Shudderwock Syndrome: Why uninteractive is worse than overpowered

Witchwood is finally out, and amongst all the experimentation, one deck in particular is drawing complaints. From the noise made on various discussion forums, you’d imagine Shudderwock Shaman was an unstoppable monster. And while that may be literally true for its win condition, the deck itself is far from strong. According to HSReplay.net, the deck averages an atrocious 42% winrate.

So why the disparity? What is it that makes Shudderwock Shaman so despised, more so than various aggro Paladins or controlling Warlock decks that continue to dominate?

The solitaire problem

shudderwock

There’s no reliable Standard way to interact with Shudderwock 

At its base, Shudderwock Shaman contains just four things: lifegain, removal, Battlecry minions and card draw. Often, several of these categories will be lumped into one. So far, so standard for a combo deck. The problem comes with how the deck builds its win condition.

Other single-focus decks have counters to their final win condition. Charging minions can be blocked by taunts. Burn can be outlasted with armor or lifegain. Geist can trash crucial spells. Board-based finishers are cleared up with AOE. But the only real counter to Battlecry minions and Shudderwock in particular is Dirty Rat. With Dirty Rat out of standard, the only real counter to Shudderwock is to kill it before it kills you. Luckily, that’s not too hard for most decks. But the problem remains, that to defeat Shudderwock you cannot interact with their primary win condition.

Punishing greed?

shudderwock

Anti-aggro decks are hardest hit by Shudderwock, in winrate, time and emotionally

One counter to this argument is that this is simply how it’s meant to be. Combo punishes greedy Control. But while it’s necessary that there exist counters to overly reactive strategies, this can have an unwelcome impact on the meta. When strategies that counter reactive decks become dominant, then the meta can quickly over-centralise around aggro, because there is little to keep it in check. And while aggro strategies are a necessary part of a healthy meta, overly-dominant aggro is one of the worst meta experiences for many players.

Of course, the more prominent aggro is, the more attractive reactive decks become once more. But this then leads to a rock paper scissors meta, with interesting even matchups relatively rare. For the meta to be healthy, there has to be a way for decks that succeed against aggro to have a way to not only do decently against combo decks like Shudderwock

The Control mindset

shudderwock

Dirty Rat provides hope against unstoppable combos, but is now only in Wild

And while many may deride “greedy” decks, they often contain some of the most interesting and fun gameplay experiences for players. They contain a lot of decisions, idiosyncratic playstyles and are often less draw-dependent than aggressive decks. The players who choose these decks do so less because of their winrate, and often simply because of love of a class and playstyle.

These players are especially aggravated by decks like Shudderwock. Not because they lose, because losses are part of Hearthstone. But because it forces them out of the playstyle they enjoy, to become a poor imitation of a midrange beat down deck, with victory heavily dependent on drawing well and curving out.

When a deck like Shudderwock is introduced, players whose fun from playing Hearthstone comes from interacting with the opponent’s strategy rather than single-mindedly progressing their own end up with an extremely demoralising experience. Blizzard should take this into account when designing future cards and tech cards that can interact with them. Or at least, not cause the experience of losing to an uninteractable combo take less than several minutes.

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tribes

Nightmare Amalgam: More than a meme?

Nightmare Amalgam is extremely silly. As its name suggests, it’s an unholy combination of every tribe in Hearthstone; Beast, Murloc, Dragon, Demon, Elemental, Totem, and of course Pirate. But aside from being funny, the card might actually be competitive. At a 3/4 statline, it passes the vanilla test.

But this alone isn’t enough to merit a serious inclusion in Constructed decks; after all, Auctionmaster Beardo is only seeing play for its effect rather than its competitive neutral body. With that said, its unique blend of tribes might be worth consideration in a number of decks.

The tribal of last resort

amalgam

A tribal panacea?

A lot of decks rely on having a minimum quantity of tribal minions. Midrange Beast Hunter, Dragon Priests and Murloc decks have all run sub-par minions in order to maintain a minimum level of synergistic cards. Beast Hunter has run meh minions like Infested Wolf and Carrion Grub, Dragon Priests have found room for Faerie Dragons, and Murloc decks often contain borderline Murlocs like Grimscale Chum, Bluegill Warrior and Coldlight Seer.

