There’s always one. In recent memory it’s been Hunter, Paladin, before that was Priest for what seems like forever, and in what seems like a distant foggy memory, it was even Shaman. No matter where we are in an expansion cycle, it seems there always has to be one class that’s borderline unplayable. A hero that becomes the butt of every joke, is completely absent from competitive play, and is only seen at the fringes of ladder. Of course there’s always some hipster who swears the class is still great and that he has a 70 percent winrate with it at rank 10 to prove it, but we know they’re kidding themselves.
The truth is that there’s always a class that sucks, and right now that class is very clearly Warlock.
It seems crazy to even contemplate. This is the class that gave us Handlock, Zoo, Malylock, Renolock, and a sprinkling of other fringe archetypes. There has always been a powerful Warlock deck (or three) in the meta. Prior to the release of Journey to Un’Goro, and the accompanying Standard rotation, the decline of control Warlock was fairly easy to predict. With Reno joining his brothers Antique Healbot and Sludge Belcher in Wild, Gul’dan was left glancing around helplessly for backup while Life Tap-ing himself into oblivion.
Fire at the Zoo
Perhaps more surprising, though, has been the decline of Zoo. For years people have repeated the mantra that “Zoo will always be good”, so long as there are cheap minions, which there always will be. I’ve probably said it myself on this very site at some point. As the old adage goes, after the nuclear apocalypse, only two things will survive; cockroaches, and Zoo decks buffing those cockroaches to kill your 5/5s for free.
The downfall began with Patches. Zoo was essentially the genesis of the snowball deck: Grip the board early, efficiently, and consistently, and then ride that advantage to victory with various buff effects and power spikes that are way too powerful when used in combination with other small creatures. This simple trick became far less effective once other decks in the format—e.g. those running Pirates—could consistently output more turn one stats than Gul’dan can cope with.
Throw in the fact that every class now has access to the brutal efficiency of Fire Fly and couple it with Aggro Druid’s ability to spew out an entire hand on turn one thanks to Innervate, stronger-than-ever Murloc synergy for Paladins, or Pirate Warriors still doing a pretty passable impression of Muster for Battle on turn one, and Zoo’s snowball effect very quickly melts in the heat. Yes, Zoo also lost two of the best cards in the deck in the form of Power Overwhelming and Imp Gang Boss, but the archetype has survived these kinds of hits before and kept on punching, hence the cockroach reputation. It’s the increased early-game efficiency of the other classes that has really led to the demise of aggressive Warlock strategies.
Un'Goro's new Warlock legendary hasn't done enough to make the 'Discolock' deck attractive.
Unfortunately, Un’Goro also failed to provide any realistic alternatives to the classic Warlock archetypes. The Warlock Quest is more or less unplayable. The Discard mechanic makes for an odd middle ground between an aggressive Zoo deck and a control strategy, but instead of borrowing the upside from both camps, it takes all the negatives instead. In any case, the Quest reward has proven not good enough to be game-winning in a pure Control deck, while Zoo isn’t really interested in sacrificing tempo in exchange for things that happen after turn 10. This has left the Quest deck in a weird midrange zone, an area in which the class has never really excelled.
If there’s hope for the class before the next expansion comes along to solve all our problems and add a bunch of new ones, it’s tough to see it. So the struggles of Warlock mains poses a bigger question: Should we care about one class being unplayable, especially one that until recently was so popular?
Blizzard is in its games. At any given point, one class is swinging away with an epic greatsword, while another is flailing about with a wet noodle. Then, after a while, they switch. That’s fair, right? Think what you will about this style of balance as a philosophy, but in that world it’s about time Gul’dan had his turn with the spaghetti.
Return of the handyman
But before we condemn Warlock to another two months or so of obscurity, is there any hope? Even if the brutally efficient early-game decks die down (unlikely) and are replaced with a wave of slow N’Zoth Paladins, Control Shamans, and Quest Warriors, it’s still hard to imagine Zoo mounting a resurgence. If the more efficient Aggro decks aren’t able to compete with Spikeridged Steed, Primordial Drake, and Volcano, then what hope does timid old zoo have?
The one remaining hope then is for some kind of Handlock variant to rise up and have enough of these slow, greedy decks to prey upon. In a world where decks are able to stabilise early and then try and go bomb for bomb in the late-game with other like minded greedmongers, Life Tap, Mountain Giant, Twilight Drake, and Lord Jaraxxus suddenly look rather appealing.
Sadly, this is also an unlikely prospect. As , the fabled “Control Meta” never quite comes to fruition, and Un’Goro is actually than Gadgetzan was. We’re flirting with the idea of late-game focused decks right now—Shoop took down Dreamhack Austin with a very slow lineup, 90-minute to two-hour series’ have been commonplace in Hearthstone Global Games, and control dominated in the group stages of EU vs CN—but it will still be a long time before we’re ready to put a ring on it
Good news for the Handlock aficionado. But now, the bad. The second this series of events progresses to the point where Handlock starts to look like a good idea, we will have come a step too far on the greed spectrum and the Pirates and Murlocs will be back in full force to punish us for our misgivings.
So, sorry Gul’dan fans. It seems like for now you'll be spending a sad few months, lying alone, tears streaking down your faces, caressing your photos of Reno Jackson and Imp Gang Boss. This got weird.