An Impassioned, Possibly Misguided Defense of Explore Un’goro

Exploring the possibilities

Hearthstone’s latest expansion, Journey to Un’goro, is out in early April. With its outlandish setting, the expansion promises mechanics and cards that already could have immense potential. But it’s a jokey, “meme” card that was given to Warrior that has caught my attention: Explore Un’goro.

For those who haven’t had a chance to watch the card reveal livestream, the second batch of Un’goro cards have been revealed. The first of them was a card called Explore Un’goro. The card is deceptively simple; a two mana Warrior spell that replaces every card remaining in your deck with a one mana spell that discovers a card.

Could this card revolutionize Control Warrior? (Probably not, but I’ll make the case regardless)

 

Evaluating Explorrior

Are comparisons to Renounce Darkness unfair?

Most impressions of the card have been that it’s a fun, jokey, but ultimately non competitive card. Obvious comparisons between it and Renounce Darkness were made, along with Elise Starseeker. Overall, the consensus is that it’s inferior to both. It was even introduced on-stream as being a non competitive card, designed to allow a particular kind of player to have fun.

Jeffrey “Trump” Shih, for instance, calls it worse than Renounce Darkness, and points to people not running one mana discover cards. Meanwhile, he cites the lack of transforming cards in your hand and absence of shuffling a card into your deck as evidence of being an inferior Elise.

Those analyses have some merit; but there’s still a strong argument that Explore Un’goro is fundamentally different. In fact, there’s a decent chance that it will define a whole new archetype.

Late-game, not end-game

Elise Starseeker’s Golden Monkey is a strong but slow win condition

The first and obvious distinction to make is that Explore Un’goro is not a fatigue win condition as with Elise. Or at least, it is not primarily a fatigue win condition like Elise. Elise’s effect is Fatigue-oriented by necessity. This is especially important in a world of Jade Idols and Kazakuses, where fatigue has almost entirely disappeared as a win condition. Discover Un’goro has the potential to pump out threats as soon as you play it and draw a card. Furthermore, it can be played as a two of, unlike the Legendary Elise.

Regardless, it’s still a late-game effect. The requirement to spend a mana before discovering each card makes for a necessarily slow effect. You’d play this card for its value generation potential. It would have the same effect as Elise (transitioning from a reactive game-plan to a pro-active one), but would be able to take effect much faster.

Explore Un’goro is also superior in many respects to the effect of the Golden Monkey due to not transforming cards in hand, only cards in the deck. You can save that Brawl, Execute, or Grommash for the opponent’s N’zoth, Ragnaros, or Jaraxxus while still applying pressure and generating value.

More than a meme

Renounce Darkness, or “Renounce Dankness” as it is affectionately known, is the easiest card to directly compare to Explore Un’goro. The comparison is fundamentally misleading though. For one, Renounce relies on having a high number of Warlock class cards. These tend to be weak when trying to execute the control-into-midrange strategy the card represents. The advantage of Renounce is the ability to keep your neutrals unaffected; but Neutral cards tend to be pro-active minions anyway, rendering the strategy pointless. Finally, Warlocks give up their most potent late-game advantage, the Life-tap hero power. In return, you’d get a load of discounted, potentially useless cards.

Explore Un’goro, by contrast, has no deckbuilding requirements. No matter what your deck contains, Explore Un’goro will replace it. What’s more, Warrior is already adept at executing the early-game control strategy. It only struggles when trying to out-value other decks in the late-game. This situation, only exacerbated by Elise and Justicar rotating out, will be a perfect role for Explore Un’goro to fill.

On a more general basis, the whole point of transforming your deck is to go from a reactive early game to a proactive late game. In this, the flexibility offered by Discover and Warrior’s early-game strength will be instrumental.

Don’t judge the card, judge the deck

A test decklist, sans Explore Un’goro of course

You can’t evaluate Explore Un’goro like most cards. Explore Un’goro will only be as good or as bad as the deck it defines. What would such a deck look like?

Of course, any theory-crafting now is largely irrelevant. Any meta calls are likely off by a wide margin. The Warrior Quest in particular could fundamentally change how the deck is built. Moreover, the new Un’goro meta would determine tech choices and overall viability. However, as a thought experiment, it’s worthwhile to see the kind of deck it might find a home in.

