Mage after Ice Block

Ice Block isn’t long for Standard. The designers heavily hinted that the Year of the Mammoth would be the last year of Standard Ice Block. This is arguably long overdue, and will be welcome for many. However, it could also be problematic.

As defensive tools go, Ice Block is almost unrivaled. By buying a “free” additional turn of survival, it can allow for burst lethals or stabilisation. It has seen play in almost every Controlling Mage deck ever, from Reno to Frost Lich Jaina. But without Ice Block to provide Mage with key survivability, how can late-game Mage decks survive?

Conditional lifegain

Is more Lifesteal the answer?

The answer to giving Mage enough survivability without Ice Block probably shouldn’t lie with unconditional lifegain. Reprinting an Antique-Healbot style big generous blob of health would be unsatisfying. Eroding class identity and deckbuilding choices is not worth the easy “fix” for survivability.

Instead, more cards that synergise and react to specific strategies and cards could allow for a more interesting solution. Frost Lich Jaina is a great recent example of this. By indirectly allowing healing with Lifesteal elementals, she gives Mages unparalleled late-game survivability, so long as she can keep a board.

More cards like this could make for interesting decks and decisions while boosting survivability. Lifesteal synergies would be perfect for this. It’s shown to be a powerful tool, especially when paired with damaging spells. Perhaps a Lifesteal spell, or a means of giving spells Lifesteal, could be an option.

Freeze upon Freeze upon Freeze?

Freeze locks down minions later on, but doesn’t stop burn

Keeping minions from attacking is pretty useful in Mage. Stalling is a powerful tool when you’re counting down the turns to burst out your opponent or set up a clear. With Ice Block gone, Mages might need more flexible Freeze options in order to lock down boards.

Additional Freeze tools, especially cheap ones, could give mage more opportunity to survive losing board control early until clears can be unleashed or lethal organised. Doing so would most likely give all controlling or late-game Mages a new lease of life.

Unfortunately, this could come with some downsides. Mage already has a wide variety of Freeze tools. They tend to have more trouble avoiding direct burn and clearing sticky boards than simply a lack of raw freeze. Over-focusing on Freeze can leave Mage more vulnerable to burn, while making minion-based matchups more polarised.

Advanced Disruption

Hand disruption could increase counterplay, but cause frustrations

Survivability isn’t just about the board. Mage has had a long-standing problem with dying to weapons, spells and charge minions. This is where Ice Block came in. Otherwise, these cards were almost impossible to interact with. One solution to the lack of Ice Block, then, could be additional ways of interacting with these cards. This falls outside the scope of most existing Hearthstone cards.

There are three current ways. Spell cost increase like Loatheb or Nerubian Unraveller could work, but minion based spell disruption tends to favour aggressive decks. Dirty Rat style battlecry-nullification already exists, but is too specific and does not affect spells or weapons. Finally, Armor can preemptively halt burn, but may fall too close to generic lifegain.

Potentially, more spell-focused disruption tactics could be included. This could consist of “Freezing” cards in the opponent’s hand, preventing their use for a turn. This and other strategies would need to be carefully monitored however. Team 5 is rightfully wary of overdoing disruption techniques, as too much creates counterplay but also intense frustration and feelings of powerlessness.

The Yogg approach?

Is a late game tempo swing the key?

A final option could be more late-game reactive tempo tools. Yogg used to be incredibly valuable in Mage, as its potential to clear and generate massive resources in a single turn was completely unrivaled; so long as it didn’t randomly lose you the game. Perhaps more spell-synergistic cards could be considered; albeit probably with slightly less variance.

Doing so would allow controlling mages to generate massive swing value if they could live to the late game. However, the card would need to be tooled so that it worked with cards in your hand or deck rather than being an overall value-bomb, to limit its power to the late-game Mages that would consider running the kind of synergistic packages such a card would require.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Custom cards via Hearthcards.net.

Note: All cards featured in this article are hypothetical examples of the Author’s design. They are meant for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to be well-designed or balanced.

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Are cheap Taunts just Aggro tools?

Hearthstone is a game that fundamentally rewards aggression and early board control. Throughout metas, the top dog is almost always an aggro deck. This can sometimes present design problems. How do you print strong cheap Taunts that are able to hold the board against Aggro without them being stronger in Aggro itself?

For many, the answer is obvious. Strong, cheap Taunt minions slow aggro and allow Midrange and Control to stabilise. Their defensive stats inherently prevent Aggro from utilising them effectively. However, the theory often doesn’t pan out in practice.

Protecting the face

Early on, total life matters a lot less than board control

Ostensibly, Taunts stop face damage. Aggro decks seek to dominate the early game and win through face damage. That the solution to this is early game taunts appears obvious. But things aren’t so simple. Stopping face damage on the first few turns is handy, sure; but an inefficient Taunt minion will often be far less effective than an early removal spell.

Aggro decks tend to be great at trading efficiently into minions early. After all, it’s this efficiency of gaining the board that allows them to adopt an aggressive playstyle in the first place. And soaking up face damage is all well and good; but on the first few turns, face damage is far less important than board control. There’s a reason why pre-nerf Fiery War Axe was one of the best anti-aggro tools out there. The face damage was irrelevant compared to the efficiency of removing early threats.

