Yesterday, the full spoiler for Whispers of the Old Gods, the newest Hearthstone expansion, was finally released. By the time the set (henceforth TOG) launches, it will have been nearly half a year since the last time new cards have been added to the game — longer than Blizzard supposedly likes, but it was to a purpose. Alongside TOG, Hearthstone will be launching its new rotating format, Standard, which features only the Basic and Classic sets along with the last two years worth of new card releases. This addition will mark the first time that cards have been removed from the pool of legal cards as well as being added, which makes it an exciting time for people like me who enjoy constructed Hearthstone but have found the ubiquity of certain cards, decks, and strategies to be stifling in recent weeks.
The set looks very cool, and the stream that revealed the new cards (which itself is highly recommended viewing) made it look like an absolute blast. I’m absolutely excited to start cracking packs and building in the new format. If there’s anything I’ve learned from following card games for twenty years, though, it’s that people are absolute rubbish about predicting what’s going to be good and bad and how the format will change, so I’m not going to bother with a card-by-card review. You can find those anywhere, and why should my impressions be any more accurate? However, I do see some more general trends in both the set and the recently-announced nerfs to twelve Basic/Classic cards that make me a little wary. I suppose it’s fitting for a set about trying to harness the power of ancient and incomprehensible gods that for every aspect of the set and the new format that I’m excited about, like wishing on a monkey’s paw, there’s a flip side that makes me somewhat wary. So I’m going to talk about those trends instead.
1) There is much less pressure to not get overrun in the early game…
The very first thing I noticed after absorbing the full TOG spoiler was how bad the two-drop creatures are. Only one of them is truly excellent, I feel (Rogue’s Undercity Huckster), and there’s one more that seems fine but only a specific strategy (Beckoner of Evil — more on her and the rest of C’Thun’s gang later).
This is a continuation of a trend that’s been going for almost a year. There really aren’t very many good twos remaining in the format at all. Previously, the class of the neutral twos was Knife Juggler, but it’s getting nerfed, so it becomes more along the line of Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Wild Pyromancer — something that you save so that you can maximize its ability, not necessarily something you throw out on turn two to start the beatdown. Haunted Creeper, the other generically good neutral two, is rotating along with the rest of Curse of Naxxramas. Shielded Minibot, Mad Scientist, Mechwarper, and Nerubian Egg join it in its working retirement in the Wild format. Even useful twos like Gilbin Stalker and Goblin Auto-Barber, which were theoretically powerful but largely pushed out by other options, are leaving.
Of the remaining cards, the best neutral two that doesn’t require either a specific deck or a specific boardstate may well be Flame Juggler, who is only slightly stronger than a vanilla creature. There are a few decent class twos — Totem Golem most notably, but also Darnassus Aspirant and Dark Peddler — but no class has more than one, and some classes don’t have any. Dragon decks can turn to Alexstrasza’s Champion or Wyrmrest Agent, if they’re of the right class. If the body is less important than the value, you can use Loot Hoarder or Jeweled Scarab. A few of the lesser-used cards from The Grand Tournament like Fallen Hero or King’s Elekk might enter the scene. Perhaps old standbys from vanilla Hearthstone like Amani Berserker, Faerie Dragon, or Acidic Swamp Ooze return to widespread use.
The point, though, is that none of those cards have the resilience that make the twos in Wild so difficult to manage. One of the reasons Paladin’s fabled “perfect curve” is so powerful is because it’s so hard to clear any of them with one card, and even if you do, those cards are positioned poorly against the next drop in the chain. A card that beats Shielded Minibot is generally not a card that manages Muster for Battle well, and the cards that beat Muster are in turn poor against Piloted Shredder. If you were not able to effectively interact with your opponent’s board in the early going, you would frequently get tempo-ed right out of the game, as even the powerful area-of-effect sweepers usually left behind some deathrattle or divine shield leavings that allowed your opponent to continue pressuring you, and if your opponent dropped a swing play like Mysterious Challenger or Savannah Highmane or even Defender of Argus while you were still trying to clean up his early junk, you were sunk.
