior?

With the latest round of balance changes, Warrior has finally supplanted Shaman as the worst class. According to Hsreplay.net, the class boasts an eye-watering 40% winrate. Despite this abysmal overall performance, the class still soldiers on. A few loyal adherents still experiment, hoping to find that elusive combination that can outperform all others. Warriors’ chances of finding this unknown “unicorn” deck are surely better than Priest’s at that class’s lowest point. Unfortunately, that isn’t saying much.

The problem

unicorn

Warrior has few efficient early removals

Warrior’s main issue is a giant, glaring, Fiery-War-Axe-shaped hole in its early-game board control tool-set. While Warrior has ways to deal with Mana Wyrms and Murloc Tidecallers, they’re slow or inefficient. In everything that isn’t the already-optimised Pirate Warrior that usually means packing your deck with board clears, removal and lifegain to make up for your tempo loss.

But with so much given over to simply surviving having no efficient early game, Warrior has very few straightforward options left to win. Nonetheless, there are a few strategies powerful enough to swing a game back into your favour. So what’s available?

Death dealing

unicorn

N’zoth is far less effective than many other class’s alternatives

N’zoth has always found a home in Warrior. The class has always lacked late-game finishers outside of Grommash Hellscream, so the huge value bomb fills a vital role. However, its value has waned. More and more decks either kill you faster or have more and better board clears. It’s also hard to build a big N’zoth board against, say, Cubelock, when they can build multiple comparable boards far more easily. It doesn’t help that there are few big, efficient, defensive Deathrattle minions to use with it.

Traditional N’zoth decks seem unlikely to be the Unicorn; the inefficient minions simply can’t keep up. But all is not lost. A big advantage N’zoth has is its flexibility and synergy with cards like Dead Man’s Hand. This can allow more room for survival tools rather than value, but comes with its own problems.

Dead Man’s Sacrifice

Another answer would simply be to rely not on a single value bomb, but to simply outlast the opponent by dealing with all of their threats. With the amount of value in many decks, this should be impossible; but Dead Man’s Hand offers a way to attain potentially infinite lifegain and removal. Could Mill be the Unicorn Warrior we need?

Unfortunately, this works far better in theory than in practice. Not only does going all-in on a removal strategy limit proactive plays, it also cuts into reliability. When drawn early, Dead Man’s Hand is essentially a dead draw, which considerably cuts into winrates. To make matters worse, you need to save key resources to shuffle back in, leaving you forced to hold back yet more cards. While it gives you the potential to outlast anything, the difficulty and unreliability holds the strategy back.

The Woe-T-K

unicorn

Woecleaver almost makes Warrior worthwhile

Woecleaver also presents some opportunities to find a Unicorn. Recruit or Big Warrior is gaining some traction, though it still struggles to have the same consistency as Big Priest or Cubelock. But Woecleaver can do more than just cheat out big dudes. It can also open up interesting OTK or burst potential. Fibonacci recently highlighted a Woecleaver deck that uses Sudden Genesis and Grommash for surprise bursts of damage.

Unfortunately, this requires a lot of sacrifice in the form of cutting minions and adding unconventional cards. To make matters worse, the popular Control decks that it may be useful against run big taunts like Voidlord and Obsidian Statue. Even Bonemare is still seeing play in midrange lists. As such, charging minions may not be the best strategy.

The search continues

So far, no one has managed to make Warrior do anything that another class can’t do better. But hope still remains. The promise of infinite value, minion duplicating and anti-Paladin board sweepers means that experimentation is both rewarding and has near-infinite possibilities. If you don’t mind losing a lot, you could do a lot worse than trying to figure out a Warrior deck that works for you.

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weapon

Where’s all the weapon removal?

Kobolds and Catacomb’s Legendary weapons were meant to have a fatal flaw. Many thought this new influx of anti-weapon tech would counter powerful items. Oozes, Harrisons and Bloodsail Corsairs should have crushed their dreams. But despite numerous Legendary weapons being extremely powerful options, weapon removal has not been a big part of the meta. So why hasn’t weapon removal risen to the challenge?

Some weapons are more Legendary than others

weapon

Not every weapon was as strong as Aluneth or Skull of the Manari

One key reason for how weapon removal is still niche is the varying success of the Legendary weapons. Almost all of them showed incredible promise, bar perhaps the Runespear (sorry Shaman). However, for a variety of factors, only a few Legendary weapons are viable. If we consider the top 4 classes of the Kobolds meta to be Priest, Warlock, Paladin and Rogue, we can see that Legendary weapons were only really vital to Warlock. Priest’s Dragon Soul wasn’t worth the effort, Kingsbane Mill Rogue struggled vs Aggro and Valanyr was never vital to a Paladin’s gameplan.

Meanwhile, potentially powerful weapons went underused due to poor synergies or class weakness. Druid had better ramp than Twig of the World Tree, Recruit Warrior never took off, Spell Hunter declined fast and the less said about Shaman the better. The one exception to this was Mage’s Aluneth, but Tempo Mage runs no other weapons and never truly took over the meta.

