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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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.

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

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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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scourgelord

The surprising power of Scourgelord Garrosh

Of all the Death Knights released with Knights of the Frozen Throne, Scourgelord Garrosh possibly generated the least hype. Crazily powerful hero powers defined the other classes’ options. But whilst others had massive value generation potential, a disappointing Whirlwind effect was all that was available to Warrior. Even the relatively dull Malfurion the Pestilent’s three attack or three armor seemed far superior. The weapon, while strong, didn’t seem the sacrifice.

Despite this, Warrior’s Death Knight hero looks to be among the strongest. Besides the raw, reliable Malfurion the Pestilent and the deck-defining machine-gun power of Shadowreaper Anduin, Scourgelord Garrosh looks to be a near mandatory inclusion in all manner of Control, Combo and Tempo Warriors. So how did the Scourgelord go from the trash heap of “probably good in tempo” to non-Pirate staple?

Shadowmourne’s stats

scourgelord

Shadowmourne is arguably worth 7-8 mana by itself

Above all, the overwhelming bulk of the Scourgelord’s power is expressed in his weapon, Shadowmourne. A 4/3 weapon is decent enough; but Shadowmourne holds the brutal ability to cleave through up to two adjacent minions.

In terms of raw ability to clear, this can be far more powerful than Gorehowl, while being far more versatile. Whilst Gorehowl maintains superiority at smacking down minions one at a time, Shadowmourne has both a higher ceiling and lower floor of impact.

On the typical multi-leveled boards of mid-game minions opponents are likely to field in the late-game, Gorehowl’s seven attack is often overkill. Meanwhile, Shadowmourne can clear multiple minions at a time, while leaving others damaged and vulnerable to board clears, trading or Executes. The cleaving ability also throws up nice edge cases. Damaging a high attack minion by hitting its low attack neighbour can save vital health. Alternatively, killing a vital threat through Taunt can save games.

Rounding out weaknesses

Not only is Shadowmourne strong in a vacuum, it gels perfectly with Warrior. Warrior has no Fireballs, Swipes or Shadow Strikes. It’s always had a weakness of dealing with mid-sized boards of mid-sized minions. There were few options available to deal with an awkward board of two 4/4’s without spending multiple cards or premium removal.

Decks like Midrange Shaman or Priest could slowly grind down a Control Warrior by playing out 2-3 threats a turn. The Warrior would be forced to waste Executes or Brawls just to clear the board, leaving him vulnerable to later bombs or just more spaced-out threats.

Shadowmourne perfectly counters this weakness. By acting as incredibly efficient removal for up to three of the kinds of boards that Warrior traditionally struggles with, it generates huge value while throwing a cog in the traditional anti-Control Warrior gameplan. Even high-powered Midrange decks like Jade Druid can be simply wiped of value. A well-timed Scourgelord combined with Skulking Geist will crush their hopes, assuming you can wrest back tempo.

But Shadowmourne isn’t the only thing Scourgelord has to offer.

Infinite activators

scourgelord

Sleep with the Fishes is even more backbreaking when it synergises with your hero power

One of the keys to successfully navigating any Control, Tempo or Combo Warrior is spacing out damage activators. Use all your Whirlwinds, Ghouls and Slams too early? Your Executes, Acolytes or Battle Rages are now useless. Part of the reason cards like Death’s Bite are so powerful is due to their additional efficient Whirlwind effects.

In the late-game, Warriors would often run out of steam as they ran low on activators. Especially token generation decks like Paladin or Shaman could simply hero power their way to starving the Warrior of crucial removal and card draw activators.

While Scourgelord Garrosh’s Bladestorm hero power (which does one damage to all minions) may seem weak in isolation, it shines in the Warrior class. Not only does it provide activators for cards like Sleep with the Fishes and Execute in the late game, it also allows for existing Whirlwind effects to be readily spent for tempo instead of saved for future effects. This can prove especially powerful late in the game, where it turns an otherwise useless Acolyte of Pain or Battle Rage top-deck into crucial gas.

The price of power

scourgelord

What Scourgelord Garrosh gains in board control, you lose in lifegain

All this value does come at a cost, however. Replacing Armor Up is dangerous. While additional board control is all well and good, sometimes you simply run out of life. Against certain decks, losing two Armor a turn is a suicidal proposition.

