Hearthstone Hot Take: The Game of (Frozen) Thrones31 Oct 2017 1
Knights of the Frozen Throne got named after the wrong fantasy archetype; it ought to have been Druids of the Frozen Throne instead. In the immediate aftermath of the expansion, Druids dominated the game to such an extent that the top-rated deck on fan sites were *all* Druid. It's a common complaint that Blizzard don't act on balance problems fast enough, but this time they acted swiftly. A nerf and a cost increase later, Druid remains powerful but other classes have a look-in. But of course a post-expansion patch means it's taken longer for the meta to settle. How does it look now?
Well, that depends on what lens you're using.
From the point of view of class balance, things seem pretty good. All nine classes have a viable deck archetype for the first time in a long time. Mage is in the worst position, falling back on the Quest and Secrets from the last expansion. But new cards like Primordial Glyph have expanded its repertoire and left it in the running. When you look at the range of viable decks, though, it's a less pretty picture. Most classes have only one top-tier deck available to them. Druid and Priest arguably have two, depending on how you define "top".
This has turned the meta into something of a see-saw. The paucity of playable archetypes means that when you see your opponent's class you can have a good guess as to what's in their deck. That reduces the likelihood of nasty surprises and ups the amount of skill you can display by anticipating upcoming plays. On the other hand, it's turned the game into something of a rock, paper, scissors based on deck type. Jade Druid is going to struggle against any deck that runs Skulking Geist, for example, but that card is otherwise useless. You can predict the outcome of a lot of games as soon as you know what the deck matchup is.
What seems to have happened is that the new cards in the expansion favoured long, slow control decks. Many matchesare running long right now. If you don't want to play a long game the only answer is to run a super-aggressive deck. These had their wings clipped by the expansion and the patch, although there are still some valid options. Prince Keleseth, a legendary card that buffs every other minion in your deck, has thrown aggro decks a lifeline. With a good draw of cards that lets them maximize the mana curve, aggro can beat control. But the melee has squeezed out mid-range decks. They can't compete with control in the long run, or survive aggro in the short.
Prime fuel for this fire are the keynote cards from the new expansion, the legendary Death Knights. These replace upgrade your hero power, give you armour and a one-shot effect all in one and are this exceptionally powerful. They're also expensive, as you'd expect. So the focus for control decks has been on surviving until they can get drawn and played. Most of them are potent enough for that moment to pivot the game in the owner's favour.
For a long time, I didn't enjoy this meta much and I couldn't work out why. It wasn't until I crafted Prince Keleseth and tried it from the other side of the table that I started having fun and realising what the problem was. The new expansion does have some powerful defensive cards like Spreading Plague, one of the Druid cards that got docked in the patch. But it's not so much defense that's the problem with the meta at the moment as it is nuclear annihilation. Right now, the game is all about board wipes.
There are a lot of cards, old and new, that have the potential to blow up a lot of minions very quickly. Most control decks now revolve around keeping board control by blowing the whole board, then trying to get a big minion down before the opponent. This is not new: it's always been a part of certain deck types like one-turn kill, mill and freeze mage. But those decks have always been among the meanest and most frustrating in the game. They take skill to play, sure, and many people enjoy them. For me, though, sudden board clears are the absolute antithesis of what make the game fun.
What works for me in Hearthstone is the cut and thrust of play. Someone offers a threat, their opponent works to counter it. At its best this involves smart minion trades, card effect combos, clever use of hero powers. It's like a fencing match with the antagonists darting back and forth across the piste, gaining and losing the upper hand by turns. Hearthstone right now is like fencing with bazookas and hoping you're the last one standing.
Bazookas, though, are both expensive and quite fun to play with if you can afford them. So it is with the current meta: a lot of the big cards are epic and legendary. A slower, more control-oriented meta is also something longer-term players have been agitating for. The end result is that it's hard for more casual players to compete right now, and less fun for anyone that prefers faster decks. A lot of the old crew is going to be pretty happy with the game right now, but if it causes new blood to back off, they may end up regretting what they wished for.