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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toggwaggle

Are you ready to get Togwaggled?

Hearthstone’s Kobolds and Catacombs will bring perhaps the craziest card concepts yet. But between double turns, treasure chests and duplicating gibberers, one stands above all. By far the wildest of them is the mighty King Togwaggle. His ability to temporarily swap decks opens up all sorts of new win conditions and crazy combos. How hard will these strategies be to pull off? And are there any that could become genuinely competitive?

Let’s dive into the possibilities. Who knows, some may even turn out viable!

togwaggle

The King of meme decks, but could he actually work? (source: Hearthstone Youtube)

No backsies!

One of the most straightforward ways to use Togwaggle is to simply deny the opponent the ability to swap back. Normally, Togwaggle grants the opponent a five mana “King’s Ransom” spell to reverse his original effect. But if you can fill the opponent’s hand, there’s no room for the spell and no way to reverse the same effect. This could be tricky to put off. It’s hard to fill up your opponent’s hand while playing an eight mana card. But, some classes could pull it off.

Druid has perhaps the best chance. The new Legendary weapon, Twig of the World Tree, allows 10 extra mana crystals. That means you have 12 mana for Coldlights, Naturalizes and similar. If you succeed in getting your opponent to 10 cards, they will be stuck with your wanna be Mill Druid, while you’ll have all their win conditions.

Other classes could have some strategies. Rogue could also have a shot, with either pre-shadowstepped Coldlights or Counterfeit Coining out a Prepped Vanish. Mage’s Counterspell would work, but could be hard to set up and is easily played around.

Worth the setup?

togwaggle

Clog their hand and the deck swap could be permanent

Unfortunately, this plan has a number of flaws. It’ll be hard to fill the hand of anyone but the greediest of control decks. What’s more, swapping decks might not be that effective; you need to survive long enough to reach turn 10 in the first place, and if your deck can do that, it may not be that much of a liability. And you could easily be stuck as an out-of-steam tempo deck if you do steal the opponent’s deck.

This could rely on a fatigue style win-condition; if you dig through your deck enough before swapping, then the opponent will be far enough ahead in fatigue that victory will be guaranteed. But if you get to this point in the game, you have likely already stabilised against midrange or aggro. Meanwhile combo decks may have already assembled enough damage to kill you shortly after.

The burn strategy

You don’t need to permanently steal your opponent’s deck to ruin their strategy. Another plan could simply be to steal or burn vital cards from their deck. The simplest way to do this would simply be to draw lots of cards. Many classes have cheap card draws that could combo with it. Warlock can tap, or Bloodbloom into Doom to completely eviscerate the opponent’s deck. Hunters can Tracking to steal multiple cards while discarding additional ones. Warriors can set up a large Battle Rage, or precision-steal weapons with Forge of Souls. Rogues can Coin, Prep then Sprint to steal four or more cards.

Of course, this could be of limited utility. Simply taking random cards isn’t especially devastating in most cases; at least, not enough to warrant playing an eight mana 5/5. Unless you’re up against a combo or control deck, they often rely more on generic draws than specific cards. Even in the case of combo decks, stealing their cards can often bring them closer to their win conditions.

Exploring the possibilities

togwaggle

Explore Un’Goro could nuke your opponent’s deck

The most interesting and potentially potent combo comes with Explore Un’Goro. At two mana, it is perfect to combo with Togwaggle. The ability to essentially destroy the opponent’s deck could become genuinely competitive in the right meta. Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as that. You need to be able to deal with the possibility of your opponent using their new one mana discover cards to win; or to use your own deck against you.

There are a number of ways to set up the combo. The simplest would be just Togwaggle and Explore Un’Goro. This essentially gives the option to your opponent to have your deck or an Explore Un’Goro deck. Both could be troublesome to deal with, as many classes can have powerful discover options that could lose you the game, and your own deck might be more effective when used against you. To make matters worse, a Skulking Geist could leave you with no deck at all!

To counteract this, it may be necessary to run Dead Man’s Hand, Skulking Geist and an additional Explore Un’Goro. The plan would be simple. First, you Explore Un’Goro your own deck. Then, you Togwaggle to swap decks, and Explore Un’Goro again to convert your newly acquired deck. After that, you can Skulking Geist to destroy both decks and begin shuffling Dead Man’s Hand to avoid fatigue.

