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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card release

Marin and the Volcanosaur: staggered card releases are effective

We’ve seen over half a dozen cases over the course of Hearthstone’s lifetime when a specific subset of cards were made available earlier than they normally would have been. The unanimously positive responses make me wonder: why aren’t we seeing more promotions like this?

Once upon a time…

 It’s been a long time ago and not many people remember it by now, but the cards of Goblins versus Gnomes, Hearthstone’s first major expansion made their debut in Arena, shortly before they were made available in Constructed. It injected a new sense of intrigue in the game mode and allowed the players to experiment with the cards in a gated environment before the mech army was unleashed on the ladder. The effects of such a soft-launch probably were negative on marketing, and the whole thing may have been motivated by technical reasons, but it’s a good indicator of the benefits of making some cards available before the whole set is dumped on the playerbase.

card release

Source: hearthstone.gamepedia.com

Adventures had a very similar effect on the metagame: the staggered, weekly releases meant that each set of rewards had a chance to shine. In fact, this is perhaps the most exciting aspect of releasing the occasional goodie like Volcanosaur and Marin the Fox into the wild: an unusual card release like this means that even the minions with a relatively low power level get to see some play simply because of the fact that they are new and interesting at the time.

…in an adventure far, far away

 One of the major concerns about such an approach is that it would disrupt the part of the content cycle when the metagame is stable and it wis possible to min-max different strategies. As someone who vastly prefers this to the experimental and wacky early portion, I would argue that this concern is unwarranted, provided the released cards aren’t game-breakingly good: based on previous experience, they function as a neat stress-relief for play on lower ranks and experimental decks while not having any effect on high-level competitive play.

A caveat: these cards need to either come early or be unique enough to encourage experimentation. We’ve seen the developers give out a free Fight Promoter… almost two months after Journey to Un’Goro was released, meaning the card’s been in the game for almost half a year and hasn’t seen any play throughout its existence. For most of the players, this was nothing more than an odd way to give out 100 dust and didn’t have the interesting effect like the Volcanosaur promotion or Marin the Fox did.

card release

Source: hearthstone.gamepedia.com

The nature of the ladder system also means that external tools are very much needed to promote a wacky playstyle: essentially all your rewards come from winning games regardless of their length, the archetypes you use, or your overall winrate. Incentives like a bunch of special cards are sorely needed, and it seems like the developers are starting to realize this as well.

These promotions are also sign that Team 5 is putting an increased emphasis on player retention. Back in the day, a very similar BlizzCon-related promotion awarded you a golden Elite Tauren Chieftain – again, a fun card with a powerful symmetrical effect that never saw competitive play but at least had an extremely cool entrance animation to make up for it. At that time, the general playerbase did not receive a regular copy for free. With the adventures completely ditched in favor of more expansions, giving out more goodies is essentially a requirement to counteract the increased cost of the game to avoid incurring the wrath of the fans. (Looking at the tons of complaints flooding social media about the pricing, this is probably not going too well!)

In my mind, a revamped adventure system would solve most of the game’s current content-related problems. Have more wings or provide more rewards for the completion of each one, even at the cost of an increased price per wing. Add an extra wing or two later down the line, an epilogue of sorts a month and a half or so as an extra sort of card release with some wacky cards for the less competitive players to have fun with. It would certainly be an improvement over what we currently have.

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The Patches problem: Good legendaries, expensive decks?

With a new expansion coming up, the debate around Hearthstone’s cost has come up again. The pre-order tempts some, but many more are having conflicted thoughts. Despite guaranteed and free legendaries, weekly brawl packs and free arena runs, the perceived cost of maintaining a competitive or semi-competitive collection is higher than ever. With users arguably receiving more handouts, the reasons behind this are often down to a fundamental dilemma in the design of Legendary minions.

Tempo Rogue, the new Wallet Warrior?