Explore Un’goro itself is a late-game tool, so early game should be the emphasis here. Going aggro and proactive is largely pointless, as such decks want burst finishers more than value discovers in the late-game. The deck should be a heavily early-game focused Control deck.

This already seems promising. Warrior has arguably the best early Control tools in Hearthstone. Fiery War Axe, Blood to Ichor, and Ravaging Ghoul are perfect for countering and controlling the early-game board development of aggro and midrange. Meanwhile, defensive taunts like Alley Armorsmith and Bloodhoof Brave lock down the mid-game. Furthermore, spot removals like Execute and Shield Slam can take out key threats. Brawl acts as an emergency clear when these aren’t enough.

The final ingredient should be draw, as we want to actually get to our Explore Un’goros. This is also a perfect excuse to include Gadgetzan Auctioneer; allowing us to draw multiple cards immediately after playing Explore Un’goro.

The gameplan

Warrior Epics can be hit or miss. Some completely flop…

This deck would strongly counter all early-game attacks with its bevy of early-game tools. After wiping out early minions with ease and dropping a few solid taunts, it draws consistently with Acolyte, Slam, and Shield Slam. The first few of the opponent’s big threats are swatted away with powerful hard removal. Just as it’s looking to run out of steam, Explore Un’goro is played, along with the last Taunt minion. The next turn, Gadgetzan Auctioneer hits the board, and four cards are instantly drawn with discover effects. The Warrior then drops threat after threat, answering specific cards with the limited resources remaining from its original hand.

Eventually, the opponent cannot hold back the constant pressure, taking a risky play. This could then be punished by the Warrior’s remaining or discovered answers. The following turn, they are beat down by the Warrior’s board of fat minions.

Good on paper?

…but some redefine what the class can do

Is such a deck good? It’s hard to tell. It would likely suffer from a lack of mid-game tools (particularly with Sylvanas rotating out). Any deck that could transform the tempo loss in between early-game answers and late-game Explore combos would likely be favored. But against many other types of decks, it’s hard to see too many flaws in the gameplan. The ability to swap almost all late-game for two Gadgetzan Auctioneers and two Explore Un’goros is potent indeed.

If one thing is certain, it’s that you can’t rule out Explore Un’goro too quickly. It’s notoriously common to mis-evaluate build-arounds (Mysterious Challenger anyone?), and this may just be another example of that. After all, another seemingly unplayable Warrior Epic in Blood Warriors created a new archetype that was even taken to Blizzcon (albeit unsuccessfully).

Whether it’s a Tentacles for Arms or a Blood Warriors, keep a close eye on this card. It just might be the new face of Warrior.

 

 

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

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Learning From Failed Synergies


Deckbuilding-by-numbers:

Designing a card game isn’t easy. Just look at the inspired, but often horribly imbalanced, suggestions posted daily on the Custom Hearthstone subreddit. Every card added can have butterfly effects on the meta. Even something as simple as a streamer playing a deck can make an impact. As such, synergies have been one of the hardest parts of Hearthstone to properly balance.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the developers have wanted to push certain pre-ordained archetypes into play. When the user base is playing with pre-determined synergies, it’s easier to see what’s balanced and what’s fun. Similarly, it’s understandable why their efforts are sometimes less than successful.

Currently, archetypes brute-forced into existence take up more of the meta than ever. Obvious, designer-mandated synergies like Pirate Warrior, Dragon Priest, and Jade Druid/Shaman are ubiquitous. In this era of forced archetypes, it can be helpful to look back at how previous attempts haven’t gone so well.

Taunt Warrior

How it was meant to work:

Taunt decks sacrifice a lot of stats for little benefit

“Taunt” and Warrior weren’t associated until relatively recently. The class has always had a somewhat split personality. Divided between the aggressive Weapon and Charge themed synergies, the combo-oriented Whirlwind synergies, and the defensive, tanky Armor mechanic, it’s been hard to give a Warrior a unifying philosophy. Taunt was meant to be that philosophy; combining the pro-active plays of the Aggressive strategy with defensive minions, while linking the two together with synergistic combos.

