For a card that’s single-handedly beaten me in more games than I can count, I have a soft spot for Jaraxxus. The big red demon lord was the original incarnation of the Hero card. Now represented by Death Knight Heroes, Lord Jaraxxus pioneered replacing your hero portrait with an entirely new character and hero power. Outside of his flavourful introduction charming habit of yelling absolutely everything, he was remarkably well designed, leading to exciting, interesting and skill-testing gameplay.
Unfortunately, Jaraxxus isn’t around much lately. There’s another high-cost Warlock hero replacement that’s simply better in almost all situations. Bloodreaver Gul’dan is far more consistent; but its design is far less satisfying than Jaraxxus’. So why was Jaraxxus so much better to play with and against, while being arguably much less powerful?
One of Jaraxxus’ principle appeals is his charismatic, over-the-top portrayal. His lines are bombastic and entirely befitting of an apocalyptic demon that has taken over your opponent. As well as nicely matching Warcraft lore, and his explosive reversal of Wilfred Fizzlebang’s attempts to control him, it also fits with his in-game abilities. The hero power summoning forth an endless demonic tide is extremely fitting, and a wonderfully thematic end-game inevitability.
Bloodreaver Gul’dan on the other hand, just feels like more of the same. Gul’dan is already evil and menacing; making him super-evil and ultra-menacing seems redundant. Not only that, but the three damage lifesteal hero power, while thematically appropriate, is rather boring in terms of impact. At least summoning all the demons you’ve played this game is quite cool as a battlecry effect. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t come close to meeting Jaraxxus’ high standards for flavour and style.
Fragility and fun
From a design perspective, Jaraxxus has a fascinating series of strengths and drawbacks. Setting you to 15 life can be immensely risky. It often requires a set-up over multiple turns to ensure a clear board state, as well as reserving heal effects so you can’t be burned down over several turns. Versus threats like Grommash you’ll often need to save Taunt activators to turn your 6/6 minions into charge-halting walls. But when he survives, he’s terrifying, dropping an endless tide of 6/6s that are only stopped in fatigue. The intense risk/reward and fragility of Jaraxxus makes for a high-stakes, compelling gameplay that truly represented the spirit of Warlock.
Bloodreaver Gul’dan on the other hand, often creates tedium. His power is at once both crushingly powerful and quite dull. Unlike Jaraxxus’ 6/6 demons, it’s practically impossible to interact with Gul’dan’s 3 damage lifesteal hero power. It simply shuts off burn strategies while removing key minions or endlessly burning face. What’s more, the lack of fragility means there’s no risk to playing Gul’dan in most situations. 5 armour and a likely wall of taunts will almost always be as defensive a play as you can make anyway, so there is no tension when he is played.
Counters and counterplay
Part of the genius of Jaraxxus can be seen in his ‘Blood Fury’. This 3/8 weapon is both a key part of Jaraxxus’ power that underlines his transformative nature and a safety valve. Harrison Jones can be a great counter to Jaraxxus, as drawing 8 cards against such a fragile hero can be truly crippling to the Warlock. This, combined with his natural weakness to burn damage, means that Jaraxxus was straightforward to tech against. Worst come to worst, you could even play Warlock with Sacrificial Pact.
Bloodreaver Gul’dan, however, has little counterplay. Even if you steal or transform all the Warlock’s demons, there’s nothing you can do to punish the Warlock’s new hero power, which is not only extremely flexible but is one of the most powerful in terms of health swing. In a vacuum, it beats every other hero power in the game other than Jaraxxus and the Warrior Quest in a fatigue situation with its insane 6 health swing, translating to the equivalent of a 6 card fatigue advantage (depending on health).
Can Jaraxxus return?
Though Jaraxxus has been pushed out for now, there could be ways for him to come back into the meta. If Warlock gets more ways to prevent or preempt damage, then setting him up could be worth it. Alternatively, more neutral armour-gain could allow him to stabilise above 15. We may even one day see a new version of Jaraxxus with a higher relative power level but maintaining some of the same interesting strengths and weaknesses.
However, the most likely solution is not to change a great formula. Jaraxxus is not under-powered, it simply cannot compete with the absolute powerhouse that is Bloodreaver Gul’dan. Once that card rotates out, the Eredar lord of the burning legion will have ample time to shine.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.