Image courtesy of hearthstone.gamepedia.com and Blizzard entertainment

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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“Not in a million years”; How Pavel Wins

Being a card game, it’s easy to blame singular victories or defeats on “bad RNG”. Even looking at the highest level, it’s tempting to point to this outcome or that topdeck as the cause of a win. Blizzcon champion Pavel Beltukov has been a victim of this outlook; with many assigning his Blizzcon success vs William “Amnesiac” Barton last year on the infamous “Paveling book”.

But rather than fall to the inevitable mediocrity of random noise, Pavel defies gravity. Despite what Amnesiac might have you believe, Pavel Beltukov is an exceptional player. Achieving an impressive 112-46 record in competitive play, he was recently crowned the “Europe Winter Champion” in the Hearthstone Championship Tour Winter playoffs. With his characteristic subdued personality matching his measured, conventional playstyle and decklists, he nonetheless dominated all opposition. With few flashy plays or devastating tech cards, it’s hard to point to exactly what makes Pavel so good.

Micro-Decisions, Macro Success

The answer might lie in a seemingly sub-par series of plays from the HCT winter championships. Pavel’s Renolock is facing off against Eugene “Neirea” Shumilin’s Pirate Warrior; (I recommend watching the whole VOD here). A slow start from Neirea; it’s turn three and the Renolock maintains tenous board control. Pavel, after playing a coined Imp Gang Boss last turn, plays his Dark Peddler as follow up. The situation looks as follows;

Image from Hearthstone Championship Tour Europe Winter Playoffs, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Would you pick the same as the World Champion? (For reference, the weapon is a 4/1)

You may have seen the clip already. The Casters are disputing the relative merits of Power Overwhelming (PO) and Mortal Coil, and dismissing the Kvaldir as obviously wrong (one caster saying how it wouldn’t be picked “in a million years”). Then Pavel quietly picks and plays the 2/1. But why?

It’s easy to see why this would be considered incorrect. Both PO and Coil are solid cards, cards that are in Pavel’s deck to start with. They’re flexible, potent, and synergistic. PO goes perfectly with the 1/1s spawned by Pavel’s Imp Gang Boss, Shadowflame, and to combo with Leeroy Jenkins. Coil is added removal, against a deck that often demands removal, and cycle towards Reno. Kvaldir, on the other hand, is just a 2/1.

But what Pavel recognises that the casters do not, is the condition of the game. Neirea has given up board control immediately, going face with his weapon twice rather than attempting to clear and win back the board. This signals two things; that Pavel’s minions will stick, and that value is largely irrelevant. Efficient removal is no longer necessary for survival; merely surviving by clearing the board every turn and throwing up sufficient defenses.

When bad cards are better

This means that mortal coil is now inferior to Injured Kvaldir; the added card draw is less likely to be relevant than the fact it requires an additional mana crystal to play. Meanwhile, the PO is unlikely to be worthwhile. With everything going on face damage rather than board, playing big minions (well, big by Pirate Warrior standards) like Frothing Bezerker or Naga Corsair would likely mean Neirea would lose regardless.

What Kvaldir does that neither of the others do is provide damage for free. And against a Pirate Warrior that’s gone all-in on face from turn two, there’s almost no way the 2/1 can get punished. What the pick does is guarantee that Neirea has to double down on his strategy, and likely never get a hit on face with a non-charge minion.

Pavel’s strategy and skill is made even clearer, when he makes another play that seems horrible at first.

 

Bad Trade, Good Play

Suppose you have an Imp Gang Boss and a Dark Peddler. Your opponent has a 4/1 you want to kill. Which do you sacrifice? The answer seems obvious, almost a trick question; surely one should always trade in the 2/2. The 2/4 with greater future opportunities for spawning imps is surely superior?

Image from Hearthstone Championship Tour Europe Winter Playoffs, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

This trade is awful; it’s also game-winning

 

One of the intuitive, instinctive ways people learn Hearthstone is how to trade. You attack your low-value minions into their high value minions to gain tempo and value. Pavel has had such teachings drilled into him as any of us, which perhaps is why he hesitates before sacrificing the higher mana minion, losing potential value off its effect in the process.

What Pavel recognises is that having a 1/1 next turn is vital, and that the additional health and imp-spawning capabilities of the Gang Boss are largely irrelevant. He continues to exploit his opponents inability to remove minions, and as such is able to go with absurdly anti-value trades that all but guarantee success by shaving off percentages for potential outs and shortening his opponent’s clock. In short, Pavel displays a consistent ability to take the lines that intuitively “feel” bad, but result in the highest chance of victory.

Winning is boring

Now, you may point to these plays as obvious or outliers; but they are unintuitive, tiny decisions that cemented an otherwise shaky position. Such small beginnings are the stuff that considerable edges in percentage winrates are made of. I guarantee that if you look through any Pavel game, you’ll see similar things happening; small, seemingly sub-optimal plays that nonetheless are correct. And I doubt that anyone other than Pavel could properly explain them all.

It’s likely that Pavel’s reputation for “luck” will only continue. What sets him apart from the competition is his canniness at identifying the best play, while playing the best play. Unfortunately, this rarely results in impressive plays that people can instantly recognize as being good. By virtue of his very skill, Pavel is doomed to make plays that few will be able to tell exactly why it is superior; instead, most likely will point to topdecks, matchups and other “RNG” for his largely straightforward, by-the-books victories.

Too long there has been a debate over whether Pavel is “skilled” or just “lucky”. Perhaps, instead of trying to determine whether or not Pavel is good at Hearthstone by analyzing his plays, we should take his winrate as sufficient evidence of his ability, and use that to inform us of the virtue of his decisions.

 

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Hearthstone Tech Cards We Need

Tech cards are crucial to a balanced meta. Should any one strategy become overwhelmingly powerful, smart players can add these powerful but situational tools to boost their winrate and help keep the flavor of the month in check. Cards like Harrison Jones for Weapons, Hungry Crab for Murlocs, Big Game Hunter for high-attack minions, and The Black Knight for Taunts slip in and out of the meta depending on what’s powerful.

However, there’s only so much that can be done in the face of today’s super-powered strategies. Pirates, Jade Golems, and Kazakus Potions run rampant. The power level of these cards means that traditional tech cards can’t keep up. Anti-aggro tools can’t face up to swarms of Pirates; Big Game Hunter helps little against endless Jade Golems, and Dirty Rat only rarely prevents a Brann-Kazakus finisher. In the next expansion we need more specific and impactful tools to control the meta-warping of certain stratagems.

I drew up a few hypothetical cards as an example of what successful new tech cards could look like

Hardly an original idea, but arguably necessary

Punishing Pirates

It’s easy for people to see the strength of Pirate openings and their limited counters. There’s no easy counter to a Small-time Buccaneer/Patches into two-mana weapon opener that isn’t vastly more expensive in terms of mana, cards, or both. This started a meta of aggressive decks with incredibly explosive openers; often checked only by Reno or hyper-anti-aggro decks.

