Kobolds & Catacombs, the third and final Hearthstone expansion of the year, has arrived. 135 cards have been added, introducing a new mechanic called Recruit, which pulls minions from your deck and drops them on the board. There’s also a legendary weapon for each of the nine classes, and a new dungeon run mode that brings some much-needed single player content to the game. Months of debate and theory-crafting came to an end last week, and the ranked ladder has predictably spiraled into chaos as players experiment with new decks and strategies. The meta game is very much in flux, and it will be interesting to see where it ultimately settles. Will slow control decks continue to dominate the ladder? Or will the faster, more aggressive decks make a comeback?
Hearthstone, often described to newcomers as a simpler, faster version of Magic: The Gathering, has actually spent most of the last year pumping the brakes. Not in any business or creative sense, but in the speed and rhythm of the game. In its earliest years, the upper echelons of ranked play were full of Zoo Warlocks and Face Hunters, fast archetypes racing to kill you by turn five, so much so that many called aggro “the easy way to reach legend,” or more dramatically, a cancer upon Hearthstone. That started to change with this year’s first expansion: Journey to Un’Goro. More high-health Taunts were added, minions that basically act as linebackers, blocking your opponent from hitting your hero or some other valuable minion you need to keep alive. One of the most useful is the Tar Creeper, a 1 attack/5 health minion for 3 mana. It gains plus 2 attack on your opponent’s turn, which makes it perfect for stopping an early rush, but also keeps it from becoming another aggro tool. A new tribe of minions was also included—Elementals. Some of these minions have powerful effects that can only be activated if you played an elemental on the previous turn, encouraging a methodical style that requires you to think many moves ahead. While these additions made it possible for control decks to last long enough to deploy their big late-game bombs, aggro was still very effective, as evidenced by the plague of Pirate Warriors smashing face. For the first time I can remember, every class had viable decks that could compete on the top rungs of the ranked ladder. It was the healthiest Hearthstone’s meta game had ever been.
If Un’Goro slowed the game down, the next expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne, ground it to a halt. This time, it happened quite literally—on launch day, nobody could log in to the game. Kripparian, arguably Hearthstone’s most famous streamer, had thousands of viewers watching him play Minesweeper in between failed log in attempts. But the problems didn’t stop once the servers were live. A few overpowered Druid cards managed to completely break the meta game and they became unstoppable. For months the top tier was all Druid decks, didn’t matter what kind—control, aggro, token, jade. If you saw a Druid on the other side of the board, you lost (unless you were also playing Druid). While players were quick to condemn cards like Spreading Plague and Ultimate Infestation for being too powerful, it was actually the Druid’s ability to ramp, or cheat mana, that allowed aggro decks to get an explosive start and enabled control decks to drop their late-game finishers much earlier.
Blizzard finally nerfed a bunchof cards to put Druid on a more level playing field. It remains a top tier deck, but at least it got some company. Unfortunately, the solving of this problem only revealed another—control decks had finally become so strong that aggro went practically extinct. The new Death Knight cards are so powerful that the game is basically decided by who draws theirs first. Knights contained even bigger taunts, more freeze mechanics and board-clearing effects, slowing every game to a crawl. Cards like Dead Man’s Hand and Archbishop Benedictus made it possible for Control Warriors and Highlander Priests to stall the game forever, grinding away your time until you either die from running out of cards or sheer boredom. The average game ballooned to almost half an hour, and while an epic prolonged battle can be fun now and then, when every round takes that long, you start to feel like you’re wasting time, win or lose. One day I played three Druids in a row, and every single game went into fatigue. When I queued into a fourth, I logged out and didn’t come back for months.
Kobolds & Catacombs is exactly the expansion Hearthstone needed right now. It’s silly and ridiculous, full of bizarre mechanics that nobody thought made any sense until they finally got the cards in hand. Of course we all knew Duskbreaker, a 3/3 dragon for 4 mana that deals 3 damage to the whole board, was going to make Dragon Priest even more scary, but no one was expecting the Corridor Creeper, a 5/5 beast that costs 1 less mana for each minion that dies, to be such an MVP, appearing in control and aggro decks alike.
That’s right—aggro is back, thanks in part to Recruit making it easy to fill the board with minions again after you get wiped. I had some success on the ladder with a Murloc Paladin using the new legendary weapon Val’anyr, a Zoo Warlock full of demons, and a Tempo Mage built around elementals. Highlander Priest and Jade Druid continue to be unsurprisingly strong, and Patches the Pirate is still the most important legendary in the meta. But the one archetype no one really believed would work, a Spell Hunter deck that runs no minions, is crushing everything in its path. And that’s all likely to change over a week or two. The meta game is far from settled. Players are trying all kinds of weird new stuff, making this one of the most exciting times to be playing Hearthstone.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some dungeons to run.