The defining neutral cards of the Frozen Throne

Strong neutrals can define metas, and Knights of the Frozen Throne was no exception. From headline eight drops to snowballing dragons, the expansion’s most powerful neutral cards have all shaped the expansion’s most impactful decks. While Death Knights and Jades stole the show, these cards have been quietly working in the background to warp the meta around them.

The Lich King

A go-to for late-game value, the Lich has gotten a bit slow for today’s meta

One of the expansion’s first neutral hits, Arthas, could conceivably be included in almost any deck. With beefy stats, a defensive Taunt and powerful card-advantage grating ability, he was near ubiquitous early on. This was especially true during the reign of Jade Druid. Thanks to Druid’s limited removal, he could be a handy curve topper for Midrange and Control alike. His massive popularity even helped create a mini-meta where the Black Knight was commonly run.

The late-expansion meta treats him less kindly, however. As decks become more refined, big blobs of late-game value are harder and harder to justify. Especially when other late-game powerhouses like others on this list had more immediate board impact for less mana.

Bonemare

Making Don Hancho cry since 2017

King of seven in Arena and Constructed alike, Dr. Bone is still as popular as ever. Initial experiments with synergy cards like Skelemancer proved its value. Even without the synergy, its huge package of impactful stats justified its continued inclusion. Originally finding a home in Midrange Paladin, it has migrated over to the more popular Tempo Rogue.

Not only content to be a powerful inclusion in a number of board-centric Constructed decks, as a super-powerful Common it also has a huge Arena impact. The sheer stat efficiency of this card, coupled with the huge board swing, will likely mean that it will be a strong inclusion in any Midrange deck as long as it’s in Standard. Luckily, it has soft counters; Shadowreaper Anduin, turn six board clears and Silence effects can heavily limit its power.

Skulking Geist

When a six mana 4/6 that doesn’t impact the board was heavily played, you know that Jade was too powerful

Skulking Geist is arguably the worst card on this list, but it saw huge amounts of play regardless. When pre-nerf Jade Druid dominated ladder, Geist was one of the only ways Control could hope to survive at all. By discarding the infinite Idol win condition, Geist gave a faint hope of outlasting. However, the raw power of old Jade often overwhelmed its opponent regardless.

Despite all this, Geist saw large amounts of play across Control of all stripes. It created interesting side-effects too; catching other one mana spells in the wake of its scattershot approach to destroying Idols. Even now, if you’re facing off against a Control deck, it’s often wise to liberally spend your one mana spells before they get gobbled up by the greedy ghoul. Less popular now as Jade has become marginally less meta-defining, it’s still a must have for any decks that want to fatigue out their opponents.

Prince Keleseth

Like other buildarounds, Keleseth increases diversity at the cost of draw RNG

Keleseth was never meant to be this good. Reviews and expectations panned it, initially with good reason. Before the Fiery War Axe and Innervate nerfs, it seemed unlikely that any aggressive deck could compete with Pirate Warrior and Aggro Druid without two-drops. But as these dominating early strategies fell away, Keleseth deck’s slower approach was given room to breathe.

The card is polarising; incredibly potent when drawn and crippling when not, but decks like Tempo Rogue and some Zoolocks are able to forgo this downside and do okay enough without it to justify its inclusion. Keleseth can easily win the early board single handedly, making every one of your subsequent plays outclass the opponent’s. Combined with Shadowstep and Patches, it can look almost reminiscent of Quest Rogue with the right hand.

Cobalt Scalebane

Far better than that other five mana tribal card with Cobalt in its name

Cobalt Scalebane almost screams arena card. Its mediocre stats and slow, win-more effect is strong in Arena, yes; but it also has been surprisingly effective in Constructed. It provides a solid five-drop for any deck that wants it, and is decent even without board control.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to its success has been the rise of Priest. Priest has almost no good ways to deal with this. Surviving Dragonfire and all other Priest AOE, only Shadowreaper or Shadow Word Death are effective counters. And when this card comes down on five, it puts you on a terrifyingly short clock. While it may lose out if Priest falls in popularity or more immediately impactful five-drops come along, it’ll likely be turning 1/1’s into 4/1’s for some time.

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Custom cards via Hearthcards.net.