Compared to these minions, a 3 mana 3/4 doesn’t look that bad, especially when considering the rotation of 3 sets. The smaller card pool may just lead Nightmare Amalgam to becoming a temporary boon, at least until more powerful tribal minions are added. When considering the power of cards like Duskbreaker that almost necessitate a tribal deck to be built around them, the Amalgam might be a serious consideration.

Shaman synergy?

amalgam

Powerful elemental synergies combined with Murloc early game power is inconsistent: for now

In terms of classes, Nightmare Amalgam might become surprisingly powerful in Shaman. Shaman has a number of potent synergies with Totems, Murlocs, and Elementals. Though some of these synergies rotate out, there is great potential here. A Murloc that also powers the Elemental train could work in some sort of abomination mix of Elemental and Murloc Shaman, or maybe simply combining Elemental and Totem synergies could be enough.

All this depends on two things; firstly, it would require Shaman to get more tribal support for its Totems and Murlocs to replace the tools like Thing from Below and Call in the Finishers that rotate out. Secondly, it would require Shaman to be a competitive midrange minion-based deck, which may be unlikely depending on how much help the class gets each expansion. Regardless, it may be worth playing around with, if only for those Ice Fishings off Hagatha.

Wild synergies

amalgam

In Wild, Patches and the Curator might work; but card competition is stiff

Nightmare Amalgam might find a home in some Wild decks. As well as summoning Patches, it has a number of other secondary synergies. The Curator is a prime example, filling in the slot of any given missing tribal. It could also work well with the other Menagerie minions like Zoobot in tribal decks, while still benefiting from the deck’s main synergistic focus. Alternatively, just having a Patches-summoning beast could be worth running in some Wild Hunters.

However, this might be overly optimistic. Since the Patches nerf, the benefit of being a Pirate is naturally weakened, and Wild decks don’t suffer for powerful options. With all that said, the sheer array of powerful potentialities means that it’s probably worth a bet that Nightmare Amalgam sees constructed play at some point. Just try and dodge those crabs.

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Auto-include class cards are fine, but they shouldn’t be Epic

Certain Epics are coming to define classes. Cards like Call to Arms, Ultimate Infestation and Primordial Glyph are all incredibly powerful tools. They have shaped class identity, revitalised otherwise struggling archetypes, and helped create a balanced and diverse meta (bar Warrior). But some would say they are too powerful, and their auto-include status threatens the game’s balance. And beyond that; are they too expensive?

The rise of the auto-include Epic

autoincludes

You’ll struggle to find a Mage deck without Glyphs

So what do we mean by a class auto-include? A perfect example of this is Primordial Glyph. Added in Un’goro, this 2 mana Mage Epic spell is supremely flexible and powerful. With its discount and the high typical value of mage spells, it can be burn, removal or AOE exactly when you need it. When combined with Sorceror’s Apprentice, the discounts can get even more ludicrous. With an Apprentice down, you can Glyph into Firelands for only 5 mana. Not only is this card strong and versatile enough to be in every single mage deck, it also reinforces Mage’s class identity of powerful spells, spell synergies and spell generation.

Another instance is Call to Arms. This obscenely undercosted 4 mana spell has made Paladins the supreme masters of mid-game board control. Even Control decks run it, using it to cheat out Loot Hoarders, Dirty Rats and Wild Pyromancers. It’s even propelled the previously meme-worthy Dude Paladin to Standard dominance.

Both of these cards demonstrate how auto-include class Epics reinforce identity with their supreme strength. But are they over-tuned?

Are OP cards ever acceptable?

autoincludes

Ultimate Infestation is a heck of a lot of value

Let’s get one thing straight. Call to Arms, Primordial Glyph and Ultimate Infestation are mathematically overpowered. Outside of Ultimate Infestation’s famous “19 mana worth of value”, let’s just look at Call to Arms. If we use the example of cards like Enchanted Raven and Mistress of Mixtures, we can say that a typical one-drop is about 2/2 worth of stats. This means that Call to Arms in the bad-case scenario of pulling three 1 drops is still a full mana cheaper than Druid’s Force of Nature for roughly the same effect. What’s more, it can pull far better minions in the form of 2 drops and thins the deck. If Call to Arms pulls two Loot Hoarders, it effectively cycles for 5 cards!

But is being overpowered a problem? There is an argument to say no. As long as it does not make a class overwhelmingly oppressive, overpowered cards can help forge an identity and give classes a raison d’etre. Call to arms has reinvigorated Paladin around its core ideals, while keeping it a powerful but not oppressive force in the meta. Druid was briefly a problem with Ultimate Infestation, but has settled into respectability after Spreading Plague and Innervate were nerfed. However, balance is one thing; cost is another.