Where are the other weapons?

weapon

Even Paladins typically only run two Rallying Blades

But the Legendary weapons aren’t the whole story. Weapon removal doesn’t just depend on targeting single powerful weapons. Their most common usage is simply to wrest control of the early game by seizing tempo. But these early or mid-game solid weapons are few and far between.

Sure, Aggro Paladin runs two copies of Rallying Blade, and Hunter has the odd Candleshot. But gone are the days where you’d reliably queue up into decks that ran three or more weapons. A big part of this is the decline of Shaman and Warrior. When Aggro Shaman and Pirate Warriors were at their peak, then players could almost guarantee a large proportion of games would involve Jade Claws, Doomhammers, Arcanite Reapers and War Axes.

With two of the weapon classes almost completely absent, there are simply fewer targets.

Squeezed out

weapon

It’s hard to find room for tech when the power level increases

The overall rise in the quality and synergies behind cards has also contributed to the lack of weapon removal. When the card pool is small, it’s easier to find room for the Oozes and Harrisons. But we currently have more cards in Standard than ever. Weapon tech simply has more competition.

The other impact this has is on the weapons themselves. Now, Paladins don’t even run the incredibly efficient Truesilver Champion due to the sheer volume of good options available. Non-Kingsbane Tempo Rogues don’t need Deadly Poison, and the few Control Warriors that remain are too busy trying to survive the early game to consider Gorehowl. After the standard rotation, there may be more room for both weapons and their counters.

A better tech?

One last factor in the lack of weapon removal is that another tech card has been even more useful; Spellbreaker. In the pre-nerf world of Possessed Lackeys, Voidlords, Edwin Van Cleefs, Bonemares, Cobalt Scalebanes and Blessing of Kings, silence proved extremely useful. Almost every deck had multiple decent silence targets. This is a key difference.

In general, a consistent strong effect is more useful when deckbuilding than a more powerful but less reliable one. This is especially true for tech cards, as when targeting a specific deck, you want to ensure you actually gain that advantage. With weapons so spread out over the meta, the chance of getting a powerful weapon removal effect off was simply too low for any given deck. This compares unfavourably with silence, with many decks having multiple excellent silence targets.

An oozy future?

Things may be looking up for weapons and, by extension, weapon hate. If Warrior and Shaman become more viable, we may not only see old favourites like War Axe or Doomhammer back but also new additions like Woecleaver. Control Paladin may return, leaving room for more Truesilvers and the Paladin Death Knight. However the meta evolves, we’ll probably come to a point where we’re glad we put those Oozes in our deck.

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Shaman’s burst problem

Shaman is in the middle of an identity crisis. After a disastrous experiment with Freeze Shaman, Team 5 threw mechanics at Shaman to see what sticks. Shaman’s Kobolds and Catacombs haul included Battlecry, Overload, Totem and Evolve synergies. But there’s a compelling argument that these mechanics miss a core part of Shaman’s identity. An identity that is subverted and held back, ironically, by one of Shaman’s greatest strengths.

Masters of the board

Shaman is board-centric to its core

Shaman is, aside from Paladin, maybe Hearthstone’s most board-centric class. Though it has a variety of strong spells like Lava Shock, these are best sent face; the class relies heavily on keeping minions to succeed. The entire totem mechanic, including the hero power, revolves around keeping and buffing low-value minions. Without board control, the class quickly crumbles.

Unfortunately, this has led to a dilemma. When Shaman is strong, it dominates. If it can keep early board control, quickly snowball out of control and use its massive repertoire of burn to finish off opponents. But when it’s weak, it truly struggles; without being able to utilise its totems, it can’t gain sufficient value without giving up on the board completely. But how does Shaman succeed without being over-centralized into a indistinct, burn-focused Aggro deck?

Incremental value

burst

Mana Tide Totem is a perfect example of how Shaman gets value from winning the board

The answer might lie in Shaman’s most powerful minion type: its totems. Mana Tide, Flametongue and Primalfin Totem all provide incremental value simply by staying alive and well-defended. A well placed totem backed up by a Taunt or two can swing games. This is distinct to many former Aggro Shaman staples like Totem Golem and Flamewreathed Faceless that do not require backup to succeed, and simply win with their potent piles of stats.

Continuing with a more totem-focused gameplan could make Shaman more interactive and distinct from other aggressive decks. However, this strategy requires support. And that support risks supplanting totems altogether.

The Bloodlust problem

burst

Spirit Echo is fun, but outside of jades it’s usually just worse than Bloodlust

Consider Bloodlust. Bloodlust has been a staple of wide Shaman decks for a while, but it’s also a limiter. By giving Shaman huge burst potential from wide boards, it becomes problematic. When Shaman’s identity is built around getting value out of small minions, a card that essentially reads “win the game if you have lots of minions” has two main problems.

