Class identity is a key part of what makes Hearthstone compelling. Though it has lost its “Heroes of Warcraft” subtitle, it is nonetheless still built on the fantasy and flavor of battling Warcraft heroes. The wide variety between, say, a Druid, a Hunter, and a Rogue is not just based on card names; it rewards fundamentally different play-styles and experiences. The cornerstone to this is the unique weaknesses and strengths that allow for and promote strong class identity.
Though it was weakened by the prevalence of powerful Neutral Mid-range minions after Naxxramas and GvG, class identity has been reaffirmed as a core tenet of the game in Standard. To a large extent, this has been achieved. Gone are the days where every deck would run midrange archetypes with Shredder and Dr. Boom. Almost every class in the meta (sorry, Hunter) has a specific strategic niche and a few distinct, recognizable playstyles.
Instrumental in achieving this has been the emphasis on maintaining the fundamental “unfairness” that makes a class worthwhile. Rogues cycle and combo with a flurry of cheap, powerful damage; Druids ramp into big threats; Warriors smash face with weapons or tank up; Mages dominate with a few key minions backed up by powerful spells. This makes the class not only competitive, but also flavourful. However, just as important as class strength is class weakness.
While having exploitable disadvantages is less “fun” than the ability to do things well, it’s vital to the game’s health. As well as making for a more involved and complex set of decisions depending on opponent, class weaknesses further the meta’s ability to be self-correcting. Should Druid ever take over, then classes that can take advantage of their lack of efficient single-target removal and AOE can keep them in check. If Rogues dominate, classes that push direct damage can punish their lack of lifegain or taunts.
If a class were to have no weaknesses and many strengths, then it could potentially dominate the meta with few or no viable counters. But surely there’s no class with no weaknesses?
In Thrall’s Thrall
According to data aggregation websites like Vicious Syndicate, Shamans make up nearly 50% of all players at some ranks; higher than perhaps ever seen in Hearthstone. It’s hard to seperate the decks out, as most exist on a continuous spectrum between Aggro/Jade, Mid-Jade, and Jade control.
With so much of the meta dominated by one class, why has it not been possible for counter-decks to arise and punish the endless streams of green, overloading, elemental heroes? Part of the reason has to be less any particular overpowered minion or spell, but the overall trend of Shaman having a huge spread of very strong cards.
A Class of their own
Even the supposedly single-minded Aggro Shaman has a huge variety of tools at its disposal. Focused decks like Pirate Warrior have a simple combo of weapons, direct damage, and weapon-synergistic pirates. Aggro shaman, however, has potent early-game minions, taunts, adjacency buffs, spellpower, card draw, cheap AOE, direct damage and huge threats.
Should the meta ever shift against it, they have yet more answers in the form of high quality cards to sub in. Cards like Hex, Lightning Storm, Earth Shock, Thing From Below, and Doomhammer can be swapped in and out as necessary, countering almost anything that evolves to beat it.
Midrange Shamans have a similar surplus of options. With the Jade package proving one of the most potent and inevitable late-game strategies in the game, grinding out opponents has never been easier. New cards like Jinyu Waterspeaker and Devolve make it yet more flexible in the face of meta changes; meaning that even previous counters like Freeze Mage and Miracle Rogue have little chance. Sure, specific Shaman decks can be countered; but the Shaman class can’t.
Again, the problem is not overly strong cards per se; more that there are simply such a huge variety of strong tools that any Shaman archetype can be tweaked to beat whatever comes against it. The underlying issue is a fundamental lack of a coherent class identity behind what Shamans should be bad at, as opposed to good at.
Waiting out the (Lightning) Storm
If the meta is to be able to react to the plethora of strong Shaman decks, there needs to be a reliable way to counter them; that means giving the class a weakness. Currently, Shaman’s strength covers all bases. They have incredibly efficient early game minions, weapons, lifegain, taunts, single target removal, AOE, direct damage, transform effects, midrange threats, and late-game options.
One option would simply be to allow certain cards to leave in the upcoming new Standard rotation. If there has been a consistent theme throughout the history of Hearthstone, it’s the dominance of efficient early-game minions. With the rotation of Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem, Shaman will no longer have a uniquely unbeatable early package. Aggro decks will be forced to take a less board-centric outlook if no further replacements are printed.
However, it won’t be enough to wait for rotation; even without Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem, Shaman will still dominate the early game. Just look at Mid-Jade Shaman lists. The deck rocketed up to the highest tier on ranking sites, and on rotation the only loss will be the optional Brann Bronzebeard. The upcoming balance changes heavily hinted at will need to target some key Shaman cards if they are not to be the Tier Zero meta tyrant for yet another season.
How to stop the Elements destroying us
But what should change? And with so many strong shaman cards out there, how can the alterations make enough of an impact?
That’s up to Team 5 to decide. But surely there’s a strong argument to be made for focusing down Shaman; forcing it to be weaker to certain archetypes by heavily reducing the power level of some of the most versatile cards. Weapons, AOE and lifegain are a continual theme of new additions to shaman, and seem to be forming the basis for cementing the class’ new identity.
Alongside cutting the strength of its early game minions, a reduction in the efficiency of its hard removal seems to make the most sense alongside its current strengths. A 5 mana Hex, giving them a Druid-esque weakness to beefy minions. This change might allow more counter-play from late-game oriented decks and Hunter’s sticky minions. While still able to negate massive threats, it won’t also generate a huge tempo swing.
Whatever action is taken, it’s clear that the current situation is untenable. Players are quickly growing frustrated at a stale and overly one-sided meta. Here’s hoping the upcoming changes are both timely and impactful.