How Hearthstone’s “Best Meta Ever” is slowly killing the game

With the release of Journey to Un’Goro, interest in Hearthstone has been at an all-time high. The recent standard shift into the Year of the Mammoth has finally dethroned Shaman as the one class to rule them all. Control decks and combo decks are now finding their way into tier 1. Most of the legendaries don’t suck, making each one you open a happy surprise. It’s the golden age of Hearthstone, a time when anyone can play anything and have a fighting chance… or so the general fanbase believes.

But don’t get too excited. Sure, Blizzard has made a few key decisions that will help Hearthstone gain popularity in the short term, but these very same decisions will slowly start to drive people away from the game in the long term. In fact, there are a few pressing issues that, if not fixed soon, may cause a mass player exodus, especially with other digital card-game alternatives like Gwent on the rise.

Stuff of Legend

The first problem is, hilariously enough, the quality of the aforementioned legendary cards. Nearly all of them are good, and that should be a good thing… right?

Unfortunately, wrong. See, Hearthstone earned its fanbase by being a free to play game. The general idea was that anyone who played hard enough could support their habit without spending a lot of cash. The best players would only need to spend money on special pre-order sales in order to remain competitive.

But that was only because most high rarity cards, frankly, sucked. For example, the relevant legendaries in the last set, Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, were Aya Blackpaw, Kazakus, Patches, and your choice of Raza, Finja, or Kun, depending on what sort of janky decks you liked to play. Four legendaries cost 6400 dust, an easy amount to make as long as you complete all your daily quests.

However, there are far more relevant legendaries in Journey to Un’Goro. Combo Mage needs the Mage quest. Every Priest deck needs Lyra the Sunshard. Taunt Warrior requires the Warrior quest. Elemental Shaman requires Kalimoos. Murloc shaman requires the murloc quest. That’s five legendaries right there for four decently powerful decks. Add to that Sunkeeper Tarim, Awaken the Makers, Clutchmother Zavas, Elise Trailblazer, Hemet Jungle Hunter, Lakari Sacrifice, Spiritsinger Umbra, Sherazin, Corpse Flower, Swamp King Dred, The Caverns Below, and The Marsh Queen – all the legendaries considered playable in this expansion – and you are staring down a whopping 27,200 dust. At the average dust rate of 40 a pack, you are going to have to buy 680 packs before you get all of those in your collection. At $1.167 per pack, the best rate you can get on Blizzard’s store, you are looking at a near 800 dollar expenditure in dust alone!

Granted, that’s the worst case scenario. You will actually spend far less because you will simply open some of these cards in packs. However, even when you factor in the general appearance rate of legendary cards into the equation, it’s estimated that you’ll end up spending the equivalent of 400 dollars just to be able to play every viable archetype in the current meta.

That’s INSANE! There is no way that more casual players can keep their decks even remotely up-to-date with that much monetary pressure put on them.

Where’s Your Sense of Adventure?

Luckily, Blizzard used to intersperse expansions with “adventures,” which allowed you to receive every card in them for a flat price of about 20 dollars. This severely reduced monetary strain on casual users in the past.

Except this year, Blizzard decided that they would be getting rid of adventures all together! Instead, they said they were going to make single-player content tied to expansions. However, we haven’t seen any of it for Journey to Un’Goro. The most we got was a few free packs (3 Un’Goro packs) and a new Rogue hero. And while the hero is cool and the packs are nice, it doesn’t come anywhere close to what we got for Whispers of the Old Gods (13 free packs and a legendary) or even Mean Streets of Gadgetzan (9 free packs).

So, yes, Blizzard just released their most expensive expansion yet, and gave us the fewest free rewards for playing. This alone is keeping much of their fanbase out of the game.

More Archetypes, Fewer Ways to Win

What further keeps their dedicated fans out of the game is the new meta. Yes, the meta is more flexible than ever before with a variety of deck archetypes allowing for varied styles of play. The issue is that these many and varied styles of play are not balanced, they become their own counter-picks.

Examine one of the newest archetypes: Quest Rogue. Quest Rogue has the capability of winning on turn 5. It doesn’t do much before then; it just bounces minions on and off the board. However, given enough time, Quest Rogue will turn everything it has into a 5/5 and beat you down with charge creatures.

Quest Rogue can complete its quest without interacting with the opponent in any way. It doesn’t have to leave anything on the board, if played correctly. There is exactly one card, Dirty Rat, that can disrupt an opponent’s hand in Hearthstone. So if you don’t draw Dirty Rat or aren’t running it, Quest Rogue will go off and you will have to deal with a board full of 5/5s.

How do you do that? Well, you either have to have enough board wipes to clear multiple boards of 5/5 minions or you have to set up a situation where you take advantage of Quest Rogue’s first four turns of inactivity to deal enough damage to allow you to win despite their eventual board of 5/5s.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of classes that can routinely wipe the board. Mage’s best board wipe, Flamestrike, does 4 damage, not 5. Hunter has no board clear at all, nor does Druid. Paladin can clear the board with an Equality combo but can only do that twice. Priest can clear the board with Dragonfire Potion, but only twice. Shaman has many board clears, but none that do 5 damage. Therefore, the only two classes that can routinely handle multiple boards filled with 5/5s are Warlock with Fellfire Potion, Twisting Nether, and DOOM!, and Warrior with Brawl and Whirlwind/Sleep With the Fishes combos.

Two classes in the whole game that can play against Quest Rogue slowly. This is why Taunt Warrior is so popular in the meta right now. It’s one of the only decks that can be played to decent effect against Quest Rogue.