Luckily, the current meta makes this less of an issue. New Armorgain cards like Bring it on! and Mountainfire Armor can help mitigate the loss of the hero power. What’s more, the current meta focuses heavily on the board. Even Pirate Warrior is embracing less burn and more minions, and Burn Mages have largely left the meta (or moved to infinite-damage versions).

With these developments, the additional clear of Bladestorm often saves more life than Armor Up. And of course, the five instantaneous Armor from merely equipping Scourgelord goes a long way to ensuring you’ll live for the next few turns at least.

The wrath of Hellscream

Beyond that, Garrosh Scourgelord has excellent flavour and voice lines. Despite sounding like an undead potato, the Scourgelord’s emotes are brooding and threatening. They lack some of the “it’s not a phase, mom!” edginess of Shadowreaper Anduin’s “Shadowy thoughts” while still sounding ominous. It’s suitably Warrior-y to tell your opponents that they will be the first to kneel.

And of course, the “Failure” emote is surely top tier BM material.

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

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tech

Tech to beat the new expansion meta

Knights of the Frozen Throne is mere hours from NA release at the time of writing. Theorycrafting is in full swing, and players are eager to unleash their shiny new cards and decks upon the ladder. Others are greedily seizing upon the opportunity to climb with last meta’s most efficient decks. It’s a perfect time for deck tech to shine.

This can be a tricky meta to navigate. A combination of crazily greedy decks featuring flashy new legendaries like the Lich King can be a struggle for reactive decks to deal with. Meanwhile, those sticking to old-fashioned aggro provide a challenge to those seeking to innovate. So how do you navigate this oddly polarised ladder experience?

Frostmourne belongs in a Museum

Eat their Death Knight dreams with a gloopy spit

One recurring theme of the expansion has been a number of incredibly powerful weapons. Warrior’s new Deaths-bite-alike Blood Razor threatens uber-efficient removal. Rogue’s Shadowblade and supporting Doomerang offer weapon damage without hurting Valeera herself. Both the Warrior and Paladin Death Knight Hero come with hugely powerful weapons attached that represent huge tempo and value swings. Not to mention the Lich King himself (and Arfas) can fetch the terrifying Frostmourne, a weapon that threatens to resurrect all minions it kills.

The answer to all this massive weapon value? Well, luckily Hearthstone has a built-in pressure valve for strong weapons. Weapon hate like Harrison Jones, Acidic Swamp Ooze and Gluttonous Ooze can quickly put an end to the value fiesta. What’s more, this kind of weapon hate is perfect to survive and turn the clock against the hyper-aggressive Pirate Warrior. Punishing this hyper-aggressive deck is a great strategy to stop those seeking to sneak out a quick legend amidst bumbling homebrews.

The tempo treatment

The solution to wacky combos and crazy legendaries is good old-fashioned mana efficiency

Tech doesn’t always mean playing specific cards. Often it’s as much a matter of playstyle and deck choice. In a highly varied, experimental meta, it’s often hard to play reactive decks. Playing as Control is dependent on knowing what you’re up against. You can’t be prepared for the kind of mad, greedy combos that will be thrown at you.

Instead, decks that push a specific gameplan with powerful tempo plays are likely to be even further rewarded than usual. Aggressive Midrange or Combo like Miracle Rogue or Midrange Hunter decks are likely to see a lot of success. Their brand of snowballing mid-game board presence is especially difficult to deal with by unrefined Control. While Aggro can be shut down by new lifesteal and taunt minions, aggressive Midrange can provide the beefy late game to bring games to a close despite Taunts, Heal and whatever else Control throws at you. Doing more for your mana than they can is a sure-fire way to victory.

The downside is a limited ability to react to the opponent’s gameplan before you can execute yours. This is where tech cards can come in most handy; as they allow you to push your gameplan of mid-game minions while severely hampering your opponent’s strategies.

Let none pass

 

The Lich King’s popularity could be his undoing

The Lich King is one of the flashiest and most impressive legendaries of Knights of the Frozen Throne. The souped-up Ironbark Protector is likely to see considerable play. His less flashy cousin, Bonemare, also has generated significant praise. Both promise big late-game taunts that could be a nightmare for many classes to deal with. Both Aggro and Control struggle to deal with these kinds of big, valuable bodies that prevent you going face or killing threatening minions.

 

If your deck lacks removal for these kinds of threats, then consider adding some way to destroy or avoid it. The Black Knight is a Classic taunt counter and can provide huge tempo swings. Particularly against the Lich King, he’s a devastating late-game board swing. For decks like Midrange Hunter that otherwise lacks removal, he could be an invaluable combination of beefy body and powerful effect.