The best Vanilla legendaries were slow

One reason why Hearthstone feels a lot more expensive is the rising dust cost of many decks. For example, let’s look at the latest meta tyrant; Tempo Rogue. Aggro/Midrange decks used to be the cheapest, but modern optimised Tempo Rogues run similar numbers of legendaries to old Control Warriors.

In Classic, Wallet Warrior’s legendary heavy lists included cards like Harrison, Cairne, Sylvanas, Ragnaros, Alexstrasza, Grommash, Baron Geddon and Ysera. Only the greediest lists would include all of these cards, with many eschewing one or more. If we expect typical Wallet Warrior to have five to seven legendaries, then lists like Ike’s Barnes Tempo Rogue begin to look similarly restrictive. With seven legendaries (with multiple more optional inclusions), the dust cost of this popular, competitive Aggro/Midrange deck is on par with the most expensive decks of old. And it’s not just Rogues. Even historically cheap decks like Zoo and Midrange Paladin require multiple legendaries and handfuls of Epics. Though budget lists are available, they often pale in comparison in power level.

How did this happen? Why are almost all competitive decks so dependent on legendaries and epics?

The rise of the early-game legendary

Low-cost Classic legendaries weren’t exactly Aggro powerhouses

The problem can be summed up in two ways. Top-level legendaries became mandatory for non-control decks, especially Aggro. From Vanilla to Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, there were very few truly game-changing early legendaries for Aggro (arguably Sir Finley Mrrglton, though he was less vital for board presence). Sure, there was Bloodmage Thalnos and Edwin Vancleef, but these were combo tools more than Aggro. Leeroy was always an ever-present burst option, but only as a late-game finisher.

Legendaries were often necessary, of course, but they came down in more niche Control decks, at less vital stages of the game. Sure, getting that Doctor Boom down on seven was important for a lot of decks, but far less important than it is to draw Keleseth or to pull Patches. legendaries felt impactful, due to their high cost and impressive effects, whilst being less impactful in reality. This meant that low-budget players could still compete, while those with legendaries still felt awesome using them.

Pricey pirates and Princes

The problem of the Aggro, mandatory legendary is Patches. Patches is a huge stumbling block for any new or returning player due to the sheer number of decks that rely on him. Unlike other legendaries, he practically must be crafted, as no adequate substitute exists. And the decks he works best in are the decks that would otherwise be the cheapest! Patches effectively adds a 1600 dust hurdle to any new collection, and severely cuts into the amount of dust players have left over for fun experimentation.

This got worse with the introduction of Prince Keleseth. The surprisingly effective two-drop redefined Rogue and Zoo Warlock with its incredible power. But aside from making it unreliable, Keleseth’s Legendary status adds yet another 1600 dust barrier to those seeking to do well on ladder.

The problem with these uber-powerful early-game legendaries is that they make the decks that should be cheap as expensive as the ones that already cost a lot, squeezing out anyone who wants to do even moderately well on a budget.

Rethinking legendaries

Should Team 5 stop making legendaries like Patches?

There are two ways around this. One would be to accept that Aggro decks will continue to be expensive, and continue to price ladder success highly. This could be combined with printing fewer high-powered late-game Legendaries, making Control and Midrange cheaper. However, this would restrict the number of cool, powerful one-off effects that make those kinds of decks so interesting.

The best option might simply be to stop printing incredibly powerful early legendaries. Aggro and Midrange rely on these board-establishing minions to compete. Making them Legendary only increases both the barrier of entry and the variance to detrimental extents.

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

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Will Kobolds and Catacombs’ Legendary weapons belong in a museum?

Kobolds and Catacombs, Hearthstone’s upcoming expansion, is all about treasure. Among the fantastical trophies are new Legendary weapons. With one per class, it will give even non-weapon classes powerful options.

But these unique cards have an Achilles’ heel. There are a very limited number of incredibly potent Weapon removal cards in Hearthstone. With tech so few but so impactful, will this make the new weapons dead on arrival?

