The League’s Explorers: A Retrospective

It’s hard not to look back on the League of Explorers expansion with rose-tinted spectacles. It came after the relatively non impactful Grand Tournament expansion that seemed to do little but introduce the much-maligned Secret Paladin, and following on the heels of a controversial Warsong Commander nerf. It provided a well-needed injection of variety and levity. Though the expansion added a number of exciting, archetype defining cards, it’s best remembered for its four eponymous Explorers. These oft-hatted adventurers weren’t just the thematic heart of the expansion; they each provided a powerful and lasting impact on Hearthstone’s history.

 

Sir Finley Mrrglton

This gentleman’s refined demeanor belied his aggro inclinations

Sir Finley heralded the rise of a whole new breed of aggro decks. Previously, many archetypes had been lumbered with an inherently defensive hero power. Classes like Warrior or Shaman could sometimes match Hunters with their quality of cards,; but the consistent pressure granted by the Steady Shot Hero Power made it the premier aggro class. Sir Finley Mrrglton single-handedly smashed that paradigm. He provided a decent body early-game, but mainly allowed a game plan synergistic hero power to replace an otherwise near-useless defensive one. Along with his one mana, 1/3 buddy Tunnel Trogg, he was a vital part in the rise of Aggro Shaman.

Steady Shot and Lifetap were of course the most coveted, but even Fireblast or Druid’s Transform were viable alternatives to the otherwise near-useless Armor Up and Totem powers. Whether or not this impact was healthy in the long run is a matter of perspective. In the short run, though, it contributed massively to an increase in the variety of Aggro. With Hunter on the ropes as a class, perhaps it’s best that Steady shot becomes unique to them once more…

What can we learn after Mrrglton’s Rotation? Well, for one, changing to another class’s hero power might dilute class flavor a bit much. Especially in the days when Small Time Buccaneer and Patches were ubiquitous, opening into the same few cards and the same few hero powers began to get monotonous. On the plus side, his voice acting and entry sequence were truly top-notch. On the other hand, allowing more variety in hero powers can help more viable decks flourish.

Brann Bronzebeard

Brann’s wild combos might be best suited to the Wild format

Brann Bronzebeard was an obvious addition ever since the likes of Baron Rivendare’s Deathrattle-doubling effect was introduced. His battlecry duplication ability with only minor stat costs made him a versatile inclusion in a wide variety of decks. From Dragon, to C’thun, to Jade, there were very few archetypes that couldn’t at least partially justify his inclusion.

While his incremental value was impressive, he could also inspire some truly broken combos. While Brann-Kazakus is the most popular now, few can forget the game-ending might of Brann into a Thaurrisan discounted Doomcaller. Barely any decks could withstand the onslaught of three C’thuns.

However, perhaps it’s for the best that he’s rotating out. As Kazakus has shown, he severely limited the design space for potent battlecry minions, or otherwise making certain archetypes and strategies far more potent than they had any right to be (see Jade Shaman). In that regard, Brann is a perfect advertisement for the merits of the Standard rotation system. While his potentially gamebreakingly powerful interactions will still exist to inspire and provoke wonder in Wild, they won’t pollute the carefully tuned balance of Standard.

Elise Starseeker

This card defined Control before Jade and Kazakus

Elise Starseeker was never meant to be anything other than a fun diversion. When she completely redefined Control decks, it was almost by accident. Together with Justicar Trueheart, she marked the temporary transition of Control decks from having heavy threats like Ysera in their deck to largely relying on her late-game value generation after reaching fatigue. The ability to swap out useless card draw and low-impact spells and minions for a cascade of huge bombs led to the evolution of Warrior and Priest decks. They could afford to go as anti-aggro as possible while still having a fighting chance in the control mirror.

The Golden Monkey itself provoked wonder, counter-play, and frustration in equal measure. While Legendary RNG decided many matchups, the variance was welcomed by adding unpredictability to the otherwise mathematically tedious calculations of Fatigue; and whilst she was powerful, there were numerous counterplay options. Most notably saving tempo tools like removal or Sylvanas for after the monkey hard replaced all comeback mechanics with clunky minions.

That said, the promotion of 20-minute plus games was perhaps an unhealthy one. Many players found it tedious and time-consuming facing decks that stalled out for dozens of turns before doing anything proactive. Still, Elise proved a powerful point; the promotion of potent proactive late-game strategies for control decks that don’t rely on replacing significant proportions of the deck with slow bombs could shake up otherwise stale interactions between late-game decks, while keeping their viability against aggro and midrange.

Reno Jackson

The fact that “Reno decks” are a concept tells of this card’s power

Few cards have been as impactful as Reno. This dapper member of the Explorers inspired multiple breeds of decks. Even the name Reno became a byword for singleton decks. His unique ability to provide incredible burst healing to classes that otherwise struggle with survivability, like Warlock or Mage, resulted in a new style of potent control decks. With the near-extinction of Handlock and struggle of Control Mage to find a raison d’etre after Echo of Medivh rotated out and Molten Giant’s mana was raised, the card provided a safe haven for those who wanted to play late-game oriented versions of those classes.

Kazakus provided a boost for singleton decks, making them the only option for Control after Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. This rise provided an additional spotlight on the less pleasant aspects of the class. By concentrating huge amounts of the decks’ power into a few key cards, decks tended to be exceptionally powerful, but horribly inconsistent, especially versus aggro. This made it especially frustrating when draw RNG was in favor of one player, as games often felt like a coin-flip.

Perhaps the best lesson to learn from Reno Jackson is to spread out the power cards for any given archetype over a decent number of deckslots. This will make games not as overly dependent on one draw-specific answers. The other, more positive lesson is already one that Team 5 has learned from; giving players reward for creative deckbuilding challenges pays off in terms of gameplay variety.

 

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

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An Impassioned, Possibly Misguided Defense of Explore Un’goro

Exploring the possibilities

Hearthstone’s latest expansion, Journey to Un’goro, is out in early April. With its outlandish setting, the expansion promises mechanics and cards that already could have immense potential. But it’s a jokey, “meme” card that was given to Warrior that has caught my attention: Explore Un’goro.

For those who haven’t had a chance to watch the card reveal livestream, the second batch of Un’goro cards have been revealed. The first of them was a card called Explore Un’goro. The card is deceptively simple; a two mana Warrior spell that replaces every card remaining in your deck with a one mana spell that discovers a card.

Could this card revolutionize Control Warrior? (Probably not, but I’ll make the case regardless)

 

Evaluating Explorrior

Are comparisons to Renounce Darkness unfair?

Most impressions of the card have been that it’s a fun, jokey, but ultimately non competitive card. Obvious comparisons between it and Renounce Darkness were made, along with Elise Starseeker. Overall, the consensus is that it’s inferior to both. It was even introduced on-stream as being a non competitive card, designed to allow a particular kind of player to have fun.