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The Freeze Shaman dilemma

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

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

Commitment and payoff

freeze

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

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

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

Over-investment

freeze

Discard held Warlock back

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

Intermittent support for discard didn’t help the deck in later expansions. While Mean Streets saw few Discard effects as the Kabal’s highlander effects were prioritised, in Un’goro, Discard was ramped up. The eventually culminated in the nigh-unplayable Warlock Quest, with discard and Warlock as a whole seeing terrible performance and representation on Ladder.

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

Is Freeze worth following up on?

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

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

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

Soft support

freeze

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

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

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

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


 

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basic

It’s time to decide the purpose of Basic

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

The Tutorial

Teaching tools just need to be simple

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

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

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

The Skeleton

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

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

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

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

The Fallback

basic

Even mediocre cards can be valuable in some metas

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

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

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

Communication

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

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

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

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ultimate infestation

Is Ultimate Infestation overpowered?

ultimate infestation

Ultimate Infestation is part of Druid’s dominance

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

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

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

Simple addition

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

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

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

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

The biggest number

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

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

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

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

Equal among peers

Ultimate Infestation

Ultimate Infestation is arguably just a worse Varian Wrynn

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

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

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

Outclassed

Ultimate Infestation

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, overpowered is OK

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

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

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


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

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tech

Tech to beat the new expansion meta

Knights of the Frozen Throne is mere hours from NA release at the time of writing. Theorycrafting is in full swing, and players are eager to unleash their shiny new cards and decks upon the ladder. Others are greedily seizing upon the opportunity to climb with last meta’s most efficient decks. It’s a perfect time for deck tech to shine.

This can be a tricky meta to navigate. A combination of crazily greedy decks featuring flashy new legendaries like the Lich King can be a struggle for reactive decks to deal with. Meanwhile, those sticking to old-fashioned aggro provide a challenge to those seeking to innovate. So how do you navigate this oddly polarised ladder experience?

Frostmourne belongs in a Museum

Eat their Death Knight dreams with a gloopy spit

One recurring theme of the expansion has been a number of incredibly powerful weapons. Warrior’s new Deaths-bite-alike Blood Razor threatens uber-efficient removal. Rogue’s Shadowblade and supporting Doomerang offer weapon damage without hurting Valeera herself. Both the Warrior and Paladin Death Knight Hero come with hugely powerful weapons attached that represent huge tempo and value swings. Not to mention the Lich King himself (and Arfas) can fetch the terrifying Frostmourne, a weapon that threatens to resurrect all minions it kills.

The answer to all this massive weapon value? Well, luckily Hearthstone has a built-in pressure valve for strong weapons. Weapon hate like Harrison Jones, Acidic Swamp Ooze and Gluttonous Ooze can quickly put an end to the value fiesta. What’s more, this kind of weapon hate is perfect to survive and turn the clock against the hyper-aggressive Pirate Warrior. Punishing this hyper-aggressive deck is a great strategy to stop those seeking to sneak out a quick legend amidst bumbling homebrews.

The tempo treatment

The solution to wacky combos and crazy legendaries is good old-fashioned mana efficiency

Tech doesn’t always mean playing specific cards. Often it’s as much a matter of playstyle and deck choice. In a highly varied, experimental meta, it’s often hard to play reactive decks. Playing as Control is dependent on knowing what you’re up against. You can’t be prepared for the kind of mad, greedy combos that will be thrown at you.

Instead, decks that push a specific gameplan with powerful tempo plays are likely to be even further rewarded than usual. Aggressive Midrange or Combo like Miracle Rogue or Midrange Hunter decks are likely to see a lot of success. Their brand of snowballing mid-game board presence is especially difficult to deal with by unrefined Control. While Aggro can be shut down by new lifesteal and taunt minions, aggressive Midrange can provide the beefy late game to bring games to a close despite Taunts, Heal and whatever else Control throws at you. Doing more for your mana than they can is a sure-fire way to victory.

The downside is a limited ability to react to the opponent’s gameplan before you can execute yours. This is where tech cards can come in most handy; as they allow you to push your gameplan of mid-game minions while severely hampering your opponent’s strategies.

Let none pass

 

The Lich King’s popularity could be his undoing

The Lich King is one of the flashiest and most impressive legendaries of Knights of the Frozen Throne. The souped-up Ironbark Protector is likely to see considerable play. His less flashy cousin, Bonemare, also has generated significant praise. Both promise big late-game taunts that could be a nightmare for many classes to deal with. Both Aggro and Control struggle to deal with these kinds of big, valuable bodies that prevent you going face or killing threatening minions.

