Wildcard potential nerf targets

Dean “Iksar” Ayala gave us a unique insight into the ongoing internal design balance discussion at blizzard. In a clarifying Reddit comment, he gave a hit-list of 10 cards that Team 5 are specifically looking at. Among them were many targets of community and competitive ire. It’s a fair assumption that several or even most of the cards highlighted will be touched (my money’s on Call to Arms, Dark Pact, Lackey, Spiteful and one or more key Quest Rogue tools). But there is a decent chance that cards not on this hit-list will be adjusted. Here are some contenders.

Mushroom power or mushroom overpowered?

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5 mana Kings and a 2/2 is pretty good value

There’s a precedent for Blizzard nerfing omnipresent neutral buff minions in Bonemare. Fungalmancer may fall under the nerfhammer for the same reasons. Outside of Tempo Mage, there is no deck that seeks to control the early board that doesn’t run this card. Despite not appearing on Iksar’s hit-list, Baku Rogue, Baku Paladin, Zoo and Spiteful Druid all run it, leading it to have a whopping 18% ladder representation according to HSReplay.net.

But a neutral minion being so omnipresent wouldn’t itself be grounds for a nerf; as otherwise we’d surely see Tar Creeper and Fire Fly changed. What makes Fungalmancer at risk might be merely the dynamics of deck strength. With Warlock and Even Paladin likely targets, Odd Paladin might escape relatively unscathed to dominate the meta. But a huge part of Odd Paladin’s strength comes from Fungalmancer. If changing Baku’s hero power becomes too difficult and costly, Fungalmancer could be a simple, easy proxy.

The wyrm has turned

Though it wasn’t the one cost minion on the hit-list, Mana Wyrm is one hell of an opening minion. It continues to propel aggressive mages to consistent ladder performances. Might the original Tunnel Trogg be at risk? There’s a decent chance to think it might. Tempo Mage would surely blossom in a meta where Paladin was unable to dominate, with few being able to match its scary combination of early game pressure and late-game burn.

As Blizzard seeks to continue on the path of having strength in 1 drops being defined by value in cards like Fire Fly, Kobold Librarian and Town Crier, snowbally minions like Mana Wyrm stick out. In order to rein in tempo mage and support their overall design philosophy, Mana Wyrm might need to see its health reduced to two.

How long this can go on

Saronite might need to take a nerf bullet for Shudderwock

Shudderwock may also be in the sights; though less for its power and more for the feelings of uninteractivity and polarisation it creates. Although it’s unlikely to see the card nerfed directly, some of its supporting cards might see a change, especially if they present design space or power level issues. Saronite Chain Gang might be a target; it enables the endless chain of 1 mana Shudderwocks, and also overperforms in decks like Even Val’anyr Paladin.

It potentially could see a change to its battlecry. If instead of summoning a copy of itself, it simply summoned specifically a second 2/3 taunt, it would be less powerful with Val’anyr and also make Shudderwock a bit less game-endingly uninteractive. However, Wild handbuff decks need not despair just yet, as Shudderwock’s poor winrate may lead it to evade attention for now.

Sucking out the fun?

While on the topic of Shudderwock synergy, it’s important to mention Lifedrinker. This deck is not only a vital Shaman combo piece, it also enables yet more burn in an efficient Neutral shell. This is one of the burn tools that pushed Tempo Mage over the edge, allowing for a truly obscene amount of direct damage in the deck.

It’s for this reason that I wouldn’t be surprised to see a minor reduction to the stats of this card, if only to prevent Mage or Hunter from reaching a critical mass of direct damage. Perhaps it could see its stats reduced to 2/2 or 2/3. However, it’s unlikely that this will be put into effect if the Mana Wyrm change goes through.

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Why Quest’s Rogue’s back (and how not to nerf it)

While many (author included) were shuddering at the thought of jaws biting and claws catching the meta, Quest Rogue arose as the control-killing combo deck to fear. Defying its year-old nerf, the deck is at some of its highest winrates yet seen, especially near the top of legend. But how did Quest Rogue manage to return to high-tier status? And what, if anything, should be done to curb its rise?

