Will post-nerf Cubelock conquer all?

Hearthstone’s incoming round of balance changes are as wide-ranging as they are unusual. Unlike the Gadgetzan patch a year ago, the balance team chose not to leave soon-rotating cards untouched. Surprising many, they instead focused three of their four nerfs on cards from previous sets. Corridor Creeper, Raza, Bonemare and of course Patches will soon be significantly weaker. But while these changes delighted many, some grow increasingly worried about Cubelock.

The untouched terror

cubelock

Control Warlocks lost nothing to balance changes

Cubelock is a powerful combo Warlock deck that uses Skull of Manari and Possessed Lackey to cheat out demons, typically Voidlord and Doomguard. It then seeks to duplicate these minions multiple times with Carnivorous Cube, Faceless Manipulator and Bloodreaver Gul’dan. So far, so standard. It’s powerful, but not gamebreaking. So far, so standard. But what has people worried is that so far, it’s the only top-tier deck that plays none of the nerfed cards.

This poses a question; with none of the other tier one decks up to their former strength, will Cubelock run rampant, destroying the meta as we know it? Well maybe; but there are strong reasons to believe it may not.

Counters will rise

cubelock

Perhaps Quest Rogue could return to challenge Warlock?

One of the problems with the meta as it is is that Warlock and Priest hold it in a vice-like grip, pressuring it from different angles. Though their winrate isn’t astronomic, they’re incredibly popular, and they pressure decks in different ways. Razakus is the ultimate Control killer, with armor-shattering OTK potential and massive long-term burn damage. Meanwhile Cubelock shuts down aggro and midrange with massive walls of Voidlords and a huge variety of powerful boardclears. But with Raza Priest no longer the foe it once was, and Aggro diminished, it not only frees up Warlock, it opens up its counters.

Decks like Big Priest, Quest Rogue or Control Mage can crush Cubelock by pressuring its lack of hard removal, early game tempo or vulnerability to transforms or silences. It’s also worth mentioning that Control Warlock also does very well against Cubelock, and with no Raza Priest to pressure it down, may become the dominant Warlock archetype.

Wrecking with teching

cubelock

Cards like polymorph hard-counter many Cubelock minions

But you don’t have to counter-queue to counter Warlock. There are a number of potent techs that would help quell a Warlock meta. Most notable is Spellbreaker; a versatile silence that both neutralizes Voidlords and renders un-popped Cubes useless. But there’s more than just Spellbreaker. All transform removal, silences or return-to-hand effects can massively cut into a Cubelock’s strategy. Even Faceless Manipulators and Prince Taldarams of your own can copy their boards.

Otherwise, tweaking your deck to be stronger against Cubelock can be as simple as a few snowball minions. The deck runs no early removal to deal with cards that can quickly grow out of control like Vicious Fledgling, Scavenging Hyena or Frothing Beserker. These can prove to be a massive problem when the opponent plays around defile, quickly smashing down the Warlock’s health total while providing the tempo to build a sticky board.

Ruler of the rotation

Things get a bit trickier after the Year of the Mammoth however. Cubelock loses only Mistress of Mixtures from current lists, and may get substantially stronger if Blizzard continues to give Warlock such high quality cards. Meanwhile existing decks lose far more, including many of Cubelock’s counters.

If Cubelock is going to run rampant, it’s likely going to be after the following expansion. But all is not set in stone. Key cards may be “Hall of Fame”‘d, new techs may be printed and new more powerful strategies may arise. With all that said, it is certainly an archetype Blizzard should keep an eye on.

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

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The World Championship was Hearthstone at its best and worst

(Spoilers)

Hearthstone’s World Championship is finally over, after a rollercoaster ride of high stakes, great plays and unbelievable topdecks. It served as testament to not only the contestants’ skill level, but also the craft of Hearthstone’s design team. Not all of this reflected well; both the players and the game had their fair share of mistakes highlighted. All in all, the tournament served to show Hearthstone ‘warts and all’ with all the crazy moments, skill-testing positions and unfortunate RNG design decisions we’ve come to love and hate.

