Ben Brode’s favorite meme isn’t playable: What happened?

As stated on a recent Reddit AMA, Hearthstone Game Director Ben Brode’s favorite meme is the infamous “4 mana 7/7”, Flamewreathed Faceless. Poking fun at the card’s perceived overpowered-ness and the community’s salt that erupted as a result, the meme now has an ironic twist: Flamewreathed Faceless is far from oppressive.

In fact, it’s currently borderline unplayable, seeing zero competitive use in any Shaman decks. How did this card go from all-conquering outrage and humor generator to storied collection-filer? How did the 4 mana 7/7 go from OP meme card to an unplayable meme card?

Rise of a Giant

When Flamewreathed Faceless was released as part of the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion, it became emblematic of the power and frustrations expressed in the all-conquering Aggro Shaman. The card quickly slotted in, forming a staple part of the deck. Being able to plop down a huge body that required an immediate answer granted the deck some surprise wins. This was especially effective against Control or Midrange lists that lacked cheap, single-target removal.

The main advantage of the 4 mana 7/7 was how impactful just a single attack to face would be. 7 health is a huge chunk of starting HP, and against a deck as aggressive as old Aggro Shaman, it’s crippling. Even the presence of Flamewreathed Faceless in a deck can prove fatal, as saving removal for it can leave a Tunnel Trogg or Totem Golem unchecked, allowing burn to finish the opponent off.

Servant of Trogg-Saron

Tunnel Trogg was a huge part of Flamewreathed Faceless’s success – and hate

Flamewreathed Faceless’s fortunes were intimately tied to that of a far smaller minion: Tunnel Trogg. This minion determined the power of Flamewreathed Faceless in two main ways. Firstly, it was a key and powerful synergy tool for the card’s 2 overload. Flamewreathed Faceless’s downside was always the lack of immediate board impact. Even at 4 mana, a deck as proactive as Aggro Shaman could rarely take turns simply plopping down stats. Buffing Tunnel Trogg by 2 provided a much-needed immediate damage impact.

More generally, Tunnel Trogg was the card that lead Aggro Shaman to come into being, and its the card whose rotation returned it to obscurity. Without its niche as a punchy minion with which to top curves, Flamewreathed faded with it. But surely the sheer value and efficiency of the 4 mana 7/7 would give it other uses?

Stats don’t rule all

Other cards can provide premium stats for cheap, without clunky overload mechanics

Unfortunately for meme-aficionados everywhere, Flamewreathed Faceless simply couldn’t find a home in other Shaman decks. Revive-focused “Bogchamp” Shamans flirted with it for a while, but ultimately its lack of taunt and crippling overload relegated it in favor of beefier Taunt minions that could be more easily comboed across multiple turns. Midrange Shamans found the tempo loss when it was hard-removed too damaging against control, and the vanilla body did little against aggro.

In short, the card fell into the trap of many Hearthstone cards: Not doing enough, soon enough. The downside of the overload meant that playing Flamewreathed became a short-cut to Tempo oblivion against many enemies. Sure it could trade favorably, but only if not removed and after giving up 6 mana across two turns.

If the card had Taunt or some other immediate effect, it perhaps would have lived on. But as it was, it became an unwieldy anchor on any deck that wanted to run out. Not contributing to win conditions and slowing down the game plan, it was an easy cut to make.

The meme, eternal

While Flamewreathed Faceless has vanished from competitive Hearthstone, it’s memory and memery live on. The joke changed/grew subtle. The punchline was less about Blizzard releasing an overpowered minion and more about the hysterical overreaction of Hearthstone’s community to ill-judged overpowered cards that prove anything but in the long run.

The fact that Purify sees play in strong, meta Standard decks without any changes, and the infamous 4 mana 7/7 is unplayable is a estament to the community’s collective inability to judge cards in the long run; and on the subtle and evolving ways memes can grow from complaints to community satire.


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

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The Fall and Rise of AOE

The concept of mass damage or AOE is core to Hearthstone’s conceptual identity. The ability to deal damage to multiple minions simultaneously allows for immense counterplay possibilities. Currently, AOE is at the core of a huge number of decks, providing a key counter to new, powerful flood decks. But it wasn’t always this way; once, AOE was almost universally underwhelming, and restricted only to the most extreme examples in the most controlling decks.

Taking a look back to an early Tempostorm Meta Snapshot, the only AOE being used by the top 10 decks are a single Brawl, two Whirlwinds, and a Baron Geddon in a Control Warrior, one Lightning Storm in Mech Shaman, Blade Flurry in Oil Rogue (arguably more of a face damage tool) and Consecrates in Midrange Paladin. Now, AOE is nearly omnipresent in all kinds of midrange as well as control decks. Not only are there more decks with AOE, but those decks use it more. What changed?

A Sticky Situation

It’s tough to clear a board of Shredders and Nerubian Eggs

Between Naxxramas and GvG, a worrying trend emerged amongst the most powerful minions, especially neutral minions. Cards like Haunted Creeper, Sludge Belcher, and Piloted Shredder were all incredibly potent minions that were the result of fundamental and systematic undervaluing of a Deathrattle effect that summoned smaller minions. Meanwhile, class minions like Shielded Minibot and Imp Gang boss had effects that left behind minions even after they were initially damaged.

This lead to a fast ramping up of the levels of “Stickiness” of minions and boards. “Stickiness” is a loose term that roughly describes how difficult it is to completely remove a minion. AOE becomes significantly worse in the face of these “sticky” boards, as dealing with only part of the board and leaving large numbers of minions behind is often not worth the mana and card cost of playing the AOE, let alone including it in your deck.

Standardised Deathrattles

The Post-standard world still has its fair share of sticky deathrattle minions. However, a combination of the existence of N’zoth and a greater balance understanding of the value of Deathrattles has reduced their omnipresence. Hunter still has deathrattles above the power curve, but as part of the class identity that’s to be expected. Other decks, especially flood decks, rely more on continually refilling the board rather than being highly resilient to clears. This rewards AOE, rather than punishing it.