So let’s examine Taunt Warrior. This is a deck that slowly builds up a wall of taunts with high health while aiming to complete the Warrior quest, which gives them the absurd ability to deal 8 damage randomly to a target on the board each turn. It’s pretty neat and pretty powerful. How do you beat it?

Well, you can either out-value it by playing slower but simply having too many threats for the deck to deal with, or you can rush it down to defeat it before it completes its quest.

Notice the problem? We just said that there are only two classes that can play slowly and win against Quest Rogue, and one of them was Taunt Warrior. This means that the only cross section of classes that can beat both Taunt Warrior and Quest Rogue by playing slowly is Warlock.

Except it can’t, because the other popular decks in the meta beat it by playing slower than it does. For example, a slow playing Warlock will lose almost 100% of the time to Quest Mage, which has two separate ways to set up for a one turn kill. It will also lose to Quest Priest and Dragon Priest, as well as the good old fallback of Jade Druid.

In short, Warlock will lose to decks that cannot beat the decks it can win against. So no one will play it.

Here Be Pirates

So now we have learned that there is basically no slow deck in the meta other than Taunt Warrior. So let’s look at those two decks again, Taunt Warrior and Quest Rogue, and examine the other win condition: rushing them down. To do this, you need to have a deck that can win by turn 5 or 6, well before Taunt Warrior can set up their wall and Quest Rogue can get their first board of 5/5s. Well, there is only one aggro deck in the meta that does that: Pirate Warrior. The bane of everyone’s existence in the meta last year rears its ugly head.

And how do you beat Pirate Warrior? You hold out past its heavy early game onslaught until it runs out of gas. Luckily, there are plenty of new ways to do this with Journey to Un’Goro, including efficient Taunt minions, ways to heal up your main character, weapon destruction, and Golakka Crawler, which specifically destroys Pirates!

The issue is that all of these strategies fold to Quest Rogue and Taunt Warrior. Playing taunts or heals against either will just give them time to complete their quest and kill you. So people, surely enough, don’t play these counter measures.

This leaves us with three possibly viable decks: Pirate Warrior, Taunt Warrior, and Quest Rogue, because every other deck in the game has counter-picks that shut them down. These decks do as well! We just mentioned that Taunt Warrior and Quest Rogue are vulnerable to being rushed down. What’s the only viable deck that rushes down the opponent? PIRATE WARRIOR!

That’s right. The same damn ludicrously good aggro deck that everyone hated in the last meta is the same damn ludicrously good aggro deck that you have to play in THIS meta. NOTHING HAS CHANGED! I’m not the only one who thinks so. Check out any professional Hearthstone resource and you’ll see Pirate Warrior sitting right at the top of the tier list.

That means that Hearthstone is currently a game that forces you to spend a ton of money to have fun, and at the end of the game the same frustrating deck ends up winning anyway.

Who would want to play a game like that?

Balance is Everything

As popular as Hearthstone is, the developers haven’t learned a core lesson that games like Magic: The Gathering learned a long time ago. Every good deck needs to be able to play on an even standing with every other good deck. There can be good and bad matchups, but at the end of the day the best decks need to be able to compete with each other, not counter each other. The worst Magic metas were metas where the top decks heavily counter-played each other. At that point, players would just lock on to the one deck that had the best win rate in its bad matchup and that was the deck everyone played. It wasn’t interesting at all.

The best Magic metas were ones where the top decks DIDN’T counter-pick each other. Instead, each tier 1 versus tier 1 match was a highly strategic battle of playing the right cards at the right time.

But, then again, this balance is hard to find, because Magic: The Gathering has had twenty years to perfect it’s craft and its current meta features only one or two viable decks, which is even worse than a meta of three decks that counter-pick each other.

Blizzard is getting there, but slowly. They have routinely nerfed non-interactive cards like Charge, even if they weren’t at the top of the meta, which makes it seem so odd that they would print non-interactive quests like Rogue’s The Caverns Below or Mage’s Open the Waygate. If it weren’t for these decks, players would have the liberty of playing their decks a little bit slower, ousting Pirate Warrior from its king-of-all-decks throne and allowing for more flexibility and creativity in deckbuilding.

If Blizzard sticks by the policies they have stuck by in the past, then we are going to see a nerf to The Caverns Below relatively soon. However, that’s just going to anger everyone who enjoys the deck, or who spent money on the cards for the deck. No one particularly wants to play a game where the cards they spend money on are invalidated within a few months’ time.

How does Blizzard fix this? Quality control. They need to allow pro grade players to play their expansions before they come out. They need to give players the opportunity to break an expansion inside and out before it releases. This way they can reduce the chances of accidentally printing a card that ends up being degenerate. It’s better to have a bunch of bad cards in your set than a bunch of good cards that make the game unplayable.

And I know that there are going to be people out there who respond to this by saying, “No deck is unbeatable” – and you are right. However, playing Hearthstone should be fun. It shouldn’t be a grind. You shouldn’t have to be pigeonholed into archetypes just to stand a winning chance. You should be rewarded for creativity, not punished for it. So ask yourselves, is playing these top tier decks any fun?

And if you can’t have fun and be good at the same time, why play Hearthstone?

As more and more players ask themselves that question, Blizzard will soon realize that high costs and restrictive metas will only cost them players in the long term. At that point, they will either have to make a drastic change to the game to keep it alive, or just continue trying to squeeze money from the remnants of their fanbase. Either way, what we are left with will be a far cry from “the Golden Days of Hearthstone.”