Great plays

The tournament, a culmination of a year’s effort from hundreds of players over the world, was arguably a high-water-mark in skill. From Surrender’s counter-intuitive but ultimately successful “wasting” of Prophet Velen versus Shtanudachi’s Jade Druid to Fr0zen’s simple but decisive cycling of Holy Smite on a Northshire Cleric, Raza Priest offered many opportunities for flashy, hard-to spot plays. But skill was shown throughout even the most straightforward of decks. My favourite play of the entire tournament was a very straightforward two turn sequence by eventual champion Tom60229.

In the opening game of his semifinal match against Surrender, Tom played a nourish for mana on 5 after topdecking an Arcane Tyrant. The casters and audience all expected him to cash in on his good fortune, playing out the free 4/4. But Tom waited. Instead, he played it on the following turn along with Spreading Plague. Not only did this protect the 4/4 better, it allowed Tom to get an additional 1/5 scarab. By recognising he had the luxury of taking the game slower, he gained incremental advantages that ended up swinging the game in his favour (no doubt helped by Surrender’s Patches draw).

 

Tom60229’s choice to hold Arcane Tyrant was counter-intuitive but brilliant

Frustrating RNG

Drawing Patches may have cost Surrender a shot at the final

Of course, the tournament was filled with far more eventful, but less controllable events. Surrender couldn’t hide his despair as he drew Patches two games in a row. To make things even worse, it was immediately followed by Tom60229 starting out the game with Keleseth and Shadowstep. The final game of the tournament was also heartbreakingly one-sided, as Fr0zen tried desperately to dig for an Ultimate Infestation that came far, far too late.

However, the most frustrating early-game RNG came about on the previous game, where Tom60229’s turn one Swashburglar pulled Innervate, allowing him to follow up with a turn 2 10/10 Edwin. While a strong play, the single extra mana from the random Innervate gave his Edwin another +2/+2 and an extra turn to hit face, essentially resulting in 12 extra points of damage. That would be bad enough, were it not for the fact that he was able to have Leeroy on turn 5 for lethal.

Despite all this talk of Tom60229’s good fortune, it wasn’t totally out of his opponent’s control to counter. Fr0zen could have kept Ultimate Infestation in the mulligan, and hero powered out of Leeroy range, for instance. Regardless, the RNG made these two games far less enjoyable than the preceding few.

A turn 2 10/10 versus Druid, courtesy of Swashburglar RNG

Moments to remember

Despite how early-game RNG can make a tournament feel swingy, there were some great crowd-pleasing moments created by randomness. Sintolol and Fr0zen’s final face-off as Big Mage versus Combo Dragon Priest was such a fantastic match because of RNG. Sintolol pulling Frost Lich Jaina with Drakonid Operative created a fantastic and memorable game. It was filled with incredibly skill-testing and exciting situations that went all the way to fatigue. There were also the triumphant moments. It was hard not to cheer as Fr0zen’s hard-pressed Control Mage, struggling the entire game, managed to topdeck an Arcane Artificer to clear Tom60229’s last Jades with Flamestrike and heal out of range of Ultimate Infestation.

Brian Kibler’s words for the Sintolol versus Fr0zen match could apply to the entire tournament; “If you don’t like [this], you don’t like Hearthstone”.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via https://www.twitch.tv/playhearthstone

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Dirty Rat

Ode to a Rat

Amongst the hundreds and hundreds of cards released over the past few years, a few truly stand out. Every card is crafted with love and care. Designed, balanced, voice acted, drawn and animated into something lively and characterful. Each one oozes charm and fulfills a unique gameplay niche. But some rise above their peers, effortlessly matching flavour, balance, art and design into something great. Dirty Rat is one of these, perhaps the best designed card of the last two years.

With the good old disloyal Kobold due to rotate soon, now is a perfect time to reflect on what made the card so great.