Jeffrey “Trump” Shih, for instance, calls it worse than Renounce Darkness, and points to people not running one mana discover cards. Meanwhile, he cites the lack of transforming cards in your hand and absence of shuffling a card into your deck as evidence of being an inferior Elise.

Those analyses have some merit; but there’s still a strong argument that Explore Un’goro is fundamentally different. In fact, there’s a decent chance that it will define a whole new archetype.

Late-game, not end-game

Elise Starseeker’s Golden Monkey is a strong but slow win condition

The first and obvious distinction to make is that Explore Un’goro is not a fatigue win condition as with Elise. Or at least, it is not primarily a fatigue win condition like Elise. Elise’s effect is Fatigue-oriented by necessity. This is especially important in a world of Jade Idols and Kazakuses, where fatigue has almost entirely disappeared as a win condition. Discover Un’goro has the potential to pump out threats as soon as you play it and draw a card. Furthermore, it can be played as a two of, unlike the Legendary Elise.

Regardless, it’s still a late-game effect. The requirement to spend a mana before discovering each card makes for a necessarily slow effect. You’d play this card for its value generation potential. It would have the same effect as Elise (transitioning from a reactive game-plan to a pro-active one), but would be able to take effect much faster.

Explore Un’goro is also superior in many respects to the effect of the Golden Monkey due to not transforming cards in hand, only cards in the deck. You can save that Brawl, Execute, or Grommash for the opponent’s N’zoth, Ragnaros, or Jaraxxus while still applying pressure and generating value.

More than a meme

Renounce Darkness, or “Renounce Dankness” as it is affectionately known, is the easiest card to directly compare to Explore Un’goro. The comparison is fundamentally misleading though. For one, Renounce relies on having a high number of Warlock class cards. These tend to be weak when trying to execute the control-into-midrange strategy the card represents. The advantage of Renounce is the ability to keep your neutrals unaffected; but Neutral cards tend to be pro-active minions anyway, rendering the strategy pointless. Finally, Warlocks give up their most potent late-game advantage, the Life-tap hero power. In return, you’d get a load of discounted, potentially useless cards.

Explore Un’goro, by contrast, has no deckbuilding requirements. No matter what your deck contains, Explore Un’goro will replace it. What’s more, Warrior is already adept at executing the early-game control strategy. It only struggles when trying to out-value other decks in the late-game. This situation, only exacerbated by Elise and Justicar rotating out, will be a perfect role for Explore Un’goro to fill.

On a more general basis, the whole point of transforming your deck is to go from a reactive early game to a proactive late game. In this, the flexibility offered by Discover and Warrior’s early-game strength will be instrumental.

Don’t judge the card, judge the deck

A test decklist, sans Explore Un’goro of course

You can’t evaluate Explore Un’goro like most cards. Explore Un’goro will only be as good or as bad as the deck it defines. What would such a deck look like?

Of course, any theory-crafting now is largely irrelevant. Any meta calls are likely off by a wide margin. The Warrior Quest in particular could fundamentally change how the deck is built. Moreover, the new Un’goro meta would determine tech choices and overall viability. However, as a thought experiment, it’s worthwhile to see the kind of deck it might find a home in.

Explore Un’goro itself is a late-game tool, so early game should be the emphasis here. Going aggro and proactive is largely pointless, as such decks want burst finishers more than value discovers in the late-game. The deck should be a heavily early-game focused Control deck.

This already seems promising. Warrior has arguably the best early Control tools in Hearthstone. Fiery War Axe, Blood to Ichor, and Ravaging Ghoul are perfect for countering and controlling the early-game board development of aggro and midrange. Meanwhile, defensive taunts like Alley Armorsmith and Bloodhoof Brave lock down the mid-game. Furthermore, spot removals like Execute and Shield Slam can take out key threats. Brawl acts as an emergency clear when these aren’t enough.

The final ingredient should be draw, as we want to actually get to our Explore Un’goros. This is also a perfect excuse to include Gadgetzan Auctioneer; allowing us to draw multiple cards immediately after playing Explore Un’goro.

The gameplan

Warrior Epics can be hit or miss. Some completely flop…

This deck would strongly counter all early-game attacks with its bevy of early-game tools. After wiping out early minions with ease and dropping a few solid taunts, it draws consistently with Acolyte, Slam, and Shield Slam. The first few of the opponent’s big threats are swatted away with powerful hard removal. Just as it’s looking to run out of steam, Explore Un’goro is played, along with the last Taunt minion. The next turn, Gadgetzan Auctioneer hits the board, and four cards are instantly drawn with discover effects. The Warrior then drops threat after threat, answering specific cards with the limited resources remaining from its original hand.

Eventually, the opponent cannot hold back the constant pressure, taking a risky play. This could then be punished by the Warrior’s remaining or discovered answers. The following turn, they are beat down by the Warrior’s board of fat minions.

Good on paper?

…but some redefine what the class can do

Is such a deck good? It’s hard to tell. It would likely suffer from a lack of mid-game tools (particularly with Sylvanas rotating out). Any deck that could transform the tempo loss in between early-game answers and late-game Explore combos would likely be favored. But against many other types of decks, it’s hard to see too many flaws in the gameplan. The ability to swap almost all late-game for two Gadgetzan Auctioneers and two Explore Un’goros is potent indeed.

If one thing is certain, it’s that you can’t rule out Explore Un’goro too quickly. It’s notoriously common to mis-evaluate build-arounds (Mysterious Challenger anyone?), and this may just be another example of that. After all, another seemingly unplayable Warrior Epic in Blood Warriors created a new archetype that was even taken to Blizzcon (albeit unsuccessfully).

Whether it’s a Tentacles for Arms or a Blood Warriors, keep a close eye on this card. It just might be the new face of Warrior.

 

 

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

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Why Jade Druid Is So Controversial

There’s been a lot of angst lately about Jade Druid. Various reddit posts complaining about its discouraging effect or its imbalance related to previous mechanics have sparked debate and vitriol. Alongside them, counter-posts stating that it’s not as overpowered as made out, or poking fun at the frequency of the complaints. Jade Druid is relatively straightforward, as decks go. So why is the debate over it so divisive?

The deck is not particularly oppressive in terms of pure win rate. Tempostorm ranks it as only high tier two, with middling matchups for the majority of the ladder. Meanwhile the VS Data Report grants it an overall sub 50% win rate, that drops further the higher you climb. Unlike previous complaint-drawing meta tyrants, it has clear counters. So why does it garner such a disproportionate amount of frustration?

