Reasons to fear Cubelock

It’s no secret that Cubelock is a dominating force in the meta. But the Witchwood expansion, combined with the Year of the Raven rotation, may propel it to even more oppressive levels. Losing competitors, powerful new cards, and meta shifts all look favourable for Cubelock. If Team 5 are watching Cubelock as closely as they say, these factors are worth keeping an eye on.

Old decks lose a lot

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Dragons can’t challenge Warlock as well in the new set

Currently, a number of decks soft-counter Control and Cube Warlocks. By capitalising on Warlock’s few weaknesses, decks like Secret Mage, Spiteful Priest, Combo Priest and a few Aggro decks eke out a favourable winrate. But unfortunately for meta balance, these strategies are hit hard by rotation. Mage loses its integral Secret package, Priests will no longer have those vital Dragons, and core Pirates and Murlocs rotate. Meanwhile, decks that seek to simply curve out and high-roll with massive minions like Big Priest and Spell Hunter lose the integral Barnes.

It seems unlikely that any previously existing archetype will be able to stand up to the might of Cubelock; any challenge to Warlock hegemony will need to draw heavily on new tools. But new tools may benefit Warlock far more than they challenge it.

Cubelock loses little

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Mistress is relatively easy to replace

There are only three card slots in current Cubelock lists that rotate out; N’zoth, and two Mistress of Mixtures. These cards are powerful, yes, but not core to the deck’s strengths. Losing the lifegain and early presence from Mistress hurts, but it’s easy to replace with a Plated Beetle or Shroom Brewer. Alternatively, one of the powerful new Witchwood tools might suffice.

N’zoth is more problematic, as its ability to revive a huge wall of Voidlords was a great way to close out games. But closing out games was never really Cubelock’s weakness. There are plenty of late-game options or combos that Warlock to include to fill the role left by N’zoth. If worst comes to worst, jamming a Lich King in there couldn’t hurt.

Lord Godfrey

cubelock

Godfrey is Abyssal Enforcer on steroids

Warlock’s new legendary is incredibly potent. Many already know the power of extra spell damage combined with Defile (as those on the receiving end of Tainted Zealot into Defile can attest). This will clear almost any board, and leave behind a 4/4 to contest. This is often just game over versus Aggro, even without Voidlords coming down later to back it up.

To make matters worse, Lord Godfrey fits perfectly into Cubelock’s curve. The deck runs no seven drops, and was occasionally running one more clear card on top of two defiles and two hellfires. It seems to slot so well into the strategy and mana curve of Warlock that it’s hard to see how it would not be a defining auto-include.

Voodoo Doll

One of Cubelock’s few weaknesses is a lack of efficient hard removal. But the new Neutral epic Voodoo Doll may change all that. This 3 mana 1/1 is a cheap hard removal for any deck, but must be combo’d with another effect to be better than Corruption. Luckily for Warlock, there are a plethora of ways to activate it. Defile, Dark Pact, Mortal Coil and Hellfire spring to mind. Even Carnivorous Cube is useful in a pinch.

This could erase what was previously a key Warlock weakness. Being able to easily remove big threats early (without losing a Mana crystal) is huge for a deck with as much late-game potential as Cubelock. If future decks seek to cheat out massive minions (as they are likely to do), this could be yet another tool to cement Warlock’s dominance.

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Fear Exodia Priest

 

exodia

Vivid Nightmare could act as a 3 mana Molten Reflection

 

The Exodia combo is one of the most feared in Hearthstone. By utilising four Sorceror’s Apprentices and an Antonidas to generate infinite fireballs, little can stand in its way. Unfortunately for Mages (and luckily for the rest of us) it requires a huge amount of setup through Simulacrums, Molten Reflections and a Quest completion.

But with Witchwood’s new Vivid Nightmare card, Priest may be able to apply the same concepts. Though Priest’s Exodia is far less deadly than the Mage’s, its ease of setup may make it just as threatening.

Lyra, Radiant, Vivid, Profit?

exodia

Lyra is better in smaller, cheaper Priest spell card pools

The base idea is simple. Within a standard Priest deck core that runs a decent amount of draw and spells, run five cards. Lyra the Sunshard, two Radiant Elementals, and one or two Vivid Nightmares for 10 mana. With four Radiants (or more with Shadow visions), all spells in the Priest’s hand are likely to be free. What’s more, any generated spells are likely to be free also. Rogue can generate massive tempo with Coins and Preparation. With a 4 mana discount, you get the tempo of Coin into Prep with every single generated card.

This would be less of an OTK and more of a Yogg-style effect, creating a gigantic if random board swing out of nowhere. It would also generate massive amounts of value; as every spell that could not be cycled through with a 4 mana discount is only one of a handful of high-cost high-impact spells.

Cheap Spells galore

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With almost as many card generators as too expensive cards, the combo could go on and on

One principle reason this might work is the shrinkage of the Standard spell pool. With Shadow Word Horror, Dragonfire Potion, and Power Word Tentacles rotating out, the pool of high-cost or combo-stopping cards is reduced. Just 8 spells in Priest’s Standard pool will cost more than 5 mana, with 21 costing 4 or less. Of these cheap Priest spells, five are card generation, acting as further gas for the combo engine. With four Radiants, you could potentially cast dozens of times from only two or three starting spells.