Safeguarding the snowball

taunt

It’s not easy to kill a Vicious Fledgling through one of these

On the flip side, early taunts are superb at helping an Aggro board survive. Old-school Aggro Shaman found great use in Feral Spirits to protect and buff a Tunnel Trogg, as well as providing good targets for Flametongue. Aggro Druid ran Tar Creeper and later Crypt Lord and Druid of the Swarm as both sticky buff targets and to make boards hard to get to. Murloc Paladin uses Righteous Protector to safeguard its Murlocs and as a target for Blessing of Kings. Dread Corsair is Pirate Warrior’s cheap or free board refill and protection for its high-attack Pirates.

There are recurring themes here; making it harder to kill high-priority minions, and buffs. The protection of high-priority minions is down to Taunt’s dual nature; apart from defending the face, it also protects the board. And when weapons or minions can’t kill your Frothing Beserker or Vicious Fledgling, they can have a crucial extra turn to grow out of control.

Beefy buffs

Flametongue had perfect aggressive synergy with taunts like Feral Spirits

Defensive Taunts are also deceptively powerful with buffs. Taunts tend to be best when defensively statted; this higher-health stat-line often scales up great. If you give +4/+4 to a 3/2, you’re left with a strong but relatively easily removed 7/6. But that same +4/+4 on a 1/4 makes for a far more sticky 5/8.

Similarly, defensive Taunt minions’ low attack means they can get great value from attack buffs from cards like Flametongue Totem or Direwolf Alpha. Often they can use it to value trade while staying alive and threatening. Or worse, simply go face and know the opponent still has a balanced-statted minion to get through that also protects the rest of your threatening board from minion damage.

Are downsides key?

taunt

Deathlord was the gold standard for early game anti-aggro Taunts.

Clearly, from a stat-for-stat perspective, simply making high health cheap Taunts won’t stop Aggro. So what can make a Taunt a Control tool?

The answer might lie in downsides. Deathlord may be a prime example of this. The risk of pulling a massive minion means that the only decks to risk running it would be ones with hard removal. Similarly, Dirty Rat can help stop certain decks early on but is so anti-tempo in many cases that Aggro would never consider running it.

However, the full answer may just lie in abandoning early Taunts altogether as anti-Aggro. Instead, more AOE and removal are card types that are proven to be effective anti-aggro tools that don’t threaten to make Aggro overbearing. The best recent example lies in cards like Defile and Sleep with the Fishes; strong, conditional, symmetrical early removal that fits perfectly into Control.

Aggro is inherently healthy for Hearthstone, but like all archetypes, should have its counters. Team 5 should recognise that cheap, efficient early Taunts is not that counter.


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Lessons of the Princes

When it comes to the royalty of Knights of the Frozen Throne, the King gets all the attention. But whilst the Lich King was the headline act, the Princes have had a surprisingly forceful impact on the meta. Despite the initial panning they received, some of the Princes have come to support or even define decks. What can we learn from their impact, and what can this teach us about buildaround cards?

Taldaram, the predictably useless

Hardly an effect worth 3 mana, let alone building around

Of course, not all of the Princes made it into the meta. Taldaram is rare for a build-around, in that his effect is both terribly difficult to activate and just plain terrible.

Having no 3 drops in your deck is a crippling downside for almost any deck. It would be conceivably worth it if the accompanying upside was in line with the ruinous deckbuilding cost. However, the effect is arguably not worth even 3 mana. Taldaram’s ability to copy a minion’s text and effects is extremely situational.

The only possible consistent application for it is in a combo deck to get two Malygos or two Prophet Velen. But spell-damage combo decks are weaker than ever and most require 3 drops. The most likely candidate, Priest, also has Mirage Caller as an option that means you can still run Acolyte.

Keleseth, the meta breaker

Keleseth can decide games on turn 2

Who knew that forsaking 2 drops would be so effective? Keleseth has helped propel Tempo Rogue to the dizzying heights of tier one. The 2 mana Prince is reminiscent of Reno Jackson in that it comes with a crippling penalty and a suitably powerful upside.

The ability to give every minion in your deck +1/+1 is potentially gamewinning on turn 2. Especially if followed up with a Southsea Captain pulling a 3/3 charging Patches. While not worth it in classes with consistent 2 drop options or spell reliance, it can prop up classes with weak 2 drop options in aggressive or midrange decks.

The downside of course, is the dependence on draw RNG. Keleseth on turn 2 is gamewinningly powerful. Tempo Rogue has a 72% winrate when he is kept in the mulligan according to HSReplay.net. But later on, he’s often a dead draw. The added penalty of not running 2 cost cards adds a further gulf of power between a Keleseth draw and a non-Keleseth draw. And unlike Reno, there’s almost no time to increase your odds of drawing it by cycling.

Valanar, the quiet workhorse

Not especially exciting, but a solid inclusion in certain decks and metas

Valanar wasn’t the most impactful, but his implementation was arguably the most effective. Cutting 4 drops is far less detrimental than giving up 2s or 3s. His bonus of gaining Taunt and Lifesteal isn’t crushingly strong, but still extremely potent in the right deck.

Unlike Keleseth, he’s also a defensive option, with far more utility in the late game. Drawing him later on can even be more useful than on turn 4, as the Lifesteal and Taunt can save your skin. Their synergy can often result in 8+ in effective heal; not bad for a 4 mana 4/4.