Countering Control isn’t the Whole Story

Midrange Hunter countered Control with far fewer complaints

One of the main reasons cited for Jade Druid’s unpopularity among certain sections of the user-base is simply that it counters slow Control decks hard. This is certainly the case; a combination of constantly ramping threats, powerful draw engines, and fatigue-resistant win conditions makes them near unbeatable. Their very existence has made non-combo-based Control decks almost extinct.

But this is not the first time Control decks have had counters. It’s not the first time that fatigue has been an unachievable goal against certain archetypes either. Decks like Midrange Hunter and Mill Rogue have preyed on Control for a long time before Jade Druid ever showed up. Even old combo Midrange Druid punished slower decks hard. This is more a matter of players being salty at an uneven matchup. Jade Druid inspires such malice, despair, and outright anger that gives its opposition a quality all of its own.

Unfair? Or Just Not Fun?

It’s likely, then, that the complaints relating to Jade Druid go deeper than raw win-loss stats. Is there something uniquely frustrating about the matches themselves? Particularly the Control matchups? After all, the experience of Hearthstone is not just about who wins and who loses. It’s also the variance, the break-points, the skill-tests, and the emotions.

One complaint often aimed at Jade decks is that Jades are simply big, dumb minions with strong stats. These are portrayed as being fundamentally boring and non interactive. Unlike C’thun or other ramping strategies, each card feels mostly similar (being a bundle of stats with a Jade attached) and interacts with the Golems minimally.

Still, that is also not unique. Plenty of decks rely on ramping up with bundles of stats; most notably past versions of Druid. In any case, Jade Shaman has the same reliance on vanilla minions and attracts far less angst.

When Control Doesn’t

There’s not much a Control player can do against the perfect Nourish topdeck

Of course, all of these complaints contribute to the problem. But one aspect that is arguably overlooked is the way it makes players play. Jade Druid is nowhere near the first deck near-immune to fatigue that relies on vanilla minions with under-costed stats, or that counters Control. What is relatively new is that it fundamentally changes the win condition of Control decks and their resulting playstyle.

Consider the way you win against a Jade Druid as a Control player. You have to pray they draw badly and you draw well, play out high-tempo threats, and pressure them down. If they draw the right answers at the right time, you’re invariably doomed, buried under an infinite train of golems.

Does that remind you of anything? The Jade Druid matchup, invariably forcing the Control player to take a Beatdown, creates exactly the kind of dynamics that Control players specifically play Control decks to avoid.

Choosing Your Game Plan

When you pick up Reno Mage, Control Warrior, or Renolock, you’re deliberately making a choice to avoid having games decided by early-game tempo and draw RNG. Queuing into Jade Druid means that these aspects of Hearthstone resurface once more to become paramount.

What to take away from this should be that players don’t necessarily mind one-sided matchups; but they do mind being forced to do something their deck wasn’t designed to do on a regular basis. People choose archetypes for a reason, and sometimes that choice should be respected.

Title image courtesy of hearthstone.gamepedia.com and Blizzard Entertainment

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Learning From Failed Synergies


Deckbuilding-by-numbers:

Designing a card game isn’t easy. Just look at the inspired, but often horribly imbalanced, suggestions posted daily on the Custom Hearthstone subreddit. Every card added can have butterfly effects on the meta. Even something as simple as a streamer playing a deck can make an impact. As such, synergies have been one of the hardest parts of Hearthstone to properly balance.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the developers have wanted to push certain pre-ordained archetypes into play. When the user base is playing with pre-determined synergies, it’s easier to see what’s balanced and what’s fun. Similarly, it’s understandable why their efforts are sometimes less than successful.

Currently, archetypes brute-forced into existence take up more of the meta than ever. Obvious, designer-mandated synergies like Pirate Warrior, Dragon Priest, and Jade Druid/Shaman are ubiquitous. In this era of forced archetypes, it can be helpful to look back at how previous attempts haven’t gone so well.

Taunt Warrior

How it was meant to work:

Taunt decks sacrifice a lot of stats for little benefit

“Taunt” and Warrior weren’t associated until relatively recently. The class has always had a somewhat split personality. Divided between the aggressive Weapon and Charge themed synergies, the combo-oriented Whirlwind synergies, and the defensive, tanky Armor mechanic, it’s been hard to give a Warrior a unifying philosophy. Taunt was meant to be that philosophy; combining the pro-active plays of the Aggressive strategy with defensive minions, while linking the two together with synergistic combos.

On paper, the Taunt strategy seems solid. A Midrange deck that uses weapons for Board control (as Warrior is likely to do) is weak to a face-rush. Taunts prevent this, while advancing the Midrange gameplan. Cards like Bolster, King’s Defender, and Sparring Partner initially pushed Taunt. Later reinforcement came from Taunt minions such as Fierce Monkey, Obsidian Destroyer, and Bloodhoof Brave. In addition, Taunt generators and synergies were added continuously in the Hand-buff mechanic and with Protect the King.

Why it failed:

While the taunt-synergy strategy works on paper, it was much less potent in practice. For starters, the actual taunt buffs were situational and not overly impressive. Bolster was supposedly the linchpin of the archetype. But it required multiple taunt minions on the board to be worth casting, let alone building a deck around. What’s worse, a general scarcity of decently-statted Taunt minions made it very hard to build a viable deck.

The key problem, however, is that building a deck around Taunt is fundamentally anti-synergistic. Taunt is helpful for protecting face, yes; but it is arguably more vital for protecting key minions. Consider how Aggro Shaman runs Feral Spirits because they can guard its powerful, squishy Flametongue Totems and Tunnel Troggs. When you build a deck with all or almost all Taunt minions, you’re suffering stat penalties and overvaluing on all of your minions for very little benefit.

Lesson to learn:

A deck built around understatted minions needs extremely powerful synergies to work.

Shadow Priest

How it was meant to work:

Shadow Priest’s direct damage potential was more impressive than its minions

Priest is one of the few classes that has never had a truly viable aggressive deck. A defensive hero-power and a lack of early-game minions meant that it was impossible for priests to snowball the tempo necessary for an aggro victory. However, it has a number of powerful burst cards, most notably Mind Blast. In addition, Auchenai Soulpriest could turn healing into potentially game-ending burst; Shadowform turns a defensive hero-power into a game-ending one too.

The Shadow Priest philosophy then, would be heavily burn focused; push for face damage and never look back. The idea was to have symmetrical damage effects and powerful healing synergies. The Priest would use their own life as a resource, healing up to burst down the opponent. They would also convert those same heal cards to burn to close out games.

Shadowbomber and Spawn of Shadows were added to give a huge amount of damage to the opponent, while also hitting yourself. Meanwhile, Light of the Naaru, Flash Heal, and Embrace the Shadow provid more ability to turn healing into burst.