Echoes of a hunter

Every class will have new legendary weapons, but will they be too easily countered?

To understand the danger of overly powerful tech, we need to go back in time. Big Game Hunter in its original three mana state was the epitome of the overly impactful tech card. The 4/2 terror was a good enough tempo play to include in almost any deck. Even those with multiple efficient hard removal options like Control Warrior could run it.

The sheer crushing efficiency of a well-timed BGH shut out a huge number of 7+ attack minions from the meta. Even the mighty Ragnaros could often find itself squeezed out.

The problem with BGH was that although it was never “OP” (as the meta could react to its presence), it still had a hugely disproportionate warping effect. Numerous big and fun minions never got a chance to shine. When it was nerfed to five mana, it opened up many new opportunities for both deckbuilding and card design. But what has this got to do with weapons?

More than playability

weapons

BGH was powerful, but its impact was far greater than just its winrate

When we consider a card’s “power”, we often think about how good it is in a given deck or game situation. But “power” can be more than that; it can also be a measure of how much it impacts the meta. A deck’s 52% winrate is one thing if it’s a rising star and another if it’s two months into the expansion and every other deck is specifically targeting it.

Similarly, a card can be powerful even if it has a mediocre winrate when played if it has a disproportionate impact on what other cards, classes or archetypes are viable.

Big Game Hunter wasn’t the most overpowered card in its three mana state. But as a near-universal option with very little downside, it shut off so many cards that it was eventually nerfed. Similarly, weapon removal cards could be an overly impactful option if every class gets expensive, powerful weapons.

Scaling up

The current weapon removals we have make sense in a world of cheap weapons. Since cards like War Axe, Jade Claws and the Rogue hero power cost very little, the cards to counter them have to be cheap and efficient to matter. It’s fine to have a weapon destruction effect on a two mana 3/2 or a three mana 3/3 when you’re countering the cheap cards of aggressive decks.

The problem is that these cards are designed to efficiently beat cheap weapons, but they’re far more effective at defeating expensive options. Spending two mana to kill a 3/1 War Axe is one thing, it’s quite another to shut down a Gorehowl.

If Kobolds and Catacombs adds loads of powerful, expensive weaponry, then weapon removal simply becomes too crushing to pass up on. This not only limits the impact of cool new cards, it has knock on effects for classes that typically run weapons like Warrior and Hunter. With everyone running more weapons and weapon removal, there’s little reason to choose classes whose strengths are weapons.

All or nothing

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, the problem is knotty, and not as simple as changing a single card. Most effective weapon removal is all or nothing, destroying them outright. This makes it equally effective at taking out cheap weapons as expensive ones. What’s more, these cards can’t just be nerfed; cheap weapons still need a counter, and there are few ways to interact with them otherwise. In order to fix this, Blizzard needs to adopt a multi-pronged strategy.

First, there needs to be more cards that counter cheap weapons or soft-counter weapons in general. More freeze minions and effects, more ways of reducing attack and durability rather than killing weapons outright, and other innovative strategies to deal with weapons in ways that don’t scale disproportionately.

Oozes and adventurers

weapons

Ooze doesn’t care if you have a Doomhammer or a Light’s Justice; they all get slimed

Then there needs to be changes to existing weapon techs. Acidic Swamp Ooze and its Gluttonous counterpart look to be the biggest targets. As a neutral two mana basic with an aggressive statline, Ironbeak Owl was a similar card that saw a nerf. Gluttonous Ooze is a bit more niche, expensive and defensive but still could shut down expensive weapons too harshly. They could either be rotated out or changed to interact with weapons in a less all-or-nothing fashion. They, for instance, could reduce a weapons attack by three, or reduce durability by two. Harrison Jones may also be problematic, but as a five mana investment it could remain a necessary, more dedicated counter to expensive weaponry.

