Elementals: One Year On
Journey to Un’Goro brought us a number of delightful things. Chief among these are Ben Brode’s smash rap hit ‘Un’Goro: The Journey’, Quests, and the Elemental archetype. Elementals have been with us for over a year now, quietly bubbling away in the background of the metagame. On the whole, they have rarely been a major force as an independent deck; more frequently they are used to support other strategies, such as Fire Fly in aggro decks and Quest Rogue. It’s a particularly good time to review the expansion, as The Witchwood is also the first expansion of this year, signaling the shift into the Year of the Raven, just as Un’Goro made the Kraken give way to the Mammoth.
Have they developed meaningfully beyond their humble beginnings in April 2017? In which classes are they most powerful, mid-Witchwood? Will the recent nerfs to Warlock and Paladin launch an Elemental resurgence? Press on, dear reader, for a quick review of that most steamy of tribes: the Elementals.
Context and Metagame Development
Elementals didn’t make much of a splash upon release. Dedicated Elemental decks fell out of favor as soon as the Un’Goro honeymoon of experimentation ended, alongside the weaker Quests (Hunter, Druid, and Paladin). Mage did not have their Death Knight. The archetype was wholly eclipsed by Jade decks, both control and aggro. This is so often the case with the first expansion of a given year: its new mechanics and tribes get overshadowed by the powerful strategies of the prior expansion. Today (but hopefully not for much longer) we have aggro Paladin and Cubelock steamrolling over everything else. A year ago, Jades and Pirates steamrolled Elementals.
A few months later, Knights of the Frozen Throne gave Elementals a much-needed boost. Frost Lich Jaina made Elemental Mage into a potent control deck, slowly grinding out opponents, often to fatigue. Shaman, the other unofficial ‘Elementals class’, got next to nothing in the same vein. Instead, the turd of Hearthstone deck archetypes – Freeze – got an extensive polishing. As a result, aggro Shaman, with its Jade Claws and Lightning, remained the most powerful by far. Elementals were still in the background.
Elementals did show up most mainstream decks, however. They weren’t and aren’t being ignored: Radiant Elemental, Glacial Shard, Arcane Artificer, and especially Lyra the Sunshard have all been very popular. In Arena, Elementals are generally solid picks, e.g. Fire Fly, Frost Elemental. But in Standard, they were most powerful only as part of a different deck. The slow-roll, value-accruing, patient style of decks with Elementals as their core was (and is) rarely seen. Mike Donais, Hearthstone game designer, writes that “Elementals are fun because you can plan future turns in advance and get rewarded for it.” “If you put them all in, you gon’ be ballin’.” For most of the tribe’s existence, you were actually better off if you didn’t go “all in”. The type did not take off.
It took until the Year of the Raven for Elemental decks to inch closer to the limelight. With Jades and Pirates out of the picture, there is more freedom for them to flourish. Elemental Mage is on the rise, and the changes of the 22nd will only make the deck stronger. The Witchwood added a few new Elementals, which have bolstered the sometimes patchy tempo flow of Ele Mage.
As for the new Elemental cards of The Witchwood, decks now have helpful targeted draw in the form of Sandbinder. Nightmare Amalgam, while rarely seen in Elemental decks, is actually worth adding for its holy grail of stat distribution – 3 mana 3/4. Cauldron Elemental is much too heavy to be added into most decks, but it may be viable with repetitive usage of Fire Plume Harbinger and Murmuring Elemental. These two little Shaman Elementals, while not very impactful on their own, now provide powerful flexibility to the Shaman version.
I believe the way forward for Shaman is not Shudderwock or other Battlecry-themed gimmicks. Pure Elemental Shaman is rarely seen, and I would venture that it’s being slept on. The aforementioned 1/1 Battlecry Elementals should be used less in Shudderwock decks, which is sitting on a win-rate in the low forties, and more in combination with other Elementals. Grumble, Worldshaker has a lot of untapped potential. The possible combos, such as huge burst with Blazecaller/Murmuring Elemental and even Kalimos, aren’t really that hard to pull off. Since Warlock now has less healing thanks to the Dark Pact nerf (restore 4 rather than 8 hitpoints), it will be easier to burst them.
Elemental Mage has had more going for it than Shaman since Kobolds and Catacombs. Their synergy is superior: Leyline Manipulator combined with Ruby Spellstone and Primordial Glyph has meant that they can cheese out opponents with lucky random spells, at low costs. A superior early game – Mana Wyrm, Frostbolt, Steam Surger, Pyros – is only compounded by an even better late game, mostly due to Frost Lich Jaina. The seemingly unstoppable steamroller of value has been improved with Bonfire Elemental. Elementals generate more Elementals, and Mages generate more spells to boost those Elementals and control the board. Shaman is bogged down by Overload board clears; they don’t have efficient removal.
Now is the Time!
The time is riper than ever for Elemental decks. For too long they have hidden in the long shadows of Jades, Pirates, and now Paladin/Cubelock. One by one these overbearingly strong decks have faded away. Like their boss Ozruk, Elementals have endured – tenacious yet underwhelming – for the past year. There is a now gap in the meta. With the slew of balance changes sweeping the metagame, the Elemental surge may be at hand.