Of course, this is quite a lot of cards to save, and a lot of mana to spend. But Shadow Visions vastly increases the viability of fetching Vivid Nightmares, as well as acting as Lyra gas. The combo is also flexible enough to work with a variety of hands. Vivid Nightmare can be cast on Lyra in lieu of a Radiant, for example. Combined with a hand of cheap or free spells, that’s a huge potential card engine for very little investment.

What’s the impact?

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Any spells that can’t be cast with Lyra will be high-value

Lyra turns are very hard to predict, but this combo would have a reliable chain of events. With enough spells to act as initial propellant, there would be an overabundance of options. The opponent’s board would quickly get wiped or stolen by Shadow Madness, Deaths and Pains. While a few high-cost spells would clog the hand, more would be drawn or generated to add to the combo. Eventually, the targets for spells would run out, or the hand would be filled with high-cost spells. But by that point, a massive board would have been generated, and the opponent destroyed.

What’s more, health swings are likely, with healing as well as face damage on the opponent. And of course, the Priest would be left with a hand of Devour Minds, Free from Ambers, Psychic Screams and other high-value spells. In short, it would almost certainly be a game-winning combo in most circumstances.

Getting to Exodia

Of course, this all assumes you can find and hold five cards with 10 mana. With Priest staples like Potion of Madness, Dragonfire, Pint/Horror, and many Dragons rotating out, surviving till late may not be an easy proposition. What’s more, Priest’s card draw is still limited, and overly reliant on Northshire Cleric shenanigans.

However, the flexibility of the combo might make it viable yet. Against aggro, you can spend your pieces and go off only with Lyra and Nightmare. Versus control, you could bank multiple Nightmares and unleash a nigh-unstoppable chain of spells, limited only by RNG and the turn time.

With many Priest cards still to be revealed, it is yet to be seen whether to see whether the class will again reach its dominating heights enjoyed in the Year of the Mammoth. But whatever form it takes, there’s a decent chance it may come to heavily rely on these Lyra combos. If that comes to be the case, it might be time to practice your APM.

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tribes

Nightmare Amalgam: More than a meme?

Nightmare Amalgam is extremely silly. As its name suggests, it’s an unholy combination of every tribe in Hearthstone; Beast, Murloc, Dragon, Demon, Elemental, Totem, and of course Pirate. But aside from being funny, the card might actually be competitive. At a 3/4 statline, it passes the vanilla test.

But this alone isn’t enough to merit a serious inclusion in Constructed decks; after all, Auctionmaster Beardo is only seeing play for its effect rather than its competitive neutral body. With that said, its unique blend of tribes might be worth consideration in a number of decks.

The tribal of last resort

amalgam

A tribal panacea?

A lot of decks rely on having a minimum quantity of tribal minions. Midrange Beast Hunter, Dragon Priests and Murloc decks have all run sub-par minions in order to maintain a minimum level of synergistic cards. Beast Hunter has run meh minions like Infested Wolf and Carrion Grub, Dragon Priests have found room for Faerie Dragons, and Murloc decks often contain borderline Murlocs like Grimscale Chum, Bluegill Warrior and Coldlight Seer.

Compared to these minions, a 3 mana 3/4 doesn’t look that bad, especially when considering the rotation of 3 sets. The smaller card pool may just lead Nightmare Amalgam to becoming a temporary boon, at least until more powerful tribal minions are added. When considering the power of cards like Duskbreaker that almost necessitate a tribal deck to be built around them, the Amalgam might be a serious consideration.

Shaman synergy?

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Powerful elemental synergies combined with Murloc early game power is inconsistent: for now

In terms of classes, Nightmare Amalgam might become surprisingly powerful in Shaman. Shaman has a number of potent synergies with Totems, Murlocs, and Elementals. Though some of these synergies rotate out, there is great potential here. A Murloc that also powers the Elemental train could work in some sort of abomination mix of Elemental and Murloc Shaman, or maybe simply combining Elemental and Totem synergies could be enough.

All this depends on two things; firstly, it would require Shaman to get more tribal support for its Totems and Murlocs to replace the tools like Thing from Below and Call in the Finishers that rotate out. Secondly, it would require Shaman to be a competitive midrange minion-based deck, which may be unlikely depending on how much help the class gets each expansion. Regardless, it may be worth playing around with, if only for those Ice Fishings off Hagatha.

Wild synergies

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In Wild, Patches and the Curator might work; but card competition is stiff

Nightmare Amalgam might find a home in some Wild decks. As well as summoning Patches, it has a number of other secondary synergies. The Curator is a prime example, filling in the slot of any given missing tribal. It could also work well with the other Menagerie minions like Zoobot in tribal decks, while still benefiting from the deck’s main synergistic focus. Alternatively, just having a Patches-summoning beast could be worth running in some Wild Hunters.

However, this might be overly optimistic. Since the Patches nerf, the benefit of being a Pirate is naturally weakened, and Wild decks don’t suffer for powerful options. With all that said, the sheer array of powerful potentialities means that it’s probably worth a bet that Nightmare Amalgam sees constructed play at some point. Just try and dodge those crabs.

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Cards to add to Evergreen

The Standard system has two essential parts. One is the latest two years of expansions. The other is the “Evergreen” set of Classic and Basic sets. While one constantly changes, the other remains (relatively) stable. Currently, the only changes made to Evergreen is to reduce it; to take cards away. But is now the time to start adding cards to Basic or Classic?