There’s one more question that arises from Quest Rogue’s return; will it be nerfed? Team 5 seem wary of decks that lack interactivity and counterplay, especially ones that rely on huge burst combos. Will Quest’s Rogue end up suffering yet another balance change? And if so, what form will it take?

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Reactions to Quest Rogue’s return are mixed to say the least (Credit: twitter.com/FibonacciHS)

The Warlock killer

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Quest Rogue is one of the few good ways to counter Control Warlock

One principle reason for the rise in Quest Rogue’s popularity is the current dominance of Warlocks. With an exceedingly favourable matchup vs Control Warlock in particular, Quest Rogue excels at preying on anti-aggro decks that seek to counter Paladin. Collateral damage are also the newly resurgent Control Mage and Control Warrior archetypes. But this is minor compared to the impact of shutting down arguably the strongest Control deck ever in Standard.

So would worries about Quest Rogue be satisfied with a nerf to Warlock? Well, probably not. Although Warlock is strong, Quest Rogue doesn’t even have that favourable a matchup against the more popular and arguably more powerful variant in Cubelock. Warlocks encourage burn decks like Odd Hunter and Tempo Mage that also hard-counter Quest Rogue. Without Warlocks, the meta would likely revolve even more around Paladins and decks that counter Paladins. And while Paladins punish Quest Rogues, they don’t do so to the same extent as burn strategies that scoff at a prepped Vanish. And non-Warlock Paladin counters are even more vulnerable to Quest Rogues than Warlock.

New year, new tools

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Kobolds and Catacomb’s Elven Minstrel means running Rogue out of cards is now a tough proposition

Another huge factor in Quest Rogue’s new power is its shiny toolset from the last few sets. Sonya and Zola provide massive value generation. Elven Minstrel ensures you never run out of cards. And above all, Vicious Scalehide provides the deck with huge post-quest burst healing potential, which was previously a key deck weakness. All these combine to make a deck that is far more consistent than its original incarnation in the long game, though it lacks the same high-roll potential.

So should these cards be Blizzard’s target? I would argue no. All of these options are interesting in a variety of decks other than Quest Rogue. What’s more, they make the deck far less variance-dependent, increasing the consistency of the combo. Overall, this creates far less of a “highroll” gameplan, and a more cerebral experience. Nerfing a card like Vicious Scalehide would end up making the deck worse vs aggro while keeping Control decks feeling helpless. What’s more, this would set a dangerous precedent, of Team 5 being unable to print cheap powerful anti-aggro minions. The true problem lies elsewhere.

The perennial problem

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Charge has always been a problem. Should Stonetusk Rush instead?

The other reason for its return is that it never really left. Quest Rogue’s been hovering around the edges of viability for a while now, and the rotation has only just managed to push it to the fore. The deck still has core strengths, and an intrinsic problem when it comes to counterplay. And that problem is Charge.

Charge is the primary win condition of the deck in all slower matchups. Plenty of decks can continually remove 5/5s. But basically no deck can outlast the gigantic amounts of burst damage that post-Quest Rogues can put out. A good Quest Rogue that saves chargers and bounce effects can threaten 40 or more damage in a single turn, with more threatened on the follow-up. It’s this fundamental uninteractivity that makes Quest Rogue so difficult to counter by Control, and so frustrating to lose to.

Rushing to conclusions

If Quest Rogue is nerfed, the focus should be on Stonetusk Boar and Southsea Deckhand. With Rush instead of Charge, Quest would need to control the board to win. In return, more cheap minions with impactful battlecries could later be printed. Team 5’s aim should be to keep Quest Rogue as a strong anti-control deck, but allow it to become less polarising and uninteractive. The deck could bear more relation to early builds, with focus on building endless waves of 5/5 boards rather than charging in for lethal. There would be less of a feeling of helplessness in the face of a completed Quest, and more chance for the Quest Rogue to survive the Paladins and Tempo Mages.

Not to mention that it would allow Blizzard print more powerful, cheap, anti-aggro minions like Vicious Scalehide.