Barrier to entry

autoincludes

Dust barriers are a bad thing to have in the way of properly experiencing a class

Call to Arms is currently a big fat 800 dust wall in the way of anyone who wants to do even moderately well with Paladin. The entire class must now be balanced around this single defining mechanic. But unlike other defining Paladin cards like Consecrate, Equality, Truesilver, or Blessing of Kings, Call to Arms isn’t free. As such, new players are basically locked out from the class until they stump up the gold, dust or cash. This is a big problem.

Hearthstone’s classes are meant to be freely and easily unlockable. New players shouldn’t be forced into playing Basic Mage forever; they should be able to explore the basics of every class without paying or grinding for weeks on end. By over-centralising Paladin around a single Epic, Blizzard is losing players that might otherwise get hooked on Paladin’s Build’n’buff playstyle. Similarly, playing non-aggro Druid without Ultimate Infestation is missing out on what has become a fundamental part of the Druid experience.

The next auto-includes

autoinclude

Rescuing a class needs to be accessible

Next expansion, it’s likely that Blizzard tries to rescue Warrior with a powerful Epic like they did Warlock with Voidlord or attempted to do with Shaman and Unstable Evolution. But this might not be the best idea in the long run. If classes have to be reinvigorated with a select few extremely undercosted or overstatted cards, then those cards should be freely available.

A Hearthstone where it’s incredibly prohibitive to even try out most classes in their most basic form is not a Hearthstone that is easy to have fun in.

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Cards to add to Evergreen

The Standard system has two essential parts. One is the latest two years of expansions. The other is the “Evergreen” set of Classic and Basic sets. While one constantly changes, the other remains (relatively) stable. Currently, the only changes made to Evergreen is to reduce it; to take cards away. But is now the time to start adding cards to Basic or Classic?

Why add?

evergreen

There are perils to reprinting Lightbomb

While it hasn’t been done before, there are compelling arguments to add cards to the Evergreen set. Since classes have recurrent weaknesses, cards on the same theme have to be printed repeatedly. Things like Warrior Whirlwind effects, Shaman/Paladin early game and Priest board-clears have to be made and remade over and over. This presents a number of problems.

For starters, power levels can be hard to judge. Certain cards can end up being far stronger or weaker than anticipated, and printing more of the same sort of card with variations increases that risk. Just look at Psychic Scream. What’s more, it presents a problem for Wild, as multiple of essentially the same card can lead to extremely one-dimensional decks.

While it’s unlikely that Blizzard will add to Evergreen, these cards might make good candidates.

Eternal Evolve for Shaman

evergreen

Evolve is one of the most successful and entertaining additions for Shaman

Let’s start with Evolve; a fan favourite and staple of multiple Shaman decks. Evolve is great due to being a mass-buff spell that doesn’t push massive burst damage while creating unique and interesting game situations. Though Unstable Evolution and Deathseer Thrall are remaining for now, the simplicity and fun of Evolve makes it something that Shaman should arguably have as a core mechanic.

Adding Evolve to Basic or Classic would take pressure of Blizzard to eternally support the Evolve mechanic. Instead of reinventing the wheel every year, they can add more new and interesting mechanics or Evolve support to Shaman.

A Basic Warrior Taunt

evergreen

Warrior has no Basic or Classic Taunts; maybe that should change

Taunt has come to be a defining feature of the Warrior class. But this is a recent addition, the class has no Taunts in its Classic or Basic set. It might make sense to replace some of Warrior’s Basic or Classic cards with a Taunt or two. A solid mid-game option like Alley Armorsmith or Bloodhoof Brave, with their respective synergies with Armor and Enrage, would reinforce Warrior’s class identity. Giving Warrior more reliable mid-game stabilisation tools would be a plus too.

With Taunts made a core part of Warrior identity, Blizzard can focus on giving Warriors more support to its numerous disparate archetypes and synergies, that currently need all the attention they can get.

Priest Heal

Priest board clears are the best example of Team 5 being forced to reinvent the wheel, but so is healing. Priest’s limited in directional healing due to Auchenai Soulpriest burst potential, and so can only be given limited forms of heal. As such, the Classic and Basic set contain far fewer Hero healing capabilities. After Year of the Mammoth, Priest will lose Priest of the Feast and Greater Healing Potion.

