Ask some older card game players about the point of “bad cards,” and they’ll often reference an old column from Mark Rosewater, head designer for Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering. He told a frustrated fan that bad cards may be a necessary evil, but they also have a purpose. For one thing, different cards appeal to different players, meaning that some enjoy playing “suboptimal” strategies because of the playstyle, archetype, or other subjective choices. Secondly, differentiating between good and bad cards is a skill that new players need to develop. While cards that are almost “strictly” worse than others (like War Golem in comparison to Dr. Boom) may not lead to much skill in card choice, creating underwhelming cards with unique effects can still be a good thing. In addition to these points, sometimes cards become better over time or are borderline-viable, allowing an element of surprise, variation in deck building, and development of individual play styles. None of these cards are at the cutting edge of the meta, but all of them are underrated in one way or another.
Arcane Nullifier X-21
A personal favorite, Nullifier has gone under the radar since its release because of comparisons to Sen’jin Shieldmasta. Basically, many claim that the one point of damage is more valuable than Nullifier’s resistance to spells and hero powers, or at least that advantages Nullifier has are so marginal that it’s still not worth playing. This is a reasonable argument, but it’s still important to decide for oneself. Rather than compare the cards directly, I prefer to think of how each one shines. Nullifier is typically superior in Aggro match-ups with heavy spell usage. The card has advantages over Shieldmasta against Tempo Mage, for instance, which can’t ping it off after using Flamecannon. Aggro Shaman can’t run it over with Lava Burst or Crackle and is forced to use its precious minion or Doomhammer swings (Earth Shock is blocked, as well.)
With this said, its weaknesses are also important to bring up. While two attack is effective against certain Aggro decks, like Hunter, it can’t deal as effectively with minions like Mana Wyrm and Tunnel Trogg. In addition, it’s susceptible to being stolen by Cabal Shadow Priest or wiped out by Stampeding Kodo, but at least it avoids Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Madness from the former. Basically, the card’s role is clear, but its relative power to similar Taunt minions depends heavily on the Aggro classes that are at the top of the meta.
Polymorph: Boar captured the attention of many when spoilers from The Grand Tournament started to emerge, but it was quickly forgotten. Maybe it has to do with cards competing for its mana slot, such as Spellslinger, Spider Tank, and Flamewaker. Maybe each usage of the card (on an opponent’s minion or on one’s own) was deemed too underpowered. Despite these legitimate complaints, Polymorph: Boar is one of the most versatile spells out there. It can be played on one of Mage’s many weak minions, like a Spectral Spider or Mirror Image token, for four damage to the opponent’s hero or an efficient trade. It can be played on an opponent’s minion for an easy kill or to push damage through a Taunt. The fact that it’s a Spell also lends it synergy with Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mana Wyrm, Flamewaker, and Archmage Antonidas.
One challenge with Boar is knowing when to play the card. Should it be teched in for Control metas when Giants with Taunt or Ysera make life difficult? Should it be a surprise burst card against heal-heavy Reno decks? Maybe it’s best for trading up against Mid-Range. The answer isn’t clear, but more aggressive Mage players could benefit from giving the card a try, especially if it’s already in your collections. Perhaps the card’s many uses outweigh the times when it is somewhat underwhelming.
Shade of Naxxramas
Shade already sees some play in Druid decks as their best turn three play and a Savage Roar target, some Oil Rogue lists as a reliable target for Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil, and in Reno decks as a solid minion. However, the card should be considered for a variety of other decks, especially if there is an empty slot or two. Since it won’t be attacking until the turn after it’s played, anyway, its 3/3 body is passable. It only grows in potential as the game goes on, often trading against a hefty Mid-Range minion and forcing an additional trade, or the usage of a removal spell. It not only has Stealth, but it also has pseudo-Taunt once it is revealed, since the opponent will want to remove it as soon as possible. While it won’t have the same explosive power as it does in combination with Force of Nature and Savage Roar, it can be saved for a finishing blow in nearly any deck.
So where does Shade fall short? Most notably, it suffers against area of effect cards before it has the chance to grow, so one might exercise caution playing it on turn three against a Paladin because of Consecration. Beyond that, it is a short-term loss of tempo, as it is best used several turns after it is played. Because of this, classes with strong turns two and four will probably have the greatest success. Knowing when to reveal Shade is a critical skill, especially against classes that can remove a large one unexpectedly. Despite these shortcomings, playing Shade outside of Druid can lead to some unexpected and varied types of synergy.