To allow more midrange decks a chance at survival (outside of potential nerfs), counter cards along the line of “Hungry Crab” could be printed. These would force aggressive decks to adopt alternative openers if too many are seen. Who knows, perhaps even Hunter and Tempo Mage could thrive if all those pirates were gobbled up by Ravenous Nagas?

 

However, there is a risk that suppressing Pirates too much could lead to Jade Golems overrunning the meta even more. This could be an argument for the next sort of tech card…

 

A double whammy of (expensive) board-swing and long term value denial should keep Jade Golems in check

Jamming up Jades

There is little counterplay to Jade Golems. They’re simply big, dumb minions that ramp up more and more. Short of out-tempoing your opponent before they can summon them all, you have little option but to be rolled over by their green army.

If future Control decks are going to survive, one of two things need to happen. Either every class needs access to a super-powered end-game combo that can deal tons of damage or generate huge value off little board presence, or Jade counter-cards need to be printed.

The latter option surely has the least likelihood of creating overpowered and oppressive situations, with more “fun and interactive” gameplay. The example of this hypothetical Jade Swallower may seem extreme; but given the specificity and strength of the mechanic, it is hard to argue it’s not warranted.

Warlock and Mage deserve ways of surviving direct damage spells outside of generic heals

Fire-proofing against Burn

A perennial problem for late-game oriented Mage, Warlock, and Rogue decks has been the inability to protect against burn spells without healing mechanics. Especially with the rise of Aggro Shaman, Taunts simply can’t cut it against Lava Burst and Jade Lightning.

A card like “Spell Shield” would partially protect against it, by forcing your opponent to use their spells or minion damage on it before sending it to face. While understatted and expensive, the extremely defensive effect would be very desirable in some archetypes.

Giving these classes (and others) a tech option to survive direct damage burn more easily will allow more diversity, and force aggro decks to respect board clears without the guarantee of follow-up spells finding lethal. With Reno Jackson rotating out soon, cards like this will be vital for keeping these late-game archetypes alive.

 

N’zoth style resurrections aren’t a problem now; but if the class balance changes, they could be

Stopping Lazarus

Balancing resurrect mechanics are a tricky proposition. Against some classes, like Druid, Warrior, or Warlock, they’re a potent proposition. However, classes with powerful transform or stealing effects like Mage, Shaman, and Priest can laugh off their impact.

In order to prevent their impact from being too polarizing, some kind of counter-card could even things out. If an emergency stop-valve is present, Team 5 can print more powerful mass-resurrect effects without worrying that they will define the meta for years to come.

Corpse Desecrator would be a clunky and hyper-specific counter; but the power of its effect would make it worth running in some situations. It could also lead to some interesting mind-games as to the most efficient time to drop it.

 

Underpowered? Definitely. Useful? Unlikely. Better safe than sorry? Probably

 

Managing Mill

Mill and fatigue have never been overwhelming archetypes. But Team 5 need to look into preventing alternative strategies from having zero counterplay beyond killing the opponent, in the way that certain mill strategies can. While cards like “Proto-Wisp” on the left are ludicrously underpowered, their existence can help prevent broken situations from occurring. It’s easy for game designers to underestimate the creativity of their audience; an overlooked, powerful mill strategy could be gamebreaking (especially given the infrequency of balance changes and content releases).

Given that Mill decks rarely force the opponent to draw far more than they themselves do, a five card fatigue advantage would turn any Coldlight Oracle shenanigans into at best, a suicide pact. A solution to a very unlikely problem, granted; but giving players unique and interesting counterplay tools is hardly a disaster in itself.

 

Game designers are only human, they make mistakes. In a game that is as committed to the fantasy of physicality in card collections as Hearthstone is, imbalances can take a while to fix. Meaningful tech cards can help make the time between balance change or new content release that bit more bearable, and the meta that bit more diverse.

Thanks to hearthcards.net for the easy to use and powerful card editing tool; go check them out if you fancy making your own tech cards.

Other images courtesy of hearthstone.gamepedia.com and Blizzard Entertainment

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Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Class Cards That Deserve Replacements

Time is relentless in its passing, and as we emerge, bleary eyed into 2017, we must remember how much is temporary. Friends, relationships, treasured possessions; all are fleeting.

But perhaps none is more heart-wrenching than when a treasured class card rotates out of Standard. Once steadfast, seemingly eternal classics like Death’s Bite or Muster for Battle melt away to frolic in the Elysium of Wild. Now might be a good time to reflect on the well-designed, flavorful, and fun cards that’ll be culled this coming rotation. The rotating sets are Blackrock Mountain (BRM), The Grand Tournament (TGT) and League of Explorers (LOE).

Warrior: Revenge (BRM)

Once ridiculed as “two mana Whirlwind”, Revenge has seen a huge amount of play

Revenge seems underwhelming for a card that has seen a home in almost all Control Warrior decks (and many other variants beside). Key to its success is its insane ability to punish aggressive decks. The double whammy of being stronger when your hero is below 13 health and clearing out almost all Aggro minions has meant its an invaluable tool; not to mention its powerful synergies with Acolyte of Pain, Execute, and more. It was key to Warrior’s power as a counter-deck in the Karazahn midrange shaman meta, and still sees use to clear out pirates and tokens. Hopefully warrior sees more flexible, cheap AOE to complement its repertoire and allow it to stave off the Aggro hordes.

 

Shaman: Healing Wave (TGT)

The most powerful heal in the game outside of Reno; when it wins the joust

Healing wave is pretty much the benchmark for how strong, flexible, and mana efficient lifegain should be. One of the only worthwhile Joust-based cards, it (along with its buddy Elemental Destruction) breathed new life into the then-struggling shaman class. The synergy with high-cost minions helped push the “Bogchamp” or “Crusher” archetype in certain metas, making the entire Shaman class more flexible and interesting in a way far different to its current SMOrcey outlook. Jinyu Waterspeaker seems like an adequate replacement for now, but true control archetypes could benefit from more of this level of power-heal.

 

Rogue: Tomb Pillager (LOE)

It’s hard to imagine Rogue without this card

Tomb Pillager is, to me, one of the best designed Rogue cards ever released. While its power level is high, it was perfect for a then-ailing class. It’s flavourful, synergistic and class-appropriate, and almost single-handedly lead to the revitalization of the Miracle archetype. The coins it spawns can smooth out curves, of course; but more importantly can combo perfectly with Gadgetzan Auctioneer, Questing Adventurer and Edwin Van Cleef. It even revives in the little-played N’zoth Rogue. Hopefully Counterfeit Coin and Burgly Bully will be able to at least partially fill the hole this powerhouse leaves.

 

Paladin: Anyfin Can Happen (LOE)

One of the few 10 mana cards worth the cost

Paladin always struggled for ways to finish games. With limited hard removal and board-clears, sheer value with cards like Tirion often wasn’t enough to last into the late-game. This somewhat pushed it towards a midrange strategy, with an inevitable tendency to run out of steam. Anyfin changed all that, and is arguably one of the most powerful single cards outside of the Old Gods. With a lethal complement of Bluegills and Warleaders, Anyfin will deal huge damage with the right setup and can OTK almost any deck. It’s so powerful, it spawned an entire deck focused around surviving to play these game-ending murlocs (and is the only semi-viable Paladin deck currently). Here’s hoping the class gets a similarly potent game-ending ability in the future.