All in all, Quest Rogue is a fun deck that deserves a place in the meta; if only it could stop making players like Fibonacci so salty.

 

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Witchwood: A rock-paper-scissors meta?

Have you ever seen what deck your opponent is playing, realised you have no chance to win and had the urge to instantly concede? If so, you’re not alone. The meta has thrown up a number of extremely polarizing matchups that create extremely rock-paper-scissors style situations. If you try and counter Paladin with Control Warrior, you may as well concede against Quest Rogue or Taunt Warrior. If you punish Warlocks and Quest Rogues with Odd Face Hunter, you’ll be helpless against Paladins and Druids. And if you focus on Warlocks and Paladins with Priest, then Druids and Rogues will eat you for breakfast.

Of course, every healthy meta has unfavourable and favourable matchups; it’s how it self-corrects to prevent any one deck taking over. But the gameplay that results from extremely one-sided games thanks to matchup RNG is discouraging. So how did we get here?

The (re)rise of Quest Rogue

meta

Playing against Quest Rogue, you’re on a countdown before 6 of these hit you in the face

One of the biggest offenders for the extreme nature of matchups is Quest Rogue. Though it has scarcely been seen since the nerf, it has risen from the ashes to counter Warlocks. Its Vanishes and massive charge damage is the perfect counter to boards of Voidlords. With new tools like Sonya and Zola the Gorgon, it can almost be as scary as the pre-nerf version at times. So far, so interesting. The problem with Quest Rogue, however, is its massive weakness to early aggression. It’s punished hard by any kind of aggressive or even midrange decks, while it stomps on Control decks.

To make matters worse, previous tools for delaying Quest Rogue’s win condition no longer exist in Standard. Without Dirty Rat, it’s extremely hard for Control to prevent death by multiple volleys of 1 mana 5/5 charge minions. And many classes lost board clears that could otherwise sweep up those 5/5s. Priest lost its Dragonfire, and Warrior no longer has access to Sleep with the Fishes. Meanwhile, aggro has only got more refined. The end result is even more polarisation than last year.

Call to AOE

meta

Some classes can deal with Call to Arms far more easily than others

Call to Arms is a card that does essentially two things. Against decks without the right kind of reliable AOE effects, it’s borderline busted. You get 6 mana and 3 cards of board development in one card. But against decks that can run cards like Duskbreaker, Defile, Blood Razor or Dragon’s Fury, it’s a very different story. While still powerful, it rarely leads to the kinds of board swings you need to succeed in tight games. The stats reflect this; Paladin, especially Even Paladin, has incredible results versus all kinds of tempo decks. But many control decks have extremely favourable matchups against it. Call to Arms means that packing decks with enough efficient AOE will mean you’ll always do well against Paladin.

Unfortunately, this combines with the popularity of Quest Rogue to create a dilemma. You can beat Paladin by forgoing tempo minions to pack potent AOE, and lose to Quest Rogue; or add in early pressure and lose answers to Call to Arms.

Target Warlock, lose to everyone else?

meta

Odd Hunter can consistently kill Warlocks, but not much else

Another contributor to this polarizing meta is Warlock. To beat Warlock, you don’t just have to tech in a few silences. You have to actively change your entire gameplan to revolve around exploiting their few weaknesses. Voidlord, Doomguard and Gul’dan are such insurmountable threats that your deck has to be tailored to either burn them down, cheat out massive minions early, or combo them to death.

Even with almost every deck running Silence for Voidlords or Lackey and Weapon removal for Skull of the Man’ari, the deck has positive winrates across the board against anything that doesn’t exactly target its weaknesses. This not only creates polarising matchups where non-Warlock countering decks are heavily unfavoured, but those decks that do win against Warlock end up being quite bad against the rest of the meta, leading to a chain reaction of further unsatisfying games.