This sounds like a difficult combo to counter. But it may be hard to pull off. Geist, two Explore Un’Goros, Togwaggle and Dead Man’s Hand are a lot of clunky cards to have in a class that’s already struggling. What’s more, assembling them would be extremely difficult. And after all that, you need to make sure you shuffle things like removal or lifegain to deal with your opponent’s remaining threats.

togwaggle

Togwaggle could fit into Dead Man’s Hand Warrior, but the archetype is hardly top-tier

Constructed or Tavern Brawl?

Finally, the best possible use may be to enforce your opponent into a Tavern Brawl style match. By simply Exploring Un’Goro both decks, you can force your opponent to discover their way to victory. It might not be the most viable of strategies, but if you want to hover at a rank floor, it might just be a fun way to remind your netdecking opponents of the kind of wacky fun Hearthstone and King Togwaggle can bring.

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

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

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

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

Echoes of a hunter

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

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

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

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

More than playability

weapons

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

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

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

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

Scaling up

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

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

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

All or nothing

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

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

Oozes and adventurers

weapons

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Warrior’s next good 2 drop

For the first time in the class’ history, Warrior is well and truly in the dumpster. With historically low play and win rates on ladder, the War Axe nerf’s impact has been staggering. Clearly, the class will need additional early game tools in order to remain relevant in future expansions. But what should warrior’s replacement 2 drops look like?

Looking back

Warrior has a number of other viable turn 2 options. Unfortunately, none of them are on par with other classes’ options, or can be a viable successor to the “Win Axe”.

Armorsmith is a decent anti-aggro option, but can’t generate board control against anything with more than one attack. Cruel Taskmaster is similarly weak, with the added caveat of being more niche. Heroic Strike could, theoretically, be used as a removal as well as a burst tool, though that has never turned out well in anything other than aggro decks. And Slam can almost never get a card draw and lead to a  minion being killed on 2.

The common theme of these cards is not that they aren’t useful, it’s just that they lack efficiency and value. Warrior could afford to run niche cards thanks to the supreme early efficiency of War Axe; without it, they’re left with nothing that can efficiently fight for board without expending too many resources. In order to fix this, Blizzard could look to a number of other classes for inspiration.

Synergistic Draw

Is card advantage the key to 2 drops? If so, we might see an “Armor-ologist”

One of the most impactful 2 drops in recent memory has been Mage’s Arcanologist. With a powerful synergistic battlecry, it paved the way for a variety of Control, Tempo and Freeze Mages. It’s battlecry meant that despite being a relatively unimpactful two-drop, it generated card advantage while fighting for the board.

Obviously, Warrior can’t just copy Arcanologist; the class has no secrets. And an Arcanologist for Weapons would likely be both slightly too strong and too aggressive. A better option might be s 2 cost minion that draws an Armor-gain or Armor-synergy card from your deck; rewarding more controlling warrior, and ones that play around with lifegain.

Utility Generation

Cheap spell generation can be great in certain decks

Another impactful 2 drop to copy from could be Razorpetal Lasher. This unassuming 2/2 can generate surprising value from the 1 mana 1 damage spell it adds to your hand. With Warrior’s surplus of low-impact spells, there’s plenty of inspiration to give Warrior’s a similar effect. Perhaps a 2 mana 2/2 that added a 1 mana version of “Inner Rage” to your hand. Alternatively, something that added “Charge”.

Even better, Warrior could take an idea from Warlock’s Dark Peddler and Paladin’s Hydrologist. Discover mechanics on cheap cards can be potent without feeling unfair. Warrior’s low impact 1 mana spells could see a lot more play if discovered off some cheap minion. What’s more, most of these low-impact spells are reactive and situational, making for more interesting gameplay situations and skill tests.

Toned-down weapons

Of course, Team 5 nerfed Fiery War Axe for a reason. They can’t now print an Epic 2 mana 3/2 weapon (we hope). But we may see cards along the lines of Jade Claws; strong weapons that while not quite at the same power level, still fight for early board well. The danger of re-creating pirate warrior might prevent this until after Patches rotate out, or maybe earlier if Team 5 can find a way to make cheap weapons good without being unstoppable in aggro.

There could be multiple ways of achieving a 2 mana weapon that would be less useless than a Stormforged Axe while not being on the power-level of pre-nerf axe. One recurring idea is that of a weapon with ‘Enrage’. This would introduce counterplay whereby not having a damaged hero would reduce the power of your weaponry.

Delayed reaction

Don’t expect Warrior to get super-powered 2 drops straight away, however. Hearthstone plans its releases far in advance; and Team 5 likely weren’t anticipating the War Axe nerf to have such a huge immediate impact. They likely don’t have a whole trove of saved 2 mana powerhouses for such an occasion.