On paper, the Taunt strategy seems solid. A Midrange deck that uses weapons for Board control (as Warrior is likely to do) is weak to a face-rush. Taunts prevent this, while advancing the Midrange gameplan. Cards like Bolster, King’s Defender, and Sparring Partner initially pushed Taunt. Later reinforcement came from Taunt minions such as Fierce Monkey, Obsidian Destroyer, and Bloodhoof Brave. In addition, Taunt generators and synergies were added continuously in the Hand-buff mechanic and with Protect the King.

Why it failed:

While the taunt-synergy strategy works on paper, it was much less potent in practice. For starters, the actual taunt buffs were situational and not overly impressive. Bolster was supposedly the linchpin of the archetype. But it required multiple taunt minions on the board to be worth casting, let alone building a deck around. What’s worse, a general scarcity of decently-statted Taunt minions made it very hard to build a viable deck.

The key problem, however, is that building a deck around Taunt is fundamentally anti-synergistic. Taunt is helpful for protecting face, yes; but it is arguably more vital for protecting key minions. Consider how Aggro Shaman runs Feral Spirits because they can guard its powerful, squishy Flametongue Totems and Tunnel Troggs. When you build a deck with all or almost all Taunt minions, you’re suffering stat penalties and overvaluing on all of your minions for very little benefit.

Lesson to learn:

A deck built around understatted minions needs extremely powerful synergies to work.

Shadow Priest

How it was meant to work:

Shadow Priest’s direct damage potential was more impressive than its minions

Priest is one of the few classes that has never had a truly viable aggressive deck. A defensive hero-power and a lack of early-game minions meant that it was impossible for priests to snowball the tempo necessary for an aggro victory. However, it has a number of powerful burst cards, most notably Mind Blast. In addition, Auchenai Soulpriest could turn healing into potentially game-ending burst; Shadowform turns a defensive hero-power into a game-ending one too.

The Shadow Priest philosophy then, would be heavily burn focused; push for face damage and never look back. The idea was to have symmetrical damage effects and powerful healing synergies. The Priest would use their own life as a resource, healing up to burst down the opponent. They would also convert those same heal cards to burn to close out games.

Shadowbomber and Spawn of Shadows were added to give a huge amount of damage to the opponent, while also hitting yourself. Meanwhile, Light of the Naaru, Flash Heal, and Embrace the Shadow provid more ability to turn healing into burst.

Why it failed:

Shadow Priest experiments failed to address Priest’s initial problem; a lack of early-game tempo. While burst damage is memorable and occasionally terrifying, it’s far out-paced in efficiency by repeated minion damage from an unanswered curve. Without reliable card-draw to keep up pressure, the low-efficiency cards simply can’t keep up. Furthermore, sacrificing tempo and damaging yourself in an aggro mirror turns out to be a pretty bad strategy.

Lesson to learn:

Aggro decks depend on early-game minions, not burst.

Totem Shaman

How it was meant to work:

Thing from Below is strongest in decks without many totem synergies

Before the unveiling of Standard, Shaman was undoubtedly the worst class in the game. Without its current arsenal of efficient early-game weapons, it struggled to utilize its board-clears in a world of efficient Deathrattle minions.

In order to help them out of their quandary, Shaman was given a number of potent synergistic cards revolving around Totems. Cards like Thunder Bluff Valiant, Draenei Totemcarver, Thing from Below, and Primal Fusion would reward totem-filled boards. Meanwhile, Totem Golem, Tuskarr Totemic, and Wicked Witch-doctor would generate them.

Why it failed:

Totem Shaman was a victim of its own success. While all the cards were playable, some were so strong that the others became unnecessary. Totem Golem is an insane standalone minion, pre-nerf Tuskarr Totemic’s RNG tempo swings won games regardless of synergy, and Thing from Below becomes great even with only a few hero powers and Totem minions. Aggro Shaman ran all of these cards and no other synergies, and benefited greatly. Midrange added Thunder Bluff Valiant, but otherwise was similarly independent of Totem synergies, relying mainly on the card’s individual strengths.