Why add?

evergreen

There are perils to reprinting Lightbomb

While it hasn’t been done before, there are compelling arguments to add cards to the Evergreen set. Since classes have recurrent weaknesses, cards on the same theme have to be printed repeatedly. Things like Warrior Whirlwind effects, Shaman/Paladin early game and Priest board-clears have to be made and remade over and over. This presents a number of problems.

For starters, power levels can be hard to judge. Certain cards can end up being far stronger or weaker than anticipated, and printing more of the same sort of card with variations increases that risk. Just look at Psychic Scream. What’s more, it presents a problem for Wild, as multiple of essentially the same card can lead to extremely one-dimensional decks.

While it’s unlikely that Blizzard will add to Evergreen, these cards might make good candidates.

Eternal Evolve for Shaman

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Evolve is one of the most successful and entertaining additions for Shaman

Let’s start with Evolve; a fan favourite and staple of multiple Shaman decks. Evolve is great due to being a mass-buff spell that doesn’t push massive burst damage while creating unique and interesting game situations. Though Unstable Evolution and Deathseer Thrall are remaining for now, the simplicity and fun of Evolve makes it something that Shaman should arguably have as a core mechanic.

Adding Evolve to Basic or Classic would take pressure of Blizzard to eternally support the Evolve mechanic. Instead of reinventing the wheel every year, they can add more new and interesting mechanics or Evolve support to Shaman.

A Basic Warrior Taunt

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Warrior has no Basic or Classic Taunts; maybe that should change

Taunt has come to be a defining feature of the Warrior class. But this is a recent addition, the class has no Taunts in its Classic or Basic set. It might make sense to replace some of Warrior’s Basic or Classic cards with a Taunt or two. A solid mid-game option like Alley Armorsmith or Bloodhoof Brave, with their respective synergies with Armor and Enrage, would reinforce Warrior’s class identity. Giving Warrior more reliable mid-game stabilisation tools would be a plus too.

With Taunts made a core part of Warrior identity, Blizzard can focus on giving Warriors more support to its numerous disparate archetypes and synergies, that currently need all the attention they can get.

Priest Heal

Priest board clears are the best example of Team 5 being forced to reinvent the wheel, but so is healing. Priest’s limited in directional healing due to Auchenai Soulpriest burst potential, and so can only be given limited forms of heal. As such, the Classic and Basic set contain far fewer Hero healing capabilities. After Year of the Mammoth, Priest will lose Priest of the Feast and Greater Healing Potion.

Either of those would be a good addition to classic; giving the class a far stronger self-heal identity. And, of course, it would allow more card slots to support interesting Priest archetypes.

Ratting out

evergreen

Some techs might need to stick around

It’s not just class cards that could benefit the game by going to evergreen. Neutrals could also be candidates. I’ve written before about the implementation of Dirty Rat being a vital and interesting tech card. However, its unique effect would be difficult and wasteful to replicate. Alternatively, an argument could be made for the return of anti-spell tech like Loatheb and his ilk. Or other tech cards not present in Classic or Basic, like secret removal. Either these get added to Evergreen, or they take up valuable design space in new expansions.

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Will post-nerf Cubelock conquer all?

Hearthstone’s incoming round of balance changes are as wide-ranging as they are unusual. Unlike the Gadgetzan patch a year ago, the balance team chose not to leave soon-rotating cards untouched. Surprising many, they instead focused three of their four nerfs on cards from previous sets. Corridor Creeper, Raza, Bonemare and of course Patches will soon be significantly weaker. But while these changes delighted many, some grow increasingly worried about Cubelock.

The untouched terror

cubelock

Control Warlocks lost nothing to balance changes

Cubelock is a powerful combo Warlock deck that uses Skull of Manari and Possessed Lackey to cheat out demons, typically Voidlord and Doomguard. It then seeks to duplicate these minions multiple times with Carnivorous Cube, Faceless Manipulator and Bloodreaver Gul’dan. So far, so standard. It’s powerful, but not gamebreaking. So far, so standard. But what has people worried is that so far, it’s the only top-tier deck that plays none of the nerfed cards.

This poses a question; with none of the other tier one decks up to their former strength, will Cubelock run rampant, destroying the meta as we know it? Well maybe; but there are strong reasons to believe it may not.

Counters will rise

cubelock

Perhaps Quest Rogue could return to challenge Warlock?

One of the problems with the meta as it is is that Warlock and Priest hold it in a vice-like grip, pressuring it from different angles. Though their winrate isn’t astronomic, they’re incredibly popular, and they pressure decks in different ways. Razakus is the ultimate Control killer, with armor-shattering OTK potential and massive long-term burn damage. Meanwhile Cubelock shuts down aggro and midrange with massive walls of Voidlords and a huge variety of powerful boardclears. But with Raza Priest no longer the foe it once was, and Aggro diminished, it not only frees up Warlock, it opens up its counters.

Decks like Big Priest, Quest Rogue or Control Mage can crush Cubelock by pressuring its lack of hard removal, early game tempo or vulnerability to transforms or silences. It’s also worth mentioning that Control Warlock also does very well against Cubelock, and with no Raza Priest to pressure it down, may become the dominant Warlock archetype.