A lack of tech

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Sylvanas would be a potent tool for any midrange deck seeking to beat Warlocks, were she not Wild only

Ultimately, the problem is not that Quest Rogue is good against Control, nor that Control is good against Paladin. Every strategy should have some kind of counter-deck potential. The problem is there’s no way for Control decks to realistically tech against Quest Rogue or other anti-control lists. Many decks would happily give up a few percentage winrate against aggro to have less frustrating and one-sided matchups elsewhere, leading to an overall more interesting and skill rewarding meta. But the tools simply aren’t there.

The best solution here would be for Team 5 to reintroduce similar successful tech card concepts to deal with a wider variety of strategies. Cards like Dirty Rat, Deathlord, or Sylvanas can punish minion combos or cheating out big minions respectively. A Dirty Rat style effect could slow down Quest Rogue enough for Control to stand a chance. Sylvanas-esque cards could be a crushing shutdown to preempt Voidlords or Doomguards. And if tempo decks got more tools to deal with wide boards while adding pressure, Paladins could terrorize left.

In the meantime, the ever-present threat of nerfs hang on the horizon. Before then though, it might be worth learning the subtle art of the counter-queue.

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Rotating Coldlight is sad but necessary

It’s always unfortunate to see archetype-defining cards leave Standard, and Coldlight oracle is no exception. It is one of the most unique and situationally powerful cards in the game. Unfortunately, its design space limitations are simply too much for the upcoming Year of the Raven. So why does this iconic Murloc need to be rotated out?

Unconditional draw

coldlight

Other Neutral draw tools either just cycle themselves, or require setup and synergy

Coldlight is unique among Classic neutrals; it’s the only unconditional draw effect that does more than simply cycle itself. Though it’s famous for its mill applications, certain decks simply want draw that bad. Quest Mage was a prime example. Despite being entirely committed to a combo gameplan, it wanted cards so badly Coldlight was more than worthwhile.

Other Neutral draw engines like Acolyte of Pain, Cultmaster or Gadgetzan Auctioneer require far more setup, mana and deck support to draw; limiting their abusability. Coldlight is happy in any combo deck that doesn’t care about the opponent’s hand size, even with no support or synergy. That level of unconditional potential was evidently far greater than Blizzard is comfortable with. As such, it’s likely better off in Wild.

Bounce breaker

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Coldlight Oracle can pull off crazy stuff with bounce effects

Another design space limitation for Coldlight is how it interacts with Battlecry and return-to-hand effects. Back when Brann was around, Mill Rogue was almost a legitimate threat on ladder. The sheer impact of Coldlight’s battlecry is one part of this; but there is also the self synergy. As anyone who plays mill or fatigue decks will tell you, Coldlight is at its most devastatingly effective when its played repeatedly in the same turn. Making your opponent draw 3 cards a turn is nice, but making them draw 11 cards at once will burn huge portions of their deck, if not simply fatiguing them.

Because Coldlight’s power scales exponentially with itself, giving non-Rogue classes cheap bounce or battlecry synergy could lead to oppressively powerful Mill decks. To allow these potential cards to be introduced, Coldlight should take a back seat.

A non-interactive tool

Let’s not even pretend that Coldlight was an especially interesting Mill card. Its effect was powerful and unique, sure. But the effect is linear and straightforward, with no interesting synergies beyond battlecry effects. Especially with Dirty Rat rotating out, there’s almost nothing that can be done to interact with a Coldlight combo.

To make matters worse, its very existence prevents the printing of more interesting Standard mill tools, for fear of making the archetype oppressive. By rotating Coldlight out of Standard, Blizzard have created the opportunity for interactive mill tools that create far more compelling gameplay situations than a simple 2/2.

A replacement Coldlight

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With Coldlight gone we may see more interesting deck-thinning effects

If there’s one thing Blizzard should learn from the history of Coldlight Oracle, it’s that decks with non-standard win-conditions are fascinating and fun. Playing against or with Mill decks is a rare treat in Hearthstone, and one that could quickly become frustrating if it were too common. Blizzard have the unenviable task of toeing the line between destroying a unique archetype and creating a monster.

Hopefully, the loss of Coldlight from standard will open the way for cards just strong enough to keep Mill kicking, without causing it to utterly take over ladder. At least, not until we can see burned cards in the history bar.