The dynamic that this creates is that AOE now is a valid and potent meta choice outside of the traditional class auto-includes. Mages can take additional Volcanic Potions, Shamans can mix and match Volcanos, Maelstrom Portals and Lightning Storms to suit their needs, and Warriors can utilise Sleep with the Fishes, Whirlwinds and Ravaging Ghouls alongside the traditional Brawl. In the end, more diversity, counterplay and skill-testing.

Bursting the Bubble

One problem with over-investing in AOE in the past has been the presence of burst and burn in the meta. While clearing, say, an old-school Aggro Shaman might buy you a turn or two, you’ll still die to Lava Bursts, Doomhammers, Leeroys and the like. Even board centric decks like Midrange Druid and Patron Warrior could simply bide their time and unleash huge damage combos with little counterplay available. With limited deckslots available, it was simply more efficient to invest in lifegain rather than additional clear opportunity. With strong Neutral heals like Antique Healbot readily available, this wasn’t limited by class either.

Board-Based Burn

Still a scary card – but no longer charges you down from 30

Consistent balance efforts and rotations have significantly reduced the threat of burst and burn. While Pirate Warrior and Mage still rely on burn, their ability to deal huge amounts is more limited. In this way, board clears become more relevant by increasing the ability to stabilise faster.

Meanwhile, against the new aggressive decks like Druid or Shaman, AOE is less mandatory if you’re not following an aggro strategy yourself. But if you’re able to repeatedly clear the board, it’s possible to stabilise even at extremely small life total. This is because their huge burst potential is entirely focused around interacting with the board. Bloodlust and Savage Roar are scary, but not if you can deny your opponent’s big boards and halt their development in advance.

Efficiency is Key

Finally, board clears have simply gotten better. Be it attaching solid minions to the effect or just making competitively costed spells, AOE is more competitively statted than ever. Primordial Drake sets the new bar for Neutral AOE, while class cards like Dragonfire Potion and Sleep with the Fishes are both flavourful and superbly powerful for their effect.

Team 5 has recognised the inherently risky, situational nature of AOE, and as a result has been costing cards far more aggressively, to great success. With balance decisions like these, we can hope to see a healthy balance of AOE in the meta for a long time to come.

 

Title art by Mike Sass, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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Un’goro is a Tough Act to Follow – What Should the Next Expansion Bring?

By many accounts, Un’goro has been arguably the most successful expansion as far as meta healthiness goes. Every class but Warlock has multiple competitive archetypes. In a recent Meta Snapshot Vicious Syndicate declared for the first time ever that at Legend ranks there are no Tier 1 decks (More than 52% winrate). There are a wide variety of Combo, Midrange, Aggro and Control decks, with many different flavours and variations on each. Card diversity is up too, with virtually no multi-class omnipresent auto-include. Long gone are the days where almost every deck had Patches, Aya or Kazakus. In short, aside from a lamentable blemish in the decline in Warlock.

But no success will last forever, and soon even this ultra-diverse meta will begin to grate and feel stale. More importantly for Team 5, Blizzard’s accountants are surely eagerly awaiting a new expansion for the next deluge of pack-purchasing frenzies. But how should Team 5 introduce new cards and concepts to improve upon the high quality of Un’goro? Here are my highly subjective suggestions.

Make Warlock Competitive With New Synergies

I’ve written before on the sad state of Warlock. Simply put, the class has bad cards; to the extent that its hero power isn’t enough to save it. On the board-centric aggressive end, the class needs fewer janky Discard mechanics and more solid minions that speak to the initially unimpressive, mathematical joy and tactical precision of Zoo. More Dire-Wolf Alpha and Defender of Argus style cards that rely heavily on board maintenance, prediction and positioning would be perfect.

Meanwhile, Controlling or Handlock-esque versions of Warlock suffer simply from lack of survivability. The class should, thematically, not get too many healing tools; Reno proved that giving it such options could make it dangerously powerful. Instead, other survivability-based synergies should be introduced to improve that class’s ability to withstand Aggro and Burn.

Give Shaman Reactive Early-Game Tools

Shaman is probably the second-weakest class currently. Though it retains relevancy (barely) with Bloodlust-centric flood builds, Elemental decks, and some Control experimentation off the back of Volcano. However, the class has become over-reliant on its AOE spells, and its non-Aggro decks are falling to low Tier 3. Without additional help, the class could fall to irrelevancy if other classes continue to have stronger early game.

Though the lesson of giving Shaman stellar early minions has surely been learned, a few more reactive early game tools wouldn’t go amiss. A weapon would probably be a strong option, though the incredible potential power of early game weapons makes this a tricky one to balance properly. A few more Lightning Bolt style spot removal options, maybe with some adjacency damage tacked on, might allow the efficiency needed to put together a decent non-AOE early game reactive package.

Paladin has a number of ways to make recruits – but few buff mechanics to make them worthwhile compared to Murlocs

Let Paladins Buff Their Dudes

Paladin appears to be in a good spot, with multiple archetypes, high competitive viability and a focus on a “fair”, value-based Midrange package that perfectly fits the class. The one thing missing is flavour; the current lists seem to be a mismatch of holy warriors, rampaging murlocs, ancient dragons, turtles and even a mechanical zookeeper. The iconic Silver Hand Recruits of Paladin are being sidelined.

Paladin should get more options to create, synergise and buff their “Dudes” (silver hand recruits) and build decks based less around murlocs and more around inspiring their ordinary men to acts of great valor through the power of the Light. Lightfused Stegadon and Sunkeeper Tarim were steps in the right direction, but more interesting single-target and mass buffs are needed to make the Dudes truly shine.

Push Warrior Towards Combo

Warrior has been in an amazing position in the meta for some time now, with numerous Control and Aggro archetypes. The all-conquering Pirate Warrior needs no introduction, and Taunt Warrior is proving a solid choice also. Such strong decks needing little support, especially as any decent Neutral two drop or strong taunt will likely be incorporated into either deck.

Instead of over-supporting these archetypes, Team 5 should focus on gently opening avenues for Warriors to experiment with interesting combo decks, exemplified by old Patron Warrior, Worgen Warrior and Arcane Giants Blood Warrior. Maybe a class-specific improved version of Wild Pyromancer, or more Patron-style end-game combo activators. With such potential in the classic set, it’s likely that there could be an interesting, balanced and potent combo deck to hunt aggro and provide a compelling gameplay experience. And hey, it might just reduce the number of Pirate Warriors on the ladder.