 

Hunter: Quick Shot (BRM)

About as strong as it could be without being obnoxious, Quick Shot slowed Hunter’s demise

Hunter suffers from two main flaws: inflexibility, and card draw. Quick Shot managed to partially address both while remaining true to the class’s identity. By being a strong removal or face damage tool while rewarding an all-in strategy, Quick Shot allowed Hunter much-needed reach as well as board control. Above pure power, it provided interesting strategy as to when to hold it to cycle, when to push face damage, and when to remove key minions. Many more cards like this will need to be printed if Hunter is to do well in a meta that has grown far more powerful than its outdated tools can handle.

 

Druid: Living Roots (TGT)

Living Roots is one of the most adaptable early game cards

With few comeback mechanics, Druid desperately needs to prevent snowballing. Living Roots slots into that perfectly. While each of the effects on their own are nothing to write home about, the option of each makes this card an auto-include in virtually all Druid decks. It has synergy with Spellpower, mass-buffs, and Fandral Staghelm, as well as fitting nicely into class identity. Plus, the saplings are cute as heck. Hopefully Druid receives similarly flexible early options to help it to survive the explosive starts of Aggro.

 

Warlock: Dreadsteed (TGT)

Who hasn’t loved messing around with this immortal pony?

Dreadsteed is one of those cards that you hate to see leave, but that inevitably must. Its infinitely regenerating effect is so close to being broken, its very existence prevents the printing of a lot of interesting cards. Too slow to see play outside of gimmicky synergy decks, it created so many interesting scenarios and combos. It is hard to see this card go. Still, this is a card that the Wild format was essentially invented for. In the future, Team 5 could do well by remembering the fun to be had by giving classes weak cards with potentially crazy synergy.

Mage: Forgotten Torch (LOE)

Turns out a three mana Fireball more than makes up for a three mana Frostbolt

Forgotten Torch is one of those rare cards that looks like it’s too slow to see play, but is in fact just in the sweet spot of good early-game vs. good late-game. Three damage for three mana is nothing to write home about, but it a valuable tool for clearing up early-game threats. But it’s the three mana six damage “Roaring Torch” that truly makes this card great, and interesting. It was a principle motivator behind keeping Freeze Mage alive, allowing them to control the board early while helping assemble a final burn-based combo. Lately its been a vital early game weapon in the Reno Mage arsenal, improving win-rates vs. aggro and control alike. As a class based on powerful spells, Mage deserves more cards like Forgotten Torch.

 

Priest: Entomb (LOE)

Entomb, while frustrating to play against, nonetheless… nah, just kidding, everyone hates this card

Priest: Flash Heal (TGT)

Flexible, cheap and strong, Flash Heal almost saved Priest from tier 4. Almost.

While the ability of Priest to heal any target was inherently limited by the ability of Auchenai Soulpriest to send the damage facewards, Flash Heal was about as strong as it could have been. While normally reserved to combo with the aforementioned 4 mana minion to use as a five damage combo piece, it was powerful as a clutch lifegain or minion-healing tool; not to mention its niche but spectacular finisher as part of some kind of Prophet Velen-based combo. Cheap, flexible spells are key to any reactive, combo-oriented class like Priest, and the class needs more simple but deep examples of this.

 

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Class Identity And Why Shaman Can’t Be Countered

Identity Politics

 

Class identity is a key part of what makes Hearthstone compelling. Though it has lost its “Heroes of Warcraft” subtitle, it is nonetheless still built on the fantasy and flavor of battling Warcraft heroes. The wide variety between, say, a Druid, a Hunter, and a Rogue is not just based on card names; it rewards fundamentally different play-styles and experiences. The cornerstone to this is the unique weaknesses and strengths that allow for and promote strong class identity.

Though it was weakened by the prevalence of powerful Neutral Mid-range minions after Naxxramas and GvG, class identity has been reaffirmed as a core tenet of the game in Standard. To a large extent, this has been achieved. Gone are the days where every deck would run midrange archetypes with Shredder and Dr. Boom. Almost every class in the meta (sorry, Hunter) has a specific strategic niche and a few distinct, recognizable playstyles.

 

It’s easy to tell that Mages rely on spells

 

Selective imbalance

 

Instrumental in achieving this has been the emphasis on maintaining the fundamental “unfairness” that makes a class worthwhile. Rogues cycle and combo with a flurry of cheap, powerful damage; Druids ramp into big threats; Warriors smash face with weapons or tank up; Mages dominate with a few key minions backed up by powerful spells. This makes the class not only competitive, but also flavourful. However, just as important as class strength is class weakness.

While having exploitable disadvantages is less “fun” than the ability to do things well, it’s vital to the game’s health. As well as making for a more involved and complex set of decisions depending on opponent, class weaknesses further the meta’s ability to be self-correcting. Should Druid ever take over, then classes that can take advantage of their lack of efficient single-target removal and AOE can keep them in check. If Rogues dominate, classes that push direct damage can punish their lack of lifegain or taunts.

If a class were to have no weaknesses and many strengths, then it could potentially dominate the meta with few or no viable counters. But surely there’s no class with no weaknesses?

 

In Thrall’s Thrall

 

According to data aggregation websites like Vicious Syndicate, Shamans make up nearly 50% of all players at some ranks; higher than perhaps ever seen in Hearthstone. It’s hard to seperate the decks out, as most exist on a continuous spectrum between Aggro/Jade, Mid-Jade, and Jade control.

With so much of the meta dominated by one class, why has it not been possible for counter-decks to arise and punish the endless streams of green, overloading, elemental heroes? Part of the reason has to be less any particular overpowered minion or spell, but the overall trend of Shaman having a huge spread of very strong cards.

 

A Class of their own

 

Even the supposedly single-minded Aggro Shaman has a huge variety of tools at its disposal. Focused decks like Pirate Warrior have a simple combo of weapons, direct damage, and weapon-synergistic pirates. Aggro shaman, however, has potent early-game minions, taunts, adjacency buffs, spellpower, card draw, cheap AOE, direct damage and huge threats.

Should the meta ever shift against it, they have yet more answers in the form of high quality cards to sub in. Cards like Hex, Lightning Storm, Earth Shock, Thing From Below, and Doomhammer can be swapped in and out as necessary, countering almost anything that evolves to beat it.

Midrange Shamans have a similar surplus of options. With the Jade package proving one of the most potent and inevitable late-game strategies in the game, grinding out opponents has never been easier. New cards like Jinyu Waterspeaker and Devolve make it yet more flexible in the face of meta changes; meaning that even previous counters like Freeze Mage and Miracle Rogue have little chance. Sure, specific Shaman decks can be countered; but the Shaman class can’t.

Again, the problem is not overly strong cards per se; more that there are simply such a huge variety of strong tools that any Shaman archetype can be tweaked to beat whatever comes against it. The underlying issue is a fundamental lack of a coherent class identity behind what Shamans should be bad at, as opposed to good at.