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Dallas Fuel

Will New Talent Help Ignite the Dallas Fuel’s Flame?

Dallas Fuel’s Situation:

As teams evaluated themselves throughout the early weeks of Stage 1, the free-agent signing period began. For some teams they assessed their roster size, for others, their player and hero pools. With raw talent available on the market and three more stages ahead, teams looked to gain a strategic advantage against their competitors. For the Dallas Fuel, who started Stage 1 with a 3-7 record and were below expectations, they a hit home run during the free-agent signing period. Not just one home run, but potentially two. The Dallas Fuel signed Dylan “aKm” Bignet to their roster and are also reportedly in the works to acquire Dong-Jun “Rascal” Kim from the London Spitfire. Both are exceptional DPS players when using their respective heroes and have a history of success in Overwatch.

The Addition of aKm

Prior to the start of the Overwatch League, players and fans were shocked that aKm didn’t appear on any of the teams’ rosters. Former Rogue teammates Terence “SoOn” Tarlier and Benjamin “Unkoe” Chevasson, who now play on the Los Angeles Valiant, noted that he was one of the best players not in the league. Known for his hitscan prowess, with his time on Team Rogue and Team France during the Overwatch World Cup, aKm is one of the mostly deadly Soldier 76 and McCree players in the game. His positioning and accuracy during team fights is uncanny, quickly picking enemies off with two or three headshots in a row. When adding aKm to their arsenal, the Dallas Fuel hope to gain some flexibility in the DPS role. Currently, only Hyeon “EFFECT” Hwang from the Dallas Fuel plays McCree on a consistent basis. With the addition of aKm, the Dallas Fuel hope to burn bright again and perhaps kindle a new rivalry against former teammates on the Los Angeles Valiant.

Acquiring Rascal

The second big roster move for the Dallas Fuel: the acquisition of Rascal from the London Spitfire.

Courtesy of Liquipedia

Even though Rascal rarely saw playtime during Stage 1, he is a highly talented and respected player. Before the Overwatch League, Rascal played in Korea for Cloud9 KongDoo and was known for his Sombra, Genji and Pharah play. Rascal’s consistency in the DPS role helped his team secure many Top-3 finishes. Rascal who used to play alongside Birdring on Cloud9 KongDoo, now finds himself in the backseat while on the London Spitfire roster. If the Dallas Fuel end up singing Rascal, more consistent play time could help him regain his prowess back. With the addition of Rascal, the Dallas Fuel would also gain a consistent Genji and Pharah player – something that the Dallas Fuel drastically need… consistency.

Looking Ahead

Stage 2 of the Overwatch League begins on February 21st; Dallas Fuel takes on the Shanghai Dragons in the second match of the day. With new roster moves and the free-agent signing period ending on the 21st; will the Dallas Fuel be able catch fire, turning their losing record from Stage 1 into a winning one during Stage 2?

 

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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

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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

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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

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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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The Spellstones that didn’t work

The Spellstones were one of Kobolds and Catacombs most interesting additions. It’s been hard to design spells that synergise with certain tribes, mechanics or card types; but Spellstones manage to allow interesting deckbuilding strategies. By upgrading in the hand, value can be accumulated throughout the game then unleashed in a powerful tempo swing. Of course, some of these strategies work better than others. Each of the class’s Spellstones has had a different impact on the metagame, with some supercharging archetypes and others waiting in the wings.

But not all of them were as strong as Warlock’s Amethyst Spellstone’s lifegain, or Druid’s Jasper Spellstone with its efficient removal potential. For a variety of reasons, most of the Spellstones failed to make much of an impact.

Rogue

Onyx Spellstone has anti-synergy with its upgrade requirements

Perhaps, in another meta, Rogue’s Onyx Spellstone would have been OP. Perhaps in the Undertaker days, when deathrattles were mandatory in every aggressive deck, and Haunted Creepers and Harvest Golems ruled. Unfortunately, the Rogue Spellstone started out its days in a meta sadly empty of cheap, effective Aggro deathrattles.