Find a Late-Game Druid Mechanic That Beats Jade

I wrote recently about the danger Jade poses to the Druid class. While Druid is in a good space now with two solid archetypes, it’s hard to envision a different future.

The easiest way forward would probably be to rotate out the Jade package early, but that seems unlikely. More realistically, a different late-game package with different strengths and more cerebral interactions than repeatedly summoning over-statted minions is introduced that is more competitive than attempts such as the unsuccessful Druid Quest.

Be Conservative with Mage

Mage got a number of objectively powerful cards in Un’goro. Arcanologist and Primordial Glyph (along with, to a lesser extent, Meteor), have propelled the class to new heights. Secret Mage may even be Tier 1. The class feels as if it is teetering on the edge of being oppressive. One powerful Secret could swing the Secret package and Mage as a whole into dangerously overpowered territory.

As such, it’s probably best to keep new Mage cards on the underwhelming side, especially if they’re Secrets.

Keep Hunter Cheap

The biggest Un’goro additions for Hunter were a strong, beast synergistic two drop in Crackling Razormaw, and additional one drops. This propelled Hunter into a decent position, though it lacks class diversity.

The current strategy of giving Hunter efficient beasts and synergies seems to be working. While giving them an incentive to curve higher might be a valid idea, the current trajectory of Hunter seems to be balanced, flavourful and lore-appropriate. The most important aspect would be to limit the number of powerful auto-include Epics and Rares, and ideally give Hunter no new necessary Legendaries so that it remains one of the few low-dust potent beginner decks.

Big, flashy legendaries are all well and good – but make them too integral and beginners will lack a good starter deck to aim for

Give Priest More Consistent Value

Priest is in a great state compared to its historical irrelevance, with multiple Silence, Combo and Control decks burning up the ladder with Holy Fire. However, it remains at risk of puttering out in many matchups.

Free from Amber was a step in the right direction for Priest, but the class still seems to lack a consistent late-game punch. Outside of snowballing with Divine Spirit or Lyra shenanigans, the class is forced to rely on inconsistent Elise packs, and vulnerable Medivh minions. Giving the class at least one potent, value-tastic late-game card seems like the best course of action. Bonus points if it’s not entirely RNG dependent.

Give Rogues More Card Engines

Rogue’s Quest archetype has taken off in a big way, both for tournaments and ladder. Refined versions of Quest Rogue have left Miracle by the wayside, leaving some who prefer the Miracle gameplay somewhat lacking.

Outside of aggro or Quests, Rogues need huge amounts of draw to make their efficient but low-value spells worth playing. An over-reliance on Gadgetzan has pigeonholed Rogue towards a certain type of list and playstyle. Giving Rogue some other draw engine that’s not balanced around other classes (that have, say, Innervate and Wild Growth), might allow them to retain relevancy without the Quest in a world of ever-stronger aggro.


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Here Be Legends – The Unrefined Decks Ripe for Exploration

The Joy of Decks

Deckbuilding is one of Hearthstone’s best, but most overlooked, features. While “netdecking” is seen by many as mandatory, that skips half the fun. Inventing, testing, and refining unexplored concepts can be incredibly rewarding. Whilst most efforts turn out to be sub-optimal, you never know if you’ll invent the next best deck. In the meantime, the satisfaction of improving upon your own creation to demolish utterly unsuspecting opponents is more than enough reward for the effort. With that in mind, it can be incredibly hard just to know where to start. To help, here’s some archetypes that show promise and could be made dominating by the right innovation.

Tempo Warrior

Could Malkorok find a home in an Un’goro Tempo Warrior?

All the hype around Warrior has been focused near-exclusively on the new Quest Taunt Warrior, and the meta-dominating Aggro Pirate version. However, there are many more Warrior archetypes that have huge promise. Most interesting of these is Tempo Warrior.

Tempo Warrior uses Warrior’s early game tools to gain control of the board, and using synergies to make high-tempo plays before finishing the opponent off with high-value cards. Less aggressive than Pirate Warrior, but more able to play the beatdown than Taunt or Control, Tempo Warrior benefits from few unfavoured matchups and lots of flex spots for techs. Perfecting the list may bring us a deck as powerful as the Dragon Warriors of old. Check out these guides by Zaulk and Optilex for further inspiration. There’s a lot of ideas to try, such as N’zoth Packages, various degrees of tech cards, card draw, and different end-game finishers.

Aggro Rogue

Who needs Gadgetzan Auctioneer when you can just kill them?

Rogue is a class that has seen a lot of attention this expansion. Both Miracle and Quest have seen immense popularity, though a weakness to aggression has seen them somewhat declining. Relatively little interest has been paid to a deck that was dominating during the last weeks of the Mean Streets Meta, Aggro Rogue (AKA Water Rogue, Tempo Rogue or Pirate Rogue).

Instead of the combo-focused gameplay of other Rogue decks, Aggro Rogue steps on the gas hard, and after controlling the early board with cheap spells and efficient minions, seeks to close out the game with Cold Bloods and Leeroy Jenkins. Often it will include Finja to provide additional mid-game power. To gain insight and understanding on where you might improve the formula, check out this excellent analysis by rhoast. Choices can include Sprint, Vilespine Slayers, the Finja Package, and removal like Vilespine Slayers.

Control Shaman

With flexible AOE and potent heals, is Shaman the next big Control class?

Control Shaman has been an unappreciated archetype for a long time. With strong heals, efficient board-clears, powerful removal, and dominating late-game tools, Control Shaman has been a potent, yet under-played, deck for a while now. While the loss of Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem affects other Shaman archetypes, Control Shaman only suffers from the absence of Elemental Destruction and Healing Wave. Luckily, Volcano is an incredible tool that can more than make up for such absences. What’s more, its late game potential with cards like N’zoth remains nearly undiminished. Experimentation should likely revolve around the strong anti-aggro core, various degrees of Jade inclusion, Elementals, N’zoth packages, and Ancestral Spirit-focused builds.

