Class Identity And Why Shaman Can’t Be Countered

Identity Politics

 

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.

 

It’s easy to tell that Mages rely on spells

 

Selective imbalance

 

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.

 

In any other class, Fire Elemental would be a staple. For Shamans, it’s just another great card to exclude

 

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.

Is Hex’s efficiency holding back counterplay?

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.

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The End of Control?

At first, the idea that the control archetype could soon go extinct seems ludicrous. We are playing through an era that could be described as a Golden Age for slow, controlling decks. Reno and Kazakus have pushed Highlander archetypes to the dizzying heights of Tier Two for Warlock, Mage, and Priest. Control Warrior’s ability to punish hyper-aggressive Patches decks along with Miracle Rogue has seen it have solid, if inconsistent, win-rates. Even Anyfin Paladin sees a degree of high-level play. However, great changes are coming to the delicate ecosystem that is Hearthstone’s meta; and Control decks could be affected catastrophically.

The definition of a Control deck may differ, but most understandings of the archetype centre around one key concept; the idea of outlasting and outvaluing the opponent with a variety of flexible removal, especially hard removal, board clears, lifegain, and a few key late-game threats or other “win-condition” cards. While some may include pro-active cards and strategies, the overwhelming idea holding the deck together is to be fundamentally reactive. Combos and threats are either painstakingly slow to assemble (like Paladin’s Anyfin can Happen/Bluegill/Warleader strategy, or Reno Mage’s Antonidas/Alexstrasza strategy) or require the opponent to be out of resources or low on life to be effective (Control Warrior’s Grommash, or Renolock’s Jaraxxus). So what changes are coming that endanger these decks?

Let’s look at the Control decks currently competitive in Hearthstone’s post-Mean Streets metagame; Anyfin Paladin, Control Warrior, Control Shaman, Reno Mage, Reno Priest, and Renolock

No Reno, no way?

You can start to see a problem with the upcoming standard rotation by simply looking at the name of half decks. Reno Jackson is not just a powerful card; it’s a card that so utterly negates certain class’s long-game weaknesses that it created and is currently sustaining decks that simply wouldn’t make sense without it.

We see this in Warlock and Mage especially, with their incredible synergy with Lifetap and Ice Block respectively (alongside a lack of class healing). Reno Priest may potter along thanks to its great class heal options; but when Reno rotates out, what will happen to decks that can’t counter the incredible early-game damage capabilities of modern Aggro decks?

Perhaps more class or neutral healing will be released for these classes, but I’m not too hopeful. Class identity is a key part of hearthstone, and Team 5 have clarified their desire for certain classes like Mage and Warlock not to have access to the same level of efficient healing as others. Omni-present single-purpose neutrals seem to be going out of fashion as well, with no replacements for Antique Healbot on the horizon to shore up these class’s anti-aggro abilities in the long game.

So are classes like Mage and Warlock going to be pigeonholed into fast decks purely from lack of access to healing? Well, perhaps. A way to avoid this is to give thematic, interesting survivability tools that do not involve healing. Maybe a Molten-Giant-esque replacement to reinvigorate Handlock-style strategies, or more defensive Mage secrets á la Ice Barrier. Outlandish ideas like giving your Hero “Can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers” might help those classes survive burst. Whatever the solution, it’s clear that defense against reach and burn is key to the survival of controlling variations of these archetypes.

This also ties into the problem with Jade decks; as the Combo-based counters to these mid-range, continually ramping minions are largely restricted to these two classes.

Warlock’s healing options aren’t exactly stellar

The Rise of the Golems

The other huge challenge arising for Control from the upcoming rotation is the incredible power of Jade Decks against slower opponents. The long term power of these constantly-ramping and in many cases infinite threats can lead to absurd situations. For example, forcing Control Warrior to play an aggro gameplan, or Aggro Shaman out-valuing Renolock card-for-card well into the late stages of the game. Even in a meta overwhelmingly dominated by hyper-aggressive Patches decks, Jade cards are seeing a huge amount of play. There are two things that could lead to Jades becoming even more ubiquitous and even more dangerous to Control.

The first includes hints of an upcoming balance change to the early-game pirate package. In interviews and streams, both Ben Brode (Hearthstone’s Game Director) and Mike Donais (Principle Game Designer) have expressed concern for Small-Time Buccaneer in particular. This might not be a huge deal immediately, as aggressive non-pirate decks like Tempo Mage, Dragon Warrior, and Midrange Hunter could arrive to fill the piratical power vacuum. Things might change, however, once the year of the Kraken is over. Mainstays of these decks, cards like Flamewaker, Quick Shot, and Sir Finley Mrrglton (not to mention the entire Dragon package!) will leave; their replacements will struggle to be fast enough to catch up to the rapidly-growing Jades.

A Jade meta would be more forgiving on Mage and Warlock due to their plethora of game-ending combo options. But the matchup would remain unfavoured, other decks would likely be even worse off.

An Idol threat

This could have dire consequences for Paladin, Priest, and Warrior’s hopes of retaining late-game relevance. With the loss of Anyfin can happen, Paladin is left only with N’zoth as a way to convincingly end games. Paladin’s N’zoth package may be somewhat effective against Jade Druid occasionally. But it is unlikely to be fast enough to matter once Druid can drop consistent mid-game threats that Paladins struggle to remove. Meanwhile, Mid-Jade Shaman’s Hexes and Devolves ruin any chance of late-game success for Paladin. They could easily see themselves consistently out-valued in the early game, mid game, and late game!

Warrior, on the other hand, is losing almost all of its late-game options. Elise Starseeker and Justicar Trueheart were previously all Warrior needed to out-value almost any deck by simply removing all enemies and tanking up to a Golden Monkey finish. With the loss of those two key cards, Control Warrior will struggle against almost any deck in the late-game. Even now, Warrior struggles against any deck that isn’t pure aggro due to a lack of late-game options. Old mainstays like Ysera and Ragnaros sufficed in the old days, and can still sometimes steal games versus poorly opening Druids. However, against Shaman’s plethora of removals and constant board pressure, there seems no way that Control Warrior can do anything but lose incredibly slowly.

Control Shaman may survive, but with the loss of Elemental Destruction, Healing Wave, and Lava Shock, it seems unlikely that any future build will be distinguishable or superior from standard Midrange jade options. Priest will be in a similar rough spot to warrior, with simply no cards that can force a switch to a proactive strategy.

The key issue is that these classes have no late-game options that are powerful enough to out-tempo a ramped-up Jade Druid while not being countered by Hex and Devolve from the Shamans. Control Warrior, Priest and Paladin’s late game are in dire need of support if they are not to be forced into obscurity.

It’s hard to find late game strategies that aren’t countered by Shaman’s cheap Transform effects

Designing solutions

In order to prevent a steep decline in control’s viability, the next set of cards will need to ameliorate some of the weaknesses of existing control decks post-rotation; namely survivability for Mage and Warlock, and late-game power for Warrior, Paladin and Priest. They do not need to be so powerful as to make the decks perfect all-rounders, but they do need to be strong enough to give them a fighting chance against multiple archetypes (and particularly the power of Jade Golems).

