What the hell just happened to Hearthstone?

Cards and art from the United in Stormwind expansion.


Hearthstone's latest expansion has unleashed the kind of chaotic change we normally see around the time of annual set rotation. In fact, the release of United in Stormwind shook things up more than the changes that arrived in the Core set revamp earlier this year. For the first couple of days, the meta was pretty much only combo decks, with players killing their own minions in order to complete the new Questlines quicker than their opponents. Things calmed down slightly as ultra-aggressive decks swooped in to prey on players who were doing nothing but power drawing cards for the first few turns.  Although 'calm' probably isn't the right word, given how fast games are now ending. 

So let's survey the carnage, and see how things look right now...

Turn nine may as well no longer exist 

The latest on Blizzard's workplace allegations

Activision Blizzard walkout

(Image credit: Getty/Bloomberg)

Activision Blizzard is currently facing a lawsuit alleging widespread discrimination and sexual harassment. Here's everything that's happened since the lawsuit went public

Remember when people were salty about Alexstraza the Life Binder finishing too many games? Yeah, that's no longer a thing now that we rarely reach turn eight, let alone nine. United in Stormwind has been a high-octane accelerant for Standard and the defining question of the format is 'how quickly can my deck kill the opponent?'. If the answer isn't 'very', you should probably be playing something different. 

Speed Hearthstone isn't what anyone was predicting after the plodding pace of Forged in the Barrens, and many of the pre-release card reviews now look amusingly out of touch. The consensus was that Cornelius Roame would be one of the format-defining neutral legendary cards, but a week into the expansion he's almost entirely AWOL. When a 6-Mana minion that draws at least two cards is way too slow, you have a sense of how much has changed. The decks succeeding now have clear win conditions and do much more explosive things than dropping some old dude and drawing a couple of cards.  

Spell Mage is still here, and it's still disgusting 

Okay, so not everything changed. It turns out that playing Incanter's Flow on curve to discount your entire deck remains absolutely degenerate. The nerf to Refreshing Spring Water last expansion helped bring down Spell Mage's winrate, but that work has been undone (and then some) by the release of Sorcerer's Gambit, the Mage Questline. Much like Cornelius, this card was not accurately evaluated by many pros—but this time they underrated it substantially. The thinking was that it would be held back by supposedly draconian deck construction requirements—ie having to play multiple Fire, Frost and Ice spells in sequence—and a potential lack of resources post-reward. To put it mildly, this has not been the case. 

Many of the new cards designed to support the archetype, such as First Flame and Ignite, are being played with forgotten Frost spells like Flurry and Ice Barrier to rapidly tick off the three Questline phases. In fact, it can often be finished by turn six or seven, at which point the game just ends in a blur of +3 Spell Damage Fireballs and Ignites to the face. Despite how oppressive the playstyle feels to be on the wrong end of, the deck is actually fairly middling in terms of performance, with a winrate hovering just on the right side of 50%. 

Because it shuffles a copy of itself into your deck when cast, Ignite allows for potentially infinite damage in Mage decks. Which seems like... *not a good idea*? (Image credit: Blizzard)

Spell Mage is also far from the only from-hand OTK in the Standard format right now. The early days of the expansion saw much grousing about a "solitaire meta" because it felt like each player was racing to assemble a combo in hand, rather than playing for the board. OTK Demon Hunter with the Ilgy'noth combo remains an absolute menace among high Legend ranks thanks to its mix of obscene healing and single-turn damage. The only reason it hasn't been nerfed already is that it's tough to play correctly, so the winrate drops vertiginously when piloted lower down the ladder. That deck also got better with United in Stormwind thanks to the addition of its Questline, which discounts the cost of the cards you've drawn. The strategy is so effective that the deck no longer plays the monstrous Skull of Gul'Dan. (Although Skull is still the right pick off Illidari Studies sometimes—-just ask poor old Jambre.) 

Though this definitely isn't the pure combo meta some players feared (and others hoped for), the number of decks that can kill opponents from hand is unusual for Hearthstone, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that addressed. 