Shush

“Lot of stats, but weak to silence” covers a lot of new minions

If you can’t  quite stomach the 6 mana for a 4/5, consider running a Silence. Spellbreaker can provide a fantastic tempo swing, especially against the buffed bodies of Bonemare. With a myriad of new, interesting and powerful effects for players to test, silence is unlikely to go without targets. Deathrattles and buffs are a recurring theme of knights of the Frozen Throne, and Silence counters both.

While Silencing the Lich King isn’t quite as powerful as destroying him, it often is all you need to push for lethal. In return, you get a cheaper, more flexible minion that works on a number of targets. It also notably counters Lifesteal minions that otherwise could continually generate huge healing for the opponent.

Feeling crabby

Pirate Warrior is likely to try and prey on weak, unrefined decks: be ready

Crabs like Golakka Crawler are also a solid choice. If you get to a glut of Pirate Warriors, Golakka can provide the win rate edge you need without running the slew of reactive tools that can compromise your effectiveness against the hordes of experimental midrange and control.

Depending on how players choose to experiment, Hungry Crab might also be a sensible inclusion. A Divine Aggro Murloc Paladin featuring the new Righteous Protector could rise to early prominence. In which case, Hungry Crab will severely cut those explosive Murloc starts down to size.

If Divine Paladin truly takes off, then Blood Knight could be a fantastic, if specific, tech to tear through those Divine shields and generate absurd amounts of stats.

Don’t fear the tweaker

It’s survival of the fittest out there: adapt to survive! Though you still probably shouldn’t play Adaptation

Above all, the key to succeeding in the early expansion meta is adaptability. With so many cards and archetypes to test, the meta will change by the day, if not by the hour. Feel free to swap in techs, decks and new cards. Think about what works and what doesn’t and refine your deck further with each win or loss. Finding the optimal choice for both fun and wins is one of the best parts of a new expansion.

So get out there and give those other theory-crafted decks the testing of a lifetime!


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

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Knights of the Frozen Throne is Hearthstone’s boldest expansion yet

Knights of the Frozen Throne is less than a week from its August 10th release. With the majority of the cards released, Death Knight heroes are getting the lion’s share of attention and hype. But beyond these new undead heroes, Knights of the Frozen Throne is quietly pushing at the limits of Hearthstone’s core design philosophy in the boldest way yet.

Whether or not it will work out is still up in the air. Regardless, it’s hard not to admire the risks and brave steps the designers are taking with these exciting new cards.

Discarding from the opponent’s deck

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Skulking Geist doesn’t care where your one mana spell is. Hand or deck, friend or foe, it’s getting destroyed

Tech cards traditionally interact with the board. Be it Hungry Crab or Harrison Jones, almost all specific counters deal with something in play. Dirty Rat pushed the envelope; it countered strong battlecries by threatening minions in the opponent’s hand. However, this type of tech card is insufficient in providing a counter to that enemy of Control: Jade Druid. You can’t interrupt the infinite shuffling of Jade Idols by any traditional mechanic.

But Skulking Geist is not traditional. Not only does the upcoming minion discard cards of a specific type for the opponent, it discards them from their deck. This is arguably the boldest tech or disruption card yet printed. Cards in your deck, providing you had the hand space to draw them, used to be sacrosanct. They were untouchable. However, Skulking Geist cares little for past convention, and will rip Jade Idols, Shield Slams and Inner Fires out of decks without mercy. It cannot be played around, and completely disrupts Jade Druid’s draw-till-they-drop gameplan.

How this will feel is yet to be seen. The level of community worry over the underwhelming Gnomeferatu’s deck discard effect indicates that players may react more negatively than expected. But considering the level of frustration and vitriol thrown at Jade idol, this may be a small price to pay.

Complex cards

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Corpsetaker is wordy without being difficult to understand

Imp-losion was one of the swingiest cards of Goblins Vs Gnomes. Its outcome ranged form terrible (2 damage and 2 Imps) to crushingly powerful (4 damage and 4 Imps). Many publicly wondered why it didn’t follow a more balanced range of outcomes. For instance, the number of imps could vary inversely with the amount of damage (2 imps for 4 damage, or vice versa). However, it would break one of the implicit rules of Hearthstone: If a mechanic can’t be expressed incredibly simply, it can’t be on a card.

