The Freeze Shaman dilemma

Sometimes the set designers’ plans don’t come to fruition. Balancing Hearthstone is hard, and often cards that are foreseen as viable mainstays end up disappointing. Worse, sometimes whole planned archetypes fail.

This is the case with Knights of the Frozen Throne’s Freeze Shaman. Shaman lacked the necessary tools to consistently freeze minions in an advantageous way, and the synergy cards had mediocre payoff. This leaves a difficult choice for Blizzard. Continue to support an archetype with little competitive core? Or abandon it completely?

Commitment and payoff

freeze

Evolve took several expansions of support and a set rotation to shine

Sometimes, commitment to an archetype can pay dividends. Evolve Shaman got core cards like Evolve in Whispers of the Old Gods, but only reached competitive viability in later expansions as cards like Fire Fly, Primalfin Totem, Devolve and Doppelgangster were added. Despite taking a long time to flourish, the archetype grew into a deck that was both viable, fun and occupied a vital spot in the meta-game.

Blizzard has continued to add to Evolve, with cards like Deathseer Thrall in Knights of the Frozen Throne becoming mainstays and continuing on the core mechanic. By refusing to abandon an archetype that didn’t immediately pan out, Team 5 ended up giving Shaman perhaps its only recent viable deck, and one with huge popular appeal.

Over-investment

freeze

Discard held Warlock back

However, sometimes over-commitment to an archetype doesn’t work out so well. Warlock’s discard mechanic has technically been in the game since Vanilla, but only really began to be “pushed” in One Night in Karazhan, with cards like Silverware Golem and Malchezaar’s Imp driving a discard deck that was explosive, if inconsistent. Though Discard Zoo saw fringe play, it was suppressed heavily by Midrange Shaman.

Continued support for discard didn’t help the deck in later expansions. While Whispers of the Old God’s Darkshire Librarian improved consistency somewhat, the deck remained underwhelming. Repeated support then continued to fall flat. Throughout Mean Streets of Gadgetzan and Un’goro, discard was ramped up, eventually culminating in the nigh-unplayable Warlock Quest.

The over-commitment to an unsuccessful and arguably boring archetype not only was a poor use of design resources, it also drove Warlock towards the lowest win-rates and play-rates it had ever seen.

Is Freeze worth following up on?

Freeze Shaman is then faced with two prospects. Either continued support in future expansions to hopefully ignite an interesting, potent and niche-filling archetype; or leave it behind for fresher ideas. There are strong arguments either way.

On the one hand, it’s argued that the utter failure of Freeze to make it into any competitive Shaman means that adding additional tools would be throwing good cards after bad. Freeze is a niche mechanic, best suited to stalling combo decks. While some Combo Shamans have existed in the past, without mana manipulation it’s unlikely that Malygos Shaman or something similar would return.

This would suggest that Freeze Synergy cards are not the answer. While Freeze effects may still be valuable, they currently seem far too scarce, at least in Shaman, to be built around. But adding another set filled with both Freeze and Freeze Synergies would threaten Shaman’s viability if the archetype continued to underwhelm.

Soft support

freeze

Cards like Voodoo Hexer enable Freeze synergies, without being dependent on them

On the other hand, there are strong and interesting cards that could easily be viable with just a little more support. Voodoo Hexer has Alley Armorsmith levels of anti-aggro power, limited only by a lack of Controlling Shamans to put it in. Avalanche is situational but powerful. Ice Breaker could be premium removal if more freeze tools were added.

The answer might lie in soft support. Rather than going down the discard route of going all-in on the failing mechanic, Team 5 could instead add cards that synergise more subtly. Like how Un’goro gave Shaman token options to work with Evolve, without huge minions that were utterly dependent on Evolve.

Freeze Shaman could get support in more incidental Freeze effects on otherwise generally strong cards. This would not “force” Freeze, but leave it as an interesting choice and option for deck-builders. Freeze could be added wholly or partly, depending on how strong the cards turned out. What’s more, this could help push a more controlling, board-clear based Shaman as opposed to the more aggressive token lists currently available.


 

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Terra

4.18: Terra, Skadi and Ratatoskr

The patch notes for 4.18 have been released. Instead of swinging the nerf hammer Hi-Rez has mainly just made some minor adjustments. One issue that is common in balance in pretty much all games is the proverbial see-saw characters seem to get stuck on. Either being far too strong or just completely out of the meta. With this in mind, Hi-Rez’s latest round of adjustments do seem to show a lot of restraint.

Terra

Terra

Image courtesy of smite.gamepedia.com

The big exception to this is Terra. Terra is getting hit by a big nerf. Removing the root on her Obelisk is a big change. While I like the small adjustments elsewhere, Terra probably needed a big nerf. She has such a bloated kit, with far too much AOE cc contained within it. The problem with her root stemmed from a few major issues.

Firstly, the sheer size of it. The amount of space she could control with the Obelisk was just obscene. The second reason is linked to the space control, that was the ability to place it down then proc it. Being able to have a huge area of the map where essentially an enemy team couldn’t walk was just too strong. It also set up a CC chain which was far too long. The root into the stun was oppressive; if the enemy team was grouping at all there was a good chance of being able to get a multi-person CC chain. It was also a great escape tool as she could drop it in front of her and then use two dashes while anyone near her was rooted.