What’s more, a less crushing deckbuilding requirements opens up interesting choices without making your game dependent on drawing the build-arounds. He also pushes midrange and control decks, unlike Keleseth’s stat-pushing aggressive tempo.

Lessons for Team 5

There are a number of insights to take from the impact and play of the Princes. Buildarounds can make or break a healthy meta, so determining the most interesting and fun ways to implement them is a worthy enterprise.

Taldaram’s message is simple: a crippling restriction requires a powerful standalone effect. Taldaram is simply too weak and situational to ever see consistent play.

Keleseth shows the other side of a coin; when an effect is too aggressive, too swingy, and too early. While the effect and restriction could be interesting, the fact it’s so important to draw it early on makes the decks built around it feel extremely high-rolly.

Valanar might be the sweet spot. With a consistent impact in any deck that runs healing, the downside is occasionally but not always worth it. As a defensive card but not one you will depend upon, draw RNG affects it less. Overall, Team 5 could do well to introduce more buildarounds with a similar philosophy of consistency, balanced impact, and non-crippling condition.

 


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Volcanosaur and mid-expansion boredom

For a game of near-infinite possibility, Hearthstone can get stale fast. A focus on infrequent high-content, high-quality expansions keeps Hearthstone excellent, but leave long stretches of little change. How can Hearthstone beat the mid-expansion blues that sets in between releases?

Content Doldrums

expansion

Aside from more decks with this guy, the meta doesn’t seem to have changed drastically

While Adventures used to spread card releases over four weeks, the new all-expansion model has no such spacing. After the initial period of post-expansion experimentation and novelty, the meta settles quickly. The instant communication of vast amounts of info online leads to the most powerful decks spreading uncontrollably. Within days the dominant archetypes are close to refinement. While exceptions occur, especially with more complex combo or control decks, the fact remains that the Ladder experience becomes monotone fast.

Balance changes can help with this, but often don’t go far enough. After the 9.1 balance patch, there was little innovation. While Keleseth Rogue and Midrange Hunter grew in popularity, the main effect was a shuffling round of archetype distribution. Players looking for the total displacement of consistently dominant archetypes like Jade Druid, Pirate Warrior and Murloc Paladin were disappointed.

Too many months

expansion

Adventures spaced out content more effectively than Expansions

But even if the balance patch had completely upended the meta, the Hearthstone gameplay experience would still settle down into staleness once more. The simple facts are that there are only three content releases a year, with three major balance patches in between if we’re lucky. That leaves, on average, about two months between any change to Hearthstone’s card base, and four months between major changes. These stretches of no mechanical additions to Hearthstone may not sound like much at first.

But the ratio of established vs experimental metas is extremely lopsided. Let’s be charitable and assume that each major expansion release has a period of experimentation and flexible deckbuilding of 1-2 weeks. Even if you add one week of experimentation for each balance patch, that only leaves 6-9 weeks of experimental meta in the 52 weeks of the year. And that’s not the end of the world; but it’s certainly not ideal for promoting diverse play.

Volcanosaur to the rescue?

The answer could lie in the days prior to the release of the Journey to Un’goro expansion. Volcanosaur was given out to all as a free pre-expansion bonus. Interestingly, it was playable despite no other Un’goro cards being available. It was a small change, but the experimentation it opened up introduced a freshness that made the build-up to the release that bit more exciting.

This could be the secret to spicing up ladder. Spacing out small parts of content releases to allow pockets of card releases could allow experimentation and disruption. Blizzard could pre-designate a subset of, say 10 neutral cards. Then, without needing to patch, they could set in advance a time when these cards would become craftable and obtainable from packs. Two at a time, once a week would allow a month of weekly excitement as previously unseen cards would be dropped, allowing for experimentation and disruption.

Events could be more than Emotes

expansion

What if events came with new cards as well as rewards?

Outside of specific card releases, there could also be more variety possible via the holiday-themed events in Hearthstone. Arena is practically begging for temporary rule or drafting changes. Rule changes that are not drastic enough to be worth a Tavern Brawl, but nonetheless open up new and interesting possibilities.

For instance, a “Dragon week”, where Dragons have a huge offering bonus, could create a temporary unique experience (perhaps only after Drakonid Operative rotated out). Or heroes could start with five armor; or perhaps one more card was offered in the mulligan.

Whatever these potential rule changes or card additions were, they would not necessarily need to be perfect or even good ideas. When mid-expansion boredom sets in, any change is better than the same old meta for four months straight.


 

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The Freeze Shaman dilemma

Sometimes the set designers’ plans don’t come to fruition. Balancing Hearthstone is hard, and often cards that are foreseen as viable mainstays end up disappointing. Worse, sometimes whole planned archetypes fail.

This is the case with Knights of the Frozen Throne’s Freeze Shaman. Shaman lacked the necessary tools to consistently freeze minions in an advantageous way, and the synergy cards had mediocre payoff. This leaves a difficult choice for Blizzard. Continue to support an archetype with little competitive core? Or abandon it completely?

Commitment and payoff

freeze

Evolve took several expansions of support and a set rotation to shine

Sometimes, commitment to an archetype can pay dividends. Evolve Shaman got core cards like Evolve in Whispers of the Old Gods, but only reached competitive viability in later expansions as cards like Fire Fly, Primalfin Totem, Devolve and Doppelgangster were added. Despite taking a long time to flourish, the archetype grew into a deck that was both viable, fun and occupied a vital spot in the meta-game.