 

If your deck lacks removal for these kinds of threats, then consider adding some way to destroy or avoid it. The Black Knight is a Classic taunt counter and can provide huge tempo swings. Particularly against the Lich King, he’s a devastating late-game board swing. For decks like Midrange Hunter that otherwise lacks removal, he could be an invaluable combination of beefy body and powerful effect.

Shush

“Lot of stats, but weak to silence” covers a lot of new minions

If you can’t  quite stomach the 6 mana for a 4/5, consider running a Silence. Spellbreaker can provide a fantastic tempo swing, especially against the buffed bodies of Bonemare. With a myriad of new, interesting and powerful effects for players to test, silence is unlikely to go without targets. Deathrattles and buffs are a recurring theme of knights of the Frozen Throne, and Silence counters both.

While Silencing the Lich King isn’t quite as powerful as destroying him, it often is all you need to push for lethal. In return, you get a cheaper, more flexible minion that works on a number of targets. It also notably counters Lifesteal minions that otherwise could continually generate huge healing for the opponent.

Feeling crabby

Pirate Warrior is likely to try and prey on weak, unrefined decks: be ready

Crabs like Golakka Crawler are also a solid choice. If you get to a glut of Pirate Warriors, Golakka can provide the win rate edge you need without running the slew of reactive tools that can compromise your effectiveness against the hordes of experimental midrange and control.

Depending on how players choose to experiment, Hungry Crab might also be a sensible inclusion. A Divine Aggro Murloc Paladin featuring the new Righteous Protector could rise to early prominence. In which case, Hungry Crab will severely cut those explosive Murloc starts down to size.

If Divine Paladin truly takes off, then Blood Knight could be a fantastic, if specific, tech to tear through those Divine shields and generate absurd amounts of stats.

Don’t fear the tweaker

It’s survival of the fittest out there: adapt to survive! Though you still probably shouldn’t play Adaptation

Above all, the key to succeeding in the early expansion meta is adaptability. With so many cards and archetypes to test, the meta will change by the day, if not by the hour. Feel free to swap in techs, decks and new cards. Think about what works and what doesn’t and refine your deck further with each win or loss. Finding the optimal choice for both fun and wins is one of the best parts of a new expansion.

So get out there and give those other theory-crafted decks the testing of a lifetime!


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

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Knights of the Frozen Throne is Hearthstone’s boldest expansion yet

Knights of the Frozen Throne is less than a week from its August 10th release. With the majority of the cards released, Death Knight heroes are getting the lion’s share of attention and hype. But beyond these new undead heroes, Knights of the Frozen Throne is quietly pushing at the limits of Hearthstone’s core design philosophy in the boldest way yet.

Whether or not it will work out is still up in the air. Regardless, it’s hard not to admire the risks and brave steps the designers are taking with these exciting new cards.

Discarding from the opponent’s deck

boldest

Skulking Geist doesn’t care where your one mana spell is. Hand or deck, friend or foe, it’s getting destroyed

Tech cards traditionally interact with the board. Be it Hungry Crab or Harrison Jones, almost all specific counters deal with something in play. Dirty Rat pushed the envelope; it countered strong battlecries by threatening minions in the opponent’s hand. However, this type of tech card is insufficient in providing a counter to that enemy of Control: Jade Druid. You can’t interrupt the infinite shuffling of Jade Idols by any traditional mechanic.

But Skulking Geist is not traditional. Not only does the upcoming minion discard cards of a specific type for the opponent, it discards them from their deck. This is arguably the boldest tech or disruption card yet printed. Cards in your deck, providing you had the hand space to draw them, used to be sacrosanct. They were untouchable. However, Skulking Geist cares little for past convention, and will rip Jade Idols, Shield Slams and Inner Fires out of decks without mercy. It cannot be played around, and completely disrupts Jade Druid’s draw-till-they-drop gameplan.

How this will feel is yet to be seen. The level of community worry over the underwhelming Gnomeferatu’s deck discard effect indicates that players may react more negatively than expected. But considering the level of frustration and vitriol thrown at Jade idol, this may be a small price to pay.

