Meta-defining new neutrals

Class cards make a big splash, but often neutrals can be far more impactful. Strong neutrals like Bonemare or Cobalt Scalebane can define the entire meta-game. We’re early into the Kobolds and Catacombs meta, but already four neutral cards perform outstandingly in a wide variety of decks. Bonemare, Keleseth and Scalebane pushed Knights of the Frozen Throne towards midrange. How will these four neutrals affect the Kobolds meta-game?

Flooding and trading with Corridor Creeper

neutrals

Corridor Creeper is almost a neutral Thing from Below

Corridor Creeper is a powerful tool in a variety of aggressive, minion focused decks. Aggro Paladin and Zoo both can run it to great effect. But it’s not just a simple Aggro tool. Sure, it’s a potentially free 5/5 that rewards minion-flooding decks. But since the discount only applies when minions die, it rewards trading and value-focused play with your swarms more than simply hitting face. What’s more, because it requires a high volume of minions to be worth it, it rewards decks that draw or generate more cards.

So what’s the overall effect on the meta? Well, if you play it, it rewards decks that trade pro-actively. This encourages a slower form of aggro, more focused on value than rushing down opponents. It also pushes boards wider, encouraging cards like Saronite Chain Gang and Fire Fly. Aside from decks that push these strategies, like Evolve Shaman, Zoo and Aggro Paladin, the big winners are control decks with AOE that can counter these archetypes. Control Warlock in particular would benefit greatly from a Corridor Creeper meta, as it’s able to sweep the board repeatedly.

Swinging with Arcane Tyrant

neutrals

And you thought Ultimate Infestation was crushing before…

Speaking of 0 mana cards, Arcane Tyrant is another neutral with huge discount potential. The 4/4 is free whenever you cast a 5 mana or more spell, making it an ideal option to drop behind a Spreading Plague or a Firelands Portal. Of course, the first requirement to unlock this power is to have a good number of spells costing 5 or more to synergise with. This means that there are already only a few archetypes this can work with. Mage, Druid and Priest seem like strong contenders. In terms of counterplay, either decks that can rush down the big, clunky spells of the opponent or decks that starve the opponent win out.

Arcane Tyrant gives a boost to late-game decks with big spells and lots of draw. This is mostly Highlander Priest and Jade/Big Druid. Theoretically, this should benefit fatiguing or control decks that can squeeze the life out of high-draw late-game decks. However, these archetypes’ late-game power crushes most other Control decks. Otherwise, simply playing extremely aggressively so the opponent cannot afford their spells before they die is an effective strategy.

Building boards with Master Oakheart

neutrals

9 mana board-in-a-box

Master Oakheart is a dream card for very specific types of deck. His ability to tutor specific minions creates a huge opportunity. Since he costs so much, he is best used in decks that seek to revive specific minions. Bloodreaver Guldan and N’zoth are natural fits; the 3 attack Voidlords and Direhorn Hatchlings, 2 attack Loot Hoarders and Plated Beetles along with 1 attack Voidwalkers or Acolytes of Pain can instantly create a sturdy board that can be re-summoned next turn. Control Warrior, Paladin and Warlock can benefit greatly from super-charging revives, building taunts and thinning out the deck.

As a 9 mana card, the natural counterplay is fast strategies. However, this can be problematic, as Oakheart’s natural ally is Taunt minions. As such, it might be burn-focused decks like Mage who can kill ‘over the top’ of Oakheart’s wall. Otherwise, Dirty Rat is a great counter to both Oakheart and his reviving allies.

 

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The Control crushers

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

Jade Druid

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

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

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

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

Razakus Priest

control

Velen can kill players from 30 with ease in Razakus

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

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

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

Exodia Mage

control

Scarily, Exodia Mage soon may not need the Quest

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

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

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

More counterplay or more proactivity?

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

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

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

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toggwaggle

Are you ready to get Togwaggled?