Blizzard has continued to add to Evolve, with cards like Deathseer Thrall in Knights of the Frozen Throne becoming mainstays and continuing on the core mechanic. By refusing to abandon an archetype that didn’t immediately pan out, Team 5 ended up giving Shaman perhaps its only recent viable deck, and one with huge popular appeal.

Over-investment

freeze

Discard held Warlock back

However, sometimes over-commitment to an archetype doesn’t work out so well. Warlock’s discard mechanic has technically been in the game since Vanilla. Later expansions attempted to experiment, with tentative but ultimately unsuccessful cards like Tiny Knight of Evil and Fist of Jarraxxus. Discard only really began to be “pushed” in One Night in Karazhan, with cards like Silverware Golem and Malchezaar’s Imp driving a discard deck that was explosive, if inconsistent. Though Discard Zoo saw considerable play, it was suppressed heavily by Midrange Shaman.

Intermittent support for discard didn’t help the deck in later expansions. While Mean Streets saw few Discard effects as the Kabal’s highlander effects were prioritised, in Un’goro, Discard was ramped up. The eventually culminated in the nigh-unplayable Warlock Quest, with discard and Warlock as a whole seeing terrible performance and representation on Ladder.

The over-commitment to an unsuccessful and arguably boring archetype not only was a poor use of design resources, it also drove Warlock towards the lowest win-rates and play-rates it had ever seen.

Is Freeze worth following up on?

Freeze Shaman is then faced with two prospects. Either continued support in future expansions to hopefully ignite an interesting, potent and niche-filling archetype; or leave it behind for fresher ideas. There are strong arguments either way.

On the one hand, it’s argued that the utter failure of Freeze to make it into any competitive Shaman means that adding additional tools would be throwing good cards after bad. Freeze is a niche mechanic, best suited to stalling combo decks. While some Combo Shamans have existed in the past, without mana manipulation it’s unlikely that Malygos Shaman or something similar would return.

This would suggest that Freeze Synergy cards are not the answer. While Freeze effects may still be valuable, they currently seem far too scarce, at least in Shaman, to be built around. But adding another set filled with both Freeze and Freeze Synergies would threaten Shaman’s viability if the archetype continued to underwhelm.

Soft support

freeze

Cards like Voodoo Hexer enable Freeze synergies, without being dependent on them

On the other hand, there are strong and interesting cards that could easily be viable with just a little more support. Voodoo Hexer has Alley Armorsmith levels of anti-aggro power, limited only by a lack of Controlling Shamans to put it in. Avalanche is situational but powerful. Ice Breaker could be premium removal if more freeze tools were added.

The answer might lie in soft support. Rather than going down the discard route of going all-in on the failing mechanic, Team 5 could instead add cards that synergise more subtly. Like how Un’goro gave Shaman token options to work with Evolve, without huge minions that were utterly dependent on Evolve.

Freeze Shaman could get support in more incidental Freeze effects on otherwise generally strong cards. This would not “force” Freeze, but leave it as an interesting choice and option for deck-builders. Freeze could be added wholly or partly, depending on how strong the cards turned out. What’s more, this could help push a more controlling, board-clear based Shaman as opposed to the more aggressive token lists currently available.


 

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Does Hearthstone need a Tournament mode?

The reliability of Hearthstone’s official tournaments hasn’t been stellar lately. Disconnects, issues with clear rule communication and venue issues have repeatedly plagued high-level play over the past few months. Most controversial was competitive player Michael Luker’s disconnect whilst winning a crucial match. The dominant game-state during the disconnect and his resulting tilt and losses arguably cost his qualification.

Some would blame Blizzard’s organisation for this. But the issue may run far deeper. Perhaps the issue lies in part in the Hearthstone game client itself. How can Hearthstone support esports without a tournament mode?

A matter of functionality

tournament mode

If you opponent disappears in a puff of smoke, pros should be able to resume their game

Currently, all of the rules, functions and quirks of any given tournament have to be organised within a limited Hearthstone client. Things like rules, decklists, bans and play orders have to be sorted manually. Naturally, this leaves greater room for error. It also places more administrative strain on the organisers.

Potentially, a Tournament mode or client in Hearthstone could automate this admin. It would also be less prone to error than human organisers.

What’s more, potential Tournament-friendly features could be added. The ability to restore a game to a prior state from a disconnect could be invaluable, especially in earlier stages of tournaments. A tournament mode could also provide post-match stats on demand for interested viewers.

Better rules, easier enforcement?

A tournament mode could also make for easier enforcement of anti-cheating rules. Currently, smaller independent tournaments have dilemmas when it comes to players potentially cheating via in-game chat. When pro player RDU received in-game messages stating “Hi mum” mid-Tournament in a game vs Amaz in a 2014 tournament, some believed it was code for Amaz drawing Leeroy. However, Hearthstone has no way of preventing players receiving messages outside of clearing out friends lists; a time-consuming and irksome task for all involved. The only alternative is to either tolerate potential cheating or disqualify those who receive messages (which would be equally open to abuse).

Similarly, intentional or semi-intentional disconnects are very hard to police, especially in venues with poor or unreliable web connections. A tournament mode with a resume feature would prevent this potential abuse.

