Hearthstone’s year of the dragon is here and with cards rotating out and new -err- returning villains about, the landscape of the game changes. But did it change significantly?
Adding new cards into a game is a tricky balancing act. Cards need to be powerful or interesting enough to make players put down what they are happy and familiar with, but not so powerful that they become the only cards players use, to the detriment of all other deck archetypes.
Rise of Shadows introduces several interesting new cards that are already seeing a lot of play in both competitive and casual settings. Token Druid is seeing a lot of success with the cards from Rise of Shadows, from token creating cards like The Forest’s Aid and Dreamway Guardians to Deathrattle cards like Acornbearer and Eccentric Scribe making sure you keep threats on the board. Blessing of the Ancients makes your small threats bigger and because most of your spells don’t have targets, using Archmage Varoth just gives you even more value.
Another deck that enjoys Rise of Shadow additions (that seems to keep being matched against my face) is Mech Hunter. The Oblivitron is a terrible threat and if having that trigger a Mechanical Whelp wasn’t bad enough, Nine Lives helps finish the deal, and often the game ends with three 7/7 mechanical dragons on the board. Marked Shot also gives a solid removal card that digs for an answer for another card.
An end to quests
Saying goodbye to the quest cards and the even and odd decks opened up a lot of space for archetypes to flourish again, but it feels like some decks keep on playing the same cards again and again, as if this is the first year of Hearthstone. Warlocks are still using Knife Juggler and Sea Giant, Tempo Rogues play with their classic cards and maybe add in an EVIL Miscreant to get some valuable battlecry lackeys, and Shamans are still flooding the board with Murlocs or big threats.
In the competitive scene, where stats are easily available, the impact of Rise of Shadows cards can be seen in some cases, while in others the continued grip of classic cards can be seen rather starkly. In the Hearthstone Championship Tour, in the top 16 the most popular class was Rogue with 15 decks, 12 of which were Tempo Rogue. As a result, 15 decks used Preparation. This is at least offset by 12 decks making use of the new Waggle Pick, but in the legendaries, so many are still classic cards. Leeroy Jenkins (12 decks), Harrison Jones (16 decks), Edwin VanCleef (15 decks), and Captain Greenskin (10 decks) were popular picks, with only 2 Rise of Shadows legendaries in the top eight: The Soularium (11 decks) and Archivist Elysiana (11 decks). The biggest outlier was Zilliax who was present in almost half of the decks at 31 decks. *cough* Nerf *cough*.
Stable or stale?
Rise of Shadows doesn’t do anything to combat what might be Hearthstone’s biggest issue: familiarity of cards. While it might help some players to have the same cards to play with or know the effects as they come out, having the same classic cards showing up in so many decks means that the archetypes never really have to shift, that besides one or two changes, the archetype works and what few cards rotate out that aren’t classic will just find a suitable replacement, or in rare cases, the archetype stops seeing play for a while. Warriors are still control decks, Priests are still playing the Resurrect Game, etc etc. Most classes have so few archetypes seeing regular play that within a turn or two you will already know what your opponent is playing and start thinking of how to win or which cards they will be playing that you need to try and mitigate or remove. The number of viable deck archetypes feels very low, with several classes seeing very little play, at least competitively. While the competitive scene isn’t a perfect representation of the full breadth of what is happening in the game, it is telling that 3 of the 9 classes were close to absent from a top 16.
Where Rise of Shadows cards are seeing play, they are at least fun to interact with. Playing against the old quest decks became all too infuriating, especially decks that had zero way of interrupting the plays. Having them gone makes a bit change of pace, as the newer cards have fewer slowing down effects, like waiting for multiple discovery triggers or dramatic spell and minion entry effects. There are ways to deal with powerful weapons and creatures, quests… not so much.
Some cards can be frustrating, as there is no way to prevent certain cards from triggering and creating a serious threat to your board, like Nine Lives. Thankfully these are balanced out by cards you can remove as soon as possible before the threat becomes too dire, like Underbelly Angler played a turn before Scargil arrives to fill the board. Learning which threats you can answer and which you will have to deal with later (or create a situation for the enemy to deal with) is a core part of the game, and removing quests makes it feel like the core is intact again.
Learning which threats you can answer and which you will have to deal with later (or create a situation for the enemy to deal with) is a core part of the game, and removing quests makes it feel like the core is intact again.
Rise of Shadows appears to include some fun cards and hopefully more tricks and strategies will become apparent as we head deeper into the Year of the Dragon. No single card appears to dominate the entire meta, and no card has become a “must pick” for a class regardless of deck type, which makes it feel rather balanced, if not flashy and exciting.
Rise of Shadows moves away from cards that become a win condition, but the new mechanics have had very little impact on the game. Lackeys are seeing minimal play, Schemes are pretty limited in appeal and the Twinspell, while sounding interesting on paper, is hardly seeing use. Hopefully having fewer cards that stand out as really powerful will allow some flexibility to appear in the meta but for now, everyone is sticking with old tricks that already work.