Firstly, it crowds out other strategies. Cards like Spirit Echo, Grumble or Worldshaker have little use, because they’re best used on big boards where Bloodlust will just win you the game. And secondly, it means that Shaman can’t receive too many resilient, efficient minions because early game snowball can lead to a quick victory, either from Bloodlust or with simple direct damage spells.

All or nothing?

With Jade Claws, Patches, Thing from Below and Maelstrom Portal rotating out, Shaman may go from bad to worse. There simply may not be enough early game to defend and back up its powerful totems. But conversely, attempts to mitigate this could simply lead to a return to the bad old days of Aggro Shaman or overly oppressive Midrange Shaman. So what’s to be done?

One option would be to reduce Shaman’s burn options while increasing its ability to seize the board. If Lava Shock, Doomhammer and Bloodlust weren’t so threatening, then Shaman could benefit from early board control without turning into a meta-defining aggro monster. But this comes with risks; most notably undermining Shaman’s identity of raw, unbridled elemental power. Otherwise, the answer may simply be to try and replicate how Shaman was able to operate in Un’goro, by finely tuning it precisely to make a healthy, balanced and interesting meta deck. But in the chaos that comes with set rotations and a new expansion, this might be a difficult task. Let’s hope Team 5 are up to the challenge.

 

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Will post-nerf Cubelock conquer all?

Hearthstone’s incoming round of balance changes are as wide-ranging as they are unusual. Unlike the Gadgetzan patch a year ago, the balance team chose not to leave soon-rotating cards untouched. Surprising many, they instead focused three of their four nerfs on cards from previous sets. Corridor Creeper, Raza, Bonemare and of course Patches will soon be significantly weaker. But while these changes delighted many, some grow increasingly worried about Cubelock.

The untouched terror

cubelock

Control Warlocks lost nothing to balance changes

Cubelock is a powerful combo Warlock deck that uses Skull of Manari and Possessed Lackey to cheat out demons, typically Voidlord and Doomguard. It then seeks to duplicate these minions multiple times with Carnivorous Cube, Faceless Manipulator and Bloodreaver Gul’dan. So far, so standard. It’s powerful, but not gamebreaking. So far, so standard. But what has people worried is that so far, it’s the only top-tier deck that plays none of the nerfed cards.

This poses a question; with none of the other tier one decks up to their former strength, will Cubelock run rampant, destroying the meta as we know it? Well maybe; but there are strong reasons to believe it may not.

Counters will rise

cubelock

Perhaps Quest Rogue could return to challenge Warlock?

One of the problems with the meta as it is is that Warlock and Priest hold it in a vice-like grip, pressuring it from different angles. Though their winrate isn’t astronomic, they’re incredibly popular, and they pressure decks in different ways. Razakus is the ultimate Control killer, with armor-shattering OTK potential and massive long-term burn damage. Meanwhile Cubelock shuts down aggro and midrange with massive walls of Voidlords and a huge variety of powerful boardclears. But with Raza Priest no longer the foe it once was, and Aggro diminished, it not only frees up Warlock, it opens up its counters.

Decks like Big Priest, Quest Rogue or Control Mage can crush Cubelock by pressuring its lack of hard removal, early game tempo or vulnerability to transforms or silences. It’s also worth mentioning that Control Warlock also does very well against Cubelock, and with no Raza Priest to pressure it down, may become the dominant Warlock archetype.

Wrecking with teching

cubelock

Cards like polymorph hard-counter many Cubelock minions

But you don’t have to counter-queue to counter Warlock. There are a number of potent techs that would help quell a Warlock meta. Most notable is Spellbreaker; a versatile silence that both neutralizes Voidlords and renders un-popped Cubes useless. But there’s more than just Spellbreaker. All transform removal, silences or return-to-hand effects can massively cut into a Cubelock’s strategy. Even Faceless Manipulators and Prince Taldarams of your own can copy their boards.

Otherwise, tweaking your deck to be stronger against Cubelock can be as simple as a few snowball minions. The deck runs no early removal to deal with cards that can quickly grow out of control like Vicious Fledgling, Scavenging Hyena or Frothing Beserker. These can prove to be a massive problem when the opponent plays around defile, quickly smashing down the Warlock’s health total while providing the tempo to build a sticky board.

Ruler of the rotation

Things get a bit trickier after the Year of the Mammoth however. Cubelock loses only Mistress of Mixtures from current lists, and may get substantially stronger if Blizzard continues to give Warlock such high quality cards. Meanwhile existing decks lose far more, including many of Cubelock’s counters.

If Cubelock is going to run rampant, it’s likely going to be after the following expansion. But all is not set in stone. Key cards may be “Hall of Fame”‘d, new techs may be printed and new more powerful strategies may arise. With all that said, it is certainly an archetype Blizzard should keep an eye on.