A flavourful felon

Dirty Rat

What a charming fella

A large part of Dirty Rat’s charm is his wonderful flavour. It all fits together. The card’s joke ties together perfectly with his mechanical function. He’s a ratlike Kobold who literally “rats out” a minion hidden in your opponent’s hand, screeching that he “Ain’t talkin’!” as he does so. It’s a cute and funny moment, that is even more hilarious when he suddenly gives the opponent a Y’shaarj on turn two.

His mischievous grin even points to his Taunt ability, as well as his penchant for messing up your opponent’s carefully crafted combos. All in all, the flavour is so strong and compelling because it perfectly gels with Dirty Rat’s gameplay. It reinforces perfectly the ideas the mechanics put across, while helping build the Hearthstone character and unique feel of the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion.

Johnny’s dream

Dirty Rat

The card has some powerful and unexpected synergies

One of the most enduring appeals of Dirty Rat is its seemingly endless series of interactions, tricks and combos that can be used to devastate an enemy. The possibilities are almost endless. On a basic level, just cheap hard removal is great for handling that Velen or Malygos that just got pulled. Otherwise, mass board clears like Brawl or Twisting Nether get even more value when you’re able to pull down one or more big enemy minions.

Beyond that, there are truly innovative combos. Mind Control Tech, Sylvanas and Doomsayers can all have some incredibly potent interactions. Priest can pull off some crazy shenanigans with Potion of Madness, Divine Spirit and Inner Fire. It can activate Defiles, punish Unlicensed Apothecaries and create targets for Entomb and Psychic Scream. The huge number of potential possibilities for Dirty Rat’s unique effect is part of the card’s genius.

Counterplay for days

Of course, the main utility of Dirty Rat is as a combo counter, and it does that job beautifully. But unlike many tech cards, it’s extremely interactive. There are numerous ways to play around it, from executing the combo early, to holding minions in your hand, to bluffing not having pieces, or even to Dirty Rat out their Dirty Rat. However, it is nonetheless extremely effective at sabotaging combo decks in all their forms, making it an invaluable control tool in the right meta. Quest Mage, Quest Rogue and even Raza Priest were all held back from completely dominating slower decks with this card.

It’s also not just a one-trick pony; it can be a great stabilisation tool against Aggro, or even a solid turn two play versus the right deck. But these gambles can have disastrous consequences, leading to its other advantage.

Dirty Rat

Dirty Rat helped keep Quest Rogue in check

The Disaster Artist

One of the best features of Dirty Rat is how calculated risks can lead to utter disaster. Of course, you know that playing Dirty Rat on two can go wrong, but there’s no way this guy isn’t Raza Priest with that mulligan, right? And then Y’shaarj comes down to ruin your day. Everyone who’s played Dirty Rat knows the hilarious failcascade that can happen if you fatally misjudge your opponent’s deck or starting hand. While it can be frustrating, it creates amazing moments to share and laugh over later. And it gives every Timmy deck a chance to shine against an overconfident opponent.

Of course, if you’re overly cautious, this is simply avoided by saving it for a turn with a guaranteed clear. But for those who are willing to push the envelope and try their hand at perfectly judging their opponent, there’s a huge and entertaining variance of payoffs or calamities.

All in all Dirty Rat charmed its way into our hearts with his lovably traitorous nature, created huge opportunities for deckbuilding and experimentation, kept otherwise oppressive combo decks in check and enabled some awesomely over-the top and unexpected comebacks and game situations. Goodbye from Standard, Dirty Rat. You will be missed.

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

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Rotation, schmotation: Hearthstone needs balance changes now

We’re not even a month beyond the Kobolds and Catacombs release and already the meta is closed to settled. While the eventual top dog is as-of-yet unknown, a small cluster of decks have stuck close to the top. Lists are solidifying, and it’s getting harder and harder to experiment. The effectiveness of certain cards and decks eclipse all but a few other high-powered strategy. Normally, a few months after a major Hearthstone release, we would expect a balance change. But Rotation changes all that.

With a Standard rotation coming soon, Team 5 may simply wait rather than alter problem cards that are due to leave soon. But this is an overly cautious strategy that risks alienating Hearthstone’s playerbase and leading to a stale meta-game.