While highly synergistic Totem decks such as Xixo’s variant saw play to a lesser extent, they ultimately proved inferior to the ones that only took the very best standalone cards.

Lesson to learn:

Don’t make synergistic cards too powerful without their synergies.

Handbuff Hunter

How it was meant to work:

Handbuff: Hardly a Tempo apocalypse

The Handbuff mechanic was meant to be the ultimate in Midrange value. By sacrificing a small amount of tempo, small threats could easily be buffed into massive ones, leading to a game-ending cascade of massive minions. Furthermore, synergies would allow these minions to be even more potent. As a class that focused heavily on Midrange, Hunter would be an ideal home for these cards.

This was supported via the handbuff cards themselves, like Trogg Beastrager, Shakey Zipgunner, and Hidden Cache. Synergies like that of Rat Pack and Dispatch Kodo would allow these buffs to become more potent.

Why it failed:

The failure of handbuff is well documented. Essentially, the tempo sacrifice is too great, and the mechanic is too inconsistent. Hunter is by far the least successful, despite strong handbuff synergies. The lack of consistent card draw means that for Hunters, running out of cards is a virtual inevitability. In these cases, top-decking a card that either buffs cards you no longer have, or relies on handbuffs that you haven’t given it, is backbreaking.

Lesson to learn:

Inconsistent mechanics may seem a lot more powerful than they are in reality.

 

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

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Towards a Less Boring Control Warrior

Old King Control

Control warrior has a long and illustrious history. In its original incarnation, it was full of late-game bombs and threats. A typical control warrior would seem absurdly greedy when compared to modern incarnations; often running Cairne, Sylvanas, Grommash, Ragnaros, Alexstrasza, and Ysera. Typically, it relied solely on a few low cost minions. Cards like Acolyte, Armorsmith, and the omnipresent Fiery War Axe for early game presence.

Looking back, the deck played completely different to its later strategies. Instead of being an almost entirely reactive deck aimed at victory through fatigue, they were looking to overwhelm the opponent with high powered legendaries.

This strategy was simpler in some ways; it lent itself to more straightforward games based on tempo, even against other control decks. Fatigue was rare compared to the likelihood of snowballing out of control.

Answers for Everything

Control Warrior was reduced from “Remove minions, gain armor, play threats” to just “Remove minions, gain armor”

Recently, Control Warrior attracts a very specific kind of complaint. As soon as a Twitch streamer queues into one, chat is often filled with emotes and complaints of boredom in anticipation of the upcoming game. The perception is that games against Control Warrior are tedious and uneventful.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward. Late-game Warrior decks will very frequently no longer depend on threats. Even high cost cards like Grommash and Deathwing, (as seen in the latest of Fibonacci’s lists) function largely as removal; this often omits even ultra slow “win conditions” like Elise Starseeker altogether. Instead, over-focus on a fatigue gameplan has lead to games where the Warrior focuses completely on survival and removal.

One-way Interaction

This, understandably, can prove to be less than engaging to opponents and viewers. While the Control Warrior’s plethora of reactive spells and lifegain is highly interactive with the opponents cards, playing against it can feel like a game of solitaire. Control Warrior rarely, if ever, play anything pro-active. As a result, it can often leave the impression of dropping minions into inevitable removal, while armor stacks up higher and higher.

This has a twofold impact. Firstly, games last for much longer than otherwise, as once the Control Warrior player has all but won, it can take dozens of turns to actually end the game. Secondly, the feeling of interaction against an opponent is minimized; they are simply playing whack-a-mole with your minions at a leisurely pace. Meanwhile, certain archetypes like Jade Druid are so unfavored that the games aren’t even worth playing out.

Old Gods to the Rescue?

These issues previously improved somewhat during the Whispers of the Old Gods release. Instead of relying almost entirely on fatigue, removal, and the odd random legendary-based Elise finisher, Control Warrior proved a fruitful home for two Old Gods in particular: C’thun and N’zoth.

Infested Tauren gave N’zoth Warrior’s mid-game some much-needed meat

These 10 mana finishers provided the potency required for such a huge investment to be worthwhile. Suddenly, games could end on a single well-placed series of snowballing tempo plays in the late-game, instead of fizzling outs. This additionally incentivized the inclusion of more defensive, midrange minions. That allowed Control Warrior to build boards to close out games without needing their key game-ender.