Hearthstone’s Kobolds and Catacombs will bring perhaps the craziest card concepts yet. But between double turns, treasure chests and duplicating gibberers, one stands above all. By far the wildest of them is the mighty King Togwaggle. His ability to temporarily swap decks opens up all sorts of new win conditions and crazy combos. How hard will these strategies be to pull off? And are there any that could become genuinely competitive?

Let’s dive into the possibilities. Who knows, some may even turn out viable!

togwaggle

The King of meme decks, but could he actually work? (source: Hearthstone Youtube)

No backsies!

One of the most straightforward ways to use Togwaggle is to simply deny the opponent the ability to swap back. Normally, Togwaggle grants the opponent a five mana “King’s Ransom” spell to reverse his original effect. But if you can fill the opponent’s hand, there’s no room for the spell and no way to reverse the same effect. This could be tricky to put off. It’s hard to fill up your opponent’s hand while playing an eight mana card. But, some classes could pull it off.

Druid has perhaps the best chance. The new Legendary weapon, Twig of the World Tree, allows 10 extra mana crystals. That means you have 12 mana for Coldlights, Naturalizes and similar. If you succeed in getting your opponent to 10 cards, they will be stuck with your wanna be Mill Druid, while you’ll have all their win conditions.

Other classes could have some strategies. Rogue could also have a shot, with either pre-shadowstepped Coldlights or Counterfeit Coining out a Prepped Vanish. Mage’s Counterspell would work, but could be hard to set up and is easily played around.

Worth the setup?

togwaggle

Clog their hand and the deck swap could be permanent

Unfortunately, this plan has a number of flaws. It’ll be hard to fill the hand of anyone but the greediest of control decks. What’s more, swapping decks might not be that effective; you need to survive long enough to reach turn 10 in the first place, and if your deck can do that, it may not be that much of a liability. And you could easily be stuck as an out-of-steam tempo deck if you do steal the opponent’s deck.

This could rely on a fatigue style win-condition; if you dig through your deck enough before swapping, then the opponent will be far enough ahead in fatigue that victory will be guaranteed. But if you get to this point in the game, you have likely already stabilised against midrange or aggro. Meanwhile combo decks may have already assembled enough damage to kill you shortly after.

The burn strategy

You don’t need to permanently steal your opponent’s deck to ruin their strategy. Another plan could simply be to steal or burn vital cards from their deck. The simplest way to do this would simply be to draw lots of cards. Many classes have cheap card draws that could combo with it. Warlock can tap, or Bloodbloom into Doom to completely eviscerate the opponent’s deck. Hunters can Tracking to steal multiple cards while discarding additional ones. Warriors can set up a large Battle Rage, or precision-steal weapons with Forge of Souls. Rogues can Coin, Prep then Sprint to steal four or more cards.

Of course, this could be of limited utility. Simply taking random cards isn’t especially devastating in most cases; at least, not enough to warrant playing an eight mana 5/5. Unless you’re up against a combo or control deck, they often rely more on generic draws than specific cards. Even in the case of combo decks, stealing their cards can often bring them closer to their win conditions.

Exploring the possibilities

togwaggle

Explore Un’Goro could nuke your opponent’s deck

The most interesting and potentially potent combo comes with Explore Un’Goro. At two mana, it is perfect to combo with Togwaggle. The ability to essentially destroy the opponent’s deck could become genuinely competitive in the right meta. Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as that. You need to be able to deal with the possibility of your opponent using their new one mana discover cards to win; or to use your own deck against you.

There are a number of ways to set up the combo. The simplest would be just Togwaggle and Explore Un’Goro. This essentially gives the option to your opponent to have your deck or an Explore Un’Goro deck. Both could be troublesome to deal with, as many classes can have powerful discover options that could lose you the game, and your own deck might be more effective when used against you. To make matters worse, a Skulking Geist could leave you with no deck at all!