In Standard, this may no longer be the case. Of all the useful twos, the only ones that don’t die one-for-one to a cheap removal spell or the front half of an early weapon are Totem Golem and Wyrmrest Agent, the latter of which requires a specific draw in a specific strategy in a specific class. This is a far cry from Hearthstone previously, where if your opponent coined out a Minibot or a Creeper, even if you had a removal spell or an early creature of your own, it would frequently not be able to trade cleanly. It may once again be possible for a large early creature like an Innervated Yeti or a Circle of Healing-ed Injured Blademaster to rule the roost for a few turns, or for a slower deck to seize back board control with a well-timed sweeper, or to trade cards one-for-one in the early game and then pull ahead later with value cards or combinations. Considering how efficient curve decks were at pressuring slower, value-oriented decks out of the game, this should open up a wider variety of strategies and potential gameplans.
…but games might get a lot longer.
This sounds all well and good, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that some aggro and tempo decks are healthy for the metagame. Without these decks, it encourages players to be greedier and greedier, including more and more late-game bombs, removal, and stall cards. Like a good pitchers’ duel, matches between these decks can be fun in moderation, but if every single game is like that, it becomes boring, no matter how skill-testing it is. If you’ve ever watched a Control Warrior or Freeze Mage mirror, you were likely bored out of your skull — the game these kinds of decks have to play when they encounter each other barely resembles Hearthstone at all.
Aggressive early creatures are necessary to keep these kinds of decks honest and force them to interact. The way to beat them is to constantly pressure their life total, make them use their removal in suboptimal ways, and not give them a chance to make pure value plays, because if they ever stop fighting for the board, they’ve lost. This is much harder to do in the absence of sticky, removal-resilient minions, specifically aggressive twos, that the control deck can’t cleanly remove. It’s an open question right now whether a Standard-legal beatdown, tempo, or midrange deck (aside from Aggro Shaman, which is seemingly in good shape) can consistently break an Ice Block before Alexstrasza comes down, or burst down a Warlock before Reno Jackson restores him to full, or kill the C’Thun player before the big man himself comes down as a 25/25 to wipe their whole board and put them at 9. If they can’t, the environment has a chance to be just as stale as it was when Secret Paladins and Aggro Shamans were at their worst, just from the other direction — and with the added problem that even a loss takes a lot longer to play itself out. If Aggro Shaman gets the god draw against you, you’re dead in six turns. If Freeze Mage gets the god draw against you, you’re still just as dead, but it’s going to take fifteen or twenty turns before you actually take the lethal damage you can’t do anything about.
2) C’Thun is a cool design and an interesting alternate strategy for beginners and budget players…
One of the issues with Hearthstone is that if you’re a new player, or one on a budget, you have essentially one strategy available to you: Play well-statted creatures and attack your opponent with them. This is a decent plan for new players, as the game’s hard enough without throwing Mill and Freeze Mage and Handlock and Patron Warrior at them right out of the gate, but the time between when the player gets bored of simple aggro/midrange creature strategies and the time when they have a big enough collection to explore other possibilities is still too wide. For quite a while, if you were just starting and wanted to try a control deck, you were shit out of luck, because those decks tended to require a boatload of expensive legendary finishers that you were simply not going to be able to get unless you had the luck of the Buddha opening packs. Classes like Warrior and Druid were out of reach for a new player, as too many of their staple cards were epic. The Adventures are a decent compromise here, as each one contains at least one legendary creature who is at least a decent stopgap finisher until you can get your hands on Ragnaros the Firelord or Lord Jaraxxus or Ysera or Tirion Fordring, but even those can take weeks to get if you’re not willing to drop real money on the game.
With TOG, Blizzard made the inspired choice to simply give a free copy of C’Thun, the set’s signature legendary, to anyone who opened a pack of TOG. This was because a good chunk of the set is dedicated to cards who specifically interact with C’Thun, many of them at common and rare, and it was decided that it would be kind of a bullshit move to make players craft a legendary just to interact at the most basic level with one of the set’s most ubiquitous mechanical themes. This decision makes him available to anyone, and it’s not like he requires a lot of expensive support, either — again, most of the cards in his deck are commons and rares, which are relatively easy to get even for beginners.
In addition, C’Thun enables a type of deck which simply cannot be created with the Basic set and a few Classic packs. His deck, regardless of class, requires a concession on the part of the player that they are building towards a longer game plan, rather than taking each individual turn as it comes. When playing with C’Thun, you know he’s going to mess some shit up if you can get him out, so playing a survival game and interfering with your opponent’s game plan become more important than they are with the kinds of basic decks most beginners have access to, which have no greater ambition than to kill their opponent as fast as possible. These lessons are ones that are important to teach players who are just beginning.