The Mech package of cards was an important addition from Goblins vs. Gnomes. Most notably, it led to the powerful early-game Zoo-esque deck, Mech Mage. By cheating out minions with Mechwarper, these decks could lock down the game almost as soon as it began, with a good opening curve. Mech Shaman was also a tournament contender for a while. However, other Mechs, such as Arcane Nullifier X-21 and Explosive Sheep (another entry on this list), were overlooked. Fel Cannon falls into this category, as a reasonable body for a four drop and a definite tempo monster. The ability to take out a weakened threat and put a minion on the board shouldn’t be underestimated, especially as early as turn three with the coin. Of course, the effect is somewhat random, but a turn two or three played in anticipation of dropping Cannon can make the effect quite powerful. Dropping it after a Nerubian Egg against an empty board usually seals the game.
However, Fel Cannon isn’t underplayed because of its power level as much as for its lack of an effective niche. Handlock variants would rather play Twilight Drake on turn four, and the effect backfires too often against Zoo decks. Basically, is the card good enough to play a dedicated Warlock Mech deck? Maybe not. Nevertheless, it is still a potentially effective one-of, especially in Reno decks that have space for experimentation.
Bomb Lobber has periods of popularity, typically for about a weak, whenever streamers tech it into their ladder decks. The card was hyped up as a perfect counter to Rogue decks, taking out Azure Drake, Gadgetzan Auctioneer, SI:7 Agent, and often Edwin VanCleef. However, when Blizzard pushed Miracle Rogue out of the top tier with nerfs to Leeroy Jenkins and Gadgetzan Auctioneer, the problem seemed to take care of itself. Five health minions like Sludge Belcher and Loatheb took the game by storm, and Bomb Lobber didn’t quite cut it. However, with the new popularity of Miracle Rogue (and an additional good target in Tomb Pillager), perhaps Bomb Lobber is worth renewed consideration.
Bomb Lobber suffers from the same ills as many other tech cards, in that it has its highs and lows. When you’re ahead on board already, the card is underwhelming, often hitting a weak target or nothing at all, and in the late game, it may not be enough against larger minions. Lobber is always a meta call, like Big Game Hunter and Kezan Mystic, but it takes a bit more thought, since its effect is not as tailored. When it works out, though, the tempo swing is more than worth the five mana.
Coming in hot from the oft-overlooked Blackrock Mountain adventure, Revenge was lauded as a new tool for predictable board clears with armor-heavy Control Warriors. With a built-in comeback mechanism (akin to the far less useful Mortal Strike), it would allow recovery in combination with cards like Shield Block and Shieldmaiden. Even when the buffed effect doesn’t go off, Control Warrior can still afford the higher mana cost than Whirlwind, as it still allows a one turn finishing blow with Grommash Hellscream. However, Revenge was a victim of circumstance, as it arrived with the popularity of Patron Warrior, in which mana efficiency was far more important. The emphasis on this deck type over Control Warrior meant that Revenge was overshadowed.
While the deck type is in a slump, compared to Reno Jackson Control decks and Priests with Entomb and Museum Curator, one of Control Warrior’s strengths is its deckbuilding versatility. Outside needing several cards for an armor engine, weapons, Execute, and a heavier mana curve, Control Warrior decks have room for a variety of tech options, such as Piloted Shredder, Fierce Monkey, Gorehowl, and yes, Revenge. The decision comes down to the metagame. Does the Control Warrior expect to be burst down by three health or fewer minions in decks like Tempo Mage, Zoo, or Hunter? Revenge might be a good choice. Otherwise, Brawl can probably do well enough to contest competing Mid-Range and Control decks, and the Warrior can look at other options.
Like several of the other entries on the list, Explosive Sheep does see some competitive play. In Mage decks based around Molten Giant and Echo of Medivh, it’s played as a board clear with two Sheep and the Mage hero power. However, the card may be worthwhile on its own. For two mana, it’s a two damage sweep of the board (in addition to its one attack), effective against many Aggro decks. This is far under budget when compared to board clear spells like Consecration and Holy Nova, and it is available to every class. It can’t be stopped by Loatheb, although it is susceptible to Silence. Along with Doomsayer and Deathwing, Explosive Sheep numbers among neutral cards with the highest swing potential.
On the other hand, certain elements of Sheep make the card awkward. When not used in a Mage deck, it requires a turn of set-up, since no Aggro deck would trigger it on purpose on their turn. It has anti-Aggro rivals in cards like Zombie Chow, Unstable Ghoul, and Deathlord. Since the card is slow, it is a less effective topdeck than most board clear options. With these shortcomings in mind, Sheep would still be a viable inclusion in metagames where Aggro decks swarm the board by turn two and have limited recovery techniques. Its lack of synergy with other Mech minions, who are usually included in Aggressive board-based strategies, has led to Sheep going mostly unnoticed, but its efficiency as minion-based creature control is nearly unmatched.