These methods of preventing cheating would not only prevent wrongdoing, but also free up organisers that otherwise would have to devote time and effort to scrutinizing players.

Bridging the competitive gap

There may also be knock-on benefits for a Tournament mode or client. Though it would likely initially only be available to authorised partners, such a client may eventually be expanded to Fireside Gatherings. This would allow enthusiasts a far easier time of setting up small community tournaments without the hassle of organisation, bracketing and rule enforcement. Perhaps the mode could even be extended to those seeking a more personal, involved and strategic series of games than the traditional anonymous single matches of Ladder.

As well as opening more avenues for players to enjoy Hearthstone, it would also help to close the divide between Competitive and Ladder Hearthstone. Currently, the experience of tournaments is very different to that of most players. It’s hard to train for, enjoy and engage with Tournaments when the fundamental day-to-day Hearthstone experience is completely divorced from it. If players get to experience line-up balancing, bans and the tactics of a Best of Five, they may find themselves enjoying watching Tournaments more. Engagement would also translate to a greater pool of talented Hearthstone players.

tournament mode

Ladder doesn’t always satisfy those looking to get a competitive experience

Benefits for the average Jaina

All this wouldn’t just help the competitive scene. There would be potentially tangible benefits even to casual players. For one thing, a separate mode may allow tweaks to cards. This would mean that crucial balance changes would no longer follow the dictates of Tournaments. What’s more, it even opens the albeit unlikely possibility that certain cards could change for Competitive but not ladder; perhaps the most obvious example being Yogg-Saron.

A healthy competitive scene is the sign of a healthy game, and Hearthstone is no exception. Though Blizzard may be content to rest on their laurels of Hearthstone’s massive commercial success, they should not become complacent. Striving for greatness and skill motivates a significant proportion of their paying customer-base, and they deserve a strong, supported competitive scene to inspire them.


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Filling the post-nerf power vacuum

Hearthstone’s upcoming 9.1 balance changes are a shotgun blast into the top tiers of ladder. Besides Priest, the changes will impact every tier one deck. Pirate Warrior, Jade Druid, Aggro Druid and Murloc Paladin all suffer substantial nerfs to core, deck-defining cards. With the top dogs all cowed, who will rise to take their place?

Rise of Razakus

nerf

Priest’s repeatedly refreshing heropower is devastating when it’s zero mana

Priest may be the first on people’s minds. Raza/Kazakus has proven to be a scarily potent deck on both ladder and in tournaments. While the deck suffers from consistency issues, it is truly terrifying when all the pieces slot together. Shadowreaper Anduin’s “machine-gun” effect of zero mana Raza hero powers ends games fast vs control, and that frees the deck up to run a decent anti-aggro base.

Razakus’ achilles heel has been succumbing to the twin threats of the uber-aggressive burn of Pirate Warrior and the ever-ramping late-game threats of Jade. With the Fiery War Axe and Innervate nerfs, the deck will gain some breathing room to dominate.

Don’t count on a Priest-only meta though. Exodia Mage exists as a strong counter, and a singleton deck like Priest can only run one dirty rat as counterplay. What’s more, aggressive Midrange decks like Hunter may also arise to give Priest trouble with sticky minions and continuous pressure.

Mage’s Secret deck

With less powerful Aggro, Mage may be free to become more aggressive

Secret Mage has been operating under the radar lately. While it’s one of the few decks that maintains a decent winrate against Jade Druid, its other matchups suffer. Most notably, the three most popular Aggro decks all rip it to shreds most games. Mage simply can’t compete with Aggro Druid, Murloc Paladin and Pirate Warrior’s early game consistently enough. And with few comeback mechanisms, it struggles to come back from early disadvantages.

Luckily for fans of Fireballing face, all three of those decks are affected by the nerfs. With fewer counters, Secret Mage could prey on the control decks that timidly emerge into the new meta.

Still, it’s unlikely to be defining. Jade Druid will likely continue to be a better counter to Control, while maintaining decent winrates vs aggro; even with a six mana Spreading plague and weakened Innervate.

A new kind of Warrior

nerf

Worse Innervate means more time to play Geist

Though it’s very much an underground hit currently, Fatigue/Mill Warrior is turning heads. Ever since Dog’s refined list exploded the deck into the popular Hearthstone consciousness, it’s been showing significant potential. With an infinite win condition and serious anti-aggro credentials, the deck is held back largely by a high skill ceiling and slow games.

Unlike almost every Warrior deck ever, Mill/Fatigue Warrior does not run Fiery War Axe. As such, it will get through the balance changes unscathed. Moreover, Warleader’s nerf weakens a key unfavourable matchup in Murloc Paladin. With a less competitive field, the deck could become much more viable.

However, there are some caveats. Midrange decks may emerge and challenge the deck’s limited mid-game board control options. Moreover, the deck is far too slow and difficult to have an overwhelming ladder presence.

Rexxar’s return

Good old Midrange Hunter looks to make a comeback. The aggro-flavoured beast synergy deck has a long and storied history. However, since Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, competitive early game minions such as Patches have limited its utility.

But with Aggro Druid, Pirate Warrior and Murloc Paladin all taking serious hits to core cards, it may thrive in the post-nerf world. A decline in Pirate Warrior especially could give the deck new lease of life, as the near-mandatory double Golakka Crawlers can finally be cut if Pirates fall below a critical threshold.

