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Frozen Throne and the danger of sticky minions

It’s been a while since the days of overly sticky minions in Hearthstone’s Standard. Once-ubiquitous Deathrattles like Piloted Shredder, Haunted Creeper and Nerubian Egg have long since rotated out.

However, the upcoming Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion promises to bring with it an undead host of new Deathrattle minions. Have the Hearthstone Developers at Team 5 learned their lesson? Or will sticky Deathrattles return to dominate the meta?

What is stickiness?

sticky
To understand stickiness, think the opposite of Magma Rager

“Stickiness” is a term in Hearthstone that expresses how difficult a card is to remove proportional to its mana cost. For a classic example, compare Magma Rager to Harvest Golem. Both cost three mana. However, Magma Rager can be completely removed with only one instance of one damage, whereas Harvest Golem requires three damage and then one damage to clear completely. The idea that more health equals more stickiness may seem obvious, but stickiness means more than just health.

Look at Piloted Shredder and compare it to Chillwind Yeti. Piloted Shredder is considered stickier because despite having less health than the yeti, it overall tends to have equal or more health (its two health Deathrattle drop is usually a 3/2, 2/2 or 2/3). But most importantly, killing a Shredder requires two sources of damage rather than just one. A single Fireball or Savannah Highmane attack kills a Yeti, but leaves a Shredder Deathrattle on the field.

Undercosted survivability

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Early sticky minions were extremely competitively costed

Hearthstone’s history is full of certain card attributes being over or under-valued. Just take a look at healing in Classic. Holy Light, Guardian of Kings, Priestess of Elune and Healing Touch remain significantly overcosted.

Meanwhile, aggressive abilities and attributes like attack and windfury were also repeatedly overcosted, while survivability (especially in the form of Deathrattles) has been continually undercosted. Look at the scores of unused underpowered Windfury minions, or high attack Taunts, that have gone almost entirely unused outside of arena.

Then compare it to the scores of powerful Deathrattle minions from early in Hearthstone’s development. Harvest Golem, Cairne and Savannah Highmane are the only Classic minions that summon friendly minions on death, and all have seen massive competitive play. Alongside Naxxramas and GvG’s cohort of ubiquitous Neutral Deathrattles, the necessity of an adjustment quickly became clear.

Killing everything twice

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Hunter’s strength is in its sticky minions; but you wouldn’t want, say, Druid, to have access to the same power

The problem with such sticky minions is that it begins to undermine the value of removal. There’s little point in Flamestrike if every minion has low health but summons something on death. When AOE doesn’t clear, then slower decks suffer. Stickiness also leads to distortions in the meta; with so much more on the board at any given moment, buffs and adjacency bonuses get an additional kick in value. Cards like Bloodlust and Savage Roar become even scarier. The potential punishes for going face decreases, as minions end up being too hard to kill efficiently.

The overall effect is that it leads to a more aggressive, more snowbally game, with fewer interesting comebacks and less tactical decision-making. Which is fine for some decks (it’s part of the identity of hunter), but when applied to the entire meta it quickly becomes overly punishing.

Learning from the past

Luckily, Hearthstone’s developers appear to be learning from past misjudgments. The most recent slew of Deathrattle minions that summon minions have a far more conservative cost. The only minions to summon minions unconditionally in Un’goro are Eggnapper (relatively weak but saw some play in Druid), Devilsaur Egg (a more expensive Nerubian that has seen very moderate experimental play) and Sated Threshadon (an unequivocally Arena-only card that sees play only in the greediest of N’zoth decks).

While Aya Blackpaw was an egregious outlier, she’s the exception that proves the rule. Almost all Deathrattle minions that summon minions printed since Whispers of the old Gods are either Hunter-only, synergy-specific or relatively under-statted for their cost. Because of this, we’re now in a meta where AOE is more prevalent and removal is more useful. It has become easier to explore interesting synergies and control decks. But if the devs shy away from powerful, sticky Deathrattles, what will Frozen Throne bring to Hearthstone?

Deathrattles without stickiness

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The most interesting Deathrattles often don’t summon minions

The answer, of course, is that Deathrattles need not summon friendly minions. Some of the most interesting and powerful Deathrattles have been on cards with new and unique effects. Take Deathlord, an anti-aggro staple that fit into a wide variety of unique decks. Or for a newer example, Un’goro’s Direhorn Hatchling, a boon to N’zoth and Taunt Warrior alike without a powerful board impact. Or even the now Hall of Fame dwelling Sylvanas, that actively countered sticky minions by stealing them or their output wholesale.

The only Frozen Throne Deathrattle released so far is the Shallow Gravedigger. This grants a Deathrattle minion, providing card advantage instead of board presence. Here’s hoping that other Frozen Throne minions follow a similar philosophy. We don’t want to end up with a Piloted Zombie Shredder instead.


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

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