Wrecking with teching

cubelock

Cards like polymorph hard-counter many Cubelock minions

But you don’t have to counter-queue to counter Warlock. There are a number of potent techs that would help quell a Warlock meta. Most notable is Spellbreaker; a versatile silence that both neutralizes Voidlords and renders un-popped Cubes useless. But there’s more than just Spellbreaker. All transform removal, silences or return-to-hand effects can massively cut into a Cubelock’s strategy. Even Faceless Manipulators and Prince Taldarams of your own can copy their boards.

Otherwise, tweaking your deck to be stronger against Cubelock can be as simple as a few snowball minions. The deck runs no early removal to deal with cards that can quickly grow out of control like Vicious Fledgling, Scavenging Hyena or Frothing Beserker. These can prove to be a massive problem when the opponent plays around defile, quickly smashing down the Warlock’s health total while providing the tempo to build a sticky board.

Ruler of the rotation

Things get a bit trickier after the Year of the Mammoth however. Cubelock loses only Mistress of Mixtures from current lists, and may get substantially stronger if Blizzard continues to give Warlock such high quality cards. Meanwhile existing decks lose far more, including many of Cubelock’s counters.

If Cubelock is going to run rampant, it’s likely going to be after the following expansion. But all is not set in stone. Key cards may be “Hall of Fame”‘d, new techs may be printed and new more powerful strategies may arise. With all that said, it is certainly an archetype Blizzard should keep an eye on.

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The World Championship was Hearthstone at its best and worst

(Spoilers)

Hearthstone’s World Championship is finally over, after a rollercoaster ride of high stakes, great plays and unbelievable topdecks. It served as testament to not only the contestants’ skill level, but also the craft of Hearthstone’s design team. Not all of this reflected well; both the players and the game had their fair share of mistakes highlighted. All in all, the tournament served to show Hearthstone ‘warts and all’ with all the crazy moments, skill-testing positions and unfortunate RNG design decisions we’ve come to love and hate.

Great plays

The tournament, a culmination of a year’s effort from hundreds of players over the world, was arguably a high-water-mark in skill. From Surrender’s counter-intuitive but ultimately successful “wasting” of Prophet Velen versus Shtanudachi’s Jade Druid to Fr0zen’s simple but decisive cycling of Holy Smite on a Northshire Cleric, Raza Priest offered many opportunities for flashy, hard-to spot plays. But skill was shown throughout even the most straightforward of decks. My favourite play of the entire tournament was a very straightforward two turn sequence by eventual champion Tom60229.

In the opening game of his semifinal match against Surrender, Tom played a nourish for mana on 5 after topdecking an Arcane Tyrant. The casters and audience all expected him to cash in on his good fortune, playing out the free 4/4. But Tom waited. Instead, he played it on the following turn along with Spreading Plague. Not only did this protect the 4/4 better, it allowed Tom to get an additional 1/5 scarab. By recognising he had the luxury of taking the game slower, he gained incremental advantages that ended up swinging the game in his favour (no doubt helped by Surrender’s Patches draw).

 

Tom60229’s choice to hold Arcane Tyrant was counter-intuitive but brilliant

Frustrating RNG

Drawing Patches may have cost Surrender a shot at the final

Of course, the tournament was filled with far more eventful, but less controllable events. Surrender couldn’t hide his despair as he drew Patches two games in a row. To make things even worse, it was immediately followed by Tom60229 starting out the game with Keleseth and Shadowstep. The final game of the tournament was also heartbreakingly one-sided, as Fr0zen tried desperately to dig for an Ultimate Infestation that came far, far too late.

However, the most frustrating early-game RNG came about on the previous game, where Tom60229’s turn one Swashburglar pulled Innervate, allowing him to follow up with a turn 2 10/10 Edwin. While a strong play, the single extra mana from the random Innervate gave his Edwin another +2/+2 and an extra turn to hit face, essentially resulting in 12 extra points of damage. That would be bad enough, were it not for the fact that he was able to have Leeroy on turn 5 for lethal.

Despite all this talk of Tom60229’s good fortune, it wasn’t totally out of his opponent’s control to counter. Fr0zen could have kept Ultimate Infestation in the mulligan, and hero powered out of Leeroy range, for instance. Regardless, the RNG made these two games far less enjoyable than the preceding few.

A turn 2 10/10 versus Druid, courtesy of Swashburglar RNG

Moments to remember

Despite how early-game RNG can make a tournament feel swingy, there were some great crowd-pleasing moments created by randomness. Sintolol and Fr0zen’s final face-off as Big Mage versus Combo Dragon Priest was such a fantastic match because of RNG. Sintolol pulling Frost Lich Jaina with Drakonid Operative created a fantastic and memorable game. It was filled with incredibly skill-testing and exciting situations that went all the way to fatigue. There were also the triumphant moments. It was hard not to cheer as Fr0zen’s hard-pressed Control Mage, struggling the entire game, managed to topdeck an Arcane Artificer to clear Tom60229’s last Jades with Flamestrike and heal out of range of Ultimate Infestation.

Brian Kibler’s words for the Sintolol versus Fr0zen match could apply to the entire tournament; “If you don’t like [this], you don’t like Hearthstone”.

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Dirty Rat

Ode to a Rat

Amongst the hundreds and hundreds of cards released over the past few years, a few truly stand out. Every card is crafted with love and care. Designed, balanced, voice acted, drawn and animated into something lively and characterful. Each one oozes charm and fulfills a unique gameplay niche. But some rise above their peers, effortlessly matching flavour, balance, art and design into something great. Dirty Rat is one of these, perhaps the best designed card of the last two years.

