predicting

Boldly predicting the next nerfs

Some say they are bold in predicting the power level of Hearthstone’s upcoming cards. Others, like Trump, go further, attempting to predict the entire meta. I, however, scoff at these mere mortals. While they scuffle in the dirt, I shall perform the grandest prediction of all; not only what cards will be good, and how the meta will evolve, but the inevitable nerf patch. My incredible powers of foresight will infallibly divine what and how Blizzard shall nerf or rotate cards. (Disclaimer: powers of foresight may be inaccurate. Gamehaus accepts no responsibility for any golden crafts).

Duskbreaker: 4 to 5 mana

This dragon may be too fiery at 4

“Dragon Priest is a strong archetype that we want to support. However, Duskbreaker has been overperforming at 4 mana. We found that players felt that little they did until turn 4 against a Priest mattered. Additionally, we don’t want to compel Priests to only run Dragons, and we think that changing the cost from 4 to 5 mana will allow other Priest archetypes more opportunity to shine.” – Future Ben Brode (probably)

Duskbreaker feels a lot like the Spreading Plague or Maelstrom Portal of the set; an incredibly strong anti-aggro tool given to a class that was already over-performing. The ability to stall early game board snowballs was one of Priest’s few weaknesses, and this perfectly slots into that niche. Obviously stronger in a Dragon Priest shell, Raza Priest could relatively easily build a limited Dragon shell around it with cards like Netherspite Historian, Primordial Drake and Drakonid Operative.

4 mana for a Hellfire and a 3/3 is frankly disgusting value, even with the required Dragon synergy. Compare it to the old Blackwing Corruptor, which cost 1 more for only +2/+1, wasn’t a dragon and only targeted one minion. That card was an auto-include in Dragon decks, and was far less powerful.

Duskbreaker provides exactly the kind of board sweep Dragon Priest wants on 4 to push into its turn 5 and 6 power plays. Even if it isn’t drawn, Netherspite Historian can discover it. It’s the kind of card a meta is defined around, and we may see a tough time for all tempo and aggro decks as a result. A nerf is almost inevitable.

Jasper Spellstone: 1 to 3 mana

“Druid as a class is meant to have limited removal options. Jaspar Spellstone allowed them to deal with large minions far too easily. We want to keep the classes distinct, and preserving Druid’s identity means lowering the power level of their hard removal. In light of this, we are increasing the cost of Jaspar Spellstone from 1 to 3.”

Druid nerfs in 2018? It could be more likely than you think. After all, Druid is arguably the most-nerfed class in Hearthstone history. Jasper Spellstone threatens to add to its tally. The card doesn’t look too scary on its own; going from mediocre at first to high value when upgraded. But like with Spreading Plague, it shores up a core Druid weakness. Firstly, let’s look at the card in its base, non-upgraded state. At 1 mana for 2 minion damage, it’s very comparable to Living Roots, a card that used to be played in Jade before rotating out. But the card’s true power is that it quickly scales up.

While decent early, its usefulness multiplies with other strong Druid cards like Branching Paths, Ultimate Infestation, Malfurion the Pestilent and Earthen Scales. Even a single upgrade makes the card incredibly potent; a 1 mana Shadowbolt in a class that is meant to have poor removal. After two upgrades it’s a 1 mana fireball on their Scalebane. Aggressive classes will be caught between going wide, and losing to Spreading Plague, and going tall, and losing to Jasper Spellstone. The card offers Druid a huge amount of sustain to reach its late-game Big or Jade minions. It’s essentially a Druid Shield Slam. As such, a nerf will likely be necessary; and with recent memory fresh, Blizzard likely won’t pull any punches.

Druid probably shouldn’t get a Shield Slam

Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Hall of Fame’d

Best off reunited with her best buddy Flamewaker in Wild?

“Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a strong Mage card, and we like how it encourages the use of spells. Unfortunately, the mana discount limits the design of cool, interesting spells. In order to allow us to print exciting spells for Standard, we’ll be moving it to Wild where the craziest combos belong.”

One of the scariest prospects of Kobolds and Catacombs is that Quest Mage will no longer need the Quest. Leyline Manipulator allows for Exodia Combos without a clunky spell generation engine and going down a card. Exodia Mage could look a lot more like Freeze Mage, and be far more consistent as a result. The deck might not be overwhelming, but Blizzard has always been leery for OTKs. Infinite damage even more so. If the deck becomes a lot more consistent, even the upcoming Ice Block rotation may not be enough to quell it.

Since Blizzard tends towards addressing the Classic and Basic cards, it’s likely Sorcerer’s Apprentice will come onto the chopping block. Not only does it allow that OTK, it raises design space issue for other spells that could otherwise go “infinite” with the right triggers.