Why it failed:

Shadow Priest experiments failed to address Priest’s initial problem; a lack of early-game tempo. While burst damage is memorable and occasionally terrifying, it’s far out-paced in efficiency by repeated minion damage from an unanswered curve. Without reliable card-draw to keep up pressure, the low-efficiency cards simply can’t keep up. Furthermore, sacrificing tempo and damaging yourself in an aggro mirror turns out to be a pretty bad strategy.

Lesson to learn:

Aggro decks depend on early-game minions, not burst.

Totem Shaman

How it was meant to work:

Thing from Below is strongest in decks without many totem synergies

Before the unveiling of Standard, Shaman was undoubtedly the worst class in the game. Without its current arsenal of efficient early-game weapons, it struggled to utilize its board-clears in a world of efficient Deathrattle minions.

In order to help them out of their quandary, Shaman was given a number of potent synergistic cards revolving around Totems. Cards like Thunder Bluff Valiant, Draenei Totemcarver, Thing from Below, and Primal Fusion would reward totem-filled boards. Meanwhile, Totem Golem, Tuskarr Totemic, and Wicked Witch-doctor would generate them.

Why it failed:

Totem Shaman was a victim of its own success. While all the cards were playable, some were so strong that the others became unnecessary. Totem Golem is an insane standalone minion, pre-nerf Tuskarr Totemic’s RNG tempo swings won games regardless of synergy, and Thing from Below becomes great even with only a few hero powers and Totem minions. Aggro Shaman ran all of these cards and no other synergies, and benefited greatly. Midrange added Thunder Bluff Valiant, but otherwise was similarly independent of Totem synergies, relying mainly on the card’s individual strengths.

While highly synergistic Totem decks such as Xixo’s variant saw play to a lesser extent, they ultimately proved inferior to the ones that only took the very best standalone cards.

Lesson to learn:

Don’t make synergistic cards too powerful without their synergies.

Handbuff Hunter

How it was meant to work:

Handbuff: Hardly a Tempo apocalypse

The Handbuff mechanic was meant to be the ultimate in Midrange value. By sacrificing a small amount of tempo, small threats could easily be buffed into massive ones, leading to a game-ending cascade of massive minions. Furthermore, synergies would allow these minions to be even more potent. As a class that focused heavily on Midrange, Hunter would be an ideal home for these cards.

This was supported via the handbuff cards themselves, like Trogg Beastrager, Shakey Zipgunner, and Hidden Cache. Synergies like that of Rat Pack and Dispatch Kodo would allow these buffs to become more potent.

Why it failed:

The failure of handbuff is well documented. Essentially, the tempo sacrifice is too great, and the mechanic is too inconsistent. Hunter is by far the least successful, despite strong handbuff synergies. The lack of consistent card draw means that for Hunters, running out of cards is a virtual inevitability. In these cases, top-decking a card that either buffs cards you no longer have, or relies on handbuffs that you haven’t given it, is backbreaking.

Lesson to learn:

Inconsistent mechanics may seem a lot more powerful than they are in reality.

 

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. Title image via hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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Towards a Less Boring Control Warrior

Old King Control

Control warrior has a long and illustrious history. In its original incarnation, it was full of late-game bombs and threats. A typical control warrior would seem absurdly greedy when compared to modern incarnations; often running Cairne, Sylvanas, Grommash, Ragnaros, Alexstrasza, and Ysera. Typically, it relied solely on a few low cost minions. Cards like Acolyte, Armorsmith, and the omnipresent Fiery War Axe for early game presence.

Looking back, the deck played completely different to its later strategies. Instead of being an almost entirely reactive deck aimed at victory through fatigue, they were looking to overwhelm the opponent with high powered legendaries.

This strategy was simpler in some ways; it lent itself to more straightforward games based on tempo, even against other control decks. Fatigue was rare compared to the likelihood of snowballing out of control.

Answers for Everything

Control Warrior was reduced from “Remove minions, gain armor, play threats” to just “Remove minions, gain armor”

Recently, Control Warrior attracts a very specific kind of complaint. As soon as a Twitch streamer queues into one, chat is often filled with emotes and complaints of boredom in anticipation of the upcoming game. The perception is that games against Control Warrior are tedious and uneventful.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward. Late-game Warrior decks will very frequently no longer depend on threats. Even high cost cards like Grommash and Deathwing, (as seen in the latest of Fibonacci’s lists) function largely as removal; this often omits even ultra slow “win conditions” like Elise Starseeker altogether. Instead, over-focus on a fatigue gameplan has lead to games where the Warrior focuses completely on survival and removal.

One-way Interaction

This, understandably, can prove to be less than engaging to opponents and viewers. While the Control Warrior’s plethora of reactive spells and lifegain is highly interactive with the opponents cards, playing against it can feel like a game of solitaire. Control Warrior rarely, if ever, play anything pro-active. As a result, it can often leave the impression of dropping minions into inevitable removal, while armor stacks up higher and higher.

This has a twofold impact. Firstly, games last for much longer than otherwise, as once the Control Warrior player has all but won, it can take dozens of turns to actually end the game. Secondly, the feeling of interaction against an opponent is minimized; they are simply playing whack-a-mole with your minions at a leisurely pace. Meanwhile, certain archetypes like Jade Druid are so unfavored that the games aren’t even worth playing out.

Old Gods to the Rescue?

These issues previously improved somewhat during the Whispers of the Old Gods release. Instead of relying almost entirely on fatigue, removal, and the odd random legendary-based Elise finisher, Control Warrior proved a fruitful home for two Old Gods in particular: C’thun and N’zoth.

Infested Tauren gave N’zoth Warrior’s mid-game some much-needed meat

These 10 mana finishers provided the potency required for such a huge investment to be worthwhile. Suddenly, games could end on a single well-placed series of snowballing tempo plays in the late-game, instead of fizzling outs. This additionally incentivized the inclusion of more defensive, midrange minions. That allowed Control Warrior to build boards to close out games without needing their key game-ender.

However, this gameplay style proved to be short-lived. Although potent, the many counters and deck-building limitations imposed meant that the archetypes couldn’t compete with the significant growth in decks’ power levels after One Night in Karazhan and Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. The omnipresent Midrange shaman in particular, with the suppression power of Hex and requirement to find space for multiple board-clears, helped push Warrior back towards the Fatigue gameplan.

Even the threat of Jade decks hasn’t been enough to make Warrior try to compete with pro-active late-game strategies. Since Jade is so much more efficient than any pro-active play Warrior can make, the optimal solution has simply been to give up against Jade Druid. You want to run endless board clears to try and out-last Jade Shaman, playing reactive.