At the same time, though, C’Thun isn’t that complicated. Most of his support cards are totally reasonable well-statted minions who pump him either when they come into play, or when you do something that their class does a lot. As such it’s tough to build — or play — a C’Thun deck “wrong”: The novice’s C’Thun deck may not be strictly optimal, but if they play all the common C’Thun minions, two copies of Disciple of C’Thun, and a Skeram Cultist or two, they’ll be able to build a huge C’Thun and turn him loose, and they won’t have to open their wallet or play Face Hunter for six months solid or go infinite in Arena to do it.
…but he may be too inevitable.
And that may well be a problem.
Another issue with Hearthstone is very recent, and that is the genericization of late-game plans for decks that want to go into the late game. Brian Kibler made the observation on stream that Elise Starseeker and her Golden Monkey gimmick, while fun, was almost too good, because there wasn’t really a reason to play any sort of other late-game plan when you could just play her instead. Elise is a lot more effective for the late-game decks because she doesn’t require you to spend your precious deck slots on dedicated late-game cards that might be useless if you draw them too early or if you don’t have control of the board — rather, she lets you play more defensive cards to exhaust your opponent’s resources, then convert any remaining ones into a win condition. There’s not a lot of incentive to go with Control Warrior’s traditional glob of high-value legendaries or a swarm of expensive dragons when you can just do that instead.
C’Thun might have the same issue. When he was first revealed I think that I and a lot of other people underestimated just how easy it would be to get him really huge. If he’s 10/10 or 12/12, he’s a big swing, for sure, but a manageable one. It doesn’t seem like it would be any issue at all to get him to 20/20 and beyond, though, and once he gets there he’s really hard to deal with. The random shots when he enters the field have a fair chance of completely destroying all but the most resilient of boards, and if you don’t have a board — for example, if you got Flamestriked the previous turn and have only one or two creatures to play afterwards — he has a fair chance of just killing you outright. And again, it’s not like there’s a huge opportunity cost to playing him — his support cards are totally reasonable well-statted minions. Priest and Warrior get huge heals attached to minions once C’Thun has been buffed twice or more. (In the aforementioned stream, Frodan has nothing going on for the first several turns of the game but is able to hang around for an absurdly long time just on the basis of the large heals enabled by Twilight Darkmender. That’s a show match between two decks that are both on the C’Thun plan, so it doesn’t necessarily indicate the kind of time C’Thun decks are going to have in the wild, but it does indicate just how tough it’s going to be to bring down a C’Thun player if they build their deck right.) It is tough for me to imagine how a deck that plans to win by grinding out value here and there, like a Midrange Paladin or Mage variant, is going to be able to compete once C’Thun comes to town.
Moreover, even if C’Thun is not the optimal control strategy, he is still going to be omnipresent. I’m predicting that C’Thun is Standard’s version of the Mech deck — everyone has a Mech Mage that they use for grinding quests, and one common strategy if your collection isn’t very large is to just throw the neutral Mech core into whatever class you need to win with and try to grind out a few wins on the basis of pure synergy and tempo. C’Thun might end up the same way — add C’Thun, add C’Thun’s cultists, add removal and class cards, go complete your quests with a deck that might not be amazing, but at least you’re pretty sure isn’t horrible.
Now, I’m not making the argument that C’Thun is unstoppable — there are lots of answers for him, assuming he doesn’t kill you outright. Silence him, destroy him with a kill spell, Hex or Polymorph him, turn his power or toughness to 1, Entomb him, let him do his thing and then throw two Fireballs at his controller, etc. But the fact that he can kill you outright, and can easily crush your board when he doesn’t, and cannot be interacted with prior to him coming down outside of killing his controller (which itself is tougher to do given #1, above), means that he flat beats a lot of decks which are otherwise reasonable and fun. And if you like playing those kinds of decks, you’re shit out of luck, because he’s going to be everywhere, even at low ranks or in casual, just because he’s so easy to build and win with. That might be tough to swallow, once the novelty of machine-gunning down your opponent’s board wears off. The Golden Monkey at least plays out differently every time and can make for wild stories and videos; but C’Thun goes the same way every time: Play out efficient minions, get to ten mana, play C’Thun, erase your opponent’s board, and demand they answer your huge man right now or lose. I could see it getting old.