If Terra was released today with Obelisk in its 4.18 state, it would definitely be considered a great ability. It still works as a heal, still gives Terra a second dash and a 30 percent slow, remaining a very nice form of CC. All her other abilities are great as well, having one of if not the strongest Support ult in the game as well as a ranged AOE stun and the possibility of two dashes. Terra just did way too much and she needed a big nerf. How good her kit is after this nerf proves that.

Skadi

Terra

Image courtesy of smitefire.com

Skadi is probably the God apart from Terra who was screaming for a big nerf. The Skadi Nerfs aren’t particularly huge. She has been hit in two key areas, being the early snowball and zone control. One of the biggest problems with Skadi is how much she can steam roll opponents early and when you are behind a Skadi life is practically impossible.

The nerf to Kaldr’s damage is mainly at the early ranks only being a 10 percent nerf at rank five. Permafrost has its area reduced slightly, losing four units at max rank. Make no mistake Skadi is still going to be very strong and S tier but maybe these minor nerfs will be enough to let her see some play instead of being an instaban. Overall I’m not sure the nerf really fulfills its purpose as Kaldr is the last thing to be maxed on Skadi. This nerf is clearly aimed at her early power, but her early power doesn’t come from the Kaldr dash damage. I do like the light touch approach even if it will take a couple of patches to get her to a reasonable level.

Ratatoskr

The Rat buff is interesting as it is rather minor. The problem with Rat especially outside of competitive play is how easy it is for him to just run games. When Rat gets ahead due to his high mobility and semi global he can be everywhere at once and is pretty easy to use. When he is in meta he dominates ranked games and snowballs out of control regularly.

While these buffs seem good, it will be interesting to see how they work out in practice. One of the things about buffing his protection shred on the basis of ‘it will empower his other abilities’ is that it is quite often the last ability he uses. This changes sometimes when he is counter-ganking, but quite often the combo is a dash into a stun to lock them down for the flurry. While this buff will undoubtedly help, I do feel it plays against the God’s synergy, considering his dash is what you want to open with seeing as your abilities reduce its cooldown.

Terra

Image courtesy of smite.gamepedia.com

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Filling the post-nerf power vacuum

Hearthstone’s upcoming 9.1 balance changes are a shotgun blast into the top tiers of ladder. Besides Priest, the changes will impact every tier one deck. Pirate Warrior, Jade Druid, Aggro Druid and Murloc Paladin all suffer substantial nerfs to core, deck-defining cards. With the top dogs all cowed, who will rise to take their place?

Rise of Razakus

nerf

Priest’s repeatedly refreshing heropower is devastating when it’s zero mana

Priest may be the first on people’s minds. Raza/Kazakus has proven to be a scarily potent deck on both ladder and in tournaments. While the deck suffers from consistency issues, it is truly terrifying when all the pieces slot together. Shadowreaper Anduin’s “machine-gun” effect of zero mana Raza hero powers ends games fast vs control, and that frees the deck up to run a decent anti-aggro base.

Razakus’ achilles heel has been succumbing to the twin threats of the uber-aggressive burn of Pirate Warrior and the ever-ramping late-game threats of Jade. With the Fiery War Axe and Innervate nerfs, the deck will gain some breathing room to dominate.

Don’t count on a Priest-only meta though. Exodia Mage exists as a strong counter, and a singleton deck like Priest can only run one dirty rat as counterplay. What’s more, aggressive Midrange decks like Hunter may also arise to give Priest trouble with sticky minions and continuous pressure.

Mage’s Secret deck

With less powerful Aggro, Mage may be free to become more aggressive

Secret Mage has been operating under the radar lately. While it’s one of the few decks that maintains a decent winrate against Jade Druid, its other matchups suffer. Most notably, the three most popular Aggro decks all rip it to shreds most games. Mage simply can’t compete with Aggro Druid, Murloc Paladin and Pirate Warrior’s early game consistently enough. And with few comeback mechanisms, it struggles to come back from early disadvantages.

Luckily for fans of Fireballing face, all three of those decks are affected by the nerfs. With fewer counters, Secret Mage could prey on the control decks that timidly emerge into the new meta.

Still, it’s unlikely to be defining. Jade Druid will likely continue to be a better counter to Control, while maintaining decent winrates vs aggro; even with a six mana Spreading plague and weakened Innervate.

A new kind of Warrior

nerf

Worse Innervate means more time to play Geist

Though it’s very much an underground hit currently, Fatigue/Mill Warrior is turning heads. Ever since Dog’s refined list exploded the deck into the popular Hearthstone consciousness, it’s been showing significant potential. With an infinite win condition and serious anti-aggro credentials, the deck is held back largely by a high skill ceiling and slow games.

Unlike almost every Warrior deck ever, Mill/Fatigue Warrior does not run Fiery War Axe. As such, it will get through the balance changes unscathed. Moreover, Warleader’s nerf weakens a key unfavourable matchup in Murloc Paladin. With a less competitive field, the deck could become much more viable.

However, there are some caveats. Midrange decks may emerge and challenge the deck’s limited mid-game board control options. Moreover, the deck is far too slow and difficult to have an overwhelming ladder presence.