Zoolock

Warlock isn’t in a great place right now. With declining playrates and winrates, the future of the class looks grim. However, if there is a hidden Warlock archetype that might make it in the competitive scene, it is undoubtedly Zoolock. With the upheaval of the early game left in the power vacuum from Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem leaving, there may still be the perfect sweet spot of Zoo minions to keep the archetype alive and viable. Are Discard mechanics the way forward? Maybe Murlocs? Or perhaps sticky deathrattles and board flood decks are the way to go? Perhaps even Elementals could find a home. Whatever the perfect solution is, it’s likely we haven’t seen the last of Zoo.

Quest Paladin

… nah just kidding. With the current card set, there’s simply no way to make these decks work consistently. But if you like a challenge, go ahead!

 

 

 

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The Evergreen Problem – Is it Time to Rethink Classic?

A Perennial Problem

The introduction of Standard to Hearthstone was perhaps the most impactful change in Hearthstone. It involved the creation of a whole new game mode, several card re-balancings, the rotation of 157 cards, and the laying-out of an entire philosophy of how card expansions should be introduced. This massive undertaking naturally lead to significant balance issues, that took many expansions to fix. However, some of these issues could easily occur again, unless the way that the Classic and Basic “Evergreen” set works is fundamentally rethought.

Eternal Strength

One of the core issues with the notion of an Evergreen Classic set is that of imbalance between classes. To put it simply, some classes have the functioning “skeleton” of a deck, and some do not. Classes like Mage or Druid contain the basis of functioning, synergistic decks to fulfill a certain archetypal goal. For instance, Warrior’s Classic and Basic removal tools provide a powerful framework around which to build all manner of control decks. Mage can build burn-focused tempo spell decks, and has access to a versatile freeze package. Druid meanwhile has fundamentally strong ramp and cycle options, as well as flexible early-game removal in Wrath.

Warrior will have good Control tools as long as it has its Classic and Basic set; other classes are not so lucky

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows classes to retain identity, and means a million different iterations of “Fireball” don’t have to be printed to keep Mage viable; but the benefits are not evenly applied.

Class Struggle

Meanwhile, other classes are left without key core cards, and must be continually given them. Priest suffers from a lack of any kind of early-game consistency or large-scale board clears in its Classic and Basic set. As a fundamentally reactive class focused on a combo/control strategy, this is backbreaking. The immediate impact of this was a multi-expansion slump immediately after the Whispers of the Old Gods release where the class remained nigh-unplayable. Paladin suffered a similar fate; though it had more tools and coherent identity in Classic and Basic than Priest, its Midrange strengths were unexplored due to a dearth of any kind of early game removal or minion options, even to a greater extent than Priest.

The Danger of Continual Correction

Having to print a new Lightbomb every expansion comes with risks

Now, so far so obvious. Surely Team 5 can just add in replacements every standard cycle, like with Dragonfire Potion for Priest, and Lost in the Jungle for Paladin? It’s the strategy that has been pursued so far, but it comes with many caveats and risks.

The first, and most obvious, is that multiple cards are harder to balance than one. Under-doing or over-doing such key class elements as their defining, archetype supporting class cards that allow them to do something they otherwise couldn’t is fraught with risks. For instance, look at Excavated Evil and Shadow-Word: Horror; anaemic board clears that left Priest crippled. Alternatively, look at Shaman; efforts to buff its early game subjected the ladder to the horror of the overbearing Tunnel Trogg starts.

Not only that, but it leads the classes to have a more diffuse, temporary identity. It’s harder to form attachements to a class if their whole playstyle becomes invalidated every few expansions, seemingly at random.

Lessons Not Yet Learned

Do we need to be stuck with this as the only sizeable Neutral Healing in Classic?

One final issue with the current implementation of Evergreen sets is the crystallization and preservation of early mistakes from the balance team. Several mechanics were significantly over-costed by the design team in the earliest days of the game. Compare early healing cards like Voodoo Doctor, Healing Touch, and Holy Light with later additions like Forbidden Healing or Feral Rage, which offer far more value and flexibility. Other mechanics, like Windfury, Taunt, or the Attack were consistently over-costed; whereas potent Deathrattles, Draw, and Charge were extremely competitive.

Though in some cases it is justified (there is an argument to be made that Magma Rager is a deliberate “Noob Trap” to teach players the value of HP), it seems odd to have certain mechanics always have a strong classic support base but not others.

The Solution; a Revamped Classic Set

If Classic and Basic are truly going to be Evergreen, then simply nerfing or rotating out problematic cards is not enough. There needs to be a correction to the fundamental errors made in the first few steps of Hearthstone. There’s simply no reason to put up with the benchmark set by mathematically underpowered Classic cards to clog up our collections forever. Though cutting down on auto-includes in some areas is healthy, never buffing or adding to Classic is a recipe for continual unnecessary risk and erosion of identity.

A comprehensive balance review should take place, excising cards that serve no purpose or limit design space needlessly, while adding or reintroducing permanently key cards that are necessary for a class’s viability. What’s more, underpowered cards in the Basic set should be buffed or replaced so that the core class identities they supposedly represent can be properly exemplified. If we’re stuck with Classic and Basic forever, then Team 5 should first refine it into something worth keeping.

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Taunt Warriors: Please, Please, Mulligan your Quest (Sometimes)

As the Un’goro meta settles down, only two Quests are seeing serious competitive play: Rogue and Warrior. Whilst Rogue is completely dependent on the Quest for victories even against the most aggressive decks, Taunt Warrior has a far more flexible range of win conditions. As such, some of your most important decision-making comes before the game even begins. Should you keep the Quest?

Playing it safe

For many players, the answer is simple. The Quest is one of the strongest cards in the deck, around which the entire game plan is built. It’s a turn one play in a deck that typically will do nothing on turn one. If you mulligan it, you may never get to activate it if you draw it without having seven taunts left to play. This was particularly prevalent immediately after the expansion. With so much variation in the meta, you always have to be prepared for a Control matchup. I even recall seasoned veteran and far superior player Brian Kibler defending keeping the Quest against Hunter. His reasoning was that you needed the hero power to deal with Savannah Highmane.

