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Kobolds and Catacombs Day 1 Deck Theorycrafting

The next Hearthstone expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs, has finally been released. In the reveal season, we saw many powerful and fun cards that are coming out with the set. But, which of these cards fit into existing decks? What new decks are coming into the meta?

The Meta

Dragon Priest

KnC Dragon Priest

Dragon Priest Decklist

In past expansions, Dragon Priest has been an archetype that many people have toyed around with and played on ladder. In this expansion, we may see the rise of a Dragon-oriented Priest build similar to the Dragon Priest deck that was viable during the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion last year. The iteration I have theory-crafted includes a much more value-orientated game plan by including cards such as Lyra the Sunshard, Drakonid Operative, and the new Priest weapon, Dragon Soul. The deck can also be built to take on a more minion heavy route by taking out cards like Dragon Soul, Lyra the Sunshard, and Shadow Word: Death and replacing them with Cabal Shadow Priest, which synergises with Twilight Acolyte, and Twilight Drake.

 

The inclusion of Duskbreaker in this expansion really helps Dragon Priest’s historically bad matchup versus aggressive decks, which makes the new iteration of Dragon Priest that much scarier. On ladder, this deck seems like a solid choice for climbing at a high pace. In tournaments, players may elect to bring Highlander Priest instead because of its favorable win-rates versus slower decks.

 

 Zoo Warlock

KnC Zoo Warlock

Zoolock Decklist

In the Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion, we once again saw the rise of an old friend: Zoo Warlock. The early game minion package combined with Prince Keleseth proved to be the kick this deck needed to get back into the meta, and topping off with Bonemare and Bloodreaver Gul’Dan made Zoo Warlock scary in the late-game as well. This time around, Blizzard has given Zoo Warlock even better tools for taking the board early game and keeping it. The addition of Kobold Librarian helps keep your hand full, which is extremely important when having so many low mana cost minions in your deck. The main difference with this Zoo Warlock compared to the previous deck is that it cuts Prince Keleseth for the new 2-drop, Vulgar Homunculus.

 

With this iteration of the deck, I decided to add the Demon synergy package in the form of Demonfire, Bloodfury potion, and Crystalweaver. We have seen quite a lot of play with Bloodfury Potion and Crystalweaver in the past Zoo Warlock decks, but the addition of the Vulgar Homunculus makes these cards coming down on curve extremely threatening. Hooked Reaver also makes an appearance in this deck because of how solid its stats are when the Battlecry goes off, as well as its ability to synergise with the rest of the demon synergy in the deck.

 

The addition of higher-health minions and buff cards will help Zoo Warlock in the next meta mainly because of the predicted prevalence of Duskbreaker on the ranked ladder. In tournament play, this deck will likely be chosen for inclusion in aggressive lineups.

Big Druid

KnC Big Druid

Big Druid Decklist

The ‘Big’ archetype saw large amounts of play during the Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion as a whole, especially during the later half of the set’s meta. Kobolds and Catacombs has not given Big Druid many other tools, but the core of the deck is strong enough to still see play. The only change I have made to the current Big Druid list is taking out Innervate and adding Arcane Tyrants. Innervate, once a staple in most Druid decks, took a huge hit from the nerfs that occured in the middle of the last expansion. It was included in Big Druid, but it was arguably one of the weaker cards within the deck. Two different cards were shown from the new expansion that could find a home in Big Druid: Greedy Sprite and Arcane Tyrant. I chose to include Arcane Tyrant instead of the Sprite because it is very similar to Kun the Forgotten King in the way that it makes your power turns even more powerful. A common way Kun has been used during the meta was playing it as a big free body to pair with Ultimate Infestation. Arcane Tyrant acts in a similar way when paired with Nourish, Spreading Plague, and Ultimate Infestation as well. Greedy Sprite could be included instead of the Tyrant, but the ramp effect is rather slow and your opponent can choose to ignore it. Although this is the case, ramp is powerful enough that Greedy Sprite might see play over Arcane Tyrant.

 

Big Druid seems to be the new go-to Druid deck. In the past, Jade Druid has held this spot, but Big Druid is able to make bigger minions faster and still keep aggression at bay, which may see the ‘Big’ archetype overtaking the Jade mechanic this expansion. Because of this, it is a solid choice for both ranked ladder and tournament play.

 

Tempo Rogue

KnC Tempo Rogue

Tempo Rogue Decklist

Tempo Rogue swept the meta in dominant fashion when it was first discovered to be a powerhouse of a deck. With Kobolds and Catacombs, this deck gets even stronger with the inclusion of some slower yet highly valuable cards. One of these cards is the Rogue Legendary of the set, Sonya Shadowdancer. Sonya replaces the rather weak card of Shaku, the Collector as a card generation engine. Most of the minions in Tempo Rogue have such good effects or Battlecries that Shadowcaster saw a decent amount of experimentation and success during the expansion. Sonya is much cheaper than Shadowcaster, which makes its effect easier to pull off. The second card I have added to the deck is Fal’dorei Strider. Admittingly, a 4 mana 4/4 is rather weak as a tempo play. But, the potential for that minion to pull one, two, or even three additional 4/4 bodies is so powerful that it is worth the initial tempo loss. Even if only 1 additional body is pulled, paying 4 mana for 8/8 worth of stats is crazy powerful. There is also the potential to high-roll by creating a 4/4 on turn 7 to be able to play Bonemare onto after your opponent cleared your board the previous turn.

 

Fal’dorei Strider takes the place of Saronite Chain Gang, mainly because of Chain Gang’s vulnerability to an on-curve Duskbreaker. Overall, Tempo Rogue looks to still be a powerhouse deck next expansion, and I expect to see it played both on the ranked ladder and in tournaments.