To counteract this, it may be necessary to run Dead Man’s Hand, Skulking Geist and an additional Explore Un’Goro. The plan would be simple. First, you Explore Un’Goro your own deck. Then, you Togwaggle to swap decks, and Explore Un’Goro again to convert your newly acquired deck. After that, you can Skulking Geist to destroy both decks and begin shuffling Dead Man’s Hand to avoid fatigue.

This sounds like a difficult combo to counter. But it may be hard to pull off. Geist, two Explore Un’Goros, Togwaggle and Dead Man’s Hand are a lot of clunky cards to have in a class that’s already struggling. What’s more, assembling them would be extremely difficult. And after all that, you need to make sure you shuffle things like removal or lifegain to deal with your opponent’s remaining threats.

togwaggle

Togwaggle could fit into Dead Man’s Hand Warrior, but the archetype is hardly top-tier

Constructed or Tavern Brawl?

Finally, the best possible use may be to enforce your opponent into a Tavern Brawl style match. By simply Exploring Un’Goro both decks, you can force your opponent to discover their way to victory. It might not be the most viable of strategies, but if you want to hover at a rank floor, it might just be a fun way to remind your netdecking opponents of the kind of wacky fun Hearthstone and King Togwaggle can bring.

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

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dota 2, storm spirit, 7.07

Balling back into the meta

Sometimes some of the smallest changes can propel a hero back to relevance. That’s not what happened with Storm Spirit once 7.07 rolled around. The patch brought along a lot of large changes to the game. Many of which benefit Storm Spirit’s play-style.

Return to lane dominance

Storm Spirit has always been a hero best utilized in a solo lane. This is because of his heavy dependence on levels to be relevant. But the other reason he excelled was the ability to magnify a skill gap between two players. As a midlaner there was nothing worse than being left alone to get zoned out by a competent Storm player. Frequently resulting in a huge advantage in both Gold and XP for the Storm. His remnant along with his passive allow him to dominate the laning stage. A 180 magic damage nuke (one remnant, one overload) at level one is nothing to laugh at.

Though it was this hero’s need for levels and an early advantage that hampered him in the previous patch. The mid lane was so much different back then that each hero was constantly babysat by a support. If they weren’t careful they could sap away a ton of XP from the Storm. Thus slowing him down from his first power peak in the early mid game. With the traditional dual lane setup in mid on the last patch, Storm’s early gankability was also an issue. Before getting Ball Lightning at level six the hero is very slow and has no save. Something that is not as easy to exploit in the current meta that has re-emphasized the laning stage.

dota 2, storm spirit, remnant

Improving Storm’s item scaling

Even at his previous popularity, Storm’s itemization was a little bit odd. You would always start off with a stack of tangos and a Null Talisman. The end goal was a Bloodstone, as it still is, but the item is really expensive and there was a huge lull between getting the Soul Ring and the Soul Booster that left you in limbo with your gold. You didn’t want to spend it if you could snowball properly, but you also still felt squishy enough to lose it at any time.

That is no longer an issue with the introduction of Kaya. An item seemingly handed down by IceFrog to Storm players. For a poultry 1950 gold you can give your Storm a bunch of mana, cooldown reduction and spell amplification, providing the perfect bridge from your early game items to the reworked Bloodstone. Though now more expensive, it is arguably even stronger on Storm Spirit due to the addition of a Perseverance instead of a Soul Ring. This regen allows you to show up to more early fights to farm heroes instead of creeps. On top of talents that are already incredibly strong, this hero now scales without having to rely on snowballing out of control to dominate a game.

dota 2, storm spirit, talent tree

A Storm Spirit can take over a game if left alone for too long. But that does not mean the hero is broken. If you see one pop up in your pubs there are two easy ways to counter him. Drafting stuns and silences makes a Storm Spirit’s life absolutely miserable. Coupling those mechanics with large amounts of burst damage is the best way to attack a Storm. Heroes like Templar Assassin, Silencer, Viper, Anti-Mage and Juggernaut can be very effective.

