Is this really the worst Hearthstone meta we’ve ever had?

Please, mister. Not the face.

Please, mister. Not the face.

Take the most cursory glance around the Hearthstone community (hello, Reddit) and you’ll soon be convinced that we’re currently experiencing the worst ever meta in the relatively short life of the game. However, before dipping those pitchforks in paraffin, let’s consider a few caveats. Firstly, you can look back to pretty much any point in Hearthstone’s history and draw the same conclusion. Secondly, many of the metagames that were previously labelled the worst ever are now regarded as wholesome family fun thanks to the magic of nostalgia goggles. So what’s the truth? How much of the current resentment towards the game, and by extension its developers, is valid, or is this a classic case of the loudest voices being the most agitated ones?

First, some facts. Neither of the current iterations of Shaman—Aggro Jade as the king, with Midrange Jade right on its heels—are the most popular decks in the history of Hearthstone, nor are they the most powerful. A recent post from Ben Brode laid out some of the data, taking the example of Undertaker Hunter as a reference point and using Blizzard’s server-side statistics to show that it was a much more oppressive deck. Add the pre-nerf power level of Miracle Rogue and Patron Warrior to this equation, and you can start to build a pretty robust list of decks that put the current Pirate decks to shame in terms of strength. That said, even before the loss of our dear departed friends Warsong Commander and 5-Mana Gadgetzan Auctioneer, Rogue and Warrior never quite hit the win-rate that Aggro Shaman boasts now. But there can be little argument that, when played correctly, they were vastly superior decks.

The skill edge of a top Shaman player over a mediocre one is relatively minimal.

Nonetheless, players seem more annoyed by the era of Shamanstone than they were even at the height of Miracle and Patron grousing. Part of the reason is that not only are the current Shaman decks immensely powerful, they’re also very forgiving. Patron and Miracle offered incredible rewards, but only to players who were good enough to unlock that true glorious potential, and willing to invest the dozens—if not hundreds—of hours to do so. In contrast, the skill edge of a top Shaman player over a mediocre one is relatively minimal. The result is that any doubt is removed from the mind of typical ladder players as to what they should be playing. Top tier deck that’s easy to pilot and ends games quickly? Sign me up!

The five most oppressive decks of all time*

1. Undertaker Hunter, Curse of Naxxramas
Sure, a 1-Mana 3/2 plus a 1/1 with Charge is pretty annoying, but it’s not quite a 1-Mana Boulderfist Ogre. 

2. Freeze Mage, Hearthstone Beta
Freeze Mage is annoying right? Well imagine a world in which every Freeze effect cost 1 Mana less, and Pyroblast was a cheap as chips 8 Mana. Shiver. And burn.

3. Secret Paladin, The Grand Tournament
Mysterious Challenger blessed us with the alpha and omega of curve decks. Just play a high value dude on every turn, then break the game on turn six, profit.

4. Miracle Rogue, Pre-Goblins vs Gnomes
4-Mana Leeroy, 5-Mana Auctioneer, fun and interactive.

5. Patron Warrior, The Grand Tournament
Oh, you wanted to put minions on the board? That’s interesting. Hope you like 40+ burst damage combos.  

*As scientifically chosen by Sottle.

In previous metas that featured a dominant deck that could be played successfully with one eye closed while juggling chainsaws, there was often a high-skill cap counter deck that could swoop in with cape flailing, vanquish the bad guy, kiss the girl, and send the audience home happy. Secret Paladin had the might of Patron Warrior to contend with, while Buzzard-Unleash and Undertaker Hunter were somewhat checked by the aforementioned 5-Mana Auctioneer in Miracle Rogue. 

This gave frustrated players something that’s sorely missing from the game right now. If you felt like you were capable of outplaying people—and let’s be honest, we all do—then there was an outlet for you to prove your superiority. Currently, the go-to counter for the most common aggro decks is Reno Jackson, and sitting around waiting to see which side of the 50/50 (ish) shot of drawing Reno before turn six you land on does not feel anywhere near as rewarding.

The good news is that change is right around the corner. Yesterday, Blizzard announced a balance patch that addresses the most egregious of the plunderers in Small-Time Buccaneer, as well as the card that inexplicably buffed Shaman from a spot in which the class was already top tier—Spirit Claws. Wonderful, much rejoicing is abound. But how long until this exciting new meta seizes up again and the cycle repeats anew?

Death by fatigue

The power of Pirates and the coin-flippiness of Reno partly explain why the current meta feels so stale, and why previously terrible metas now feel quite nice actually thank you very much. But to my mind, there’s another more simple explanation: fatigue. We want Hearthstone to change, evolve, and feel fresh at all times. Towards the end of any given meta, our mind starts to trick us into thinking that this is the worst experience we’ve had playing Hearthstone because we crave that feeling we had a few short months ago when queuing up on ladder was a mystery, and the journey of discovery towards figuring out the best decks was still in full swing.

What possible harm could a 1-Mana... Oh, I'm dead.

What possible harm could a 1-Mana... Oh, I'm dead.

That said, there is a plausible case that the fatigue we’re feeling now is greater than ever, which is why the current, and very vocal, complaints have some validity to them. Even though we’ve had several expansions since Standard launched, and even though this has led to periods in which different decks have been dominant, those decks have all come from the same classes.

A recent Reddit thread illustrated the problem perfectly, using the unquestionable bastion of reliability that is the Tempo Storm meta snapshot to show how over the last 272 days a Shaman deck has held one of the top two spots, and only been kept off the very top four times—even then only by Warrior. When you hit that button and start the wheel of possible opponents spinning, you want an element of mystery. You want the more complex problem of a nine-class game to solve. Queueing into Shaman again and again for months on end just makes the game feel less dynamic, less complex, and most importantly, less fun. It remains to be seen whether the latest nerfs will do anything more than push Aggro Shaman off its perch only to see Midrange Shaman climb into its place faster than you can say “who’s a pretty Polly?”

We essentially just have the same two basic game modes that we had at launch.

While the simple solution would seem to be more frequent expansions, or regular balance patches, those answers might not be realistic. Team 5 already works constantly on new content, planning out expansion schedules and new cards months and years in advance just to keep to the schedule it has now. 

An additional problem right now is that the ways we have to play Hearthstone are incredibly limited. Tavern Brawl provides a fun distraction some weeks, but several years into the life of the game we essentially just have the same two basic game modes that we had at launch. Even moreso, those two modes have not evolved at all. The ladder experience is still the same grindfest it always was, although the addition of “floors” to prevent de-ranking once players hit 15, 10 and 5 should at least remove the anxiety some players feel when climbing.

In an ideal world, when experiencing ladder fatigue we would be able to escape to a different game mode other than Arena. The week where Heroic Tavern Brawl dropped was the happiest I’ve seen the community in a long time, and what did it really change? The meta inside the Brawl was essentially the same as the stale ladder meta, but people were happy because they had new toys and the experience felt fresh. It gave us a new way to engage with the game and with the community as a whole.

Moving Arena to the Standard format may help, but it only scratches the surface of what could be done. Tournament integration, Blitz mode (think perma-Nozdormu effect), significant ladder changes beyond the rank floors, and even just taking better care of Wild, would all go some way to keeping players engaged longer and enable the development cycle to sync up more precisely with the level of fatigue we feel as players. Maybe that’s what the fuss is really about. Maybe it’s not just the meta that’s stale, but the way we interact with Hearthstone that has gotten old.