Hall of Fame seems like the most sensible outcome

Some other random Basic card for no reason

Team 5 is nothing if not unpredictable. Like how Hex was nerfed out of nowhere in the recent balance changes while Ultimate Infestation went unchanged. Or how Molten Giant had a cost increase despite Handlock struggling. It’s likely that just to spice things up, they’ll nerf a core (if arguably overpowered) control tool for a struggling class out of nowhere for little reason.

I don’t know, Equality or something?

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

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KnC Banner

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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One year on, we’re still in Gadgetzan

Mean Streets of Gadgetzan came out over a year ago, but we’re still in its grip. The defining Gadgetzan tools of Jade, Highlander and Pirates dominate the meta. Four legendaries tell the story of how the expansion dominates every facet of Standard. Indeed, almost 50 percent of decks on ladder have at least one of Aya, Patches or Kazakus.

Han’cho, the failure

gadgetzan

The failure of Han’cho’s Handbuffs had lasting impacts

Gadgetzan isn’t only defined by its successes. One of the sets most long-lasting implications was the utter failure of the Handbuff mechanic. This is epitomised in Don Han’cho and his Grimy Goons. This two-headed mobster is notable for how he represents the complete mediocrity of Handbuff. Though some Paladin decks with limited Handbuff mechanics have bordered on viability, the overwhelming impact was that one of the most potent expansions contained very little viable class cards for Hunter, Warrior and Paladin.

The impact of this is surprising; while other classes got powerful Kabal spells and Jade synergies, Warrior, Paladin and Hunter were left to pick up what Neutral synergy they could. While this worked for a time, these classes have consistently struggled for much of the past year. Outside of Pirates, Warrior has wallowed in mediocrity or outright unplayability; Hunters are easy prey for more refined Aggro, while Paladin struggles to make any archetype other than Murloc work. They currently make up three of the four least played classes. Their combined representation makes up only 16 percent of the ladder, less than Priest, Rogue or Druid do individually.

Aya, the mid-game queen

Gadgetzan

Aya is arguably better than a tri-class Savannah Highmane

Much has been said about the remarkable mid/late-game tempo power of Jades. What’s remarkable is how much of that comes down to a single card. Not only does Aya provide an aggressive 5/3 body and a Jade Golem for six, her deathrattle also gives you yet another golem. With three bodies of beefy minions in an AOE resistant package, Aya has swung countless games. Even if you survive the onslaught, her double Jade ramp means the turns after are even tougher.

Aya has seen play in every Jade deck out there apart from perhaps Big Druid with its two Jade Blossoms and nothing else. Even Aggro and Evolve Shaman, running nothing but Jade Claws and Jade Lightnings, benefit hugely from her. She represents everything that made Jade so dominant; sticky, aggressive, ramping stats on the cheap. While Jade never took off in Rogue, it has had a massive influence on Druid and Shaman for the past 12 months, leading Control decks everywhere to despairingly wonder “How long can this go on?”

Kazakus, the spellmaster

gadgetzan

Kazakus bolstered multiple Highlander archetypes

Despite the departure of his best buddy Reno Jackson, Kazakus is still a huge part of the meta. Of course, the reigning Highlander deck relies far less on him than on Raza and Shadowreaper, but Kazakus and the Kabal represents the flavour and style of the deck. Inconsistent but immensely powerful, Highlander decks rely on a few potent abilities and synergies to survive their otherwise mediocre decklists. Once that came from Reno; now it comes from Shadowreaper and Raza. But Kazakus remains, providing massive swing turns with his custom spells.

The power of Highlander brought both fun and frustration. Fun, for the flexibility of the highlander decklists, and the big, strong cards they play. Frustrating due to their inherent alternation between weakness and overbearing strength, depending on draw consistency. But such power spikes are necessary to fight off the might of Jades and Patches.

Patches, forever in charge

Gadgetzan

Bar Undertaker, no other card has defined the early game so much

There’s a decent case to suggest that Patches the Pirate is the most powerful minion ever printed. At zero cost apart from running pirates and the risk of drawing him, he redefined the early game. Almost every Pirate became great overnight (sorry Cap’n Crag) and the early game micro-meta was massively upended. Cards like Fire Fly and Voidwalker are good largely because they trade favourably with Patches. Golakka Crawler has done little to halt his rise.

Patches has provided a 1/1 charge boost to almost every aggro or tempo deck. He has single-handedly created a world where Aggro can win the board with intense prejudice. It will be fascinating to see how aggro and tempo can survive without him. Patches deck’s sub-50 percent winrate when drawing him could be an indication of things to come.

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

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The Control crushers

Three deck archetypes squash the hopes of almost any late-game control strategy. Their powerful combos punish those who want to win later than turn 10, relegating them to tier four. With Kobolds and Catacombs just around the corner, will these powerful decks be usurped? Or will new cards only reinforce their dominance of the late-game? And will rotation mean we’ll be finally free of them?