Maybe hold off on giving great cards to Shaman for a few seasons though. Not to say a viable Control Shaman isn’t desirable, but in recent times they seem to be controlling the opponent’s face more than anything.

Title Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment and hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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How to Rat Dirtily

Dirty Rat is a card that polarized opinion from the start. Perhaps the best statted 2-drop outside of Milhouse Manastorm, this grinning rodent comes with a potentially disastrous catch; when you play him, you’re not only gaining a beefy cheap taunt, but also an unexpected surprise from your opponents’ hand. However, while this might seem to be a crippling downside, in the right deck, it can be a devastatingly powerful tech card to ruin your opponents’ intricate plans. Control decks in particular can utilise it as one more way to disrupt and interrupt the opposing win condition.

I recently hit Legend EU with a Dirty Rat Control Warrior, peaking at top 20. On my climb, I came to appreciate the game-winning (or game-losing) impact that correct or incorrect Dirty Rat usage had. With that in mind, I’ve put together a guide to the situations where you should play Dirty Rat for the maximum level of effectiveness. So how, and more importantly when, should you play Dirty Rat?

 

The Yolo-Rat

  • Opponent: Aggro Shaman, Pirate Warrior
  • Turns: 1-3
  • Condition: Slow hand, fast opposing start, opponent keeps multiple cards

Sometimes, your mulligan-wizarding powers fail you and you’re left with a hand of late-game tools. Meanwhile, your opponent has seemed to get exactly what they wanted; keeping nearly all of the cards in their starting hand. Here, Dirty Rat can be your chance to get back in the game. Normally, a turn 1 or 2 Dirty Rat is a horrible play; the stall of the 2/6 taunt is nothing compared to the risk of pulling down a free Frothing Bezerker or Flamewreathed Faceless.

However, for every crushing defeat, it can also stall you out just enough to stabilize. If you’re willing to accept turning a likely loss into a soul-destroying one some of the time, you can win games you were otherwise near-certain to lose.

 

The Auctioneer Assassinate

  • Opponent: Miracle Rogue
  • Turns: 5-6
  • Condition: 4 damage removal available

Against Miracle Rogue, Gadgetzan Auctioneer is Control’s worst nightmare. With its endless stream of cheap spells, Rogues need Gadgetzan to cycle through their deck, pushing out damage and threats that their opponent simply can’t handle.

As such, pulling down, then destroying Gadgetzan with Dirty Rat should be one of your primary win-conditions against Miracle Rogue. Without it, they’re stuck with relatively low-value cards, and can run out of steam incredibly fast. Even without taking out the grinning goblin, you can often devalue some of their most potent tools, like Questing Adventurer, Edwin Van Cleef, or Leeroy Jenkins. A good Dirty Rat can almost always cripple a Miracle Rogues best-laid plans.

 

The Vanilla

  • Opponent: Aggro Shaman, Pirate Warrior, Miracle Rogue
  • Turns: 6+
  • Condition: Opponent has few or no cards in hand

Sometimes you just want a 2/6 taunt; particularly when you’re at 5 life and facing an Arcanite Reaper. The good news is that Aggro decks tend to play out their potent minions as fast as possible, so Dirty Rat can often come without any strings attached. While undoubtedly the least flashy way to use the card, it nonetheless can win you a huge number of games just by getting in the way of otherwise lethal damage.

 

The Forced Overextension

  • Opponent: Any
  • Turns: 7+
  • Condition: 2-6 minions on board, AOE in hand

The problem with AOE is that it’s relatively straightforward to play around. Especially in slower matchups against midrange decks like Dragon Priest, your Flamestrike, Brawl, Dragonfire Potion or Twisting Nether can sit in your hand as your opponent refuses to play more than two or three minions at once. This can force you to waste premium removal on relatively small threats, just to stay alive.

Dirty Rat can provide the answer to this, pulling down an additional card to help win the attrition war. It combos especially well with Brawl, due to the fact that the Rat also has a chance of winning. This provides both a massive board swing and a huge value.

 

 

Dirty Rat can make AOE more lethal

The Sylvanas Shuffle

  • Opponent: Any
  • Turns: 7+
  • Condition: Sylvanas on your board, no good steal targets

Sylvanas is one of those cards that’s incredibly powerful, but niche. Good against small boards of beefy minions, it can just be a vanilla 5/5 depressingly often. However, if your opponent has, say, a single 5/4 to contest it, then a Dirty Rat can be your saving grace, allowing you to pull down a more valuable minion to steal after trading. If that minion happens to be a vital combo piece for your opponent, you can often steal its power to snatch win

 

The Acolyte Snipe

  • Opponent: Control Warrior, Reno Mage
  • Turns: 10+
  • Condition: Fatigue gameplan, discarded cards to prevent burning recently

Despite the proliferation of late-game value in the form of Jade, Manic Soulcaster, Elise Starseeker and Kazakus, the Fatigue battle is still vital in many matchups. Unfortunately, winning it is incredibly hard. Dirty Rat can help by forcing down a minion with a draw effect, allowing you to proc it, putting you vastly ahead when both players start to run out of cards. As an added bonus, you can often mill the opponents deck if you can force them to overdraw. Acolyte of Pain is the dream here, potentially putting them ahead by 3 cards, but Bloodmage Thalnos or Loot Hoarder is also a plus. It also has the added bonus of diluting and polluting any potential Revives from Kazakus Potions.

Fatigue still matters in many matchups

 

The Traitor Doomsayer

  • Opponent: Renolock, Reno Mage, Reno Priest
  • Turns: 10+
  • Condition: Threatening board, no AOE

Sometimes you just can’t deal with the opponents board. Maybe you wasted your AOE, or just didn’t draw it. Or perhaps they ground you out in an epic battle of fatigue. Whatever the reason, you’re staring down a massive board you can’t possibly react to in time.

You have one last saving grace, other than conceding. By pulling down your opponent’s Doomsayer, Dirty Rat can wipe the board at the start of their next turn. It can be unlikely, but sometimes its just the out you need.

 

The Freestyle

  • Opponent: Control/Combo
  • Turns: Any
  • Condition: Varies

Sometimes you just know your opponent is holding something big. Maybe they’ve kept their leftmost card since turn four. Or they played a Thaurrisan they could have played last turn after mousing over a top-deck. Maybe they just play like they’re setting up lethal. Even if it’s just a hunch, sometimes intuition wins out. Taking out a Grommash, Malygos, Kazakus, Leeroy, Jaraxxus, Golden Monkey, or Archmage Antonidas that could otherwise win them the game can be an amazing feeling. Although, it takes an absurd amount of skill at psychological warfare and deduction to do it consistently.

Or failing all that you could always just be lucky…

 

Dirty Rat is a card that is infuriating and fascinating all at once. The layers of play and counter-play it encourages are deceptively deep, and it’s fast becoming one of my favorite control tools of the expansion.

Except, of course, when it ruins my plans.