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How Hearthstone’s ladder changes will benefit everyone

Hearthstone’s ladder system has been overdue for a big revamp for a while now. A poor new player experience, inconsistent matchmaking and a long monthly slog were continual problems. Rank floors at 5, 10 and 15 alleviated this, but only partially. Now though, a bevy of changes promise to provide long term solutions to these issues. Though they won’t come into effect until March, they should be a more forgiving silent director of our Hearthstone experiences.

The progression problem

ladder

Players can be put off by the grind and pressure of Ranked

The main problems identified by players can be split into two categories: grind at the high level, and matchmaking for newer players. Solving them isn’t easy; Blizzard have to balance them against the value of the sense of progression that climbing brings. A stagnant ladder would have little grind and good matchmaking, but little progression. But too much mobility leads to frustration, as happens now.

Hitting high ranks or legend now puts you back to rank 16 at the start of a season. If you don’t start grinding rank straight away, this can leave you cleaving a path through newer or less serious players in order to even get close to the rank you achieved last season. This is bad for everyone. Legend players have a long slog of grinding through autopilot matchups, and newer players get farmed. And due to the high compression of players at the top of the ladder, every lucky streak pushes them far beyond what their collection and experience is capable of defeating.

Room to play

ladder

There’ll be more space between new players and veterans

The changes seek to strike this balance better. The first and most immediate is to increase the number of stars per rank. This gives newer players more “breathing room”, as there is less of a sudden transition from ranks 25-21 and 20+.  What’s more, there will be more space for newer or more casual players from ranks 20-15, improving matchmaking further.

Since Hearthstone is an inherently varied game, bad luck can currently easily put new and veteran players together. A string of bad luck on one end, and a series of good fortune on the other, and suddenly a new player’s Free to play Mage can face up against an all-golden Kazakus Priest. Increasing the numbers of stars per rank increases the distance between disparate decks and skill levels, meaning better matchmaking for all at lower ranks.

Of course, this has the side-effect of increasing the grind to hit a certain rank, but this is where the second change comes in.

Less of a reset

At the end of each month, players will no longer be reset more if they climbed higher. Now, players will simply be reset by 4 ranks; so if you hit rank 3, you’d start at rank 7, and so on. This massively reduces the grind-load to hit legend each season, as well as improving matchmaking further. The changes are most notable for pro or consistent legend players. Pro player Stanislav “Stancifka” Cifka posted a good breakdown of how it will impact pros on the /r/Hearthstone subreddit. He’s hopeful it will reduce the grind and encourage play across more servers.

But this isn’t just good for Legend or high-rank players. It’s also beneficial to the more casual or newer players that otherwise need to be farmed from rank 16 onward in order to allow them to regain their rank. In keeping top players confined to rank 5 and up, there’ll be fewer unfair matches against those far more experienced with far bigger collections. While the raw stars to reach a given rank will increase, the overall play experience will get far better; especially as stronger players begin sticking at rank 4 and up.

ladder

With less reliance on winstreaks, Aggro may see less dominance for early-season climbing

A meta shift?

One unexpected impact the ladder alterations may have is a shift in the metagame. One perennial problem has been the rewarding of fast games (think Aggro decks) over slow. This is exacerbated by the requirement of Legend players to grind through low-ranked opponents every month. What’s more, the need to take advantage of winstreaks means Aggro gets even further benefit, as a middling winrate with fast games can still get you stars faster as you ride the winstreak variance.

With less of a reset, and with legend players left at a rank with no winstreaks at the start of a season, Aggro is less favoured early on. This could lead to more promotion and play of interesting midrange or control decks, and an overall more balanced metagame.

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The five stages of Corridor Creeper nerf

Could anything replace Corridor Creeper? Violet Wurm just doesn’t have the same charisma

Nerfing a card must be a traumatic experience for the development team. Cards have a ton of effort and love poured into them, with art, sound design, game mechanics and lore all intertwined. When balance forces a change, it loses a part of that card’s identity forever. Although Warsong Commander’s 2/3 soul was intact, it was never the same. The act of nerfing a card may even bear resemblance to losing a friend or loved one. Would it be too much to suggest that the developers might go through something similar to the famous “Five Stages of Grief”? Almost certainly yes. But hey, it might be fun to imagine how the balance decision might change as the balance team came to terms with their loss.

Denial

Saying the problem will rotate out with Patches may be overly optimistic

At first, it might be possible that the dev team might deny that a problem exists. After all, who would think lovable Corridor Creeper, with its fashionable pink glistening hide and charming growl that brings joy to so many, would be a problem? To start with, there would be the urge for caution. “We need to let the meta settle!”, or “wait till after the World Championship”. But the meta has settled, the World Championship came and went. Corridor Creeper is as much of an issue as ever. Is there no hope for Corridor Creeper to remain unscathed?

There is one last rallying cry for those that might see Corridor Creeper saved. It’s the argument made by Reynad, that the problem is less Corridor Creeper and more Patches and other early-game minions that quickly drive down the mana cost. Unfortunately, this argument is unlikely to hold water. Even without Patches, the card quickly gets far too cheap far too quickly for it to go unchanged.