Still, with no eight mana Call of the Wild as a tempo finisher, Hunters will be unlikely to truly take first place. Deathstalker Rexxar and Savannah Highmane are simply not enough to finish games against Control a lot of the time. And with aggro decks still out-competing Hunter’s first few turns, a Rexxar meta seems unlikely.

The Eternal Jade

Without Innervate, Aya is still potent

Unfortunately, many signs still point to a meta still dominated by Jade. As with the nerfs to Midrange Shaman preceding unprecedented Midrange Shaman dominance, Druid’s main counters are being hit hard too. While an Innervate nerf will curtail Druid’s power greatly, the power of cards like Malfurion the Pestilent, Aya, Jade Idol and Ultimate Infestation will remain. Along with the traditional Druid core of Swipes and Wild Growths, a slightly more anti-aggro Jade Druid could still dominate all slower matchups while retaining anti-aggro consistency.

However, only time will tell. Perhaps the Innervate nerf will be more impactful than many realise. Or perhaps Zoo will come out of nowhere to become a tier one deck. The only way to make sure is to test these decks out in the merciless proving ground of ladder.

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mill

The thrill of Mill Warrior

The upcoming Fiery War Axe nerf may be a blessing in disguise for Warrior. The increase in mana cost to three is likely to be a major setback for almost all warrior archetypes. But in doing so, it may have inspired streamer David “Dog” Caero to create a fascinating and powerful new deck.

Mill or Fatigue Warrior is not just a strong performer for top players. It’s also uniquely flexible, aggressively difficult to play and unlike any deck we’ve seen yet. But most importantly, it can be an utter joy to play.

Breaking the rules

mill

Cards previously thought to be worthless now define a new Warrior archetype

Combo Warriors long struggled for win conditions. Dead Man’s Hand offered a way for Warriors to benefit from their obscene draw potential with (theoretically) infinite value. Early experiments showed promise, but were ultimately unreliable. Expensive, flashy finishers like Rotface and Arcane Giant simply proved too clunky.

Where Dog’s refined version innovated was in stripping out all late-game win conditions in favour of Coldlight Oracle. To take matters even further, it threw out “auto-includes” like Fiery War Axe and Ravaging Ghoul in favour of cards like Bring it On! which provided the burst healing to tie the deck together.

The final result was a deck that plays like nothing else. At times reactive and proactive, its hallmarks are incredible draw, literally infinite removal and healing, as well as burst fatigue damage with Coldlights. But most striking of all was the fantastic complexity and difficulty of the deck.

Difficult to learn, impossible to master

Dead Man’s Hand is arguably the hardest card in Hearthstone to use correctly

Hearthstone prides itself on its accessibility. Once someone learns the basics of minion trading and value, it’s pretty easy to drop minions on curve and do OK. Even relatively complicated Control decks become manageable once you understand their basic principles.

Not so for Mill Warrior. While aspects of other strategies remain, the deck operates on a totally different paradigm. To begin with, it almost plays like a traditional Control or Combo deck; trying to survive, clear and draw. But certain cards must be saved, depending on the match up. Once the deck is nearly empty, the deck must be winnowed of chaff, with cards discarded. Eventually, a core of a few vital cards are collected and shuffled repeatedly into the deck.

Reaching, designing and duplicating this core of cards is the hardest part of playing the deck, and even the best players make numerous misplays per game. Simply using a Garrosh hero power instead of preemptively equipping and swinging with a Blood Razor can lead to ruin. Not playing a Brawl in time can lead it to fatally clog your hand, growing exponentially until you mill a vital combo piece. Use both copies of a vital card too early and you can see yourself without a tool to survive the repeated chains of shuffles.

And that’s just the basics. Advanced mastery of the deck requires precision Bring it On! timings, deadly Dirty Rat assassinations of key minions, long term fatigue damage pre-planning and constant balancing of the need to draw and the risks of overdrawing. It’s likely that to play the deck close to optimally would require superhuman levels of on-the-fly calculations and psychology.

Worth the effort

Warrior will need to be inventive to survive without two cost Axe

Despite the steep and high-ceiling’d learning curve, Mill Warrior is well worth it.

The first is its huge competitive potential. When played well, the deck can beat any late-game deck that comes up against it. Kazakus Priest will usually lose unless they’re able to get Raza and Anduin within the first 10 turns. Even Taunt Warrior can’t out-damage the infinite heal and will soon succumb to fatigue.

The deck is also favoured against a variety of Aggro and Midrange decks; that’s before they’re nerfed too. While Pirate Warrior and Murloc Paladin are tough, any deck that goes wide is easily swept aside by the endless mass removals. The deck even performs decently against the meta tyrant, Jade Druid. With enough removal, heal, draw and a Skulking Geist, Mill Warrior can feasibly defeat all but the most high-tempo of starts. Dog proved the decks worthiness by taking it all the way to top two legend NA.

The other reason is that the deck’s unique and challenging playstyle makes every game far more involved than a typical Hearthstone game. Instead of going to autopilot and dropping minions on curve and rehashing the same old challenges of when and how to trade, you’re pursuing entirely new goals. How to empty your hand for a shuffle, determining whether you can win without infinite Executes vs Big Priest, timing Bring it On! so as to dodge Velen, and risking an on curve Coldlight Oracle against Murloc Paladin, shuffling a single Coldlight into your deck to set up fatigue lethal; these are the kind of plays that no deck has had to make before.