 

 

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Nerf dodgers

Not every controversial card gets the nerf hammer. Sometimes, the community’s least-favourite meta-defining additions simply go on existing in their original state. Be it due to techs, rotations, meta shifts or the developers having bigger fish to fry. Meanwhile others are changed harshly, even if considered far less overpowered. What cards have consistently avoided changes despite outrage? And how did they avoid the wrath of the balance change?

Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem

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The terror of turn two, Totem Golem was never nerfed

From the moment it was introduced, Tunnel Trogg was making decks. Shortly after its release as part of LOE, there were already preliminary versions of the Aggro Shaman that would dominate the ladder for years to come. Strong one-cost minions always have the potential to be meta-defining, and Tunnel Trogg was no exception. With premium, sticky stats along with a terrifying snowball effect, it allowed for explosive Aggro openers.

Totem Golem, released earlier in the year with League of Explorers, was the perfect synergy. Tunnel Trogg into Totem Golem was a near-unbeatable one-two punch of early-game pressure. While several supporting Aggro cards were nerfed such as Tuskarr Totemic and Rockbiter Weapon, this core team was never touched. As a result, Aggro Shaman remained highly competitive and frequently tier one for almost two years.

So how did they escape changes? Part of the reason lies in how weak Shaman was prior to Tunnel Trogg. No doubt the developers didn’t want to spoil its time in the sun. By the time it was clear that Aggro Shaman was dangerously dominant, it was to be temporarily suppressed by Midrange Shaman, confusing the issue despite relying on similar cards. After Aggro Shaman found a resurgence in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan thanks to some other cards on this list, the developers considered it too close to the Standard rotation to alter Totem Golem or Tunnel Trogg. As such, this dominating pair made it into wild after almost two years of domination without any balance changes at all.

Ice Block

Ice Block is controversial, but never quite impactful enough on the meta to justify a nerf

This one is intensely divisive. Some see it as the savior of Control in a world of Aggro and Midrange. Others consider it to be antithetical to good game design, an inherently frustrating and unfair card. Whatever your opinion of it, the card’s huge power is undeniable. It defined old Freeze Mage, once the only consistently effective burst-based combo deck. Now it props up a variety of Control, Combo and even Tempo Mages. The main source of divisiveness comes not from its pure power level, but the way it renders entire boards of damage useless. You’re helpless to interact with their hero as they burst you down over multiple turns.

RNG card generation has made things even more frustrating. With the potential of four or more of these defensive secrets per game through cards like Primordial Glyph, Babbling Book and Cabalist’s Tome, some games can feel completely lacking in interactivity. But despite these frustrations, it has never seen a balance change.

Part of the reason is its relatively limited impact on the meta. Freeze Mage and its contemporaries never truly dominated to the extent that decks like Midrange Shaman or Pirate Warrior did. A high skill cap, limited flexibility against Aggro and hard counters like Secret removal or Control Warrior kept it relatively constrained.

Now Ice Block seems to be on the dev’s hit-list, but its success now may work in its favour. As an iconic Classic card, Team 5 say they will likely consider moving it to Wild instead of changing it. This lets it live on in perpetuity, as well as granting it another season of Standard before the end-of-year rotations.

Patches the Pirate

nerf

It’s hard to think of a nerf for Patches that makes sense

Patches may be the single most impactful Hearthstone card of all time. Currently, around 30% of the decks on Ladder run it according to hsreplay.net. In the past, this has been even higher. Patches’ power is hard to properly calculate. He typically costs zero mana and zero cards (as well as thinning your deck). His only downside is the requirement to run Pirates, and the possibility of drawing him. The massive disparity between Patches the free minion and Patches the Stonetusk Boar is represented in deck winrates. Typically, the winrate nosedives below 50% when he’s drawn and shoots up when he’s pulled from the deck.

