Shaman is in the middle of an identity crisis. After a disastrous experiment with Freeze Shaman, Team 5 threw mechanics at Shaman to see what sticks. Shaman’s Kobolds and Catacombs haul included Battlecry, Overload, Totem and Evolve synergies. But there’s a compelling argument that these mechanics miss a core part of Shaman’s identity. An identity that is subverted and held back, ironically, by one of Shaman’s greatest strengths.
Masters of the board
Shaman is, aside from Paladin, maybe Hearthstone’s most board-centric class. Though it has a variety of strong spells like Lava Shock, these are best sent face; the class relies heavily on keeping minions to succeed. The entire totem mechanic, including the hero power, revolves around keeping and buffing low-value minions. Without board control, the class quickly crumbles.
Unfortunately, this has led to a dilemma. When Shaman is strong, it dominates. If it can keep early board control, quickly snowball out of control and use its massive repertoire of burn to finish off opponents. But when it’s weak, it truly struggles; without being able to utilise its totems, it can’t gain sufficient value without giving up on the board completely. But how does Shaman succeed without being over-centralized into a indistinct, burn-focused Aggro deck?
The answer might lie in Shaman’s most powerful minion type: its totems. Mana Tide, Flametongue and Primalfin Totem all provide incremental value simply by staying alive and well-defended. A well placed totem backed up by a Taunt or two can swing games. This is distinct to many former Aggro Shaman staples like Totem Golem and Flamewreathed Faceless that do not require backup to succeed, and simply win with their potent piles of stats.
Continuing with a more totem-focused gameplan could make Shaman more interactive and distinct from other aggressive decks. However, this strategy requires support. And that support risks supplanting totems altogether.
The Bloodlust problem
Consider Bloodlust. Bloodlust has been a staple of wide Shaman decks for a while, but it’s also a limiter. By giving Shaman huge burst potential from wide boards, it becomes problematic. When Shaman’s identity is built around getting value out of small minions, a card that essentially reads “win the game if you have lots of minions” has two main problems.
Firstly, it crowds out other strategies. Cards like Spirit Echo, Grumble or Worldshaker have little use, because they’re best used on big boards where Bloodlust will just win you the game. And secondly, it means that Shaman can’t receive too many resilient, efficient minions because early game snowball can lead to a quick victory, either from Bloodlust or with simple direct damage spells.
All or nothing?
With Jade Claws, Patches, Thing from Below and Maelstrom Portal rotating out, Shaman may go from bad to worse. There simply may not be enough early game to defend and back up its powerful totems. But conversely, attempts to mitigate this could simply lead to a return to the bad old days of Aggro Shaman or overly oppressive Midrange Shaman. So what’s to be done?
One option would be to reduce Shaman’s burn options while increasing its ability to seize the board. If Lava Shock, Doomhammer and Bloodlust weren’t so threatening, then Shaman could benefit from early board control without turning into a meta-defining aggro monster. But this comes with risks; most notably undermining Shaman’s identity of raw, unbridled elemental power. Otherwise, the answer may simply be to try and replicate how Shaman was able to operate in Un’goro, by finely tuning it precisely to make a healthy, balanced and interesting meta deck. But in the chaos that comes with set rotations and a new expansion, this might be a difficult task. Let’s hope Team 5 are up to the challenge.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.
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