With every new Hearthstone expansion and adventure, there is a shake-up in the meta game. Curse of Naxxramas brought new Deathrattle minions and support cards, such as Mad Scientist, Haunted Creeper, and Undertaker, bringing Mage and Hunter decks into the modern era. Goblins vs. Gnomes brought Mech support, finding its way most prominently into Mage and Shaman decks. The Grand Tournament has introduced the Joust mechanic, but since that has been fairly underwhelming, Secret Paladin has emerged as the true superstar of the set. The most recent adventure was The League of Explorers, introduced throughout November and December of 2015. It brought a similar amount of development, with impact visible in the high level of deck diversity in competitive play. There are several dozen viable tournament decks running around. However, there was also something unique about League of Explorers. Maybe it was the nature of the single player mode itself, and the sense of discovery contained within, that brought some fresh air to Hearthstone. Maybe it was the variety of powerful niche card effects introduced by the set. Maybe it was the card quality, leading to a diverse meta game. Whatever the case, The League of Explorers brought a sense of excitement to Hearthstone that’s been missing since Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins vs. Gnomes. I’d like to talk about several of the key aspects that have made this such a groundbreaking and meta-defining set.
Combo decks, of course! It’s a great time to be a Hearthstone player. The game is at a point when the number of minion types, also known as races or tribes, (Mech, Pirate, Murloc, Beast, etc.) has hit a plateau, and Blizzard is filling in the gaps. Card effects are impacting the nuts and bolts of gameplay, with a number of cards either supporting or being supported by things like Deathrattles, Battlecries, Overload, Hero Powers, mana costs, and the number of minions in play. If you’ll forgive the Yugioh reference, we’re past the era of Blue-Eyes White Dragon and Man-Eater Bug appearing in every deck. What this means is enrichment of alternate or niche strategies that have always been a few cards short of functioning cohesively. On the other hand, specific cards have been introduced that are so powerful that they create entire deck types. Anyfin Can Happen has singlehandedly created Murloc Paladin, an entirely new strategy. Reno Jackson has revitalized greedier Combo and Control decks like Handlock, Malylock, and a number of other non-standard lists like Reno Freeze Mage. It gives these deck types an out against Aggro, for when Antique Healbot is simply not enough. Elise Starseeker has had the opposite effect, providing an anti-Control tool for Control decks, in which several removal cards often go unused.
The new abundance of Combo decks reaching the upper echelons of competitive play is a trend we will see continue. The game’s card catalog is now large enough for many decks to be just on the cusp of greatness. It means that no class is terrible: who would have guessed that Hunter, of all things, would arguably be the worst at the start of 2016? Why do I bring all of this up? Put simply, it has the exciting possibility of making every deck a “Combo deck.” This notion occurred to me when considering the matchup spread for Control Priest, one of my personal favorite strategies. It’s often said that Control Priest struggles most against Combo decks. However, it does fairly well against Grim Patron Warrior.
It struggles against Reno Handlock, but not for the same reason as against other Combo decks. Its matchup against Egg Druid is quite good…and so on. As more cards are released, and the synergy between them increases, more decks will pass into the “Combo” realm. We have seen it with Rogue, as Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil became a centralizing force in a new strategy, Oil Rogue, bearing its namesake. I expect this to continue, with more direct support and interactions for classes like Warrior and Hunter. Each has its share of synergy, with Warrior bearing the armor suite and Hunter decks carrying Beast synergy, but they also have held up for longer than their share on the power level of individual cards. We’re due for new central support and synergy for classes like this.
What does the increase in the relevance of Combo decks, and the resulting increase in burst damage that is the backbone of many Combo decks, mean for the future of Hearthstone? The development team has been quite critical of Charge effects in the past, opting to nerf Leeroy Jenkins and Warsong Commander. The game’s mechanics, lacking any sort of interactive play on the opponent’s turn, make the balance of these effects more important than other cards. Since there is no effective counter-play, Blizzard must carefully judge their potential power, alone and combined with all other cards, before release. Loatheb provides one answer to large amounts of burst damage dealt through spells, especially relevant in Malygos decks and Oil Rogue. However, this doesn’t answer Charge minions themselves.
According to Zeriyah, the Hearthstone Community Manager, following the Leeroy Jenkins nerf from four to five mana, “Leeroy Jenkins created a strategy that revolved around trying to defeat your opponent in one turn without requiring any cards on the board. Fighting for board control and battles between minions make an overall game of Hearthstone more fun and compelling, but taking 20+ damage in one turn is not particularly fun or interactive.” Will Blizzard apply the same logic to other decks, or will they only use the “ban hammer” when said decks begin to dominate the meta game? While Secrets have largely taken the place in Hearthstone of Magic: the Gathering’s “Instants,” I still would not rule out the possibility of a similar card type to prevent these decks from getting out of control.