As incredibly powerful, virtually mandatory, meta shaping aggro card, it’s hard to see why Patches was never changed. But things become clearer when you consider the nature of the card. Patches is a 1/1, meaning that the stats could not be reduced without utterly destroying the card. The mana cost is almost always irrelevant, and when it isn’t, Patches is not an issue. If anything, increasing the mana cost would simply be a buff to Evolve Shaman. The only other sensible option would be to remove his Charge, but considering his voice lines, concept and art all imply charge, that would be an unsatisfactory solution.

As it is, it’s likely we’ll not see any changes to Patches until he fires off to take charge of Wild with the next Standard rotation.

Jades

nerf

Some jade cards are significantly undercosted; but changing them would be delicate

There are a number of Jade cards that are powerful. Beyond the oft-griped about Jade Idol, there are the incredibly efficient Jade Claws and Jade Lightning in Shaman, and the ubiquitous Aya Blackpaw. While the former is credited with near single-handedly killing off Control decks, Claws and Lightning’s incredible tempo made them strong in almost every Shaman deck. Aya on the other hand is arguably better than a tri-class Savannah Highmane, offering huge stats split across three awkward bodies.

There are two main reasons why these controversial and powerful cards haven’t seen significant balance changes. Firstly, they were largely propping up otherwise mediocre classes. For a long time, Druid had little to offer other than Jade. Meanwhile, Shaman is only just competitive with its single Evolve archetype. Despite being incredibly strong cards, when they were part of overpowered decks, other cards took the heat instead as designers were slow to nerf flagship new mechanics like Jade.

The second reason is down to Jade’s ‘parasitic’ nature. As each Jade card’s power is heavily dependent on the density of other Jade cards, nerfing one can have massive consequences. Even making a single one slightly too slow or over-costed is enough to prevent Jade from working. Just look at Jade Rogue; simply the lack of a third class Jade option meant that despite efficient Jade tools, it never took off. Even Shaman’s slightly over-costed Jade Chieftain led to Jade Shaman being far less successful than Jade Druid.

For these reasons, the developers seem to be more keen on printing counters to Jade and hitting adjacent cards than altering itself. That philosophy recently saw Spreading Plague, Hex and Innervate hit instead of the core Jade options. If that mindset persists, it’s unlikely we’ll see any future changes until they rotate out next year.

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. Deck stats via hsreplay.net.

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7.07b

Hot fix: Bringing balance back in 7.07b

When there is a patch as big as 7.07 was, imbalances in the game show up sooner or later. Sooner seems to be the answer in this case, as 7.07b arrived a mere week after 7.07 launched. Even in this short amount of time, the community lamented these imbalances and cried out to dear IceFrog for a remedy. It seems their voices reached the enigmatic DotA developer, as the most common complaints were addressed.

Anti-Mage

7.07b

(dota2.gamepedia.com)

Anti-Mage gets his own section in this article because he was an absolute terror in 7.07. His stat gain coupled with his new talents negated his old weakness of having to wait until the late game to come online. Developers reduced his strength gain to give him less health, and spell shield was also weakened to make him more vulnerable early. The biggest change though is that Blink Illusion moved up to a level 20 talent from level 15. Trying to chase a mid level Anti-Mage with this ability was incredibly difficult. Though the illusion took increased damage, the mana it drained would quickly make chasing impossible. This fix should return Anti-Mage to his former glory, without getting a free power spike in the mid game.

The new heroes

Pangolier fans rejoice! Your hero received some much needed buffs. Shield Crash grants increased damage reduction at all levels. Rolling Thunder turn rate is universally improved, so hopefully we’ll see fewer players getting stuck in corners. On top of that, it also does more damage than before. The most important of these buffs though is how Swashbuckle’s damage is now calculated. While previously it was treated as physical ability damage, Swashbuckle damage instances are now treated the same as normal right clicks. This means that on hit effects previously unavailable to him like lifesteal and crit are now completely viable. This is huge news for Pango players, and we’re bound to see his build diversity go up as a result.