Complex cards

boldest

Corpsetaker is wordy without being difficult to understand

Imp-losion was one of the swingiest cards of Goblins Vs Gnomes. Its outcome ranged form terrible (2 damage and 2 Imps) to crushingly powerful (4 damage and 4 Imps). Many publicly wondered why it didn’t follow a more balanced range of outcomes. For instance, the number of imps could vary inversely with the amount of damage (2 imps for 4 damage, or vice versa). However, it would break one of the implicit rules of Hearthstone: If a mechanic can’t be expressed incredibly simply, it can’t be on a card.

Knights of the Frozen Throne challenges this. Not only are there cards that involve complicated concepts like “If {condition}, cast this again”, there are cards with more text than seen yet. The boldest is Corpsetaker, which has a staggering 16 words spread across two sentences.

Longer descriptions and more complicated game mechanics can be taxing to learn. But it’s refreshing to see cards unafraid to flirt with wordiness. Too many good card ideas would be gimped by overly-conservative simplifications. In a game as complex as Hearthstone, it’s far more important that cards will do what they say they do.

Unprecedented deck manipulation

As Tavern Brawls have proven, creating a deck with many copies of a few super-powerful cards can be brokenly powerful

The amount of value in your deck used to be fixed and absolute. Fatigue was both a threat and a gameplan. However, Jade Idol broke those rules by allowing the shuffling of infinite value. Beyond Jade Idol, Knights of the Frozen Throne allows deck manipulation on an unprecedented scale. As I discussed in Why Dead Man’s Hand is impossible to evaluate, cards like Dead Man’s Hand and Archbishop Benedictus are the first time that players have had control of what cards they’re able to add to their deck on a massive scale.

With the Fatigue win condition irrelevant for a while now, this new mass deck manipulation allows alternate paths to victory. The potential of marrying Priest and, say, Mage, cards on a massive scale is a daunting one indeed. As is the potential of infinite N’zoths or endless streams of Arcane Giants. Still, this bold approach to solving the late-game value conundrum facing many control decks has huge potential.

A new Exodia

Could this be the face of the end of the world?

While combo deck’s “win conditions” have been apart of Hearthstone ever since the first one turn kills were established, they all had a hidden asterisk. Winning in Hearthstone has always been down to dealing damage; and that’s left it counters. Armor or cards like Ice Block interferes with them, making it so that there were counters to any conceivable combo. Even Un’goro’s Quest “Exodia” mage is undone by a well timed Dirty Rat, Ice Block, Counterspell or Eye for an Eye.

Knights of the Frozen Throne adds the first (non-Jaraxxus) way to kill your opponent that revolves not around damage, but simple destruction. Summoning all four “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” from Paladin’s Death Knight Hero Power will simply win the game immediately. This combo, combined with bounce effects, or hero-power refresh abilities, could potentially kill opponents even through defenses. Ice Block, insurmountable Armor totals, or even an Eye for an Eye while at one health would do nothing.

While still counterable by a clutch Dirty Rat, Coin denial (in Thaurissan-less standard), secrets like Potion of Polymorph or simply racing your opponent down, destroying your opponent without dealing down is one of the boldest combo introductions. This is simply because it’s not dependent on what every other combo has relied on: damage.

Tutoring for early removal

boldest

All your early-game needs in one handy package

Forge of Souls is freshly revealed at the time of writing, and is already looking like a strong inclusion in Control Warrior decks. Drawing two cards for two mana is almost always great value. Where Forge Souls breaks new, brave ground is in what it tutors. Tutoring is not new to Hearthstone, but the ability to tutor for early-game board control tools in the early game is.

If Forge Souls turns out to be a staple, it will completely upend Warrior’s consistency. The fabled guaranteed starting War Axe will look a lot more like reality, and the nightmare of a post-mulligan hand stuffed with unplayable spells and nine drops will become far less frequent. Forge Souls, together with War Axe and the New Blood Razor, is an early game in a box. Potentially, it could rescue even the clunkiest of starts.

This kind of massively improved early consistency will allow Warrior decks to more readily break deck-building rules. More importantly, Warrior will be at the mercy of early-game RNG far less frequency. This kind of added reliability to early game could not only reduce frustrations but also go a long way to making Hearthstone more competitive and skill-based. Or, at least restrict RNG to the entertaining Yogg-Saron variety rather than the perfect curve vs zero removal kind.

