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