Jade Druid

The original anti-fatigue archetype is as strong as ever. Though it’s by far less oppressive than in the dark days before the Innervate and Spreading Plague nerf, it still takes up a sizable part of the ladder. If you find yourself trapped in a hive of Jade Druids, then your Control deck will have a bad time. Aside from their infamous resistance to fatigue, their rapid ramping of both mana and Jade Golems makes them a tough matchup. Ultimate Infestation drives a potent draw engine that leaves little breathing room to play a Skulking Geist to halt the green onrush.

More worryingly, Jade Druid looks to be shoring up many of its weak points. In the upcoming Kobolds and Catacombs expansion, Jaspar Spellstone is especially worrying. The one mana upgradable removal spell looks like exactly the kind of efficient minion removal Druid was lacking. Once upgraded, one mana for six damage is brutally efficient, leaving the deck with even fewer weaknesses.

Luckily, Jade can only reign for so long. The meta-defining mechanic is finally due to rotate out in the first expansion of 2018, leaving Standard for good. Though it may terrorize Wild for eternity, Jade can’t keep Standard Control decks down for long.

Is another of Druid’s key weaknesses about to be bypassed?

Razakus Priest

control

Velen can kill players from 30 with ease in Razakus

Who knew that Priest would become one of the most oppressive archetypes in Hearthstone? Well, perhaps anyone who’s been paying attention to the typical pendulum swing of Blizzard’s class balance. Regardless, Priest is now top dog, and Highlander variations are some of the best performing. This deck is the second most popular on ladder, and part of the appeal comes from the ability to crush Control. The endless damage of the Raza/Shadowreaper combo is relentless once it gets going. The constant burn is near-impossible to withstand. Even in decks with huge amounts of healing, Velen and Mind Blast along with other cheap spells grant the deck OTK potential. Only Druid and Warrior’s armor-gain can hope to outlast it; and even they fail more often than not.

Razakus looks to get even stronger next expansion. Two new powerful AOEs in Duskbreaker and Psychic Scream will add massively to the deck’s consistency. While the former requires a Dragon package and thus may not be included, the latter’s unconditional mass clear especially punishes Control who seek to beat down the priest with powerful minions rather than try and survive. In particular, it hard counters any attempt to build towards a late-game board combo like N’zoth or Guldan.

But like Jade, Raza’s time in Standard is also limited. Control Priest with Shadowreaper Anduin may live on, but Raza will only terrorize Wild soon. In the meantime though, prepare for endless two damage hero powers to put an end to your Koboldy experimentation. And to have all of your end-game boards shuffled uselessly into your deck, preventing you from drawing your lifegain.

Exodia Mage

control

Scarily, Exodia Mage soon may not need the Quest

Compared to the previous two, Exodia mage seems to be a minor player. With much lower winrate and ladder representation, is there reason to be concerned? Maybe not this expansion. Despite roundly dunking Control of all stripes, the damage is limited due to overall low play rates. What’s more, the overall winrate is far below what you’d expect, due to being severely weak to aggro. Despite this, its infinite damage combo is very difficult for Control to beat.

Where things get more sketchy is looking at the future. A new Kobolds and Catacombs card, Leyline Manipulator, could allow the combo to be pulled off without the Quest. Discounted Sorcerer’s Apprentices from Simulacrum do not require a time warp to be combo’d with Anduin. This would vastly improve consistency and lead to a spike in play rates. To make matters worse, the class is also getting an incredibly potent draw tool in the new Aluneth legendary weapon. All this could mean much sooner and more competitive infinite damage combos.

To make matters worse, while Ice Block may rotate out, no other key combo pieces for a non-quest version do. And the hardest counter to the strategy (Dirty Rat) leaves Standard with it. All this could lead to a troubling environment for all Control decks.

More counterplay or more proactivity?

The key problem with these decks is simply the difficulty in outlasting them. Requiring Skulking Geist, insane armor or hand disruption respectively, counterplay is simply too tough and is available to too few classes. Either more pro-active late-game strategies need to be introduced to compete, Team 5 need to up the quality of counterplay cards or nerfs need to happen if Control will continue to remain viable between now and the start of the next Hearthstone Year.

In the meantime, it might be better to give up on Control and simply slam Bonemare on 7.

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

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University of Jamestown

Collegiate esports programs: University of Jamestown part 1

While collegiate sports has seen fan-bases that rival that of some of their respective professional leagues, collegiate esports, thus far, has not been able to gather as much fervor. Collegiate esports have seen an insane growth in recent years, with practically every major school in America and Canada clamoring to form some kind of a team. Fans of the scene and esports in general are hopeful the trend will continue to grow. I sat down with head coach of one of the newest esports programs, Josh Knutson of the University of Jamestown. We discussed the program, in its first year at the university, his hopes for the scene and some of the trials and tribulations of collegiate esports.