As it is, the results will not be completely disastrous. The meta will adapt as ever, and a few of the best weapons will likely find a place in it, checked by tech. But if you run the risk of running the cool new Legendary weapon you unpacked, just be prepared to give your opponent a healthy museum collection.

 

 

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

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Does design space matter?

‘Design Space’ has become a bit of a meme. The designer terminology has been widely mocked since the Blade Flurry nerf. But for all the rhetoric, what does design space actually mean? Why is it so important? And is it a valid reason to change or rotate cards? To understand this, we first need to understand the different types and impacts of design space.

What is design space?

Design space, is essentially the possibility of all the potential cards that could reasonably be designed for Hearthstone. The exact limits would be subjective, but contains all reasonably straightforward cards that fall within accepted power levels. This will vary depending on who you ask; for instance, designer Mike Donais famously jumps at the opportunity to print a card that breaks unspoken rules. But generally, it consists of all possible cards that would not be obscenely overpowered or underpowered, would massively undermine class identity or would be exceedingly unfun to play against.

Considering design space’s flexibility, it might not make sense to justify changes or rotations based on it. But cards can have a massive impact on design space, regardless of where you consider the exact borders are.

Negative design space

Changing cards like Charge opens design space, but may reduce current diversity

Negative design space is what we’re most familiar with. This is the concept of certain cards ‘restricting’ the ability of the developers to design. A card reduces design space when it interacts with a theoretical card to produce an unfair, overpowered, or otherwise game-breaking result. This means that the theoretical card could no longer fall into “could be printed” and into “would break the game”. This can apply to whole swathes of theoretical card.

Take Warrior’s Charge in its 3 mana single-target incarnation. This version of Charge made a lot of potential cards untenable. Its ability to give any minion charge meant that cheap minions with Windfury were often limited due to being able to push huge OTK damage with buffs.

In Charge’s new iteration that does not allow for hero damage, it opens up great many more possibilities, specifically Un’goro’s Adapt minions with their cheap Windfury potential.

What did Blade Flurry die for?

Envenom Weapon didn’t even work with Blade Flurry

Blade Flurry is the most infamous change justified by restricted design space. It also provoked the widespread use of sarcastic comments of “design space” being freed up on every bad Rogue card since.

For the uninitiated, Blade Flurry was once a terrifying tool in Rogue’s arsenal. At 2 mana, it could cut through a board and deal massive face damage; especially with Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil weapon buffs. But “Oil Rogue” ended when Blade Flurry’s cost was doubled, and the face damage was removed. This is par for the course; but the justification was new. Instead of simply stating it was too powerful, Team 5 also invoked design space; stating it was “an obstacle to adding better cards for Rogues”.

Many took this to mean new, powerful Rogue weapons and weapon buffs as powerful as Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil were forthcoming. However, they were disappointed for a long time. Only Un’goro, which released nearly a year after the change, contained any substantial weapon buffs in Envenom Weapon (which didn’t even synergise!).

So was the ‘Design Space’ justification just a poorly thought-out excuse?

Means to an End?

Blade Flurry was purportedly changed for new Rogue cards, but it took a while

The answer to that question may depend on whether you view design space as a good thing on its own, or only if it results in more varied cards. And the answer to that question might depend on whether you’re on Team 5 or not.

From a consumer perspective, design space on its own doesn’t seem to do much good. Sure, it’s heartening to think of all the possible fantastic card creations that might have made it, but it doesn’t make much difference if it doesn’t actually translate to new gameplay. The Rogue player who can’t make a Control deck due to a lack of a board clear isn’t much cheered by the fact that the developers could have added all sorts of cool new cards, but then didn’t.

But it might be worth having some empathy with the designers for. Though it might not always be capitalised on, design space can give devs the breathing room they need to innovate. While it may not be directly utilised, it makes for easier testing without too much worrying about broken interactions and starting from scratch. So while we may not appreciate the direct benefits, it may be worth considering the indirect bonuses it brings.

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

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What makes a good meme card?