Gadgetzan’s Interactive Defenses

Alley Armorsmith is far more interactive than Warrior’s previous defensive tools

The Gadgetzan expansion hasn’t been all bad for Control Warrior. Alley Armorsmith is a perfect example of armor-gain for Warrior done right. Unlike the straightforward and not interactive Shieldmaiden or Justicar Trueheart, Alley Armorsmith is a pro-active defensive tool, that requires significant counterplay. As well as having chunky stats, the 2/7 taunt is far more effective in some situations than others. This makes it a perfect counter to low-attack minion or weapon based aggro decks, but still vulnerable to spells and high-attack minions.

Furthermore, Dirty Rat has rapidly grown into a class staple. Though it’s not possible to immediately interact with its battlecry, it is a card that is straightforward, yet deep to play around. It helps bridge the gap between Warrior and other late-game focused decks in a way that rewards skill and timing.

Hope in Un’goro

With Justicar Trueheart, Elise Starseeker, Bash, Revenge and other key components of the Fatigue strategy rotating out with the next expansion, the future looks bleak for Fatigue Warrior. If there is no suitable pro-active late-game raison d’etre for Warrior, then Control as an archetype may find it hard to find a niche in the new meta.

The introduction of “Quest” mechanics may still provide hope. Reliable, powerful, and available for every class, Quests may give Warrior the late-game win-condition it needs to compete. However, it depends on the card itself and whether the effect is one that is capable of giving Control Warrior the pressure needed to close out games.

Team 5 may print more Control-oriented Deathrattles. In that case, N’zoth Warrior may make a comeback as a potent counter to more midrange or controlling opponents.

The stars may even align, and Blizzard may try and succeed where Varian Wrynn failed. They could give Warrior an honest-to-goodness control-oriented class Legendary. We won’t hold our breath though. In the meantime, it can be fun to break open that Ysera, pack a deck full of Classic Legendaries with a few hard removals, and a Brawl or two. Or head out into Classic to relive the glory days of the oldest Control deck in the game.

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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Could Un’goro bring back Lifecoach?

 

Un’goro promises big fun dinosaurs, backed up by more interactive gameplay

In a recent vlog, pro player and streamer personality Adrian “Lifecoach” Koy announced that he’d be leaving the competitive scene. This was motivated primarily by his feelings about the game. His explanation is worth watching. Among the many points, the most salient was a feeling that skill in Hearthstone went unrewarded; that matchup and draw RNG decided the majority of games; and that it was fundamentally noncompetitive. He likens the Hearthstone experience to guiding a tossed coin mid-air, rather than making meaningful decisions.

That complaint might be somewhat ameliorated in the latest expansion announced for Hearthstone, Lost Secrets of Un’goro. Flavor-wise, Un’goro promises Dinosaurs, Elementals, and carnivorous plants. That’s exciting enough, but it’s the mechanics that could really shake up the way we play Hearthstone.

Double-edged Build-arounds

Hearthstone’s developers, Team 5, have been printing more and more “build-around” cards over the past few expansions. Starting with the much maligned Mysterious Challenger, developing with Reno Jackson, and culminating in the Old Gods, “Build-arounds” share common characteristics. They tend to generate value far exceeding their mana cost, but require a dependency on certain types of cards or deck-building strategies.

Reno decks do poorly without drawing him

The benefits of build-arounds to the game are clear; they incentivise combinations, playstyles and synergies that would otherwise not be viable. Reno and Kazakus encourage variety and a slower-paced playstyle with Highlander decks. Drakonid Operative almost single-handedly makes Dragon Priest competitive; N’zoth makes Deathrattles into a game-ending board.

The downside is that the deck’s inherent inconsistencies due to running sub-optimal synergy cards are only balanced when the overpowered build-around is drawn. Reno Jackson may be the most powerful heal in the game. But forcing aggro matchups to be almost entirely dependent on whether or not he is drawn in time is hardly healthy. Anybody can tell you about the frustration of having a key card on the bottom of your deck.

Adventures in Questing

Un’Goro seeks to build on build-arounds and improve them with the inclusion of “Quests”. Quests are Legendary, class-specific spells that cost one mana. Once played, they act as a secret. Once their condition is activated, you are granted a powerful card. It is promised to be “some of the most powerful cards in Hearthstone” in the announcement video. The example we are given is the Priest quest, which grants a five mana 8/8 that sets your hero’s health to 40. This is only if you can meet the difficult condition of summoning seven deathrattle minions.

Quests are guaranteed to be in your starting hand

So far, so standard. Where these Quests get interesting is that they are guaranteed to be a part of your initial mulligan. Though they can be mulliganed away in matchups where the Quest is undesirable, this grants them an unrivaled consistency in activation, if your deck is built to accommodate them.

This can massively help the feelings of card-draw RNG overly affecting matchups. Instead of auto-losing the matches where your build-arounds are in your last five cards, Quests can be reliably activated. Not only that, but their potentially game-ending effects can be planned for in advance, as you see your opponent’s Quest ticker get gradually higher.

Though further judgement must be withheld until the exact nature of the cards are revealed, this alone is a highly promising sign for reducing feelings of helplessness in the face of bad luck.

Midrange and Curvestone

Midrange has always had a problem in Hearthstone. The archetype is fundamentally reliant on curving out with efficiently-statted minions. Only occasionally do we see usage of reactive spells and off-curve plays. For much of Hearthstone’s history, Midrange has been lamented as simply taking obvious trades and dropping the biggest on-curve minion each turn. While professional players can eke out additional wins by optimizing some decisions, the majority of choices are very straightforward.

There are numerous downsides to rewarding this type of play experience. It sidelines skill, makes draw RNG more paramount, and makes games feel exceedingly similar. Attempts to spice things up, with mechanics like Inspire and Discover, have only partially succeeded. While recent Midrange tyrants like Shaman have managed to avoid this due to a reliance on hero-powering and spells, the problem remains endemic to almost all pro-active, non-aggro decks.

Adapting Micro-decisions

A core element of the Un’goro expansion is the “Adapt” keyword. Applied to minions, it allows cards to gain additional stats or effects when played or meeting a condition. Themed around the elemental influences of the crater, this can give your minion +3 attack, Divine Shield, Windfury, or other effects as chosen via a discover-like interface. By choosing the right adapt effect for the board state, you can tune your minions for the matchup and situation you’re presented with.

Adapt offers small but meaningful buffs

While spawning two extra 1/1s or gaining Taunt may not seem an incredibly exciting proposition, the impact on play may be huge. When every minion played results in a decision being made, play becomes fundamentally more engaging and skill-testing. Dropping big stuff on curve will still be important. But it’s possible that the best players can gain a huge edge by tuning their minions perfectly on the fly.

While we’ve only seen a few examples so far, the opportunity for Adapt to make a big impact should excite you if you’re someone who enjoys playing midrange decks and cares about reaching higher levels of play.

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Will Ranked Floors Be Good For Hearthstone?