In the meantime, Warrior will still cling to relevance. Pirate is still passable and Fatigue Warrior experiments are still ongoing. But die hard fans of the class can still hope that, maybe one day, there’ll be a 2 drop worthy of stepping into the shoes of the mighty War Axe.

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

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Are cheap Taunts just Aggro tools?

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

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

Protecting the face

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

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

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

Safeguarding the snowball

taunt

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

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

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

Beefy buffs

Flametongue had perfect aggressive synergy with taunts like Feral Spirits

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

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

Are downsides key?

taunt

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

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

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

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

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


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mill

The thrill of Mill Warrior

The upcoming Fiery War Axe nerf may be a blessing in disguise for Warrior. The increase in mana cost to three is likely to be a major setback for almost all warrior archetypes. But in doing so, it may have inspired streamer David “Dog” Caero to create a fascinating and powerful new deck.

Mill or Fatigue Warrior is not just a strong performer for top players. It’s also uniquely flexible, aggressively difficult to play and unlike any deck we’ve seen yet. But most importantly, it can be an utter joy to play.

Breaking the rules

mill

Cards previously thought to be worthless now define a new Warrior archetype

Combo Warriors long struggled for win conditions. Dead Man’s Hand offered a way for Warriors to benefit from their obscene draw potential with (theoretically) infinite value. Early experiments showed promise, but were ultimately unreliable. Expensive, flashy finishers like Rotface and Arcane Giant simply proved too clunky.

Where Dog’s refined version innovated was in stripping out all late-game win conditions in favour of Coldlight Oracle. To take matters even further, it threw out “auto-includes” like Fiery War Axe and Ravaging Ghoul in favour of cards like Bring it On! which provided the burst healing to tie the deck together.

The final result was a deck that plays like nothing else. At times reactive and proactive, its hallmarks are incredible draw, literally infinite removal and healing, as well as burst fatigue damage with Coldlights. But most striking of all was the fantastic complexity and difficulty of the deck.

Difficult to learn, impossible to master

Dead Man’s Hand is arguably the hardest card in Hearthstone to use correctly

Hearthstone prides itself on its accessibility. Once someone learns the basics of minion trading and value, it’s pretty easy to drop minions on curve and do OK. Even relatively complicated Control decks become manageable once you understand their basic principles.

Not so for Mill Warrior. While aspects of other strategies remain, the deck operates on a totally different paradigm. To begin with, it almost plays like a traditional Control or Combo deck; trying to survive, clear and draw. But certain cards must be saved, depending on the match up. Once the deck is nearly empty, the deck must be winnowed of chaff, with cards discarded. Eventually, a core of a few vital cards are collected and shuffled repeatedly into the deck.

Reaching, designing and duplicating this core of cards is the hardest part of playing the deck, and even the best players make numerous misplays per game. Simply using a Garrosh hero power instead of preemptively equipping and swinging with a Blood Razor can lead to ruin. Not playing a Brawl in time can lead it to fatally clog your hand, growing exponentially until you mill a vital combo piece. Use both copies of a vital card too early and you can see yourself without a tool to survive the repeated chains of shuffles.

And that’s just the basics. Advanced mastery of the deck requires precision Bring it On! timings, deadly Dirty Rat assassinations of key minions, long term fatigue damage pre-planning and constant balancing of the need to draw and the risks of overdrawing. It’s likely that to play the deck close to optimally would require superhuman levels of on-the-fly calculations and psychology.

Worth the effort

Warrior will need to be inventive to survive without two cost Axe

Despite the steep and high-ceiling’d learning curve, Mill Warrior is well worth it.

The first is its huge competitive potential. When played well, the deck can beat any late-game deck that comes up against it. Kazakus Priest will usually lose unless they’re able to get Raza and Anduin within the first 10 turns. Even Taunt Warrior can’t out-damage the infinite heal and will soon succumb to fatigue.

The deck is also favoured against a variety of Aggro and Midrange decks; that’s before they’re nerfed too. While Pirate Warrior and Murloc Paladin are tough, any deck that goes wide is easily swept aside by the endless mass removals. The deck even performs decently against the meta tyrant, Jade Druid. With enough removal, heal, draw and a Skulking Geist, Mill Warrior can feasibly defeat all but the most high-tempo of starts. Dog proved the decks worthiness by taking it all the way to top two legend NA.