There’s something magic about certain cards. Every expansion has a few minions that at first, appears to be absolutely unplayable. But something about it inspires people. Instead of being cast aside, it is seized upon. Something that really should not work creates fleeting moments of hilarious effectiveness, in between embarrassing failures. But what exactly is it that creates the recipe for these kind of noncompetitive but strangely compelling cards?

They suck

Would Executus be fun as an overpowered autoinclude?

A fascinating effect on a terrible card

A key component in these meme cards is that they can’t be too effective. Sure, building a deck around the Rogue Quest was compelling at first, but after a few weeks of ladder dominance it began to wear thin. The best meme cards skirt the edges of brilliance, while retaining numerous crippling flaws. A prime example is Majordomo Executus. It has tantalising potential, but could never achieve any kind of consistent effectiveness due to the suicidal eight health cap and prohibitive nine mana cost.

By keeping the card low power-level, it ensures the joke never goes stale, as those who have the courage to try it out are doing it out of love, not desire to grind out ranks.

They’re innovative

To compensate for their over the top inefficiency, meme cards have to have a powerful pull. This is best achieved by it doing something no other card does. Weasel Tunneler embodies this perfectly. Sabotaging your opponent’s deck is the exact kind of wacky, nefarious scheme that gets people’s mind racing. It’s the kind of disruption you can’t get from any other card.

Not only does this allow for testing of new mechanics, it also lets Team 5 play it safe with potentially infuriating mechanics. If a weasel-tunneler-like card was ever competitively viable, it would be the most infuriating card in the game. But thanks to its sheer terribleness, it never feels horrible to play against, while still being hilarious when it works.

They’re inconsistent

Unliklihood of working makes Zerus more satisfying when he works

Of course, a card just being bad and innovative wouldn’t make it entertaining. It’s also necessary that the card is inconsistent; often relying on RNG to even have a chance of working. Shifter Zerus is perfect in this regard. Theoretically, with perfect RNG, it could be the best card in the game. However, the massive range of outcomes means that getting the right minion at the right time is almost impossible. This makes those one-in-a-thousand hail-mary situations where Zerus saves you that much sweeter.

By contrast, cards like Ticking Abomination are just consistently terrible, meaning that they never get those highs or lows where it decides games in your favour. Of course, this next ingredient sometimes changes this

They show up unexpectedly

The average Hearthstone player would never craft Nozdormu, much less put it in their deck. But sometimes, it can show up out of nowhere to decide games. In the Priest vs Quest Mage matchup, it’s actually a hilariously viable strategy to try and get Nozdormu off Free from Amber, disrupting their infinite combo with a 15 second turn timer.

These bad cards with unique effects also can make for some incredible game states. Archbishop Benedictus can be unexpectedly discovered vs a Fatigue Warrior. Lorewalker Cho can be evolved into. Back in the days of the Golden Monkey, a single Acidmaw could wipe whole boards in Legendary vs Legendary end-games. By not needing to show up in a deck to exist, meme cards can make the whole of Hearthstone that bit more exciting.

 

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The defining neutral cards of the Frozen Throne

Strong neutrals can define metas, and Knights of the Frozen Throne was no exception. From headline eight drops to snowballing dragons, the expansion’s most powerful neutral cards have all shaped the expansion’s most impactful decks. While Death Knights and Jades stole the show, these cards have been quietly working in the background to warp the meta around them.

The Lich King

A go-to for late-game value, the Lich has gotten a bit slow for today’s meta

One of the expansion’s first neutral hits, Arthas, could conceivably be included in almost any deck. With beefy stats, a defensive Taunt and powerful card-advantage grating ability, he was near ubiquitous early on. This was especially true during the reign of Jade Druid. Thanks to Druid’s limited removal, he could be a handy curve topper for Midrange and Control alike. His massive popularity even helped create a mini-meta where the Black Knight was commonly run.