The program now

The first order of business is always working out the details. Currently, Jamestown fields teams/players in Overwatch, League of Legends, Hearthstone and CS:GO. The usual suspects for any collegiate esport program. However, Knutson also hopes to expand into Heroes of the Storm if possible. “Its an easy add, and Blizzard as a company has been really awesome with working with our association on the corporate level.”

University of Jamestown

Josh Knutson, Head Coach for the University of Jamestown. Courtesy of Jimmies Athletics.

When deciding on which esports to try to enter first, Knutson said they looked first and foremost at what other teams were competing in within their association, NACE (National Association of Collegiate Esports). A focus on hitting the ground running with the program fueled this, as they wanted to get into a regular season from day one, with a good number of fellow colleges involved.

With the physical equipment bought, and an established presence now, Knutson is hopeful for the program’s expansion. Bringing on incoming freshmen to join is easier when you can show them it’s already happening, rather than based on promises. Expanding into other games, too, is an easy step, as with esports it just requires an installation on a computer to play. No need for new stadiums and turfs mean collegiate esports programs can be flexible and more daring with their expansions, Knutson explained.

The program’s future

When I asked about goals for the program, Knutson gave the tried and true hope for his team: “From a coaching standpoint…. I want to put a national championship trophy on my shelf.” Starting off a new program though, Knutson is aware of the challenges they’ll face on that quest. ‘Moving Forward’, is the motto for him and the team. “Every day take practice seriously, take our games seriously, move forward and keep getting better from a skill level and from a player development status.”

More concretely, Knutson discussed hopes for growing the program itself, hoping to (roughly) double the size of the roster from the current 16-30 next year. With a bigger roster comes the usual need for more facility space and more equipment. He highlighted, too, that this year was mostly focused on laying the foundation for success with the program. In the years to come, it’ll be about growing bigger and stronger, along with their chosen league in NACE. “We’re in a really good spot to be in the forefront of that big wave that is coming for esports.”

Alex Huff, one of the Overwatch players for the team, added to the discussion too, from a player’s perspective. Alex notes that two of his fellow Overwatch players are prior friends, so synergy with them was never an issue. However, noting the increase of players that will most likely exist next year, he mentioned his excitement of mixing up that dynamic and learning from his fellow teammates. “It’s going to definitely be able to facilitate growth and to grow the whole program itself. We’re going to have some people who are going to come in who may have more knowledge and teach those who may not have as much knowledge.”

 NACE and a shake up in collegiate esports

I’ll admit, I’m relatively familiar with most of the popular collegiate esports leagues. TeSPA, Collegiate Starladder League, etc. are names I’m aware of. NACE was not one. I asked Knutson why he and the program chose to go with NACE. While being less of a household name as the others, Knutson highlighted how their mission and his program aligned: “To legitimize collegiate esports as a respected athletic activity on college campus’. Really push it to the same level as football, basketball and some of the other traditional sports.”

University of Jamestown

The National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE, is the latest league to try and make a dent in Collegiate esports. Courtesy of The National Association of Collegiate Esports

Knutson discussed NACE’s formation frankly, stating that he thinks part of the reason NACE was formed was out of frustration with the other leagues. From league structure to technical help, NACE is attempting to set itself up as something different than the others. Through corporate partnerships with Blizzard, Twitch and Battlefly, to a commitment to ‘doing it right’ from the beginning, Knutson believes NACE has set itself up as a leader in the scene.

Citing a few reasons for this, too, Knutson pointed to the similar level of dedication and regulation that exists already in collegiate sports as one of the reasons. Setting up a league with a similar structure to the NCAA, say, or some other established form of competitive league, was something attractive about NACE for Knutson. “We really bought into that idea of ‘if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this the right way.’ We want to legitimize it right away, and have it as respected as any other program is on our campus. We wanted our student athletes to be in the same vein as the football player or the basketball player.”

Knutson deeply identified with this notion of putting newly minted esports programs on the same level as the traditional programs offered by Jamestown. His players are held to the same requirements as their fellow athletes at the school. From attending the All Athletes meetings to community service requirements in their community, his players check all the same boxes as the football and basketball players. “I think that our administration and our coaching staff really brought in that idea of let’s legitimize this and do it the right way.”

 

This is part 1/2 for an interview with the University of Jamestown’s esports program.

 

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Featured Image courtesy of University of Jamestown Athletics.

features

The Laundry List of Missing Features

It’s been quite a few years since the official release of Hearthstone – and with Dungeon Run coming up as a brand new game mode, it’s perhaps worth going through the many, many basic features the game is still missing. Maybe it will help us figure out a few things about the developers’ priorities?