 

In any other class, Fire Elemental would be a staple. For Shamans, it’s just another great card to exclude

 

Waiting out the (Lightning) Storm

 

If the meta is to be able to react to the plethora of strong Shaman decks, there needs to be a reliable way to counter them; that means giving the class a weakness. Currently, Shaman’s strength covers all bases. They have incredibly efficient early game minions, weapons, lifegain, taunts, single target removal, AOE, direct damage, transform effects, midrange threats, and late-game options.

One option would simply be to allow certain cards to leave in the upcoming new Standard rotation. If there has been a consistent theme throughout the history of Hearthstone, it’s the dominance of efficient early-game minions. With the rotation of Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem, Shaman will no longer have a uniquely unbeatable early package. Aggro decks will be forced to take a less board-centric outlook if no further replacements are printed.

However, it won’t be enough to wait for rotation; even without Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem, Shaman will still dominate the early game. Just look at Mid-Jade Shaman lists. The deck rocketed up to the highest tier on ranking sites, and on rotation the only loss will be the optional Brann Bronzebeard. The upcoming balance changes heavily hinted at will need to target some key Shaman cards if they are not to be the Tier Zero meta tyrant for yet another season.

 

How to stop the Elements destroying us

 

But what should change? And with so many strong shaman cards out there, how can the alterations make enough of an impact?

That’s up to Team 5 to decide. But surely there’s a strong argument to be made for focusing down Shaman; forcing it to be weaker to certain archetypes by heavily reducing the power level of some of the most versatile cards. Weapons, AOE and lifegain are a continual theme of new additions to shaman, and seem to be forming the basis for cementing the class’ new identity.

Alongside cutting the strength of its early game minions, a reduction in the efficiency of its hard removal seems to make the most sense alongside its current strengths. A 5 mana Hex, giving them a Druid-esque weakness to beefy minions. This change might allow more counter-play from late-game oriented decks and Hunter’s sticky minions. While still able to negate massive threats, it won’t also generate a huge tempo swing.

Is Hex’s efficiency holding back counterplay?

Whatever action is taken, it’s clear that the current situation is untenable. Players are quickly growing frustrated at a stale and overly one-sided meta. Here’s hoping the upcoming changes are both timely and impactful.

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The End of Control?

At first, the idea that the control archetype could soon go extinct seems ludicrous. We are playing through an era that could be described as a Golden Age for slow, controlling decks. Reno and Kazakus have pushed Highlander archetypes to the dizzying heights of Tier Two for Warlock, Mage, and Priest. Control Warrior’s ability to punish hyper-aggressive Patches decks along with Miracle Rogue has seen it have solid, if inconsistent, win-rates. Even Anyfin Paladin sees a degree of high-level play. However, great changes are coming to the delicate ecosystem that is Hearthstone’s meta; and Control decks could be affected catastrophically.

The definition of a Control deck may differ, but most understandings of the archetype centre around one key concept; the idea of outlasting and outvaluing the opponent with a variety of flexible removal, especially hard removal, board clears, lifegain, and a few key late-game threats or other “win-condition” cards. While some may include pro-active cards and strategies, the overwhelming idea holding the deck together is to be fundamentally reactive. Combos and threats are either painstakingly slow to assemble (like Paladin’s Anyfin can Happen/Bluegill/Warleader strategy, or Reno Mage’s Antonidas/Alexstrasza strategy) or require the opponent to be out of resources or low on life to be effective (Control Warrior’s Grommash, or Renolock’s Jaraxxus). So what changes are coming that endanger these decks?

Let’s look at the Control decks currently competitive in Hearthstone’s post-Mean Streets metagame; Anyfin Paladin, Control Warrior, Control Shaman, Reno Mage, Reno Priest, and Renolock

No Reno, no way?

You can start to see a problem with the upcoming standard rotation by simply looking at the name of half decks. Reno Jackson is not just a powerful card; it’s a card that so utterly negates certain class’s long-game weaknesses that it created and is currently sustaining decks that simply wouldn’t make sense without it.

We see this in Warlock and Mage especially, with their incredible synergy with Lifetap and Ice Block respectively (alongside a lack of class healing). Reno Priest may potter along thanks to its great class heal options; but when Reno rotates out, what will happen to decks that can’t counter the incredible early-game damage capabilities of modern Aggro decks?

Perhaps more class or neutral healing will be released for these classes, but I’m not too hopeful. Class identity is a key part of hearthstone, and Team 5 have clarified their desire for certain classes like Mage and Warlock not to have access to the same level of efficient healing as others. Omni-present single-purpose neutrals seem to be going out of fashion as well, with no replacements for Antique Healbot on the horizon to shore up these class’s anti-aggro abilities in the long game.

So are classes like Mage and Warlock going to be pigeonholed into fast decks purely from lack of access to healing? Well, perhaps. A way to avoid this is to give thematic, interesting survivability tools that do not involve healing. Maybe a Molten-Giant-esque replacement to reinvigorate Handlock-style strategies, or more defensive Mage secrets á la Ice Barrier. Outlandish ideas like giving your Hero “Can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers” might help those classes survive burst. Whatever the solution, it’s clear that defense against reach and burn is key to the survival of controlling variations of these archetypes.

This also ties into the problem with Jade decks; as the Combo-based counters to these mid-range, continually ramping minions are largely restricted to these two classes.

Warlock’s healing options aren’t exactly stellar

The Rise of the Golems

The other huge challenge arising for Control from the upcoming rotation is the incredible power of Jade Decks against slower opponents. The long term power of these constantly-ramping and in many cases infinite threats can lead to absurd situations. For example, forcing Control Warrior to play an aggro gameplan, or Aggro Shaman out-valuing Renolock card-for-card well into the late stages of the game. Even in a meta overwhelmingly dominated by hyper-aggressive Patches decks, Jade cards are seeing a huge amount of play. There are two things that could lead to Jades becoming even more ubiquitous and even more dangerous to Control.

The first includes hints of an upcoming balance change to the early-game pirate package. In interviews and streams, both Ben Brode (Hearthstone’s Game Director) and Mike Donais (Principle Game Designer) have expressed concern for Small-Time Buccaneer in particular. This might not be a huge deal immediately, as aggressive non-pirate decks like Tempo Mage, Dragon Warrior, and Midrange Hunter could arrive to fill the piratical power vacuum. Things might change, however, once the year of the Kraken is over. Mainstays of these decks, cards like Flamewaker, Quick Shot, and Sir Finley Mrrglton (not to mention the entire Dragon package!) will leave; their replacements will struggle to be fast enough to catch up to the rapidly-growing Jades.

A Jade meta would be more forgiving on Mage and Warlock due to their plethora of game-ending combo options. But the matchup would remain unfavoured, other decks would likely be even worse off.

An Idol threat

This could have dire consequences for Paladin, Priest, and Warrior’s hopes of retaining late-game relevance. With the loss of Anyfin can happen, Paladin is left only with N’zoth as a way to convincingly end games. Paladin’s N’zoth package may be somewhat effective against Jade Druid occasionally. But it is unlikely to be fast enough to matter once Druid can drop consistent mid-game threats that Paladins struggle to remove. Meanwhile, Mid-Jade Shaman’s Hexes and Devolves ruin any chance of late-game success for Paladin. They could easily see themselves consistently out-valued in the early game, mid game, and late game!