Mammoth Changes

The Year of the Mammoth isn’t just bringing card rotations and a new expansion. It’s also making a fundamental change to the way the the Ladder system operates, by introducing Ranked floors. Ranked floors act as a “lock”, or minimum on how far you can fall back down after losing streaks.

Similar to how Rank 20 and the Legend Ranks prevent you falling too far, there will be similar stops at ranks 15, 10, and 5. Since so much of Hearthstone’s play takes place in Ranked mode, any change to incentives is sure to have a major impact. But will it be positive?

More Fun Decks

Ranked can often feel like an unrelenting assault. Climbing, or even not falling, requires consistent play with a “meta” deck once you get into the higher ranks. As such, there is little room for experimentation. Since losing is punished so harshly, you are heavily discouraged from playing anything other than tried-and-tested Ladder staples.

This can make Ladder feel intensely predictable and monotonous after a while. You’ll often queue into identical deck after identical deck, playing the same openers and the same combos over and over. This hardly makes for fun and diverse gameplay.

Ranked floors might help switch up the deck variation. By preventing losses from being too punishing to your rank once you hit a certain level, then it becomes less disheartening to experiment. If you don’t drop stars, that silly Murloc Hunter or Blood Warrior that the meta’s not right for might be more tempting. As well as often being more entertaining to play, more variety in opponents will help spice up the ladder experience and make the game more exciting.

“Fun” decks provide diversity, but may just encourage more Aggro Shaman

Greedier Decks

There is a price for this, however. As anyone who’s fallen to the lower ranks of Legend or taken a trip into Casual can confirm, it’s often far harder to win with the highly-tuned anti-aggro Control decks that often succeed at high Ladder or Legend rank.

As people care less about win-rate, decks tend to get “greedy”; more focused on long-term value. For many people, fun decks means decks packed with big impressive threats; and none of those boring AOEs, early board presence, or lifegain. This can pose a problem for the slow decks that tend to struggle against those that are filled with absurd amounts of value.

The end result then might be an effective buff to aggro, as the anti-aggro control decks struggle to make it past the greedy fun-lovers. As aggro already tends to be over-represented on Ladder due to game speed or deck cost, this could further funnel players into aggressive playstyles, to the detriment of diversity. Not only that, but it will also encourage anti-control decks like Jade Druid to prey on the “fun” slow decks, which will in turn reward more aggro.

Less Grind

Hearthstone’s economy can be thought of as a pool of stars, divided amongst the players. Stars are generated in two ways; bonus stars from winning multiple games in a row; and when a player who can’t drop rank loses. Currently, that means that only winstreaks, Legend players, and Rank 20 players add stars to the system. However, Ranked floors will add huge numbers of star generators to the system. At every rank one is implemented. There are a huge number of players at ranks 15, 10, and 5 at any given moment, and all of them will soon be helping their opponents rank up faster.

So what does this mean? Essentially, getting to the rank you want will become easier. Rank resets will become less painful, and you’ll have to spend less time each month playing to get that cardback and golden cards. Considering the massive time investment required to get to certain ranks (especially Legend), this is a definite improvement for those who have less time to play.

We’ll see a lot more players with Legend cardbacks

Less Legendary Legend

However, making ranking easier does have its downsides. For one, if everyone finds it easier to rank up, previously considerable achievements may be devalued. Currently, hitting Legend, especially with a homebrew or non-meta deck, was impressive. Doing so would often warrant attracting attention and a degree of prestige. The Legend cardback has proliferated greatly since its introduction, but it still commands a degree of prestige.

With the proposed changes, it may be possible for almost anyone to hit legend with a degree of dedication. Note that making it easier to hit Legend has an exponential effect; more Legend players means more stars generated as they lose to those on numbered ranks. In short, Legend may no longer be worthy of note though.

While some may see this as an improvement, it is lamentable that “Legend” will no longer require any where near a “Legendary” level of skill.

No More Ladder Anxiety?

Like reaching a save-point in a tough game, buying insurance, or guaranteeing a passing grade in an educational course, there’s something intensely relieving about mitigating the consequences of disaster. Hitting Legend is rewarding not only due to the achievement, but also the guarantee that you won’t fall out of Legend, regardless of how many loses you get.

Many players report feelings of “Ladder Anxiety”, where the stakes of ladder and the threat of losing hard-earned stars make Ranked play too intense to be pleasant. The result of this can be stressful play, tilt, misplays, or simply avoiding ranked altogether.

If players feel like they have less to lose if it all goes awry, it might help them relax, focus on playing, and have an overall better experience.

A Promising Start

Whatever the impact on ladder, it’s incredibly refreshing and promising to see the devs trying out solutions to the problems people have had with ladder for years. Even if Ranked floors don’t fulfill their stated goals, experimentation with different solutions is far more encouraging and potentially fruitful than previous non-communication and inactivity.

This could pave the way for other changes, like increased monthly stars, longer seasons, or altered rewards. The current situation is so stale that almost any alteration is necessary. Whatever happens, the Year of The Mammoth is looking like a good year for positive changes and dev communication.

Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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Better Wild Than Nerfed?

Considered heavy-handedness

The Hearthstone development team isn’t a fan of changing things up too often. Core to the Hearthstone experience, in their eyes, is that of “physicality”; the idea that your cards are your own, and permanent in a way similar to “real” physical cards. Understandably, this means that any balance patches are few and far between. Too many liberal alterations would undermine any sense of ownership and consistency. No one feels good about purchasing packs of what feel completely ephemeral.

As part of this philosophy, balance changes tend to be especially heavy handed. Team 5 often take the “Nuke it from orbit” approach to problematic cards. Former staples like Warsong Commander and Ancient of Lore have gone from core, even build-around backbones of decks, to trash overnight. While over-reacting reduces the effective card pool and means that players’ favorite cards can no longer be used, few would argue that it’s not better than the alternative.

An alternative to nerfing?

However, the introduction of the Standard format has resulted in a new balancing strategy; one that preserves the integrity and “soul” of the cards in question while not allowing it to upset the delicate Standard balance. Instead of altering the card, it can simply be relegated to Wild. This currently is planned for six classic cards, most notably Azure Drake, Sylvanas, and Ragnaros.

This raises an exciting new possibility for cards that have seen heavy-handed or over-the-top balance changes in the past. Instead of continuing on in their current, unplayable form, they could be returned to their old glory, but only on rotation to Wild or as part of the “Hall of Fame”. This idea has had community popularity, with suggestion posts and a poll gaining traction on the Hearthstone Subreddit.

So what cards could see being returned to their old power, to fight eternal in the Elysium of Wild?