Welcome to the Grand Tournament

Perhaps the most egregious absence is the lack of a tournament mode for a game that has already crowned three World Champions and is quite close to the rise of the fourth. Anyone who even barely dabbled in the competitive scene could easily explain the problems with all the third-party organizations. This ranges from the incompetence and the downtimes to the downright sinister cases of collusion. People who don’t properly speak the same language trying to decode game states by screenshots will never be an acceptable alternative to something in the client – unless you are Team 5, that is.

The spectator mode is also full of problems: it is essentially useless for tournament organizers as it bafflingly flips the cards of the second player when you try to spectate both at the same time. Not only that, but the hand on the top is much smaller than what you normally see. Meaning broadcasters are still forced to run multiple instances if the game client and spectate both players separately, then mushing something together in their streaming software. It’s a mess. On the other side of the spectrum, there is still no way to spectate a friend’s arena draft or pack opening, and if I had to guess, probably never will be.

The lack of a disconnect feature has also been a major source of consternation for competitive players. With the current policy advocating for a replay in every case when a player drops out in an official event unless there is lethal on the board. This approach is both problematic and potentially abusable, and also something that other Blizzard games have figured out ages ago. There is no viable alternative to an in-game tournament mode with reloadable or at least pausable game states. These are the minimum features for a good competitive experience.

So many numbers

Another long-requested feature is a more detailed statistics display in the game. While there are multiple widely used third-party apps, the data they collect is nothing compared to what the Blizzard hivemind has available. Unfortunately they are only willing to display some minimal winrate-related numbers in the client  and maybe some other interesting tidbits via e-mail if you sign up for their marketing material alongside it. Again, not something that would be difficult to provide as the data is already collected. It’s simply something they don’t find valuable to share.

features

It’s also worth mentioning that a new player has no idea about the secret achievements like Chicken Dinner either. These are also something that the game could expand on along by being more transparent. The game is also sorely lacking a PTR, something that is commonly used for many Blizzard games. While it is understandable that the developers do not want to spoil cards in advance, these features would be useful to test botched game concepts like the synergy picks in Arena in a similar fashion.

There is also zero support in the client for the many content creators and streamers that are such a huge part of the game’s economy. We’re in an odd situation where the broadcasting platform has done more work with the game in that regard with Twitch’s Innkeeper app than the developers of Hearthstone have. It’s borderline ridiculous.

But hey, at least there’s always a new cardback every month…

 

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

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RNG

We need more counterplay, not less RNG

While this statement is seemingly self-evident, there’s a good argument to be made regarding how little the needle would have to be pushed back in order for competitive and tryharding players to have a little more fun in Hearthstone. All this without losing its casual and fun core. After all, that’s what the game used to be like in Classic and it was a smashing success – with a different kind of RNG than what we’re used to today.

Roll the dice

There are three factors to consider when you’re discussing RNG elements: its immediacy, impact and window of counterplay. There is an inherent random aspect of every game of Hearthstone you play, the order of cards in your deck. It’s rarely going to decide the outcome on its own though. It takes time to unfold and allows both players to adjust their plans accordingly, whether by drawing more cards or switching to a more aggressive strategy.

Both Elises and cards like Manic Soulcaster rely on this effect and are generally not a source of frustration as you play. If you go closer to the middle of the scale, you’ll find cards like Manic Soulcaster and Cabalist’s Tome. Both generators of random resources that take a while to resolve. A Shaman’s totem roll is obviously on the other end of the scale.

Their impact is easy to understand – so is the fact that it kept increasing with regards to the RNG elements introduced to the game as time went on. Back in Classic, Nat Pagle’s extra card draw was a source of consternation in the pro scene (and it has been duly nerfed!), GvG gave us the Boom Bots and Unstable Portal, which still gave you some time to fight back but could quickly decide the game on the spot, and the situation’s been getting worse ever since.

It’s no wonder that the term “highroll” hasn’t been popularized by the community until the era of Midrange Shaman, that was perhaps the first deck where relatively unlikely but very powerful outcomes. Just think of all the totem rolls for that coveted spellpower bonus – would regularly change the game on their own. Tuskarr Totemic was perhaps the biggest culprit at the time, but the phenomenon quickly got worse as time went on. Barnes, Prince Keleseth, Patches… the list of merry men goes on.

In terms of the game’s current state, perhaps it’s the window of counterplay that is the biggest issue. Given enough tools, a good player will be able to shine through despite an unfortunate roll or two in most games. We’re sorely lacking these tools. You can’t inject cards into a Highlander deck in Standard and there also aren’t enough control tools to extend the game against a Keleseth-Patches monstrosity to starve them of cards. You also usually just lose when a crucial Crackle didn’t roll at least 4 like you could reasonably expect. The game is just too fast to leave a minion (or a player) alive like that and live to tell the tale.