Rexxar’s return

Good old Midrange Hunter looks to make a comeback. The aggro-flavoured beast synergy deck has a long and storied history. However, since Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, competitive early game minions such as Patches have limited its utility.

But with Aggro Druid, Pirate Warrior and Murloc Paladin all taking serious hits to core cards, it may thrive in the post-nerf world. A decline in Pirate Warrior especially could give the deck new lease of life, as the near-mandatory double Golakka Crawlers can finally be cut if Pirates fall below a critical threshold.

Still, with no eight mana Call of the Wild as a tempo finisher, Hunters will be unlikely to truly take first place. Deathstalker Rexxar and Savannah Highmane are simply not enough to finish games against Control a lot of the time. And with aggro decks still out-competing Hunter’s first few turns, a Rexxar meta seems unlikely.

The Eternal Jade

Without Innervate, Aya is still potent

Unfortunately, many signs still point to a meta still dominated by Jade. As with the nerfs to Midrange Shaman preceding unprecedented Midrange Shaman dominance, Druid’s main counters are being hit hard too. While an Innervate nerf will curtail Druid’s power greatly, the power of cards like Malfurion the Pestilent, Aya, Jade Idol and Ultimate Infestation will remain. Along with the traditional Druid core of Swipes and Wild Growths, a slightly more anti-aggro Jade Druid could still dominate all slower matchups while retaining anti-aggro consistency.

However, only time will tell. Perhaps the Innervate nerf will be more impactful than many realise. Or perhaps Zoo will come out of nowhere to become a tier one deck. The only way to make sure is to test these decks out in the merciless proving ground of ladder.

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Hel

Hel: The new support meta

Hel

Hel has recently found her way back into the meta. What is unusual though, is that she has found her way into the support role. For a god who has been in the game since 2012, Hel has seen very little play in competitive Smite. There have been brief windows where she has been picked, but Hi-Rez for a long time has found it very hard to find the middle ground for Hel. She was either far too strong or far too weak; as such I wouldn’t be surprised if she had been banned more than she had played.

However, it looked like Hi-Rez had managed to make Hel strong again, but nobody seemed to notice. The current version of Hel was implemented into the game on the 1st of February, and didn’t see competitive play until the 5-6th of August at the NRG invitational. Considering that in EU this week she was either picked or banned in 5/8 games played, it is rather extraordinary she never saw play. There have not been many occasions where a character has not seen major changes or adjustments and had their value in the meta skyrocket so quickly.

There are a few contributing factors to why I think Hel was slept on for so long. Firstly, at the start of the year we were dealing with an early game meta. Hel has never been a character associated with early game, and for good reason. I think this in conjunction with the following reasons is the major reason she has only recently started seeing play.

Secondly, Hel is coming into prominence in the support role. Smite has traditionally never really seen healing supports as the meta. There have been notable exceptions such as Erich ‘Shadowq’ Grabowski and his Aphro pick in the support role. However, that was very much a pocket pick and never considered meta.

Finally, and I mean this in all seriousness, it’s Hel. Maybe, a new God released with the same kit would have featured sooner. However, Hel for a long time has been considered trash tier and even the Hel mains were coming out saying they felt she was weaker than her already pitiful state. Although, we all should have known better than to listen to Hel mains.

What makes her good?

Something Hi-Rez Ajax mentioned in his progress report was how big the change to her Dark Stance 1 (Decay) was. The ability to clear from a safe distance was a game changer, especially in the support role. In the duo lane a Hel against good opposition should very rarely be allowed to use Repulse on the wave, without severely risking her life. For those of us who have played the game long enough, we have watched this play out a hundred times when your support picked the pre 4.1 Hel. It was soul destroying to watch your support get repeatedly froze, plucked or stunned in the middle of a creep wave as one of the squishiest characters in the game. This was also an issue in every other role, however this is possibly the biggest change allowing her to transition into support.

Hel

Image courtesy of Smite.Gamepedia.com

Her movement speed buff is incredible. Before CDR she has 50 percent uptime on an AOE 25 percent movement speed increase. With full CDR she only has a downtime of 1.2 seconds, considering that ability also has a HOT; to say the least it’s pretty powerful. Bare in mind that at full CDR, Lotus Crown will also only have a downtime of 2.2 seconds. At the moment this has got to be the highest utility ability in the entirety of Smite. The best way to think of it is like a near constant Heavenly Wings, but trading out slow immunity for a protection boost. Combined with her AOE Cleanse any team she is on is almost impossible to escape from and peel off your carries. She is a walking AOE relic bot.

Warrior junglers are something which I think have benefited Hel to some degree. With more Warriors being run in the jungle it is easier to make up for the front-line you lose from Hel support. Note how NRG played a Ravana jungle with the Hel support, meaning they had a Bellona and a Ravana who could more than fulfill the front-lining duties for the team. However, it is not entirely necessary as Obey showed running a Serqet with the Hel support. It is worth noting though that Serqet pick does make Hel a lot safer as Serqet is one of her natural predators. This was something clearly on Obey’s mind as they also ran one of her other biggest threats Osiris in the solo lane. Plus if you ask Craig ‘iRaffer’ Rathbone Serqet is a support too.