An epidemic of greed

When playing versus Aggro, you don’t need the Quest to win

This outlook is understandable, but fundamentally flawed. As most players who have spent time with the deck and reached legend agree, keeping the Quest in every matchup is a disastrous policy. The hero power typically comes online only after turns 10-14 (assuming a typical 12 Taunt decklist). By this point, many games should already be decided. Not only that, but against Aggressive or Combo decks, you may not even want to play Sulfuras, as doing so prevents you form utilizing your potentially life-saving Armor Up. Meanwhile, being down a card the entire game is a potentially huge disadvantage, especially when you’re only a Ravaging Ghoul, Execute, or Brawl away from victory or defeat.

Throwing away your win condition

However, that’s not to say that the Quest should always be tossed. Not having the Quest when you need it is far worse than an unnecessary keep. Taunt Warrior cuts all the traditional game ending cards of Control Warrior, like Grommash and N’zoth. Even Fatigue is rarely an option without the insane armor gain potential of Justicar Trueheart. As such, Sulfuras is absolutely necessary in certain matchups. But how do you balance these two competing demands? Both can lead to disaster.

Class by class

DIE, INSECT is often necessary to beat late-game value powerhouses like Tirion

The answer is heavily dependent on what class, and thus what suspected archetype, your opponent is running. A typical rule of thumb would be to always mulligan it against Aggro, Combo, or aggressive Midrange, and keep it against Control or slow Midrange decks. However, the best option will change depending on specific matchups and meta-dependent archetype distribution.

  • Warrior: Keep

Warrior is one of the painful matchups when deciding to mulligan the Quest or not. Versus the hyper-aggressive Pirate Warrior, the Quest is worse than useless. However, in the Taunt Warrior mirror, it’s borderline suicide to toss it. Unfortunately, this means that keeping it is currently the best option. Though your Pirate Warrior win rate will suffer, it is still definitely winnable; whereas Taunt Warrior will crush you without a Quest.

  • Shaman: Keep

Shaman no longer has the explosive starts it used to. Even Murloc Shaman is relatively sedate. Elemental Shaman can easily drag you to fatigue, so getting the Ragnaros hero power online ASAP is often the difference between victory and defeat. Thus, keeping it is almost always the best option.

  • Rogue: Toss

It’s very tempting to keep the Quest against Rogue. However, it should be resisted whenever possible. Both Miracle Rogue and Quest Rogue’s key turns occur well before Sulfuras comes online. Fishing for key removal, board clears, or Dirty Rat is almost always superior. Even getting a turn three Acolyte of Pain down is far more important than getting the Quest completed, as card resources are so vital.

  • Paladin: Keep

While aggressive versions of Paladin are beginning to gain traction, the most popular archetype by far is still Midrange. You certainly need eight random damage as soon as you can to counter Paladin’s unceasing value train in the late game, and to allow you to end the game. While this may lead you to being rushed down by Murlocs, overall your win rate will likely improve.

  • Hunter: Toss

Hunter is a matchup where tossing the Quest will absolutely be the correct play. Their continual application of early and mid-game pressure requires the maximum possible amount of resources to defeat. Once you’ve stabilized behind a Primordial Drake or two, you can easily end the game by exploiting their lack of card draw. No eight damage hero power required.

  • Druid: Toss (Mostly)

The most dominant archetype of Druid being Aggro, tossing the Quest is usually a safe bet. However, there are a few Jade and Ramp Druids prowling about, so if you have a strong starting hand, consider keeping the Quest. Due to Warrior’s plethora of removal and AOE options, Aggro/Token Druid favors the Warrior, even with the Quest. Watch this space and see how the meta develops.

Against Freeze Mage, Armor can be more important than value

  • Warlock: Toss

There are few Warlocks out there, and it is widely regarded as the weakest class. Those that remain are largely running Zoo variants, against which the Quest is unnecessary. Tossing it should be an easy decision

  • Mage: List Dependent

Mage is a tough one. Since Freeze Mage and its variants are the most popular, keeping the Quest or not is often dependent on your own deck. Against Freeze, you typically have two strategies; grind them out with sheer life gain, or rush them down with minions and the Quest. If you’re running the double Shield Block package, it’s usually superior to go for the former option and toss the Quest; if not, you should apply the second strategy and keep the Quest.

  • Priest: Keep

Though this may change depending on how combo oriented the Combo Priest gets, usually you want to keep the Quest against Priest. Their late game can be formidable, especially if they Shadow Visions multiple Un’goro Packs from Elise Trailblazer. You need to put pressure on them fast. Ragnaros hero power is as much of a counter to Priest as Jaraxxus used to be, and you should play accordingly.

 

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The Return of Paladin – How to Buff a Class

The Dark Ages of Paladin

Anyfin allowed Paladin to avoid total irrelevance; barely.

Very few classes have been as consistently poor for such an extended period as Paladin. While others have admittedly been worse, notably Priest during Karazhan and Hunter during MSoG, none have had the continual drizzle of under-performing mediocrity drench them quite as completely as Paladin. From the moment Shielded Minibot, Muster for Battle, and Avenge rotated out to the release of Un’goro, Paladin has found itself without the tools necessary to survive in a cut-throat meta.

In Whispers of the Old Gods, an initially promising showing with N’zoth synergies was thwarted by a lack of early game tools. Then Karazhan’s rise of Midrange Shaman and a slower meta still suppressed Paladin due to their lack of board-clears and a fundamental weakness to Hex. MSoG hand buff experiments failed utterly, leaving the class bereft of resources in a meta defined by the early game power of pirates and the late-game dominance of Jades.

Out of the Dumpster

Things have improved massively in Un’goro. No longer cast to the wayside, Paladin holds its own with a variety of archetypes. Most promising of all is an old-school classic mid-range variant that looks to be gaining traction; using the early game springboard of Murlocs to carry it towards a formidable late-game powered by some of the most value-tastic 8 drops in the game.

Old-style mid-range Paladin is widely regarded as one of the “fairest” decks in the game. With respectable performance in all stages of the game, a small number of potent board clears, and a number of strong healing effects, mid-range Paladin is a jack-of-all-trades that doesn’t rest on one completely broken synergy or card but accrues value and tempo over a mid-lengthed game. One can imagine that if Hearthstone were ever given a “Yu-Gi-Oh” style TV series, mid-range Paladin would be the deck of the protagonist.

