It was once heralded as the greatest value tool in the game and has reached complete unplayability since then. In a sense, the disappearance of Gorehowl indicates a massive shift that’s been undertaken in the game: the importance of tempo has been creeping up ever since the introduction of Goblins versus Gnomes.
For those of you not in the know, Gorehowl is the legendary two-handed axe of the Hellscream family of orcs. Despite the implications, it isn’t a card that fits aggressive strategies: you can hit your opponent in the face with it for seven damage, but you really don’t want to. You see, it only has one durability for its massive attack stat, but hitting a minion will reduce that instead of the former. This very creative design solution all but ensures that you will be clearing minions with it, unless you are in dire need of an overcosted Fireball to win the game on the spot. It was an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
It’s also nowhere to be seen nowadays. Earlier in Hearthstone’s life cycle, when Control Warrior was a deck to be feared, this card could single-handedly win you the value game against other slower archetypes that were incapable of pressuring your life total. For seven mana, you could essentially deal 28 damage to minions over the course of seven turns – a breathtaking number. It is still an incredibly strong tool in Arena for Garrosh and Magni.
So how could a card like this completely disappear from Constructed play? It has to do with the fundamental changes to how value is obtained nowadays. Instead of playing a removal game, control decks are more interested in generating extra cards to swamp their opponent with: from Lyra to Cabalist’s Tome, not to mention the endless stream of Jade Golems, an archetype based on resource exhaustion has been essentially unplayable since the introduction of Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, though even Whispers of The Old Gods’ namesakes were a dedicated attempt to stamp out this playstyle with the four powerful finishers designed for slower decks.
Looking at the current Standard metagame, there are essentially three decks that are powerful enough to match up to the rigid requirements of ladder play: Jade Druid, Razakus Priest and Keleseth Rogue. Whether or not having such a skewed metagame is a problem in and of itself is a topic for a different discussion – but it’s certainly clear that Control Warrior will not find a way to become part of the scene until at least the next set’s arrival, and likely not until MSoG rotates out for good.
Control the tempo
Taking a look at these three decks will quickly help us identify where Gorehowl – and with it, the pure control strategies – have gone. The endless stream of Jade Druids has been the bane of Warrior’s existence ever since their introduction, and while Skulking Geist allows you to put a cap on them when you finally draw it, your opponent has usually managed to play Idols at least once or twice before that, essentially adding +2/+2 to their remaining golems. Couple this with the Death Knight’s flexible and powerful Hero Power that doubles as a better Steady Shot and a slightly worse Tank Up plus the incredible cycling capabilities brought on by Ultimate Infestation, and you’ll see why it becomes almost impossible to keep up on board even as a Control Warrior. You can try to go all-out on a fatigue strategy with double Dead Man’s Hands and other goodies, sure, but then what do you do with the other two top dogs?
Not only does Razakus Priest lack juicy enough targets for your Gorehowl, the deck is also incredibly effective at pressuring your life total, easily capable of dealing so much damage in a single turn that even the original Miracle Rogue would bow down before its might. Drawing extra cards for that deck can easily be equated to assisted suicide unless you get lucky and burn one of their two key cards.
As for Keleseth Rogue, it also symptomatizes the greatest change in tempo decks since the inception of Hearthstone: it was close to impossible in the early days of the game to find a card that wouldn’t die to an on-curve Gorehowl: nowadays almost everything can survive a blow from the legendary weapon provided it got helped out by a Bonemare and a Keleseth-buff or two. Essentially the biggest, meanest weapon in the game has become incapable of wrestling board control back from the aggressive player, and unlike the other issues, this isn’t going to change once MSoG leaves Standard.
Where does this leave us? Some have called the current metagame a control-based one, but I couldn’t agree less. Razakus Priest is a combo deck with the sole goal of cycling, no one would call Keleseth Rogue a control deck unless they are thinking about controlling the face, and I would also argue that Jade Druid’s strength is coming from its tempo and cycle capabilities rather than its arsenal of removal and stall. (Just try playing Control Paladin against Malfurion and tell me how you did!) All in all, the diminished powers of Gorehowl are a great example of Hearthstone’s changes over the years. I would argue that it’s for the worse. As for the developers, they didn’t even include Control as an option for your favorite archetype in a questionnaire, so that’s probably all we need to know…
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