Slinging

While the increased variance obviously means that the better player has less influence on an individual game, this isn’t the only consideration with regards to skill shining through. Hearthstone needn’t be turned into chess in order to provide a better experience for everyone.

The lack of interaction on your opponent’s turn coupled with the extremely highroll-y archetypes currently popular in the game greatly diminishes the number of meaningful decisions in the game. Not to mention the fact that a crucial part of the game has been essentially trivialized as time went on. It’s also a clear design choice that higher variance cards are outperforming their regular counterparts – just think of Piloted Sky Golem versus Cairne Bloodhoof in the old days or a Tempo Rogue deck without Keleseth now.

There’s also the fact that the wide availability of netdecks and arena drafting tools greatly diminished the skill requirements of the part of the game that takes place before you start the match. While this is certainly not something the developers can directly counteract – apart from perhaps reverting to closed decks for official tournaments, even if the players on stream lose some edge –, but their design choices could certainly steer the game towards a state like Classic, where highroll-y RNG cards were still genuinely fun, but not powerful enough to play. See: Gelbin Mekkatorque.

Unfortunately, Recruit also doesn’t seem like a mechanic that lends itself to skillful game-making decisions – based on the initial impressions, it seems like something that will provide more of a challenge on the deckbuilding side of things, meaning it will likely not provide a challenge at all for most of the playerbase.

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

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archetype

The Zombie archetypes

There were quite a few decks that never really became viable despite the developers’ continual attempts at bringing them to life. These archetypal Zombeasts only serve to eat up class card slots in multiple sets, and it looks like a trend that is set to continue with Kobolds and Catacombs.

Old kids on the block

It often feels like Hearthstone’s card design focuses a bit too much on creating specific archetypes that some members of Team 5 really, really would like to force into existence. This can be problematic for a card game with such small sets and is definitely a contributing factor in the ever-quickly solved metagames of Standard. It doesn’t take much experimentation or thinking to nail down 25-28 cards of, say, a Jade deck: search for a special word in your collection (hint: starts with “J” and ends with “ade”) and dump in every card you find, and you’re pretty much good to go.

While Jade Druid remains strong, and understandably no class has received a new golem-producing card to this day, there were other attempts at outright creating specific decks throughout the years. In a way, they all teach us valuable lessons about card games.

Bestiality is a crime

While this particular tribe used to be exclusively Rexxar’s domain, the first expansion of the game intended to bring Beast-related synergies to Druid. They just slapped the tag on Druid of the Claw with the arrival of the first proper expansion. They also printed some worthless cards like Druid of the Fang (seven attack – literally unplayable) and Malorne (also unplayable). Later sets gave you a 2/5 or 5/2 Beast for three mana, the absolute overkill that was Menagerie Warden and then Mark of Y’Shaarj in Whispers of the Old Gods.

This was, of course, partly motivated by the strength of the core Druid cards. Force of Nature and Savage Roar were omnipresent throughout the game’s history until the former’s eventual nerf, and Druid has still remained a high-tier option ever since. This means they had to give janky alternative cards for the class that didn’t fit its primary playstyle. While this is certainly logical, one has to wonder why it took them so long to adjust the combo considering it was an auto-include in every single Druid deck for years. Taunt Warrior is a very similar story, except it has actually been brute-forced into existence for a short while thanks to the quest, and even that didn’t last particularly long.

Discard these cards

The aforementioned mechanic has been a part of Warlock’s arsenal since the very beginning of Hearthstone. It was, and mostly still is, exclusive to the class and revolves around exchanging value for tempo. Most of these cards were too conservatively statted to see play and the ones that did (Soulfire and Doomguard) only found a home in Zoo in the early days.

In an inexplicable decision, the developers decided to transform it into a synergistic concept that somehow tried to re-feed some of the lost value to your hand, either by drawing a card on death with Darkshire Librarian or summoning the discarded card itself with Silverware Golem. The same idea was behind the class quest and Clutchmother Zavas in Un’goro and Blood Queen Lana’thel in the latest set. It never got off the ground for reasons that seem obvious to everyone but the people who designed these cards.

The main problem with such a misguided attempt is that it eats up a significant chunk of the small amount of class cards in a given release, and if they coalesce around an ineffective archetype, fans of the class hardly get anything to play with. Discardlock’s supporting cast took up over a third of all Warlock cards in the last two sets, not to mention two of the three they received from the Karazhan adventure, and it still hasn’t seen play and most likely never will. Again, this would be alright if you had more cards released or the class was in a stronger position, but this seems like quite the case of overkill with Warlock struggling greatly as it is.