It’s hard to point to exactly what made Paladin go from nigh-unplayable to a solid choice in just one expansion. Unlike Dragon Priest before it, it got no single overpowered build-around. What made it its current state in such a balanced fashion?

Murlocs to the rescue

Rockpool Hunter is a key part of paladin’s new early-game package

Lore-wise Paladins are noble guardians of justice, with impressive shoulder-pads and an inextinguishable self-righteousness. As such, it’s a bit odd to see them dependent on the help of a group of terrorizing humanoid amphibians. But in terms of Hearthstone, they synergize perfectly. Murlocs theme of buffing tokens and one another is similar to the core class mechanics of Paladin. Not only that, but the new Un’goro set contained a number of cards that provide an unprecedented, but not overwhelmingly snowbally, boost to the Paladin early game toolkit.

Rockpool Hunter, Hydrologist, and Gentle Megasaur allow Paladin to have a solid start to almost every game. The minions aren’t too sticky and start out as non-threatening, but with the right combination of buffs and synergies can generate massive value. However, they’ll rarely end games on their own in the manner of an unanswered Tunnel Trogg. This forces other classes to interact with the Paladin’s early boards, making for a more consistent lead into the mid-game powerhouses of Truesilver Champion and Consecrate.

Shields Up!

Sunkeeper Tarim is a flexible and powerful tool that is often discovered off Stonehill Defender.

It isn’t just Murlocian early game power that’s fueling mid-range Paladin’s rise. Powerful mid/late game taunts have provided the beef to provide value and staying power throughout the later stages of the game. While traditional Paladin staple Tirion Fordring is as omnipresent as ever, Un’goro offers many new taunt options.

Stonehill Defender is now a staple, with its decent body that grants card advantage and stalls. But more importantly, Stonehill has an exceptional chance of offering a Paladin Class Legendary in Wickerflame Burnbristle, Tirion, or the new Sunkeeper Tarim. All of these are exceptional cards, especially to have duplicates of.

Sunkeeper Tarim himself has proven to be a nigh indispensable and ludicrously versatile tool. Beneficial on almost any board state, he can buff your tokens and neutralise your opponents threats, all while all but guaranteeing favourable trades with his 3/7 body. Meanwhile, Spike-ridged Steed is the buff Paladins didn’t know they needed. With 4/12 of taunted stats split across 2 bodies, Spikeridged can end the game vs aggressive decks and provides a nigh-insurmountable wall of HP to break through.

Troggs Tunnel no longer

But perhaps the most important positive impact for Paladin is a lack of the ubiquitous Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golems of Shaman. Tunnel Trogg is arguably the most powerful 1 drop ever printed – its strength and synergy demanding answering ASAP.

Paladin, as one of the classes without any kind of clean answer for this card, had to rely on the Unreliable Doomsayers or adopt a strategy built around mass-heals and end-game combos. This was a fatally flawed strategy in a meta filled with Hexes and mass board flood that Paladin couldn’t handle due to its lack of spot removal outside of Equality.

The absence of these cards gives Paladin the breathing room to adopt a more pro-active strategy without being bowled over in the first few turns. More than anything, this emphasizes how a class can be buffed by what cards don’t exist, as much as by cards that do.


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A Guide to the Clutch Adapt

With Un’goro’s release merely hours away at the time of writing, it’s a good time to gain a better understanding of one of its key mechanics: Adapt. Adapt is a new keyword that gives your minions a chance to discover a choice between three of ten potential positive buffs. To refresh your memory, they are:

  • +3 Attack
  • +3 Health
  • +1/+1
  • Divine Shield
  • Windfury
  • Deathrattle: Summon two 1/1s
  • Stealth until your next turn
  • Can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers
  • Taunt
  • Poisonous

The scale and variety of options, each with a differing level of board impact, threat, value, and survivability, can make it hard to evaluate. Not to mention the discover mechanic can make it hard to visualize probabilities. To help out, I’ve put together four common strategies you want to fulfill with adapt, and how likely you are to pull it off (note: probabilities are rounded to nearest 5% for ease of remembrance).

Toughness for minion trading

Best outcomes (50% chance):
  • +3 Health
  • Divine Shield
Decent outcomes (30% chance):
  • +1/+1
  • Deathrattle: Summon 2 1/1s
All other outcomes (20% chance)

Ornery Direhorn is usually best with added defensive stats

This is probably the most likely situation to occur. You’re playing a larger minion into your opponent’s board, or dropping a minion and want to get pure value out of it, rather than ending the game. It’s not vital to dodge removal, you just want to make it as annoying as possible to kill.

The dream is usually +3 health or Divine Shield; these can add massively to the cards’ overall value, making it generally very tough for the opponent to remove. Combined, these two outcomes have a 50% chance at coming up as one of your three Adapt picks. +1/+1 or Deathrattle: summon 2 1/1s will sometimes be present when the “decent” aren’t (30% of the time to be exact). The remaining 20% of the time, you’ll be stuck with the relatively useless Stealth, Windfury, Poisonous, etc. However, these can still be useful in certain situations.

This is most likely to come up with cards like Ornery Direhorn, Thunder Lizard, and Verdant Longneck.

Power for immediate trading up

Best outcomes (50% Chance):
  • +3 attack
  • Poisonous
Decent Outcomes (20% chance):
  • +1/+1
All other outcomes (30% chance)

If you’re playing against a Hunter, there’s a good chance you’ll need to play around this card.

Best used for actively adapting a minion already in play, sometimes you want to trade up or threaten to trade up. The best outcomes are usually Poisonous or +3 attack, as each allows you to trade up amazingly efficiently; however +1/+1 can be good enough too. The first two options have a combined probability of 50%, but if you only need one damage, another 20% of the time +1/+1 will show up. The remaining 30% of the time you’ll be stuck with Divine Shield or Deathrattle: summon 2 1/1s as a consolation for the minion you were unable to kill.

This type of adapt is incredibly useful. As a a result, cards like Crackling Razormaw or the Paladin spell Adapt can swing early-game board control massively. For instance, you can turn your Alley Cat into a lethal removal tool, allowing you to gain huge value. It’s worth playing around this by not over-committing to high health Taunts that could be obliterated by a single Poisonous beast or Silver Hand Recruit.