3) Rotating Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins Vs. Gnomes out of the format removes a lot of the staple cards and forces innovation into the metagame…
The release of Goblins Vs. Gnomes in late 2014 was one of the most interesting times to be a fan of Hearthstone. It seemed like you could turn on any stream or queue into ladder and see an entirely new deck that hadn’t been possible before, and even the existing decks had to greatly adapt to the new cards and new decks entering the meta. So even if you tuned into someone playing boring old Handlock or Midrange Hunter, chances are they were testing a build that only somewhat resembled the decks that came before.
No subsequent release has really recaptured that magic. Blackrock Mountain made a fairly serious error, I feel, by basing the set around synergy but requiring you to have the whole set before you could really build decks around that synergy. (Blackwing Technician comes out Week 2 — the card might be good, but who cares, because it needs Dragons and the good Dragons don’t come out until Week 4.) I remember being annoyed one week because a new wing of BRM had come out but I couldn’t find even one stream using the new cards.
TGT was no better. The set was actually a good deal stronger than its reputation suggests, but it had two major issues. The first was that its major theme, hero powers/inspire, completely bombed in constructed outside of a few cards here and there. After a week or so, you never saw dedicated inspire decks; couldn’t tune into a stream to watch the streamer experiment with a new build. The second, and more serious, was that its good cards (except for Mysterious Challenger) didn’t enable any new decks; they simply supplemented existing ones. Argent Horserider is a good card, but there aren’t Argent Horserider decks — it just goes into the same face decks that have existed since the game’s inception, not so different from Wolfrider in the end. The coolest new card, Justicar Trueheart, enabled exactly zero new decks despite seeing loads of constructed play — it just made Control Warriors and Control Priests harder to kill and gave Midrange Paladin a late-game value tool. Those decks existed before TGT came out, and she didn’t change them, just made them a little stronger in some matchups.
The underlying issue is that the more cards you add, the harder it is for each individual one to make an impact. It’s tough to make a mid-game taunt that people will play instead of Sludge Belcher. It’s tough to make an early drop that people will play instead of Zombie Chow. It’s tough to try and supplant the Minibot/Muster curve with a new one. Blizzard, wary of power creep, largely didn’t try. Instead they tried to open up design space in other ways, and despite some small successes here and there (most notably in the League of Explorers set, with Reno Jackson, Elise Starseeker, and the discover mechanic), they were largely unsuccessful in dislodging the established decks that had had years to refine their lists.
Removing cards is really the only solution. There’s no longer a default mid-game taunt, so decks have to experiment with new ones, or go without. There’s no longer a default healing option, so decks have to stretch to include Reno or explore their in-class options. The introduction of Standard looks to be the biggest change to the game it will ever have, as not only do we get a new set to play with, but the sets that previously had to exist under the shadow of the early sets might be able to climb into the sunlight for the first time. It’s almost like there are four new sets, rather than just one. Is it finally time for the Jeweled Scarab or Dragon Consort meta? Only time will tell.
…but doing so causes a lot of the annoying holes in the Basic and Classic set to rear their ugly heads again.
It’s hard to remember after months of Secret Paladin being the scourge of the ladder, but back in vanilla Hearthstone, Paladin was largely agreed to be the worst class. It couldn’t really do anything better than the other classes aside from healing its hero, it had no early game to speak of, and was incredibly reliant on a turn four Truesilver Champion or Consecration turning the game around. Despite the best class legendary and some useful removal tools like Aldor Peacekeeper, Equality, and the aforementioned Consecration, it was rarely played on ladder and almost never in tournaments.
Thing was, though, Blizzard recognized this, so they showed Paladin some love in the first expansions. Shielded Minibot and Muster for Battle gave Paladin early plays that could interact with the board before turn four. Coghammer was a powerful early tool that could be used both on offense and defense. Quartermaster allowed Paladin to quickly rebuild after board wipes. Even cards like Seal of Light and Bolvar Fordragon, which ultimately didn’t pan out, seemed like honest attempts to bring the class up to par.
Now those expansions are gone, and Paladin is back to being bad again, with all its previous weaknesses intact. It no longer has any useful early interactions and is back to hoping that turn four Truesilver or Consecration can correct a bad board. One of my early ideas for a post-TOG Standard deck was a Reno Paladin build, and I started running out of viable choices with ten cards still left to fill in the deck — a far cry from previously, when every single class had enough viable cards that they had to cut reasonable cards when building a Reno deck.