With the good old disloyal Kobold due to rotate soon, now is a perfect time to reflect on what made the card so great.

A flavourful felon

Dirty Rat

What a charming fella

A large part of Dirty Rat’s charm is his wonderful flavour. It all fits together. The card’s joke ties together perfectly with his mechanical function. He’s a ratlike Kobold who literally “rats out” a minion hidden in your opponent’s hand, screeching that he “Ain’t talkin’!” as he does so. It’s a cute and funny moment, that is even more hilarious when he suddenly gives the opponent a Y’shaarj on turn two.

His mischievous grin even points to his Taunt ability, as well as his penchant for messing up your opponent’s carefully crafted combos. All in all, the flavour is so strong and compelling because it perfectly gels with Dirty Rat’s gameplay. It reinforces perfectly the ideas the mechanics put across, while helping build the Hearthstone character and unique feel of the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion.

Johnny’s dream

Dirty Rat

The card has some powerful and unexpected synergies

One of the most enduring appeals of Dirty Rat is its seemingly endless series of interactions, tricks and combos that can be used to devastate an enemy. The possibilities are almost endless. On a basic level, just cheap hard removal is great for handling that Velen or Malygos that just got pulled. Otherwise, mass board clears like Brawl or Twisting Nether get even more value when you’re able to pull down one or more big enemy minions.

Beyond that, there are truly innovative combos. Mind Control Tech, Sylvanas and Doomsayers can all have some incredibly potent interactions. Priest can pull off some crazy shenanigans with Potion of Madness, Divine Spirit and Inner Fire. It can activate Defiles, punish Unlicensed Apothecaries and create targets for Entomb and Psychic Scream. The huge number of potential possibilities for Dirty Rat’s unique effect is part of the card’s genius.

Counterplay for days

Of course, the main utility of Dirty Rat is as a combo counter, and it does that job beautifully. But unlike many tech cards, it’s extremely interactive. There are numerous ways to play around it, from executing the combo early, to holding minions in your hand, to bluffing not having pieces, or even to Dirty Rat out their Dirty Rat. However, it is nonetheless extremely effective at sabotaging combo decks in all their forms, making it an invaluable control tool in the right meta. Quest Mage, Quest Rogue and even Raza Priest were all held back from completely dominating slower decks with this card.

It’s also not just a one-trick pony; it can be a great stabilisation tool against Aggro, or even a solid turn two play versus the right deck. But these gambles can have disastrous consequences, leading to its other advantage.

Dirty Rat

Dirty Rat helped keep Quest Rogue in check

The Disaster Artist

One of the best features of Dirty Rat is how calculated risks can lead to utter disaster. Of course, you know that playing Dirty Rat on two can go wrong, but there’s no way this guy isn’t Raza Priest with that mulligan, right? And then Y’shaarj comes down to ruin your day. Everyone who’s played Dirty Rat knows the hilarious failcascade that can happen if you fatally misjudge your opponent’s deck or starting hand. While it can be frustrating, it creates amazing moments to share and laugh over later. And it gives every Timmy deck a chance to shine against an overconfident opponent.

Of course, if you’re overly cautious, this is simply avoided by saving it for a turn with a guaranteed clear. But for those who are willing to push the envelope and try their hand at perfectly judging their opponent, there’s a huge and entertaining variance of payoffs or calamities.

All in all Dirty Rat charmed its way into our hearts with his lovably traitorous nature, created huge opportunities for deckbuilding and experimentation, kept otherwise oppressive combo decks in check and enabled some awesomely over-the top and unexpected comebacks and game situations. Goodbye from Standard, Dirty Rat. You will be missed.

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Rotation, schmotation: Hearthstone needs balance changes now

We’re not even a month beyond the Kobolds and Catacombs release and already the meta is closed to settled. While the eventual top dog is as-of-yet unknown, a small cluster of decks have stuck close to the top. Lists are solidifying, and it’s getting harder and harder to experiment. The effectiveness of certain cards and decks eclipse all but a few other high-powered strategy. Normally, a few months after a major Hearthstone release, we would expect a balance change. But Rotation changes all that.

With a Standard rotation coming soon, Team 5 may simply wait rather than alter problem cards that are due to leave soon. But this is an overly cautious strategy that risks alienating Hearthstone’s playerbase and leading to a stale meta-game.

How long can this go on?

rotation

A lot of familiar faces (via vicioussyndicate.com)

The last set of balance changes were announced in September 2017. It’s likely we’ll now get no new balance changes until the next set after Kobolds and Catacombs releases, roughly three months from now. This means we’ll have six or more months with no substantive balance changes to Hearthstone beyond adding new cards. This sets a terrible precedent.

Six months is a long time, and only having one content release to shake up the meta in that time makes Hearthstone’s meta even more frustrating and stale. Frustratingly powerful decks like Keleseth Rogue or Razakus Priest are one thing; it’s quite another to have the same few decks dominate with little hope of respite.

It doesn’t help that the same decks that dominated in September 2017 are still mostly intact. Murloc Paladin, Jade Druid, Tempo Rogue and Razakus Priest were all very powerful by this stage. The only real alteration to the meta has been the addition of Warlock variants to the meta and the swapping around of a few Corridor Creepers and Psychic Screams. If nothing else, there’s a strong case for a balance patch just to shake things up.