Dodging removal

Best outcomes (50% chance):
  • Stealth until your next turn
  • Can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers
Decent outcomes (30% chance):
  • +3 health
  • Divine Shield
All other outcomes (20% chance)

Sometimes you just need to have something stick to end a game, but you know your opponent has that Hex, Execute, or Fireball. The best way to dodge these effects are with Stealth and Can’t be targeted, but these will occur only 50% of the time. In the meantime, you can take +3 health or Divine Shield for the 30% to decrease the odds of spot removal taking out your minion (though it won’t save you from hard removal!).

May be useful for any adapt minion.

Going for lethal

Best outcome (30% chance):
  • Windfury
Good outcome* (20% chance):
  • +3 attack

*May be better than Windfury on boards of low-attack minions.

Decent outcome (20% chance):
  •  +1/+1
All other outcomes (30% chance)

Not so gentle when a Murloc deck gets a four mana Bloodlust

Sometimes it’s best to just kill your opponent. Giving Windfury to a minion, all minions, or all murlocs, is a dream come true for pushing face damage. This has a 30% chance of occurring. Meanwhile, +3 attack also has a 30% chance (20% when Windfury is not an option). Finally, +1/+1 is less impressive, but still may be enough to end the game. Considering that these effects have a combined likelihood of 70%, it’s well worth playing around.

It is incredibly potent with Gentle Megasaur or Evolving Spores. It can also be useful with the Paladin card Adapt (though make sure you don’t give your Volcanosaur “can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers”).

Preventing lethal

Only relevant outcome (30% chance):
  • Taunt
All other outcomes (70% chance)

It’s probably not a good idea to rely on Adapt to gain a taunt. If you adapt once, you have only a 30% chance of being offered it. No other adapts offer immediate board impact to stop your opponent gaining lethal. Even with Volcanosaur’s or Ravenous Pterrodax’s two adapts, you only have a 50% chance to gain it. Still, it may save your skin in a clutch situation.

Just remember that it’s not necessary to double-taunt your Ornery Direhorn, though the BM value is impressive.

 

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment, via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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The Scariest Combos of Un’goro

For as long as card games have existed, players have combined cards in broken, degenerate ways. The imaginations and drives of a dedicated player-base will always exceed that of the developers, and as such new and exciting combos have the potential to break the game. Each new bout of cards offers new opportunities for exploitable shenanigans.
Hearthstone’s Journey to Un’goro expansion is no exception. More than perhaps any other expansion, there are a number of absurdly powerful combinations to create absurd situations, generate huge value, or simply kill your opponent.

Murloc Tidecaller and Rockpool Hunter

Murloc decks haven’t been too scary for a long time now. While the Finja package is in certain archetypes, full on tribal synergistic board-flood murlocs simply haven’t kept up with the growth of early game power. However, with the rotation out of Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem, they may be able to reestablish their place as the terror of the opening turns. Helping them is Rockpool Hunter, an incredibly strong card. Representing 3/4 of stats split across two bodies for two mana, it could snowball a one drop into a near insurmountable board advantage.

The most egregious of these on-curve plays would be Murloc Tidecaller into Rockpool Hunter. This creates a 3/3 and a 2/3 on turn two, which is perhaps better than Tunnel Trogg into Totem Golem, only with no overload in exchange for one less health. This could then be followed up with the nightmare of Murloc Warleader for a 3/3, a 6/3, and a 4/4 on turn three.

The ability of Murloc decks to generate huge early tempo and value with Rockpool Hunter might make them a very tempting option for certain classes, most notably Warlock and Shaman. The ability to buff the attack and health of high priority targets in the early and mid game shouldn’t be underestimated.

Jade Idol, Gadgetzan Auctioneer, and Earthen Scales

Jade Druid is a deck that has been dominating the hearts and minds, if not the statistics, of the Hearthstone world. Despite its overall poor showing, its ability to hard-counter certain types of control decks means it’s controversial to say the least. One of the counterplay mechanics against this deck, especially against Control and Midrange, is to simply rush them down or out-tempo them.

What Earthen Scales offers is an opportunity to turn the huge Jade Golems generated as part of a Gadgetzan Auctioneer turn, into a huge health advantage. With Auctioneer on Board, you even gain tempo with +1/+1 and draw a card. Meanwhile, you’ve forced your opponent to deal with your minions rather than your face. Earthen Scales is an extremely powerful combo tool that shores up Jade Druid’s weakness in a way that makes it potentially meta-dominating.

The Caverns Below, Fire Fly, and Igneous Elemental

 

Rogue’s new Quest seems hard to complete at first. The requirement of playing four minions with the same name seems to require a lot of effort to get to everything becoming a 5/5. However, things get a lot easier when you consider the new Elemental minions, Fire Fly and Igneous Elemental. These give you 1 and 2 1/2 Elementals respectively. This means that you simply need to draw two Igneous Elementals or one Igneous Elemental and two Fire Flys in order to activate the quest. Alternatively, you can just draw one Igneous Elemental, one Fire Fly, and a Shadowstep.

This makes it absurdly easy to activate the quest, leading to a turn four swing turn when you suddenly summon four 5/5s. This also means you can get other advantages, like not playing the quest on turn one, devoting the rest of your deck to more solid aggressive minions and spells instead of combo activators, and having more flexible activators for your end-game. A deck with Rogue’s almost uncompromised early game aggro, followed up by a Jaraxxus-like endless stream of 5/5s, after a huge early swing turn, could be potent indeed.

Time Warp, Arcane Giant, and Alexstrasza

Time Warp is one of those cards that stretches the limit of what’s possible. Its power is perhaps unrivaled by any card. It will likely break many cards and mechanics. One of the simplest of these involves playing two Arcane Giants, Time Warp, and then following up with Alexstrasza. This is one of the easiest one turn (or two turn, depending on how you look at it) kills in the game, requiring only four cards. Moreover, it promises to be exceedingly flexible, as Alexstrasza can be replaced with Fireballs if need be depending on the opponent’s life total.

