The state of the metagame and the lessons Team 5 can learn from the past.
Two weeks have now passed since Journey to Un’Goro – Hearthstone’s fifth full expansion – went live. In the upper tiers of competitive deck rankings, we can now see a pretty healthy mix of the old and new, the refined and the resurrected, and not to mention of course the many experiments that have yet to reach their conclusions. In many ways Blizzard has delivered an impressive collection of decks for the early metagame, but the execution of Un’Goro has not been without its problems.
If it was unrealistic to expect nine tightly tuned and competitive Quest decks to make an appearance at launch, it’s equally disappointing that Blizzard chose not to pursue a path similar to the launch of the Old Gods here. Only a few – highly accessible – complimentary cards were required to empower the freely-provided C’Thun back then, and it was a gesture of generosity that lured us into exploring the expansion to greater depths.
If we look at Un’Goro’s signature Quest cards though, only two of them – Quest Rogue and Quest / Taunt Warrior – are shaping up to become part of the established order of things for the next few months. This is all fine of course if you were lucky enough to receive at least one of these cards during your frenzy of launch day pack openings.
It’s less good news if you were robbed of receiving pretty much any other Legendary in the game, just so that Awaken the Makers could exist. In terms of sheer novelty, Un’Goro has had the effect of excluding all but the luckiest or wealthiest of players, rather than drawing everyone in closer.
This distribution of Legendary cards in Un’Goro – not to mention the cost of certain crucial, associated cards – is a well established and legitimate bone of contention at this point. What should have been a typically exciting pack-opening feast on launch day was tempered this time around with an anxious feeling that we were desperately trying to open deck lists, rather than stumbling into fun and flexible cards.
For those players with either shallow pockets or poor luck, there is some solace to be found in the fact that Pirate Warrior sits at the top of most tier lists right now. While that’s of little comfort to those of us who are sick of playing the deck – or facing it – it’s hard to argue that it would be better for the game overall if there were no powerful old decks left fighting for pole position alongside the latest creations.
Perhaps the dominance of a different aggro deck would have felt like a more palatable alternative. If Pirate Warrior had joined Aggro Shaman further down the pecking order, with something else that was affordable taking its place, the game would feel even fresher. There are many perspectives that have to be juggled by Blizzard here though, and to whatever degree more disruption might have been desirable, you have to give the development team some kind of credit for keeping every player in the game.
Certain other decks have remained surprisingly viable in the all-new Year of the Mammoth too. While many had incorrectly predicted the demise of Miracle Rogue – despite historical warnings against the dangers of doing so – the most surprising developments in the game have centred around the continued viability of decks like Dragon Priest and Freeze Mage. Both were expected to be effectively neutralised with the retirement of Blackrock Mountain and the banishment of Ice Lance to the Hall of Fame respectively. Instead, both have proved remarkably resilient in their new and revised forms, even if they’re not quite the powerhouses they once were.
Special mention must also be made here for the elusive Unicorn Priest deck that never really was, but seemingly now is following the creation of Purify Priest. With all due respect to the game’s very best deck designers, it’s been fascinating to observe how pre-release theorycrafting can only take the playerbase so far in predicting the future, and that a game as mature as Hearthstone can still pack a few surprises for even the very best of the professional players.
Ultimately though, Hearthstone is a behemoth of a game that has to cater to many different players simultaneously, not just the best of the best. There are new players to consider, and then there are those who have been with the game since launch. There are pack-purchasing whales with crafting dust to burn, competing alongside free-to-play fans who want to push things as far as they can without spending a penny. Between them they all have wildly differing card collections, but the ecosystem depends on all of these elements if the game is to remain competitive, healthily populated and profitable.
Putting the clumsy implementation of the Quest system aside, it feels as though Blizzard has delivered about as much as could be expected at the start of an entirely new year of play, and at a time when a sizeable chunk of the game’s card collection has been cut. Old and new decks are tussling with one another for the top spots, there are new and unexpected ways of playing old favourites, and there are still plenty more experiments taking place. Perhaps the final form of one of these fledgling decks will prove the real disruptive force in Un’Goro.
Who knows how the next few months will play out. Team 5 will build on these seemingly solid foundations in new and interesting ways with the next two expansions to come this year, but there’s a lingering regret that they didn’t seek a little more inspiration from last year’s glorious Old Gods launch. Let’s hope they do so for the next stage of Hearthstone’s journey.