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Death Knight Heroes and the Justicar problem

The upcoming “Knights of the Frozen Throne” expansion for Hearthstone promises death, life-leeching powers and re-imagined versions of the nine classes we know and love. But by granting new, exciting hero powers, could Team 5 revive not only monstrous Death Knights but a longstanding issue with hero power upgrades? Will the Justicar problem sour the experience of Death Knight Heroes?

Welcome to the RNG Tournament, Champion

Death Knight Heroes and the Justicar problem
Getting twice the Armor per turn early is a massive advantage

The old days of Control Warrior mirrors had a dark secret. On the one hand, the matchup was full of tense and high-stakes gameplay; precision resource management, risky Sylvanases, fatigue maths and Gorehowl/Harrison brinkmanship. Golden Monkey timing alone is deserving of a strategy guide in itself.

But despite all this high-level skill testing gameplay, there was one aspect that decided game after game, and it came down to pure luck.

The player who drew Justicar Trueheart first had a massively improved chance to win. In a matchup where the Hero Power would be used roughly every turn for the entire game, drawing a card that made it twice as effective 10 cards sooner than the opponent translated into 20 additional armour. This naturally lead to significant frustration and circumvented interesting, skill-based gameplay.

 

Knight of the Living Dead

Death Knight Heroes and the Justicar problem
Deathstalker Rexxar may redefine Hunter (with the right support)

The titular “Knights” of “Knights of the Frozen Throne” are Warcraft’s Death Knights. Raised and bound with sentience and power intact, these powerful beings will appear in Hearthstone as alternate versions of Heroes. Similar to Jarraxxus, they will replace the art and emotes of your Hero, and grant a powerful new Hero Power. Unlike Jaraxxus, they grant Armour instead of resetting Health, and have an immediate board impact.

The only example released so far is the “Deathstalker Rexxar” Hunter Death Knight Hero. Six mana and granting five armour as well as a two damage board wipe, the true power comes in the form of swapping the Steady Shot Hero Power. Instead of the familiar two damage a turn, you get to stitch together a “Zombeast” from two discovered Beasts. This massive value engine offers to grant Hunters a form of infinite gas in lieu of SMOrcing ability.

In an interview with streamer and pro player Tang “Eloise” Haiyun, Lead Mission Designer Dave Kosak dropped hints as to other classes. Other Heroes are likely to be similarly value-oriented (though there was an indication that at least one would be more aggressive). With so much value on the line, could we see the return of the Justicar problem, where whoever draws their super-powerful new Hero first gets a massive advantage in a Control mirror?

A Forgotten Problem?

It’s easy to see how this problem may have flown under the radar. Other super-powerful late-game cards like Jaraxxus, Old Gods or Quests rarely decide games purely on being drawn early or late. However, these examples have some obvious balancing features that would not apply to Hero cards. Jaraxxus opens you up to vulnerability to burst. Old Gods can be removed or Dirty Rat’d out. Quests start in your starting hand regardless, so tend to be completed symmetrically.

Hero cards, on the other hand, cannot be interacted with. They do not make your Hero more vulnerable; in fact they grant additional armour. Hero Powers cannot be drawn out by Dirty Rat, interfered with, or removed (except in Wild, where they can be stolen by Sideshow Spelleater). Worst of all, they have no special card draw mechanics, meaning drawing it early is entirely down to draw RNG.

Because of this, the unique confluence of issues could allow this old, niche Justicar problem to return from the dead on a massive scale.

Tutoring to the Rescue

Death Knight Heroes and the Justicar problem
An Arcanologist style card for Death Knight Heroes instead of Secrets could improve consistency and prevent salt

The biggest problem with focusing such late-game power into single Legendary cards is that they are just that: single. Drawing one particular card from your deck is much more RNG dependent than drawing multiple. This is why Reno decks only really took off with the introduction of Kazakus; adding just one additional super-powerful build-around massively improved the decks’ consistency. It’s also the main reason drawing Justicar or not was so wide in variance and decisive.

There is a way around this: “tutoring”. Borrowed from Magic: The Gathering, tutoring is the ability to draw specific cards or card types from your deck. A card that drew Hero cards from your deck would massively reduce the variance in getting your Hero Power out roughly at the same time as your opponent. Similarly, an ability to copy Hero Powers in Standard would allow for tech card based counterplay.

While there would still be an element of RNG, the games where your Hero card is in the bottom three cards of your deck would suddenly become far less frustrating.

Control Mirrors Matter

This may seem like an unnecessary focus on a relatively rare event, but Control Mirrors shouldn’t be dismissed. While infrequent, they are the source of some of the most skillful and compelling gameplay in Hearthstone. They are literally the reason many people play the game at all. Over-emphasis on RNG can ruin this experience, and draw RNG is no exception.

If Team 5 want Death Knight Heroes to succeed, they should consider this carefully when designing the cards that define entire archetypes.

Artwork courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Deathstalker Rexxar image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthpwn.com 

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