Hearthstone had a busy 2015, to say the least. Last year saw the release of two new solo adventures and a new expansion, as well as metagame-altering nerfs to the Undertaker and Grim Patron. The result has been a fluid and interesting competitive game that has grown to be more popular than ever, with Blizzard's CCG reaching some 40 million players as of November.
League of Explorers has been a particularly positive addition. Lauded as one of Hearthstone's most entertaining adventures to date, it added a host of new and interesting cards, a few of which have given rise to entirely new deck archetypes. More importantly, it has encouraged people to stretch out and experiment, temporarily alleviating concerns from just a few months ago that the metagame had become moribund.
Here are a few observations on the metagame in the wake of League of Explorers.
- The metagame has slowed down quite a bit: Just a few months ago, Hearthstone was swarming with aggressive Hunter and Warlock decks, with Warrior being the slowest and most deliberate class. Since then, Hunter has fallen dramatically out of fashion while Warlock has re-aligned to a more control-based approach, and Priest has started to rise to prominence. The reason? Reno Jackson, a six-mana card from League of Explorers capable of healing you back to full health so long as you have no duplicate cards in your deck. The mere fact of Reno Jackson has precipitated the decline of the uber-aggressive Hunter class, giving more deliberate classes like Priest room to breathe. Super aggro decks are definitely still around, but the metagame as a whole is much slower than it was before.
- The Discover mechanic is the 'good' kind of RNG: There's been a considerable amount of debate around Blizzard's decision to focus on cards with random effects. While it's true that RNG keeps games dynamic and interesting, it can also lead to the impression that winning is more a matter of luck than skill. Enter the Discover mechanic, which has become common since League of Explorers. Rather than simply giving you a card at random, Discover will give you a choice between three cards, with special weight given to class cards. This makes it fairly easy to draw a situationally useful card while also benefiting from the presence of a minion. Not surprisingly, Dark Peddler and Museum Curator, both of which rely on the Discover mechanic, have become mainstays for Warlocks and Priests, with more to come.
- The Shaman is still kind of a mess: Blizzard deliberately set out to make the Shaman more competitive with The Grand Tournament by adding a number of new cards and class-friendly mechanics; but so far, little has changed for the game's weakest class. A very aggressive variant of Shaman has become somewhat popular, but not enough to become a mainstay, and the Overload mechanic hurts tempo too much to be viable. Of all the available classes in Hearthstone, the Shaman is most in need of a serious rethink.
- Dr. Boom continues to own the metagame: If you decide to play Hearthstone, the first legend you need to seriously invest in is Dr. Boom. Full stop. With his 7/7 body and his two free boom bots, Dr. Boom is guaranteed to offer value even if he is sniped down by a Big Game Hunter, to say nothing of his synergy with spells like Savage Roar. As such, Dr. Boom is automatically included in pretty much every midrange and control deck, and sometimes even finds his way into super aggressive decks. Blizzard has yet to find a viable alternative for Doc Boom in the seven slot; and until that changes, anyone who is constructing a new deck has to answer the immediate and pressing question of how to deal with Dr. Boom (and to a less degree, the Piloted Shredder). Alleviating the dominance of these two cards without outright nerfing them will be one of Hearthstone's many challenges in the new year.
- The Secret Paladin is The Grand Tournament's most annoying contribution: The Grand Tournament didn't make as much of a splash as many were hoping, but it did change the metagame in one substantial way - it gave the game's most annoying deck. The Secret Paladin has risen to prominence in the wake of the Grim Patron nerf, becoming one of the game's most popular decks in part because it's relatively easy to use. All you need to do is establish a strong board; then, when Turn 6 comes around, you drop the Mysterious Challenger - a minion that will automatically equip one of each secret in your deck. Without a direct counter like Flare, all you can do is play around the secrets as best you can while hoping that the Mysterious Challenger doesn't get pulled right away. Most of the time, the secrets will all pop and you will find yourself deal with an extremely strong board capable of winning the game. Even if you know what to do, it's one of the most awkward and irritating decks in the game. No surprise that it's so popular.
- Overall, Hearthstone is more diverse and enjoyable than it was a few months ago: While not always perfect, Blizzard has nevertheless done a pretty remarkable job of building Hearthstone's competitive game over the past couple years. With the possible of the Shaman, almost every class is viable in some way, and Blizzard has done a good job of shaking things up whenever the metagame has become stale. It's worth wondering if Blizzard will be able to maintain Hearthstone's breakneck evolution over the next couple years while keeping things balanced; but for now, even with the Secret Paladin running riot, the metagame is in a good place. Even at the highest levels, you're apt to see a broad range of decks and strategies.
Going into 2016, Blizzard will have some interesting decisions to make regarding Hearthstone's future. Rumors abound that at some point they will begin retiring certain sets or putting them on hiatus, which will have the effect of shaking up the metagame without having to introduce new cards. Another expansion and a new adventure will appear at some point, and with them will come new mechanics and cards. And, of course, Blizzard will continue to build Hearthstone's credentials as a top-tier eSport.
A mere two years after its initial release, Hearthstone has arguably grown into Blizzard's most important game, and there's every reason to believe that momentum will carry deep into 2016.
I'm not a particularly competitive player. I like building "fun" decks that are interesting and varied to play, rather than copying the latest flavor-of-the-month builds and testing them on the leaderboards – so my view of the current metagame is skewed towards casual play. And as such, I think Hearthstone is in good shape as of now.
While there are definitely a few strong decks in the environment – Secret Pally, Face Hunter, Control Warrior, and Freeze and Aggro Mage are generally tough to beat – I think there's enough "rock, paper, scissors" cards and deck concepts to ensure that there aren't any truly monstrous decks out there that can ruin everything like Grim Patron Warrior decks were doing but a couple of months ago.
League of Explorers has been a really interesting new addition to the game, and some of the cards it brought with it really helped mix things up. In particular Reno Jackson, whose restore-your-life-to-30 gimmick essentially spawned a whole new range of viable decks. I've been playing with a Mage variant that is particularly entertaining. Since you have to ensure that when you play Reno, you don't have any duplicate cards in your deck, that means you can include all sorts of fun utility singles into your build, giving it an almost Swiss Army Knife-like appeal.
I've also been playing around with Druid and Rogue Mill decks, which are quite enjoyable to play – and challenging to win with. They definitely aren't leaderboard material, but I just like the idea of going up against an opponent and countering everything they can throw at me, eventually running them out of cards. It's definitely the most stressful type of deck, since your back is against the wall the whole game, but it's really rewarding to play when it works.
The deck I've been having the most fun with, though, is a Pally Murloc deck that I've been tinkering with for a few weeks. I love theme decks, and the new League of Explorers card, Everyfin in Awesome – which summons seven random Murlocs that died that game – can make for a great and surprising finisher.
Ultimately, I feel the current environment is in a state of flux. There are plenty of deck archetypes that work well, and more are being experimented with as we speak. I'm sure a few really strong decks will eventually emerge from this current crop of cards, but for now I think we can enjoy one of the most open and refreshing Hearthstone metagames than we've seen in months.