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Weaponizing Emotes Without BM

With no way to directly talk to the random foes you face on Ladder, there is only one way to communicate: the Emote system. These short six words or phrases may seem innocuous at first, but they have quickly developed into their own language; each one dripping with implied salt or sneer. Hearthstone is a game of information and bluffing, as well as identifying the mathematically optimal play. By utilizing the hidden meanings of emotes, you can steal wins from losing situations by exploiting your opponent’s hubris or paranoia; as long as you weren’t squelched in the process!

Thanks

What it means: “Thanks” is perhaps the most straightforward emote. Ostensibly expressing gratitude, it’s usually to taunt an opponent after they play right into your hand. They overextend into AOE? Thanks can hammer home their error as you flamestrike. They assume you don’t have Reno and set up two turn lethal? Thanks makes the “We’re gonna be rich!” that much sweeter.

How to exploit it: Outside of simple BM (Bad Manners), Thanks, like “My Greetings,” is a surefire way to express confidence, arrogance, and make your opponent unsure about their play. When your opponent emotes Thanks, they are usually trying to tilt you by highlighting the way you played into their hand. The best counter is to figure out exactly why your opponent is so smug and use it against them.

A classic way to utilize it yourself is after a Druid Mulches one of your minions. Emoting Thanks might make them think you got a spectacular random minion in return. This can lead them to hold back removal for no good reason. Another example is if your opponent gives you draws off your Acolyte of Pain in an effort to fatigue you. “Thanks” can encourage them to believe that they are helping out your game plan, implying you have a combo finisher or something that they will try and play around, when in fact you have none. Or they may just attempt to prevent future draws. On the flip side, when they draw voluntarily, emoting “Thanks” can imply you’re intending to fatigue them. They may then be unprepared for your unexpected burst or value-based combo. More traditionally, bluffing AOE by thanking them for each additional minion played can prevent them from giving you a board too big to deal with.

Threaten

What it means: Despite its tone, Threaten is the most impotent of emotes. Usually used in a losing situation as a futile expression of semi-serious rage, it implies you have little else to do with your hand. Sometimes yelling about how your magic will tear them apart is the only response to their overwhelming board.

How to exploit it: Since its use is typically from a losing position, try using it to press your advantage. Play around their remaining outs, and assume that the cards left in their hand are overly situational, or outright useless.

Implying you have no response can be hard to bluff, but incredibly potent. Typically the way to use this emote is by acting as if you have no response to a minion or board, when in fact you are holding back your most powerful answer in the hope that they go all-in and get destroyed by your perfectly timed counterplay. As well as obvious interactions with AOE, consider using it with hard removal: if you trade your whole board into their Ragnaros Lightlord while using this emote, they will hardly expect the Entomb on their Warleader or Tirion the following turn.

This card isn’t Grommash: but “Well Played” makes my opponent think it is

Greetings

What it means: Outside of its traditional use at the start of the game, Greetings is the supreme expression of confidence. By far the most BM-worthy emote, Greetings is used to infuriate and provoke your opponent when you are sure they have no counter to your devastating play. It is used before lethal, but often also before simply powerful plays, like dropping Harrison Jones into Doomhammer, or Alexstrasza after a tempo Reno.

How to exploit it: If your opponent uses Greetings, they are likely becoming overconfident. Look for awkward or risky plays that might unseat them; perhaps offer them a “well played” to lull them into a false sense of security before aggressively pursuing a risky but rewarding line of play they may not have the answer for.

Using Greetings yourself makes your opponent overestimate your position. They might look for low percentage chances at lethal, or Hail-Mary plays from Discover or other types of cards. Typically it makes them play overly aggressively to try and win, despite your perceived advantage. It can also cause people to play overly defensively if they fear you have set up lethal. If you discover a card, then Greetings can make your opponent fear the worst (such as Coldarra Drake in Reno priest, or Sacrificial pact against a warlock that seeks to play Jaraxxus). It’s best used in combination with a card capable of punishing an overly aggressive play, like lifegain or a beefy taunt. It can also be a value play that can punish overly defensive action (depending on context).

Wow

What it means: Wow, at its most basic level, indicates mild surprise or shock. This is usually relating to in-game RNG; a particularly bad or good hand, or outcome from a random event are usually the most likely inspirations. This is most typically used after the player in question is on the receiving end of bad luck (though it can also be used in a conciliatory sense after good fortune).

How to exploit it: If your opponent emotes Wow without anything especially noteworthy happening on board, they are usually indicating frustration at their hand. Use this against them by playing to your deck’s strengths, and perpetuating the current advantageous situation.

Using it yourself can, like Threaten, imply your situation is weaker than it is, allowing you to goad them into overextending or making an incorrect read. For instance, passing turn one without comment might indicate you are a Control Warrior; but emoting Wow whilst mousing over certain cards before passing over the turn might make your opponent believe you are a frustrated Pirate Warrior with an unfortunate mulligan

Oops

What it means: Oops is either used sarcastically as BM, or sincerely in order to indicate recognition of a misplay. Occasionally it’s used for BM purposes, but otherwise is one of the most sincere emotes.

How to exploit it: Your opponent recognizing their screw-up makes this emote harder to exploit.

Things get more interesting when you use it yourself, however. For instance, seemingly incorrect plays that in fact disguise a higher-level strategy can be passed off as a misplay. For instance, you might deliberately leave yourself with one, rather than two, weapon durability as a Rogue. This plays around Harrison Jones, but you can pretend it was a mistake. This could perhaps lead your opponent to save Harrison for a turn you don’t play around it (that, of course, will never come). Or, if playing one of the few remaining Warrior decks that incorporate Battle Rage, then your lack of Hero Power whilst undamaged can be passed off as negligence, rather than seeking to encourage your opponent to damage your hero for a future extra draw.

Well Played

What it means: Well Played is sometimes used mid-game, either sincerely to acknowledge a good line or spot-on read, or sarcastically to shame an opponents misplay. However, the overwhelming majority of uses of Well Played occur right at the end of the game, when lethal is all but assured.

How to exploit it: Most of the time, your opponent emoting well played indicates resignation if losing, and acceptance of victory if winning. If they use it unexpectedly, it’s often wise to play defensively.

Well Played is perhaps the easiest way to bluff lethal in the game; opponents are often hardwired into panicking the second they hear it. This can push them to adopt sub-optimal and overly defensive lines of play to play around anticipated burst damage. A perfect way to do this would be against any Reno deck while they are at a low, but not dangerous life total. Forcing them to Reno early can allow you to squeeze in extra damage that you otherwise miss. It can also give you the breathing room to stick a powerful minion. A classic move is while playing against a low-health Jaraxxus. A Well Played can bait out taunts or healing. You can then nullify before you draw your true combo that will actually win you the game. Fear is arguably the most powerful emotion, and as such Well Played becomes the most powerful emote to bluff with.

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Should Small-time Buccaneer get a big-time nerf?

 

The card in its current state

Small-Time Buccaneer has become arguably the most meta-warping card in the game. Warrior, Shaman and Rogue have risen on the back of its insane synergy with Patches and low-cost weapons. Meanwhile Paladin and Hunter’s lack of cheap weapons for the “pirate package” has lead to their near-extinction from the meta. This power has not gone unnoticed; in a recent IGN interview Mike Donais, principle game designer, indicated that the strength of the card was raising eyebrows at Team 5.