Either of those would be a good addition to classic; giving the class a far stronger self-heal identity. And, of course, it would allow more card slots to support interesting Priest archetypes.

Ratting out

evergreen

Some techs might need to stick around

It’s not just class cards that could benefit the game by going to evergreen. Neutrals could also be candidates. I’ve written before about the implementation of Dirty Rat being a vital and interesting tech card. However, its unique effect would be difficult and wasteful to replicate. Alternatively, an argument could be made for the return of anti-spell tech like Loatheb and his ilk. Or other tech cards not present in Classic or Basic, like secret removal. Either these get added to Evergreen, or they take up valuable design space in new expansions.

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weapon

Where’s all the weapon removal?

Kobolds and Catacomb’s Legendary weapons were meant to have a fatal flaw. Many thought this new influx of anti-weapon tech would counter powerful items. Oozes, Harrisons and Bloodsail Corsairs should have crushed their dreams. But despite numerous Legendary weapons being extremely powerful options, weapon removal has not been a big part of the meta. So why hasn’t weapon removal risen to the challenge?

Some weapons are more Legendary than others

weapon

Not every weapon was as strong as Aluneth or Skull of the Manari

One key reason for how weapon removal is still niche is the varying success of the Legendary weapons. Almost all of them showed incredible promise, bar perhaps the Runespear (sorry Shaman). However, for a variety of factors, only a few Legendary weapons are viable. If we consider the top 4 classes of the Kobolds meta to be Priest, Warlock, Paladin and Rogue, we can see that Legendary weapons were only really vital to Warlock. Priest’s Dragon Soul wasn’t worth the effort, Kingsbane Mill Rogue struggled vs Aggro and Valanyr was never vital to a Paladin’s gameplan.

Meanwhile, potentially powerful weapons went underused due to poor synergies or class weakness. Druid had better ramp than Twig of the World Tree, Recruit Warrior never took off, Spell Hunter declined fast and the less said about Shaman the better. The one exception to this was Mage’s Aluneth, but Tempo Mage runs no other weapons and never truly took over the meta.

Where are the other weapons?

weapon

Even Paladins typically only run two Rallying Blades

But the Legendary weapons aren’t the whole story. Weapon removal doesn’t just depend on targeting single powerful weapons. Their most common usage is simply to wrest control of the early game by seizing tempo. But these early or mid-game solid weapons are few and far between.

Sure, Aggro Paladin runs two copies of Rallying Blade, and Hunter has the odd Candleshot. But gone are the days where you’d reliably queue up into decks that ran three or more weapons. A big part of this is the decline of Shaman and Warrior. When Aggro Shaman and Pirate Warriors were at their peak, then players could almost guarantee a large proportion of games would involve Jade Claws, Doomhammers, Arcanite Reapers and War Axes.

With two of the weapon classes almost completely absent, there are simply fewer targets.

Squeezed out

weapon

It’s hard to find room for tech when the power level increases

The overall rise in the quality and synergies behind cards has also contributed to the lack of weapon removal. When the card pool is small, it’s easier to find room for the Oozes and Harrisons. But we currently have more cards in Standard than ever. Weapon tech simply has more competition.

The other impact this has is on the weapons themselves. Now, Paladins don’t even run the incredibly efficient Truesilver Champion due to the sheer volume of good options available. Non-Kingsbane Tempo Rogues don’t need Deadly Poison, and the few Control Warriors that remain are too busy trying to survive the early game to consider Gorehowl. After the standard rotation, there may be more room for both weapons and their counters.

A better tech?

One last factor in the lack of weapon removal is that another tech card has been even more useful; Spellbreaker. In the pre-nerf world of Possessed Lackeys, Voidlords, Edwin Van Cleefs, Bonemares, Cobalt Scalebanes and Blessing of Kings, silence proved extremely useful. Almost every deck had multiple decent silence targets. This is a key difference.

In general, a consistent strong effect is more useful when deckbuilding than a more powerful but less reliable one. This is especially true for tech cards, as when targeting a specific deck, you want to ensure you actually gain that advantage. With weapons so spread out over the meta, the chance of getting a powerful weapon removal effect off was simply too low for any given deck. This compares unfavourably with silence, with many decks having multiple excellent silence targets.

An oozy future?