The other reason is that the deck’s unique and challenging playstyle makes every game far more involved than a typical Hearthstone game. Instead of going to autopilot and dropping minions on curve and rehashing the same old challenges of when and how to trade, you’re pursuing entirely new goals. How to empty your hand for a shuffle, determining whether you can win without infinite Executes vs Big Priest, timing Bring it On! so as to dodge Velen, and risking an on curve Coldlight Oracle against Murloc Paladin, shuffling a single Coldlight into your deck to set up fatigue lethal; these are the kind of plays that no deck has had to make before.

It is also refreshing to have lost games be your own fault; reviewing and uncovering your own mistakes can be satisfying as you refine your play further and further. To top it all off, the deck is far from perfected, and with every single card normally making an appearance in the games you win, every slot counts. There’s plenty for aspiring deckbuilders to hone into a truly devastating deck.

Mill Warrior can defeat almost any deck in the late game

The Warrior we need?

With old War Axe rusting away, Mill Warrior may be the archetype Warrior needs. Control, Tempo and Pirate are likely to struggle in the new meta without trusty Win Axe to carry them to turn two tempo glory. However, the deck is likely to retain one fatal flaw; incredibly long games. When stars per hour is what you’re after, 12 minute average mentally exhausting games may not be the best choice. So don’t disenchant that golden Patches for two Dead Man’s Hands just yet if laddering is your goal.

But if you’re looking for intense, long games with challenging gameplay and brutal complexity, then there’s no better choice than Mill Warrior.

With a low non-pro winrate and achingly slow games, Mill Warrior is unlikely to dominate the ladder (source: HSReplay.net)

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Statistics via HSReplay.net.

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scourgelord

The surprising power of Scourgelord Garrosh

Of all the Death Knights released with Knights of the Frozen Throne, Scourgelord Garrosh possibly generated the least hype. Crazily powerful hero powers defined the other classes’ options. But whilst others had massive value generation potential, a disappointing Whirlwind effect was all that was available to Warrior. Even the relatively dull Malfurion the Pestilent’s three attack or three armor seemed far superior. The weapon, while strong, didn’t seem the sacrifice.

Despite this, Warrior’s Death Knight hero looks to be among the strongest. Besides the raw, reliable Malfurion the Pestilent and the deck-defining machine-gun power of Shadowreaper Anduin, Scourgelord Garrosh looks to be a near mandatory inclusion in all manner of Control, Combo and Tempo Warriors. So how did the Scourgelord go from the trash heap of “probably good in tempo” to non-Pirate staple?

Shadowmourne’s stats

scourgelord

Shadowmourne is arguably worth 7-8 mana by itself

Above all, the overwhelming bulk of the Scourgelord’s power is expressed in his weapon, Shadowmourne. A 4/3 weapon is decent enough; but Shadowmourne holds the brutal ability to cleave through up to two adjacent minions.

In terms of raw ability to clear, this can be far more powerful than Gorehowl, while being far more versatile. Whilst Gorehowl maintains superiority at smacking down minions one at a time, Shadowmourne has both a higher ceiling and lower floor of impact.

On the typical multi-leveled boards of mid-game minions opponents are likely to field in the late-game, Gorehowl’s seven attack is often overkill. Meanwhile, Shadowmourne can clear multiple minions at a time, while leaving others damaged and vulnerable to board clears, trading or Executes. The cleaving ability also throws up nice edge cases. Damaging a high attack minion by hitting its low attack neighbour can save vital health. Alternatively, killing a vital threat through Taunt can save games.

Rounding out weaknesses

Not only is Shadowmourne strong in a vacuum, it gels perfectly with Warrior. Warrior has no Fireballs, Swipes or Shadow Strikes. It’s always had a weakness of dealing with mid-sized boards of mid-sized minions. There were few options available to deal with an awkward board of two 4/4’s without spending multiple cards or premium removal.

Decks like Midrange Shaman or Priest could slowly grind down a Control Warrior by playing out 2-3 threats a turn. The Warrior would be forced to waste Executes or Brawls just to clear the board, leaving him vulnerable to later bombs or just more spaced-out threats.

Shadowmourne perfectly counters this weakness. By acting as incredibly efficient removal for up to three of the kinds of boards that Warrior traditionally struggles with, it generates huge value while throwing a cog in the traditional anti-Control Warrior gameplan. Even high-powered Midrange decks like Jade Druid can be simply wiped of value. A well-timed Scourgelord combined with Skulking Geist will crush their hopes, assuming you can wrest back tempo.

But Shadowmourne isn’t the only thing Scourgelord has to offer.