I’m more of a Dark Willow person myself, and I’m not even upset about the nerfs she received in 7.07b. Bedlam was absurd on a 20 second cooldown and everyone knew it. By level three the ultimate is still about as strong as it previously was, so no harm was done to her late-game potential. Bramble Maze now also deals its damage over time instead of all in one instance. This brings the spell more in line with similar roots such as Crystal Maiden’s Frostbite, and gives players a chance to save themselves with healing items or spells. To be fair, it was pretty absurd for a low health hero to walk into a bramble patch and just explode to a 250 damage nuke.

Tiny is a big boy again…

7.07b

(dota2.gamepedia.com)

I played one game of Tiny after being intrigued by the massive changes made to the hero in vanilla 7.07. I never felt like I was able to contribute anything meaningful at any point in the game. Valve gave Tiny so much love in this patch that I’m cautiously optimistic about trying him again. Most of his buffs were to his Tree Grab ability, which previously had a long cooldown at lower levels. The cooldown was so long in fact that I never felt like I had it up when I needed it to push.

The ability’s cooldown has since been lowered from 40/32/24/16 seconds to just 15 seconds at all levels. Splash damage done by the tree now deals full attack damage. Tiny even gets an additional swing with the tree once he hits level four with the ability. These 7.07b changes help to turn Tiny into the split pushing tower crusher he was meant to be, and hopefully make him relevant in the meta again.

Meteor Hammer

Most of the other item changes are minor, but Meteor Hammer’s function changed in a pretty meaningful way. It now deals less damage over time, but has a small burst of damage on impact. Players questioned why it was not this way to start with. It made little sense that being hit with a meteor dealt no damage initially. While the weapon’s function now makes more sense, I’m still not sure it is exactly what the item needs to be relevant. The biggest drawback is the three second channel time, which makes it very easy to interrupt or dodge. Most of the time I would probably rather use those three seconds to cast any of my other abilities. Chances are they would probably be more productive.

More changes coming?

Undoubtedly. After all, patch 7.06 went all the way up to 7.06f before the developers finally decided to increment the patch number. It has still been less than two weeks since Valve introduced us to 7.07, so we’re bound to see more in the future. Watching the pros experiment with the patch has been exciting, but it’s clear that they are still learning too. I guess it’s time for us all to get back into it and play more 7.07b DotA 2.

Bummer…


Featured Image: Screenshot grabbed from Dota2.com

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For a more in depth look at what The Game Haus thought of patch 7.07, be sure to listen Episode 1 of our DotA 2 podcast “Secret Shop Talk” here.

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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7.07b

Meta adjustments in 7.07

The game of DotA 2 has changed dramatically in the wake of patch 7.07. When pasted into a word document the collective patch notes total over 70 pages. Seventy full pages of changes to heroes, items, talents and core mechanics can be difficult to absorb quickly.  Taking time to analyze every change line by line would generate an article longer than the patch notes themselves. Instead, we are going to evaluate the high level changes that Valve has made to see if we can discern how they want the game to be played in 7.07.

Before the horn

Hopping into a match in 7.07 feels familiar, yet still different. While nothing compared to previous map changes, there are a few specific ones worth talking about. Arguably the most notable change is the relocation of the bounty runes and shrines. Offlane bounty runes and shrines have practically swapped positions, and safe lane shrines have been moved closer to their respective team’s tier two towers.  Safelane bounty runes have also been moved closer to the river.

7.07

Teams can practically stare each other down from the rune spots now. Screenshot taken from the Dota 2 client

These changes have many implications across all phases of the game. For starters, teams may be more eager to fight over bounty runes at the start of the game now that they’re so much closer to each other. During the laning phase, an enemy support can also easily sneak into your jungle and steal your rune thanks to its new position. With easier escape options, the rewards quickly begin to outweigh the risks of attempting such maneuvers.