Winter is here

Perhaps the most egregious example of the forced archetypes is Freeze Shaman, a concept so outlandish that it didn’t even reach meme status despite eating up seven(!) of Thrall’s class cards in the aptly named Knights of the Frozen Throne set. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Based on the developers’ comments, they will keep pushing the envelope with this concept that was clearly doomed on arrival. They might also just give a Drakonid Operative-level card to Discardlock to make sure it gets its time to shine before it gets chucked into the dustbin that is known as Wild…

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

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The Tyler1 Championship Series is coming soon

Four ways to get your esports fix in the League of Legends off-season

If you spend a significant amount of time watching professional League of Legends (like me), then you are probably starting to feel a void where the LCS, LCK, LPL and other leagues used to be. You have caught up on watching everything at Worlds. Maybe you even went back and checked out VODs that you missed in Summer Split.

But now there is no more League to consume. Worlds is over, and every team is taking a much needed break from competition. There have been several announcements regarding changes to leagues next year, but what about now? We have two months before any professional leagues restart. How do we get our weekly fix of esports in the meantime? Here are my top four recommendations. Hopefully one of them will work for you.

Follow your favorite players’ streams

This is the most straightforward option. While the professional leagues are on cooldown, the individual players will most likely still be streaming on a regular basis. This form of viewership has several benefits. It allows you, the viewer, to feel more of each player’s personality, since the stream is built around them. You also get to experience the game from your favorite player’s perspective, which allows you to analyze their mechanics, builds, etc. For example, here are links to some of the professional players, coaches and casters that were streaming at the time of writing this article:

Watch your favorite player's stream in the off-season

Screenshot of Jankos’ stream on Twitch

Search for your favorite talents’ social media pages, as they usually update their fans when they will be streaming. Consider following and subscribing to their Twitch channels, as any advertisements directly benefit them. These sessions provide a more intimate setting for viewers, and players that stream frequently generally enjoy interacting with their audience. Tuning into streams lacks the casting and third-party analysis that professional broadcasts have, but story-lines and drama pop up now and again.

There are also plenty of top level League of Legends players who simply do not play professionally. They may prefer the casual nature of streaming, have a large enough following that financially they can stream full-time, have retired from pro play or may be a rising star in the making. Preseason is an ideal time to watch those streamers, because they are probably innovating with Runes Reforged, item builds and strategies. You might be able to learn a thing or two and apply it in your own solo queue.

Look out for regional/amateur tournaments and Scouting Grounds

Last year's Tyler1 Invitational was a huge success

Image from Tyler1’s Youtube

While there are regular amateur tournaments for League of Legends around the world, not many of them are actually broadcast. Expect to see some in the off-season, though, as they will not need to compete with the regular professional leagues for attention. For example, CompeteLeague will be hosting the Tyler1 Championship Series, starting on November 18. Last year’s Tyler1 League of Legends Invitational turned out to be a huge hit, so they will be back this year for your viewing pleasure. It is not an entirely serious event, so it may not be appealing to every esports fan, but the teams that were announced include some of the top Challenger-level players.

Regional leagues are also sometimes broadcast during this time period. For example, Ogaming is currently hosting Challenge France, the French national league that qualifies into the European Challenger Series. While the French casting may not be for everyone, the actual gameplay should appeal to viewers of the European LCS and CS. Europe has leagues for the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland and others too. Be on the lookout for announcements to watch these if they have not already happened.

For North American fans, this year’s Scouting Grounds are announced for November 26 to December 3. Riot invites the top Challenger players from each position to create four teams and compete in hopes of being drafted into the LCS and Academy teams for 2018. This is an event that showcases rising stars who may be among the 10 players to join a team following the matches.

Try watching another esport

Overwatch is an alternative esport to watch in the off-season

Image from Twinfinite.net

Yes, there are other esports out there other than League of Legends. The media is building up a lot of hype around next year’s Overwatch League (OWL). Overwatch combines certain aspects of massive online battle arena (MOBA) games with first-person shooter mechanics and game modes. Blizzard recently announced updates to make Overwatch more spectator-friendly and to create larger distinctions between the two competing teams. If the action was difficult for you to casually follow before, now might be a good time to give Overwatch another shot.

If you need something third-person, and much closer to League of Legends, then maybe give DOTA a shot. Summit 8 is currently pitting teams against each other from all over the world for a $300,000 prize pool. The draft, map, role-based gameplay and other elements of DOTA should feel right at home for League of Legends viewers. There are four DOTA tournaments in November and December, which should be plenty of content to help get through the off-season.