It is also refreshing to have lost games be your own fault; reviewing and uncovering your own mistakes can be satisfying as you refine your play further and further. To top it all off, the deck is far from perfected, and with every single card normally making an appearance in the games you win, every slot counts. There’s plenty for aspiring deckbuilders to hone into a truly devastating deck.

Mill Warrior can defeat almost any deck in the late game

The Warrior we need?

With old War Axe rusting away, Mill Warrior may be the archetype Warrior needs. Control, Tempo and Pirate are likely to struggle in the new meta without trusty Win Axe to carry them to turn two tempo glory. However, the deck is likely to retain one fatal flaw; incredibly long games. When stars per hour is what you’re after, 12 minute average mentally exhausting games may not be the best choice. So don’t disenchant that golden Patches for two Dead Man’s Hands just yet if laddering is your goal.

But if you’re looking for intense, long games with challenging gameplay and brutal complexity, then there’s no better choice than Mill Warrior.

With a low non-pro winrate and achingly slow games, Mill Warrior is unlikely to dominate the ladder (source: HSReplay.net)

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Statistics via HSReplay.net.

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basic

It’s time to decide the purpose of Basic

The balance changes in 9.1 targeted one set above all others. The Basic Innervate, Hex and Fiery War Axe make up three of the five changed cards. These three changes also attracted the lion’s share of controversy. Hot debate sprang up about class identity, viability and diversity. At the core of this controversy was a fundamental lack of agreement and communication. What is the purpose of the Basic set?

The Tutorial

Teaching tools just need to be simple

One possible interpretation for the purpose of Basic is simply that of teaching new players. The Basic set often includes very simple cards that express the most straightforward of concepts. Cards like Magma Rager teaching the value of Health; Hand of Protection introducing Divine Shield, and Healing Touch showing healing.

If Basic were to follow this philosophy, simplicity would be key. Regardless of viability (beyond being obviously terrible even for new players), the cards would need to be easy to understand. This was partly the explanation behind the changes to Innervate and Fiery War Axe. Adding additional text to bring FWA in line with Eaglehorn Bow or to distinguish Innervate from Coin would add too much complexity.

The downside of this approach is that overly simple cards can often be detrimental to balance. Nuance is often necessary, particularly for cheap cards. You can’t just set a minion’s attack to 2.5 to be able to keep its text straightforward while keeping it viable! And balance is very important for class defining cards that could be around forever.

The Skeleton

Certain cards will define classes for as long as they’re in Standard

Another philosophy for Basic is that of a “Skeleton” for a deck; key cards that remain constant and ensure archetypes and classes remain viable. This has been the practical outcome of Basic. Class cards like Swipe, Fireball, Animal Companion, Backstab and Flametongue are incredibly efficient. Their continued inclusion in Standard helps maintain the same archetypes season after season. It means that favourite classes are less likely to disappear. Decks stick around longer, and certain play styles remain constant.

This appeals to many players. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper. If a third or even half of decks never change, then that’s fewer card packs that need to be purchased in order to have ladder-worthy decks. What’s more, if you love a particular deck, it stays viable in standard for a long, long time.

This naturally comes at a cost. Blizzard loses out on revenue. Metas can feel stale, and certain archetypes can block others from ever being viable. It’s often boring to play with and against the same cards as a significant proportional of the same decks forever.

The Fallback

basic

Even mediocre cards can be valuable in some metas

Finally, it’s possible that Basic could exist as a kind of fail-safe for what certain classes can do. The cards would not be top tier, but would be strong enough to warrant inclusion if the meta or deck demanded it. Druids won’t always have efficient responses to wide boards, but they will have Starfall. Priest won’t always have the most effective early removal, but they will have Holy Smite and Shadow Word Pain. Hunter will have Hunter’s Mark to fall back on if they really need removal. Strong, but not auto-include cards can give classes leeway regardless of the latest cards in the set, without forcing the designers to print the umpteenth Priest AOE or Mage draw.

This allows classes a limited amount of flexibility regardless of metas. For instance, a meta where zoo-style flood decks with wide boards won’t necessarily mean some classes become completely nonviable. It also provides a decent launching point for newer players to build their collection, whilst retaining freshness across expansions without keeping all half-decent cards behind a paywall.

Of course, downsides still exist. For one, balancing cards perfectly on the cusp between viability and uselessness is even more difficult than usual card design; especially if they’ll be around forever. And to shore up certain unintentional recurring class weaknesses, then either new cards would need to be introduced to Basic or old ones buffed. What’s more, additional flexibility can come at the cost of class identity in many cases.

Communication

Above all, Blizzard needs to adequately communicate what they want from Basic. Their current strategy of explaining individual card nerfs but without fully elucidating their overarching strategy only fuels criticism. Until they can provide a coherent explanation as to why Swipe is an acceptable eternal auto-include but not Fiery War Axe, then conspiracy theories will flourish. Already, players are accusing Blizzard of simply going for a cash grab by making “free” basic cards nonviable.

By making clear their strategy for Basic, Blizzard can both take control of the narrative and allow players to direct their feedback more helpfully. Not only that, but by focusing their internal philosophy, they can help make their own efforts clearer to themselves.