Infinite activators

scourgelord

Sleep with the Fishes is even more backbreaking when it synergises with your hero power

One of the keys to successfully navigating any Control, Tempo or Combo Warrior is spacing out damage activators. Use all your Whirlwinds, Ghouls and Slams too early? Your Executes, Acolytes or Battle Rages are now useless. Part of the reason cards like Death’s Bite are so powerful is due to their additional efficient Whirlwind effects.

In the late-game, Warriors would often run out of steam as they ran low on activators. Especially token generation decks like Paladin or Shaman could simply hero power their way to starving the Warrior of crucial removal and card draw activators.

While Scourgelord Garrosh’s Bladestorm hero power (which does one damage to all minions) may seem weak in isolation, it shines in the Warrior class. Not only does it provide activators for cards like Sleep with the Fishes and Execute in the late game, it also allows for existing Whirlwind effects to be readily spent for tempo instead of saved for future effects. This can prove especially powerful late in the game, where it turns an otherwise useless Acolyte of Pain or Battle Rage top-deck into crucial gas.

The price of power

scourgelord

What Scourgelord Garrosh gains in board control, you lose in lifegain

All this value does come at a cost, however. Replacing Armor Up is dangerous. While additional board control is all well and good, sometimes you simply run out of life. Against certain decks, losing two Armor a turn is a suicidal proposition.

Luckily, the current meta makes this less of an issue. New Armorgain cards like Bring it on! and Mountainfire Armor can help mitigate the loss of the hero power. What’s more, the current meta focuses heavily on the board. Even Pirate Warrior is embracing less burn and more minions, and Burn Mages have largely left the meta (or moved to infinite-damage versions).

With these developments, the additional clear of Bladestorm often saves more life than Armor Up. And of course, the five instantaneous Armor from merely equipping Scourgelord goes a long way to ensuring you’ll live for the next few turns at least.

The wrath of Hellscream

Beyond that, Garrosh Scourgelord has excellent flavour and voice lines. Despite sounding like an undead potato, the Scourgelord’s emotes are brooding and threatening. They lack some of the “it’s not a phase, mom!” edginess of Shadowreaper Anduin’s “Shadowy thoughts” while still sounding ominous. It’s suitably Warrior-y to tell your opponents that they will be the first to kneel.

And of course, the “Failure” emote is surely top tier BM material.

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

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Dr. Bone

From Dr. Boom to Dr. Bone: The new king of seven

Bonemare is new, Neutral, and nightmarishly tricky to deal with

Knights of the Frozen Throne released only a few days ago, but the meta is beginning to crystallise and settle. Druid, Paladin and Shaman are strong early contenders for Aggro and Midrange decks, whereas Priest and Warlock dominate Control. Most of the impactful new inclusions have been class cards. Spreading Plague, Righteous Protector and Shadowreaper Anduin have propelled their respective classes to meta dominance.

However, a few powerful Knights of the Frozen Throne neutrals may yet shape the meta. Perhaps the strongest of these is the new Dr. 7: Bonemare. Or as I like to call it, Dr. Bone.

Board-in-a-box

Like Dr. Boom, Dr. Bone presents 9/9 of efficient stats with upside spread across multiple bodies

Bonemare isn’t especially exciting, concept-wise. Minions that buff other minions are as old as Hearthstone. New players can immediately use the concept with the Basic Shattered Sun Cleric. What makes Dr. Bone isn’t so much a novel concept as the raw numbers and its defensive power.

In terms of raw stats, Bonemare is beastly (although unlike Bone Drake, it has no tribal tag). Its 5/5 body for seven mana is pretty bad, but combine it with the +4/+4 buff it gives, and it’s an impressive 9/9 worth of stats for seven. Not only that, but the +4/+4 it gives essentially has charge. In essence, it’s a four mana Blessing of Kings plus a three mana 5/5 in one card; an efficient package indeed.

To complicate things further for the opponent, these stats are not put into one target ripe for hard removal á la Swamp King Dread, Hearthstone’s other seven mana 9/9. Bonemare spreads out over two beefy bodies, both of which demand removal.

Supreme versatility

Bonemare is great for locking down a board against Aggro, or for value vs Control

Another huge component of Bonemare’s strength comes from its versatility. As long as you have a minion on board, it can be used to fulfil almost any strategy. The fact that the buffed minion gains Taunt opens huge tactical options. Against Control you can go face of course, but it’s also handy to dodge a Pirate Warrior’s Arcanite reaper to the face. It’s a perfect tool for trading as well, as you can selectively apply the buff to get the best value. The ability to grant Taunt also means that it’s often safe to push face damage with the buff target, as the opponent will likely be forced to trade with it anyway.