How long can this go on?

rotation

A lot of familiar faces (via vicioussyndicate.com)

The last set of balance changes were announced in September 2017. It’s likely we’ll now get no new balance changes until the next set after Kobolds and Catacombs releases, roughly three months from now. This means we’ll have six or more months with no substantive balance changes to Hearthstone beyond adding new cards. This sets a terrible precedent.

Six months is a long time, and only having one content release to shake up the meta in that time makes Hearthstone’s meta even more frustrating and stale. Frustratingly powerful decks like Keleseth Rogue or Razakus Priest are one thing; it’s quite another to have the same few decks dominate with little hope of respite.

It doesn’t help that the same decks that dominated in September 2017 are still mostly intact. Murloc Paladin, Jade Druid, Tempo Rogue and Razakus Priest were all very powerful by this stage. The only real alteration to the meta has been the addition of Warlock variants to the meta and the swapping around of a few Corridor Creepers and Psychic Screams. If nothing else, there’s a strong case for a balance patch just to shake things up.

Wild is not your dumping ground

rotation

Wild Reno Priest has the potential to be extremely oppressive

Of course, there’s another argument against simply letting Patches, Raza et al retire to Wild; Wild doesn’t want them either! Using Wild as a dumping ground for problematic cards is not a good long term strategy. Wild is supposed to be maintained as a parallel competitive environment, not a place to forget design mistakes.

Leaving Raza as is would lead to Reno Priest becoming even more dominant in Wild as time goes by. While currently not completely oppressive, it definitely has the potential to be as Priest inevitably gets more consistent early tools. And need any more be said on the impact of Patches on Wild’s early game? Even in a world of Haunted Creepers, Zombie Chows and Shielded Minibots, a free 1/1 charge is not to be sniffed at. Patches is the sort of card that could permanently warp Wild’s early game for the worse.

Part of what makes Standard work is players not simply feeling they’ve lost their cards after they rotate. Not caring about the competitive integrity of Wild will eventually make players feel worse about Standard as a whole. It wouldn’t even work from a financial standpoint, as Blizzard doesn’t exactly want players to dust their rotated cards due to them no longer caring about a format overrun with overpowered cards and synergies that were never balanced.

Greed is not a good look

rotation

Blizzard probably aren’t acting out of greed: but it sure looks like it

The cynic in me wants to suggest that Blizzard and Team 5 are putting off balance changes for short-term financial purposes. After all, giving thousands of dust to millions of customers will have a direct impact on pack sales. Of course, this is unlikely to be anything other than a tangential issue.

The Hearthstone team have a well-documented aversion to making changes where changes are arguably unnecessary. Buffs are unheard of, and only the most egregious offenders (and Hex) have the nerfhammer called down on them. Waiting for rotation is just an extension of this strategy.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it looks. A growing number of players are dissatisfied with a number of recent changes to Hearthstone’s cost, most notably the swap from Adventures to Expansions. Delaying balance changes simply reinforces the idea that Blizzard only cares about Hearthstone’s short-term profits and simply doesn’t want to reimburse players for Patches, Razakus, Aya Blackpaw or similar.

A matter of principle

Hearthstone will probably be fine without urgent balance changes. A few extra months of Razakus, Patches and Corridor Creeper dominating the meta will be bearable (just). But if we can only expect two balance patches a year instead of three because of the latter’s proximity to rotation, we are condemning Hearthstone to spend a good third of its existence is its worst state of stale metas and overpowered cards.

We can and should forgive designer’s mistakes. But we should not stand for laziness when it comes to balance changes. It’ll be a long three months before Standard rotation, and in the meantime we deserve a more balanced game.

 

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predicting

Boldly predicting the next nerfs

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

Duskbreaker: 4 to 5 mana

This dragon may be too fiery at 4

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

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

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

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

Jasper Spellstone: 1 to 3 mana

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

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

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

Druid probably shouldn’t get a Shield Slam

Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Hall of Fame’d

Best off reunited with her best buddy Flamewaker in Wild?