On the other hand, the new shrine positions serve to strengthen a teams position in the mid-game. After tier one towers have been taken, the previous shrines offered a great forward position, but at a cost. The problem was that they could not help teams defend their tier two towers thanks to the distance between them. Players trying to teleport to the shrine to defend a tier two either wouldn’t make it in time, or find a nasty ambush waiting. The new shrine positions give players a place they can retreat to should a tower fight go sour. It also gives allies a safer place to teleport should they wish to assist in such a fight.

The laning phase

The big ticket item in the laning phase is the adjustment to the XP reward gained from killing lane creeps. Melee creeps XP increased from 40 to 57, while range creeps XP decreased from 90 to 69. The large previous discrepancy between the values rewarded players much more for killing or denying the range creep in each wave. While the ranged creep is still more valuable, players may no longer weigh it so heavily when fighting for those initial last hits.

This experience change is also a nerf to any hero that likes to purchase a Hand of Midas, albeit a small one. Range creeps were prime Midas targets in 7.06 thanks to their ultra high XP reward. Now that range and melee creeps are closer in value, it becomes more efficient to Midas a siege creep, but those do not spawn every wave. If there is no siege creep, Midas carriers are likely to leave the lane for a large jungle camp creep in order to maximize the return on their investment. Midas characters will have more to consider when moving around the map, which isn’t a bad thing.

This change is also the nerf to Lich that some players had been hoping for. While he can still sacrifice the ranged creep in one lane at the start of the game, it no longer grants him as much experience, nor does it deny a full 90 experience from enemy heroes in that lane. This change won’t stop this behavior, but it reduces the impact substantially.

Denying the ranged creep might be less important than in 7.06, but denying as a mechanic has become more crucial to success in lanes. This is due to the reduction of experience received by the denied team from 75% to 25%.  Denying lane creeps is now quite literally three times as effective as it was in the previous patch. This change is going to put more pressure on players in the laning stage to perform well. Before, losing a lane would leave you with a little bit of catch up to do in the mid-game. Now, a losing player might find themselves hopelessly under-leveled if their lane goes poorly enough.

The mid/late game

Games need to end sometime. So many games in 7.06 would stalemate for too long as teams were afraid to take high ground. This was not a fun way to play, nor was it fun to watch. Valve has looked to remedy this by bring quicker ends to games in a couple of ways.

7.07

It may look like a shrine, but now its just a useless “filler building”. Screenshot taken from DotA 2.

The first of these is the removal of the shrines in each base. Shrines in each lane gave high ground defenders multiple chances to heal up and push back their attacker.  This was a nightmare to fight into, especially when a single bad teamfight could flip the game on its head. Removing these shrines removes unnecessary second chances for the defending team, and should also serve to shorten games overall in 7.07.

Almost every hero talent adjustment also contributes to this in some way. Many generic stat-boosting talents have been removed in favor of more hero specific talents, many of which are incredibly powerful. Taking Enigma’s new +70 Eidolon damage talent in addition to +8 Eidolons at level 25 grants unrivaled pushing power. Gyrocopter’s new Global Call Down talent allows the hero to clear any lane from the safety of his base. He can even participate in fights he’s nowhere near.

Moving forward with 7.07

As we expected, some heroes were nerfed, some heroes were buffed, the map changed and nothing will ever be the same. 7.07 definitely hid a few surprises for DotA fans, and I’m sure there are possibilities we’ve only begun to discover. It will take a few weeks and some tinkering for the new meta to reveal itself, but that’s most of the fun.

DotA Esports seems to benefit from this patch more than even the players. The changes I mentioned lead me to believe we will start seeing more early game skirmishes and shorter games overall. Shorter games will allow tournaments to stay on schedule more easily, and should prevent viewers from getting bored of watching drawn out games. If those aren’t victories for 7.07, then I don’t know what are.


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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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