While Paladin and Shaman can make best use of buff synergies with their hero powers and minions, Warriors and Druids have also found good use for it. The card’s sheer power and lack of efficient answers means that it’s likely to remain a popular curve topper for some time to come.

A Midrange Messiah

There are downsides of course. It requires a minion target to be effective, and is otherwise almost useless. However, most decks that would consider running Bonemare can easily flood the board. What’s more, if worst comes to worse it can still be played with a one drop or hero power for a quick dump of stats. Though the opportunity for trading is lost, throwing down two mid-sized minions, one of which has taunt, can often be enough to save or close out the game.

This balance between aggression and defensiveness makes it perfect for Midrange decks of all stripes, from aggressive to those leaning to Control. Being incredibly powerful whether you’re the “beatdown” or not is a rare trait in a card, but Bonemare manages it. As long as a deck is Midrange, it is likely to want this card.

Identity theft?

Will Bonemare’s success come at the cost of class flavour?

New, experimental versions of Aggro Paladin have even been considering dropping cards like Tirion for Bonemare! Coming down one turn earlier, it fulfills a similar purpose of a value bomb that also protects the face and pushes damage. Here we come to a slightly troubling nature of the card. Due to being a powerful Neutral minion, it may erode class identity by squeezing out classic Class minions. If Warriors cut Grommash, if Paladins cut Tirion, and if Warlocks cut Doomguard for this, then games start to feel stale and similar.

Blizzard has wisely shied away from these kinds of omnipresent Neutrals in the past. Midrange decks make up a huge proportion of the Meta, and if Bonemare finds its way into all of them, it could lead to a troubling blandness between classes.

Countering Dr. Bone

Dr. Bone

When the best counter to a 5/5 is a 4/5, things may go badly for you

Worryingly, Bonemare doesn’t have many direct counters. The Black Knight deals with the buffed minion, but trades poorly with Bonemare itself. Spellbreaker reduces the power of the buffed minion; but often the toughness will remain untouched if it has already traded. Dirty Rat can bring the body down early, but is still a risky and anti-tempo counter.

By far, the best counter to Dr. Bone is simply to clear the opponent’s board prior to it coming down. While this isn’t always possible, it’s worth considering if you’re holding onto the Brawl or Dragonfire Potion. Otherwise, consider playing a deck such as Freeze Mage that’s effective against Midrange strategies.

Or you could even run a Bonemare of your own, and leave others to make these tough decisions on how to clear your board…

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

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dead man's hand

Why Dead Man’s Hand is impossible to evaluate

Dead man's hand

Unique and potentially powerful, Dead Man’s Hand has divided opinion

Dead Man’s Hand is a card that does nothing. The 2 mana Warrior Epic spell is soon to be released as part of Hearthstone’s Knights of the Frozen throne, and has already generated hype, debate and wildly differing predictions.

But in terms of practical, immediate impact to a board state, the effect is zero. It draws no cards, deals no damage and summons no minions. In many situations its analagous to simply throwing a card away.

However, Dead Man’s Hand makes up for this by being quite simply the most powerful deck manipulation tool ever devised for Hearthstone. The ability to shuffle your entire hand into your deck would be fascinating enough on a singleton card; on a cheap spell that can have 2 copies per deck, it’s potentially gamebreakingly powerful.

A Brief History of Deck Manipulation

Dead man's hand

Forgotten Torch was a powerful tool for burn mages

Deck manipulation crept into Hearthstone slowly. Completely absent in Classic and Basic, the ability to shuffle additional value to your deck beyond the traditional 30 cards began with GvG’s Druid Legendary, Malorne. This eternally recurring stag didn’t fit into the combo-focused Druids of the time however. In Blackrock Mountain, Gang Up spurred the Mill Rogue archetype to new highs of near-competitiveness.

Deck manipulation effects weren’t to grow to meta prominence until League of Explorers. Then, cards like Forgotten Torch and Elise Starseeker proved that shuffling valuable cards into your deck could swing games. Old Gods’ C’thun Warrior crushed Control with Doomcaller’s ability to shuffle up to 2 additional C’thuns per game.

Then, in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, Jade Idol provided a death knell to fatigue archetypes with its infinite threat generation. Un’goro furthered the list of competitive deck manipulation cards with Direhorn Hatchling and Elise Trailblazer, both of which saw extensive competitive play.