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

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Frozen Throne and the danger of sticky minions

It’s been a while since the days of overly sticky minions in Hearthstone’s Standard. Once-ubiquitous Deathrattles like Piloted Shredder, Haunted Creeper and Nerubian Egg have long since rotated out.

However, the upcoming Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion promises to bring with it an undead host of new Deathrattle minions. Have the Hearthstone Developers at Team 5 learned their lesson? Or will sticky Deathrattles return to dominate the meta?

What is stickiness?

sticky

To understand stickiness, think the opposite of Magma Rager

“Stickiness” is a term in Hearthstone that expresses how difficult a card is to remove proportional to its mana cost. For a classic example, compare Magma Rager to Harvest Golem. Both cost three mana. However, Magma Rager can be completely removed with only one instance of one damage, whereas Harvest Golem requires three damage and then one damage to clear completely. The idea that more health equals more stickiness may seem obvious, but stickiness means more than just health.

Look at Piloted Shredder and compare it to Chillwind Yeti. Piloted Shredder is considered stickier because despite having less health than the yeti, it overall tends to have equal or more health (its two health Deathrattle drop is usually a 3/2, 2/2 or 2/3). But most importantly, killing a Shredder requires two sources of damage rather than just one. A single Fireball or Savannah Highmane attack kills a Yeti, but leaves a Shredder Deathrattle on the field.

Undercosted survivability

sticky

Early sticky minions were extremely competitively costed

Hearthstone’s history is full of certain card attributes being over or under-valued. Just take a look at healing in Classic. Holy Light, Guardian of Kings, Priestess of Elune and Healing Touch remain significantly overcosted.

Meanwhile, aggressive abilities and attributes like attack and windfury were also repeatedly overcosted, while survivability (especially in the form of Deathrattles) has been continually undercosted. Look at the scores of unused underpowered Windfury minions, or high attack Taunts, that have gone almost entirely unused outside of arena.

Then compare it to the scores of powerful Deathrattle minions from early in Hearthstone’s development. Harvest Golem, Cairne and Savannah Highmane are the only Classic minions that summon friendly minions on death, and all have seen massive competitive play. Alongside Naxxramas and GvG’s cohort of ubiquitous Neutral Deathrattles, the necessity of an adjustment quickly became clear.

Killing everything twice

sticky

Hunter’s strength is in its sticky minions; but you wouldn’t want, say, Druid, to have access to the same power

The problem with such sticky minions is that it begins to undermine the value of removal. There’s little point in Flamestrike if every minion has low health but summons something on death. When AOE doesn’t clear, then slower decks suffer. Stickiness also leads to distortions in the meta; with so much more on the board at any given moment, buffs and adjacency bonuses get an additional kick in value. Cards like Bloodlust and Savage Roar become even scarier. The potential punishes for going face decreases, as minions end up being too hard to kill efficiently.

The overall effect is that it leads to a more aggressive, more snowbally game, with fewer interesting comebacks and less tactical decision-making. Which is fine for some decks (it’s part of the identity of hunter), but when applied to the entire meta it quickly becomes overly punishing.

Learning from the past

Luckily, Hearthstone’s developers appear to be learning from past misjudgments. The most recent slew of Deathrattle minions that summon minions have a far more conservative cost. The only minions to summon minions unconditionally in Un’goro are Eggnapper (relatively weak but saw some play in Druid), Devilsaur Egg (a more expensive Nerubian that has seen very moderate experimental play) and Sated Threshadon (an unequivocally Arena-only card that sees play only in the greediest of N’zoth decks).

While Aya Blackpaw was an egregious outlier, she’s the exception that proves the rule. Almost all Deathrattle minions that summon minions printed since Whispers of the old Gods are either Hunter-only, synergy-specific or relatively under-statted for their cost. Because of this, we’re now in a meta where AOE is more prevalent and removal is more useful. It has become easier to explore interesting synergies and control decks. But if the devs shy away from powerful, sticky Deathrattles, what will Frozen Throne bring to Hearthstone?

Deathrattles without stickiness

sticky

The most interesting Deathrattles often don’t summon minions

The answer, of course, is that Deathrattles need not summon friendly minions. Some of the most interesting and powerful Deathrattles have been on cards with new and unique effects. Take Deathlord, an anti-aggro staple that fit into a wide variety of unique decks. Or for a newer example, Un’goro’s Direhorn Hatchling, a boon to N’zoth and Taunt Warrior alike without a powerful board impact. Or even the now Hall of Fame dwelling Sylvanas, that actively countered sticky minions by stealing them or their output wholesale.

