Identity Crisis: RNG and Shamans in Hearthstone

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Identity Crisis: RNG and Shamans in Hearthstone
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In September of 2017, the dev team for Hearthstone implemented a number of nerfs to Basic set cards that they felt were too much of a constant in the game. No Druid deck would ever play without Innervate and no Warrior deck without Fiery War Axe. In Shaman's case, the hammer fell on Hex, which was long regarded as the best single-target removal card in the game. In their explanation for why Shaman had been targeted despite not being anywhere near the top of the meta and with only one mildly competitive deck (Evolve/Jade), they stated that “Shaman is a class that... is lacking in both class identity and identifiable weaknesses.” and that this change had been made to push the class toward achieving both of those goals. At the time, most players would have argued that Shaman was lacking in identifiable strengths, but the change happened and here we are, 9 months later, able to declare partial success: Shaman still lacks an identity, but it has weaknesses aplenty. 


Shaman still lacks a top tier deck of any kind. Furthermore, it lacks a deck theme other than the age-old “Midrange.” Midrange is essentially what Evolve/Jade was: a few fast and capable minions, some removal, and a couple of heavy hitters at the top of the curve to hopefully see the game out. Thematically, it involved the Evolve concept that Whispers of the Old Gods had introduced and which was isolated to Shaman. That theme was later perpetuated in Knights of the Frozen Throne with Unstable Evolution and the Shaman Death Knight. However, the body of the deck still wasn't evolving one's minions so much as it was “play the best cards available and find a win condition”, which is essentially what "midrange" means to a few classes, and that status has persisted into the Year of the Raven. There is no equivalent in Shaman to Taunt Druid or Quest Rogue or Tempo Mage or even the new even/odd archetypes. 

Even-costed Shaman is a deck, but mostly because it has a class card specifically geared toward it (the underwhelming Murkspark Eel) and it makes the Shaman hero power less of a mana risk, since it only costs 1. Even with Shaman being given one of the most unusual and talked about cards in the new set- Shudderwock -the deck built around it caused a flurry of excitement only for a couple days before opponents realized that the best thing to do when facing it was to follow the advice of Shaman's notorious Tunnel Trogg and go “Face!” It's like the converse to Field of Dreams: If you hit them, they will die. And they did and the deck went with them. Shudderwock has since found some use in Elemental decks which are, uh, “midrange” by almost any definition, both in makeup and competitiveness

But let's look at that one aspect of Even Shaman: the hero power being less of a mana risk. One of the constraining factors to Shaman in the game's 5-year lifespan since the beta is the RNG nature of its hero power. Alone among the nine classes, Shaman players don't know what they're getting when they spend two mana. They might get the 0/2 Taunt that buys them another turn. They might get an 0/2 healer that does nothing for them. They might get the +1 Spell damage that makes their Lightning Storm clear the board. They might get a 1/1 that does nothing for that situation. Paladins know that they're always going to get a 1/1 and they have several Basic, Classic, and current set cards that take advantage of that. Mages know that they will always be able to deal one damage to anything on the board. Warriors know they will always have two more effective life, even past their original total, and have cards that can take advantage of that. Shamans alone don't know if they'll be gaining something that is useful or wasting two mana. For Shaman alone is the hero power something done almost as a filler. If you have no other options, Totemic Call. Maybe it'll be good? 

This extends even to the Death Knights. Even if the new hero power is a radical departure from the original, it still fits the class thematically. Mages can still ping anything, but now it potentially summons them a Water Elemental which heals them. Rogues double any card they cast, enabling Combo abilities. Warrior damages the whole board, activating their self-damage initiated cards like Grom and Armorsmith. Deathseer Thrall randomly evolves a minion. That has nothing to do with totems. It's also yet another RNG power, which is perfectly capable of producing a worse result with the introduction of over-costed minions like Possessed Lackey that are designed to work in a deck constructed with them in mind. Plus, it's the Evolve theme that was pasted on in Whispers and really never built upon since then. In short, Shaman is hindered by the fact that its hero power isn't consistent and unlike the other classes, it has no good cards to take advantage of it (think Deadly Poison compared to Totemic Might...) So the basic ability of the class doesn't serve the task of giving it an identity, other than "uncompetitive." 

The only card that ever made consistently spinning the totem roulette wheel a good idea was another Whispers card: Thing from Below. Even if what you got was utterly useless, you at least knew that both of your Things were now cheaper, whether in your hand or in your deck. But Thing has now rotated out of Standard and, even with the introduction of totem-centric cards in Kobolds and Witchwood, it's often still not worth spending the two mana to get that random result. One card, Kobold Hermit, takes the guesswork out and gets you the totem you want and puts a 1/1 into play. OK! Free hero power (for whatever it's worth) and another 1/1. Its nearest obvious comparison is Warlock's Kobold Librarian, which also activates your hero power (i.e. draws you a card) and puts a 2/1(!) into play. The most recent addition, Totem Cruncher, actually punishes you for having spent so much mana over so many turns on your RNG hero power, since it destroys them for the benefit of a single minion in an extremely Silence-heavy environment. Incidentally, Shaman's new hero card, Hagatha, unique among classes in Witchwood, also wipes out your board full of totems. Is the new Shaman identity a form of self-destruction? 