Multiple classes have viable Questlines (for now) 

Here's a surprise: the quests are actually good! The new Questline cards are Hearthstone's third take on the quest mechanic, which sees a 1-Mana spell guaranteed to start in your hand. Once played, it has specific conditions that, when met, grant the player a game-changing reward. While the cards have always been popular, previous iterations proved expensive to craft because their decks often contained other niche legendaries. (Except Rogue's The Caverns Below, but we don't talk about that card.) 

The Final Showdown is all about racing through your deck, discounting the cost of the cards you draw in the process, and then releasing a one-turn torrent of lethal bullshit. (Image credit: Blizzard)

Questlines differ from previous quest cards because they contain three steps, each with a relevant payoff, making the decks much less tricky to build. Going back to the Demon Hunter example, the reason it's possible to cut Skull of Gul'Dan is that the Mana reduction from the Final Showdown Questline works out the same, but for a fraction of the cost. Hell, the deck doesn't even need to play the Demonslayer Kurtrus reward before killing you—the cost reductions racked up along the way are enough to enable the lethal combo.  

There are non-combo strategies, too. The Rogue and Shaman Questlines both feel very flavorful, and also present new ways to play the classes.  

Even Priest goes face now  

Speaking of things that are very different, Shadow Priest is somehow real, and nobody saw it coming. The Priest master Zetalot posted a deck two days into the expansion with the cryptic message: "Hit legend and then top 200 with this. Don't know why and how; don't craft."

Yes, that is Elven Archer in the year of our lord 2021. And yes, the deck is good. No, I don't understand what's happening either. But it seems like the complaints about Priest not having a win condition have been answered. Priest goes face! Voidtouched Attendant is an incredibly powerful card that amplifies damage to both heroes from ALL sources, including 1/1s and 1/4s and 2/3s, and your hero power, and Void Shards, and oh look they're dead. 

Probably the single most aggressive card in Standard this side of Doomhammer, and it's in the Priest class! (Image credit: Blizzard)

Wild is now so fast that players don't have time to Reno

By the way, you can pair Voidtouched Attendant with pirates and Ship's Cannon in Wild for a truly explosive opener that leaves many players dead on turn four, especially if they're playing a self-damage Warlock deck—which many people are. The Wild format is experiencing its own turbo-charged transformation, much like Standard. The Warlock Questline has juiced up the already obnoxious Darkglare archetype and the result is as brutal as you'd expect. High legend player Corbettgames posted a meta overview this week which showed that 48% of his opponents were playing some form of Darkglare Warlock. 

You might also notice something missing: There are no Reno decks to speak of. The meta is so warped around hyperfast aggro and OTK combos that there simply isn't time to wait for a full heal on turn six. The days of getting rich are done! Honestly, the sheer ferocity of Wild is well beyond anything we've seen before. Given that the format has seen nerfs within the first two weeks of the last five expansions, don't be surprised to see changes incoming.

Nobody seems to know what to nerf 

Aside from Battlegrounds Battlemaster, which does appear to be as broken as people predicted, players don't agree on what needs to change. Just ask Frodan and Meati. The rapid pace of deck development, quicker games, and seismic shift from the Forged in the Barrens meta has been very hard to keep up with. And not just for players—the developers are wrestling with how to react too. A planned balance patch targeted nine days after release was deferred to let things evolve a little bit more. 

That potential patch window was a "break glass in case of Deck of Lunacy" option for the devs, but it's been deemed unnecessary. Despite those initial 'solitaire' complaints, the first week of Stormwind has yielded an extremely diverse meta. And before you hit the comments section to tell me that control is dead, first look at the qualifier data. Or ask Sottle. He knows.

The right move for Team 5 was clearly to wait. The overabundance of damage from hand is an issue that's been acknowledged by the team, but it's okay to show some restraint during this experimentation period where new twists on decks are still appearing daily. You might not feel that way after dying to a Quest Mage that drew the nuts by turn five, but try to focus on the times when you're the one dishing out the hurt. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go find the next deck that makes an opponent say "What the hell just happened?"