The only Frozen Throne Deathrattle released so far is the Shallow Gravedigger. This grants a Deathrattle minion, providing card advantage instead of board presence. Here’s hoping that other Frozen Throne minions follow a similar philosophy. We don’t want to end up with a Piloted Zombie Shredder instead.


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

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Wild shows why we need Standard

We’re coming up on 18 months since the announcement of Standard. It’s taken that long for the first “official” Blizzard-organised Wild tournament to take place. This Open, which finished yesterday with a close-fought final between two skilled players intimately familiar with the format, is well worth watching, so I won’t spoil the victor. But don’t just watch it for the exciting games; watch it because it’s a perfect example of why the controversial and difficult cleaving of Hearthstone’s Constructed format into two separate game-modes was ultimately necessary.

Standard was vital not just to keep players buying new packs; it was needed to keep Hearthstone as we know it intact.

Set Theory

Looking back, standard seems an inevitable consequence of the development of Hearthstone; but it wasn’t always that way. Diverging away from the idea of all cards being eternal and together in a single constructed mode took courage, vision and a fair amount of ruthlessness. This meant radically altering the pool of cards in a way more extreme than had ever been attempted before, with all the inherent balancing issues that could arise. Not only that, but dealing with the fallout of a financially and emotionally invested player-base would prove difficult to navigate.

The reasoning, expressed in the relentlessly upbeat PR-speak that lacks some of the frankness and honesty of the less meticulously scripted balance discussions, was succinctly expressed in the title of the announcement: “A New Way to Play”. The implication, of course, that Standard would be “New” as Wild would be “Old”. Standard, with its ever changing cluster of sets, held together by the glue of Basic and Classic was to be “fresh, exciting, and accessible”.

Expensive Antiques

Artist: Jesper Ejsing. Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard doesn’t trust new players to navigate more than nine deckslots – they can’t demand they learn five expansions

When listing the advantages of splitting Standard and Wild, that “accessible” part is worth considering. For every veteran who lost their precious collection of Legendaries to a far less forgiving format, there would likely be a newer player who without Standard would be forced to buy a confusing array of Adventures and packs from multiple expansions simply to compete. If Adventure dependent, class defining powerhouses that dominate Wild like Haunted Creeper, Reno Jackson or Flamewaker were forever locked behind paywalls of thousands of gold or scores of dollars, it would be nigh impossible to build a collection without going through months of grind or shelling out an unreasonable amount of money.

This, of course, does not cover the added cost of having multiple legendaries that would likely be eternal in Wild due to their sheer efficiency in certain types of deck. Standard is necessary for new players to be able to play the game to a tolerable extent.

Synergy-Powered Aggro

Nine health on turn four isn’t normal: but on Wild it is

Aggro used to be relatively straightforward. Efficient early minions and burn were the two ingredients, and the rest wrote itself. Classic examples included old Face Hunter and Aggro Shaman, both of which simply jammed in whatever card was good, cheap or could point face. However, this old philosophy is being supplanted. As the Wild card pool expands, Aggro decks can tightly refine their lists around a bevy of dominating synergies. Pirate Warrior in Wild gains incredible synergistic power that supplements the potent Weapons and Pirates combination simply through the addition of Ship’s Cannon. Tempo Mage can curve lower and more aggressively with the added synergistic burn power of Flamewaker.

Ever traditional sedate Priest with “slow” cards like Zombie Chow and Deathlord can become a deadly aggressive deck with the right synergistic tools, in decks like Control’s recent tournament entry.

The Old Way to Play?

Ironically, Standard’s success is in how little it changes rather than how much. Games of Hearthstone in Standard are still fundamentally similar to games from one, two or even three years ago. There are midrange, aggro and control decks; there are no insane sources of healing or easy overwhelming early-game burst combos. Minions die when you kill them, and there are no huge spikes of power at any given mana cost. Synergies are potent, but not overwhelming.

Wild on the other hand is mutating into something far different. Fun and exciting, with huge room for innovation and skill; but also unforgiving, aggressive and revolving around increasingly interwoven webs of synergistic power. Reynad’s infamous prediction that even the maligned Dr. Boom could be too slow for Wild someday soon is already coming true.