The card that I’m most worried about is Small-Time Buccaneer. That’d be the card I’m watching most closely.

– Mike Donais, speaking to IGN

So far, there seems to be growing community and developer desire for a rebalancing of Small-time Buccaneer to bring it in line with other one drops. But is such a change necessary? And what happens if the change makes the card unplayable, as happened with one drops like Leper Gnome?

 

Hunter is unviable without the ability to use or compete with Pirates like Small-time Buccaneer

Patching the Patches-summoner

 

The arguments for a nerf seem clear. They can be summed up as follows;

 

  • Power: The card is simply better than almost any other one drop if you have the necessary weapon synergy

 

  • Variance: While it does not explicitly contain any random effects, it massively increases the impact that your starting mulligan makes. The difference between Small-Time Buccaneer with a weapon and no Patches in hand and STB without and Patches in hand is equivalent to 5 stat points; and that’s assuming you draw it! It functions to make aggro matchups less strategic and more of a coin-flip

 

  • Aggression: Small-Time Buccaneer pushes aggro decks to become more potent than perhaps they’ve ever been. Where turn 4 or 5 lethals were previously outliers, now they can be routine against many decks. Board snowballing can happen straight from turn one and happen incredibly quickly. While the level of aggro in the meta can be a matter of taste, the lack of midrange viability outside of pirate-aggro and Reno/control is surely detrimental to those who prefer that playstyle.

 

  • Class balance: Paladin and Hunter have almost no ladder representation and few, if any, viable decks. A huge part of this is their inability to take part in or counter the swathes of Pirate decks due to their lack of early-game removal and potent, cheap weapons.

 

  • Diversity: There is no meta-viable aggressive deck that does not incorporate Small-Time Buccaneer and the Pirate package. Unless a change is implemented, it could be argued that this will crowd out other innovative aggro decks until it rotates out of Standard.

 

Are Pirates necessary to keep Jade Druid in check?

                                                                         A necess-arrrr-ry evil?

I’m not sure anyone would deny that Small-Time Buccaneer is one of the most powerful cards in the meta. However, it does have competition. Cards like Kazakus and Jade Idol, while miles slower, still have the ability to generate massive value and win games. it could be argued that Small Time Buccaneer’s power is required to prevent decks like Jade Druid and Reno Warlock, with their incredible value generation capabilities, from taking over the meta completely.

However, there are some flaws with this argument. Even greedy Renolocks can win if they draw Reno and some AOE in time. Jade Druids can hold off the aggression with a few well placed Swipes and Wraths and hide behind an Ancient of War or similar beefy taunt. While greedy control decks are indeed countered by hyper-aggressive face decks, they are arguably even harder countered by aggressive midrange. But it’s these aggressive midrange decks (in particular Midrange Hunter) that are being forced out hardest by Small-Time Buccaneer and the Pirates package. If Small-Time Buccaneer was brought down in power, then aggressive-leaning decks would likely just curve higher, play stickier minions and punish greed harder.

 

                                                                            A Smaller-time Buccaneer

 

So if we take a rebalancing as necessary, what would a weaker Small-Time Buccaneer look like? Balancing one drops is notoriously tricky. With Hearthstone’s granular nature, even a single point of stats can be the difference between ubiquity and ignominy (just ask Abusive Sergeant!) Here are a few examples of how Small-Time Buccaneer could be changed while keeping it as a decent choice for Pirate decks (if not an ever-present staple for non-pirate aggro decks)

Should only Valeera get this level of 1 drop power?

The Rogueification

 

As I and others predicted a while ago, Small-Time Buccaneer quickly became a Rogue staple. Instead of providing the aggro springboard, its reliance on an anti-tempo hero power on Turn 2 made it a board control option rather than an all-in face tool. One popular community suggestion for Small-Time Buccaneer is to restrict it to a Rogue-only class card. By making Small-Time Buccaneer a Rogue-only card, the card’s aggro potential would be massively limited. In return, perhaps Rogue class card and meme Shadow Rager could go neutral with the other Ragers.

However, this is not a perfect solution. As well as being an unprecedented way of altering a card post-release, it would also make miracle Rogue relatively strong in a time where it is already top tier, while weakening its main counters. It’s also pretty unlikely that Team 5 would alter a neutral card’s “Soul” so drastically.

 

 

 

                                          The Predictable

Hardly imaginative, but surely a likely candidate

 

One sure-fire way to reduce a card’s power is to make the good numbers smaller or the bad numbers bigger. This change simply reduces the benefit from synergy by one, making it less of a powerhouse by a significant amount. While a conditional 2/2 may seem bad compared to the 2/2 Mistress of Mixtures or Enchanted Raven, the benefit from being a Pirate cannot be discounted, considering the huge stat benefit that Patches brings.

This version would likely still see play in the exact same decks, and be just somewhat less potent. While this change may seem like an easy one, the fact that it may not shake up the meta enough to bring about significant change may be a reason to discount it. It’s worth expecting that given Team 5’s extreme infrequency in balance changes, that the changes should make a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Hits just has hard, but much less sticky

 

              The All-in

Perhaps a more divisive option would be to reduce the health of Small-Time Buccaneer to 1. No 3/1 minion for one has ever been printed (outside the cripplingly overloading Dust Devil). Reducing health would make the card far more vulnerable to pings, cheap AOE and 1 attack minions. The vulnerability would make more difference in some cases than others; Rogues, Druids and Mages would likely gain greatly from being able to hero-power it down, while Warrior and Shaman’s plethora of 1 damage options would also let them take it out with ease.

However, Hunter, Paladin, Warlock and Priest would likely still struggle, giving it a high likelihood of trading up regardless. Since Hunter and Paladin are the worst classes in the current meta, this hardly seems optimal.

 

 

 

 

 

Would this make for more tactical decision making with weaponry?

                                                                      The Situational

One of the problems with Small-Time Buccaneer is its ease of activation. Any weapon at all counts, as long as it is equipped. Making it only work with weapons with 2 or more durability would mean more tactical choices and less all-purpose power in the dream scenario (turn one Small-Time Buccaneer into turn two weapon). Warriors and Shamans would have to choose between losing Small Time Buccaneer’s buff and a weapon charge off Fiery War Axe or Jade Claws or losing the STB altogether. As well as promoting more interesting decisions, it would make early game minions in general a more potent counter to the piratical threat, as well as reducing the variance of the card by making it less polarizing between its best and worst-case scenarios.

Downsides include benefiting 3 durability weapons like Spirit claws and N’zoth’s first mate’s Rusty Hook, and the increased complexity of the card text. Like other changes, it has the potential to be not enough to dethrone the card’s dominance.

 

 

No, I’m not still upset over Warsong Commander, why do you ask?

 

The Soul of the Buccaneer
Team 5 has a history of not doing balancing by half-measures. Cards like Warsong Commander, Leper Gnome, Ancient of Lore and Molten Giant have gone from core staples to unplayable overnight. Completely reworking the mechanic to something that massively reduces the power level of the card to the point of effectively removing it from the game would not be exactly without precedent. Perhaps some would be happy to see such a change; and it would definitely have the desired effect of making the card less ubiquitous and powerful.