And like the Priest Quest, it’s hard to shove a lot of minions in a deck in order to fulfill a goal (late-game mass removal) that doesn’t really gel with a late-game strategy.

This one had an extremely poor start, with the lowest deck winrate of any Spellstone. That said, it’s not impossible the Onyx Spellstone finds a home in the future. Rogue is notoriously bad at large clears and mass hard removal, and if big decks rise to the fore, it may just be worth including in some kind of aggressive deathrattley mid-range strategy.

Paladin

It’s hard to outheal Cubelock or Razakus

Pearl Spellstone faces the same problem that many Paladin healing and healing synergy cards do; it’s pretty useless if you’re not damaged. The trio of requiring face damage, a heal card and to have drawn the Spellstone in a class with limited draw options is a bit much to ask. That said, the card is still decently powerful in the right deck; namely, Control Paladin. Unfortunately for Pearl Spellstone, that deck happens to be extremely weak to some of the most popular classes in the game, most notably Raza Priest.

If there are fewer all-conquering combo decks in the future, Control Paladin may do alright on the back of Call to Arms. In that case, it’s quite possible that Pearl Spellstone finds a home. Until then, you may be better off running Knife Jugglers instead.

Shaman

Fully upgraded, Sapphire Spellstone is powerful but clunky

Crusher Shaman got new hope with the Sapphire Spellstone. This powerful tool can be devastating played on an Ancestral Spirit’d Snowfury Giant. The downside? Well, it’s yet another situational tool in a deck full of situational tools, that’s weak to exactly the same things Crusher Shaman was always weak to. It’s strong enough to find a home, but not enough to push Crusher Shaman out of Tier Shaman.

There are a few things that could allow this card to be more effective. One would be the addition of more viable Overload removal. Another would be more cost-reduction minions that could synergise with this. Or even just more control tools for Shaman (especially in the early game). But as is, it remains an interesting but fringe tool to make that rare Control Warrior cry.

It doesn’t help that it’s forever going to be in the same rotation as Psychic Scream and Diamond Spellstone, two cards that hard counter and overshadow it respectively.

Mage

“Well, it’s this, Glacial Mysteries or Shatter, soo…”

You’ve probably seen a lot of Ruby Spellstones on ladder. It’s just quite likely they came out of Primordial Glyph. This card could be good, but it unfortunately relies heavily on Elementals. Maybe down the line, Elemental Mage could be the next mech mage. But as is, there’s simply too few viable Elementals to completely build a deck around.

It also doesn’t help that Tempo Mage is so strong. The secrets package takes a lot of deck slots, and is the best option to combine with burn, Mana Wyrm and Aluneth.

But the next rotation will leave us without Kabal Crystal Runner, Kabal Lackey and Medivh’s Valet. Maybe Elementals like Fire Fly, Tar Creeper, Steam Surger and Leyline Manipulator could combine with new Elementals to replace them?

Warrior

There’s not much reason to play Mithril Spellstone outside of Spiteful Summoner

Warrior’s Mithril Spellstone is currently played in an extremely potent and meta-viable deck. Pirate Warrior is a powerful, if not especially popular, aggressive option, that runs Mithril Spellstone in some variations. So why is Mithril Spellstone on this list? Well, despite the fact that it’s played in a strong deck, the deck does better when the card is not drawn and played.

Sure, it can create a board of 5/5s out of nowhere, but that’s just plan B. The real reason for this card’s inclusion is Spiteful Summoner, which can be a massive turn six tempo swing. A random seven drop and a 4/4 on six is far more appealing than a couple of 5/5s on seven.

What’s more, if anything, the future looks poor for this card. Pirate Warrior loses its best cards in Patches and N’zoth’s First Mate after the rotation, and is unlikely to survive. In addition, any more pro-active expensive Warrior spell is likely to replace Mithril Spellstone as a Spiteful Summoner activator, as Mithril can be hard to activate in a deck with no draw mechanics and only six weapons.

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

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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.

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

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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

rotation

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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