Wild is not your dumping ground

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Wild Reno Priest has the potential to be extremely oppressive

Of course, there’s another argument against simply letting Patches, Raza et al retire to Wild; Wild doesn’t want them either! Using Wild as a dumping ground for problematic cards is not a good long term strategy. Wild is supposed to be maintained as a parallel competitive environment, not a place to forget design mistakes.

Leaving Raza as is would lead to Reno Priest becoming even more dominant in Wild as time goes by. While currently not completely oppressive, it definitely has the potential to be as Priest inevitably gets more consistent early tools. And need any more be said on the impact of Patches on Wild’s early game? Even in a world of Haunted Creepers, Zombie Chows and Shielded Minibots, a free 1/1 charge is not to be sniffed at. Patches is the sort of card that could permanently warp Wild’s early game for the worse.

Part of what makes Standard work is players not simply feeling they’ve lost their cards after they rotate. Not caring about the competitive integrity of Wild will eventually make players feel worse about Standard as a whole. It wouldn’t even work from a financial standpoint, as Blizzard doesn’t exactly want players to dust their rotated cards due to them no longer caring about a format overrun with overpowered cards and synergies that were never balanced.

Greed is not a good look

rotation

Blizzard probably aren’t acting out of greed: but it sure looks like it

The cynic in me wants to suggest that Blizzard and Team 5 are putting off balance changes for short-term financial purposes. After all, giving thousands of dust to millions of customers will have a direct impact on pack sales. Of course, this is unlikely to be anything other than a tangential issue.

The Hearthstone team have a well-documented aversion to making changes where changes are arguably unnecessary. Buffs are unheard of, and only the most egregious offenders (and Hex) have the nerfhammer called down on them. Waiting for rotation is just an extension of this strategy.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it looks. A growing number of players are dissatisfied with a number of recent changes to Hearthstone’s cost, most notably the swap from Adventures to Expansions. Delaying balance changes simply reinforces the idea that Blizzard only cares about Hearthstone’s short-term profits and simply doesn’t want to reimburse players for Patches, Razakus, Aya Blackpaw or similar.

A matter of principle

Hearthstone will probably be fine without urgent balance changes. A few extra months of Razakus, Patches and Corridor Creeper dominating the meta will be bearable (just). But if we can only expect two balance patches a year instead of three because of the latter’s proximity to rotation, we are condemning Hearthstone to spend a good third of its existence is its worst state of stale metas and overpowered cards.

We can and should forgive designer’s mistakes. But we should not stand for laziness when it comes to balance changes. It’ll be a long three months before Standard rotation, and in the meantime we deserve a more balanced game.

 

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predicting

Boldly predicting the next nerfs

Some say they are bold in predicting the power level of Hearthstone’s upcoming cards. Others, like Trump, go further, attempting to predict the entire meta. I, however, scoff at these mere mortals. While they scuffle in the dirt, I shall perform the grandest prediction of all; not only what cards will be good, and how the meta will evolve, but the inevitable nerf patch. My incredible powers of foresight will infallibly divine what and how Blizzard shall nerf or rotate cards. (Disclaimer: powers of foresight may be inaccurate. Gamehaus accepts no responsibility for any golden crafts).

Duskbreaker: 4 to 5 mana

This dragon may be too fiery at 4

“Dragon Priest is a strong archetype that we want to support. However, Duskbreaker has been overperforming at 4 mana. We found that players felt that little they did until turn 4 against a Priest mattered. Additionally, we don’t want to compel Priests to only run Dragons, and we think that changing the cost from 4 to 5 mana will allow other Priest archetypes more opportunity to shine.” – Future Ben Brode (probably)

Duskbreaker feels a lot like the Spreading Plague or Maelstrom Portal of the set; an incredibly strong anti-aggro tool given to a class that was already over-performing. The ability to stall early game board snowballs was one of Priest’s few weaknesses, and this perfectly slots into that niche. Obviously stronger in a Dragon Priest shell, Raza Priest could relatively easily build a limited Dragon shell around it with cards like Netherspite Historian, Primordial Drake and Drakonid Operative.

4 mana for a Hellfire and a 3/3 is frankly disgusting value, even with the required Dragon synergy. Compare it to the old Blackwing Corruptor, which cost 1 more for only +2/+1, wasn’t a dragon and only targeted one minion. That card was an auto-include in Dragon decks, and was far less powerful.

Duskbreaker provides exactly the kind of board sweep Dragon Priest wants on 4 to push into its turn 5 and 6 power plays. Even if it isn’t drawn, Netherspite Historian can discover it. It’s the kind of card a meta is defined around, and we may see a tough time for all tempo and aggro decks as a result. A nerf is almost inevitable.

Jasper Spellstone: 1 to 3 mana

“Druid as a class is meant to have limited removal options. Jaspar Spellstone allowed them to deal with large minions far too easily. We want to keep the classes distinct, and preserving Druid’s identity means lowering the power level of their hard removal. In light of this, we are increasing the cost of Jaspar Spellstone from 1 to 3.”