Things may be looking up for weapons and, by extension, weapon hate. If Warrior and Shaman become more viable, we may not only see old favourites like War Axe or Doomhammer back but also new additions like Woecleaver. Control Paladin may return, leaving room for more Truesilvers and the Paladin Death Knight. However the meta evolves, we’ll probably come to a point where we’re glad we put those Oozes in our deck.

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Shaman’s burst problem

Shaman is in the middle of an identity crisis. After a disastrous experiment with Freeze Shaman, Team 5 threw mechanics at Shaman to see what sticks. Shaman’s Kobolds and Catacombs haul included Battlecry, Overload, Totem and Evolve synergies. But there’s a compelling argument that these mechanics miss a core part of Shaman’s identity. An identity that is subverted and held back, ironically, by one of Shaman’s greatest strengths.

Masters of the board

Shaman is board-centric to its core

Shaman is, aside from Paladin, maybe Hearthstone’s most board-centric class. Though it has a variety of strong spells like Lava Shock, these are best sent face; the class relies heavily on keeping minions to succeed. The entire totem mechanic, including the hero power, revolves around keeping and buffing low-value minions. Without board control, the class quickly crumbles.

Unfortunately, this has led to a dilemma. When Shaman is strong, it dominates. If it can keep early board control, quickly snowball out of control and use its massive repertoire of burn to finish off opponents. But when it’s weak, it truly struggles; without being able to utilise its totems, it can’t gain sufficient value without giving up on the board completely. But how does Shaman succeed without being over-centralized into a indistinct, burn-focused Aggro deck?

Incremental value

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Mana Tide Totem is a perfect example of how Shaman gets value from winning the board

The answer might lie in Shaman’s most powerful minion type: its totems. Mana Tide, Flametongue and Primalfin Totem all provide incremental value simply by staying alive and well-defended. A well placed totem backed up by a Taunt or two can swing games. This is distinct to many former Aggro Shaman staples like Totem Golem and Flamewreathed Faceless that do not require backup to succeed, and simply win with their potent piles of stats.

Continuing with a more totem-focused gameplan could make Shaman more interactive and distinct from other aggressive decks. However, this strategy requires support. And that support risks supplanting totems altogether.

The Bloodlust problem

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Spirit Echo is fun, but outside of jades it’s usually just worse than Bloodlust

Consider Bloodlust. Bloodlust has been a staple of wide Shaman decks for a while, but it’s also a limiter. By giving Shaman huge burst potential from wide boards, it becomes problematic. When Shaman’s identity is built around getting value out of small minions, a card that essentially reads “win the game if you have lots of minions” has two main problems.

Firstly, it crowds out other strategies. Cards like Spirit Echo, Grumble or Worldshaker have little use, because they’re best used on big boards where Bloodlust will just win you the game. And secondly, it means that Shaman can’t receive too many resilient, efficient minions because early game snowball can lead to a quick victory, either from Bloodlust or with simple direct damage spells.

All or nothing?

With Jade Claws, Patches, Thing from Below and Maelstrom Portal rotating out, Shaman may go from bad to worse. There simply may not be enough early game to defend and back up its powerful totems. But conversely, attempts to mitigate this could simply lead to a return to the bad old days of Aggro Shaman or overly oppressive Midrange Shaman. So what’s to be done?

One option would be to reduce Shaman’s burn options while increasing its ability to seize the board. If Lava Shock, Doomhammer and Bloodlust weren’t so threatening, then Shaman could benefit from early board control without turning into a meta-defining aggro monster. But this comes with risks; most notably undermining Shaman’s identity of raw, unbridled elemental power. Otherwise, the answer may simply be to try and replicate how Shaman was able to operate in Un’goro, by finely tuning it precisely to make a healthy, balanced and interesting meta deck. But in the chaos that comes with set rotations and a new expansion, this might be a difficult task. Let’s hope Team 5 are up to the challenge.

 

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The Spellstones that didn’t work

The Spellstones were one of Kobolds and Catacombs most interesting additions. It’s been hard to design spells that synergise with certain tribes, mechanics or card types; but Spellstones manage to allow interesting deckbuilding strategies. By upgrading in the hand, value can be accumulated throughout the game then unleashed in a powerful tempo swing. Of course, some of these strategies work better than others. Each of the class’s Spellstones has had a different impact on the metagame, with some supercharging archetypes and others waiting in the wings.

