weapon

Where’s all the weapon removal?

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

Some weapons are more Legendary than others

weapon

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

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

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

Where are the other weapons?

weapon

Even Paladins typically only run two Rallying Blades

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

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

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

Squeezed out

weapon

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

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

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

A better tech?

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

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

An oozy future?

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

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Will post-nerf Cubelock conquer all?

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

The untouched terror

cubelock

Control Warlocks lost nothing to balance changes

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

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

Counters will rise

cubelock

Perhaps Quest Rogue could return to challenge Warlock?

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

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

Wrecking with teching

cubelock

Cards like polymorph hard-counter many Cubelock minions

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

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

Ruler of the rotation

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

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

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Dirty Rat

Ode to a Rat

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

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

A flavourful felon

Dirty Rat

What a charming fella

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

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

Johnny’s dream

Dirty Rat

The card has some powerful and unexpected synergies

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

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

Counterplay for days

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

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

Dirty Rat

Dirty Rat helped keep Quest Rogue in check

The Disaster Artist

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

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

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

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Rotation, schmotation: Hearthstone needs balance changes now

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

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

How long can this go on?

rotation

A lot of familiar faces (via vicioussyndicate.com)

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

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

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

Wild is not your dumping ground

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Wild Reno Priest has the potential to be extremely oppressive

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

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

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

Greed is not a good look

rotation

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

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

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

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

A matter of principle

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

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

 

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Charge is still a problem

Mike Donais once infamously said that one of the most design-space limiting cards was Stonetusk Boar. The truth of this statement came to the fore in the days of pre-nerf Quest Rogue, where charging 5/5s dominated the ladder. Charge cards faced nerf after nerf; often remaining in the meta. Just take Leeroy Jenkins; the infamous chicken-loving finisher that still terrorizes in Tempo Rogue. Or Cubelock, that dominates with charging Demons. With so many frustrating, powerful and hard to predict interactions, is it time to rethink Charge?

King Leeroy

Leeroy is problematic, but restricts design space less than other Charge cards

Leeroy is a single card that is the most emblematic of the problems with charge. Ubiquitous in aggro, his 6 damage burst and combo potential both creates a huge neutral power spike and limits design space.

Already nerfed from 4 to 5 mana, Leeroy looks to be in line for a change. Perhaps the best would simply to be a move to wild. But Leeroy’s problems aren’t shared by other charge minions. As the only efficient standalone neutral charge finisher, his problems are more related to power level than design space. Other cards offer more troubling implications outside of mere power level. New mechanics interact with charge in a way that threatens to greatly reduce what can be printed in the future.

The Cubelock warning

Cheating out Doomguard without the downsides can create some incredible combos

The latest Charge card to have scary combo potential is Zoo staple Doomguard, but in Cubelock’s combo/control shell. While this is fun for now, twenty or more charge damage with very little counterplay may grow tiresome; especially since the deck loses almost nothing after the next rotation.

The deck’s combo revolves around cheating out Doomguard with either Skull of the Man’ari or Possessed Lackey and copying multiple times with Carivorous Cube Spiritsinger Umbra and Dark Pact. Then, those Doomguards can be revived with Bloodreaver Gul’dan for even more damage. The deck is powerful, innovative and fun as hell; but it’s also a warning sign. Recruit is an interesting mechanic, but so far its primary use is throwing damage at face in unexpected ways. This can restrict the design space of future interesting recruit or duplication cards.

Charge’s passive problem

The problem Charge faces with recruit is similar to that posed with resurrect effects. Big Priest has an ineffective but interesting aggro variant, that revives Charged Devilsaurs for huge face damage. Despite its poor performance, it provides an interesting parallel to Cubelock. Crucially, Charge minions often have downsides to counteract their combo potential and power. These downsides, such as Doomguard’s Discard or Devilsaur’s inability to go face, tend to be as a battlecry. However, Charge is not a battlecry effect, it is a passive and permanent one. As such, when the downsides are averted by non-standard summon effects, charge remains.

This creates a problem, as interesting summon effects are becoming core to a number of new archetypes. As these strategies increase, the potential for broken interactions goes up exponentially.

Should Charge be a battlecry?

Making certain cards grant Charge as a battlecry would alleviate this issue. Downsides exist for a reason; so if something circumvents them, it makes sense that Charge should be circumvented too. This would severely cut into some fun new decks that are appearing; like Cubelock, Woecleaver Warrior or Dino Priest. But perhaps this is a price worth paying for a greater design space?

Well maybe. But in a world where Priest is dishing out insane OTKs with Shadowreaper, and Mage has a legitimate infinite-damage engine, is a few charging minions really so bad? Any change to charge minions may be necessary long term. But it might make sense to wait until the next rotation to do so.