Warsong Commander

Warsong Commander has been balanced twice now. Its original incarnation gave all cards Charge, meaning devastating OTK combos could be easily achieved. Early in development, it was altered to only give Charge. This temporarily quelled its potency, but with the rise of Grim Patron decks after the release of Blackrock Mountain, it gained power once more. Combo’d with Grim Patrons, it could machine-gun down boards of small minions while filling it up with 3/3s. More worryingly, it could cause more OTKs with Frothing Bezerkers.

The final balance change was backbreaking. Instead of granting minions Charge, it gave minions with Charge +1 attack. This made it go from niche combo piece to flat-out unplayable. No competitive deck has ever used it since. As a classic card, it makes little sense to have it clogging up the roster of the evergreen set, accomplishing nothing. Wild is not the same beast that Grim Patron conquered several expansions ago. Game-ending N’zoth boards are the norm, Dirty Rat can disrupt combos, AOE is far more widespread, more potent taunts are available, and aggro decks can refill faster. A restored Warsong could thrive without being oppressive in the Wild meta.

 

Yogg-Saron, Hope’s End

“Praise Yogg!” was up until recently an oft-heard refrain on Ladder. Yogg Saron’s unique position as a high-cost, synergistic, reactive, value generation tool made it vital to countering the huge boards of Shaman. While RNG-based, it could reasonably reliably clear the board and draw a few cards to boot. However, its wildly varying outcomes made it frustrating both for ladder and Tournament play.

While Yogg’s Wild rotation is a ways off (not until early next year), being returned to its old strength is a risky endeavor, depending on the strength of the new synergies introduced. If enough powerful spells make their way into Wild, then games lasting until turn 10 before being decided by Yogg RNG could be a realistic and frustrating likelihood. However, as more and more cards get added, the strength of synergies and minion aggression will increase. Games making it to turn 10 will become increasingly unlikely, and cards like Yogg will need to be more powerful to compensate.

 

 

Molten Giant

The Molten Giant nerf still stings for many Handlock players. Not many saw it as a problem card. Easy to play around and a potent anti-aggro tool for a class that was vulnerable to it in the days before Reno, Molten Giant was hit with an unexpected five mana nerf. Five mana is the most impactful balance change of any card based on cost alone. It took the card from staple in Handlock and Echo Mage (in Wild) to one that was almost impossible to even play. Becoming worthwhile only when your hero is down to around 12 health, it’s become impractical against control, midrange, and aggro.

Team 5 are wary of cheap or free massive minions with easy-to-activate conditions; especially in the evergreen set. However, considering that Arcane Giant will remain in Wild for all eternity, it would surely not do too much damage to the format to have the old Molten Giant back in Wild only. With the wider variety of direct damage and burst combos available, it should be easier to play around than in Standard.Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

 

Ancient of Lore

Ancient of Lore was key to the old Midrange Druid. An Arcane Intellect attached to a 5/5 body was nothing to sniff at, and provided vital cycle and board presence in decks that relied on both. The healing option was a nice option to have in clutch situations. Considering the proportion of Classic Druid cards that made up decks of the time, and the sheer strength of the card, a balance change was hardly surprising.

Now, a single cycle effect is hardly worth a seven mana investment, even with a body attached. Such a card in its old state would surely make late-game oriented Druids in Wild more viable. The downside is that, unlike the other cards on the list, it’s hardly the kind of exciting card that would inspire people to try wild.

 

Blade Flurry

Blade Flurry was another of the “Design Space” balance changes that was never truly capitalized on. In its original incarnation, the card was a flexible and powerful face damage and board control tool (with the right synergies). However, the balance change that doubled the mana cost from two to four and eliminated the game-ending face damage combo potential killed the card’s viability. Compounding the problem, no powerful Rogue weapon has been released, and Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil’s weapon buff has had no replacement.

An old Blade Flurry would be a potent, but not overwhelming, tool in Wild. Given the omnipresence of sticky minions, its boardclear aspect would be less potent. While its face damage potential would be arguably dangerous, Rogue needs help to survive Wild’s Uber-refined aggro and control decks, given the class’s lack of reactive tools.

An argument against the change is that Blade Flurry may yet be a potent card, given the right tools. Moving it to wild would squander Rogue’s best chance of an AOE other than Fan of Knives in Standard.

Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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The Case For Better Bombs

Ragnaros set the bar for “bombs” (high cost minions). Strongly statted with a powerful, board impacting effect, it’s a double whammy of tempo and value. Now, it is deemed too oppressive to be in the game. In the Year of the Mammoth announcement, Team 5 explained the rotation;

Dozens of cards in the seven to nine mana range never saw play because Ragnaros was always the easy choice in that range.” 

The implication is clear; Ragnaros was just too strong, and removing him from Standard will increase diversity.

A lack of competition

Hardly a fitting replacement for the Elemental Lord. We deserve better

But was Ragnaros too strong? Sure, he saw play in plenty of decks. However, he was hardly universal in the way true met-warping monsters like Dr. Boom were. Paladin regularly ignored him in favor of Tirion; Warriors preferred the AOE of Baron Geddon; Warlocks found him unnecessary with Jaraxxus. His impact could swing games, but rarely decided them the way that Reno or Kazakus draws can. Perhaps the real problem with Ragnaros is less that he was overly strong, and more that he had no true counterpart, no playable neutral value equivalent.

In the classic and basic set, for example, there are only two neutral eight drops. Other than Ragnaros the Firelord, there’s only the nigh-unplayable Gruul. Even today in standard, there are only eight neutral cards of that cost. Of those, four are understatted with worthless effects, if any (Boogeymonster, Gruul, Eldritch Horror and Fossilised Devilsaur). Doomcaller only works in C’thun decks, and Chromaggus and Medivh are both understatted, require comboing with other cards, and provide no immediate effect on your opponent’s board.

Impact matters

Playing a good turn in Hearthstone’s late game usually requires both advancing your own board presence and inhibiting your opponent’s. Once you get to turn eight and beyond, tempo doesn’t stop becoming a vital resource. If anything, it becomes more important against many decks, as this is the point where your opponent is counting up lethal damage while trying to prevent yours. Here is where Ragnaros shone for slower decks; providing both a massive threat, and either pressuring the opponents’ lifetotal or removing a threat.

While the desire to prevent such a card becoming too ubiquitous is admirable, it’s doubtful that simply removing it is enough. When Ragnaros is removed from Standard, it’s quite possible that many decks that would have run it would not instead run the exciting new flavor-of-the-month eight drop. Instead, they may simply forgo any kind of high-end finisher or value injection, relying instead on fatigue or more mid-game burst. Especially if any printed new cards fall in the same power-level as Chromaggus or Force-Tank MAX.

We need finishers

With the rise of Jade decks set to continue after Year of the Mammoth comes in, the necessity for strong, game-ending cards has become more vital than ever. Control can no longer rely on Fatigue to win, and non-Jade midrange archetypes need late-game tools to compete.