Anger

It’s possible that in their darker moments, the devs might react with anger. What has Corridor Creeper ever done to hurt anyone (other than 5 damage per turn)? One might imagine Ben Brode angrily pacing the walls of Team 5’s development studio, punching a hole in the wall with despair and rage at how anyone would want to hurt such a magnificent, handsome tunnel worm.

When people get angry, they can lash out at easy targets. And in Hearthstone, easy targets are Classic cards. Perhaps Lightning Storm would go to 5 mana. Tirion might rotate to Hall of Fame. Shield Slam could only target friendly minions. Hopefully though, cooler heads will prevail.

Bargaining

As Leeroy proved, 1 more mana may not be enough

After anger comes bargaining. Perhaps Corridor Creeper wasn’t so bad? Could it get away with a minor, Spreading Plague style nerf? After all, there are plenty of other cards with significant cost reductions. Sea Giants, Molten Giants and Arcane Giants all can get down to zero mana. Heck, even Nerubian Prophet does so relatively quickly. Surely a 1 mana increase would be enough? Probably not.

Unlike similar cards, Corridor Creeper is strong enough to keep off the mulligan. Only a couple of trades brings its cost down to 3, and three trades makes it cost only 1. An 8 cost Corridor Creeper would help, but ultimately do little but reduce the power of Forbidden Shaping and Free from Amber. The problem with Corridor Creeper is how fast it can reduce in cost, not just that the initial mana cost is too low. And that requires fundamental change.

Depression

It might be tempting at this stage to suggest that Corridor Creeper deserves to be nerfed into oblivion. With such game-breaking potential, it is even conceivable that like with Warsong Commander, the entire function of the card could change. Or more realistically, we could see a mana hike of 3 or more to push it out of the viability as an opening hand keep.

But there might yet be redemption for the Creeper. Having a card that benefits from dying minions, is a neat idea. It rewards decks that play minions but also want to trade defensively. Unfortunately, its sheer power level meant that even the bare minimum of trading made it incredibly potent.

Acceptance

A reasonable nerf to Corridor Creeper is possible. It’s a hard card to predict, purely because numbers don’t mean the same as it does with other cards. Not only mana cost, but rate of reduction must be considered. But there is a balance to be struck. Hit it too hard, and tempo mirrors no longer have interesting swing turns that make the winner less set in stone from the first two turns. Touch it too lightly, and it will continue to dominate the meta.

In the meantime, we all should take some time to craft and enjoy this lovely epic while we still have the chance. After all, there are very good odds we’ll get our dust back.

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The World Championship was Hearthstone at its best and worst

(Spoilers)

Hearthstone’s World Championship is finally over, after a rollercoaster ride of high stakes, great plays and unbelievable topdecks. It served as testament to not only the contestants’ skill level, but also the craft of Hearthstone’s design team. Not all of this reflected well; both the players and the game had their fair share of mistakes highlighted. All in all, the tournament served to show Hearthstone ‘warts and all’ with all the crazy moments, skill-testing positions and unfortunate RNG design decisions we’ve come to love and hate.

Great plays

The tournament, a culmination of a year’s effort from hundreds of players over the world, was arguably a high-water-mark in skill. From Surrender’s counter-intuitive but ultimately successful “wasting” of Prophet Velen versus Shtanudachi’s Jade Druid to Fr0zen’s simple but decisive cycling of Holy Smite on a Northshire Cleric, Raza Priest offered many opportunities for flashy, hard-to spot plays. But skill was shown throughout even the most straightforward of decks. My favourite play of the entire tournament was a very straightforward two turn sequence by eventual champion Tom60229.

In the opening game of his semifinal match against Surrender, Tom played a nourish for mana on 5 after topdecking an Arcane Tyrant. The casters and audience all expected him to cash in on his good fortune, playing out the free 4/4. But Tom waited. Instead, he played it on the following turn along with Spreading Plague. Not only did this protect the 4/4 better, it allowed Tom to get an additional 1/5 scarab. By recognising he had the luxury of taking the game slower, he gained incremental advantages that ended up swinging the game in his favour (no doubt helped by Surrender’s Patches draw).

 

Tom60229’s choice to hold Arcane Tyrant was counter-intuitive but brilliant

Frustrating RNG

Drawing Patches may have cost Surrender a shot at the final

Of course, the tournament was filled with far more eventful, but less controllable events. Surrender couldn’t hide his despair as he drew Patches two games in a row. To make things even worse, it was immediately followed by Tom60229 starting out the game with Keleseth and Shadowstep. The final game of the tournament was also heartbreakingly one-sided, as Fr0zen tried desperately to dig for an Ultimate Infestation that came far, far too late.

However, the most frustrating early-game RNG came about on the previous game, where Tom60229’s turn one Swashburglar pulled Innervate, allowing him to follow up with a turn 2 10/10 Edwin. While a strong play, the single extra mana from the random Innervate gave his Edwin another +2/+2 and an extra turn to hit face, essentially resulting in 12 extra points of damage. That would be bad enough, were it not for the fact that he was able to have Leeroy on turn 5 for lethal.