Warrior, on the other hand, is losing almost all of its late-game options. Elise Starseeker and Justicar Trueheart were previously all Warrior needed to out-value almost any deck by simply removing all enemies and tanking up to a Golden Monkey finish. With the loss of those two key cards, Control Warrior will struggle against almost any deck in the late-game. Even now, Warrior struggles against any deck that isn’t pure aggro due to a lack of late-game options. Old mainstays like Ysera and Ragnaros sufficed in the old days, and can still sometimes steal games versus poorly opening Druids. However, against Shaman’s plethora of removals and constant board pressure, there seems no way that Control Warrior can do anything but lose incredibly slowly.

Control Shaman may survive, but with the loss of Elemental Destruction, Healing Wave, and Lava Shock, it seems unlikely that any future build will be distinguishable or superior from standard Midrange jade options. Priest will be in a similar rough spot to warrior, with simply no cards that can force a switch to a proactive strategy.

The key issue is that these classes have no late-game options that are powerful enough to out-tempo a ramped-up Jade Druid while not being countered by Hex and Devolve from the Shamans. Control Warrior, Priest and Paladin’s late game are in dire need of support if they are not to be forced into obscurity.

It’s hard to find late game strategies that aren’t countered by Shaman’s cheap Transform effects

Designing solutions

In order to prevent a steep decline in control’s viability, the next set of cards will need to ameliorate some of the weaknesses of existing control decks post-rotation; namely survivability for Mage and Warlock, and late-game power for Warrior, Paladin and Priest. They do not need to be so powerful as to make the decks perfect all-rounders, but they do need to be strong enough to give them a fighting chance against multiple archetypes (and particularly the power of Jade Golems).

Maybe hold off on giving great cards to Shaman for a few seasons though. Not to say a viable Control Shaman isn’t desirable, but in recent times they seem to be controlling the opponent’s face more than anything.

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

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How to Rat Dirtily

Dirty Rat is a card that polarized opinion from the start. Perhaps the best statted 2-drop outside of Milhouse Manastorm, this grinning rodent comes with a potentially disastrous catch; when you play him, you’re not only gaining a beefy cheap taunt, but also an unexpected surprise from your opponents’ hand. However, while this might seem to be a crippling downside, in the right deck, it can be a devastatingly powerful tech card to ruin your opponents’ intricate plans. Control decks in particular can utilise it as one more way to disrupt and interrupt the opposing win condition.

I recently hit Legend EU with a Dirty Rat Control Warrior, peaking at top 20. On my climb, I came to appreciate the game-winning (or game-losing) impact that correct or incorrect Dirty Rat usage had. With that in mind, I’ve put together a guide to the situations where you should play Dirty Rat for the maximum level of effectiveness. So how, and more importantly when, should you play Dirty Rat?

 

The Yolo-Rat

  • Opponent: Aggro Shaman, Pirate Warrior
  • Turns: 1-3
  • Condition: Slow hand, fast opposing start, opponent keeps multiple cards

Sometimes, your mulligan-wizarding powers fail you and you’re left with a hand of late-game tools. Meanwhile, your opponent has seemed to get exactly what they wanted; keeping nearly all of the cards in their starting hand. Here, Dirty Rat can be your chance to get back in the game. Normally, a turn 1 or 2 Dirty Rat is a horrible play; the stall of the 2/6 taunt is nothing compared to the risk of pulling down a free Frothing Bezerker or Flamewreathed Faceless.

However, for every crushing defeat, it can also stall you out just enough to stabilize. If you’re willing to accept turning a likely loss into a soul-destroying one some of the time, you can win games you were otherwise near-certain to lose.

 

The Auctioneer Assassinate

  • Opponent: Miracle Rogue
  • Turns: 5-6
  • Condition: 4 damage removal available

Against Miracle Rogue, Gadgetzan Auctioneer is Control’s worst nightmare. With its endless stream of cheap spells, Rogues need Gadgetzan to cycle through their deck, pushing out damage and threats that their opponent simply can’t handle.

As such, pulling down, then destroying Gadgetzan with Dirty Rat should be one of your primary win-conditions against Miracle Rogue. Without it, they’re stuck with relatively low-value cards, and can run out of steam incredibly fast. Even without taking out the grinning goblin, you can often devalue some of their most potent tools, like Questing Adventurer, Edwin Van Cleef, or Leeroy Jenkins. A good Dirty Rat can almost always cripple a Miracle Rogues best-laid plans.

 

The Vanilla

  • Opponent: Aggro Shaman, Pirate Warrior, Miracle Rogue
  • Turns: 6+
  • Condition: Opponent has few or no cards in hand

Sometimes you just want a 2/6 taunt; particularly when you’re at 5 life and facing an Arcanite Reaper. The good news is that Aggro decks tend to play out their potent minions as fast as possible, so Dirty Rat can often come without any strings attached. While undoubtedly the least flashy way to use the card, it nonetheless can win you a huge number of games just by getting in the way of otherwise lethal damage.

 

The Forced Overextension

  • Opponent: Any
  • Turns: 7+
  • Condition: 2-6 minions on board, AOE in hand

The problem with AOE is that it’s relatively straightforward to play around. Especially in slower matchups against midrange decks like Dragon Priest, your Flamestrike, Brawl, Dragonfire Potion or Twisting Nether can sit in your hand as your opponent refuses to play more than two or three minions at once. This can force you to waste premium removal on relatively small threats, just to stay alive.

Dirty Rat can provide the answer to this, pulling down an additional card to help win the attrition war. It combos especially well with Brawl, due to the fact that the Rat also has a chance of winning. This provides both a massive board swing and a huge value.

 

 

Dirty Rat can make AOE more lethal

The Sylvanas Shuffle

  • Opponent: Any
  • Turns: 7+
  • Condition: Sylvanas on your board, no good steal targets

Sylvanas is one of those cards that’s incredibly powerful, but niche. Good against small boards of beefy minions, it can just be a vanilla 5/5 depressingly often. However, if your opponent has, say, a single 5/4 to contest it, then a Dirty Rat can be your saving grace, allowing you to pull down a more valuable minion to steal after trading. If that minion happens to be a vital combo piece for your opponent, you can often steal its power to snatch win

 

The Acolyte Snipe

  • Opponent: Control Warrior, Reno Mage
  • Turns: 10+
  • Condition: Fatigue gameplan, discarded cards to prevent burning recently

Despite the proliferation of late-game value in the form of Jade, Manic Soulcaster, Elise Starseeker and Kazakus, the Fatigue battle is still vital in many matchups. Unfortunately, winning it is incredibly hard. Dirty Rat can help by forcing down a minion with a draw effect, allowing you to proc it, putting you vastly ahead when both players start to run out of cards. As an added bonus, you can often mill the opponents deck if you can force them to overdraw. Acolyte of Pain is the dream here, potentially putting them ahead by 3 cards, but Bloodmage Thalnos or Loot Hoarder is also a plus. It also has the added bonus of diluting and polluting any potential Revives from Kazakus Potions.