This new version of Hel is an extremely powerful God in the meta and has incredible potential if played properly. The big question at the moment is whether or not the upcoming nerf in 4.17, which will reduce the movement speed she gives to allies from 25% to 10%, is going to knock her out of the meta. If I am honest, I think this nerf is a bit much and we are likely to see that movement speed moved back up slightly in following patches. At least I hope so, it’s been nice to see a support more concerned with empowering their own team rather than disabling the opposing team.

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basic

It’s time to decide the purpose of Basic

The balance changes in 9.1 targeted one set above all others. The Basic Innervate, Hex and Fiery War Axe make up three of the five changed cards. These three changes also attracted the lion’s share of controversy. Hot debate sprang up about class identity, viability and diversity. At the core of this controversy was a fundamental lack of agreement and communication. What is the purpose of the Basic set?

The Tutorial

Teaching tools just need to be simple

One possible interpretation for the purpose of Basic is simply that of teaching new players. The Basic set often includes very simple cards that express the most straightforward of concepts. Cards like Magma Rager teaching the value of Health; Hand of Protection introducing Divine Shield, and Healing Touch showing healing.

If Basic were to follow this philosophy, simplicity would be key. Regardless of viability (beyond being obviously terrible even for new players), the cards would need to be easy to understand. This was partly the explanation behind the changes to Innervate and Fiery War Axe. Adding additional text to bring FWA in line with Eaglehorn Bow or to distinguish Innervate from Coin would add too much complexity.

The downside of this approach is that overly simple cards can often be detrimental to balance. Nuance is often necessary, particularly for cheap cards. You can’t just set a minion’s attack to 2.5 to be able to keep its text straightforward while keeping it viable! And balance is very important for class defining cards that could be around forever.

The Skeleton

Certain cards will define classes for as long as they’re in Standard

Another philosophy for Basic is that of a “Skeleton” for a deck; key cards that remain constant and ensure archetypes and classes remain viable. This has been the practical outcome of Basic. Class cards like Swipe, Fireball, Animal Companion, Backstab and Flametongue are incredibly efficient. Their continued inclusion in Standard helps maintain the same archetypes season after season. It means that favourite classes are less likely to disappear. Decks stick around longer, and certain play styles remain constant.

This appeals to many players. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper. If a third or even half of decks never change, then that’s fewer card packs that need to be purchased in order to have ladder-worthy decks. What’s more, if you love a particular deck, it stays viable in standard for a long, long time.

This naturally comes at a cost. Blizzard loses out on revenue. Metas can feel stale, and certain archetypes can block others from ever being viable. It’s often boring to play with and against the same cards as a significant proportional of the same decks forever.

The Fallback

basic

Even mediocre cards can be valuable in some metas

Finally, it’s possible that Basic could exist as a kind of fail-safe for what certain classes can do. The cards would not be top tier, but would be strong enough to warrant inclusion if the meta or deck demanded it. Druids won’t always have efficient responses to wide boards, but they will have Starfall. Priest won’t always have the most effective early removal, but they will have Holy Smite and Shadow Word Pain. Hunter will have Hunter’s Mark to fall back on if they really need removal. Strong, but not auto-include cards can give classes leeway regardless of the latest cards in the set, without forcing the designers to print the umpteenth Priest AOE or Mage draw.

This allows classes a limited amount of flexibility regardless of metas. For instance, a meta where zoo-style flood decks with wide boards won’t necessarily mean some classes become completely nonviable. It also provides a decent launching point for newer players to build their collection, whilst retaining freshness across expansions without keeping all half-decent cards behind a paywall.

Of course, downsides still exist. For one, balancing cards perfectly on the cusp between viability and uselessness is even more difficult than usual card design; especially if they’ll be around forever. And to shore up certain unintentional recurring class weaknesses, then either new cards would need to be introduced to Basic or old ones buffed. What’s more, additional flexibility can come at the cost of class identity in many cases.

Communication

Above all, Blizzard needs to adequately communicate what they want from Basic. Their current strategy of explaining individual card nerfs but without fully elucidating their overarching strategy only fuels criticism. Until they can provide a coherent explanation as to why Swipe is an acceptable eternal auto-include but not Fiery War Axe, then conspiracy theories will flourish. Already, players are accusing Blizzard of simply going for a cash grab by making “free” basic cards nonviable.

By making clear their strategy for Basic, Blizzard can both take control of the narrative and allow players to direct their feedback more helpfully. Not only that, but by focusing their internal philosophy, they can help make their own efforts clearer to themselves.

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

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highroll

Priest deserves better than highroll decks

Druid isn’t the only class raising eyebrows. Amidst a meta dominated by Jade, Priest has forged a niche for itself. Both “Highlander” and “Big” Priest perform well on Ladder and in tournaments. The former through the incredible synergy between Raza and Shadowreaper Anduin; the latter with the power of cheating out massive minions and repeatedly resurrecting them. However, these decks have an Achilles heel that makes them unreliable and frustrating to play with and against. They have fundamental consistency issues that make them feel unbeatable with some draws and awful on others. When you lose to a Priest, it often feels like you’ve been on the receiving end of a highroll.

