The Streets - A Hearthstone Meta Evaluation

By Matt Thrower 21 Dec 2016 15

New Hearthstone expansion Mean Streets of Gadgetzan has had its work cut out for it. The game had become somewhat stale, dominated by identikit Shaman and Warrior decks and fans were relying on new cards to breathe new life into the play. Big cards are also about to rotate out of the "standard" game format that sees only cards from the last two years valid for use. It was a worry for a lot of long term players that this might mean similar effects from old expansions could start turning up again in place of creative new ideas. 

So, now we've had a chance to play with the cards for a while, how do things look? Fresher, for sure. But perhaps not so pretty.

The Good

There's a great deal to celebrate about Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. Not least is the fact that all nine classes in the game currently have functional and roughly balanced deck builds. Priest, for so long the whipping boy of the meta, can now compete with everyone else. Even the poor Warlock, who got hardly any new toys in this set, can fall back on well-worn archetypes. Handlock, Zoolock and the discard deck are all still effective. There's a ton of competitive deck archetypes right now and Shaman no longer rules the roost.

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Blizzard continues to surprise and delight with their creativity in mining simple mechanics for new effects. The Jade Golem concept, where each Golem summoned is incrementally better than the last, is brilliant and works across all three classes that can use it. It creates interesting strategic conundrums around when to summon and when to delay. And when the golems get rolling it's a joy to play and powerful enough to steamroll anything in its path.

Indeed, a strong vein of risk/reward runs through the whole expansion. Another fun example is the buffing of minions when they're still in your hand. This is a clever and vicious vice to trap the player. Do they play minions now for the presence on the board? Or do they play the buff first, sacrificing short-term gain for long-term reward? This is always the player’s choice and makes decks built on this concept interesting and fun to pilot.

Finally, the Hearthstone team also deserves recognition for not succumbing to the lure of power creep. Almost none of the big legendaries showcased are instantly identifiable as overpowered. No-one is rushing out to craft and deploy new cards because they're obviously super effective. Given the need to sell new card packs on the back of each expansion, that's impressive self-restraint. Instead the cards sell themselves as being fun and interesting to play with, just as it should be.

The Bad

Hearthstone has always been a game about balance. Its strict I Go, You Go structure facilitates quick, engaging online play. But without the ability to interrupt or influence your opponent's turn, it becomes a matter of getting and keeping the initiative. Logically the best way to do this is to play as aggressively as possible out of the starting gate.

However, hyper-aggressive play is no fun for the person on the receiving end. They want the chance to take control and dictate the game for a while themselves. Otherwise they're just reacting to aggression until they die. But getting control via power cards is just as frustrating. It drags games out to the point where they become boring. So: balance. Aggressive decks stop control decks proliferating by killing them before they can get going. Mid-range decks kill aggressive decks through sheer superior staying power. Everyone has fun.

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Mean Streets of Gadgetzan appears to try and swing the balance toward control decks. Three classes, Priest, Warlock and Mage, all got powerful area of effect damage. There are also some sweet new Taunt minions and health boosts to help keep control players alive. Effects like Jade Idol can shuffle cards back into your deck, keeping you away from fatigue.

The upshot of this is that games are lasting longer. That's not good for everyone. Part of the attraction of Hearthstone, especially for more casual players, is that it can be enjoyed in bite-sized pieces. Right now you can't risk a quick game on the toilet when there's a chance it might last twenty minutes or more.

The Ugly

The most effective tool against aggressive decks has long been a card called Reno Jackson. He instantly heals all the damage you've taken, but at a cost. It only works if your deck contains no duplicates. And that, of course, means far less potential for card combos. Reno decks have become known as highlander decks because "there can be only one" copy of each card in them.

Gadgetzan gave Reno some friends, other cards with powerful effects that only work in decks without duplicates. The Priest now has a card that gives you two free healing every turn. More, potentially, if combined with certain other cards. There's a cross-class card that allows you to create powerful, flexible spells and a Mage card that lets you cast that, or any other spell, for free. Highlander decks are now monstrous anti-aggro machines. This is where the real balance shift stems from.

In fact, Highlander decks now contain the potential for so much power that they can become pretty much unbeatable. The question is: can you kill them before they start to snowball. Their job, by contrast, is to stay alive long enough to ensure they can. So they do everything in their power to slow and annoy their opponents. Small heals. Board wipes. Taunt walls. Multiple times you can wrest control, only to find it snatched away. Playing against highlander has become an exercise in drawn-out frustration and misery.

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It almost feels as if Blizzard is deliberately giving troll cards to players who want to upset their fellow gamers. The expansion of Highlander is just one example. Weasel Tunneler isn't a great card but its only function is to screw up the enemy deck. Devolve gives Shamans an awful RNG-based board reset.

Hopefully this was a mistake or something they just wanted to test – with any luck we’ll see it fixed. There's a ton of fun stuff in Gadgetzan and I'm playing now more than I have since the Standard game came into force. I'm not seeing too many troll decks, but I'm seeing more than I used to. It looks like we may be relying on the goodwill of the player community to keep the game fun. 

How are you finding the current meta in Hearthstone? Is it still the king of digital CCGs or do you think other games will rise to take its place? What would you like to see from the cardgame in 2017? Let us know in the comments!

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