Fatigue still matters in many matchups

 

The Traitor Doomsayer

  • Opponent: Renolock, Reno Mage, Reno Priest
  • Turns: 10+
  • Condition: Threatening board, no AOE

Sometimes you just can’t deal with the opponents board. Maybe you wasted your AOE, or just didn’t draw it. Or perhaps they ground you out in an epic battle of fatigue. Whatever the reason, you’re staring down a massive board you can’t possibly react to in time.

You have one last saving grace, other than conceding. By pulling down your opponent’s Doomsayer, Dirty Rat can wipe the board at the start of their next turn. It can be unlikely, but sometimes its just the out you need.

 

The Freestyle

  • Opponent: Control/Combo
  • Turns: Any
  • Condition: Varies

Sometimes you just know your opponent is holding something big. Maybe they’ve kept their leftmost card since turn four. Or they played a Thaurrisan they could have played last turn after mousing over a top-deck. Maybe they just play like they’re setting up lethal. Even if it’s just a hunch, sometimes intuition wins out. Taking out a Grommash, Malygos, Kazakus, Leeroy, Jaraxxus, Golden Monkey, or Archmage Antonidas that could otherwise win them the game can be an amazing feeling. Although, it takes an absurd amount of skill at psychological warfare and deduction to do it consistently.

Or failing all that you could always just be lucky…

 

Dirty Rat is a card that is infuriating and fascinating all at once. The layers of play and counter-play it encourages are deceptively deep, and it’s fast becoming one of my favorite control tools of the expansion.

Except, of course, when it ruins my plans.

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Weaponizing Emotes Without BM

With no way to directly talk to the random foes you face on Ladder, there is only one way to communicate: the Emote system. These short six words or phrases may seem innocuous at first, but they have quickly developed into their own language; each one dripping with implied salt or sneer. Hearthstone is a game of information and bluffing, as well as identifying the mathematically optimal play. By utilizing the hidden meanings of emotes, you can steal wins from losing situations by exploiting your opponent’s hubris or paranoia; as long as you weren’t squelched in the process!

Thanks

What it means: “Thanks” is perhaps the most straightforward emote. Ostensibly expressing gratitude, it’s usually to taunt an opponent after they play right into your hand. They overextend into AOE? Thanks can hammer home their error as you flamestrike. They assume you don’t have Reno and set up two turn lethal? Thanks makes the “We’re gonna be rich!” that much sweeter.

How to exploit it: Outside of simple BM (Bad Manners), Thanks, like “My Greetings,” is a surefire way to express confidence, arrogance, and make your opponent unsure about their play. When your opponent emotes Thanks, they are usually trying to tilt you by highlighting the way you played into their hand. The best counter is to figure out exactly why your opponent is so smug and use it against them.

A classic way to utilize it yourself is after a Druid Mulches one of your minions. Emoting Thanks might make them think you got a spectacular random minion in return. This can lead them to hold back removal for no good reason. Another example is if your opponent gives you draws off your Acolyte of Pain in an effort to fatigue you. “Thanks” can encourage them to believe that they are helping out your game plan, implying you have a combo finisher or something that they will try and play around, when in fact you have none. Or they may just attempt to prevent future draws. On the flip side, when they draw voluntarily, emoting “Thanks” can imply you’re intending to fatigue them. They may then be unprepared for your unexpected burst or value-based combo. More traditionally, bluffing AOE by thanking them for each additional minion played can prevent them from giving you a board too big to deal with.

Threaten

What it means: Despite its tone, Threaten is the most impotent of emotes. Usually used in a losing situation as a futile expression of semi-serious rage, it implies you have little else to do with your hand. Sometimes yelling about how your magic will tear them apart is the only response to their overwhelming board.

How to exploit it: Since its use is typically from a losing position, try using it to press your advantage. Play around their remaining outs, and assume that the cards left in their hand are overly situational, or outright useless.

Implying you have no response can be hard to bluff, but incredibly potent. Typically the way to use this emote is by acting as if you have no response to a minion or board, when in fact you are holding back your most powerful answer in the hope that they go all-in and get destroyed by your perfectly timed counterplay. As well as obvious interactions with AOE, consider using it with hard removal: if you trade your whole board into their Ragnaros Lightlord while using this emote, they will hardly expect the Entomb on their Warleader or Tirion the following turn.

This card isn’t Grommash: but “Well Played” makes my opponent think it is

Greetings

What it means: Outside of its traditional use at the start of the game, Greetings is the supreme expression of confidence. By far the most BM-worthy emote, Greetings is used to infuriate and provoke your opponent when you are sure they have no counter to your devastating play. It is used before lethal, but often also before simply powerful plays, like dropping Harrison Jones into Doomhammer, or Alexstrasza after a tempo Reno.

How to exploit it: If your opponent uses Greetings, they are likely becoming overconfident. Look for awkward or risky plays that might unseat them; perhaps offer them a “well played” to lull them into a false sense of security before aggressively pursuing a risky but rewarding line of play they may not have the answer for.

Using Greetings yourself makes your opponent overestimate your position. They might look for low percentage chances at lethal, or Hail-Mary plays from Discover or other types of cards. Typically it makes them play overly aggressively to try and win, despite your perceived advantage. It can also cause people to play overly defensively if they fear you have set up lethal. If you discover a card, then Greetings can make your opponent fear the worst (such as Coldarra Drake in Reno priest, or Sacrificial pact against a warlock that seeks to play Jaraxxus). It’s best used in combination with a card capable of punishing an overly aggressive play, like lifegain or a beefy taunt. It can also be a value play that can punish overly defensive action (depending on context).

Wow

What it means: Wow, at its most basic level, indicates mild surprise or shock. This is usually relating to in-game RNG; a particularly bad or good hand, or outcome from a random event are usually the most likely inspirations. This is most typically used after the player in question is on the receiving end of bad luck (though it can also be used in a conciliatory sense after good fortune).

How to exploit it: If your opponent emotes Wow without anything especially noteworthy happening on board, they are usually indicating frustration at their hand. Use this against them by playing to your deck’s strengths, and perpetuating the current advantageous situation.

Using it yourself can, like Threaten, imply your situation is weaker than it is, allowing you to goad them into overextending or making an incorrect read. For instance, passing turn one without comment might indicate you are a Control Warrior; but emoting Wow whilst mousing over certain cards before passing over the turn might make your opponent believe you are a frustrated Pirate Warrior with an unfortunate mulligan

Oops

What it means: Oops is either used sarcastically as BM, or sincerely in order to indicate recognition of a misplay. Occasionally it’s used for BM purposes, but otherwise is one of the most sincere emotes.

How to exploit it: Your opponent recognizing their screw-up makes this emote harder to exploit.

Things get more interesting when you use it yourself, however. For instance, seemingly incorrect plays that in fact disguise a higher-level strategy can be passed off as a misplay. For instance, you might deliberately leave yourself with one, rather than two, weapon durability as a Rogue. This plays around Harrison Jones, but you can pretend it was a mistake. This could perhaps lead your opponent to save Harrison for a turn you don’t play around it (that, of course, will never come). Or, if playing one of the few remaining Warrior decks that incorporate Battle Rage, then your lack of Hero Power whilst undamaged can be passed off as negligence, rather than seeking to encourage your opponent to damage your hero for a future extra draw.