Though this is clearly an option, there are undoubtedly more elegant solutions out there that do not result in the effective removal of a card from the game.

 

 

 

 

 

No matter what Team 5 chooses, as long as some change does occur, the outcome is likely to be positive. Though it might not happen before the next standard rotation or perhaps even later, a bit more early-game diversity and balance is sure to be good for Hearthstone.

 

 

Thanks to hearthcards.net for the easy to use and powerful card editing tool; go check them out if you fancy making your own Small Time Buccaneers

Other images courtesy of hearthstone.gamepedia.com and Blizzard Entertainment

Link’s Return to LCS

Welcome “Back” To Summoner’s Rift

In an unexpected move, Team Liquid has signed CLG’s former Mid laner, Austin “Link” Shin, as a substitute. They announced that they intend to play both Link and starter, Goldenglue, throughout the split.

The last time we saw Link it was with CLG Spring Split 2015, coming off a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Team Liquid in the first round of the playoffs.

Shortly after Link announced his retirement with the “donezo manifesto”, in which he brought out CLG’s team environment to light. Most infamously, he called out star AD Carry Doublelift, for being a selfish and poor teammate and mainly blaming him for the failure of CLG.

Link, himself, received a lot of hate from the community when Machinima’s video series, “Chasing the Cup” seemed to show his inability to mesh as a teammate. In the series you witness everyone’s tempers flare, as the team seemed to be regressing from its hot start.

Link refused to duo que with his own Jungler, Dexter. This seemed to translate to a lack of team chemistry on the LCS stage. His own work ethic was questioned even by the community. It seemed like Link was playing more Hearthstone than League of Legends outside of scrims.

During his time in the NALCS, most people would have rated Link as a subpar LCS Mid Laner. He was never known as a flashy playmaker or a main carry, but he was a consistent performer. He played what his team needed and was the main shot caller for CLG.

When C9’s Hai went down with a collapsed lung, they called upon Link to sub for them in the All Stars tournament. He held his own against legendary Mid laners like Faker and xPeke. For the most part, he played the role of shot caller well. Thanks in part to him, C9 was able to take games off of OMG, Fnatic, and TPA. This allowed them to get to the semifinals of the tournament. He praised C9’s team environment in his donezo manifesto, in compasrison to CLG’s.

Second Chances

Link gets a second chance with a fresh roster and under a new organization. Team Liquid has been around for awhile but just hasn’t found the right formula for success just yet. Obviously, he’s still been playing the game at a high enough level to be picked up by a new team.

Others on social media have noted that he had been playing Dota 2 at high level as well. It does raise the question of if being away from the professional scene for such a long time will be more beneficial or hinder his play starting out.

Photo courtesy of Gamurs.com

It seems Team Liquid is emphasizing a better team environment this split, parting ways with Dardoche. They also let go of head coach Locodoco and every player on the team seems hungry to improve off of last split.

They look to be modeling CLG in having five players that are all friends outside of game. Will they truly utilize the six man roster or will it be more like C9’s support situation last season?

If Link is able to play better with the other four members than Goldenglue, I don’t see why they wouldn’t eventually make him the starter. It will be up to Link to prove he belongs in LCS once again.  

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6 Neutral Reasons Rogues Shouldn’t Panic

With Mean Streets of Gadgetzan now released, some Rogue players are underwhelmed by their class cards. Not only did Rogues get a variety of seemingly weak, understated minions with limited synergies, they only got 2 cards that fall into the new Jade Lotus tri-class Golem mechanic compared to Druid and Shaman’s 3. And with most of the focus on the “control killing” potential of cards like Jade Idol, Rogue appears to be the weakest Jade option. To make matters worse, Rogues got a card traditionally reserved as a “joke”; the Rager variant. The Shadow Rager has already spawned memes mocking the quality of cards received this expansion.

But are things as bad for Rogue as they seem? While existing archetypes such as Malygos, Miracle, N’zoth, Burgle and Tempo Rogue might struggle to gain utility out of their new class cards (outside of perhaps Counterfeit Coin in Miracle), there are a number of Neutral cards coming with Mean Streets of Gadgetzan that could potentially give Rogues the tools it needs to survive and even thrive

 

Small-time BuccaneerPatches the Pirate

 

Small-time Buccaneer and Patches the Pirate

Did someone say Flame Imp? This little fella may seem underwhelming at first, but given Rogues propensity for Hero Powering turn 2, this guy is a pretty much guaranteed 3/2 for 1. Tempo rogue and miracle rogue alike will love this cheap, potent early board presence. He can even activate Combo later on! As well as being a potent Trogg or Mana Wyrm killer, he also has perfect synergy with the new Pirate Legendary, Patches. Patches may not seem much as a simple 1/1, but any pirate you play will draw and play him for free; thinning your deck while providing amazing early game board presence. He’ll go great with Small Time Buccaneer and existing Rogue staple Swashburglar.

 

Burgly BullyBurgly Bully

Not quite a Tomb Pillager, this guy nonetheless has huge potential. A 4/6 for 5 is decent stats, and even if his effect only activates once, he’s insane. Unlike previous spell-dependent minions like Lorewalker Cho and Troggzor, Burgly Bully is well statted, meaning that minions trading into him makes him comparable to Druid of the Claw as a 4/6 taunt for 5. Meanwhile, he can generate ridiculous value if you have the board and your foe is forced to either ignore him or give you multiple coins. Vs Druid, Control Warrior and Priest he is a nightmare to remove, and will likely fuel your turn 6 Gadzetzan into a super-powered cycling machine.

The Bully is arguably a little slow, but a potent effect that is good against so many decks is definitely worth trying out in all forms of Rogue that run Gadzetzan Auctioneer.

 

 

 

Genzo the SharkGenzo the Shark

A deceptively powerful tool for decks like Tempo Rogue that look to go all-in, Gonzo is only slightly understatted as a 5/4 for 4; but if he ever sticks, you are likely to win on the spot. Drawing up to three cards means that if you have the board and are low on cards (which tempo Rogue is extremely likely to do by turn 4), Gonzo will force your opponent to respond. This can mean delaying an AOE, or not killing a potent Cold-Blood buffed minion, allowing you to swiftly finish them off in the next few turns. If he lives, you have just given yourself a huge amount of gas to re-flood the board or get reach for lethal.

 

 

Mistress of Mixtures

Mistress of Mixtures

 

Late-game oriented Rogue decks have always struggled for healing; this Neutral option gives N’zoth Rogue a potent tool to stay alive in both the early and the late game. A 2/2 for 1 is a solid one drop, and the healing Deathrattle means that you can liberally dagger threatening targets in the first few turns, knowing that you’ll be healed to full again by her Deathrattle. In the late-game, she adds to your N’zoth, meaning you’ll not only build an even more massive board, but also likely give yourself all-important lifegain the following turn for free. While the opponent will also benefit, a deck that seeks to stretch out its gameplan to the mid-late game like N’zoth Rogue will benefit far more than your opponent will (especially versus aggro).

