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A week after the nerfs to free up the meta, Hearthstone still mostly plays without the latest set.

Vicious Syndicate tracks the Hearthstone meta on a regular basis. They produce meta reports (the latest of which is here) that detail the classes and decks being played, from the highest level to the morass at the bottom. But it was a post on CompetitiveHS that made me sit up and take notice yesterday, since it demonstrated two things.

First off, this is probably the most diverse collection of genuinely competitive decks that the game has ever seen. That's a reason to celebrate, without question. Almost every class in the game has at least one competitive deck, if not several, and there are no dominant decks that mean you'll be seeing the same cards thrown down in front of you 3 out of every 5 times you play. That's awesome; full stop. But the other factor is this: most of those competitive decks play very few, if any, Witchwood cards.

Now, we've been here before. When The Grand Tournament was released almost three years ago, the card set had a very low impact on the game (with a couple notable  exceptions.) The Joust mechanic was underwhelming and the cards, in general, simply didn't have the explosiveness or game-altering power of the Classic set, as well as Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins vs Gnomes; both of them notorious for having some of the most powerful cards the game has ever seen. However, this was still relatively early in the game's development and with subsequent sets and adventures, there have almost always been some transformative effects on decks and counter-decks, from Mechs to Old Gods to Quests and beyond. But that's not really the case at the moment.

Despite a variety of decks bursting forth since the shackles of Call to Arms and Possessed Lackey were thrown off, the vast majority of them are made up mostly of cards that existed pre-Witchwood. It's almost as if these nerfs could have taken place months ago (such as when people were calling for them after the release of Kobolds...) and the meta might have been something similar to what we have now for the past half year. The above-referenced post listed the common deck compositions for 19(!) different decks that are currently perceived to be Tier 1 or Tier 2. Four of them (Even Shaman, Shudderwock Shaman, Odd Rogue, Tempo Mage) had 4, 4, 3, and 3 Witchwood cards, respectively, in their most common lists. That's much less than you'd expect from a new set introducing enhancements to existing archetypes. Of course, two of them didn't even exist as archetypes before Witchwood's introduction of Genn Greymane and Baku Mooneater and a third was absent, as well, until the appearance of Shudderwock.

The argument here isn't that Witchwood didn't change the meta. Clearly, it did, since the long overdue nerf of Call to Arms was specifically aimed at a Witchwood deck (Even Paladin) that was dominating the meta alongside various flavors of Warlock. However, the funny thing about that new introduction to the meta is that Even Paladin often used ONLY Genn Greymane from the Witchwood set. A brand new, never before seen deck archetype and list based on one card. That's normally what you'd expect in a new set, similar to Journey to Un'Goro's Quests. But you'd also normally expect other cards that were introduced alongside those meta-changing ones to be played. Instead, the deck reached back to hallowed Arena standards like Amani Berzerker, which hadn't seen competitive play since the beta, but couldn't find space for any Witchwood cards other than the one that improved its hero power.

Of the remaining 8 Tier 1 decks in that post, all of them use 1 Witchwood card... or none. Of the remaining Tier 2 decks, none use more than 2 and the majority use 1 or 0. If one looks at it from the perspective of actual card slots, it can look a little better, in that 20% of Even Shaman (6 cards) are Witchwood cards, even if that means only 4 different cards in total. But no matter how you look at it, that's still a pretty stark indicator of the relative power level of the set. The switch from Mammoth to Raven was the largest removal of cards from Standard that the game has yet seen. We're at the smallest card pool the game will have for another year. So it's certainly possible that more Witchwood cards will see play as the next couple sets come online. Indeed, Team 5 has often gone this route, in dropping in cards to see how they perform alone, only to bring assistance in later. They did it with Witchwood, when they stated that cards were being brought in to give life to archetypes that hadn't performed as well as they'd hoped, like the Un'Goro Quests. But with the smallest card pool ever, wouldn't you expect to see more new cards?