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

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

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

Hall of Fame seems like the most sensible outcome

Some other random Basic card for no reason

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

I don’t know, Equality or something?

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KnC Banner

Kobolds and Catacombs Day 1 Deck Theorycrafting

The next Hearthstone expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs, has finally been released. In the reveal season, we saw many powerful and fun cards that are coming out with the set. But, which of these cards fit into existing decks? What new decks are coming into the meta?

The Meta

Dragon Priest

KnC Dragon Priest

Dragon Priest Decklist

In past expansions, Dragon Priest has been an archetype that many people have toyed around with and played on ladder. In this expansion, we may see the rise of a Dragon-oriented Priest build similar to the Dragon Priest deck that was viable during the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion last year. The iteration I have theory-crafted includes a much more value-orientated game plan by including cards such as Lyra the Sunshard, Drakonid Operative, and the new Priest weapon, Dragon Soul. The deck can also be built to take on a more minion heavy route by taking out cards like Dragon Soul, Lyra the Sunshard, and Shadow Word: Death and replacing them with Cabal Shadow Priest, which synergises with Twilight Acolyte, and Twilight Drake.

 

The inclusion of Duskbreaker in this expansion really helps Dragon Priest’s historically bad matchup versus aggressive decks, which makes the new iteration of Dragon Priest that much scarier. On ladder, this deck seems like a solid choice for climbing at a high pace. In tournaments, players may elect to bring Highlander Priest instead because of its favorable win-rates versus slower decks.

 

 Zoo Warlock

KnC Zoo Warlock

Zoolock Decklist

In the Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion, we once again saw the rise of an old friend: Zoo Warlock. The early game minion package combined with Prince Keleseth proved to be the kick this deck needed to get back into the meta, and topping off with Bonemare and Bloodreaver Gul’Dan made Zoo Warlock scary in the late-game as well. This time around, Blizzard has given Zoo Warlock even better tools for taking the board early game and keeping it. The addition of Kobold Librarian helps keep your hand full, which is extremely important when having so many low mana cost minions in your deck. The main difference with this Zoo Warlock compared to the previous deck is that it cuts Prince Keleseth for the new 2-drop, Vulgar Homunculus.

 

With this iteration of the deck, I decided to add the Demon synergy package in the form of Demonfire, Bloodfury potion, and Crystalweaver. We have seen quite a lot of play with Bloodfury Potion and Crystalweaver in the past Zoo Warlock decks, but the addition of the Vulgar Homunculus makes these cards coming down on curve extremely threatening. Hooked Reaver also makes an appearance in this deck because of how solid its stats are when the Battlecry goes off, as well as its ability to synergise with the rest of the demon synergy in the deck.

 

The addition of higher-health minions and buff cards will help Zoo Warlock in the next meta mainly because of the predicted prevalence of Duskbreaker on the ranked ladder. In tournament play, this deck will likely be chosen for inclusion in aggressive lineups.

Big Druid

KnC Big Druid

Big Druid Decklist

The ‘Big’ archetype saw large amounts of play during the Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion as a whole, especially during the later half of the set’s meta. Kobolds and Catacombs has not given Big Druid many other tools, but the core of the deck is strong enough to still see play. The only change I have made to the current Big Druid list is taking out Innervate and adding Arcane Tyrants. Innervate, once a staple in most Druid decks, took a huge hit from the nerfs that occured in the middle of the last expansion. It was included in Big Druid, but it was arguably one of the weaker cards within the deck. Two different cards were shown from the new expansion that could find a home in Big Druid: Greedy Sprite and Arcane Tyrant. I chose to include Arcane Tyrant instead of the Sprite because it is very similar to Kun the Forgotten King in the way that it makes your power turns even more powerful. A common way Kun has been used during the meta was playing it as a big free body to pair with Ultimate Infestation. Arcane Tyrant acts in a similar way when paired with Nourish, Spreading Plague, and Ultimate Infestation as well. Greedy Sprite could be included instead of the Tyrant, but the ramp effect is rather slow and your opponent can choose to ignore it. Although this is the case, ramp is powerful enough that Greedy Sprite might see play over Arcane Tyrant.