Druid nerfs in 2018? It could be more likely than you think. After all, Druid is arguably the most-nerfed class in Hearthstone history. Jasper Spellstone threatens to add to its tally. The card doesn’t look too scary on its own; going from mediocre at first to high value when upgraded. But like with Spreading Plague, it shores up a core Druid weakness. Firstly, let’s look at the card in its base, non-upgraded state. At 1 mana for 2 minion damage, it’s very comparable to Living Roots, a card that used to be played in Jade before rotating out. But the card’s true power is that it quickly scales up.

While decent early, its usefulness multiplies with other strong Druid cards like Branching Paths, Ultimate Infestation, Malfurion the Pestilent and Earthen Scales. Even a single upgrade makes the card incredibly potent; a 1 mana Shadowbolt in a class that is meant to have poor removal. After two upgrades it’s a 1 mana fireball on their Scalebane. Aggressive classes will be caught between going wide, and losing to Spreading Plague, and going tall, and losing to Jasper Spellstone. The card offers Druid a huge amount of sustain to reach its late-game Big or Jade minions. It’s essentially a Druid Shield Slam. As such, a nerf will likely be necessary; and with recent memory fresh, Blizzard likely won’t pull any punches.

Druid probably shouldn’t get a Shield Slam

Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Hall of Fame’d

Best off reunited with her best buddy Flamewaker in Wild?

“Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a strong Mage card, and we like how it encourages the use of spells. Unfortunately, the mana discount limits the design of cool, interesting spells. In order to allow us to print exciting spells for Standard, we’ll be moving it to Wild where the craziest combos belong.”

One of the scariest prospects of Kobolds and Catacombs is that Quest Mage will no longer need the Quest. Leyline Manipulator allows for Exodia Combos without a clunky spell generation engine and going down a card. Exodia Mage could look a lot more like Freeze Mage, and be far more consistent as a result. The deck might not be overwhelming, but Blizzard has always been leery for OTKs. Infinite damage even more so. If the deck becomes a lot more consistent, even the upcoming Ice Block rotation may not be enough to quell it.

Since Blizzard tends towards addressing the Classic and Basic cards, it’s likely Sorcerer’s Apprentice will come onto the chopping block. Not only does it allow that OTK, it raises design space issue for other spells that could otherwise go “infinite” with the right triggers.

Hall of Fame seems like the most sensible outcome

Some other random Basic card for no reason

Team 5 is nothing if not unpredictable. Like how Hex was nerfed out of nowhere in the recent balance changes while Ultimate Infestation went unchanged. Or how Molten Giant had a cost increase despite Handlock struggling. It’s likely that just to spice things up, they’ll nerf a core (if arguably overpowered) control tool for a struggling class out of nowhere for little reason.

I don’t know, Equality or something?

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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KnC Banner

Kobolds and Catacombs Day 1 Deck Theorycrafting

The next Hearthstone expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs, has finally been released. In the reveal season, we saw many powerful and fun cards that are coming out with the set. But, which of these cards fit into existing decks? What new decks are coming into the meta?

The Meta

Dragon Priest

KnC Dragon Priest

Dragon Priest Decklist

In past expansions, Dragon Priest has been an archetype that many people have toyed around with and played on ladder. In this expansion, we may see the rise of a Dragon-oriented Priest build similar to the Dragon Priest deck that was viable during the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion last year. The iteration I have theory-crafted includes a much more value-orientated game plan by including cards such as Lyra the Sunshard, Drakonid Operative, and the new Priest weapon, Dragon Soul. The deck can also be built to take on a more minion heavy route by taking out cards like Dragon Soul, Lyra the Sunshard, and Shadow Word: Death and replacing them with Cabal Shadow Priest, which synergises with Twilight Acolyte, and Twilight Drake.

 

The inclusion of Duskbreaker in this expansion really helps Dragon Priest’s historically bad matchup versus aggressive decks, which makes the new iteration of Dragon Priest that much scarier. On ladder, this deck seems like a solid choice for climbing at a high pace. In tournaments, players may elect to bring Highlander Priest instead because of its favorable win-rates versus slower decks.

 

 Zoo Warlock

KnC Zoo Warlock

Zoolock Decklist

In the Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion, we once again saw the rise of an old friend: Zoo Warlock. The early game minion package combined with Prince Keleseth proved to be the kick this deck needed to get back into the meta, and topping off with Bonemare and Bloodreaver Gul’Dan made Zoo Warlock scary in the late-game as well. This time around, Blizzard has given Zoo Warlock even better tools for taking the board early game and keeping it. The addition of Kobold Librarian helps keep your hand full, which is extremely important when having so many low mana cost minions in your deck. The main difference with this Zoo Warlock compared to the previous deck is that it cuts Prince Keleseth for the new 2-drop, Vulgar Homunculus.

 

With this iteration of the deck, I decided to add the Demon synergy package in the form of Demonfire, Bloodfury potion, and Crystalweaver. We have seen quite a lot of play with Bloodfury Potion and Crystalweaver in the past Zoo Warlock decks, but the addition of the Vulgar Homunculus makes these cards coming down on curve extremely threatening. Hooked Reaver also makes an appearance in this deck because of how solid its stats are when the Battlecry goes off, as well as its ability to synergise with the rest of the demon synergy in the deck.

 

The addition of higher-health minions and buff cards will help Zoo Warlock in the next meta mainly because of the predicted prevalence of Duskbreaker on the ranked ladder. In tournament play, this deck will likely be chosen for inclusion in aggressive lineups.