When you look at Quest Priest and Quest Warrior, which are viable decks at the moment, you see 1 Witchwood card in each: Rotten Applebaum and Warpath, respectively. You don't see Glitter Moth or Lady in White or Vivid Nightmare or even Coffin Crasher (which does show up in a Tier 3 Resurrect deck.) You don't see all of Warrior's Rush minions (except in a deck piloted by the redoubtable Brian Kibler) or Festeroot Hulk. You mostly just see cards that were available in the past year. Indeed, the most dominant class of the meta since Kobolds has been Warlock. When Witchwood was introduced, nothing but Lord Godfrey was added to Warlock's already significant arsenal. The top deck of the moment, Token Druid, uses no Witchwood cards. The classic Zoolock archetype? Again, no Witchwood cards. The resurgent Odd Paladin, Miracle Rogue, and Spiteful Druid? 1 Witchwood card each.

In a way, what that means is that the meta had been held down by the overpowered nature of several Kobolds cards and if they had made nerfs when much of the player base was calling for them, this varied and interesting meta might have existed for several months. OTOH, outside of the Even/Odd decks that use almost no new cards, most of these decks aren't particularly new ideas, either. Priests are still using mostly Dragons to make their decks work. Rogues are still using SI:7 Agent and Backstab (and, often, Gadgetzan Auctioneer) to execute what are basically the same strategies. Oh, and Warlocks are still using Cubes and Voidlords and Rin. It's just taking them a little longer to put the deathgrip on.

Is it time to declare Witchwood a "failure" in the same manner as TGT? I think it's way too soon for that yet. After all, it has been entertaining watching some of the Even/Odd decks drag out so-old-they're-new cards like Stormwind Champion. Witchwood also managed to make Shaman a playable class again (albeit still lacking any kind of class identity), so there's that. But it will be interesting to see what kind of lessons that Team 5 derives from both letting OP cards run too long yet again and allowing the last set of a year to completely dominate the meta, almost to the exclusion of the subsequent year-opening set. Mean Streets of Gadgetzan was released in the same time frame as Kobolds and the Jade (and Priest) cards utterly dominated the meta even through the release of Un'Goro. But Un'Goro also generated decks and standards of its own for most classes, while Witchwood has, so far, largely failed to do that.

Marc Reichardt (He/Him)
Associate Writer

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.


Marc Reichardt
Associate Writer

There Will Be Games
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

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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Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #274400 01 Jun 2018 04:48
It doesn't entirely obviate your point, but I feel it's worth bearing in mind that in a lot of the decks that run one Witchwood card, that card is Genn or Baku. That means every card in the rest of the deck is built around that single inclusion. So it's perhaps not entirely fair to judge it a failure just because of the low number of cards seeing play: it's proved transformative, nevertheless.

It strikes me that Genn and Baku might, in fact, be partly to blame for the dearth of other Witchwood cards. Running either literally halves the number of cards available to you: including the Witchwood selection. So if you run Even or Odd, chances are you won't run any/many other Witchwood cards simply on statistical terms. It could be the very success of this mechanic has seen the expansion shooting itself in the foot?
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #274406 01 Jun 2018 08:03
Right. I tried to emphasize that to some degree, in that those two cards have, in fact, done exactly what Ben Brode wanted: created 18 new archetypes; some of them clearly more successful than others (Will Even Rogue ever be a thing? Dunno.) And it's certainly a fair point that the limitation introduced by them reduces the number of available cards across all sets, including Witchwood. I just thought it was notable because even deck types that have been in existence since the beta, like Zoo, aren't using Witchwood cards. Zoo lists have actually reverted to using Dark Iron Dwarf, instead of something new and interesting, like Ratcatcher. And lists that have only achieved popularity in the last couple years, like Token Druid, the best deck on ladder by some estimations, aren't using any at all.

