With Hearthstone's new Witchwood expansion now available, the Year of the Raven is officially underway. Fans are busy developing new decks and the metagame is very much in flux. The question now is whether Blizzard can keep that momentum going through the whole year.
Blizzard worked hard to keep Hearthstone's metagame feeling fresh through 2017, but it still struggled with dominant decks that could make Standard play feel stale at times. Director Ben Brode talked about those issues in our recent interview with him, and how Blizzard plans to mitigate them in the new year.
"It's important that the meta changes," Brode told USgamer. "If it doesn't, then one of the things we've been doing is nerfing cards, usually one and three months after the set comes out."
Brode was acknowledging an issue that was very much at the forefront of the competitive community throughout last year. Archetypes like the Jade Idol and the Murloc-reliant Aggro Paladin proved dominant and made the Standard Ladder feel like a repetitive slog. The prospect of some of these cards rotating out brought with it a sigh of relief among some in the community.
Brode hopes that the new archetypes, keywords, and cards that come with each expansion will continue to shake things up. But he also sees an opportunity in the challenge of keeping things fresh. "Some players really like that phase of the metagame where they know what it is, they build the deck that they want, and they play a lot of games with it. But some players really like the chaos and the unknown," he explained.
Brode wants to find a way to balance the needs of both those who like the security of known, viable decks with those who like chaos. "We've tried some things. We've thought about adding a new format that's only active for the last month of a set, or pushing people more into the arena during that time," Brode said. "But one of the things we've been doing is having these out of game events that've been going on, things like dual class arenas, which are fun and kind of help the players who want chaos. But I do think that's a thing we don't have an across the board solution for just yet, and it would be better if we had something in that category."
Things did shift a fair bit in Kobolds & Catacombs, which was the most recent expansion to hit Hearthstone. Among other things, it brought with it the so-called Cubelock archetype—a deck that is built around using the Carnivorous Cube card to produce a large number of Doomguards, which have the ability to attack immediately and can frequently end the game. It revived the Warlock class after a long drought and send it rocketing back to the top tier.
Brode admits to have mixed feelings about the emergence of Cubelock. "I think it's awesome that players find really awesome synergies and combos. We were playing a lot of Cubelock before Kobolds & Catacombs, so I think we were kind of expecting that deck to become a thing. But it was awesome to see players discover it."
Brode doesn't feel that Cubelock is the most powerful deck, but he does find the emotional impact that it brings with it interesting. When it works, it can make players feel powerless, leaving them with an outsized frustration. He compared it to the old Quest Rogue deck, which the development team ultimately nerfed.
"The Quest Rogue was our 17th best deck, and we nerfed that deck because the emotional impact of losing to that deck was so high that we felt like it was worth the nerf," Brode said. "Not sure that Cubelock is at that level, and new sets are going to come out and change things pretty dramatically, the rotation as well. We'll see. We don't have plans to nerf it right now."
Brode was talking to us ahead of Witchwood, which launched late last week. Witchwood introduced the usual array of new cards as well as new mechanics like Echo and Rush. It also heralded the now annual set rotation, which saw multiple cards taken out of Standard Play.
It's another fresh start of sorts for Hearthstone, as Blizzard will build on some of what they started in the Year of the Mammoth. Hearthstone is a mature card game now, and Blizzard faces many of the same challenges as Magic The Gathering in trying to keep it vibrant. As always, the competitive community will be unpredictable as it jockeys for any possible advantage. We'll see if Blizzard is able to turn that challenge into the opportnity that Brode touts.
Witchwood is available now. Here's everything you need to know, as well as a guide to Witchwood decks to help get you started.