Well Played

What it means: Well Played is sometimes used mid-game, either sincerely to acknowledge a good line or spot-on read, or sarcastically to shame an opponents misplay. However, the overwhelming majority of uses of Well Played occur right at the end of the game, when lethal is all but assured.

How to exploit it: Most of the time, your opponent emoting well played indicates resignation if losing, and acceptance of victory if winning. If they use it unexpectedly, it’s often wise to play defensively.

Well Played is perhaps the easiest way to bluff lethal in the game; opponents are often hardwired into panicking the second they hear it. This can push them to adopt sub-optimal and overly defensive lines of play to play around anticipated burst damage. A perfect way to do this would be against any Reno deck while they are at a low, but not dangerous life total. Forcing them to Reno early can allow you to squeeze in extra damage that you otherwise miss. It can also give you the breathing room to stick a powerful minion. A classic move is while playing against a low-health Jaraxxus. A Well Played can bait out taunts or healing. You can then nullify before you draw your true combo that will actually win you the game. Fear is arguably the most powerful emotion, and as such Well Played becomes the most powerful emote to bluff with.

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Should Small-time Buccaneer get a big-time nerf?

 

The card in its current state

Small-Time Buccaneer has become arguably the most meta-warping card in the game. Warrior, Shaman and Rogue have risen on the back of its insane synergy with Patches and low-cost weapons. Meanwhile Paladin and Hunter’s lack of cheap weapons for the “pirate package” has lead to their near-extinction from the meta. This power has not gone unnoticed; in a recent IGN interview Mike Donais, principle game designer, indicated that the strength of the card was raising eyebrows at Team 5.

The card that I’m most worried about is Small-Time Buccaneer. That’d be the card I’m watching most closely.

– Mike Donais, speaking to IGN

So far, there seems to be growing community and developer desire for a rebalancing of Small-time Buccaneer to bring it in line with other one drops. But is such a change necessary? And what happens if the change makes the card unplayable, as happened with one drops like Leper Gnome?

 

Hunter is unviable without the ability to use or compete with Pirates like Small-time Buccaneer

Patching the Patches-summoner

 

The arguments for a nerf seem clear. They can be summed up as follows;

 

  • Power: The card is simply better than almost any other one drop if you have the necessary weapon synergy

 

  • Variance: While it does not explicitly contain any random effects, it massively increases the impact that your starting mulligan makes. The difference between Small-Time Buccaneer with a weapon and no Patches in hand and STB without and Patches in hand is equivalent to 5 stat points; and that’s assuming you draw it! It functions to make aggro matchups less strategic and more of a coin-flip

 

  • Aggression: Small-Time Buccaneer pushes aggro decks to become more potent than perhaps they’ve ever been. Where turn 4 or 5 lethals were previously outliers, now they can be routine against many decks. Board snowballing can happen straight from turn one and happen incredibly quickly. While the level of aggro in the meta can be a matter of taste, the lack of midrange viability outside of pirate-aggro and Reno/control is surely detrimental to those who prefer that playstyle.

 

  • Class balance: Paladin and Hunter have almost no ladder representation and few, if any, viable decks. A huge part of this is their inability to take part in or counter the swathes of Pirate decks due to their lack of early-game removal and potent, cheap weapons.

 

  • Diversity: There is no meta-viable aggressive deck that does not incorporate Small-Time Buccaneer and the Pirate package. Unless a change is implemented, it could be argued that this will crowd out other innovative aggro decks until it rotates out of Standard.

 

Are Pirates necessary to keep Jade Druid in check?

                                                                         A necess-arrrr-ry evil?

I’m not sure anyone would deny that Small-Time Buccaneer is one of the most powerful cards in the meta. However, it does have competition. Cards like Kazakus and Jade Idol, while miles slower, still have the ability to generate massive value and win games. it could be argued that Small Time Buccaneer’s power is required to prevent decks like Jade Druid and Reno Warlock, with their incredible value generation capabilities, from taking over the meta completely.

However, there are some flaws with this argument. Even greedy Renolocks can win if they draw Reno and some AOE in time. Jade Druids can hold off the aggression with a few well placed Swipes and Wraths and hide behind an Ancient of War or similar beefy taunt. While greedy control decks are indeed countered by hyper-aggressive face decks, they are arguably even harder countered by aggressive midrange. But it’s these aggressive midrange decks (in particular Midrange Hunter) that are being forced out hardest by Small-Time Buccaneer and the Pirates package. If Small-Time Buccaneer was brought down in power, then aggressive-leaning decks would likely just curve higher, play stickier minions and punish greed harder.

 

                                                                            A Smaller-time Buccaneer

 

So if we take a rebalancing as necessary, what would a weaker Small-Time Buccaneer look like? Balancing one drops is notoriously tricky. With Hearthstone’s granular nature, even a single point of stats can be the difference between ubiquity and ignominy (just ask Abusive Sergeant!) Here are a few examples of how Small-Time Buccaneer could be changed while keeping it as a decent choice for Pirate decks (if not an ever-present staple for non-pirate aggro decks)

Should only Valeera get this level of 1 drop power?

The Rogueification

 

As I and others predicted a while ago, Small-Time Buccaneer quickly became a Rogue staple. Instead of providing the aggro springboard, its reliance on an anti-tempo hero power on Turn 2 made it a board control option rather than an all-in face tool. One popular community suggestion for Small-Time Buccaneer is to restrict it to a Rogue-only class card. By making Small-Time Buccaneer a Rogue-only card, the card’s aggro potential would be massively limited. In return, perhaps Rogue class card and meme Shadow Rager could go neutral with the other Ragers.

However, this is not a perfect solution. As well as being an unprecedented way of altering a card post-release, it would also make miracle Rogue relatively strong in a time where it is already top tier, while weakening its main counters. It’s also pretty unlikely that Team 5 would alter a neutral card’s “Soul” so drastically.

 

 

 

                                          The Predictable

Hardly imaginative, but surely a likely candidate

 

One sure-fire way to reduce a card’s power is to make the good numbers smaller or the bad numbers bigger. This change simply reduces the benefit from synergy by one, making it less of a powerhouse by a significant amount. While a conditional 2/2 may seem bad compared to the 2/2 Mistress of Mixtures or Enchanted Raven, the benefit from being a Pirate cannot be discounted, considering the huge stat benefit that Patches brings.

This version would likely still see play in the exact same decks, and be just somewhat less potent. While this change may seem like an easy one, the fact that it may not shake up the meta enough to bring about significant change may be a reason to discount it. It’s worth expecting that given Team 5’s extreme infrequency in balance changes, that the changes should make a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Hits just has hard, but much less sticky

 

              The All-in

Perhaps a more divisive option would be to reduce the health of Small-Time Buccaneer to 1. No 3/1 minion for one has ever been printed (outside the cripplingly overloading Dust Devil). Reducing health would make the card far more vulnerable to pings, cheap AOE and 1 attack minions. The vulnerability would make more difference in some cases than others; Rogues, Druids and Mages would likely gain greatly from being able to hero-power it down, while Warrior and Shaman’s plethora of 1 damage options would also let them take it out with ease.