Infinite value, zero tempo

It’s hard to justify spending 2 mana to do nothing. Is Dead Man’s Hand the next Explore Un’goro?

Against this rich history of successful deck manipulation cards, why has Dead Man’s Hand received such negative competitive evaluations from pros? Part of the reason behind players like Kolento’s near-instant dismissal as “100 dust” lies in the nature of the card. Other deck manipulation tools that saw competitive play have a body or effect attached. Forgotten Torch has 3 damage, both Elises are sturdy 5 health minions, and even Jade Idol has the option to create a massive minion rather than shuffle.

In contrast, Dead Man’s hand has no such effect. It would be a truly dead card in every matchup that does not go to fatigue. Lots of pro players then, quite reasonably, performed a quick mental calculation. They thought about the deck it might fit into (Control Warrior) and estimated the number of games that would likely be affected by fatigue (a very small percentage). From this perspective, it’s easy to see why many pros deem the card trash.

Bad card, good deck?

The fundamental flaw with this assessment is that it presumes that the card would most likely work in a deck that looked something like modern Control Warrior. But Control Warrior was built from the ground up around an assumption of limited deck value. Control Warrior sacrifices flexibility to maximize the total value of the deck. Incredibly powerful cards like Battle Rage are excluded in favour of solid lategame minions that can trade positively on a card-for-card basis.

While Dead Man’s Hand might be a nigh-unplayable bad card in Aggro matchups, it carries a hidden benefit. By guaranteeing potentially infinite late-game value, it allows every other card in the deck to be cheaper, leaner and more draw-focused. This allows Aggro matchups to improve while (in theory) remaining incredibly strong vs Control.

Not only that, but Dead Man’s Hand is unique in its abilities. This is the first time infinite duplication of any card has been available from hand. Minions have been able to be bounced once or twice, and Jade Idols can last forever, but until now it’s never been possible to play any specific minion or spell infinitely (at least without Lorewalker Cho shenanigans). This has the potential for some disgustingly powerful series of plays.

Thinking Combo

dead man's hand

Warrior has no problem drawing through their entire deck

Although I’ve been overoptimistic on 2 mana Warrior Epics before, it’s worth considering what a deck that was built around Dead Man’s Hand would look like. The deck would likely look less like traditional Control Warriors of old, and more like Combo Warrior.

There have been a variety of Warrior decks that have utilized the class’s powerful draw engine and cheap, efficient spells. Patron, Worgen OTK and Arcane Warriors all got massive value from drawing through their entire deck with Battle rage. Unfortunately, they’ve all lacked reliable win conditions vs Control since Warsong Commander and Charge prevented Frothing or Worgen OTKs. Arcane Giants Warrior, the only surviving Standard deck, is currently unplayable due to the ease of which most classes clear or outvalue the 2-3 boards of Giants.

This all could change with Dead Man’s Hand. The gameplan would be simple; cycle to fatigue, then play overpowered cards over and over again until you win. But what cards? How could the deck be nimble enough to beat aggro, but weighty enough to beat Jade?

Building a Jade breaker

Infinite N’zoths are a scary prospect

Assuming the deck would follow this gameplan, it would want strong end-game threats to play repeatedly concentrated into as few as possible card slots. The most promising tools likely include cards like N’zoth. A N’zoth win condition revolving around Loot Hoarders, Direhorn Hatchlings and perhaps the new Mountainfire Armor would be a strong, repeatable threat that would provide board presence, Taunts, lifegain and card-draw to sustain the infinite combo.

Other strategies would be Arcane Giants and Battle Rages, repeatedly clearing with King Mosh, or endless Grommashes to face. Coldlights Oracles could provide a fatigue win condition, but would be unable to deal with the infinite Jades. Testers could also try C’thun, but the Old God would likely require too many deckslots.

Unpredictable

Regardless of how the final deck may look, it’s clear that we cannot evaluate the card in a traditional context. If the card works or not, it will be on the basis of whether or not its deck is strong, not down to the nature of the card itself. Its performance will be decided by meta and support tools rather than whether or not it’s mana efficient or a powerful effect.

While pros are free to guess at the power of the card, it’s important to remember that more often than not, cards like this are simply impossible to predict. Which may be annoying, but it makes that initial experience of experimentation and refinement all the more exciting. And hey, even if the card doesn’t turn out to be competitive, it will surely create some fantastic opportunity for meme decks.