Big Druid

KnC Big Druid

Big Druid Decklist

The ‘Big’ archetype saw large amounts of play during the Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion as a whole, especially during the later half of the set’s meta. Kobolds and Catacombs has not given Big Druid many other tools, but the core of the deck is strong enough to still see play. The only change I have made to the current Big Druid list is taking out Innervate and adding Arcane Tyrants. Innervate, once a staple in most Druid decks, took a huge hit from the nerfs that occured in the middle of the last expansion. It was included in Big Druid, but it was arguably one of the weaker cards within the deck. Two different cards were shown from the new expansion that could find a home in Big Druid: Greedy Sprite and Arcane Tyrant. I chose to include Arcane Tyrant instead of the Sprite because it is very similar to Kun the Forgotten King in the way that it makes your power turns even more powerful. A common way Kun has been used during the meta was playing it as a big free body to pair with Ultimate Infestation. Arcane Tyrant acts in a similar way when paired with Nourish, Spreading Plague, and Ultimate Infestation as well. Greedy Sprite could be included instead of the Tyrant, but the ramp effect is rather slow and your opponent can choose to ignore it. Although this is the case, ramp is powerful enough that Greedy Sprite might see play over Arcane Tyrant.

 

Big Druid seems to be the new go-to Druid deck. In the past, Jade Druid has held this spot, but Big Druid is able to make bigger minions faster and still keep aggression at bay, which may see the ‘Big’ archetype overtaking the Jade mechanic this expansion. Because of this, it is a solid choice for both ranked ladder and tournament play.

 

Tempo Rogue

KnC Tempo Rogue

Tempo Rogue Decklist

Tempo Rogue swept the meta in dominant fashion when it was first discovered to be a powerhouse of a deck. With Kobolds and Catacombs, this deck gets even stronger with the inclusion of some slower yet highly valuable cards. One of these cards is the Rogue Legendary of the set, Sonya Shadowdancer. Sonya replaces the rather weak card of Shaku, the Collector as a card generation engine. Most of the minions in Tempo Rogue have such good effects or Battlecries that Shadowcaster saw a decent amount of experimentation and success during the expansion. Sonya is much cheaper than Shadowcaster, which makes its effect easier to pull off. The second card I have added to the deck is Fal’dorei Strider. Admittingly, a 4 mana 4/4 is rather weak as a tempo play. But, the potential for that minion to pull one, two, or even three additional 4/4 bodies is so powerful that it is worth the initial tempo loss. Even if only 1 additional body is pulled, paying 4 mana for 8/8 worth of stats is crazy powerful. There is also the potential to high-roll by creating a 4/4 on turn 7 to be able to play Bonemare onto after your opponent cleared your board the previous turn.

 

Fal’dorei Strider takes the place of Saronite Chain Gang, mainly because of Chain Gang’s vulnerability to an on-curve Duskbreaker. Overall, Tempo Rogue looks to still be a powerhouse deck next expansion, and I expect to see it played both on the ranked ladder and in tournaments.

 

Highlander Priest

KnC Highlander Priest

Highlander Priest Decklist

Highlander Priest has been at the top of the meta throughout Knights of the Frozen Throne, and it seems to still remain at the top during Kobolds and Catacombs. The Priest list I have selected to showcase only adds one card: Psychic Scream. In order to include the new Priest board clear, I chose to cut Mass Dispel from the deck. Mass Dispel is often times weak, so it made sense to take it out for one of the best cards of the upcoming expansion. This decision shows how good of a deck Highlander Priest already is. Another take on Highlander Priest is to go for a more minion-focused route by including a Dragon package with Duskbreaker. While this seems like a good idea, I feel the current version of the deck is much better. In the past, more value-oriented decks were tested. These decks included cards such as Elise the Trailblazer and Free from Amber. It was ultimately found that the faster and more burst-oriented Priest build was better. Therefore, I feel it is appropriate to stick with the tried-and-true burst style.

 

Once again, Highlander Priest seems to be at the top of the meta. Expect to see a large amount on ladder and as a staple deck in many tournament lineups.

 

The Non-Meta

Combo Hunter

KnC Combo Hunter

Combo Hunter Decklist

For the past few expansions, Hunter has been struggling as a class. Blizzard keeps pushing control tools and weird cards for the Hunter arsenal, which leaves the class in an awkward position in terms of deck building because of how weak each of the archetypes are. With the new Hunter legendary minion, Kathrena Winterwisp, I thought it would be really interesting to build a combo-oriented deck using Kathrena, Charged Devilsaur, and King Krush. It is often not a combo that will instantly kill your opponent, but the amount of stats that the combo provides are truly ridiculous. This deck runs the Secret package to help fend off aggro, the Candleshot and Hunter’s Mark combo to deal with large threats, and Deathstalker Rexxar to create even more value in a late game scenario.

 

While the deck might not be top-tier, it seems extremely fun to play. Personally, I will be testing this deck in tournament play in a lineup that is attempting to target control decks. On ranked ladder, Combo hunter still seems weak to aggro decks and Highlander Priest, which makes it not extremely viable in the upcoming meta.

Conclusion

Overall, Kobolds and Catacombs sees both powerful and fun cards added to the game. While it may not be the best expansion of the year in terms of player attitude and hype, it will likely lead to a diverse and healthy meta both in terms of ranked ladder and tournament play.

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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