However, Hunter, Paladin, Warlock and Priest would likely still struggle, giving it a high likelihood of trading up regardless. Since Hunter and Paladin are the worst classes in the current meta, this hardly seems optimal.

 

 

 

 

 

Would this make for more tactical decision making with weaponry?

                                                                      The Situational

One of the problems with Small-Time Buccaneer is its ease of activation. Any weapon at all counts, as long as it is equipped. Making it only work with weapons with 2 or more durability would mean more tactical choices and less all-purpose power in the dream scenario (turn one Small-Time Buccaneer into turn two weapon). Warriors and Shamans would have to choose between losing Small Time Buccaneer’s buff and a weapon charge off Fiery War Axe or Jade Claws or losing the STB altogether. As well as promoting more interesting decisions, it would make early game minions in general a more potent counter to the piratical threat, as well as reducing the variance of the card by making it less polarizing between its best and worst-case scenarios.

Downsides include benefiting 3 durability weapons like Spirit claws and N’zoth’s first mate’s Rusty Hook, and the increased complexity of the card text. Like other changes, it has the potential to be not enough to dethrone the card’s dominance.

 

 

No, I’m not still upset over Warsong Commander, why do you ask?

 

The Soul of the Buccaneer
Team 5 has a history of not doing balancing by half-measures. Cards like Warsong Commander, Leper Gnome, Ancient of Lore and Molten Giant have gone from core staples to unplayable overnight. Completely reworking the mechanic to something that massively reduces the power level of the card to the point of effectively removing it from the game would not be exactly without precedent. Perhaps some would be happy to see such a change; and it would definitely have the desired effect of making the card less ubiquitous and powerful.

Though this is clearly an option, there are undoubtedly more elegant solutions out there that do not result in the effective removal of a card from the game.

 

 

 

 

 

No matter what Team 5 chooses, as long as some change does occur, the outcome is likely to be positive. Though it might not happen before the next standard rotation or perhaps even later, a bit more early-game diversity and balance is sure to be good for Hearthstone.

 

 

Thanks to hearthcards.net for the easy to use and powerful card editing tool; go check them out if you fancy making your own Small Time Buccaneers

Other images courtesy of hearthstone.gamepedia.com and Blizzard Entertainment

6 Neutral Reasons Rogues Shouldn’t Panic

With Mean Streets of Gadgetzan now released, some Rogue players are underwhelmed by their class cards. Not only did Rogues get a variety of seemingly weak, understated minions with limited synergies, they only got 2 cards that fall into the new Jade Lotus tri-class Golem mechanic compared to Druid and Shaman’s 3. And with most of the focus on the “control killing” potential of cards like Jade Idol, Rogue appears to be the weakest Jade option. To make matters worse, Rogues got a card traditionally reserved as a “joke”; the Rager variant. The Shadow Rager has already spawned memes mocking the quality of cards received this expansion.

But are things as bad for Rogue as they seem? While existing archetypes such as Malygos, Miracle, N’zoth, Burgle and Tempo Rogue might struggle to gain utility out of their new class cards (outside of perhaps Counterfeit Coin in Miracle), there are a number of Neutral cards coming with Mean Streets of Gadgetzan that could potentially give Rogues the tools it needs to survive and even thrive

 

Small-time BuccaneerPatches the Pirate

 

Small-time Buccaneer and Patches the Pirate

Did someone say Flame Imp? This little fella may seem underwhelming at first, but given Rogues propensity for Hero Powering turn 2, this guy is a pretty much guaranteed 3/2 for 1. Tempo rogue and miracle rogue alike will love this cheap, potent early board presence. He can even activate Combo later on! As well as being a potent Trogg or Mana Wyrm killer, he also has perfect synergy with the new Pirate Legendary, Patches. Patches may not seem much as a simple 1/1, but any pirate you play will draw and play him for free; thinning your deck while providing amazing early game board presence. He’ll go great with Small Time Buccaneer and existing Rogue staple Swashburglar.

 

Burgly BullyBurgly Bully

Not quite a Tomb Pillager, this guy nonetheless has huge potential. A 4/6 for 5 is decent stats, and even if his effect only activates once, he’s insane. Unlike previous spell-dependent minions like Lorewalker Cho and Troggzor, Burgly Bully is well statted, meaning that minions trading into him makes him comparable to Druid of the Claw as a 4/6 taunt for 5. Meanwhile, he can generate ridiculous value if you have the board and your foe is forced to either ignore him or give you multiple coins. Vs Druid, Control Warrior and Priest he is a nightmare to remove, and will likely fuel your turn 6 Gadzetzan into a super-powered cycling machine.

The Bully is arguably a little slow, but a potent effect that is good against so many decks is definitely worth trying out in all forms of Rogue that run Gadzetzan Auctioneer.

 

 

 

Genzo the SharkGenzo the Shark

A deceptively powerful tool for decks like Tempo Rogue that look to go all-in, Gonzo is only slightly understatted as a 5/4 for 4; but if he ever sticks, you are likely to win on the spot. Drawing up to three cards means that if you have the board and are low on cards (which tempo Rogue is extremely likely to do by turn 4), Gonzo will force your opponent to respond. This can mean delaying an AOE, or not killing a potent Cold-Blood buffed minion, allowing you to swiftly finish them off in the next few turns. If he lives, you have just given yourself a huge amount of gas to re-flood the board or get reach for lethal.

 

 

Mistress of Mixtures

Mistress of Mixtures

 

Late-game oriented Rogue decks have always struggled for healing; this Neutral option gives N’zoth Rogue a potent tool to stay alive in both the early and the late game. A 2/2 for 1 is a solid one drop, and the healing Deathrattle means that you can liberally dagger threatening targets in the first few turns, knowing that you’ll be healed to full again by her Deathrattle. In the late-game, she adds to your N’zoth, meaning you’ll not only build an even more massive board, but also likely give yourself all-important lifegain the following turn for free. While the opponent will also benefit, a deck that seeks to stretch out its gameplan to the mid-late game like N’zoth Rogue will benefit far more than your opponent will (especially versus aggro).

 

Red Mana Wyrm

Red Mana Wyrm

Jokingly called two Mana Wyrms stapled together, this expensive but potent minion could be the finisher Miracle Rogue needs in the post-Gadgetzan meta. Each spell grants it +2 attack, and it’s easy to see how games could be won off concealing this, followed by a flurry of damage spells and attack buffs. A turn 6 mana Wyrm into conceal is a nightmare to remove (dodging almost all AOE effects like Dragonfire Potion), and combinations of Preparations, Coins, Cold Bloods and Eviscerates could quickly spiral into huge damage; all whilst leaving up a massive minion for your opponent to deal with. While slower than Questing Adventurer or Edwin Van Cleef, its incredible burst potential means it’s definitely worth experimenting with.

 

(All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment)

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