The Witchwood: Here’s The Big Picture
The first Hearthstone expansion of 2018 drops tomorrow! Alongside it, we lose three others: Mean Streets of Gadgetzan (woo!), One Night in Karazhan, and Whispers of the Old Gods. This Witchwood has some impressive shoes to fill. Now that all 135 new cards have been revealed, we know what the cards are, but not how they’ll perform in a metagame without these powerhouse sets. We’re losing two previously dominant deck archetypes: Jades and Old Gods. Will Odd and Even decks take off to Rank 1 Legend like Jades did? Or will they fizzle out like the Grimy Goons? Join us as we take a brief look over the set as a whole.
The Witchwood, much like Kobolds and Catacombs, is a little obscure thematically – at least in comparison to lore heavyweights like Knights of the Frozen Throne. It’s a setting familiar only to those World of Warcraft players who stuck around all the way to Legion. According to Hearthstone Senior Designer Peter Whalen, the set was originally named “Murder on the Gilnean Express”. It’s a bit wordy, and sounds more like a cheesy Warcraft pulp novel; it has the same number of words as WotG but without the Old God gravitas. Witchwood is short and sweet. Plus, the commercial success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight proves everyone loves werewolves and vampires!
So The Witchwood is another spooky set, joining the cobwebbed ranks of Curse of Naxxramas, WotG and KotFT. Appropriately, we have a new mechanic with a supernatural theme – Echo. Looking at the selection of Echo cards, it seems unlikely that this category will take over the metagame. In the past, the most successful cards have been those that do the most, the fastest, with the lowest cost. (See Argent Horserider, Zombie Chow, Death’s Bite, etc., etc.) Echo cards quickly stack up in Mana cost. To play Phantom Militia three times takes nine Mana, for a low-attack Taunt wall. I would be very surprised to see any Neutral Echo cards make it into Standard decks.
Of course it’s almost impossible to predict what cards will be strong or weak, even for the game designers themselves. Ben Brode emphasized this in a recent interview with Forbes: “the deck that is the best – who knows? The worst deck – who knows?” The moment at which Echo minions will shine is niche: generally, in a topdeck war. Otherwise, it’s simply too much Mana.
There are a few Echo cards which do look promising. Curse of Weakness, because it lasts throughout your enemy’s turn, can be used to avert death, make beneficial trades (the main purpose of Zoolock), and even do sneaky tricks with Crazed Alchemist. Squashling will be very interesting in combination with Auchenai Shadowpriest. Perhaps Quest Paladin will (re)surface with Sound the Bells! – the Quest can be completed in one turn with one card, and one minion. Warpath is going to be an incredible boost for Control Warrior. Overall, it’s clear that the only Echo cards worth playing are class cards.
Rush, or “Charge Lite”, looks promising. The Charge mechanic has historically been very problematic for Blizzard. Some of the worst game balance offenders have been Charge minions (here’s looking at you, Arcane Golem), and it appears that Rush is Team 5’s answer to it. Rush is what Charge should have been. It’s a useful mechanic, but the question remains whether its power turns out to be overvalued or not. Mr. Brode has acknowledged that Rush, on the surface, appears to be just a neutered Charge. But it gives far more design space – just look at Town Crier, a 1/2 that draws a Rush minion. That’s insane value. Such a card heavily promotes Rush synergy decks, in a way that could not exist for Charge.
Rush also fills a gameplay niche that has previously been difficult to address adequately. There is a need for fast cards that are not spells nor Charge. It’s healthy for the game if there is quick removal that isn’t all spells, if not for balance then just for variety. There is also a disparity between classes who have a lot of spell removal, like Priest and Mage, and those who don’t, like Hunter and Paladin. In certain metagames this disparity really hurts, like in the Jades meta. Rush helps to bridge this gap in a way that preserves class identity and distinctiveness.
So we have two new (ish – Charged Devilsaur and Unstable Evolution, ahem) mechanics that will surely bring some freshness. But is The Witchwood going to explode the metagame, like Mean Streets of Gadgetzan did? Or is the impact of the Standard rotation going to eclipse this set? It’s hard to determine which has more power over the metagame, the expansion or the rotation, but personally I think The Witchwood is not going to be among the most influential sets in months to come.
Genn Greymane brings a little bit of the Grand Tournament back to Standard, as it focuses on Hero Power synergy – at a hefty price. It remains to be seen whether the Odd/Even mechanic will have the same cosmic impact as Reno Jackson did. To me, however, Genn and Baku don’t seem to have the essential quality of “unfairness” that is needed to push a card into the meta stratosphere. They are patently “fair” – a big deck tradeoff for a bonus that will take many turns to pay off.
The popular YouTuber, Kripparian, pointed out that the first set of the year is often the weakest, in comparison to the two that follow. That was certainly true in 2017, with Journey to Un’Goro’s quests and elementals fading into the foliage as soon as Death Knights burst onto the scene. As 2017 was the first year of Blizzard’s new three-expansions-per-year system, it looks like the scaling power format is likely to continue. But of course everything can change! What are your hopes and/or dreams for The Witchwood?