Despite all this talk of Tom60229’s good fortune, it wasn’t totally out of his opponent’s control to counter. Fr0zen could have kept Ultimate Infestation in the mulligan, and hero powered out of Leeroy range, for instance. Regardless, the RNG made these two games far less enjoyable than the preceding few.

A turn 2 10/10 versus Druid, courtesy of Swashburglar RNG

Moments to remember

Despite how early-game RNG can make a tournament feel swingy, there were some great crowd-pleasing moments created by randomness. Sintolol and Fr0zen’s final face-off as Big Mage versus Combo Dragon Priest was such a fantastic match because of RNG. Sintolol pulling Frost Lich Jaina with Drakonid Operative created a fantastic and memorable game. It was filled with incredibly skill-testing and exciting situations that went all the way to fatigue. There were also the triumphant moments. It was hard not to cheer as Fr0zen’s hard-pressed Control Mage, struggling the entire game, managed to topdeck an Arcane Artificer to clear Tom60229’s last Jades with Flamestrike and heal out of range of Ultimate Infestation.

Brian Kibler’s words for the Sintolol versus Fr0zen match could apply to the entire tournament; “If you don’t like [this], you don’t like Hearthstone”.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via https://www.twitch.tv/playhearthstone

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The Spellstones that didn’t work

The Spellstones were one of Kobolds and Catacombs most interesting additions. It’s been hard to design spells that synergise with certain tribes, mechanics or card types; but Spellstones manage to allow interesting deckbuilding strategies. By upgrading in the hand, value can be accumulated throughout the game then unleashed in a powerful tempo swing. Of course, some of these strategies work better than others. Each of the class’s Spellstones has had a different impact on the metagame, with some supercharging archetypes and others waiting in the wings.

But not all of them were as strong as Warlock’s Amethyst Spellstone’s lifegain, or Druid’s Jasper Spellstone with its efficient removal potential. For a variety of reasons, most of the Spellstones failed to make much of an impact.

Rogue

Onyx Spellstone has anti-synergy with its upgrade requirements

Perhaps, in another meta, Rogue’s Onyx Spellstone would have been OP. Perhaps in the Undertaker days, when deathrattles were mandatory in every aggressive deck, and Haunted Creepers and Harvest Golems ruled. Unfortunately, the Rogue Spellstone started out its days in a meta sadly empty of cheap, effective Aggro deathrattles.

And like the Priest Quest, it’s hard to shove a lot of minions in a deck in order to fulfill a goal (late-game mass removal) that doesn’t really gel with a late-game strategy.

This one had an extremely poor start, with the lowest deck winrate of any Spellstone. That said, it’s not impossible the Onyx Spellstone finds a home in the future. Rogue is notoriously bad at large clears and mass hard removal, and if big decks rise to the fore, it may just be worth including in some kind of aggressive deathrattley mid-range strategy.

Paladin

It’s hard to outheal Cubelock or Razakus

Pearl Spellstone faces the same problem that many Paladin healing and healing synergy cards do; it’s pretty useless if you’re not damaged. The trio of requiring face damage, a heal card and to have drawn the Spellstone in a class with limited draw options is a bit much to ask. That said, the card is still decently powerful in the right deck; namely, Control Paladin. Unfortunately for Pearl Spellstone, that deck happens to be extremely weak to some of the most popular classes in the game, most notably Raza Priest.

If there are fewer all-conquering combo decks in the future, Control Paladin may do alright on the back of Call to Arms. In that case, it’s quite possible that Pearl Spellstone finds a home. Until then, you may be better off running Knife Jugglers instead.

Shaman

Fully upgraded, Sapphire Spellstone is powerful but clunky

Crusher Shaman got new hope with the Sapphire Spellstone. This powerful tool can be devastating played on an Ancestral Spirit’d Snowfury Giant. The downside? Well, it’s yet another situational tool in a deck full of situational tools, that’s weak to exactly the same things Crusher Shaman was always weak to. It’s strong enough to find a home, but not enough to push Crusher Shaman out of Tier Shaman.

There are a few things that could allow this card to be more effective. One would be the addition of more viable Overload removal. Another would be more cost-reduction minions that could synergise with this. Or even just more control tools for Shaman (especially in the early game). But as is, it remains an interesting but fringe tool to make that rare Control Warrior cry.

It doesn’t help that it’s forever going to be in the same rotation as Psychic Scream and Diamond Spellstone, two cards that hard counter and overshadow it respectively.

Mage

“Well, it’s this, Glacial Mysteries or Shatter, soo…”

You’ve probably seen a lot of Ruby Spellstones on ladder. It’s just quite likely they came out of Primordial Glyph. This card could be good, but it unfortunately relies heavily on Elementals. Maybe down the line, Elemental Mage could be the next mech mage. But as is, there’s simply too few viable Elementals to completely build a deck around.