It seems pretty clear that archetypes are on the rise in Hearthstone, based on the relative increase in the power level of neutral cards. Old favorites like Chillwind Yeti, Cairne Bloodhoof, and Boulderfist Ogre can no longer hold their own against the growing power of card effects in the competitive landscape. For this reason, we’ve seen a mixture of new niches among Neutral cards and plain-faced power creep. The latter was most noticeable in Dr. Boom from Goblins vs. Gnomes (compared to War Golem from the Basic Set), Ice Rager from The Grand Tournament (compared to Magma Rager from the Basic Set), and Evil Heckler from The Grand Tournament (compared to Booty Bay Bodyguard from the Basic Set.) This trend has continued with Huge Toad from The League of Explorers (compared to Bloodfen Raptor from the Basic Set) and arguably with Murloc Tinyfin (compared to Wisp from the Classic Set.) The trend in strictly better cards, or power creep, has been to increase the power level of some of the weakest cards from early sets. People often complain about power creep, calling it a lazy way to push a game forward, unhealthy for a game long-term, and even a blatant cash grab. However, is that true here? It’s possible, and players should be wary, should it continue. However, it’s also possible that Blizzard is seeing short-sighted design decisions from when the game was in its infancy and tweaking older cards to give them a better chance in the current game. We’ll have to wait and see.
Beyond strict improvements, there are a number of fascinating new neutral cards. It’s impossible to ignore the stand-outs of the set, the explorers themselves. Reno Jackson, Elise Starseeker, Brann Bronzebeard, and Sir Finley Mrgglton all are flexible Legendary minions, each energizing a variety of deck types, with a power level befitting the Legendary status but not approaching the level of broken. However, beyond these, there are some other gems. Jeweled Scarab is a great application of the Discover mechanic to the neutral set, guaranteeing a good curve for deck types that tend to lean slightly heavier. Like all Discover cards, it also allows the choice of the right card for the right situation. Anubisath Sentinel has plenty of overlooked potential. Although its 4/4 stats are poor for a five mana minion, its effect makes it functionally similar to a 7/7. Anubisath is a good fit for decks centered on turn four and Mid-Range strategies that get most of their value from minion battle.
Wobbling Runts is a similar example, as a 2/6 minion, but this time for six mana. While it won’t do much in battle on its own, its ability to spawn three 2/2 minions means that it’s very difficult to take out cleanly. The card is particularly sticky with its stat line, making it a potential anti-Aggro card for Mid-Range and Control decks, and its 2/2 Runts also do a good job of contesting a slew of weak minions. Naga Sea Witch is unique, not reducing the mana of cards, but setting them to five, like Wilfred Fizzlebang’s effect that sets cards drawn from Life Tap to zero mana. The card doesn’t sacrifice much in stats for its effect, but the effect itself has its pros and cons. Naga Sea Witch is best in heavy Control decks, like Druid and Warrior, which can afford to play very expensive minions. The last card I’ll consider here is Eerie Statue. While the card’s effect seems crippling, preventing it from attacking unless it is alone on the board, it has good synergy with certain established Druid and Warlock strategies. These are based on silencing their own minions to nullify their negative effects, giving their minions Taunt, or using them for other purposes, like relatively cheap targets for Shadowflame. While Eerie Statue may not be the most competitive card, it’s a perfect fit for these strategies.
Equalization of Classes
It’s true, one result of the growing card catalog is class fragmentation. As more synergy emerges, strategies will materialize around the ones with the greatest impact, especially notable in the deck types found in the Combo section. However, the growing catalog has also begun to fill in the gaps for certain classes, reducing these classes’ greatest weaknesses. In a card game with different classes or other divisions (such as mana color in Magic: the Gathering), differentiating these classes by their weaknesses is just as important as emphasizing their strengths. It adds character to a game and gives balance to even the strongest of strategies. In Hearthstone, these weaknesses are still apparent, but Blizzard has shown willingness to reduce them by giving tools to underrepresented strategies. Hunter might be the best example, since none of its new cards support the “send damage at the opponent’s face until they lose” strategy. Dart Trap adds another Secret to the arsenal, punishing Mid-Range decks for indiscriminately using their Hero Powers. Desert Camel may as well say “play a Webspinner from the deck,” which means it represents both tempo on the board and eventual card advantage in the hand. Desert Camel is a particularly good pick in a non-Aggro meta when the opponent isn’t likely to have any one drops. Finally, Explorer’s Hat is underwhelming on its own but is valuable in combination with Lock and Load or Djinni of Zephyrs.