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KnC Banner

Kobolds and Catacombs Day 1 Deck Theorycrafting

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

The Meta

Dragon Priest

KnC Dragon Priest

Dragon Priest Decklist

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

 

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

 

 Zoo Warlock

KnC Zoo Warlock

Zoolock Decklist

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

 

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

 

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

Big Druid

KnC Big Druid

Big Druid Decklist

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

 

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

 

Tempo Rogue

KnC Tempo Rogue

Tempo Rogue Decklist

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

 

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

 

Highlander Priest

KnC Highlander Priest

Highlander Priest Decklist

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

 

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

 

The Non-Meta

Combo Hunter

KnC Combo Hunter

Combo Hunter Decklist

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

 

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

Conclusion

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

 

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The Control crushers

Three deck archetypes squash the hopes of almost any late-game control strategy. Their powerful combos punish those who want to win later than turn 10, relegating them to tier four. With Kobolds and Catacombs just around the corner, will these powerful decks be usurped? Or will new cards only reinforce their dominance of the late-game? And will rotation mean we’ll be finally free of them?

Jade Druid

The original anti-fatigue archetype is as strong as ever. Though it’s by far less oppressive than in the dark days before the Innervate and Spreading Plague nerf, it still takes up a sizable part of the ladder. If you find yourself trapped in a hive of Jade Druids, then your Control deck will have a bad time. Aside from their infamous resistance to fatigue, their rapid ramping of both mana and Jade Golems makes them a tough matchup. Ultimate Infestation drives a potent draw engine that leaves little breathing room to play a Skulking Geist to halt the green onrush.

More worryingly, Jade Druid looks to be shoring up many of its weak points. In the upcoming Kobolds and Catacombs expansion, Jaspar Spellstone is especially worrying. The one mana upgradable removal spell looks like exactly the kind of efficient minion removal Druid was lacking. Once upgraded, one mana for six damage is brutally efficient, leaving the deck with even fewer weaknesses.

Luckily, Jade can only reign for so long. The meta-defining mechanic is finally due to rotate out in the first expansion of 2018, leaving Standard for good. Though it may terrorize Wild for eternity, Jade can’t keep Standard Control decks down for long.

Is another of Druid’s key weaknesses about to be bypassed?

Razakus Priest

control

Velen can kill players from 30 with ease in Razakus

Who knew that Priest would become one of the most oppressive archetypes in Hearthstone? Well, perhaps anyone who’s been paying attention to the typical pendulum swing of Blizzard’s class balance. Regardless, Priest is now top dog, and Highlander variations are some of the best performing. This deck is the second most popular on ladder, and part of the appeal comes from the ability to crush Control. The endless damage of the Raza/Shadowreaper combo is relentless once it gets going. The constant burn is near-impossible to withstand. Even in decks with huge amounts of healing, Velen and Mind Blast along with other cheap spells grant the deck OTK potential. Only Druid and Warrior’s armor-gain can hope to outlast it; and even they fail more often than not.

Razakus looks to get even stronger next expansion. Two new powerful AOEs in Duskbreaker and Psychic Scream will add massively to the deck’s consistency. While the former requires a Dragon package and thus may not be included, the latter’s unconditional mass clear especially punishes Control who seek to beat down the priest with powerful minions rather than try and survive. In particular, it hard counters any attempt to build towards a late-game board combo like N’zoth or Guldan.

But like Jade, Raza’s time in Standard is also limited. Control Priest with Shadowreaper Anduin may live on, but Raza will only terrorize Wild soon. In the meantime though, prepare for endless two damage hero powers to put an end to your Koboldy experimentation. And to have all of your end-game boards shuffled uselessly into your deck, preventing you from drawing your lifegain.

Exodia Mage

control

Scarily, Exodia Mage soon may not need the Quest

Compared to the previous two, Exodia mage seems to be a minor player. With much lower winrate and ladder representation, is there reason to be concerned? Maybe not this expansion. Despite roundly dunking Control of all stripes, the damage is limited due to overall low play rates. What’s more, the overall winrate is far below what you’d expect, due to being severely weak to aggro. Despite this, its infinite damage combo is very difficult for Control to beat.

Where things get more sketchy is looking at the future. A new Kobolds and Catacombs card, Leyline Manipulator, could allow the combo to be pulled off without the Quest. Discounted Sorcerer’s Apprentices from Simulacrum do not require a time warp to be combo’d with Anduin. This would vastly improve consistency and lead to a spike in play rates. To make matters worse, the class is also getting an incredibly potent draw tool in the new Aluneth legendary weapon. All this could mean much sooner and more competitive infinite damage combos.

To make matters worse, while Ice Block may rotate out, no other key combo pieces for a non-quest version do. And the hardest counter to the strategy (Dirty Rat) leaves Standard with it. All this could lead to a troubling environment for all Control decks.

More counterplay or more proactivity?

The key problem with these decks is simply the difficulty in outlasting them. Requiring Skulking Geist, insane armor or hand disruption respectively, counterplay is simply too tough and is available to too few classes. Either more pro-active late-game strategies need to be introduced to compete, Team 5 need to up the quality of counterplay cards or nerfs need to happen if Control will continue to remain viable between now and the start of the next Hearthstone Year.

