You only have to log onto Hearthstone Ladder to feel the impact of Midrange Shaman. If you’re playing between ranks 10 and 1, the chance that you queue into the powerful brew of Spellpower and Totem synergies is roughly one in five*. This isn’t just a ladder phenomenon, where cheaper, faster, easier to play decks tend to be overrepresented. Midrange Shaman is the bane of Tournaments also. In the upcoming Blizzcon world championship, every single contestant is bringing almost the exact same list.
The deck is not simply powerful. It is unique in its surprising consistency, with few, if any, direct counters among commonly played decks. It is powerful and flexible, able to transform the tiniest of advantages into huge swings, and managing to create hugely threatening boards out of just a few cards. Whilst several decks have an even matchup, it is only Freeze Mage, an expensive and skill intensive deck with multiple hard counters and poor performance against the rest of the meta, that can get a decisive edge. This lack of counter-queuing has led to a nightmare scenario, where the best counter to the dominant deck, while remaining consistent over the rest of the ladder, is to queue up with the exact same deck!
Data aggregators estimate that Midrange Shaman is currently averaging an unprecedented 56% win-rate over the whole of the ladder (recently the estimate has been dropping, but only because more mirror matches pushes the result closer to 50%). With the amount of Shamans reaching critical mass it’s clear that something has to change.
No One Culprit
Unlike in other cases, there is no one card that makes Midrange Shaman so powerful. As the nerfs to Tuskarr Totemic and Rockbiter Weapon have proven, the problem cannot be isolated to specific cards without unforeseen side effects. Even if, as is often proposed, Blizzard took emergency action and made changes to any single specific card in the current lists, the Shaman package is so synergistic and powerful that any card that was rebalanced could simply be replaced. This is a deck that frequently only runs one Fire Elemental, one of the most potent Midrange cards ever printed! The only way to significantly impact the deck’s power level would be a comprehensive change to a number of core cards.
However, this is both unlikely and probably unhealthy. Such an action would not only conflict with Team 5’s usual rhythm of balance changes, but would also likely have heavy repercussions for the class’s viability in the medium to long term. Before Standard and the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion, Controlling or Midrange archetypes of Shaman were simply non-existent in competitive environments. Tunnel Trogg, Thunderbluff Valiant, and Totem Golem are all on their way out in the next Standard rotation. Whilst the deck or some variation of it might just survive a comprehensive program of rebalancing, it’s likely that it would fall apart later on. This would force Blizzard to either give the class the Priest treatment of letting it languish in obscurity for multiple expansions, or take the risk of giving them many more competitive cards. This would risk returning Shaman to its oppressive state.
Rather than focusing on any one card, we must understand how to solve the Shaman problem by looking at the meta and where it fits. We have to analyze the deck as a whole, the archetype it falls into, and why traditional counters to that archetype haven’t been up to the challenge.
What is Midrange Shaman?
At its core, Midrange Shaman is a highly reactive deck compared to other midrange archetypes, such as Dragon Warrior, Midrange Hunter or the old Secret Paladin. The deck runs multiple board clears, hard and spot removal, defensive taunts, defensive weapons, and weapon removal. It forgoes virtually any burst potential from hand for a totally board-centered approach. The only reactive tool it lacks is a source of life gain, hence the decks vulnerability to Freeze mage. Should that ever be a serious counter to the deck’s dominance, a single copy of Healing Wave would easily swing the matchup back in the Shaman’s favor.
So what does this mean? Essentially, it results in a deck that is supremely effective against aggressive, pro-active decks, by repeatedly and efficiently clearing boards and putting up defenses. You need only look at the decline of decks such as Zoolock, Tempo Rogue, and Aggro Shaman to see the massive influence that Midrange Shaman has had on constraining aggressive decks that too often have too few counters. It’s important to recognize that whilst oppressively powerful, there’s not too much to complain about with the impact and play style of Midrange Shaman. In many ways, it reflects an archetype that Blizzard seems keen to encourage and promote.
Traditionally, anti-aggro Midrange decks have been vulnerable to Control decks that can deal with the few threats they run, and either fatigue them out or overwhelm them with threats of their own. However, Midrange Shaman is different. It has favorable matchups versus virtually all control or late game-oriented decks, with impressive statistics against Control Priest, Anyfin Paladin, Control Paladin, and Renolock. Shaman is only slightly unfavorable against Control Warrior. Nonetheless this inspires a question: Why does Shaman have so many good control matchups? Why doesn’t the highly reactive nature of Shaman prevent it from ever out-valuing a Controlling list?
A Lack of Control
The problem is twofold. Firstly is that the Shaman’s hero power and minions are a nightmare to deal with efficiently. The class inherently gravitates towards wide boards, with multiple 2-3 health minions. The risk of a Bloodlust or Thunder Bluff Valiant, as well as the additional value and awkwardness gained from Taunt-protected Mana Tide Totems, Flametongue Totems and Spellpower Totems or minions is dangerous. This means that it is imperative to clear these boards rather than attempting to contest, or else you will be swept away by the insane Shaman card synergies.
By simply hero powering and playing a small threat every turn, Shamans can rapidly exhaust the resources of control decks that simply don’t have enough board clears; especially since any gained tempo the control deck can grab by a well-timed clear can often be swiftly reversed by a heavily discounted Thing From Below, followed by other minions on the following turn. This means that even against the most late-game oriented decks, Shamans can compete in fatigue, resulting in that strategy being difficult at best.
Control decks would traditionally beat reactive anti-aggro Midrange through playing powerful, high value minions. Cards like Cairne, Sylvanas, Ragnaros, Ysera, and massive combos like Anyfin Can Happen can swing a game. Now the new synergistic late-game Old Gods like N’zoth and C’thun are all available to provide a huge late-game punch to cripple purely anti-aggro lists. However, whilst these strategies sound good on paper, there is one three mana shaman spell in the way: Hex.
Hex shuts down virtually all of these strategies. Board or no board, regardless of Deathrattle, and in a way that prevents resurrection strategies like with C’thun, Anyfin and N’zoth, Hex provides an incredibly potent tempo swing against high value minions. Furthermore, the Shaman’s ability to efficiently trade boards into large threats with cards like Flametongue Totem means that Hex can be saved for the highest priority targets. (Note that I am not advocating an increase in the cost of Hex or similar rebalancing, Shaman suffers from a weak Classic/Basic Set as is).
What’s to be done? If we wish for Midrange Shaman to continue to act as a counterbalance to aggressive strategies, then something must be done to make the deck beatable by more controlling archetypes. The best way to do this would be to introduce more tools for Control/Late game decks to counter the low-value board flood. Ideally, something that can deal three damage AOE to efficiently deal with Flametongue, Spirit Wolves and Tunnel Trogg. We’ve already seen this to an extent with Karazhan, with cards such as Fool’s Bane proving effective against Shaman’s board. However, other classes (particularly Paladin) need more help. If more classes had access to more board clears, then running Shaman out of cards could be a viable strategy.
In addition, we need high-impact late-game cards that aren’t hard countered by transform effects. Perhaps unconditional shuffling of cards into the deck, or more Baron Geddon or Deathwing style minion-based board clears. With a new expansion on the way, maybe some of these answers will come. If not, it’s likely we’ll be dealing with the dominance of Thrall for a long time coming.
*the latest Vicious Syndicate Data reaper report estimates 23.5% (http://www.vicioussyndicate.com/vs-data-reaper-report-23/) whereas the slightly more conservative metastats.net reports 15.1% http://metastats.net/snapshot/week/
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