However, this gameplay style proved to be short-lived. Although potent, the many counters and deck-building limitations imposed meant that the archetypes couldn’t compete with the significant growth in decks’ power levels after One Night in Karazhan and Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. The omnipresent Midrange shaman in particular, with the suppression power of Hex and requirement to find space for multiple board-clears, helped push Warrior back towards the Fatigue gameplan.

Even the threat of Jade decks hasn’t been enough to make Warrior try to compete with pro-active late-game strategies. Since Jade is so much more efficient than any pro-active play Warrior can make, the optimal solution has simply been to give up against Jade Druid. You want to run endless board clears to try and out-last Jade Shaman, playing reactive.

Gadgetzan’s Interactive Defenses

Alley Armorsmith is far more interactive than Warrior’s previous defensive tools

The Gadgetzan expansion hasn’t been all bad for Control Warrior. Alley Armorsmith is a perfect example of armor-gain for Warrior done right. Unlike the straightforward and not interactive Shieldmaiden or Justicar Trueheart, Alley Armorsmith is a pro-active defensive tool, that requires significant counterplay. As well as having chunky stats, the 2/7 taunt is far more effective in some situations than others. This makes it a perfect counter to low-attack minion or weapon based aggro decks, but still vulnerable to spells and high-attack minions.

Furthermore, Dirty Rat has rapidly grown into a class staple. Though it’s not possible to immediately interact with its battlecry, it is a card that is straightforward, yet deep to play around. It helps bridge the gap between Warrior and other late-game focused decks in a way that rewards skill and timing.

Hope in Un’goro

With Justicar Trueheart, Elise Starseeker, Bash, Revenge and other key components of the Fatigue strategy rotating out with the next expansion, the future looks bleak for Fatigue Warrior. If there is no suitable pro-active late-game raison d’etre for Warrior, then Control as an archetype may find it hard to find a niche in the new meta.

The introduction of “Quest” mechanics may still provide hope. Reliable, powerful, and available for every class, Quests may give Warrior the late-game win-condition it needs to compete. However, it depends on the card itself and whether the effect is one that is capable of giving Control Warrior the pressure needed to close out games.

Team 5 may print more Control-oriented Deathrattles. In that case, N’zoth Warrior may make a comeback as a potent counter to more midrange or controlling opponents.

The stars may even align, and Blizzard may try and succeed where Varian Wrynn failed. They could give Warrior an honest-to-goodness control-oriented class Legendary. We won’t hold our breath though. In the meantime, it can be fun to break open that Ysera, pack a deck full of Classic Legendaries with a few hard removals, and a Brawl or two. Or head out into Classic to relive the glory days of the oldest Control deck in the game.

All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Class Cards That Deserve Replacements

Time is relentless in its passing, and as we emerge, bleary eyed into 2017, we must remember how much is temporary. Friends, relationships, treasured possessions; all are fleeting.

But perhaps none is more heart-wrenching than when a treasured class card rotates out of Standard. Once steadfast, seemingly eternal classics like Death’s Bite or Muster for Battle melt away to frolic in the Elysium of Wild. Now might be a good time to reflect on the well-designed, flavorful, and fun cards that’ll be culled this coming rotation. The rotating sets are Blackrock Mountain (BRM), The Grand Tournament (TGT) and League of Explorers (LOE).

Warrior: Revenge (BRM)

Once ridiculed as “two mana Whirlwind”, Revenge has seen a huge amount of play

Revenge seems underwhelming for a card that has seen a home in almost all Control Warrior decks (and many other variants beside). Key to its success is its insane ability to punish aggressive decks. The double whammy of being stronger when your hero is below 13 health and clearing out almost all Aggro minions has meant its an invaluable tool; not to mention its powerful synergies with Acolyte of Pain, Execute, and more. It was key to Warrior’s power as a counter-deck in the Karazahn midrange shaman meta, and still sees use to clear out pirates and tokens. Hopefully warrior sees more flexible, cheap AOE to complement its repertoire and allow it to stave off the Aggro hordes.