Consistently inconsistent

High variance cards like Thoughtsteal define Priest, but current archetypes push at the limit of what’s fun

Priest has had a history of inconsistency. Priest has traditionally relied on hyper-specific answers and unique combos. Cards like Shadow Word Death or Holy Nova are incredibly powerful in the right situation. However, they easily can be dead draws if in the wrong order. Similarly, two or more card combos like Auchanai/Circle or Pintsized Potion/Shadow Word Horror are potent but niche and unreliable without their complementary card.

Typically, the way to deal with these kinds of over-specific cards is draw. Ironically, Priest’s draw engines are usually inconsistent themselves! Northshire Cleric can represent dozens of draws or simply a three health roadblock.

Otherwise, Priest is left a few cycling cards but no genuine draw engine. Instead, they’re forced to rely on card generation; which leads to yet more highroll or lowroll potential.

The price of thievery

A key nature of Priest’s identity is that of “stealing” cards from the opponent’s deck or hand. Mind Vision, Thoughtsteal and later additions like Curious Glimmerroot push the class strongly towards this theme. This can push inconsistency even further. When drawing normal cards, there is a limited ceiling and floor of how strong the cards are, depending on how you built your deck. What’s more, drawing thins your deck, reducing the potential variance further. You will eventually get to that crucial Dragonfire, so long as you draw enough.

The RNG card generation of “stealing” is naturally high variance. In control matchups where it’s most powerful, getting a high-value card like Tirion is famous for allowing Priest to swing games.

This type of highroll potential is arguably acceptable. Priest has been frustrating in the past, but with its current bevy of tools like Shadow Vision it was on a path of greater consistency. However, this baseline of highroll potential combined with current Priest archetypes can be annoying in the extreme.

Barnes-based BS

highroll

Barnes is the worst offender for Big Priest RNG

Big Priest is possibly the worst offender. The archetype is almost unstoppable when you get lucky. Some games you can Barnes into Y’shaarj on turn four and instantly win. Others, you can Shadow Essence into Barnes and screw up your chances of the tempo resurrects you need to win.

Or worst of all, you could simply not manage to draw Shadow Essence or Barnes, get unlucky with Shadow Visions and be able to do almost nothing until turn nine.

The deck is by no means overpowered; but with a pinch of luck, it can definitely feel it. Big Priest is what people feared when cards like Barnes were initially unveiled. The intense variance that one card provides, both by providing an insane turn four play and by potentially sabotaging Shadow Essence makes the deck incredibly frustrating to play against on ladder and in tournaments.

Raza on five and Shadowreaper on eight wins games – and playoffs

Raza, Shadowreaper, and how to draw them

The other popular Priest archetype has been cooking up some impressive Ladder and tournament performances. Whether you call it Highlander, Razakus, or Death Knight Priest, the power of Raza and Shadowreaper Anduin is undeniable. When you get the dream draw of Raza on five and Shadowreaper on eight, there’s almost no deck that can stop you. Giving every card you play an additional free two damage anyway is a ludicrous amount of value. It allows you to grind or burn down even Jade Druid.

Unfortunately, as Frost Lich Jaina told us, “Power is a double-edged blade”. In exchange for the ability to machine-gun down your opponent’s minions, you sacrifice not your soul and free will, but consistency. This comes in two forms.

Firstly, you have to draw both Raza and Shadowreaper Anduin. This is harder than it sounds. If either card is in the bottom 5-10 cards of your deck, you’ll likely struggle to close out the game (or even survive to draw it!).

Secondly, inherent inconsistencies arise from the necessity of running singletons. Only having one Shadow Visions, Shadow Word Pain or Dragonfire can backfire horribly in a lot of matchups, especially versus aggro. And without Reno to provide an emergency heal, the deck can quickly get overwhelmed with a bad hand. While this keeps the deck in check, it also makes games feel overly dependent on draw RNG.

Highroll or lose to Jades?

If luck’s the only way slow decks beat jade, you may as well go all-in

While many complain about Priest, it’s arguably not the class’s fault but the meta’s. Jade Druid massively suppresses traditional reliable control decks. Control Priest would arguably be a staple of the meta were it not for this fact. The fact that Druid has better mid and late-game than any control deck, as well as superior ramp, stabilization and draw options, means that slow decks have to get lucky to win.

By out-competing Priest in a “fair” fight, Jade forces Priest to rely on highrolls.

Perhaps if the overbearing power of Jade was lessened, Priest would play more consistent, controlling lists.

Until then, we may just have to live with a lot of Ladder and tournament games decided by Barnes on four or Raza into Shadowreaper on eight. As annoying as it can be, at least it’s not another Druid.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. HCT Summer Playoffs image via twitch.tv/playhearthstone.

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scourgelord

The surprising power of Scourgelord Garrosh

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

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

Shadowmourne’s stats

scourgelord

Shadowmourne is arguably worth 7-8 mana by itself

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

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

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

Rounding out weaknesses

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

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

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

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

Infinite activators

scourgelord

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

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

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

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

The price of power

scourgelord

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

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

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

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

The wrath of Hellscream

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

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

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

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Is there a good way to nerf Druid?

Picture a scene. It’s a few months from now. Assume Druid, specifically Jade Druid, still dominates the meta, with few counters. Mike Donais, Ben Brode, Dean Ayala and the rest of Hearthstone’s design team sit around a table. They’re throwing around ideas and discussions behind Druid’s past, present and future. The howls of dismay from their user-base at Druid’s dominance demands action; and they have decided not to wait until a new expansion to shake things up.