 

Red Mana Wyrm

Red Mana Wyrm

Jokingly called two Mana Wyrms stapled together, this expensive but potent minion could be the finisher Miracle Rogue needs in the post-Gadgetzan meta. Each spell grants it +2 attack, and it’s easy to see how games could be won off concealing this, followed by a flurry of damage spells and attack buffs. A turn 6 mana Wyrm into conceal is a nightmare to remove (dodging almost all AOE effects like Dragonfire Potion), and combinations of Preparations, Coins, Cold Bloods and Eviscerates could quickly spiral into huge damage; all whilst leaving up a massive minion for your opponent to deal with. While slower than Questing Adventurer or Edwin Van Cleef, its incredible burst potential means it’s definitely worth experimenting with.

 

(All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment)

Midrange Shaman is Breaking Hearthstone’s Meta (and how to fix it)

Tier Zero

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.

Courtesy of Gamespedia.

Courtesy of Gamespedia.

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.

screenshot0000However, 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).

hearthstone-thrall_cinematic

Looking Forward

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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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Uninspiring: Hearthstone’s failed mechanics

The second your Shaman opponent lets out a deceptively jovial “My Greetings”, you know you’re doomed. It’s been a hard-fought game against your Midrange opponent, and you’ve just started to stabilise, but now you’re low on cards and out of answers. Barely pausing, Thrall drops his topdecked Thunder Bluff Valiant and activates his hero power, turning a board of harmless totems you simply couldn’t spare the resources to remove into potent threats. He clears the remnants of your board and deals substantial face damage with the next. Your next draw whiffs, and you simply have no way of recovering. With lethal guaranteed next turn, you concede.

It seems a very long time ago that Team 5 touted the Grand Tournament expansion’s new mechanics of Joust and Inspire as being the cure for a meta deemed overly aggressive. By promoting late-game oriented deckbuilding and smart off-curve decisions, the designers hoped that those two mechanics were to restore more strategic play to the game. However, things didn’t quite go to plan. The Grand Tournament’s promising Inspire and Joust mechanics saw scant play. What’s worse, Hearthstone released no new cards with these mechanics since the set’s release. With all cards due to rotate out soon, what happened? Why were these the first failed Hearthstone mechanics?

 

The Grand Tournament’s Grand Plan

 

In an interview with Gamespot prior to the set’s release, designer Mike Donais expressed his desire to introduce more control tools by means of these new mechanics;

“Sometimes players feel bad if they’re losing to cheap minions, in decks such as Hunter rush, or Warlock rush, and they are looking for solutions. They are looking for solutions from us.”

Those solutions would come in the form of not just new cards, but new mechanics.

Initially, it’s easy to see how the Hearthstone designers at Blizzard would feel like the introduced cards would help solve some of the criticisms aimed at Hearthstone’s competitive and ladder gameplay. The two most common complaints, which have still rung true for the entirety of Hearthstone’s recent history, can be described roughly as follows;

  • “Too much aggro!”; or an overly fast meta; Most decks at a competitive level include few, if any expensive minions or spells, leading to centralization around classes with the most powerful early-game tools. Players felt that games ended too fast, and interesting situations seemed rare
  • “Curvestone”; the relative power of pro-active cards and over reactive ones. The community complained that too many decks stuck to a highly pro-active gameplan with few comeback tools. Board clears and lifegain were rare, and minions were almost always the key to victory. Players felt like by only rewarding on curve plays and obvious trades, the ability to do significant strategic decision-making was taken away from the game

The attempts that the Grand Tournament made to rectify this were twofold; each addressing one of these salient points. Rather than focus its efforts on creating neutral minions using existing mechanics, like in Naxxramus and GvG with cards such as Deathlord, Zombie Chow, Antique Healbot and Sludge Belcher, Blizzard sought to add entirely new mechanics that would result in less curve oriented and aggressive gameplay.

 

Jousting Aggro

Blizzard Entertainment

 

The first of these was Joust. Whilst never an explicit keyword, its new mechanic was clear and innovative. When players summoned a Joust card, a minion from each deck, chosen at random, was revealed. If the minion from the Jouster’s deck cost more, then they would “win” the Joust, resulting in some benefit for the minion. So, for instance, the “Master Jouster”, otherwise an understatted 6 drop at 5/6, would gain Divine Shield and Taunt upon winning.

The idea behind it was simple, despite the complex (by Hearthstone standards) implementation; to incentivise decks with more expensive minions and punish more aggressively curving lists, the meta could self-correct to prevent overly aggressive lists from being dominant. Facing too many Zoolocks? Sub in a Gadgetzan Jouster or two to win back the board in the early game. Seeing lots of Face Hunter as a Paladin? Tuskarr Jouster can win you back a lot of health on the cheap.

 

Joust not good enough

 

However, things didn’t quite turn out as planned. In order to compete with aggressive lists, even late game oriented decks still ran plenty of cheap minions; and even if not, there were still a sizeable number of reasonably expensive minions in aggressive lists to make Jousting by no means an assured victory; especially since a “draw” in a Joust is as good as a loss. A Joust became a poor determination of the relative late-game orientation of decks. Instead, players saw it more as a weighted coin toss. As well as frustrating players with the relatively uncontrollable randomness, it also contributed to the effects being far less reliable than they needed to be.

More damning to Joust than the randomness was the inconsistency. Many Joust cards had a high variance between their optimal and sub-optimal outcomes often being flat-out terrible cards if the effect whiffed. For instance, Tuskarr Jouster would not heal at all if it lost the Joust. Gadgetzan Jouster could be an exceptional or horrendous one drop. The result was that the only Joust cards saw significant competitive play were the ones that saw play.

The core problem was that even versus the decks they were designed to get an edge against, Joust cards were simply far too unreliable. Aggro decks are so punishing to sub-par plays that consistency is exceptionally more valuable than inconsistent high value. Deckbuilders treated Joust effects like a card’s semi-random upside rather than a deckbuilding challenge; only the aggressive Midrange Hunter adopting a Joust card in King’s Elekk. Any future Joust cards will, at best, be likely inconsistent and frustrating. Perhaps as a result of this, Blizzard hasn’t included any Joust cards since The Grand Tournament. With no indication that it is a mechanic they wish to revisit, it is likely that Standard will soon have none of this mechanic.

So how could Joust be better implemented? If it was less random and inconsistent, Blizzard could tune it to give a more reliable outcome versus aggressive lists. One alternative implementation would be to reveal the highest or lowest cost minion in both decks; that way players could predict to a reasonable degree whether the joust would be successful.

However, it’s unlikely we will ever see Blizzard return to Joust. The new strategy seems to be to promote late-game oriented play with better reactive early-game spells and spell synergies, as well as early-game minions that work towards a late-game win condition in the form of N’zoth and C’thun.

 

Inspiring Hero Powers

Blizzard Entertainment

 

The overall theme of The Grand Tournament was Hero Powers. By printing cards that synergised with and promoted hero power usage, Blizzard hoped to promote off-curve play that relied more on strategy and decision-making. Simply dropping the biggest bundle of stats you could each turn would no longer be optimal. Inspire was a key component of this. Rewarding hero power use with an Inspire minion on board would make spending mana efficiently more of an interesting puzzle.

