The Year of the Dragon: An Epic Year Ahead!
The successor to the Year of the Raven has been announced, and the changes the Year of the Dragon will bring are certainly dragon-sized. Appropriately resembling Onyxia, the monstrous queen of the Black Dragonflight and her brood of whelps, there are a few big changes and a lot of smaller ones.
Let’s sally forth into the dragons’ den and take a closer look at some of what’s to come. You’d better be able to handle it!
Hall of Fame Additions
The Hall of Fame is undoubtedly the raid boss of the Year of the Dragon announcement. As I’m sure you know already, there are no less than nine new entries this year. It’s a real mixed bag. Among them are some of Hearthstone’s most venerable and beloved cards, and some that most of us probably forgot existed (Glitter Moth? What?).
Starting with the Classic set, the loss of Doomguard suggests that Warlock – particularly its most traditional deck, Zoolock – is going to struggle in 2019 unless it gets some real heavy-hitters in the coming expansion. Doomguard is one of the few competitive Charge minions left in the game.
Its relegation to Wild presents the biggest hit to Zoo Warlock since Power Overwhelming entered the Hall of Fame back in April 2017. Combo decks involving Possessed Lackey and Carnivorous Cube also made heavy use of Doomguard. The old dominance of Cubelock post-Kobolds and Catacombs, which could spawn two to four Doomguards in a single turn, formed an unpleasant metagame that we can plausibly assume helped encourage the developers to rotate Doomguard.
Sadly for Warlock, Team 5 has repeatedly explained that Charge minions restrict design space; in this case, Warlock’s own class design is the issue. They do not want Gul’dan to SMOrc. With the newest Charge minion, Chillblade Champion, due to rotate out alongside the rest of Knights of the Frozen Throne, we may eventually see Charge become a Wild-only keyword.
Moving on to Naturalize, I think this one is pretty straightforward. It’s an annoying spell that is unfair, but in way that’s especially mean to Druid’s opponents. Much like with Coldlight Oracle, having your deck milled as you watch helplessly isn’t something that Hearthstone needs.
It also undoes some of the worst excesses created by the existence of Mecha’thun. The Druid version of this OTK deck is the strongest: powerful ramp, card draw and instant cheap removal via Naturalize makes it exceedingly cheesy. It’s bad news for YouTubers, but good news for all those who don’t enjoy abrupt losses after twenty minutes of the Druid stalling.
Perhaps Big Game Hunter will make a comeback for Druids who want easy big minion removal?
Divine Favor is a card that nets an absurd amount of card draw at a low cost and an unacceptably high frequency. It’s the turbine jet engine behind all aggressive Paladin decks. With Baku, Genn, Corpsetaker and Sunkeeper Tarim also leaving Standard, we may finally see the end of Aggro Paladin as an archetype. Champagne anyone?
Speaking of which, the Odd and Even deck types are gone from Standard come the Year of the Dragon. The devs have set a radical new precedent by choosing to rotate cards that came out less than a year ago.
Most of us understood that Baku Mooneater and Genn Greymane had to be weakened in some way – the designer Iksar said as much – but I never expected that they would be done away with entirely. Some may interpret their early Standard demise as an embarrassing admission of a design mistake; but I would argue that it’s proof of a new (and very welcome) hands-on approach to the meta.
The Baku/Genn rotation, a year ahead of schedule, confirms what we started to see towards the end of 2018: that Team 5 has adopted a full-blooded interventionist policy towards game balance. When design problems crop up, the team will do all it takes to enforce a “fun and exciting meta”, as creative director Ben Thompson put it in his Hearthside Chat.
As we can see with recent nerfs to Hunter’s Mark and others, and now with these new Wild rotations, class identity is taking center stage. The aggressive Classic and Basic set changes are evidently intended to iron out some of the kinks and irregularities that still exist in each class’s design.
Something that long-term players of World of Warcraft may also recognize is that any move away from homogenous, same-y classes is a good thing! Now we just need to decide who out of Mage and Shaman gets to keep Hex or Polymorph…
Single-player content is leveling up in the Year of the Dragon. Building upon the somewhat unequal successes of the Dungeon Run, Monster Hunt, Puzzle Lab and Rumble Run adventures, this year’s three expansions will combine their best features with an older system that we last saw with the final Adventure, One Night in Karazhan.
In response to complaints that the free missions weren’t rewarding enough (normally no more than a card back), players can now pay either real money or 700 gold to unlock progressive wings of the new single-player content. They will provide a whole host of rewards, from Golden packs to a new hero.
Missions are getting a lot richer, in both narrative and gold cost. Like in Naxxramas through to Karazhan, they’ll be a major gold sink; but unlike those early Adventures, it comes in return for a vastly deeper experience. It seems to me like a fairly neutral change overall, seeing as the first wing is free, though of course we will have to wait to see how it feels upon release.
What I’m interested in is the pivot towards more cohesion in Hearthstone’s storytelling. The stories behind the missions that accompany each expansion will be tied together, says Ben Thompson: a “cross-year narrative, connecting each and every [expansion]”.
It’s hard to know what this means in advance, but it signals two things. Firstly, the disjointed and even jarring progression through three unconnected big batches of content each year is being smoothed out into something more unified.
Is this the beginning of a years-long Hearthstone storyline that meaningfully moves beyond World of Warcraft’s content? The second suggestion is yes – Hearthstone lore is going to be a thing. It makes a lot of sense. It’s far easier for both the creative team and players alike if the 400-something cards released each year form part of a larger narrative.
A broader, lengthier Hearthstone story is more comprehensible for returning players; chapters of a big story are better than disconnected short ones. What’s more, it may also have an impact on the Ranked ladder.
The devs want to “explore in-game events that change the way you think about the expansion metagame.” As far as cryptic statements go, this is one of the worst offenders! It’s a hint, however, that the new creative direction will introduce some volatility to the meta.
Perhaps for two weeks the city of Dalaran might float through the Hearthstone universe and give players some unique cards to use in Ranked? Old sets are returning in Arena; maybe select expansions will make a Standard comeback for a short period?
We can only speculate on what the Dragon will bring, but what we do know is that a stagnant story and metagame won’t be part of it.