 

Big Druid seems to be the new go-to Druid deck. In the past, Jade Druid has held this spot, but Big Druid is able to make bigger minions faster and still keep aggression at bay, which may see the ‘Big’ archetype overtaking the Jade mechanic this expansion. Because of this, it is a solid choice for both ranked ladder and tournament play.

 

Tempo Rogue

KnC Tempo Rogue

Tempo Rogue Decklist

Tempo Rogue swept the meta in dominant fashion when it was first discovered to be a powerhouse of a deck. With Kobolds and Catacombs, this deck gets even stronger with the inclusion of some slower yet highly valuable cards. One of these cards is the Rogue Legendary of the set, Sonya Shadowdancer. Sonya replaces the rather weak card of Shaku, the Collector as a card generation engine. Most of the minions in Tempo Rogue have such good effects or Battlecries that Shadowcaster saw a decent amount of experimentation and success during the expansion. Sonya is much cheaper than Shadowcaster, which makes its effect easier to pull off. The second card I have added to the deck is Fal’dorei Strider. Admittingly, a 4 mana 4/4 is rather weak as a tempo play. But, the potential for that minion to pull one, two, or even three additional 4/4 bodies is so powerful that it is worth the initial tempo loss. Even if only 1 additional body is pulled, paying 4 mana for 8/8 worth of stats is crazy powerful. There is also the potential to high-roll by creating a 4/4 on turn 7 to be able to play Bonemare onto after your opponent cleared your board the previous turn.

 

Fal’dorei Strider takes the place of Saronite Chain Gang, mainly because of Chain Gang’s vulnerability to an on-curve Duskbreaker. Overall, Tempo Rogue looks to still be a powerhouse deck next expansion, and I expect to see it played both on the ranked ladder and in tournaments.

 

Highlander Priest

KnC Highlander Priest

Highlander Priest Decklist

Highlander Priest has been at the top of the meta throughout Knights of the Frozen Throne, and it seems to still remain at the top during Kobolds and Catacombs. The Priest list I have selected to showcase only adds one card: Psychic Scream. In order to include the new Priest board clear, I chose to cut Mass Dispel from the deck. Mass Dispel is often times weak, so it made sense to take it out for one of the best cards of the upcoming expansion. This decision shows how good of a deck Highlander Priest already is. Another take on Highlander Priest is to go for a more minion-focused route by including a Dragon package with Duskbreaker. While this seems like a good idea, I feel the current version of the deck is much better. In the past, more value-oriented decks were tested. These decks included cards such as Elise the Trailblazer and Free from Amber. It was ultimately found that the faster and more burst-oriented Priest build was better. Therefore, I feel it is appropriate to stick with the tried-and-true burst style.

 

Once again, Highlander Priest seems to be at the top of the meta. Expect to see a large amount on ladder and as a staple deck in many tournament lineups.

 

The Non-Meta

Combo Hunter

KnC Combo Hunter

Combo Hunter Decklist

For the past few expansions, Hunter has been struggling as a class. Blizzard keeps pushing control tools and weird cards for the Hunter arsenal, which leaves the class in an awkward position in terms of deck building because of how weak each of the archetypes are. With the new Hunter legendary minion, Kathrena Winterwisp, I thought it would be really interesting to build a combo-oriented deck using Kathrena, Charged Devilsaur, and King Krush. It is often not a combo that will instantly kill your opponent, but the amount of stats that the combo provides are truly ridiculous. This deck runs the Secret package to help fend off aggro, the Candleshot and Hunter’s Mark combo to deal with large threats, and Deathstalker Rexxar to create even more value in a late game scenario.

 

While the deck might not be top-tier, it seems extremely fun to play. Personally, I will be testing this deck in tournament play in a lineup that is attempting to target control decks. On ranked ladder, Combo hunter still seems weak to aggro decks and Highlander Priest, which makes it not extremely viable in the upcoming meta.