The dev team even dropped the ball when trying to introduce a new identity to the class. Unlike Taunt or Armor Druid or Elemental Mage or Rush Warrior or Minionless Hunter, Freeze Shaman has never and will never see competitive play with the cards currently available. Fully 60% of the class cards for Shaman in Knights were Freeze-oriented. Only one was playable, Brrrloc, and only in Murloc decks (long lauded as a Shaman theme; seen any Quest Shaman decks lately? Me, neither.) The fact that the Freeze theme received precisely zero support in the two subsequent sets left most Shaman players baffled and struggling with the fact that Shaman had received precisely 2.5 competitive cards in Knights and Kobolds: Deathseer, Unstable, and Healing Rain (the .5.) 

My suspicion is that RNG being the specific failing of the class in terms of competitiveness and identity is also the restraining factor in design. When you do hit exactly the totem you need, Shaman's hero power has the potential to be more impactful than almost any other class. There's a snowball effect that could get out of control quite easily. Witness what happened when Blizzard spent a year trying to convince Shaman players to play Overload cards with Totem Golem, Tunnel Trogg, and the fabled 4-mana 7/7. Shaman ran rampant across the meta because the hindering mechanic that is Overload was suddenly a huge early advantage, exactly as it was originally intended to be and never was before that and hasn't been since. Totems could have that potential, simply because of their often narrow application. Everyone remembers Tuskarr Totemic, which allowed you to spend 3 mana for a 3/2... and a free 3/4! Or a free +2 attack to everything around it! Or a free card draw! However, when they changed it to "free thing that you usually waste two mana on", the card disappeared. 

Team 5 has a longstanding affectation for RNG, which they've mentioned many times. They think random effects add replayability and "excitement" to the game. What they don't seem to get is that card games already have a random effect. It's called "drawing cards." With next to no deck manipulation in Hearthstone, almost every turn is a random effect because you don't know what you're going to draw and neither does your opponent. Replayability! The problem, of course, for Shaman is that their hero power, an essential part of their baseline identity, is also a random draw. It's tough to design cards around a random element, which means it's tough to keep a class relevant even above the difficulties of the interactions of hundreds of cards and an ever-shifting meta with millions of players and deck designers. I think the solution to Shaman's identity crisis might be changing their baseline identity to something more predictable, for the benefit of both Shaman players and anyone playing against them. 

Marc has been into Hearthstone since the second week of the closed beta and still hasn't bothered to get to Legend. You can find him occasionally tweeting, sometimes ranting about politics, but mostly writing here at There Will Be Games. If you're so inclined, please feel free to support the site at the link at the bottom of the page and/or the writer

There Will Be Games
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
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Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.


Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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MacDirk Diggler's Avatar
MacDirk Diggler replied the topic: #273155 11 May 2018 15:00
I appreciate you man. Great article. You hit it out of the park with first paragraph. Really sets the tone and draws me in to want to read more. And tied up nicely with conclusion paragraph. I hope this gets decent views here.

I don’t like the 1/1 searing totem. If they just cut that out and left the other 3 it would be an improvement
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #273157 11 May 2018 15:34
Thanks! There were supposed to be more images to break up the text a bit, but we're having formatting issues, and Matt and Shellie and others are already deep in the weeds trying to get other things on the site changed. So, progress. I expanded the original post about Cathedral Gargoyle and sent that to Matt, as well, so it's in the queue. I'm tinkering with the one about Kripp's DreadCube deck right now. I linked this piece in a response on the main HS sub, which was complaining about that sub being nothing but shitposts and CompetitiveHS being nothing but netdecking advice, so we'll see if we pick up any interest from there.

As for Searing Totem... I think it would serve a purpose if it did something other than just be Shaman's version of a Dude. Granted, it becomes a 3/1 if you drop a Flametongue next to it, but it's usually the least exciting of results. I remember thinking a while back that it could be another 0/2 that deals out 1 damage to a random enemy target at the end of each turn, similarly to how it used to function in WoW. That still wouldn't resolve the RNG problem of both Totemic Call and its targeting, but it would at least be more interesting.

Gotta get to work on some of the TV and film stuff, too...
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #273557 17 May 2018 21:20
Jeebus, I hate Even Shaman. People keep talking it up as "viable", but every time I play it, I feel like I'm out of answers as soon as we hit the midgame and I end up spending I don't know how many turns fruitlessly summoning totems that simply get mowed down by the all the AoE that people have in their decks to deal with Paladin. It remains the main argument I had made in this piece: the RNG still isn't worth the mana risk, but in the case of Even, you end up doing it because there are so many turns where you don't have any other choice because you always have 1 spare mana. The reason Even Paladin works is that you're always gonna get that Dude. If I need to contest the board, my 1 mana gets me... and 0/2 Healing Stream. Maybe this was the deck that Totem Cruncher was intended for...? But, man, that card is still so one-note that I can't bring myself to play it because I know I'll just concede the one time I get an 8/9 Cruncher and my opponent just follows with a Spellbreaker.

I switched over to Midrange and immediately won against Cutlass Rogue by Unstabling out a Deathwing and getting two Ancestral Spirits from Hagatha to keep it going through everything he could throw at it. Considering the number of Shaman cards he got off me and continued to get from me while I tried to beat him down with the Earth Dragon, I was certain a Hex would be in there.