But not all of them were as strong as Warlock’s Amethyst Spellstone’s lifegain, or Druid’s Jasper Spellstone with its efficient removal potential. For a variety of reasons, most of the Spellstones failed to make much of an impact.

Rogue

Onyx Spellstone has anti-synergy with its upgrade requirements

Perhaps, in another meta, Rogue’s Onyx Spellstone would have been OP. Perhaps in the Undertaker days, when deathrattles were mandatory in every aggressive deck, and Haunted Creepers and Harvest Golems ruled. Unfortunately, the Rogue Spellstone started out its days in a meta sadly empty of cheap, effective Aggro deathrattles.

And like the Priest Quest, it’s hard to shove a lot of minions in a deck in order to fulfill a goal (late-game mass removal) that doesn’t really gel with a late-game strategy.

This one had an extremely poor start, with the lowest deck winrate of any Spellstone. That said, it’s not impossible the Onyx Spellstone finds a home in the future. Rogue is notoriously bad at large clears and mass hard removal, and if big decks rise to the fore, it may just be worth including in some kind of aggressive deathrattley mid-range strategy.

Paladin

It’s hard to outheal Cubelock or Razakus

Pearl Spellstone faces the same problem that many Paladin healing and healing synergy cards do; it’s pretty useless if you’re not damaged. The trio of requiring face damage, a heal card and to have drawn the Spellstone in a class with limited draw options is a bit much to ask. That said, the card is still decently powerful in the right deck; namely, Control Paladin. Unfortunately for Pearl Spellstone, that deck happens to be extremely weak to some of the most popular classes in the game, most notably Raza Priest.

If there are fewer all-conquering combo decks in the future, Control Paladin may do alright on the back of Call to Arms. In that case, it’s quite possible that Pearl Spellstone finds a home. Until then, you may be better off running Knife Jugglers instead.

Shaman

Fully upgraded, Sapphire Spellstone is powerful but clunky

Crusher Shaman got new hope with the Sapphire Spellstone. This powerful tool can be devastating played on an Ancestral Spirit’d Snowfury Giant. The downside? Well, it’s yet another situational tool in a deck full of situational tools, that’s weak to exactly the same things Crusher Shaman was always weak to. It’s strong enough to find a home, but not enough to push Crusher Shaman out of Tier Shaman.

There are a few things that could allow this card to be more effective. One would be the addition of more viable Overload removal. Another would be more cost-reduction minions that could synergise with this. Or even just more control tools for Shaman (especially in the early game). But as is, it remains an interesting but fringe tool to make that rare Control Warrior cry.

It doesn’t help that it’s forever going to be in the same rotation as Psychic Scream and Diamond Spellstone, two cards that hard counter and overshadow it respectively.

Mage

“Well, it’s this, Glacial Mysteries or Shatter, soo…”

You’ve probably seen a lot of Ruby Spellstones on ladder. It’s just quite likely they came out of Primordial Glyph. This card could be good, but it unfortunately relies heavily on Elementals. Maybe down the line, Elemental Mage could be the next mech mage. But as is, there’s simply too few viable Elementals to completely build a deck around.

It also doesn’t help that Tempo Mage is so strong. The secrets package takes a lot of deck slots, and is the best option to combine with burn, Mana Wyrm and Aluneth.

But the next rotation will leave us without Kabal Crystal Runner, Kabal Lackey and Medivh’s Valet. Maybe Elementals like Fire Fly, Tar Creeper, Steam Surger and Leyline Manipulator could combine with new Elementals to replace them?

Warrior

There’s not much reason to play Mithril Spellstone outside of Spiteful Summoner

Warrior’s Mithril Spellstone is currently played in an extremely potent and meta-viable deck. Pirate Warrior is a powerful, if not especially popular, aggressive option, that runs Mithril Spellstone in some variations. So why is Mithril Spellstone on this list? Well, despite the fact that it’s played in a strong deck, the deck does better when the card is not drawn and played.

Sure, it can create a board of 5/5s out of nowhere, but that’s just plan B. The real reason for this card’s inclusion is Spiteful Summoner, which can be a massive turn six tempo swing. A random seven drop and a 4/4 on six is far more appealing than a couple of 5/5s on seven.

What’s more, if anything, the future looks poor for this card. Pirate Warrior loses its best cards in Patches and N’zoth’s First Mate after the rotation, and is unlikely to survive. In addition, any more pro-active expensive Warrior spell is likely to replace Mithril Spellstone as a Spiteful Summoner activator, as Mithril can be hard to activate in a deck with no draw mechanics and only six weapons.