In the meantime, it might be better to give up on Control and simply slam Bonemare on 7.

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

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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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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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The Snowball Problem

“Troggs Rule!” is not an especially fearsome battlecry, and yet it evokes dread and terrifying memories in the minds of many. The same can be said for the growl of a Mana Wrym, or Frothing Beserker expressing his weapon’s need for a drink. With Un’goro, we have a new sound to etch into our collective memories to be filed under “Trauma”: The hoarse shriek of that neon-pink “flappy bird”, Vicious Fledgling.

Demanding Answers

Two copies of early answers are rarely enough to reliably counter Snowball minions

What makes all these cards so problematic and easy to despise is twofold. First is their relatively high health for the point in the game they are likely to be played. 3 health on turn one or 4 health on turns 2-3 is incredibly hard to deal with, and almost impossible to do in a timely, efficient fashion.

But remove them fast you must, because the other trait these cards have is easy-to-activate, unlimited, permanent attack buffs. Vicious Fledgling also gains health, divine shields and “Cannot be Targeted” effects depending on adapt RNG. The effect of this huge scaling of threat level is to very quickly deal massive amounts of damage and force the opponent’s entire gameplan to absolutely revolve around first dealing with that 1-3 drop.

The combination of scaling attack and initial survivability is brutal. A hard to remove card that is also incredibly threatening has proven over and over to be the most effective Aggro minion, and these cards combine those aspects perfectly. Cards like these can quickly “Snowball” the game out of control.

Exacerbating RNG

Now, there’s nothing wrong with cards that end games if left unchecked. Beefy finishers like Ysera or Deathwing are great because they quickly turn the tides against resource-starved opponents, forcing games that otherwise would drag on indefinitely to draw to a close. However, by the time your N’zoth or Alexstrasza comes down to finish things off, your opponent has drawn through enough of their deck to have drawn an answer or two that they conceivably could have saved. Even a card like Bloodlust comes down late enough that the odds are an opponent with enough AOE in their deck would have a very good chance of drawing at least one copy to preemptively counter it.

But on the crucial turns 1-3, you will on average have seen only a tiny sliver of your deck. Even if you run numerous copies of early answers and hard-mulligan for them, there is a decent chance you don’t even have the ability to draw them. That’s normally fine, and midrange or control decks normally run a number of comeback mechanisms to make up for slow starts or answers too deep in your deck. However, the sheer power of these Snowball minions makes these factors simply too little too late in most cases.

This leads to games being vastly decided primarily on the draw/mulligan phase, with little to no interaction on behalf of players. Luck is a huge and important part of Hearthstone, but the level to which early draw RNG decides games due to Snowball minions is patently undesirable.

Class Warfare

Some classes simply can’t deal with early Snowball minions without board control

Early Snowball minions demand one of two things; consistent early-game answers combined with backup comeback mechanisms, or a similarly potent pro-active gameplan of one’s own. When classes cannot do either of those two things, no manner of mid-game beef will help them. One of the primary reasons behind Paladin and Hunters’s recent Mean Streets period of unpopularity was its inability to deal with Tunnel Trogg outside of Doomsayer. They were only saved from the current onslaught of Fledglings, Pirates and Mana Wyrms through their own pro-active gameplans. Now Warlock is facing many of the same problems as these classes had in the past, due in part to their inability to tempo out an early board advantage, answer early minions or heal.

 

As long as Snowball minions exist, they will place considerable extra pressure on those classes without Evergreen tools for dealing with or contesting them. This weakens class diversity and can force otherwise promising decks into obscurity.

Arena Woes

Arena was, for a long time, relatively free of early-game Snowball dominance. While pre-Standard arena had its fair share of cards that accrued value (especially via Inspire), these generally came later in the game. Meanwhile, other Snowball minions could not reliably draw on their synergies due to the nature of Arena. However, Vicious Fledgling is proving exceptionally destructive to this balance. Due to the paucity of early removal in the format, it frequently decides games all by itself.

While not overly impressive cards performance-wise, the way it runs away with games if left unanswered even for a single turn is intensely frustrating for a 3-drop. Add to that the inherent RNG of Adapt and the problems of an immediate Windfury grab and you’re left with a card that rewards circumstance far more than interactions.

The Snowball Solution

Does Mana Wyrm really need to be evergreen?

The solution to Snowball minions is simple; lower their survivability or move them to Wild. Potent early minions are necessary for the survival of certain classes, but there is no need to over-centralize them into one or two cards per class that outperform all others. Aggressive classes should have a number of potent options rather than a single overpowered steamroller. Like with Deathrattles, Blizzard should learn the lesson that permanent, easy-to-activate attack buffs on a survivable early body is simply too strong.

We need more early minions that express versatility, power and flair in the manner of Radiant Elemental, Razorpetal Lasher, Malcheezar’s Imp and Hydrologist. Team 5 are good enough at designing cards that we no longer need endless variations of Tunnel Trogg.

 

Title art by Arthur Bozonnet. Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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