It also doesn’t help that Tempo Mage is so strong. The secrets package takes a lot of deck slots, and is the best option to combine with burn, Mana Wyrm and Aluneth.

But the next rotation will leave us without Kabal Crystal Runner, Kabal Lackey and Medivh’s Valet. Maybe Elementals like Fire Fly, Tar Creeper, Steam Surger and Leyline Manipulator could combine with new Elementals to replace them?

Warrior

There’s not much reason to play Mithril Spellstone outside of Spiteful Summoner

Warrior’s Mithril Spellstone is currently played in an extremely potent and meta-viable deck. Pirate Warrior is a powerful, if not especially popular, aggressive option, that runs Mithril Spellstone in some variations. So why is Mithril Spellstone on this list? Well, despite the fact that it’s played in a strong deck, the deck does better when the card is not drawn and played.

Sure, it can create a board of 5/5s out of nowhere, but that’s just plan B. The real reason for this card’s inclusion is Spiteful Summoner, which can be a massive turn six tempo swing. A random seven drop and a 4/4 on six is far more appealing than a couple of 5/5s on seven.

What’s more, if anything, the future looks poor for this card. Pirate Warrior loses its best cards in Patches and N’zoth’s First Mate after the rotation, and is unlikely to survive. In addition, any more pro-active expensive Warrior spell is likely to replace Mithril Spellstone as a Spiteful Summoner activator, as Mithril can be hard to activate in a deck with no draw mechanics and only six weapons.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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Dirty Rat

Ode to a Rat

Amongst the hundreds and hundreds of cards released over the past few years, a few truly stand out. Every card is crafted with love and care. Designed, balanced, voice acted, drawn and animated into something lively and characterful. Each one oozes charm and fulfills a unique gameplay niche. But some rise above their peers, effortlessly matching flavour, balance, art and design into something great. Dirty Rat is one of these, perhaps the best designed card of the last two years.

With the good old disloyal Kobold due to rotate soon, now is a perfect time to reflect on what made the card so great.

A flavourful felon

Dirty Rat

What a charming fella

A large part of Dirty Rat’s charm is his wonderful flavour. It all fits together. The card’s joke ties together perfectly with his mechanical function. He’s a ratlike Kobold who literally “rats out” a minion hidden in your opponent’s hand, screeching that he “Ain’t talkin’!” as he does so. It’s a cute and funny moment, that is even more hilarious when he suddenly gives the opponent a Y’shaarj on turn two.

His mischievous grin even points to his Taunt ability, as well as his penchant for messing up your opponent’s carefully crafted combos. All in all, the flavour is so strong and compelling because it perfectly gels with Dirty Rat’s gameplay. It reinforces perfectly the ideas the mechanics put across, while helping build the Hearthstone character and unique feel of the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion.

Johnny’s dream

Dirty Rat

The card has some powerful and unexpected synergies

One of the most enduring appeals of Dirty Rat is its seemingly endless series of interactions, tricks and combos that can be used to devastate an enemy. The possibilities are almost endless. On a basic level, just cheap hard removal is great for handling that Velen or Malygos that just got pulled. Otherwise, mass board clears like Brawl or Twisting Nether get even more value when you’re able to pull down one or more big enemy minions.

Beyond that, there are truly innovative combos. Mind Control Tech, Sylvanas and Doomsayers can all have some incredibly potent interactions. Priest can pull off some crazy shenanigans with Potion of Madness, Divine Spirit and Inner Fire. It can activate Defiles, punish Unlicensed Apothecaries and create targets for Entomb and Psychic Scream. The huge number of potential possibilities for Dirty Rat’s unique effect is part of the card’s genius.

Counterplay for days

Of course, the main utility of Dirty Rat is as a combo counter, and it does that job beautifully. But unlike many tech cards, it’s extremely interactive. There are numerous ways to play around it, from executing the combo early, to holding minions in your hand, to bluffing not having pieces, or even to Dirty Rat out their Dirty Rat. However, it is nonetheless extremely effective at sabotaging combo decks in all their forms, making it an invaluable control tool in the right meta. Quest Mage, Quest Rogue and even Raza Priest were all held back from completely dominating slower decks with this card.

It’s also not just a one-trick pony; it can be a great stabilisation tool against Aggro, or even a solid turn two play versus the right deck. But these gambles can have disastrous consequences, leading to its other advantage.

Dirty Rat

Dirty Rat helped keep Quest Rogue in check

The Disaster Artist

One of the best features of Dirty Rat is how calculated risks can lead to utter disaster. Of course, you know that playing Dirty Rat on two can go wrong, but there’s no way this guy isn’t Raza Priest with that mulligan, right? And then Y’shaarj comes down to ruin your day. Everyone who’s played Dirty Rat knows the hilarious failcascade that can happen if you fatally misjudge your opponent’s deck or starting hand. While it can be frustrating, it creates amazing moments to share and laugh over later. And it gives every Timmy deck a chance to shine against an overconfident opponent.