They would have a delicate problem on their hands. Druid’s power hinges on a number of key cards. Worse, many of those cards are integral to the class’s entire identity. Sure, you could eliminate Jade Druid from the meta by nerfing Wild Growth, Innervate and Swipe. But without these cards, Druid would likely just feel like a reskinned Hunter.

Meanwhile, nerfing other cards without touching the core Druid package could lead to yet more oppressive Druid decks in the future. So what cards could be on the chopping block for Druid?

Innervate

Innervate is undeniably powerful – but may be ingrained in Druid’s identity

For some, Innervate is at the crux of issues with Druid. A staple of basically every Druid deck ever, Innervate is about as powerful a tempo tool as you can get. Two mana for one card is incredibly strong, especially early on. When it’s pushing out a snowbally minion, landing a crucial buff, drawing cards with Auctioneer, or finding lethal with Malygos, even more so.

Some, (like Reynad) argue that Innervate is fundamentally not fun and overpowered as a card. As a counterargument, Innervate could be seen as a strong but defining card for Druid, as mana ramp and manipulation is their hallmark. Changing or rotating Innervate would free up design space, but at a cost of Druids power level being reduced on a permanent basis.

Pros of a nerf:

  • Frees up design space
  • Reduces disparity between best and mediocre early game
  • Makes cards like Vicious Fledgling less difficult

Cons of a nerf:

  • Hits all Druid archetypes, not just problematic ones
  • Permanent reduction of Druid power
  • Erodes class identity

Jade Idol

Jade Idol has been at the forefront of many players’ ire. Its unique infinite threat generation is no longer unstoppable, thanks to Skulking Geist. However, it’s still at the core of one of the most potent anti-Control archetypes in the game, and the current most popular deck on Standard Ladder.

A reduction in the ability of Idol to generate infinite threats would be the only nerf that would make sense. It would reduce Jade’s winrate versus Control, while leaving other new Druid archetypes alone. However, this would only have a limited impact on the deck’s overall winrate. It would also make little sense immediately after the printing of Skulking Geist.

Pros:

  • Hits only Jade Druid
  • Makes Jade less polarizing vs Control
  • Maintains class identity

Cons:

  • Low impact on overall winrate
  • Skulking Geist already exists
  • Will rotate out soon anyway

Ultimate Infestation

Ultimate Infestation draws complaints, but may not be the root of the problem

This card is one of the newer additions to Druid’s arsenal. It’s also one of the most controversial. I’ve discussed it before at some length. While it is arguably not especially powerful compared to many other 10 mana cards, the comparison has some flaws. It synergises incredibly well with Druid’s ample ramp tools, and it requires no synergies to be played to great effect.

The debate over whether or not this card is overpowered may change depending on how the meta reacts to Druid’s current dominance. If it speeds you considerably in response, the card may not even see too much play. What’s more, it’s a tricky card to change. As a 10 mana card, its cost cannot be increased. And as its flavour relies on the number five, changing all aspects to four would probably be overly heavy-handed.

What’s more, Druids that wanted additional card draw could easily swap back to running Gadgetzan Auctioneer. However, it would undeniably cut into Jade Druid’s oppressiveness. Overly powerful card draw like Ancient of Lore have proven to be worthy of changing in the past.

Pros:

  • Reduces power level of other ramp cards
  • Doesn’t affect Druid’s Classic toolset
  • Card draw has historically been overly powerful in Druid

Cons:

  • Many card-draw alternatives
  • Hurts non-Jade Ramp Druid
  • Not overpowered compared to other 10 mana options

Spreading Plague

Spreading Plague shores up a key Druid weakness to big boards

This card has been behind much of the class’s rise to prominence. Its ability to recover massive amounts of tempo while throwing up huge Taunt walls against aggro massively improves Aggro matchups. Pirate Warrior, once deemed a soft counter to Jade Druid, now has an unfavourable matchup against the deck. Spreading Plague means that the traditional Aggro strategy against Druid (namely, going wide) no longer is as effective.

Instead, Decks need to focus on building compact, “tall” boards. Murloc Paladin is perfect for this, but even so, struggles against the card. A reduction in spreading plague would reduce Druids consistency against Aggro and allow it to naturally become less greedy. Unfortunately, reinforcing the popularity of Aggro in this way may just strengthen another type of Druid in Aggro Druid. Jade Druid would likely become yet more polarising against Control too.

Pros:

  • Big impact
  • Allows meta to self-correct
  • Reinforces Class Identity of Druids having few tools to deal with wide boards

Cons:

  • Makes Jade more polarising
  • Encourages Aggro Druid
  • Pushes meta towards Aggro in general

 Honourable mentions

A number of non-class cards are also problematic. Cards like Aya Blackpaw, Gadgetzan Auctioneer and Jade Spirit could also come under scrutiny. However, due to the collateral damage of other classes being impacted, they are unlikely to see a change; at least until the next standard rotation.

