Welcome to the Jungle - A Hearthstone Meta Evaluation18 Apr 2017 8
Spring is here, along with a spring-clean of the Hearthstone scene. Not only have we got a new expansion to play with, Journey to Un'Goro, but it's rotation time. The year of the Kraken has given way to the year of the Mammoth and with it, a lot of popular cards are no longer legal in Standard play. Goodbye then, Reno Jackson. Some of us won't shed a single tear for the tiresome play style you engendered.
Seismic change is timely for the game, though. After the bright days in the wake of the last expansion, the game settled in to tiresome repetition, with a small number of fixed decks dominating. Worse, they were boring decks to play against, either full of bludgeoning aggro or mind-numbing defence. It's a lesson to remind us to take Hearthstone expansion reviews with a pinch of salt. It takes a long time for trends to emerge.
With all the heavy lifting Un'Goro and its attendant Mammoth needed to do to revitalise the game, however, it's too tempting not to try. So after a week, here's where we are in the bright new age of Hearthstone.
First, the biggest new toy in the expansion: quest cards. These are all 1-mana class legendaries which you're guaranteed to draw in your opening hand. Fulfill the conditions of the quest by playing a certain number of a certain type of cards and you're rewarded with another, very powerful card.
Quests turned out nothing like anyone was expecting. Those trailed as exceptionally powerful, like the Hunter's Marsh Queen, turned out to be a damp squib. Those presumed to be not worth a look, like those for Warrior and Rogue, turned out to be the ones everyone is playing. And on the plus side, its seems difficult to pin down a fixed format for decks supporting the worthwhile quests. There are several competitive flavours for most classes. Let's hope it stays that way: the open-ended nature of Quests lends itself to multiple ways of fulfillment.
It's not all roses, though. Quests are legendary cards and thus out of reach of most casual players. And there's another set of class legendaries in the expansion too. There's a real danger that Un'Goro might price newbies out of the competitive game. Two of the quests, those for Mage and Rogue, also fulfill the regrettable combination of being both powerful and boring. We have to hope that the temptation of taking the former over the latter doesn't come to dominate the meta.
A bigger and more pleasant surprise, though, is how the expansion has revitalised several old archetypes. The classic Warlock zoo and handlock decks are both back and doing well. Miracle Rogue absolutely will not die in spite of losing two key cards. The mid-range Hunter beast deck has returned from the Call of the Wild nerf. Most surprising of all, the Jade Shaman and Druid decks introduced in the last expansion remain playable. As does the much loathed pirate aggro Warrior, in spite of some new cards introduced to counter it.
Yet the counter-cards do seem to be partially effective. A flood of new cheap taunts have given players the tools to handle aggro without taking it out of the game. Play has slowed down a little, control is more viable, mid-range and ramp-style decks are currently dominating. This is a good thing. It's the freshness, the variety that we needed and which big shake-ups tend to provide. The fact that, like quest decks, there are several variants to many of these archetypes is great news. It's grounds for some optimism that some of that variety will persist.
Arguably Blizzard bought this variety at the cost of complexity. Most of the decks doing the rounds right now have a fairly low skill cap. There's nothing really new in terms of mechanics or the interplay between existing ones. Some cards just mimic older ones going out of rotation, with Primordial Drake, for instance, looking a lot like Chillmaw. I'm going to call that as a good thing. Hearthstone was at its best in the early days, proving it had enough depth and mechanical diversity to sustain it. The game needs a range of workable decks and strategies far more than it needs new toys. Early signs are that Un'Goro has bought some of that back.
Certain classes always get a big left behind in an expansion, and Un'Goro is no exception. It's poor, though, that the weakest classes are the same ones that suffered through the previous expansion. Dragon Priest was briefly a solid deck for that beleaguered class, but it lost a slew of vital cards. It's a testament to the dearth of options on offer that Priest players are still trying to make it work. Paladin has more of a mixture to play with, but none of the decks are really singing yet. Perhaps they will in time, with handbuff taunt showing some early promise.
Our journey to Un'Goro, then, has taken us somewhere quite unexpected. Instead of lush virgin jungle, with a wonder or two to marvel at, we've discovered something even more valuable. The mystery at the heart of uncharted Un'Goro is the pleasure of returning to an old haunt. The joy of finding out that home isn't such a bad place to be over all. Let's hope Blizzard let us put our feet up, and rest here awhile. We've earned it.