Have you ever seen what deck your opponent is playing, realised you have no chance to win and had the urge to instantly concede? If so, you’re not alone. The meta has thrown up a number of extremely polarizing matchups that create extremely rock-paper-scissors style situations. If you try and counter Paladin with Control Warrior, you may as well concede against Quest Rogue or Taunt Warrior. If you punish Warlocks and Quest Rogues with Odd Face Hunter, you’ll be helpless against Paladins and Druids. And if you focus on Warlocks and Paladins with Priest, then Druids and Rogues will eat you for breakfast.
Of course, every healthy meta has unfavourable and favourable matchups; it’s how it self-corrects to prevent any one deck taking over. But the gameplay that results from extremely one-sided games thanks to matchup RNG is discouraging. So how did we get here?
The (re)rise of Quest Rogue
One of the biggest offenders for the extreme nature of matchups is Quest Rogue. Though it has scarcely been seen since the nerf, it has risen from the ashes to counter Warlocks. Its Vanishes and massive charge damage is the perfect counter to boards of Voidlords. With new tools like Sonya and Zola the Gorgon, it can almost be as scary as the pre-nerf version at times. So far, so interesting. The problem with Quest Rogue, however, is its massive weakness to early aggression. It’s punished hard by any kind of aggressive or even midrange decks, while it stomps on Control decks.
To make matters worse, previous tools for delaying Quest Rogue’s win condition no longer exist in Standard. Without Dirty Rat, it’s extremely hard for Control to prevent death by multiple volleys of 1 mana 5/5 charge minions. And many classes lost board clears that could otherwise sweep up those 5/5s. Priest lost its Dragonfire, and Warrior no longer has access to Sleep with the Fishes. Meanwhile, aggro has only got more refined. The end result is even more polarisation than last year.
Call to AOE
Call to Arms is a card that does essentially two things. Against decks without the right kind of reliable AOE effects, it’s borderline busted. You get 6 mana and 3 cards of board development in one card. But against decks that can run cards like Duskbreaker, Defile, Blood Razor or Dragon’s Fury, it’s a very different story. While still powerful, it rarely leads to the kinds of board swings you need to succeed in tight games. The stats reflect this; Paladin, especially Even Paladin, has incredible results versus all kinds of tempo decks. But many control decks have extremely favourable matchups against it. Call to Arms means that packing decks with enough efficient AOE will mean you’ll always do well against Paladin.
Unfortunately, this combines with the popularity of Quest Rogue to create a dilemma. You can beat Paladin by forgoing tempo minions to pack potent AOE, and lose to Quest Rogue; or add in early pressure and lose answers to Call to Arms.
Target Warlock, lose to everyone else?
Another contributor to this polarizing meta is Warlock. To beat Warlock, you don’t just have to tech in a few silences. You have to actively change your entire gameplan to revolve around exploiting their few weaknesses. Voidlord, Doomguard and Gul’dan are such insurmountable threats that your deck has to be tailored to either burn them down, cheat out massive minions early, or combo them to death.
Even with almost every deck running Silence for Voidlords or Lackey and Weapon removal for Skull of the Man’ari, the deck has positive winrates across the board against anything that doesn’t exactly target its weaknesses. This not only creates polarising matchups where non-Warlock countering decks are heavily unfavoured, but those decks that do win against Warlock end up being quite bad against the rest of the meta, leading to a chain reaction of further unsatisfying games.
A lack of tech
Ultimately, the problem is not that Quest Rogue is good against Control, nor that Control is good against Paladin. Every strategy should have some kind of counter-deck potential. The problem is there’s no way for Control decks to realistically tech against Quest Rogue or other anti-control lists. Many decks would happily give up a few percentage winrate against aggro to have less frustrating and one-sided matchups elsewhere, leading to an overall more interesting and skill rewarding meta. But the tools simply aren’t there.
The best solution here would be for Team 5 to reintroduce similar successful tech card concepts to deal with a wider variety of strategies. Cards like Dirty Rat, Deathlord, or Sylvanas can punish minion combos or cheating out big minions respectively. A Dirty Rat style effect could slow down Quest Rogue enough for Control to stand a chance. Sylvanas-esque cards could be a crushing shutdown to preempt Voidlords or Doomguards. And if tempo decks got more tools to deal with wide boards while adding pressure, Paladins could terrorize left.
In the meantime, the ever-present threat of nerfs hang on the horizon. Before then though, it might be worth learning the subtle art of the counter-queue.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.