 

Highlander Priest

KnC Highlander Priest

Highlander Priest Decklist

Highlander Priest has been at the top of the meta throughout Knights of the Frozen Throne, and it seems to still remain at the top during Kobolds and Catacombs. The Priest list I have selected to showcase only adds one card: Psychic Scream. In order to include the new Priest board clear, I chose to cut Mass Dispel from the deck. Mass Dispel is often times weak, so it made sense to take it out for one of the best cards of the upcoming expansion. This decision shows how good of a deck Highlander Priest already is. Another take on Highlander Priest is to go for a more minion-focused route by including a Dragon package with Duskbreaker. While this seems like a good idea, I feel the current version of the deck is much better. In the past, more value-oriented decks were tested. These decks included cards such as Elise the Trailblazer and Free from Amber. It was ultimately found that the faster and more burst-oriented Priest build was better. Therefore, I feel it is appropriate to stick with the tried-and-true burst style.

 

Once again, Highlander Priest seems to be at the top of the meta. Expect to see a large amount on ladder and as a staple deck in many tournament lineups.

 

The Non-Meta

Combo Hunter

KnC Combo Hunter

Combo Hunter Decklist

For the past few expansions, Hunter has been struggling as a class. Blizzard keeps pushing control tools and weird cards for the Hunter arsenal, which leaves the class in an awkward position in terms of deck building because of how weak each of the archetypes are. With the new Hunter legendary minion, Kathrena Winterwisp, I thought it would be really interesting to build a combo-oriented deck using Kathrena, Charged Devilsaur, and King Krush. It is often not a combo that will instantly kill your opponent, but the amount of stats that the combo provides are truly ridiculous. This deck runs the Secret package to help fend off aggro, the Candleshot and Hunter’s Mark combo to deal with large threats, and Deathstalker Rexxar to create even more value in a late game scenario.

 

While the deck might not be top-tier, it seems extremely fun to play. Personally, I will be testing this deck in tournament play in a lineup that is attempting to target control decks. On ranked ladder, Combo hunter still seems weak to aggro decks and Highlander Priest, which makes it not extremely viable in the upcoming meta.

Conclusion

Overall, Kobolds and Catacombs sees both powerful and fun cards added to the game. While it may not be the best expansion of the year in terms of player attitude and hype, it will likely lead to a diverse and healthy meta both in terms of ranked ladder and tournament play.

 

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

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competitive

How long can Hearthstone maintain its streamer economy?

With the HCT finals booted from BlizzCon and an Inn-vitational taking its place, it’s probably a good time to take a look at the ever-growing disparity between the competitive and streaming communities of the game. Spoilers: the former barely exists.

The best of the best…

We’ve crowned three world champion so far in the history of Hearthstone. One of them has faded into relative obscurity, while the other two have gone into streaming. For all the emphasis Team 5 is putting on the grassroots scene, the actual competitive experience is obscenely top-heavy: it’s essentially “HCT or bust”.

According to calculations from February this year, the top three competitive earners owe around a staggering 78 percent of their combined earnings from just world championship events, and basically all in the top ten are on the list because of their HCT-based accomplishments. It is essentially impossible to do well enough in other, smaller events with their limited prize pools to sustain yourself as a professional player.

It is quite unfortunate that multiple players in the scene agree that this isn’t sustainable, especially with the edges being so low that even former world champions are mathematically unlikely to qualify for next year’s event. According to a well-publicized piece of analysis, only a third of the participants in a preliminary actually break even.

 

In fact, the career paths of the three HCT winners we’ve had so far are quite indicative of the fate that awaits serious competitors in the scene. They either transition into streaming, casting or some other job in the scene at least partially, or completely disappear like Ostkaka did. As for Firebat, he tweeted soon after Pavel’s win in 2016 that he will be back next year at HCT. He has made it – but only as a caster. As for the Russian, he’s a lot more active on Twitch now that he missed out on an HCT return by a single series. It’s as if like he also knew which way the wind blows…

…and then all the rest

The single-player nature of the game also compounds the issue as it makes less sense for an organization to maintain a team, while it is also less beneficial to be on one than it would obviously be in the case of a game like CS:GO. Yes, it gets you great practice partners, access and a support network, but essentially every organization expects some sort of content creation in return for their assistance as the sole contribution of competing and doing well simply isn’t enough.

As such, all roads lead to Rome, I mean Twitch: as time goes on, basically every member of the scene turns into a streamer, either to fulfill brand obligations or to get some actual reliable income. Needless to say, the time and effort put into maintaining a broadcast has to come off of gameplay and tournament preparation, denting the edge of these players. This isn’t a new phenomenon: while it is true that the early days of Hearthstone’s competitive scene were dominated by invitationals, players like Amaz posted great tournament results even at events like Dreamhack while Trump has successfully qualified for the preliminary continental HCT tournament last year. These players, like so many others that are relying on their stream to sustain themselves financially, decided to essentially ditch their competitive aspirations.

Team 5’s laissez-faire attitude is also unlikely to help things: if the incredibly bloated events and the failed attempt to kickstart a financially viable grassroots scene weren’t bad enough, they themselves seem to be putting a higher and higher emphasis on the celebrity scene with events like Oktoberbrawl and the Inn-vitational at this year’s BlizzCon. This doesn’t even take the lack of dedicated features (pause on disconnect, proper spectator mode, et cetera) into account…

Almost all serious competitors eventually come to the conclusion that content creation is a better way to go than to play at the best of your abilities. This isn’t going to be a sustainable environment in the long run.


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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.


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

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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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