For example, Paladin’s Murloc Knight can be played as a 4 cost 3/4 minion. But if you activate it with a hero power, it could be played as a 6 mana 3/4 and a random Murloc (and a 1/1). Similarly, Kvaldir Raider could be a 5 mana 4/4 or a 7 mana 6/6. Blizzard and the community hoped that this would mean that decks could rely less on curving out; instead adjusting their playstyle to adapt to their opponent.

 

Uninspiring

 

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning held a crucial flaw. Because the Inspire effect activated every time the player used their hero power, Inspire cards that impacted the board had the potential to snowball massively. If your opponent couldn’t immediately remove the Inspire minion, it would begin to generate massive value. Essentially, Inspire meant that the losing player would begin losing even harder. According to developers, the value of Inspire minions had to be toned down during development; otherwise, they could have been oppressively strong.

The overall effect was that Inspire became less about playing off curve and more about capitalizing on earlier games. Ironically, in decks where Inspire minions were used, such as Paladin and Shaman, this lead to a heavier focus on playing on curve. By having cards that require going uncontested to get value, you cannot sacrifice early game tempo. Like with Joust, Hearthstone has had no Inspire cards since The Grand Tournament.

Inspire’s key failing was that it lead to Hearthstone becoming more focused on initial on curve plays. Perhaps the mechanic would have impacted Hearthstone more positively if Inspire cards were competitively statted in effect and body; this counterbalanced by the effect working only on the turn the minion was summoned. Inspire minions would be both a decent quality play on curve or combined with hero power. This would allow for the off-curve hero-power promoting play Team 5 wanted to promote, without leading to the oppressive snowballing of minions the opponent couldn’t remove.

 

Defending Team 5 and the Future

 

Introducing new mechanics to a game is always a risky venture. I think we can appreciate it though, even when it doesn’t go to plan. While we can bemoan the low impact and negative gameplay effects of these two mechanics, it’s important to remember that without the failed experimentation of Joust and Inspire, it is unlikely that we would have more successful and praised ones, such as Discover. I think we can all hope that Team 5 learn from the mistakes of Joust and Inspire. That understanding can help promote the design goals they aspired to in future expansion; even if the mechanics themselves never return (outside of Wild).

Though that said, I’ll still be happy when I never have to see Thunder Bluff Valiant again.

 

(Image credit to Hearthstone.gamepedia. All images courtesy of Blizzard entertainment)

An Interview with compLexity’s Crane

For the few who don’t know him, Simon “Crane333” Raunholst is a player for Team compLexity and has been hailed for a long time as one of the best in the Hearthstone competitive scene. If you ever go to his channel you will see a lot of pro players discussing the hot topics of the moment, he is a favourite amongst that crowd. Amongst his winning there is the very recent second place finish at DreamHack Valencia, but there are also numerous other high place finishes. As of now he is rated the15th best player in the world by http://www.gosugamers.net/ . Overall it was an honour for me to get the chance to ask him a few questions, he is amongst the players I respect the most in the scene. I will say that when I saw I got this chance to ask him some questions, my reaction was akin to the one a 14 year old would have after being told they can meet their idol.

Before the interview, I want to thank Kyle from Stride PR for giving the Game Haus the chance to cover this piece, as well as Crane333 for taking the time off to answer my questions. Without further ado, I present to you the interview!

 

When did you start playing Hearthstone?

December 2013.

 

What attracted you to the game?

First, it was the casual aspect of the game, I just wanted to play for fun. After a while I started playing Combo decks and I got intrigued by the mental aspect of the game, being able to think ahead and solve the puzzles felt really fun. This was in the golden age of Miracle Rogue, a deck which, of course, I played a ton of.

 

Your favourite deck in the game, my bets are on old Patron Warrior?

Old Miracle Rogue and the Warsong + Death Bite Patron are for sure my two favourite decks of all time. The main reason for this is the amount of thinking needed to play those decks optimally, as well as the fact that they were top tier in their prime.

In general I see myself enjoying any combo deck, I will say I tend to mainly play tier 1 decks as winning is a big part of the enjoyment I get from the game.

 

Favourite card and best card designed in the game, again my bets are on Patron?

Pre-nerf Gadgetzan Auctioneer (5 mana).  I feel like this card was very rewarding if you were a good player and insanely punishing if you were not. Sequencing your spells correctly and knowing when to stop using spells to play minions instead, was essential and very difficult in the short time frame you were given for the turn. It is also incredibly fun to play with because of all the puzzles you need to solve when going off with it. You have to think of all the possible outcomes, and sometimes you can make really miraculous comebacks using it; hence Miracle rogue being called Miracle Rogue.

Pre-nerf Patron was an awesome deck but I don’t think the card alone is very interesting. The current iterations of the deck, in my opinion, lost a lot of the flavour. RIP Warsong.

 

I tried searching online about your ascension to the competitive scene, couldn’t find much. Could you give me a brief summary about your story?

Before being noticed I just played a lot of open tournaments and grinded ladder. Suddenly, I qualified for the Viagame House Cup. There I started talking with Adrian “LifeCoach” Koy and Dima “Rdu” Radu, both of whom I later started practising with. Eventually my network grew and I was introduced to other pro players, suddenly I was recognized as a top tier player.

My breakthrough performance was probably due to getting really good results in the BlizzCon Qualifier for 2015. I scored a ton of points despite not being invited to any tournaments. Basically, I am a grinder who has worked his way up to becoming a pro player. The final step was being picked up by compLexity, I am really grateful for the chance given to me.

Having a team that sends you to events is all you really need to build your career, not having to sponsor your own trips is a big deal. In the past I had to pay for my own trips, this puts you under more pressure as you have to perform to pay back your expenses. On top of that, it can be really demoralizing if you lose early on in the tournament. Being on a serious team means you can put your entire focus on the gameplay, this helps more than one could ever imagine.

 

Mandatory question since there has been so much talk about it, what is your opinion on the state of the game?

I think Blizzard messed up big time but I don’t think the solutions are hard to implement. I recently played in a team league (the Deck Gauntlet for anyone interested), I realized the game is still amazing as long as you can remove Shaman and Warrior from the play field. I want to emphasize I am not claiming this makes the game perfect, but boy does it help! Yogg’Saron is obviously really bad for the competitive scene, and I would like to see it removed. On the flipside the card does allows Druid have a competitive archetype. I find that Druid, except from when you have to play Yogg, is quite skill-intensive.

So, yeah, playing ladder is the absolute worst because in this format you are forced to play against Warrior and Shaman. To top this off, Blizzard pushed DiscardLock. This is something I feel passionately about and I had already talked about in a set review back when we saw the first Discard cards being printed. I think the mechanic is just bad for the game, it pushes the idea of irrationally vomiting your hand and only play with top decks. Even worse, with a card like Silverware Golem, you can either discard it and gain an immense advantage or miss the discard and probably lose the game. Healthy RNG should be more recoverable than the swing of free 3/3 on board. In my opinion it is sloppy card design.

 

What can be done to improve it?