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

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highroll

Priest deserves better than highroll decks

Druid isn’t the only class raising eyebrows. Amidst a meta dominated by Jade, Priest has forged a niche for itself. Both “Highlander” and “Big” Priest perform well on Ladder and in tournaments. The former through the incredible synergy between Raza and Shadowreaper Anduin; the latter with the power of cheating out massive minions and repeatedly resurrecting them. However, these decks have an Achilles heel that makes them unreliable and frustrating to play with and against. They have fundamental consistency issues that make them feel unbeatable with some draws and awful on others. When you lose to a Priest, it often feels like you’ve been on the receiving end of a highroll.

Consistently inconsistent

High variance cards like Thoughtsteal define Priest, but current archetypes push at the limit of what’s fun

Priest has had a history of inconsistency. Priest has traditionally relied on hyper-specific answers and unique combos. Cards like Shadow Word Death or Holy Nova are incredibly powerful in the right situation. However, they easily can be dead draws if in the wrong order. Similarly, two or more card combos like Auchanai/Circle or Pintsized Potion/Shadow Word Horror are potent but niche and unreliable without their complementary card.

Typically, the way to deal with these kinds of over-specific cards is draw. Ironically, Priest’s draw engines are usually inconsistent themselves! Northshire Cleric can represent dozens of draws or simply a three health roadblock.

Otherwise, Priest is left a few cycling cards but no genuine draw engine. Instead, they’re forced to rely on card generation; which leads to yet more highroll or lowroll potential.

The price of thievery

A key nature of Priest’s identity is that of “stealing” cards from the opponent’s deck or hand. Mind Vision, Thoughtsteal and later additions like Curious Glimmerroot push the class strongly towards this theme. This can push inconsistency even further. When drawing normal cards, there is a limited ceiling and floor of how strong the cards are, depending on how you built your deck. What’s more, drawing thins your deck, reducing the potential variance further. You will eventually get to that crucial Dragonfire, so long as you draw enough.

The RNG card generation of “stealing” is naturally high variance. In control matchups where it’s most powerful, getting a high-value card like Tirion is famous for allowing Priest to swing games.

This type of highroll potential is arguably acceptable. Priest has been frustrating in the past, but with its current bevy of tools like Shadow Vision it was on a path of greater consistency. However, this baseline of highroll potential combined with current Priest archetypes can be annoying in the extreme.

Barnes-based BS

highroll

Barnes is the worst offender for Big Priest RNG

Big Priest is possibly the worst offender. The archetype is almost unstoppable when you get lucky. Some games you can Barnes into Y’shaarj on turn four and instantly win. Others, you can Shadow Essence into Barnes and screw up your chances of the tempo resurrects you need to win.

Or worst of all, you could simply not manage to draw Shadow Essence or Barnes, get unlucky with Shadow Visions and be able to do almost nothing until turn nine.

The deck is by no means overpowered; but with a pinch of luck, it can definitely feel it. Big Priest is what people feared when cards like Barnes were initially unveiled. The intense variance that one card provides, both by providing an insane turn four play and by potentially sabotaging Shadow Essence makes the deck incredibly frustrating to play against on ladder and in tournaments.

Raza on five and Shadowreaper on eight wins games – and playoffs

Raza, Shadowreaper, and how to draw them

The other popular Priest archetype has been cooking up some impressive Ladder and tournament performances. Whether you call it Highlander, Razakus, or Death Knight Priest, the power of Raza and Shadowreaper Anduin is undeniable. When you get the dream draw of Raza on five and Shadowreaper on eight, there’s almost no deck that can stop you. Giving every card you play an additional free two damage anyway is a ludicrous amount of value. It allows you to grind or burn down even Jade Druid.

Unfortunately, as Frost Lich Jaina told us, “Power is a double-edged blade”. In exchange for the ability to machine-gun down your opponent’s minions, you sacrifice not your soul and free will, but consistency. This comes in two forms.

Firstly, you have to draw both Raza and Shadowreaper Anduin. This is harder than it sounds. If either card is in the bottom 5-10 cards of your deck, you’ll likely struggle to close out the game (or even survive to draw it!).

Secondly, inherent inconsistencies arise from the necessity of running singletons. Only having one Shadow Visions, Shadow Word Pain or Dragonfire can backfire horribly in a lot of matchups, especially versus aggro. And without Reno to provide an emergency heal, the deck can quickly get overwhelmed with a bad hand. While this keeps the deck in check, it also makes games feel overly dependent on draw RNG.

Highroll or lose to Jades?

If luck’s the only way slow decks beat jade, you may as well go all-in

While many complain about Priest, it’s arguably not the class’s fault but the meta’s. Jade Druid massively suppresses traditional reliable control decks. Control Priest would arguably be a staple of the meta were it not for this fact. The fact that Druid has better mid and late-game than any control deck, as well as superior ramp, stabilization and draw options, means that slow decks have to get lucky to win.

By out-competing Priest in a “fair” fight, Jade forces Priest to rely on highrolls.

Perhaps if the overbearing power of Jade was lessened, Priest would play more consistent, controlling lists.

Until then, we may just have to live with a lot of Ladder and tournament games decided by Barnes on four or Raza into Shadowreaper on eight. As annoying as it can be, at least it’s not another Druid.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. HCT Summer Playoffs image via twitch.tv/playhearthstone.

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