But more importantly, bombs are often simply more “fun”. As well as being strong and impressive, they also allow the designers to introduce powerful, interesting synergies and interactions. Think Kel’thuzad, Nzoth, or Medivh; all provide thoughtful plays and counter-plays, as well as unique game-play situations.

Building better bombs

Medivh creates deckbuilding choices and unique gameplay interactions

So what’s needed for the next generation of high-cost cards?

  • Power

Expansions and adventures typically contain very, very few high-cost minions. Fillers like The Boogeymonster or Fossilized Devilsaur should not be tolerated, as they add virtually nothing to the game. While it all doesn’t have to be Ragnaros-levels of value and tempo, everything should at least make an effort at playability.

  • Interesting interactions

Synergies and deckbuilding are a key part of what makes Hearthstone fun, and high-cost cards should be a catalyst for that. Cards like N’zoth, Varian Wyrnn and Archmage Antonidas are all examples of this, especially since they reward creativity. Cookie cutter prescribed decks like C’thun are less rewarding to build and play.

  • Board impact

If high cost cards are to be more than super-greedy anti-control tools, they need to have immediate board impact. Either taunt, removal, or lifegain are vital to making a bomb worthwhile and decent against all deck types. Taunt in particular is far too stingily given out.

  • Consistent Strength

While every card should have its counter, some high-cost cards are too easily countered by specific, oft-played cards. Back before its balancing, it was Big Game Hunter that reduced the playability of almost all high-value minions. Now too many strategies like multiple C’thuns or N’zoth revives are overly weak to transform effects. Bombs should be playable against all opponents, not simply punishing those which don’t have easy access to certain types of counter.

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Back from the dead; 4 post-nerf decks to watch

Turn one Spirit Claws into turn two Wrath of Air Totem will soon be a thing of the past (thankfully)

Once again, changes are afoot in the world of Hearthstone. In a post on the Hearthstone subreddit and Blizzard Forums, Team 5 announced two incoming balance changes. In addition to the introduction of “floors” that prevent falling below certain ladder milestones, Small-Time Buccaneer and Spirit Claws are in for a rebalance. This has profound implications on what decks and strategies are likely to be dominant in tomorrow’s meta.

 

Small-Time Buccaneer is to have its health reduced to one from two, making it far more susceptible to pings and low-cost AOE. Ironically, it also renders it vulnerable to Patches the Pirate. Meanwhile, arguably the most powerful weapon in the game is no longer the apex of terrifying efficiency. Moving it from one mana to two renders it far less potent at shutting down early-game minions. In particular, it can no longer be followed up with a Bloodmage Thalnos or Wrath of Air totem.

So what does this mean for the meta? Well, for a start, the overwhelming monopoly Pirate decks have on the aggressive early game is likely to be loosened. Meanwhile, Shaman will be far less effective at early-game board control. It’s time to look back at some passed over decks that fight for the board early and push for aggression later one that were otherwise crowded out by Shaman and pirates. While these changes might seem small at first, the fact that more than half the decks on ladder run two copies of one or both of these cards makes this a huge opportunities for new decks to arise.

 

Tempo Mage

A Tempo Mage wants two things; board control, then burn

Tempo mage has been around ever since someone had the bright idea to stick Mana Wyrm, Fireball, Frostbolt and Arcane Intellect in the same deck. An aggressive, midrangey deck, it seeks to grab board control with explosive starts built around high-tempo spell combos, using ample card draw to reload and finishing the game with flexible burn. After a golden age propelled by the power of cards like Flamewaker, Tempo Mage has been suffocated by the power of aggressive pirate decks. With no answer to Small-time Bucccaneer in particular, it was overtaken by its more reactive Reno cousin.

But with Buccaneer and Spirit Claws altered, those pressures no longer keep it in line. Now that Arcane Missiles, Mana Wyrm and Flamewaker pings all deal nicely with those annoying sea-raiders, it looks set to make a spectacular comeback. Tempo mage can also punish the greedier Jade lists that might pop up in the power vacuum left by aggressive Shaman and Warrior decks becoming weaker. Meanwhile, it can be tinkered with to become heavy enough to blast through Reno opponents with consistent burn damage and constant minion pressure. Perhaps it’s for the best that Flamewaker is rotating out soon?

Midrange Druid

Is it time to fear Savage Roar again?

Druid is currently relegated purely to the anti-control Jade Druid build, as its other builds have been hampered by aggression on the low-curving end and greed on the high. Druid can take a lot of forms; from pure board flood token archetypes, to Beast-focused tribal decks, to the more exotic Menagerie versions with Finja and the Curator. But all of them have the same weakness to being out-tempo’d early on, making them inconsistent at best in today’s meta.

However, the old order will soon no longer apply. Druid will be able to compete with the explosive openers of pirates more readily, and its own unique flavour of board-focused aggressive midrange style will soon become a genuine threat on ladder. As an flexible class, its aggression can be focused on hunter-style curving out with minions, or on spreading wide and pushing with Savage Roar or Soul of the Forest. Whatever happens, it’s likely that seeing a druid will no longer mean auto-mulliganning to beat Jade.

Zoolock

When caster, streamer and Blizzcon Champion James “Firebat” Kostesich published this video on the enduring strength of Zoolock, he can’t have imagined the dark days to come for the archetype. While playing low-cost minions backed up by lifetap has been strong for almost all of Hearthstone’s history. The release of Maelstrom Portal and Spirit Claws, and the ensuing Shaman dominance after One Night in Karazahn forced the deck into a corner. Relying on explosive discard synergies, it was unable to adapt to the incredible early pressure of pirates.

Now with both Spirit Claws and Small-time Buccaneer no longer the counters they were, Zoo looks set to return to the limelight. It will likely take a while for the meta to settle enough for there to be a suitable population of midrange or AOE-lacking decks for it to prey on. But when that day comes, Zoo may yet make an impressive return to form.

 

Midrange Hunter

Expect to see this a lot as Hunter currently; but not for long?

Few classes have fallen from favour so precipitously as Hunter. From the dizzying heights of near tier-one status, Hunter has become the least-played and least-successful class in the game. As a class whose survival depends on seizing early board control, it has been utterly obliterated by the power of pirates (and Small-time Buccaneer in particular). Despite numerous strong cards, its early game is simply too weak to compete. Spirit claws is also a powerful hinderance, as almost all of its early game minions are exceptionally vulnerable to it.

With Small-time Buccaneer less of a problem, expect the class to re-emerge as the premier foe of Jade and greedy Reno decks. Hunter’s ability to apply constant and consistent minion pressure is unmatched; and when it can no longer be out-tempo’d by hordes of more aggressive foes, it may yet find a niche. Don’t expect too much though; it remains hampered by the general failure of the Grimy Goons’ handbuff mechanic to provide any powerful new strategies.

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