The late-expansion meta treats him less kindly, however. As decks become more refined, big blobs of late-game value are harder and harder to justify. Especially when other late-game powerhouses like others on this list had more immediate board impact for less mana.

Bonemare

Making Don Hancho cry since 2017

King of seven in Arena and Constructed alike, Dr. Bone is still as popular as ever. Initial experiments with synergy cards like Skelemancer proved its value. Even without the synergy, its huge package of impactful stats justified its continued inclusion. Originally finding a home in Midrange Paladin, it has migrated over to the more popular Tempo Rogue.

Not only content to be a powerful inclusion in a number of board-centric Constructed decks, as a super-powerful Common it also has a huge Arena impact. The sheer stat efficiency of this card, coupled with the huge board swing, will likely mean that it will be a strong inclusion in any Midrange deck as long as it’s in Standard. Luckily, it has soft counters; Shadowreaper Anduin, turn six board clears and Silence effects can heavily limit its power.

Skulking Geist

When a six mana 4/6 that doesn’t impact the board was heavily played, you know that Jade was too powerful

Skulking Geist is arguably the worst card on this list, but it saw huge amounts of play regardless. When pre-nerf Jade Druid dominated ladder, Geist was one of the only ways Control could hope to survive at all. By discarding the infinite Idol win condition, Geist gave a faint hope of outlasting. However, the raw power of old Jade often overwhelmed its opponent regardless.

Despite all this, Geist saw large amounts of play across Control of all stripes. It created interesting side-effects too; catching other one mana spells in the wake of its scattershot approach to destroying Idols. Even now, if you’re facing off against a Control deck, it’s often wise to liberally spend your one mana spells before they get gobbled up by the greedy ghoul. Less popular now as Jade has become marginally less meta-defining, it’s still a must have for any decks that want to fatigue out their opponents.

Prince Keleseth

Like other buildarounds, Keleseth increases diversity at the cost of draw RNG

Keleseth was never meant to be this good. Reviews and expectations panned it, initially with good reason. Before the Fiery War Axe and Innervate nerfs, it seemed unlikely that any aggressive deck could compete with Pirate Warrior and Aggro Druid without two-drops. But as these dominating early strategies fell away, Keleseth deck’s slower approach was given room to breathe.

The card is polarising; incredibly potent when drawn and crippling when not, but decks like Tempo Rogue and some Zoolocks are able to forgo this downside and do okay enough without it to justify its inclusion. Keleseth can easily win the early board single handedly, making every one of your subsequent plays outclass the opponent’s. Combined with Shadowstep and Patches, it can look almost reminiscent of Quest Rogue with the right hand.

Cobalt Scalebane

Far better than that other five mana tribal card with Cobalt in its name

Cobalt Scalebane almost screams arena card. Its mediocre stats and slow, win-more effect is strong in Arena, yes; but it also has been surprisingly effective in Constructed. It provides a solid five-drop for any deck that wants it, and is decent even without board control.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to its success has been the rise of Priest. Priest has almost no good ways to deal with this. Surviving Dragonfire and all other Priest AOE, only Shadowreaper or Shadow Word Death are effective counters. And when this card comes down on five, it puts you on a terrifyingly short clock. While it may lose out if Priest falls in popularity or more immediately impactful five-drops come along, it’ll likely be turning 1/1’s into 4/1’s for some time.

 

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

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Are cheap Taunts just Aggro tools?

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

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

Protecting the face

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

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

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

Safeguarding the snowball

taunt

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

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

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

Beefy buffs

Flametongue had perfect aggressive synergy with taunts like Feral Spirits

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

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

Are downsides key?

taunt

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

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

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

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

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


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Lessons of the Princes

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

Taldaram, the predictably useless

Hardly an effect worth 3 mana, let alone building around

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

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

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

Keleseth, the meta breaker

Keleseth can decide games on turn 2

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

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

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

Valanar, the quiet workhorse

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

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

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

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

Lessons for Team 5

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

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

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

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

 


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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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