Hearthstone could be an option for League of Legends viewers who may not enjoy watching other MOBAs or first-person shooters. It is an online card game from Blizzard, which boasts being “Deceptively Simple. Insanely Fun.” Much like other card games, each player has a deck of cards to play with in hopes of draining the enemy’s health to zero. Spectating this game is incredibly easy. DreamHack is hosting a Winter Grand Prix December 1-4, which will be the last Hearthstone event for 2017.

Put more time into your own game

Everyone should learn about Runes Reforged in the off-season

Image from Surrenderat20.net

Of course, this is the best time to play more League, rather than spectate others. Maybe this could be your first time downloading your replays in the client. Rewatch your games and figure out what you could do differently to improve for 2018. Clip some highlights to show your friends, or just have fun playing a few more ARAMs that you missed during the LCS season.

Preseason is the time to adapt and innovate. Study the new Runes Reforged, watch out for Zoe’s release and figure out where they fit in the meta landscape. If you do not learn these elements of the game in the next two months, then you may be caught off guard when players are drafting next Spring Split. Get out on the Rift, get a feel for who and what is strong and weak, and compare.

Even if you have no interest in grinding more games, watching other esports or tuning into streamers, you can still just enjoy a break. Invest those extra minutes and hours into some other hobby. Most people will turn to exercise or catching up on music, books, movies and television. That is okay, too. If the professionals are taking a break, then why not you? It will be a while before teams return to the LCS, so make the most of it.


Featured Image: LoLesports.com

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balance

Is Hearthstone operating on a complaints-based balance system?

Tracing back all the way to the 7.1 patch, the changes made in Arena are definitely due to the complaints of the playerbase rather than a confirmed case of metagame-warping cards. While “feeling bad” about losing to something is certainly an aspect of gameplay that the developers should keep in mind, it’s not easy to strike a balance between removing cards that the community finds problematic and outright neutering specific ones just because they are powerful – and this is a discussion worth having again now that the Death Knights are getting removed from Arena.

Arenarcissism

One of the long-running issues with the game’s draft-based format is that the developers eventually shied away from actively curating the card pool, even though they had a successful attempt at it in September 2016, removing 45 cards – some good, some bad – in order to make the classes closer to each other. Simple, understandable, logical, easy to adjust and change: it’s a shame they ditched this method and opted to adjust offering rates both based on card type and individual cards, with the rates of the latter micro-adjustments not even being available to the playerbase unless they collect their own data via sites like HSReplay and ArenaDrafts.

balance

Should we ban Tirion as well? Source: hearthpwn.com

The problem with this, of course, is that if losing to a card “feels bad”, knowing that it’s rarely going to show up in the draft makes it even worse when they actually are dropped on you, especially because it becomes an incorrect strategy to play around them due to their rarity. It also led to an interesting development where the officially noted changes are almost exclusively centered around the community’s complaints: the offering rates of Abyssal Enforcer and Flamestrike have been slashed to half forever, no matter how the arena metagame might change with new releases and adjustments, while certain cards like Vicious Fledgling – and now the Death Knights – that did not have obscenely high winrates but were “bad to lose against” have been completely banned.

Here’s the main issue: where do you draw the line? If you’re going to eventually ban or neuter most of the powerful cards in the format, all you’ll accomplish is that previously less annoying cards will take their place as the villains. This isn’t a sustainable nor a necessarily productive way to balance a draft-based format: directly curating the pool, with sets or specific cards occasionally rotating in and out would be a much more interesting and effective approach. The new, Arena-specific cards also seem like a good way to go, making such extreme decisions as these outright bans even more excessive in the process.

Keep in mind that most of these concerns are validated by the developers’ previous work: these decisions are final in their mind. We’ve never seen a reverted nerf in either of the large formats, and that’s probably not a good thing.

A brief history of Constructed nerfs

If you look beyond the beta period of the game, Hearthstone’s long and checkered history with card adjustments is a sad sight to behold with each changes coming long after a particular card or deck has warped the metagame, with the developers eventually turning them into unplayable junk. Warsong Commander, twice. Starving Buzzard. Undertaker. Big Game Hunter. The list could go on – and this doesn’t even account for the head-scratchers like the changes to Molten Giant, Blade Flurry or Hex. In general, these changes have rendered the cards completely useless and crippled the archetypes they were involved in.

The usual explanation by the developers is that they can only change so many stats and just a single added mana or one reduced health is a large increase in percentage. I would argue that this isn’t really an adequate reason why Blade Flurry’s cost had to double while also losing a critical part of its effect. With regards to our current discussion: if these changes weren’t final, if Team 5 was open to re-evaluating them and changing the cards once more at some point, an overkill like this would not be a problem. As things currently stand, if the community complains long and hard enough, the developers will actively butcher an archetype forever, no matter its winrate. I guess it’s a sign that they are paying more attention to Arena that they are displaying the same attitude over there as well. The main takeaway from all this? Be careful what you wish for…

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