2018: The Hearthstone Year In Review
From Rank 20 to Legend, Warlock after Warlock drops Possessed Lackey into Dark Pact, into Voidlord and finally into Carnivorous Cube. The main combo is just six Mana, three cards and hands the ‘lock 6/18 worth of stats. Plus an 8-point heal.
It’s January 2018 and the meta consists of Call to Arms and Carnivorous Cube. Combo decks are back, but with an unwelcome vengeance. Jade Druid is still a thing. Do you miss it?
Fast forward to today and I think we can all agree that Hearthstone has made some serious leaps in the past twelve months.
From healthy mechanics like Rush and Magnetic, cool new archetypes like Odd and Even, to the speedy nerfs of problematic cards, it’s clear that 2018 brought a lot of positive change to the game.
What can we learn from the creative direction Blizzard took last year? The dying days of the Year of the Raven is the perfect time to re-examine some of the changes we saw, and to find out what worked – and what didn’t.
So without further rope-burning, let’s do like Toki Time-Tinker and delve back into recent history. Keep a Big Game Hunter on hand in case we run into Nozdormu!
The Witchwood, as I wrote last year, turned out to be an expansion that was low in power but strong as a supplement to other sets. It’s same old curse of the first expansion of the year, but we know now that The Witchwood contained cards that enhanced the rest of 2018 in a way that few sets have done in the past.
Baku the Mooneater and Genn Greymane are the filters through which every expansion in Standard, past or present, is perceived. They’re game-defining cards in a manner we rarely see.
The Start of Game mechanic didn’t previously exist, outside of One Night in Karazhan’s Prince Malchezaar (of 35 Legendary Deck fame). The only other deck-defining archetype was the Reno effect: one copy of each card only. It was reheated in later expansions a few times, with dramatically varying degrees of success – eg. Inkmaster Solia, Raza the Chained, Kazakus.
Many of the super-powerful ladder-devil decks of 2018, such as Odd Paladin and Baku Rogue, were only possible because of The Witchwood. I don’t need to say again just how strong these decks were, but their overarching consistency was something unique to the Odd/Even archetype. You always have the buffed hero power – before, you might never even draw Raza or Reno.
These decks didn’t burst onto the scene as soon as The Witchwood was released. They took months to come together, gradually picking up momentum with each tranche of new cards and phase of the metagame. Initially seen as a low-impact, innocuous set (also the only expansion with “Hearthstone” in its display header) perhaps Witchwood was actually sleeper OP?
The Witchwood had another long-term impact. Rush pretty much replaced Charge. The last time we had a new Charge minion was in August 2017 with Knights of the Frozen Throne. Considering there was a strong case for Charge being removed from the game entirely, the introduction of Rush and its continued support in following sets is an excellent compromise. It’s fast board control without the inherent toxicity of spells and face damage. Minion-based combat, trading and squeezing out value, is where Hearthstone’s best gameplay is. Rush makes the most of it.
The abundance of Rush in Rastakhan’s Rumble means that Team 5 saw how it performed in The Witchwood and actively chose to add more. Because expansions are made two in advance, (The Boomsday Project was complete when The Witchwood was released, with Rastakhan also nearly done) the devs evidently saw Rush was a winner and thus invested in it heavily. That didn’t happen with Joust or Inspire.
Enrage was quietly removed, “cleaned up” as designer Peter Whalen put it, and Echo cards began haunting Hearthstone. Much like The Witchwood itself, Echo’s impact has been more lowkey. It’s an auxiliary type, with a helper role as part of larger decks and strategies like Buffadin (Sound the Bells!) and Odd Warrior (Phantom Militia, Warpath). Like Odd and Even, it took time for its benefits to be appreciated on the Ranked ladder.
More Of The Same?
A big problem of the 2018 metagames was that in many ways, they were a continuation of the previous year. Aggro Paladin stayed on top pretty much throughout and is still potent. Deathstalker Rexxar’s buff to include new Beasts put Hunter definitively at or near the top of all control decks. You could argue that Odd and Even just made strong decks even stronger, like Evenlock and Paladin.
Magnetic, while it wasn’t an abject failure of a keyword like Joust or Inspire, has fallen short of its goal. Despite some grandiose predictions (such as those made by yours truly, which you’d forgotten all about, right?), building mega-Mechs ran into one – or perhaps two – huge brick walls.
Silence, via Ironbeak Owl and Spellbreaker, just wrecked Magnetic. Silence was already a must-have in most decks post-Kobolds, and this continued to be the case throughout 2018 and into the present day. Magnetic is only really useful as a sort of pseudo-Charge, used in one turn to get a quick value trade or big Lifesteal. For this reason, Zilliax is the only competitive standalone Mech. Imagine if Rexxar’s Zombeasts could be silenced – it’s a huge disadvantage. Omega and Project cards are also largely forgotten. This was a disappointment for me.
The Nerf Hammer Got Buffed
This is the biggest change of all. I’m referring to the December 19 changes, where Wild Growth, Level Up! and Nourish were increased in Mana cost, among other tweaks. Just three weeks after Rastakhan’s Rumble was released, some of the most powerful classes took a huge power hit.
The speed at which Team 5 spotted and addressed the community’s concerns is unprecedented. We’re not used to such fast changes. It took nearly six months for Dark Pact/Possessed Lackey to receive nerfs; Corridor Creeper, maybe the most hideously overpowered card ever to see the light of Standard, wasn’t fixed for two months; Patches the Pirate, the developers’ darling, didn’t get nerfed for over a year after its release. Blatantly over-tuned cards have historically been given the benefit of the doubt. No longer.
What’s more, another patch dated January 9 fixed some imbalances in Arena and in Rumble Run. Hunter, Rogue and Warrior now get fewer good cards and the other six classes get more. Shaman in particular needed some help in that mode, so this is a welcome change.
Looking towards 2019, I think the increased pace and responsiveness of balance changes is going to have the biggest impact on Hearthstone as a whole. Assuming this faster rate continues, we can expect power outliers to be put back in line more often than ever before. Of course, this brings some concerns with it – increased meta volatility will cause problems for tournament players, for example – but for the broader player base, the more nerfs the better.