Like many other cards using the Discover mechanic, introduced in the League of Explorers adventure, Jeweled Scarab was underestimated until its release. There is a technical explanation for this: With equal weighting for every card, class cards would be sorely underrepresented in the Discover options, and choices would often come down to the least bad of several lackluster neutral options. However, something seemed off with playtesting, and the Hearthstone development team later revealed that individual class cards were far more likely to show up than individual neutral cards. Perhaps most notably, this led to Dark Peddler seeing far more competitive play than expected. The same cannot be said of Jeweled Scarab. There is certainly potential with a number of classes. For Hunters, the Scarab itself is a Beast, and it has the chance to pull up Kill Command, Eaglehorn Bow, Animal Companion, or Unleash the Hounds. For Rogues, who often lack a powerful turn two, the card can pull a Fan of Knives, SI:7 Agent, Unearthed Raptor, or Edwin VanCleef.
With this said, time is an issue for Scarab. How important is it to ensure a strong turn three, and is it important enough to forgo a strong turn two? Besides that, many classes have minions they’d rather be playing on turn two, such as Shielded Minibot or Haunted Creeper. Space is also an issue, as one to two slots are often not negotiable at the highest level. With this said, even with such a random effect, Scarab provides a remarkable level of consistency, ensuring a good turn three, providing the card for the situation, functioning as an above average two drop when topdecked, and even occasionally providing an additional damage option for combo decks. Like Museum Curator for Priest decks, Scarab contributes the most to strategies that can afford to skip a turn.
Once one of the most common Secrets for Mage decks, Counterspell has fallen by the wayside as the class has split into more specialized variants, typically either relying heavily on value or tempo. However, Counterspell strikes a good balance between the two, often providing a reliable buffer against counter-play. For Aggro, Counterspell blocks expensive board clear spells, like Consecration and Shadowflame, often leaving the opponent with nothing else to do for the turn and ensuring an additional turn of damage. For slower decks, Counterspell blocks damage spells, preventing lethal and often setting up a strong Molten Giant plus heal turn. Either way, the card is insurance, and if it is more often than not being played through the effect of Mad Scientist, the mana cost is not a large downside. Beyond this, playing unconventional Secrets often takes the opponent by surprise, wasting their mana, their card, and often their whole turn.
The philosophy of Secrets has varied heavily throughout the game’s history, with some favoring a larger number for versatility and surprise, while others prefer the consistency of playing a single Secret. There is no exception here, as Counterspell must be compared against both another card that could be played in its place and against the other Secrets in the deck that can also be fetched by Mad Scientist. Besides this, it often has a similar function to Ice Barrier or Ice Block in decks that play those cards, making it possibly redundant. Nevertheless, the tempo advantage of a successful Counterspell is nothing to sneeze at.
Twitch chat. Oh, Twitch chat. Streamers can’t play one game without members of their chat room calling them out for neglecting to play around the opponent’s singular potential out, Deathwing. The fact that Twitch chat is not always known for its intelligent plays, along with the sad truth that few actually play Deathwing, has led to the card becoming massively underrated. There is no single card with greater potential than Deathwing to turn around a game that is otherwise unwinnable. It’s a viable “third Brawl” as Fatigue Warrior once both players have gone to fatigue. It’s a tricky option for Dragon decks, since most will assume you’ve been holding a Ysera or Nefarian all game. It can certainly blow-out a Druid that has used both Big Game Hunter, especially when Mulch is so underutilized.
Often, though, Deathwing’s potential is just that. There are too many games when it is simply too little, too late. Perhaps your life total is too low against a Hunter, and you’ll still get burst down the following turn. Perhaps you’re against another greedy Control deck that is playing one card at a time, avoiding board clears. Despite these flaws, there are too many Fatigue decks out there for Deathwing to still see so little play. As a Priest with a buffed hero power from Justicar Trueheart, who cares if you toss all of your cards, if you’re at thirty health and the opponent is out of steam? As a Warrior, again after Justicar, running out of cards is bound to seal the opponent’s doom anyway, so Deathwing is the final nail in the coffin. Deathwing is the ultimate out to the grimmest scenarios, and more people, in this case, should take Twitch chat seriously.
What Didn’t Make the List?
Of course, there are more underrated options in Hearthstone than I would ever have the time to fully consider. There are very few examples of cards that are “strictly” better than others in almost all cases (Ice Rager and Dr. Boom are two examples), so even the worst of cards can occasionally find their niche. Some other cards that deserve more attention are Sabotage, Eadric the Pure, and North Sea Kraken, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Hearthstone is a growing game, and there will be a plethora of new underrated cards with every release. All I can suggest is to break out of the habit of copying the pros card-for-card, take a look through your collection, and get creative. There’s no reason why you can’t be the next innovator!