I guess I should have pointed out that finding counters is a wholly organic process. Some older deck types are going to be more successful because the new ones are more vulnerable to the way the older one functions. If those deck types weren't given anything in the 10 class cards that Witchwood had room for, then that's how it is. But it struck me as funny because that seems to be a predominant theme: Most decks are excluding most Witchwood cards for whatever reason, whereas Kobolds cards were instantly employed in both new and old decks and have remained constant even through another expansion.
SebastianBludd's Avatar
SebastianBludd replied the topic: #274428 01 Jun 2018 11:07
Great breakdown. You've been down on Even Shaman before, yet the data report says that it's a viable deck made possible by the Warlock nerfs. However, the way the deck functions is unchanged (i.e., a board of trash, oftentimes), so how does it win games?
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #274435 01 Jun 2018 11:53

I think the current version functions more like Zoo in that it's playing a bunch of things that are nominally considered "good stuff" but also have the ability to make favorable trades in true, Zoo fashion, ably assisted by being able to recover from a point of damage or having a 1/1 to follow up or being able to attack with the knowledge that the reprisal will be soaked up by a 0/2 Taunt. What sets it apart from Zoo is that there's more on the back end than just Doomguards.

# 2x (2) Dire Wolf Alpha
# 2x (2) Earthen Might
# 2x (2) Flametongue Totem
# 2x (2) Knife Juggler
# 2x (2) Murkspark Eel
# 2x (2) Primalfin Totem
# 1x (2) Vicious Scalehide
# 2x (4) Corpsetaker
# 2x (4) Fire Plume Phoenix
# 1x (4) Hex
# 2x (4) Saronite Chain Gang
# 1x (6) Argent Commander
# 2x (6) Fire Elemental
# 1x (6) Genn Greymane
# 1x (8) Al'Akir the Windlord
# 1x (8) Hagatha the Witch
# 1x (8) Kalimos, Primal Lord
# 1x (8) The Lich King
# 2x (10) Sea Giant

Similar to Zoo, the deck is half neutrals. Of course, Classic Zoo was predominantly neutrals with 6 demons thrown in, because Warlock's base minions are pretty poor outside of Flame Imp, Voidwalker, and Doomguard (the aforementioned six.) But, again, when you hit the late game, you're dropping hammers like Lich King, Al'Akir, and Kalimos that can have huge impact. Most Zoo decks generally relied on Warlock's drawing power to keep the stream of early- and mid-game minions coming even into the later stretch. You'll notice that, outside of the RNG factor of Earthen Might and Hagatha, this deck has ZERO draw, so you're definitely about winning the board without playing control. Hence, Zoo. Having six cards that damage any target on the way in is also key. I didn't think the Fire Elementals would be as good as they are, but they were once considered the best minion in the game for a reason. Note that the only elemental that carries that tribe's constraint is Kalimos. Both the Phoenixes and the FEs can operate independently, which has been my longstanding complaint about elementals. And, yes, only one Hex and no silence. With the lower population of Warlocks, it's not quite as essential, and between Dire Wolf, Flametongue, and all the targeted damage (plus lucky knives), you should be able to squeeze your way past most Taunt decks, although Hadronox can be a challenge (that's what the Hex is for, hopefully.)

Also note that 1/4 of your totem rolls is completely useless to you (Gotta maintain that identity!), unless you draw something applicable with Hagatha.
JMcL63's Avatar
JMcL63 replied the topic: #274437 01 Jun 2018 12:43
I can barely understand what Hearthstone is about, but it looks like the kind of active card play game I'm hoping Cultist Simulator - www.gog.com/game/cultist_simulator_perpetual_edition - will be. Great writing too Jackwraith.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #274441 01 Jun 2018 13:37
Thanks! I haven't chimed in yet on the Cultist thread, but I'll get there.
MacDirk Diggler's Avatar
MacDirk Diggler replied the topic: #274565 03 Jun 2018 13:06
I mostly disagree if the premise is that Witchwood is a failure.
1. If I go with the assumption that there are only 10-15 really powerful cards in the set that broke into top tier existing meta decks.... than I feel like that is a better outcome than the top tier decks getting upgraded from insane cards that fit their archetype.

2. I perused the Witchwood set and I would say at quick glance 40-50% of the cards see play on ladder. Maybe not in top tier decks, but only a handful of decks can be top tier by definition.

3. The set changed the game and made new archetypes and that should probably be point #1

4. Some of the cards are not super competitive sure. But they are fun and offer some crazy new mechanics like dumping your hand and gaining opponents hand, Chamelios’ spy ability, getting Legendaries from bygone HS etc.

5. As you mentioned earlier, the ladder meta has never been more diverse.

I rate Witchwood a solid 7 on scale to 10