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

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Frustrating card design ideas not to revive

Coming out of the unprecedented well-balanced and fair meta of Un’goro, it’s easy to reflect on the successes of card design. However, as the new expansion “Knights of the Frozen Throne” rapidly approaches, it’s important to remember the cautionary tales. Hearthstone has had its fair share of frustrating, problematic or downright overpowered card designs in the past. Reflecting on these can help avoid similar mistakes in the future.

The sticky, snowballing early minion

frustrating

Northshire Cleric is a great example of a strong early minion that doesn’t snowball out of control and kill you by turn five (usually)

I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating.

Cards that snowball out of control can be fun and engaging to play against. They can help turn a razor thin tempo advantage leveraged at the perfect moment into a win.

Unfortunately, snowball cards that are dropped on turn one more often than not decide games based on draw RNG. This is even worse when said cards are both hard to remove and gain attack quickly. An unchecked Mana Wrym doing 10+ damage by turn four because you couldn’t find your Wrath is hardly engaging.

If snowbally mechanics are added, they should remain at a mana cost where the opponent has time to prepare for and react to them.

Random early-game pings

frustrating

It’s hard to control random pings on turn one

In a video for the game design and theory channel “Extra Credits”, Flame Juggler is used as an example of how having low-impact RNG can be exciting but not frustrating. Unfortunately, the video (which was worked on by a team that includes current Hearthstone designer Dan Emmons), misses two important points.

The initial thrust of the video, that RNG is better when it’s not game-deciding all on its own, is sound. However, the writers underestimate the extent to which even one damage in the early game can have a huge impact. What’s more, they gloss over the fatigue that sets in when you see this happen every game.

Cards like Flame Juggler or Fiery Bat are frustrating because an early game ping is almost always near-useless going face, and almost always very good when hitting a minion. Trading into a Mana Wrym or Northshire Cleric is amazing, whereas leaving it alive while dealing only one damage to face is catastrophic.

If early-game RNG is to be introduced, it should not have constant 50/50 dice rolls between one obviously amazing and one consistently useless outcome. Instead, focusing on a narrower range of outcomes can help keep fun high and frustration low.

Cheap Charge minions (that can go face)

Charge minions have had a rough history. A majority of Classic cards that involve charge have been changed in one way or another, with only a few going un-touched by balance changes.

The core of the problem is how Charge allows Buffs to be turned into burn. Classes that shouldn’t have massive damage from an empty board can gain access to it through a combination of Charge minions and buffs. As Quest Rogue and Combo Warrior proved, this allowed certain classes to have access to obnoxious levels of damage from hand.

Charge limits design space on buffs, and risks adding oppressive combos. Future charge cards should be designed more like Grommash Hellscream and less like Leeroy Jenkins to open up design space for powerful buffs without risking frustrating OTKs. Combo decks deserve better and more interactive finishers.

As Quest Rogue proved, even seemingly innocuous Charge minions can be crushingly powerful with buffs

Uber-efficient cheap Weapons

It’s dangerous when a class can’t be out-tempo’d. Pre-nerf spirit claws led to a meta where Midrange Shaman couldn’t be countered

Early game board control is arguably the most important factor in the majority of Hearthstone games. The first few turns more often than not completely shape the remaining game.

It’s unsurprising then, that the most powerful tools for achieving early board control would be some of the most powerful cards in the game. Warrior has become kind of early tempo almost entirely through Fiery War Axe. Cheap weapons that contain a package of both minions and a weapon have proven especially strong, as Jade Claws and N’zoth’s First Mate demonstrate.

This is all well and good, but a proliferation of early weapons can end up being restrictive on classes without access to them. Instead of giving every class in the game a super-powerful early weapon, it may be best to restrict it to a very few cards in a very few classes. N’zoth’s First Mate and Fiery War Axe in the same deck may simply be too strong, as were pre-nerf Spirit Claws and Jade Claws being too consistent.

Instead, new weapons should be powerful but at least somewhat expensive, so that counters like Acidic Swamp Ooze and Harrison Jones can come into play.

High-Variance card generation

Discover and random card generation tends to work well in a fun, non-frustrating way when it is limited in the kind of outcomes it can produce. Stonehill Defender in non-Paladin classes is always going to give a pretty predictable outcome, as will Hydrologist. These kinds of limited-pool discovers offer more counterplay than cards like Swashburglar or Babbling Book, where the potential efficiency and value of the generated card can vary massively.

The problem with this wide variance is not only more frustration when outcomes fall far above or below expectations, but also reduces counterplay. In the future, card generation should fall within a narrower or more predictable range, especially when attached to very cheap minions.

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

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