Potentially more powerful kills exist, such as using Sorcerer’s Apprentices, Molten Reflections, and Archmage Antonidas to create infinite zero mana fireballs. However, this kill’s use of only four cards (one of which is guaranteed from the quest) makes it supremely reliable and consistent. It still can be countered though, most notably by taunt minions, Armor, and Dirty Rat.

Giving Mages a way to kill their opponent from nowhere is supremely powerful, as freeze mage has proven. Their arsenal of stall and board control tools makes them the ideal combo class for bursting the enemy down from 30 to zero over a turn or two.

Sulfuras and Auctionmaster Beardo

The ability for Auctionmaster Beardo to refresh the hero power on playing a spell is usually too low impact to be worth considering. However, that could all change if instead of gaining health, you’re tossing fireballs. With Warrior’s ability to have all of the upside of becoming Ragnaros without any of the armor-shredding or health-losing downsides, the option to cycle small spells and burst down the opponent seems very tempting.

Warrior has a slew of impactful low mana spells, even zero mana ones, leading to up to three hero powers with Beardo on the board. If Beardo manages to stick, they can almost certainly finish off any opponent.

Of course, getting to this position may be tricky. it may be more reliable simply to run additional taunt minions in order to activate the hero power a turn earlier than what would otherwise occur.

Carnassa’s Brood and Tundra Rhino

The Hunter Quest turned quite a few heads on its release. A five mana 8/8 is one thing, but filling your deck with one mana cycling 3/2s is potent indeed. Even more potent could be potential combos with Tundra Rhino.

By giving your Beasts Charge, Tundra Rhino could help turn the ever-cycling raptors into cannonballs to launch at the enemy face. You can easily generate massive damage and value if Rhino sticks, or as part of a combo turn. With a Stampede spell thrown in the mix, you can generate huge value in addition to killing the opponent.

The other route to go down is even more interesting. If you can play Hemet and Jungle Hunter prior to the quest reward, you could make your deck almost entirely raptors. This makes the combo far more consistent, as well as allowing you to easily draw through to your potent high-mana minions.

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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Elemental Synergies: Curvestone or Counterplay?

There are three main themes to the upcoming Journey to Un’goro expansion. Quests, Adapting dinosaurs, and Elementals all involve never before seen mechanics that may introduce new and exciting gameplay.

Unlike the more intricate Quests and unreliable Adapts, Elementals and their dependents have relatively straightforward activators. It is different than Murloc synergies, which require Murlocs on the board, or Dragon synergies, which revolve around keeping Dragons in the hand. Elemental synergies will be dependent on whether or not you’ve played an Elemental on the previous turn.

Powerful but slow?

Stoneshaper is powerful, but it can mess up Elemental sequencing. Perhaps promoting off-curve play?

The immediate impact of Elemental decks’ synergy requirements is a lack of explosive early game. Unlike Dragon Decks, which can get off a powerful overstated minion like Alexstrasza’s Champion, Twilight Whelp, or Wrymrest Agent simply by having a card in hand, Elemental decks require an Elemental played first. Furthermore, no powerful one or two mana Elemental synergy cards have been revealed yet. This means no overpowered minions coming down on turn one or two.

This means that Elemental decks may find it hard to commit to the aggressive strategies often favoured by Dragon variants, especially Dragon Warrior. While the synergies are minion-dependent, it revolves around using them in a steady stream that slowly ramps up in power; not by rushing them out as fast as possible.

Sequencing and skill

Elementals also offer a chance for players to test their strategic and tactical talents. Because each Elemental effect is completely dependent on what happens on the previous turn, inter-turn sequencing and managing resources is paramount.

Due to the power of Elemental-dependent minions that are not necessarily Elementals themselves, it will often be necessary to plan out turns well in advance. The strong but situational swings of Ozruk or Kalimos will require a careful manipulation of the board state for maximum benefit. All while having to commit in advance by playing Elemental resources.

Elemental counterplay

This also provides a massive opportunity for counterplay. Not playing an Elemental broadcasts a temporary inability to invoke the powerful synergistic effects. This allows both a hand read and a temporary freedom from being blown out by certain effects.

Players could even bait out tempting Elemental plays in advance, starving the opponent of resources with which to activate the synergies. All this provides more opportunity for interaction and counterplay by canny opponents.

Furthermore, the classes where Elementals are being pushed hardest are the ones with powerful spells. Shamans and Mages can make more decisions, and might focus harder on a few high quality Elemental minions. They could do this by weaving more spells into their gameplan. This would naturally synergize with the limited number of Elementals.

Same old Curvestone?

Draw RNG can make the impact of Blazecaller varied, and make wins more snowbally

Of course, this might just be over-optimistic theorycrafting. The realities of the brutal tempo-based gameplay of Hearthstone means that holding back combos for optimal use may not be viable. While it’s nice to imagine that the most skilled players will hold onto their most powerful Elementals for the perfect synergies, getting bodies on board and hoping you topdeck an enabler in the meantime might end up being the superior strategy.

This is compounded by the likely midrange style encouraged by the Elemental’s theme of anti-aggro, beefy minions. Follow that up with minion centered tempo swings. Such decks want to play their minions out as big and as fast as possible. This rarely leaves much room for card-draw; and less card-draw means less decision-making, as on any given turn fewer options will be available.

As such, any impact on the gameplan outside of traditional midrange decks will have to be taken with a grain of salt. Hearthstone will likely be very similar to how it’s always been for the decks that best utilize Elemental synergies.

A meta impact

Tar Creeper may be the bane of Pirate Warrior

One potential upside to Elemental decks may come outside of their playstyle. Many of the Elemental and Elemental synergistic cards are powerful anti-aggro taunt minions. This could cause problems for current meta tyrant, Pirate Warrior. A Tar Creeper or Tol’vir Stoneshaper is a tricky obstacle for Pirate Warrior to overcome at any stage of the game (to say nothing of Kalimos’ insane healing ability). Meanwhile, the ability to use cards like Blazecaller to play threats while removing enemy midrange minions might mean the deck would have the mid-game beef to take on Jade Druid.

However, as always, the true impact of Elemental decks is yet to be seen. Without any play-testing, it’s impossible to tell whether Elemental decks will even see any play. Whatever happens, it’s likely Shaman has received tools to survive, even in a world without Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem.

 

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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