Hearthstone balance and ranked play update 7.1 analysis: The cure for Shaman

While some might have gotten chocolates or flowers, Blizzard’s present to us on Valentine’s Day was a new patch for Hearthstone that may – finally – fix the ever-stagnating meta, and in some interesting ways, too!

Instead of the nerf hammer, Blizzard was much more gentle, like a nerf surgeon, tweaking the game in small ways that are bound to have massive rippling effects throughout all decks and classes. Let’s take a look at what they have changed, shall we?

Change #1 – Small-Time Buccaneer now has 1 Health (Down from 2)

Game Director Ben Brode has previously stated that Patches the Pirate isn’t what is giving aggressive decks all their power, but rather Small-Time Buccaneer is. At the time, he said he didn’t have any idea what a nerf to Small-Time Buccaneer would look like. Fans theorized we would see a nerf to its power (down to 2 when equipping a weapon) or an increase to its cost (up to 2 with possibly another stat buff), but Blizzard has instead decided to make it more fragile, reducing its health to one.

This is perhaps the best change the card could have had, without nerfing it directly down into unplayability. STB’s 2 health meant you had to spend a card to kill it, but a one health minion can be killed by hero powers (Mage, Druid, Paladin, sometimes Shaman, Rogue), 0 mana creatures, pings, cheap AOE or whirlwind effects, and much, much more. This makes it incredibly fragile, unlikely to last long or deal damage against any major deck.

As a result, nearly every class will stop playing STB, except for one: Warrior. Warrior doesn’t particularly care about its fragility. Playing STB will get Patches on the board, which will deal extra damage as it is. If they survive – great. If not, then they continue to play into their powerful curve and try to burn you out before you stop their advance.

This is going to do several things to the meta. First, Miracle Rogue is going to get less powerful and likely fall out of the viable deck list. Without the ability to deal early damage with STB, Patches, and Swashburglar, it probably doesn’t put enough early game pressure on slower control decks.

Second, all aggro decks are going to take a big hit. This is going to put much less pressure on Reno decks and other control decks that like to play the long game. They will, naturally, increase in power as a result.

However, third, without aggro decks around, the answers to these decks will also get more powerful. For example, Jade Druid now has no aggressive threat to worry about, so it can just build mana and churn out infinite golems against Reno decks all it likes. Reno decks have a hard time handling the infinite value of Jade Idol, and the only thing keeping them from falling behind to jade decks was the fact that no jade deck other than Mid-Range Shaman could reliably defend against aggro decks.

In fact, any deck that just felt like it needed extra time will get better. Reno Priest, which was notoriously slower than Reno Mage and Renolock, might rise in the rankings. Mid-Range Handbuff Paladin can now get more value out of its cards without worry of an early game threat. Dragon Priest can set up its plays just a little bit slower in order to get the most out of Netherspite Historian and Drakonid Operative. Hunter…. Well, to be honest Hunter is probably still going to suck until the next expansion, but everyone else is going to get their time in the sun!

The key here is that these decks aren’t going to just rise from tier 3 to tier 2. Many of these decks were great counters for Reno decks that couldn’t survive pirates, and with pirates being out of the game we might see them being the go-to decks to play if you want to climb the later next season.

Change #2 – Spirit Claws now costs 2 Mana (Up from 1)

Shaman is on the road to being the most nerfed class in Hearthstone history, and for good reason. There was a time that no amount of aggression from this class could stand up to powerful taunts like Sludge Belcher. But when the standard rotation hit, the game shifted toward aggro in a serious way, and Shaman’s suite of overload cards was just the ticket to catapult it to tier 1 status.

This has made it incredibly difficult to print low cost Shaman card. Any 1 or 2 mana card that is even remotely good has a chance of making a Shaman list even better. This is exactly what happened with Spirit Claws. Under normal circumstances, a 1/3 weapon that sometimes gets a 2 strength buff wouldn’t be so bad. But Shaman has a million ways to activate Spirit Claws’ buff, from Bloodmage Thalnos, to Azure Drake, to rolling lucky on its hero power. This often sees Shaman with a near unbeatable 3/3 weapon on turn 3 or earlier with the coin. This effectively removes pretty much anything in the game you could play up until that point, and in combination with Shaman’s direct damage spells it became difficult to hold a threat on the board against them.

Increasing its mana cost to 2 does a couple of things. First of all, it puts it in competition with Jade Claws for the Shaman 2 drop slot. This effectively makes both weapons slightly less powerful and has a side effect of making the Shaman jade build slightly less powerful as well.

Second of all, it removes Shaman’s major ping. This might see some Shaman builds resort to running Earth Shock in order to handle low life minions.

Finally, it adds one extra mana cost to all of Shaman’s heavy removal options. You are far less likely to see Bloodmage Thalnos into Maelstrom Portal with Spirit Claws cleaning up the remnants, for example.

In general, I think we are going to see Shaman drop the pirate package all together, opting to lean heavier on jade synergy from now out. This makes Spirit Claws a less viable option than Jade Claws, which pushes them further up the jade ladder, which will likely put Spirit Claws out of play.

And with less reliable weapons and removal options, Shaman will end up slowing down, which will once again have the effect on the meta I mentioned above. Mid-Range and Control decks will get more powerful, allowing for slightly more deck experimentation.

And speaking of deck experimentation…

Change #3 – Rank 15, 10, and 5 are now considered “rank floors”

As it stands, there are currently only two rank floors in Hearthstone: Rank 20, and legend. Once you hit either of these ranks you can’t fall below them. This is a great way to get new players into the game, and to reward pros who are good enough to be the best of the best.

But what about the rest of Hearthstone’s player base? Well, they aren’t nearly so lucky. You could, on a bad day, fall all the way from Rank 1 to Rank 20 with a series of losses. All that progress toward legend wasted because of a little bad luck.

This causes something Blizzard calls Ladder Anxiety, the fear of losing your progress while in ranked play. This fear makes the meta stagnate.

When a new patch or expansion comes out, for a brief moment everyone experiments to try and find the best new deck until a dominating deck is found. Then, everyone starts playing that deck.

The experimentation period doesn’t continue because of this ladder anxiety. Any experimentation presents a chance to lose massive amounts of progress. So the only way experimentation can be “safe” is if everyone is doing it. Once a dominant deck is found, you are far more likely to have success playing it than experimenting to find the counter to it.

But with the addition of these new floors, players will now have incentive to conduct some mad science and find a new deck that totally upsets the meta. With every five ranks they will be able to play, essentially, whatever deck they like without threat of progress loss. The idea is that this should provide a constant stream of new deck ideas, and with millions of players trying new decks at multiple ranks powerful counter decks should be developed regularly, keeping the meta from stagnating.

These new Hearthstone changes are due out in a patch in late February. However, the patch will hit after the HCT Winter Playoffs end on February 24-25, allowing them to close out with the current meta.