Knights of the Frozen Throne challenges this. Not only are there cards that involve complicated concepts like “If {condition}, cast this again”, there are cards with more text than seen yet. The boldest is Corpsetaker, which has a staggering 16 words spread across two sentences.

Longer descriptions and more complicated game mechanics can be taxing to learn. But it’s refreshing to see cards unafraid to flirt with wordiness. Too many good card ideas would be gimped by overly-conservative simplifications. In a game as complex as Hearthstone, it’s far more important that cards will do what they say they do.

Unprecedented deck manipulation

As Tavern Brawls have proven, creating a deck with many copies of a few super-powerful cards can be brokenly powerful

The amount of value in your deck used to be fixed and absolute. Fatigue was both a threat and a gameplan. However, Jade Idol broke those rules by allowing the shuffling of infinite value. Beyond Jade Idol, Knights of the Frozen Throne allows deck manipulation on an unprecedented scale. As I discussed in Why Dead Man’s Hand is impossible to evaluate, cards like Dead Man’s Hand and Archbishop Benedictus are the first time that players have had control of what cards they’re able to add to their deck on a massive scale.

With the Fatigue win condition irrelevant for a while now, this new mass deck manipulation allows alternate paths to victory. The potential of marrying Priest and, say, Mage, cards on a massive scale is a daunting one indeed. As is the potential of infinite N’zoths or endless streams of Arcane Giants. Still, this bold approach to solving the late-game value conundrum facing many control decks has huge potential.

A new Exodia

Could this be the face of the end of the world?

While combo deck’s “win conditions” have been apart of Hearthstone ever since the first one turn kills were established, they all had a hidden asterisk. Winning in Hearthstone has always been down to dealing damage; and that’s left it counters. Armor or cards like Ice Block interferes with them, making it so that there were counters to any conceivable combo. Even Un’goro’s Quest “Exodia” mage is undone by a well timed Dirty Rat, Ice Block, Counterspell or Eye for an Eye.

Knights of the Frozen Throne adds the first (non-Jaraxxus) way to kill your opponent that revolves not around damage, but simple destruction. Summoning all four “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” from Paladin’s Death Knight Hero Power will simply win the game immediately. This combo, combined with bounce effects, or hero-power refresh abilities, could potentially kill opponents even through defenses. Ice Block, insurmountable Armor totals, or even an Eye for an Eye while at one health would do nothing.

While still counterable by a clutch Dirty Rat, Coin denial (in Thaurissan-less standard), secrets like Potion of Polymorph or simply racing your opponent down, destroying your opponent without dealing down is one of the boldest combo introductions. This is simply because it’s not dependent on what every other combo has relied on: damage.

Tutoring for early removal

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All your early-game needs in one handy package

Forge of Souls is freshly revealed at the time of writing, and is already looking like a strong inclusion in Control Warrior decks. Drawing two cards for two mana is almost always great value. Where Forge Souls breaks new, brave ground is in what it tutors. Tutoring is not new to Hearthstone, but the ability to tutor for early-game board control tools in the early game is.

If Forge Souls turns out to be a staple, it will completely upend Warrior’s consistency. The fabled guaranteed starting War Axe will look a lot more like reality, and the nightmare of a post-mulligan hand stuffed with unplayable spells and nine drops will become far less frequent. Forge Souls, together with War Axe and the New Blood Razor, is an early game in a box. Potentially, it could rescue even the clunkiest of starts.

This kind of massively improved early consistency will allow Warrior decks to more readily break deck-building rules. More importantly, Warrior will be at the mercy of early-game RNG far less frequency. This kind of added reliability to early game could not only reduce frustrations but also go a long way to making Hearthstone more competitive and skill-based. Or, at least restrict RNG to the entertaining Yogg-Saron variety rather than the perfect curve vs zero removal kind.

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

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Hearthstone’s design is evolving for the better

Hearthstone’s come a long way since its 2014 release. In that time, the design team has changed and expanded; and with it so has its philosophies. The dev team have developed their strategies on designing cards significantly. With a focus on interactivity, diversity and balance, the meta is healthier than ever. But how have Team 5’s design strategies evolved? And what does that mean for the cards of the future?