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

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geist

Skulking Geist can’t save us from Jade

Community stats suggest unprecedented Druid dominance

Druid has taken over the metagame. Vicious Syndicate puts the class at roughly 50% of some ranks’ population. While Aggro and Midrange Taunt variants have seen success, by far the most popular variant is Jade. Massively improved by Druid’s new anti-aggro and draw tools, Jade’s infinite threats are hard to beat. Supposedly, Knights of the Frozen Throne included a “Jade Counter”, Skulking Geist.

The six mana ghoul destroys all one mana spells (such as Jade Idol), no matter where they are. Annihilating Druid’s infinite win condition is powerful. So why isn’t Skulking Geist saving the day?

The Tempo-less tech

Expensive, situational, and tempo suicide. It’s also Control’s best answer to Jades

Skulking Geist’s problems begin the moment it hits the board. As a six mana 4/6, it has horrible stats for such a limited effect. Unlike other Tech cards, such as Goloakka Crawler or Harrison Jones, Skulking Geist does not impact the board. Instead, it only affects cards in hand and deck. The problems this generates are twofold.

Firstly, this means it does little to help the immediate threat from the Jade onslaught. Jade rarely needs to go infinite. In many decks, a Skulking Geist would reduce the overall winrate. If you rely on out-tempoing and rushing the Druid down, a six mana 4/6 won’t help. As a result, midrange decks lack the power to tech against Jade the way they do Pirate Warrior or Murloc Paladin.

Secondly, it means that even in Control decks that might outlast Jades without Idol, the winrate doesn’t improve much. Druids can easily grind down an opponent. Not only does Geist have to be drawn early, but Druid has up to 8/8 Jades without Idols. Combined with continuous damage from Malfurion and consistent ramp and draw, they’re strong even without idols.

The sad singleton

A six mana 4/6 needs a powerful effect

The tempo loss from playing Geist even against the deck it is designed to beat necessarily precludes it being a two of. Not only does it have anti-synergy with itself, but any deck that ran two would struggle to beat non-Jade Druid opponents. Running only one copy of Geist also creates a whole host of other problems. Often it will sit in the bottom of the deck, waiting until all removal has been exhausted and lethal is represented on board to pop up.

Smart Druids can take advantage of this. By shuffling Idols early against control, they can prioritise playing them before they get destroyed. Normally, if a Druid can play 3-4 Idols, then the game becomes unwinnable purely due to the sheer weight of remaining Golems.

Collateral damage

Geist

Shield Slams are great for removing Jades. Unfortunately, Geist destroys them along with Idols

Running Geist also represents a danger for many decks. Since Geist also destroys your own one mana spells, it can gut your own as well as your opponent’s tools. Warriors and Priests hurt the most. Pint-Sized Potions, Shield Slams and Power Word Shields are often key for defeating Jade, but these will be ripped prematurely from your deck; or worse, your hand.

While this can be countered by waiting until you’ve played these cards to Geist, Druid often affords you no such luxury. With the relentless march of the Jades, Geist needs to come out as early as possible. In doing so, it can often leave you without the necessary spells to kill the remaining Golems.

An expensive investment

geist

If you don’t draw Geist in time, Jades quickly spiral out of control

By far the most prohibitive part of running Geist is its cost. Unlike other cheaper tech cards that can be kept in the mulligan, Geist will clog up your hand for six turns. Often Control decks will be caught in a dilemma; keep Geist in the mulligan and risk losing horribly to a strong start? Or toss it and lose when you cannot draw it in time?

Its expense also prevents efficient usage. By far the best time to use Geist is immediately after an Ultimate Infestation; one of the few times a Druid will have an Idol or two kept in their hand without being instantly played. However, spending six mana on a 4/6 when the opponent has just had a tempo swing with five mana and a 5/5 is a poor idea. Once again, the trap of risking being out-valued or out-tempo’d remains.

Ineffective, but satisfying

Skulking Geist won’t give you a massively improved winrate vs Jade Druid. Even if you play the kind of super-reactive deck archetype that benefits from it, it likely won’t shift your winrate to positive. However, there is one overwhelming advantage to Geist: Hope.

Ladder can be a demoralising experience for a Control deck, especially in a world of Druids. While successfully fatiguing out a Jade Druid may be a difficult and rare experience, it certainly tends to brighten your day. And that may be just enough reason to run a six mana 4/6.

Artwork courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Data featured from vicioussyndicate.com. 

Title artwork by Dany Orizio.

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ultimate infestation

Is Ultimate Infestation overpowered?

ultimate infestation

Ultimate Infestation is part of Druid’s dominance

Malfurion is king. According to HSReplay.net, the Druid class overall boasts a massive 54% winrate. Many archetypes such as Jade Druid have seen yet higher winrates, propelled by their ability to farm Control. In an early, unstable and greedy meta, this is invaluable. Naturally, the community is already beginning to complain. Jade Druid was never a popular archetype in the first place. Despite Skulking Geist, Jade after Jade still crushes new unrefined Control decks. Complaints now centre around the new Druid Epic Spell, Ultimate Infestation.

The power of Ultimate Infestation is even more staggering than its 10 mana cost. Aside from dealing a respectable five damage on top of summoning a 5/5 and granting five armor, the true power of the card lies in its draw. Five cards is a huge amount, and gives the Druid gas without having to rely on difficult and inconsistent Auctioneer combos. Copypastas, reddit posts and the like involving quoting Blizzard’s rationale of changing Ancient of Lore.