Hunter is not the only class that has been given new tools. Mage’s Ethereal Conjurer benefits a class that has long relied on its Spells to do most of the work. Conjurer contributes to this strategy while simultaneously putting a high amount of pressure on the board. Combining Conjurer with Echo of Medivh, Duplicate, Effigy, and Molten Giants puts a new spin on old school Grinder Mage. Entomb hits minions that Priests have always struggled against. Until Entomb came along, Ysera was basically an auto-lose, unless you had Sylvanas Windrunner or Mind Control, but Entomb takes care of it and puts it away for later use in one fell swoop. This thankfully allows Priest to compete with other Control decks in fatigue, since Entomb increases the size of the deck. Museum Curator is another welcome addition, giving the class a decent two drop. Rogue has seen new additions, as well. Traditionally, the class has always done best as a Tempo or Combo deck, but Unearthed Raptor changes things, allowing a Mid-Range Deathrattle Rogue to develop. Fierce Monkey gives Warriors new options, finding a place in a new Mid-Range-leaning Control list that also incorporates Alexstrasza’s Champion and Dragon synergy cards.
By carving out new niches within these classes, does Blizzard risk erasing their identity? Thus far, I wouldn’t be too worried. Throwing a bone to unorthodox strategies is just fine, as long as they are still guided towards a particular set of primary strategies. Besides, even if the mythical Control Hunter does eventually emerge, it will look much different than Control Priest or Control Warrior. It will carry remnants of the class’ Beast synergy, weapon usage, high life pressure, and lore. The main risk is that whitewashing the classes by giving them too many similar tools to too many similar problems will reduce diversity and lead to a boring meta game, but that doesn’t seem likely any time soon.
For the game’s early life, Hearthstone’s central design characteristic was its simplicity. It’s rare for a card to do more than one thing and almost unheard of to do more than two. Sometimes, this has had its costs. For instance, certain cards have been left ambiguous to prevent expansive card texts. Examples are Ysera’s unspecified “Dream Cards,” Bane of Doom’s previous (weaker) ability to only summon some of the game’s Demons, and Lord Jaraxxus’ vague card text, leaving the weapon, Hero Power, and new life total for players to figure out on their own. This has also led to other questionable design choices, such as the non-interactivity on the opponent’s turn and even the limited number of deck slots. However, while many decisions are made to maintain simplicity, the design team has shown surprising willingness to increase the game’s complexity.
The four “explorers” of the set – Reno Jackson, Elise Starseeker, Brann Bronzebeard, and Sir Finley Mrgglton – may be the best examples. Each has a huge potential impact, in combination with other cards, and changes the state of the game in unprecedented ways. Reno, perhaps, most of all, changes the way decks are built. His effect, the ability to earn a full heal, is important enough to warrant running decks that would previously be considered gimmicky and inconsistent. Reno led to experimentation and indirectly made dozens of other cards more viable, as players rushed to figure out how to incorporate him. Elise was also decried as a gimmick, and while she is less represented in competitive play than Reno, using Elise is by no means restricted to the casual player and deck builder.
Elise changed the way players think about consistency. While her effect is inconsistent, the Golden Monkey can replace unused and inconsistent reactionary options at the end of the game with powerful Legendary minions. Brann Bronzebeard may not make or break a deck (except Mill Rogue), but he does allow huge swing turns. Turning Antique Healbot’s effect into sixteen points of healing or Blackwing Corruptor’s effect into six targeted damage is pivotal. Finally, Sir Finley changed the way players think of class divisions, continuing what Unstable Portal started and blurring the lines between the classes. It allows strategies that would traditionally be unsuited to a class because of its particular Hero Power.
Other cards from the set also have unique effects that push the game’s design. Reliquary Seeker is unique in requiring a full board to activate its Battlecry. Along with Sea Giant and Gormok the Impaler, this new minion has contributed to the development of an Aggro Zoo build. Anyfin Can Happen is one of several cards, such as Resurrect, Stalagg, and Feugen that consider minions that have been destroyed earlier in the game. It also is the first to bring up the scenario where a minion can be destroyed “twice”. The ability to summon more Murlocs than the total number played in the deck with the second Anyfin Can Happen proves that the Murlocs summoned by the card are not the original copies, but rather duplicates that uniquely contribute to the total destroyed Murloc count.