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archetype

The Zombie archetypes

There were quite a few decks that never really became viable despite the developers’ continual attempts at bringing them to life. These archetypal Zombeasts only serve to eat up class card slots in multiple sets, and it looks like a trend that is set to continue with Kobolds and Catacombs.

Old kids on the block

It often feels like Hearthstone’s card design focuses a bit too much on creating specific archetypes that some members of Team 5 really, really would like to force into existence. This can be problematic for a card game with such small sets and is definitely a contributing factor in the ever-quickly solved metagames of Standard. It doesn’t take much experimentation or thinking to nail down 25-28 cards of, say, a Jade deck: search for a special word in your collection (hint: starts with “J” and ends with “ade”) and dump in every card you find, and you’re pretty much good to go.

While Jade Druid remains strong, and understandably no class has received a new golem-producing card to this day, there were other attempts at outright creating specific decks throughout the years. In a way, they all teach us valuable lessons about card games.

Bestiality is a crime

While this particular tribe used to be exclusively Rexxar’s domain, the first expansion of the game intended to bring Beast-related synergies to Druid. They just slapped the tag on Druid of the Claw with the arrival of the first proper expansion. They also printed some worthless cards like Druid of the Fang (seven attack – literally unplayable) and Malorne (also unplayable). Later sets gave you a 2/5 or 5/2 Beast for three mana, the absolute overkill that was Menagerie Warden and then Mark of Y’Shaarj in Whispers of the Old Gods.

This was, of course, partly motivated by the strength of the core Druid cards. Force of Nature and Savage Roar were omnipresent throughout the game’s history until the former’s eventual nerf, and Druid has still remained a high-tier option ever since. This means they had to give janky alternative cards for the class that didn’t fit its primary playstyle. While this is certainly logical, one has to wonder why it took them so long to adjust the combo considering it was an auto-include in every single Druid deck for years. Taunt Warrior is a very similar story, except it has actually been brute-forced into existence for a short while thanks to the quest, and even that didn’t last particularly long.

Discard these cards

The aforementioned mechanic has been a part of Warlock’s arsenal since the very beginning of Hearthstone. It was, and mostly still is, exclusive to the class and revolves around exchanging value for tempo. Most of these cards were too conservatively statted to see play and the ones that did (Soulfire and Doomguard) only found a home in Zoo in the early days.

In an inexplicable decision, the developers decided to transform it into a synergistic concept that somehow tried to re-feed some of the lost value to your hand, either by drawing a card on death with Darkshire Librarian or summoning the discarded card itself with Silverware Golem. The same idea was behind the class quest and Clutchmother Zavas in Un’goro and Blood Queen Lana’thel in the latest set. It never got off the ground for reasons that seem obvious to everyone but the people who designed these cards.

The main problem with such a misguided attempt is that it eats up a significant chunk of the small amount of class cards in a given release, and if they coalesce around an ineffective archetype, fans of the class hardly get anything to play with. Discardlock’s supporting cast took up over a third of all Warlock cards in the last two sets, not to mention two of the three they received from the Karazhan adventure, and it still hasn’t seen play and most likely never will. Again, this would be alright if you had more cards released or the class was in a stronger position, but this seems like quite the case of overkill with Warlock struggling greatly as it is.

Winter is here

Perhaps the most egregious example of the forced archetypes is Freeze Shaman, a concept so outlandish that it didn’t even reach meme status despite eating up seven(!) of Thrall’s class cards in the aptly named Knights of the Frozen Throne set. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Based on the developers’ comments, they will keep pushing the envelope with this concept that was clearly doomed on arrival. They might also just give a Drakonid Operative-level card to Discardlock to make sure it gets its time to shine before it gets chucked into the dustbin that is known as Wild…

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

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

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

Echoes of a hunter

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

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

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

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

More than playability

weapons

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

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

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

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

Scaling up

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

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

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

All or nothing

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

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

Oozes and adventurers

weapons

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Are cheap Taunts just Aggro tools?

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

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

Protecting the face

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

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

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

Safeguarding the snowball

taunt

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

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

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

Beefy buffs

Flametongue had perfect aggressive synergy with taunts like Feral Spirits

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

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

Are downsides key?

taunt

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

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

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

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

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


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