 

Shaman: Healing Wave (TGT)

The most powerful heal in the game outside of Reno; when it wins the joust

Healing wave is pretty much the benchmark for how strong, flexible, and mana efficient lifegain should be. One of the only worthwhile Joust-based cards, it (along with its buddy Elemental Destruction) breathed new life into the then-struggling shaman class. The synergy with high-cost minions helped push the “Bogchamp” or “Crusher” archetype in certain metas, making the entire Shaman class more flexible and interesting in a way far different to its current SMOrcey outlook. Jinyu Waterspeaker seems like an adequate replacement for now, but true control archetypes could benefit from more of this level of power-heal.

 

Rogue: Tomb Pillager (LOE)

It’s hard to imagine Rogue without this card

Tomb Pillager is, to me, one of the best designed Rogue cards ever released. While its power level is high, it was perfect for a then-ailing class. It’s flavourful, synergistic and class-appropriate, and almost single-handedly lead to the revitalization of the Miracle archetype. The coins it spawns can smooth out curves, of course; but more importantly can combo perfectly with Gadgetzan Auctioneer, Questing Adventurer and Edwin Van Cleef. It even revives in the little-played N’zoth Rogue. Hopefully Counterfeit Coin and Burgly Bully will be able to at least partially fill the hole this powerhouse leaves.

 

Paladin: Anyfin Can Happen (LOE)

One of the few 10 mana cards worth the cost

Paladin always struggled for ways to finish games. With limited hard removal and board-clears, sheer value with cards like Tirion often wasn’t enough to last into the late-game. This somewhat pushed it towards a midrange strategy, with an inevitable tendency to run out of steam. Anyfin changed all that, and is arguably one of the most powerful single cards outside of the Old Gods. With a lethal complement of Bluegills and Warleaders, Anyfin will deal huge damage with the right setup and can OTK almost any deck. It’s so powerful, it spawned an entire deck focused around surviving to play these game-ending murlocs (and is the only semi-viable Paladin deck currently). Here’s hoping the class gets a similarly potent game-ending ability in the future.

 

Hunter: Quick Shot (BRM)

About as strong as it could be without being obnoxious, Quick Shot slowed Hunter’s demise

Hunter suffers from two main flaws: inflexibility, and card draw. Quick Shot managed to partially address both while remaining true to the class’s identity. By being a strong removal or face damage tool while rewarding an all-in strategy, Quick Shot allowed Hunter much-needed reach as well as board control. Above pure power, it provided interesting strategy as to when to hold it to cycle, when to push face damage, and when to remove key minions. Many more cards like this will need to be printed if Hunter is to do well in a meta that has grown far more powerful than its outdated tools can handle.

 

Druid: Living Roots (TGT)

Living Roots is one of the most adaptable early game cards

With few comeback mechanics, Druid desperately needs to prevent snowballing. Living Roots slots into that perfectly. While each of the effects on their own are nothing to write home about, the option of each makes this card an auto-include in virtually all Druid decks. It has synergy with Spellpower, mass-buffs, and Fandral Staghelm, as well as fitting nicely into class identity. Plus, the saplings are cute as heck. Hopefully Druid receives similarly flexible early options to help it to survive the explosive starts of Aggro.

 

Warlock: Dreadsteed (TGT)

Who hasn’t loved messing around with this immortal pony?

Dreadsteed is one of those cards that you hate to see leave, but that inevitably must. Its infinitely regenerating effect is so close to being broken, its very existence prevents the printing of a lot of interesting cards. Too slow to see play outside of gimmicky synergy decks, it created so many interesting scenarios and combos. It is hard to see this card go. Still, this is a card that the Wild format was essentially invented for. In the future, Team 5 could do well by remembering the fun to be had by giving classes weak cards with potentially crazy synergy.