Firstly, I think they need to print a weak Totem to make Tuskarr Totemic less of a thing (or make Totem Golem not be a Totem! Or simply not allow Tuskarr to spawn in). Also, they should stop printing improved Mana Wyrms as a means of fixing weak classes. In my opinion, Tunnel Trogg is a bad card for the game, as is Mana Wyrm. Cards which snowball immensely and can be played on turn one are not good for the competitive scene, recall Undertaker! I also think it is possible to simply nerf Doomhammer, off the top of my head I could see making it so that only 1 charge per turn can go face. As for Warrior, I don’t think I mind too much except perhaps a nerf to Dragon Warrior to push some other archetypes. Obviously there is always the Yogg issue, removing or nerfing the card from the game has to be done sooner rather than later.

Off the top of my head that’s what I would test if I was a developer.

 

How much preparation goes into Hearthstone every day?

It really changes a lot based on time of month and number of tournaments scheduled. I find that whenever I have tournaments I try to charge up mentally and avoid ladder. I mainly prepare by thinking about line-ups and by having focused sessions with top Hearthstone players. At the end of each month, unless I have a tournament to attend in the last few days, I pretty much play ladder the entire day. Obviously this only applies if I am not camping a top rank on both EU and NA.

Other than that, I also spend a lot of time watching other players and trying to backseat the game. I find that this helps a lot as it enables me to see other players’ perspective on the game. Also, I think that analysing the game without playing yourself is very useful, very often I find myself noticing things which I would otherwise miss. Overall I basically think about Hearthstone every waking hour, no question that for me this is a full-time job.

 

How much does it take to prepare for a tournament?

Depends on the metagame. When I prepared for DreamHack Valencia it didn’t take too long, I pretty much just took the BrokeBack line-up (Dragon Warrior, Aggro Shaman, Yogg Token Druid and Zoolock) because I wanted to see how it would perform. Before that I had been running a lot of combo line-ups with mixed success.

Other times I have prepared multiple hours each day for about a week in advance. One week before the tournament is a good time to start really focusing on your game play since the metagame can change really quickly and this can hinder you if you start preparing too early. Obviously this is different depending on when expansions are coming out, as a general rule though I start play testing about two to three weeks ahead of the tournament.  You have to consider preparation also includes analysing the format and trying to map out the best possible line-ups, only once this is set in stone you can start practicing the actual decks.

 

Do you review your games? How much does it take and how many mistakes do you usually notice?

Most of the time I review my tournament games, I will say that after a disappointing loss sometimes it takes a while before I can watch my own games. I almost always notice something that I missed while playing, this doesn’t always mean I did the wrong play, but that I might have done the right play for the wrong reasons.

Unfortunately, the longer tournaments go the more mentally drained I become and thus I know in the past I have made incredibly bad plays. To improve in this aspect all you can do is train you stamina by enduring longer Hearthstone sessions. Eventually you can arrive to a point that even after long hours of Hearthstone your gameplay level doesn’t drop too much.

 

I believe the environment in which you play is essential to compete at the best of your capabilities, do you find you perform worst when playing in tournament venues?

I would not say so. Rather, I would say that I play my best when there is something at stake. I am a competitor at heart and I have a surprisingly bad win-rate when playing casually. Obviously, it is easier to play from home since I am in my comfort zone. I will say though I am getting a lot better at competing in LAN events as I have gained quite a bit of experience!

 

Don’t want to stir up drama and you can choose not to answer, but I was curious about a tweet you tweeted a while back. You said: “you know who I’m going to be rooting for in America’s championship? all the players who aren’t Pascoa”. What did Pascoa do which irritated you, was it his insistence on the Greetings in the first match against Rosty?

It was the BM emotes. I can’t remember exactly when, but I think he spammed at the end of his last game. You have to consider that whilst the winner is qualified for the BlizzCon qualifier the loser just potentially missed on his big chance, it is a really big deal for players trying to break in the scene. I think that showing just a little bit of respect for your opponent goes a long way and should be the least anyone could do in a high stakes setting. I know how heartbroken I would be if I just missed my chance for Top 8 in the BlizzCon qualifier.

Other than that, if stakes are a lot lower I don’t I care as much about BM. Although I will say I never do it myself (in tournaments) out of principle.

 

Your tips for up and coming players?

If you want to make it in Hearthstone, you better buckle up.

Unless you plan on getting lucky, you are going to have a lot of work cut out for you. In general: build relationships with top players and improve yourself by finding inspiration from players who have a different approach to the game than you, obviously select ones which are good at the game. Most important of all try to become the best player YOU can be. Instead of buying into how others play the game, always question their logic and try to evaluate it yourself if there is reasons to agree to what they are saying. Don’t take what big figures in the scene say at face value!

 

Do you think competitive Hearthstone is a niche that will always be overshadowed by the big streamer names like Amaz and Kripp?

Sure, there are a couple of big streamers but I don´t see what that has to do with competitive Hearthstone. Most of those guys could be playing any game and they would have viewers, they are entertainers, we are competitors. When there is a big tournament it gets more viewers than Kripp and Amaz joined together, so I don´t feel like the competitive scene is being overshadowed at all. I also think they cater to different people, even though being based around the same game obviously means there will be some overlap in viewership.

 

Looked at your tweets, how did it feel when you realized you had Weblord instead of Knife Juggler in your deck at the WCA qualifier? (For those who don’t know the tweet being mentioned is here: https://twitter.com/coL_Crane333/status/767315483922161664 )

Well, I felt pretty startled to be honest. When I was looking through my lists I didn’t spot it, this was probably due to being tired after having competed all day. I was also feeling pretty nervous about the next stage of the qualifier and this must have played some role in my mistake.

The card was in the deck because prior to submitting the deck lists I randomly decided to troll on ladder with Weblords instead of Jugglers, later on I forgot all about it. I often play troll decks when I want to unwind after tournament matches, it really helps after a stressful day. All you can do is forgive yourself and look forward, it’s useless to cry over your mistake. I always knew that I was good enough at the game, so if I kept doing my thing I would get more chances and eventually succeed.

 

Best Hearthstone related story?

I guess the story is the one which I just recounted, this is the one I would tell my friends to entertain them. When I told a few of my close acquaintances they replied by saying: “that is so typically you.” I am the sort of guy who sometimes forgets about the world around him and for a while, takes off and lives in his own head. Weird things like this tend to happen to me more than I am proud to admit!

 

Do you think Blizzard should push more content? (Content can come in different forms, like a card a month given to everybody)

Even if obviously it is always enjoyable to have new cards to play with, I think that the release frequency that Blizzard currently promised is reasonable.

 

Nobody knows what the future reserves for them, do you have any general idea?

My general idea is to continue to pursue new goals in Hearthstone, I dream to do so for many years to come.

 

Thank you for your answers and your patience!

 

This concludes the interview, but before you close the page please consider following me (the writer) on Twitter: https://twitter.com/matteo_ghisoni this does go a long way when trying to gain some recognition.

Additionally, if you want to know when Crane streams you can follow him on twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/crane333/profile as well as Twitter: https://twitter.com/coL_Crane333 .

I hope you enjoyed the interview and that I can bring you further content for you to read in the future!

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