Neutrals are less ubiquitous and generic

Ragnaros, while unique, was too ubiquitously powerful

Medivh’s strengths lie in unique synergies and interactions

Gone are the days of Doctor Boom and Piloted Shredder. Very few Neutral cards are in a great number of different competitive decks. Those that are are chosen due to interesting synergies, not raw stats. In the past, decks (especially aggressive ones) have seemed very similar. With everyone running Knife Jugglers, Shredders, and Haunted Creepers, it was hard for decks to feel distinct.

This has been remedied with rotations, select nerfs and conservative stats on new early-game neutrals. While there are a number of Neutrals run in specific decks, they are chosen for a specific purpose instead of just being “good”. Fire Fly is popular for its token synergies, Acolytes for its synergistic card draw, and Medivh for its spell-focused late game power. Decks have a huge number of unique cards, and even decks with similar strategies feel different. Playing against a Token Shaman is very different to fighting Token Druid!

Lifegain is more class-appropriate and interactive

Lifegain is an important part of Hearthstone to counter Aggro and Burn. However, non-interactive lifegain focused around a few ultra-powerful cards can make games feel frustrating . Team 5 have shied away from super-powerful single-card healing available to all classes like Reno and Antique Healbot. After all, it’s pretty frustrating to have games decided by whether or not someone draws one single uber-important card!

Instead, Team 5 have restricted lifegain. While this led to some classes becoming unfortunately weak (RIP Warlock), heal has become far less frustrating. Lifegain that remains often focuses on synergy, spells and board interaction. Cards like Alley Armorsmith, Hallazeal, Earthen Scales or Priest of the Feast require more thought, deckbuilding and smart play than simple burst heal. This increases counterplay and skill-testing. Meanwhile, the lifegain being restricted to classes with it as part of their core identity has furthered sense of class identity. It is, however, pretty unfortunate that it comes at the expense of Warlock’s viability.

Late-game cards are more pro-active, synergistic and powerful

DIE INSECT is RNG dependent, but more pro-active and exciting

Tank Up was great for Warriors, but boring

That fatigue was a viable win condition for so much of Hearthstone’s history is telling. Early on, there were simply no options to put value into your deck to outlast Control without becoming supremely clunky versus other decks. Cards like Ysera were strong of course, but with removal powerful and ubiquitous, it was far easier to remove than threaten with minions in the late game. This came to a head with the addition of cards like Entomb, Elise and Justicar Trueheart. Control decks almost stopped running threats altogether in favour of the Golden Monkey (and even then, only after the opponent had first been forced to play theirs).

While this had the effect of fascinating, complex gameplay, it lacked excitement. Hearthstone rarely shines when both players are pursuing a strategy of doing nothing. To encourage more pro-active late-game play, numerous potent high-value cards were introduced. C’thun decks, Quests such as Fire Plume’s Heart and yes, even the controversial Jade Idol, pushed action into the late game. Instead of not drawing cards, now players compete to activate their own powerful win conditions. Though some disparity in their availability is still present, new powerful end-game tools will help bridge this gap.

Limited burst damage from hand

Of all the nerf targets for Hearthstone’s balance changes, none are more consistently targeted than burst damage. Dying from max HP is frustrating and has limited counterplay for classes without Armor or Ice Block. The potential downside of this is to limit Combo decks. But Team 5 has ensured that Combo decks still exist, albeit in a more value-oriented gameplan.

Modern Combo decks like Miracle Priest, Miracle Rogue and Burn Mage no longer seek to burst down the enemy in one turn. Instead, they seek to utilise powerful synergies to deal damage over multiple turns or create massive value swings. This allows more opportunity for counterplay, as well as being less salt-inducing.

AOE is more efficient

Powerful AOE increases the options for Control decks to flourish

AOE has gotten better. For a variety of reasons, it’s now far better to include Classic AOE cards like Brawl and Blizzard. Not only that, but Team 5 are becoming committed to giving most classes both early and late-game AOE removal. These new cards are often powerful and efficient, allowing for for more reactions to board flooding and giving Midrange and Control more breathing room.

Not only does this improve archetype diversity, it also increases class diversity and counterplay. Playing differently against a Priest than against a Mage due to their different arsenal of AOE removal options is skill-testing and interactive, as is choosing the right moment to nuke the board.

The future

Though it’s too early to call much for the new Knights of the Frozen Throne Expansion, there are promising signs. Complexity is going up, with new mechanics pushing the envelope of what’s possible. The designers’ continual commitment to meta diversity, counter-play and balance has created some of the best metas of Hearthstone history. Here’s hoping the next one lives up to that high standard.

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

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