Mage: Forgotten Torch (LOE)

Turns out a three mana Fireball more than makes up for a three mana Frostbolt

Forgotten Torch is one of those rare cards that looks like it’s too slow to see play, but is in fact just in the sweet spot of good early-game vs. good late-game. Three damage for three mana is nothing to write home about, but it a valuable tool for clearing up early-game threats. But it’s the three mana six damage “Roaring Torch” that truly makes this card great, and interesting. It was a principle motivator behind keeping Freeze Mage alive, allowing them to control the board early while helping assemble a final burn-based combo. Lately its been a vital early game weapon in the Reno Mage arsenal, improving win-rates vs. aggro and control alike. As a class based on powerful spells, Mage deserves more cards like Forgotten Torch.

 

Priest: Entomb (LOE)

Entomb, while frustrating to play against, nonetheless… nah, just kidding, everyone hates this card

Priest: Flash Heal (TGT)

Flexible, cheap and strong, Flash Heal almost saved Priest from tier 4. Almost.

While the ability of Priest to heal any target was inherently limited by the ability of Auchenai Soulpriest to send the damage facewards, Flash Heal was about as strong as it could have been. While normally reserved to combo with the aforementioned 4 mana minion to use as a five damage combo piece, it was powerful as a clutch lifegain or minion-healing tool; not to mention its niche but spectacular finisher as part of some kind of Prophet Velen-based combo. Cheap, flexible spells are key to any reactive, combo-oriented class like Priest, and the class needs more simple but deep examples of this.

 

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The End of Control?

At first, the idea that the control archetype could soon go extinct seems ludicrous. We are playing through an era that could be described as a Golden Age for slow, controlling decks. Reno and Kazakus have pushed Highlander archetypes to the dizzying heights of Tier Two for Warlock, Mage, and Priest. Control Warrior’s ability to punish hyper-aggressive Patches decks along with Miracle Rogue has seen it have solid, if inconsistent, win-rates. Even Anyfin Paladin sees a degree of high-level play. However, great changes are coming to the delicate ecosystem that is Hearthstone’s meta; and Control decks could be affected catastrophically.

The definition of a Control deck may differ, but most understandings of the archetype centre around one key concept; the idea of outlasting and outvaluing the opponent with a variety of flexible removal, especially hard removal, board clears, lifegain, and a few key late-game threats or other “win-condition” cards. While some may include pro-active cards and strategies, the overwhelming idea holding the deck together is to be fundamentally reactive. Combos and threats are either painstakingly slow to assemble (like Paladin’s Anyfin can Happen/Bluegill/Warleader strategy, or Reno Mage’s Antonidas/Alexstrasza strategy) or require the opponent to be out of resources or low on life to be effective (Control Warrior’s Grommash, or Renolock’s Jaraxxus). So what changes are coming that endanger these decks?

Let’s look at the Control decks currently competitive in Hearthstone’s post-Mean Streets metagame; Anyfin Paladin, Control Warrior, Control Shaman, Reno Mage, Reno Priest, and Renolock

No Reno, no way?

You can start to see a problem with the upcoming standard rotation by simply looking at the name of half decks. Reno Jackson is not just a powerful card; it’s a card that so utterly negates certain class’s long-game weaknesses that it created and is currently sustaining decks that simply wouldn’t make sense without it.

We see this in Warlock and Mage especially, with their incredible synergy with Lifetap and Ice Block respectively (alongside a lack of class healing). Reno Priest may potter along thanks to its great class heal options; but when Reno rotates out, what will happen to decks that can’t counter the incredible early-game damage capabilities of modern Aggro decks?

Perhaps more class or neutral healing will be released for these classes, but I’m not too hopeful. Class identity is a key part of hearthstone, and Team 5 have clarified their desire for certain classes like Mage and Warlock not to have access to the same level of efficient healing as others. Omni-present single-purpose neutrals seem to be going out of fashion as well, with no replacements for Antique Healbot on the horizon to shore up these class’s anti-aggro abilities in the long game.

So are classes like Mage and Warlock going to be pigeonholed into fast decks purely from lack of access to healing? Well, perhaps. A way to avoid this is to give thematic, interesting survivability tools that do not involve healing. Maybe a Molten-Giant-esque replacement to reinvigorate Handlock-style strategies, or more defensive Mage secrets á la Ice Barrier. Outlandish ideas like giving your Hero “Can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers” might help those classes survive burst. Whatever the solution, it’s clear that defense against reach and burn is key to the survival of controlling variations of these archetypes.