This is the issue with leaving Basic and Classic intact as an evergreen set rather than mixing up its contents the way (say) Magic: the Gathering used to. The Classic set was fun, but it never bothered balancing the classes and had — and still has — lots of holes. Part of the design goal of the early expansions was to fill those holes, and now those sets are gone and the holes are back. Paladin is hardly the only victim here; Priest has it almost as bad, with no early plays and its best sweeper gone. Warlock has no viable spot removal between Mortal Coil and Soulfire at 1 and Syphon Soul at 6. Warrior has no good weapons between Fiery War Axe at 2 and Gorehowl at 7. There is no longer any way to interact with spells, for any class (Counterspell aside, but it’s tough to imagine that card seeing play in the absence of Mad Scientist). Some classes got new healing options to replace Antique Healbot, but others didn’t, and will have to settle for Earthen Ring Farseer and Refreshment Vendor.
It’s good that the format-defining cards are leaving, as it opens up space for new decks to emerge. But a lot of basic tools are leaving as well, cards that the later sets were designed around being present and didn’t think to replace.
The really annoying thing is that this looks to be a permanent issue unless Blizzard bites the bullet and alters the Classic set. Classes like Mage, Warlock, and Hunter have enough of their staple cards in the Classic set that they’ll rarely have to worry about any given rotation gutting their decks. Paladin, Priest, and Shaman, on the other hand, will need to have their inherent Classic weaknesses shored up anew every year if they’re going to be competitive, which is a problem for both Standard and Wild. Every card Paladin receives in an expansion to make up for its poor Classic cards goes on to make Secret Paladin that much more ridiculous in Wild.
And on that note…
4) The Basic/Classic nerfs and the rotation remove some annoying strategies and open up new design space for the developers…
With the TOG patch, Blizzard will be nerfing twelve cards. The goal with most of these nerfs seems to be to weaken burst combo, make large creatures and buffs more difficult to cleanly remove, and to make some cards that were omnipresent in their class more of a choice than a requirement. There was also a smaller class of cards that were nerfed not necessarily because they were too powerful in and of themselves, but because they were preventing other cards from being printed by their very presence. Blade Flurry, it’s generally agreed, got hit with the nerf bat because it was preventing Rogue from getting any good weapons or weapon buffs, and Master of Disguise was slightly weakened in order to remove the possibility of giving infinite stealth to a minion with a strong passive ability. Big Game Hunter, and to a lesser extent silence, meant that large creatures and creature buffs would never be able to establish a foothold in constructed.
Other cards being removed from the format also fit this criteria. Secrets, for example, can only be so powerful as long as Mad Scientist is around to cheat them out. Blizzard must tread cautiously around powerful repeatable spell triggers as long as Spare Parts are easy to attain. Mechs in general have a chance to become absurdly powerful if one or two more good ones are printed, so as long as the current Mech core exists, they never can be. In theory, with the offending cards always either nerfed or on a collision course with Wild eventually, Blizzard can push the envelope with these effects in new and exciting ways.
…but TOG honestly doesn’t make much use of it.
They didn’t, though, at least not in this set. I’m fairly certain that this is a temporary rather than a permanent issue, as I’m convinced that the TOG design, the Standard format, and the Basic/Classic nerfs were not worked on simultaneously. TOG, in particular, seems like it was probably finalized before Standard was a gleam in anyone’s eye, as it looks to be designed around the idea that it would just be thrown into the pool with the rest of the cards the way all the previous sets were. In addition, Blizzard was saying as recently as a few weeks ago that they had not yet finalized what cards would be nerfed or in what way, so it seems unlikely that there was any knowledge of the nerfs during the TOG design process or playtesting except in the most general sense. Telltale signs like Rogue’s nascent deathrattle theme being continued despite the fact that it was largely cut off at the knees with Naxxramas and GVG going, the curious lack of twos and threes for most classes, and the aforementioned missing basic effects indicate that it wasn’t intended to introduce Standard until fairly late in the process, possibly after it was already done. The departure of Mad Scientist opens up design room for Secrets, yet the set contains no Secrets. The weakening of Blade Flurry opens up room for weapons and weapon buffs, but there are no Rogue weapons and the only buff is somewhat unwieldy. This smells like a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and I suspect that the other two sets of 2016 will be designed with fuller knowledge of the environment they will be slotting into and the tools they need to provide.
That’s all I’ve got on Hearthstone for now. I’m looking forward to Tuesday!