But for all the salt, is Ultimate Infestation actually overpowered?

Simple addition

When compared to cards like Sprint, Ultimate Infestation looks very strong indeed

One approach is to look at how the raw value of the card stacks up. Ultimate Infestation is, from one perspective, three cards in one. Sprint (which draws four cards), Shield Block (which draws one card and gains five armor) and Firelands Portal (which deals five damage and summons a five drop). Simply summing up the total mana cost of these three cards would give you 17 mana. Purely on paper, Ultimate Infestation is running at a significant discount.

Arguably, the card is even stronger than this analysis would suggest. Playing those three cards costs three cards, whereas Ultimate Infestation is only one. The ability to go from one card to five means that spending your cards to cheat mana also becomes stronger. Druids can feel safer Nourish-ing for mana or spending Wild Growths liberally. Should they run low on gas, Ultimate Infestation is always there to provide backup. Even when rushed out with Innervate, the net card advantage is huge. From this angle, the card definitely looks overpowered.

There’s one thing that is misunderstood, however. 10 mana is not equal to a three mana card plus seven mana card. These cards are fundamentally hampered by their massive cost.

The biggest number

Bombs like Deathwing Dragonlord look strong, but good luck reliably getting the effect off

10 mana is huge for a number of reasons in Hearthstone. As 10 is the mana cap, it’s impossible, or at least very hard, to play anything alongside them. Not only that, but they have a chance of clogging up your hand for multiple turns. While it’s definitely frustrating to get hit by them, the times where it silently lets you snatch a turn nine lethal goes unnoticed. As such, the most important aspect of a high cost card is its immediate impact.

Cards like Tyrantus or Deathwing Dragonlord see almost no play, despite their power. This is because when you play a 10 cost card, you are likely doing so from behind. A 10 mana card needs to have some means of stabilisation or board impact built into it. Otherwise, your opponent can simply ignore it and snowball tempo or kill you.

For all its massive value, Ultimate infestation doesn’t affect the board all that much. Only half of the card has immediate effect on your opponent’s minions or lethal calculation. Five damage and five armor is potent, but is essentially just a Holy Fire. In many situations, that’s simply not enough to save you. Especially for Druid, the class that has the most issues with removing big boards of big minions. Often, your card advantage is for naught. The opponent can use their next turn to fill up the board while you’ve only removed one mid-size threat and played a 5/5.

Equal among peers

Ultimate Infestation

Ultimate Infestation is arguably just a worse Varian Wrynn

The best way to evaluate Ultimate Infestation is to compare it to other 10 mana cards that saw competitive play. The most obvious example is Yogg-Saron, but the extreme variance makes it hard to judge.

Take instead a card like Warrior’s former Varian Wrynn. This card saw fringe play in Tempo and Control Warriors. While he draws fewer cards than Ultimate Infestation and provided no Armor, the King of Stormwind has massive, immediate board impact. By summoning up to three minions straight to the board, he could instantly generate huge value. Decks that used him could throw up Taunts, summon Charging minions like Grommash or pull damage effects like Ragnaros. This is arguably a far stronger effect, and came with a 7/7 instead of a 5/5.

Or look at Doom, the Warlock spell from Whispers of the Old Gods. Not only does it immediately impact the board by utterly obliterating everything on it, it also draws cards; easily far more cards than Ultimate Infestation. While no board presence or Armor is gained, it’s far superior against a board that’s out of control. Doom can even be cheated out with cards like Bloodbloom. With competition like this, it’s easier to see why Ultimate Infestation does so much for the cost.

Outclassed

Ultimate Infestation

Ramp allows Druid to make more use of big effects, especially ones that draw cards

The reason Ultimate Infestation feels so strong is down to the class it’s in. While N’zoth, Bloodreaver Gul’dan or a well-timed Deathwing can be far superior, Ultimate Infestation is powerful because it synergises so well with Druid as a whole. Druid’s ability to cheat mana by ramping or with Innervate boils down to trading cards for mana. Ultimate Infestation allows them to reap dividends on that investment. It lets them regain the cards they lost ramping.

It also doesn’t help that powerful 10 mana cards like Ultimate Infestation are particularly nightmarish for Control decks to deal with. In a meta dominated by unrefined greed, it’s natural that this card would win games.

The downside is that Druid has a harder time recovering from the tempo loss of spending 10 mana. Aggro and Midrange decks can often use this opportunity to set up or find lethal.

Sometimes, overpowered is OK

Ultimate Infestation is overpowered. Compared to the rules of linearly scaling power and cheaper cards, it is extremely strong for the mana cost.

However, Hearthstone has proven over and over again that 10 mana cards have to be ridiculous to see play. If Ultimate Infestation was any less strong, it would likely fall into the territory of Tyrantus and Deathwing Dragonlord.

If you’re frustrated by Ultimate Infestation, take comfort in the fact it may not last in the meta. Aggressive midrange decks may rise to put more pressure on Druids. Their meta dominance will fall and players will cast fewer and fewer of these spectacular spells. And when the next tempo abomination rises to smash your face in on turn six, you may feel nostalgia for this huge, clunky spell.


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

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