Of course, if you’re overly cautious, this is simply avoided by saving it for a turn with a guaranteed clear. But for those who are willing to push the envelope and try their hand at perfectly judging their opponent, there’s a huge and entertaining variance of payoffs or calamities.

All in all Dirty Rat charmed its way into our hearts with his lovably traitorous nature, created huge opportunities for deckbuilding and experimentation, kept otherwise oppressive combo decks in check and enabled some awesomely over-the top and unexpected comebacks and game situations. Goodbye from Standard, Dirty Rat. You will be missed.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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Rotation, schmotation: Hearthstone needs balance changes now

We’re not even a month beyond the Kobolds and Catacombs release and already the meta is closed to settled. While the eventual top dog is as-of-yet unknown, a small cluster of decks have stuck close to the top. Lists are solidifying, and it’s getting harder and harder to experiment. The effectiveness of certain cards and decks eclipse all but a few other high-powered strategy. Normally, a few months after a major Hearthstone release, we would expect a balance change. But Rotation changes all that.

With a Standard rotation coming soon, Team 5 may simply wait rather than alter problem cards that are due to leave soon. But this is an overly cautious strategy that risks alienating Hearthstone’s playerbase and leading to a stale meta-game.

How long can this go on?

rotation

A lot of familiar faces (via vicioussyndicate.com)

The last set of balance changes were announced in September 2017. It’s likely we’ll now get no new balance changes until the next set after Kobolds and Catacombs releases, roughly three months from now. This means we’ll have six or more months with no substantive balance changes to Hearthstone beyond adding new cards. This sets a terrible precedent.

Six months is a long time, and only having one content release to shake up the meta in that time makes Hearthstone’s meta even more frustrating and stale. Frustratingly powerful decks like Keleseth Rogue or Razakus Priest are one thing; it’s quite another to have the same few decks dominate with little hope of respite.

It doesn’t help that the same decks that dominated in September 2017 are still mostly intact. Murloc Paladin, Jade Druid, Tempo Rogue and Razakus Priest were all very powerful by this stage. The only real alteration to the meta has been the addition of Warlock variants to the meta and the swapping around of a few Corridor Creepers and Psychic Screams. If nothing else, there’s a strong case for a balance patch just to shake things up.

Wild is not your dumping ground

rotation

Wild Reno Priest has the potential to be extremely oppressive

Of course, there’s another argument against simply letting Patches, Raza et al retire to Wild; Wild doesn’t want them either! Using Wild as a dumping ground for problematic cards is not a good long term strategy. Wild is supposed to be maintained as a parallel competitive environment, not a place to forget design mistakes.

Leaving Raza as is would lead to Reno Priest becoming even more dominant in Wild as time goes by. While currently not completely oppressive, it definitely has the potential to be as Priest inevitably gets more consistent early tools. And need any more be said on the impact of Patches on Wild’s early game? Even in a world of Haunted Creepers, Zombie Chows and Shielded Minibots, a free 1/1 charge is not to be sniffed at. Patches is the sort of card that could permanently warp Wild’s early game for the worse.

Part of what makes Standard work is players not simply feeling they’ve lost their cards after they rotate. Not caring about the competitive integrity of Wild will eventually make players feel worse about Standard as a whole. It wouldn’t even work from a financial standpoint, as Blizzard doesn’t exactly want players to dust their rotated cards due to them no longer caring about a format overrun with overpowered cards and synergies that were never balanced.

Greed is not a good look

rotation

Blizzard probably aren’t acting out of greed: but it sure looks like it

The cynic in me wants to suggest that Blizzard and Team 5 are putting off balance changes for short-term financial purposes. After all, giving thousands of dust to millions of customers will have a direct impact on pack sales. Of course, this is unlikely to be anything other than a tangential issue.

The Hearthstone team have a well-documented aversion to making changes where changes are arguably unnecessary. Buffs are unheard of, and only the most egregious offenders (and Hex) have the nerfhammer called down on them. Waiting for rotation is just an extension of this strategy.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it looks. A growing number of players are dissatisfied with a number of recent changes to Hearthstone’s cost, most notably the swap from Adventures to Expansions. Delaying balance changes simply reinforces the idea that Blizzard only cares about Hearthstone’s short-term profits and simply doesn’t want to reimburse players for Patches, Razakus, Aya Blackpaw or similar.

A matter of principle

Hearthstone will probably be fine without urgent balance changes. A few extra months of Razakus, Patches and Corridor Creeper dominating the meta will be bearable (just). But if we can only expect two balance patches a year instead of three because of the latter’s proximity to rotation, we are condemning Hearthstone to spend a good third of its existence is its worst state of stale metas and overpowered cards.

We can and should forgive designer’s mistakes. But we should not stand for laziness when it comes to balance changes. It’ll be a long three months before Standard rotation, and in the meantime we deserve a more balanced game.

 

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