Simply put, Standard’s great success has been rotating old cards in order to keep things the same. Wild will use the same cards forever, but will change Hearthstone beyond recognition. Luckily, both experiences are fun, exciting and well-supported. We should all watch the development of Wild with interest; even if we have to retreat to the sensible safety of Standard.

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

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Will Quest Rogue Survive its Nerf?

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

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

Crystal Core is Core

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

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

Shadow Strike or Assassinate don’t quite work as replacements

What’s One More Bounce?

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

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

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

A Slower Solution?

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

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

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

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

A Meta-Changing Nerf

Expect plenty more Jade Druid

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

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

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

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

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

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In praise of Medivh

It’s not easy to design high cost cards that are fun, powerful and interesting. For every Ysera or Y’shaarj, there’s a Gruul or Boogeymonster. Or, even worse, a boring yet overpowered card like Dr. Boom. One of the recent triumphs in high-cost neutral legendary designs came in the form of the final Karazhan Legendary: Medivh, The Guardian. This 8 cost neutral Legendary represents a wide variety of positive factors that make him a powerful, flexible, but not obnoxious bomb with which to swing games.

Synergies that make you think

Atiesh is powerful, but only within the right deck

Medivh and his Atiesh battlecry is a unique, powerful effect that works best with high-cost spells. This has a number of impacts.

Firstly, the requirement of synergies to be effective, especially of cards that are otherwise clunky and reactive limits hit use in a positive way. Unlike Dr. Boom, Ragnaros or Tirion, he cannot simply be jammed in any aggressive midrange as a finisher. Only Control-oriented decks would consider running the kind of cards that make Medivh viable. By reducing his ubiquity, the card becomes more niche and interesting.

Secondly, the synergies open up new deckbuilding options and innovations. Otherwise overlooked cards like Free From Amber or Pyroblast gain new leases of life as part of a high-powered package. Medivh introduces new variety by incentivising these deckbuilding decisions and makes lesser seen, flavourful spells more relevant. Class defining classics like Mind Control can even return due to their newfound ability to provide huge tempo swings.

Banking Tempo for Massive Value

Medivh is an interesting contradiction. Whilst initially a low-tempo option that does not impact the board (unless you are forced to swing with the 1 damage Atiesh), the effect of the weapon allows for massive swings later on. It helps with the traditionally underwhelming impact of big spells that provide value but not board control. Take for instance Twisting Nether. While a powerful effect, it takes up your entire turn in most cases, and still leaves the opponent an empty board to develop onto. Medivh, however, turns that into a full board swing, leaving you a beefy 8 drop uncontested. This is perfect for the kind of late-game board swings desired by Control.

The versatility of Atiesh is also a great test of skill. Players can hold onto cheap spells and use all 3 charges on high-cost spells in some cases, or spend those Frostbolts and Shadow Words tactically to provide added power and tempo on key turns. By providing multiple alternative paths, it opens up more choices and opportunity to take interesting lines.

Never Ubiquitous

Too many Atieshes in your metagame? There’s plenty of museums dying to take them off your hands with the help of a wily adventurer

Unlike Dr. Boom or Ragnaros, there is no danger of Medivh ever getting out of control. This is down to two factors. One is that his effect is inherently counterable. The majority of his value comes from Atiesh, making him vulnerable to Weapon removal like Acidic Swamp Ooze. Harrison Jones, in particular, is a brutal counter. This means that should Medivh ever become too popular, there’s a natural counter for slower decks seeking to curb his impact.

The other aspect is how Atiesh only synergises with certain classes and strategies. Paladin and Warrior may run slow decks, but can’t include the high-cost spells necessary to squeeze out enough value from him. Even if Medivh becomes increasingly powerful in Priest or Mage, he’s unlikely to spread much further simply due to the paucity of effective high-cost spells with suitable effects.

Too Random?

While Medivh has a number of positive features, there are some aspects of his abilities that make him potentially troublesome. Most obvious is the inherent RNG of Atiesh. The difference between getting Tirion or Anomalus can be game-losing. Though it makes for interesting gameplay variation, the wide spread in power level of especially high-cost minions is troublesome. It also necessitates the balancing of certain mana slots with sub-statted minions (see Tortollan Primalist).

However, all this can be overlooked. The flavourful, powerful and interesting design of Medivh is a great blueprint for other high-cost Neutral Legendaries to come.


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

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