Conclusion

Overall, Kobolds and Catacombs sees both powerful and fun cards added to the game. While it may not be the best expansion of the year in terms of player attitude and hype, it will likely lead to a diverse and healthy meta both in terms of ranked ladder and tournament play.

 

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

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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.

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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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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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Will Quest Rogue Survive its Nerf?

In a recent statement, Blizzard announced that the Rogue Quest will be receiving a significant balance tweak. From its initial requirement of playing four minions with the same name, after an upcoming update it will need five.

What will this substantial nerf mean for Quest Rogue, and the meta as a whole? Will the deck survive?

Crystal Core is Core

One thing is instantly clear; Quest Rogue isn’t cutting The Caverns Below. Unlike Pirate Warrior with Small-Time Buccaneer, or Aggro Shaman with Spirit Claws, Quest Rogue can’t find similar replacements. The card is what the entire deck is built around.

The real question is, will this nerf mean that the deck will have to change drastically? Or simply disappear altogether?

Shadow Strike or Assassinate don’t quite work as replacements

What’s One More Bounce?

At first, the nerf might not seem too dramatic. Quest Rogue runs six ‘bounces’ or return to hand effects (eight counting vanish), and multiple cards that generate duplicates. Most draws can easily complete the quest on turns 5-7. Surely increasing the requirement by one won’t destroy the deck?

Unfortunately for Quest Rogue, the reality is trickier. Looking at the latest Vicious Syndicate Meta Report, the deck’s current overall winrate is roughly 50%, with a 7% representation on ladder. Here we see that the deck is competitive in high-level play, if not Tier One.

Things look bleaker if you analyse Winrate by turn of Quest completion. HSReplay.net shows a drastic fall in overall winrate the later the Quest is completed. This could show a catastrophic reduction in competitive viability, to the point of non-viability, at least with current lists. Each extra turn spent digging for that extra bounce or duplicate is another turn Aggro gets to kill you, or Control gets to draw into a clear.

A Slower Solution?

With a harsher requirement, future Quest Rogues might need more draw

Looking at the current strengths and weaknesses of the deck, it’s looking like there’s little opportunity for the deck to survive. But what if drastic changes were made? Could it adapt to the nerf?

A slower quest completion means fewer cards that are only strong with the quest should be run. Cards like Glacial Shard, Bilefin Tidehunter and Wisp could be cut in favour of a more reactive set of survival tools and draw to get to the more limited number of combo pieces. The deck would look more like Miracle Rogue, with a 5/5 charge focused win condition, but otherwise more conventional Rogue staples. Though likely less reliable than current Quest Rogue lists, it might be able to survive in typical Rogue fashion rather than relying on super-fast Quest Completion.

However, this looks unlikely, as standard Miracle rogue would likely fill this niche better. For now, it’s probably best to assume the deck will meet its demise competitively.

A Meta-Changing Nerf

Expect plenty more Jade Druid

According to Blizzard, the rationale behind changing the card was that it was pushing out “slower, controlling decks”. These were Quest Rogue’s strongest matchups.

Taunt or Control Warriors, Priest variants, and slower versions of Paladin and Shaman will likely rise up the tier list, as they will have lost their most powerful counters. Conversely, Aggro decks like Aggro Druid and Pirate Warrior will lose their edge somewhat as a dominating matchup is lost.

However, those celebrating the incoming Control meta might find their joy premature. One of Quest Rogue’s best matchups is the Anti-Control Jade Druid. With less Aggro around and more Control to prey on, it’s fair to assume this deck archetype is due to see a meteoric rise. Considering its increasing resilience to aggression with Tar Creepers, Primordial Drakes and Earthen Scales, along with its natural anti-Control powers, it’s likely to become Tier One.

As far as losers from the fallout of the nerf, one stands out above all others. Dirty Rat no longer makes sense as a tech choice without the ability to disrupt the Rogue Quest. The unfortunate and unhygienic rodent is likely to remain stuck in the collection; at least until Exodia Mage rejoins the ladder.

Artwork courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title art by Konstantin Turovec.

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