This also ties into the problem with Jade decks; as the Combo-based counters to these mid-range, continually ramping minions are largely restricted to these two classes.

Warlock’s healing options aren’t exactly stellar

The Rise of the Golems

The other huge challenge arising for Control from the upcoming rotation is the incredible power of Jade Decks against slower opponents. The long term power of these constantly-ramping and in many cases infinite threats can lead to absurd situations. For example, forcing Control Warrior to play an aggro gameplan, or Aggro Shaman out-valuing Renolock card-for-card well into the late stages of the game. Even in a meta overwhelmingly dominated by hyper-aggressive Patches decks, Jade cards are seeing a huge amount of play. There are two things that could lead to Jades becoming even more ubiquitous and even more dangerous to Control.

The first includes hints of an upcoming balance change to the early-game pirate package. In interviews and streams, both Ben Brode (Hearthstone’s Game Director) and Mike Donais (Principle Game Designer) have expressed concern for Small-Time Buccaneer in particular. This might not be a huge deal immediately, as aggressive non-pirate decks like Tempo Mage, Dragon Warrior, and Midrange Hunter could arrive to fill the piratical power vacuum. Things might change, however, once the year of the Kraken is over. Mainstays of these decks, cards like Flamewaker, Quick Shot, and Sir Finley Mrrglton (not to mention the entire Dragon package!) will leave; their replacements will struggle to be fast enough to catch up to the rapidly-growing Jades.

A Jade meta would be more forgiving on Mage and Warlock due to their plethora of game-ending combo options. But the matchup would remain unfavoured, other decks would likely be even worse off.

An Idol threat

This could have dire consequences for Paladin, Priest, and Warrior’s hopes of retaining late-game relevance. With the loss of Anyfin can happen, Paladin is left only with N’zoth as a way to convincingly end games. Paladin’s N’zoth package may be somewhat effective against Jade Druid occasionally. But it is unlikely to be fast enough to matter once Druid can drop consistent mid-game threats that Paladins struggle to remove. Meanwhile, Mid-Jade Shaman’s Hexes and Devolves ruin any chance of late-game success for Paladin. They could easily see themselves consistently out-valued in the early game, mid game, and late game!

Warrior, on the other hand, is losing almost all of its late-game options. Elise Starseeker and Justicar Trueheart were previously all Warrior needed to out-value almost any deck by simply removing all enemies and tanking up to a Golden Monkey finish. With the loss of those two key cards, Control Warrior will struggle against almost any deck in the late-game. Even now, Warrior struggles against any deck that isn’t pure aggro due to a lack of late-game options. Old mainstays like Ysera and Ragnaros sufficed in the old days, and can still sometimes steal games versus poorly opening Druids. However, against Shaman’s plethora of removals and constant board pressure, there seems no way that Control Warrior can do anything but lose incredibly slowly.

Control Shaman may survive, but with the loss of Elemental Destruction, Healing Wave, and Lava Shock, it seems unlikely that any future build will be distinguishable or superior from standard Midrange jade options. Priest will be in a similar rough spot to warrior, with simply no cards that can force a switch to a proactive strategy.

The key issue is that these classes have no late-game options that are powerful enough to out-tempo a ramped-up Jade Druid while not being countered by Hex and Devolve from the Shamans. Control Warrior, Priest and Paladin’s late game are in dire need of support if they are not to be forced into obscurity.

It’s hard to find late game strategies that aren’t countered by Shaman’s cheap Transform effects

Designing solutions

In order to prevent a steep decline in control’s viability, the next set of cards will need to ameliorate some of the weaknesses of existing control decks post-rotation; namely survivability for Mage and Warlock, and late-game power for Warrior, Paladin and Priest. They do not need to be so powerful as to make the decks perfect all-rounders, but they do need to be strong enough to give them a fighting chance against multiple archetypes (and particularly the power of Jade Golems).

Maybe hold off on giving great cards to Shaman for a few seasons though. Not to say a viable Control Shaman isn’t desirable, but in recent times they seem to be controlling the opponent’s face more than anything.

Title Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment and hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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