Well folks, here we are again, staring down a substantial set of balance changes and wondering what's likely to happen to Hearthstone's most powerful decks. I'm here to break out the crystal ball and assess the likely impact on the ladder. Let's start with everyone's not-so-favourite horsey...
Is 8-Mana a fair price for Bonemare? Delaying the almost ubiquitous minion buffer by a turn makes its aggressive tempo push that much less threatening, and my suspicion is that this means Bonemare probably doesn’t see any more constructed play. It might seem like Bonemare is fair at 8 mana, but fair cards typically don't see play.
The parallel thought running through my mind is what happened to Call of the Wild: it was an insane card at 8 and not played at 9. The direct competition at 8 now is Lich King, but the more realistic competition is that decks simply play cheaper, more unfair cards instead, like Cobalt Scalebane. This seemed like a nerf that didn’t really need to happen, it’s just not that upsetting either.
Will Corridor Creeper still get played as a 2/5? The big purple sleeper hit slug of Kobolds & Catacombs is having its attack cut by 3. That’s about as close to nuking the card from orbit as Blizzard's balance team gets. Given its impact on the game, it’s hard to say that such an extreme solution wasn’t warranted The only remaining deck it might see play in would be Evolve Shaman, as they can easily transform it into something better. As that deck doesn’t exactly look poised to take over the meta anytime, you can enjoy evolving these into 400 dust instead.
Is there a place for Patches even without Chaaarge? This is the nerf I’ve been waiting for since the day the card got released: Patches will no longer have Charge, and his voice line is also getting changed as the old pun no longer works. It was clear from the outset how insane Patches would be, and since the nerf to Innervate it's become the best card in all of Hearthstone. Is the removal of charge a big deal? Yes, mostly because of the synergy with Southsea Captains which saw the Pirate package included in decks of almost every class. The synergy with Keleseth also gets a lot worse.
But although Patches isn't insane anymore, he will likely stay serviceable. Alley Cat is a playable card. Lost in the Jungle is a playable card. Patches can still be a playable card for the same reasons. He can still have a home in Druid lists running Bloodsail Corsair, in Paladins running Deckhands, and in some Rogues running Swashburglers. He still goes in Pirate Warrior, obviously, though that deck may not be good anymore. Patches will drop from being the best card in the game to being somewhat above average. It will feel even worse to draw now, but at least nobody will play Golakka Crawlers to eat him anymore.
Can Highlander Priest still function without its OTK combo? Free Mana has always been dangerous in Hearthstone, and so to preserve the sanity of Wild players, Priest will no longer be able to spam its hero power for nothing in perpetuity. Raza the Chained's effect will now make your hero power cost 1 rather than 0, but that's not to say the card will no longer see play in 'Highlander' decks. As with the change to Patches, there are two things to say about this nerf: First, it is a big deal. The previous burst combo used 9 mana to deal 20 damage with Velen and Mindblast, leaving 1 mana left for more on top of that (much more if using Radiant Elemental and 0 or 1 cost spells).
With the upcoming change, that combo now costs 10 to deal 14 and that’s about where the combo tops off. Gone are the days of getting blown out for over 30 in a single turn, which will alleviate a lot of negative play experiences. However, I’m not confident that this nerf makes the deck bad. Average perhaps, which is fine, especially considering many of the powerful aggro tools it had to contend with are now getting changed. Highlander is likely still playable, but certainly less competitive.
So what's likely to happens to the ladder overall? The full impact of these nerfs on the wider meta is harder to predict. The collective tinkering of millions of players is always going to outperform any individual’s ability to see the future, but we can at least try to think ahead. All aggressive decks are getting weaker with the hit to Patches and Creeper. We can also safely say that tempo-based decks are getting a bit weaker with the hit to Bonemare.
Might that mean aggressive decks are going away? Not a chance.
Who’s hardest hit? That would be Tempo Rogue, and it will be difficult for it to recover until it gets new tools with the next set. It may switch away from running a Pirate package to either a slower, Elemental build (like it has in the past) or keep some Pirates for a more aggressive, Cold Blood-based list. It is likely that neither deck will be substantially better than other aggressive or midrange options in other classes, however, leaving Tempo Rogue without much of a place in the game.
What about Zoo? It also takes a similarly big hit, but Zoo has better recovery potential and will likely push towards a more aggressive, demon-heavy build. This could mean cutting Keleseth in favor of Vulgar Homunculus, Demonfire, and Bloodfury Potions.
Might some aggro decks even benefit? Aggro Druid and Paladin (especially the Murloc version, which copes without Pirates) can exist basically untouched, as does Secret Mage. They will only need to sub out their Corridor Creepers. As far as aggression goes, it’s quite possible these decks become the go-to choice. If these decks lose one of their main predators in the form of Tempo Rogue, they may become even more appealing (except Druid, which usually preyed on Rogues, and so may get a bit worse).
What about Warlock and Jade Druid? Aren’t they going to become 90% of the ladder?
These lists were already performing well, are losing nothing, and a good deal of their competition is about to get weaker. It seems like they might be about to run riot, but I wouldn’t be so sure yet. Warlock is certainly a deck to be feared, and may well see an initial surge in play. If that happens, many more Spellbreakers and weapon removal for the Skull will be teched in—but there’s more to the picture than that. Other counter decks to slow Warlocks already exist in the form of Quest, Miracle, and Kingsbane Rogue, Raza Priest (which could still perform well against it), Burn Mage, and Spiteful Summoner Priests. While it might seem like Warlock is poised to take over the meta, there are some natural checks to its strategy. That’s not to say Warlock will be bad, just that it might not run as rampant as some fear.
What about those larger and larger green men? While it isn’t losing anything directly, Jade can still get countered effectively by existing decks such as Control Warlock, Murloc Paladin, and Spiteful Priest. There are even strategies you don’t see much in the meta now which could return, like Big/Inner Fire Priest and Big Druid, which are also unfavorable matches for Jade. It would be unlikely for Jade Druid to remain on top of the pile for long once the dust settles.
There's been some speculation that because no Warlock cards are being touched in this balance patch it might mean that Doomguard, which is a fixture in both Cubelock and Zoo, might be due for a date with the Hall of Fame when Standard next rotates. But given how iconic the card is, and how crucial it is to Blizzard's beloved Discard archetype, don't count the big red dude out yet.
How about some leftfield decks that could now have a chance to shine? Spiteful Priest, Big Druid, and Miracle Rogue have been lurking around the outskirts of the meta for some time now, looking for the smallest crack to gain a foothold on. They aren’t bad decks by any means, but their performance has been held down by being second- or third-best to other strategies. These changes to a small number of gatekeeper cards might provide the window of opportunity needed for them to make their presence known again. If that happens, then new counters will arise which were also previously not seeing play for similar reasons.
Overall, I find myself excited and optimistic for the changes. Even if they don't 'fix' the meta, there’s another set release and rotation around the corner to shake things up again in April. It’s hard to say precisely what the effects of the patch will be, but one thing is certain: we’re in for a few fun weeks (and maybe months) of unsolved meta.
And how about the Hall of Fame? That's much harder to speculate on, but two cards rumored to be under examination are Ice Block and Wild Growth. Ice Block has been on the shortlist for some time and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go, despite its relative scarcity in the meta at the moment, given fears of it becoming more popular post-rotation. While Wild Growth is very powerful and popular, I think moving it to the Hall of Fame would be a mistake. Something about the card is just too iconic for the Druid class, and I’d like to see it stick around so that ramp doesn’t need to be printed every season.