Outside obscurities like this, Tomb Pillager continues the Rogue trend of accumulating extra Coins to use for their Combo effects. Djinni of Zephyrs has the unique ability to duplicate spells, seeing synergy with a number of cards in Priest and Hunter decks. Speaking of Hunter, Explorer’s Hat now joins the ranks of Soul of the Forest as a spell that gives minions Deathrattle. Arch-Thief Rafaam, like Ysera, can add one of several powerful cards to the hand and also makes use of the new Discover effect. Even Discover itself pushes Hearthstone’s boundaries, adding another keyword to the growing list.
In fact, Hearthstone design might be best understood by keywords. They are a way to keep card text short, to allow the categorization of different cards into groups of shared utility, and to offer the potential for shared support. League of Explorers, more than any previous set, shows a move towards combinations of key words, combinations of key words with other explanatory text, and occasionally even ditching them entirely. As effects become more specialized, they can no longer fit into such well-defined groups. On the plus side, this increases game complexity, allowing new interactions. However, it also has the potential to alienate newer players, a worry for Blizzard. Personally, I think an upgraded tutorial and expanded Basic Set, intentionally designed to be instructive of the various keywords and available effects, would be a smart move.
A Swing and a Miss
While The League of Explorers has been a positive force in Hearthstone, some specific goals are fairly clear in the set, goals that were never accomplished. No matter how much Hearthstone’s developers want to take a hands-off approach, it is clear that each set carries its own vision. Prior to the League of Explorers, Secret Paladin had been the most dominant deck, and shortly before that, it had been Grim Patron. Each deck, in its own way, is somewhat Aggro, and both pose large potential for board swings. The reasonable design decision, as opposed to outright nerfing the cards making these decks powerful, is to release a counter. From one side, Control-oriented cards were supposed to compete. Reno Jackson, Naga Sea Witch, Elise Starseeker, and Arch-Thief Rafaam allowed high potential for huge minions and healing in the late game. Priest decks received new tools like Excavated Evil and Entomb to reactively take down any number of oppressive strategies. From the other side, Aggro Shaman, an even faster deck, was supposed to compete. Even Keeper of Uldaman and Anyfin Can Happen were added to the Paladin class, supporting alternate strategies.
Unfortunately, none of this turned out quite as expected. Outside of Reno Jackson, most of the neutral Control cards see rather little play, usually deemed too slow for an Aggro meta game. Priests were aided by the addition of Entomb, taking care of the upper curve of Secret Paladin by grabbing Dr. Boom or Tirion Fordring. However, Priest was already well-suited to beat the class, and the addition of Excavated Evil did very little. It is the other reactive decks, those ironically faring well because of the abundance of Secret Paladin, that give Priests a hard time, keeping them from competing at the very highest echelon.
While Aggro Shaman did depose Secret Paladin for the number one spot in the meta game for several weeks, it has volatile matchups and consistency issues, relegating it to second fiddle. The additions to the Paladin class may be the worst news of all, with Anyfin Can Happen spawning a new deck of its own that functions alongside Secret Paladin, instead of deposing it. There was a time when Keeper of Uldaman, along with the rest of the Mid-Range Paladin lineup, was bullying Secret Paladin for the top spot, but players eventually recognized that Uldaman could function just as well in the Secret variant, which was suddenly the best again. Secret Paladin will remain on top until a nerf or another expansion has something to say about it.
While it’s unclear if Blizzard even actively considers the format, the Arena saw both pros and cons from The League of Explorers. For a long time, Warrior had been considered the worst deck in Arena, by far. It Hero Power is nearly useless for the format, and if the Warrior doesn’t draft enough weapons to seize the board in the early game, there’s not much hope. The class’ weakness in the format spawned the hashtag #ArenaWarriorsMatter. For this reason, the addition of Fierce Monkey and Obsidian Destroyer, two highly rated Warrior cards, as commons gave players hope for the format. However, this was reversed when players considered that Keeper of Uldaman and Ethereal Conjurer as commons also gave a boost to Paladin and Mage decks, two of the best Arena classes. So, while Warrior has climbed out from the absolute bottom of the Arena tier list, Paladins and Mages have gotten stronger, as well.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Despite the above failures in design policy, the future of Hearthstone is bright. Card games always have some level of imbalance. Certain decks will dominate until they meet a natural counter (through player adaptation or new releases) or an artificial one (through buffs and nerfs.) The deeper elements of game design are far more interesting, moving forward, because their impact will be longer-lasting. Hearthstone is just beginning to come into its own, with increased complexity, synergy, variety, and power concentrated in specific niches. If the developers manage to avoid excessive power creep, keep the classes distinct, and continue to bring new players into the fold, I can only see the game getting better.