Well, that escalated quickly. It is difficult to find words to describe the effect of Blazing Transmutation and Thaddius, Monstrosity on a meta where Evolve Shaman with Goldshire Gnoll was already a top-tier deck. Scary? Shuddering? Eldritch?
Evolve Shaman is the best deck in the game, and the race is not even close.
Will this situation resolve itself? Can there be any recourse to an early Thaddius, game after game? There have been similar periods of early domination followed by a rapid crash before, most notably in Witchwood in 2018, where Taunt Druid was all the rage for a week and then almost vanished completely. However, this time things look markedly different. The half of the ladder that is not playing Evolve Shaman is frantically searching for answers to it, and yes, some answers do exist. However, none of them can crush Evolve Shaman in the way counter decks were able to crush Taunt Druid. Evolve Shaman is still a strong contender even against its most powerful counters.
Let’s take a deeper look into the early Return to Naxxramas meta and how Evolve Shaman has evolved and how its dominance is being challenged.
The King of the Meta, Evolve Shaman
If I could play Evolve Shaman and should play Evolve Shaman, this is the Evolve Shaman deck that I would play:
With more than 30% of the ladder playing Evolve Shaman on some ranks, there are lots of small variations of the deck. The deck was already reasonably refined before the mini-set, so it should be deeper into its refinement process than most other decks.
What do we know about Evolve Shaman variants so far?
- Windchill is better than Wildpaw Cavern, but both might be better than either alone
- Neptulon the Tidehunter and Shadow Hunter Vol'jin are better than Sea Giants
- Neptulon the Tidehunter and Shadow Hunter Vol'jin may or may not be better than just running the Goldshire Gnolls as your only minions – the big question is that it is unclear whether Shaman has enough good spells to fill the final two slots if you give up on the two minions
We are talking about the last couple of slots. Other than those, the deck is ready. It just blasts through the opposition with remarkable swing turns that sometimes come as early as turn two. Is it a swing turn if you start the game with it? Regardless, it is strong.
The Co-Belligerent, Unholy Death Knight
There is an unholy pact between Evolve Shaman and Unholy Death Knight. The two decks are evenly matched when facing each other, and Unholy Death Knight fends off some of the decks that try to challenge Evolve Shaman while being worse against the general ladder overall.
In the end, Mistake did not make the cut in Unholy Death Knight. How come? The deck was craving another good one-drop!
The answer lies in Foul Egg. Sure, Foul Egg was already available before, but it needs support. A lone Egg is not much of a threat, there need to be cards that can be used to activate it. The mini-set delivered in this regard with Construct Quarter. Unholy Death Knight finally reached the critical mass of activators to make eggs good.
There are a few variants of Unholy Death Knight on the ladder. The inclusion of Foul Egg and Construct Quarter is ubiquitous by now, but some other differences remain. As the meta keeps being defined by Evolve Shaman, the most aggressive forms of Unholy Death Knight are succeeding the best. There are lists that cut the Troggs, for example, for Sylvanas, the Accused and Famished Fool, and while those cards have clear strengths, the current meta is all about speed. When the inevitable balance patch arrives, some of those slower cards may find more room to breathe again.
The New Challenger, Frost Death Knight Re-Invented
Evolve Shaman is the clear number one. Unholy Death Knight is the clear number two. Everyone else seems to be a step behind. However, there are attempts to challenge this ruling couple. One of the decks that have been going through a lot of innovation is Frost Death Knight. And this is indeed innovation rather than refinement! People are trying to refine the old list, build even more burn-heavy lists, and incorporate some minions into the mix. The most successful attempt so far is this minion-based list that brings back Marrow Manipulator!
This version of Frost Death Knight does not use any of the usual burn spells. Instead, it plays aggro minions and gains tempo from Horn of Winter. In the mid-game, it can discover burn spells and freeze the board with Frostwyrm's Fury. It is interesting to see how Construct Quarter has basically enabled a new way to play Frost Death Knight.
Control to the Rescue?
As it happens, one of the few weaknesses shared by both Evolve Shaman and Unholy Death Knight is that you can run them out of resources. They can just get to a point where they have no more stuff. Sometimes, anyway. Our latest, greatest hope to defeating the meta tyrants lies with control decks!
If you prefer to fight Death Knight with Death Knight, you can go ahead and play some Blood:
It turns out that Construct Quarter is a great card in Blood Death Knight too! You can turn your Hero Power minion or any of the Discover minions you play into a 4/5 with Rush that can help reduce the pressure on you and help you survive longer. That was unexpected, but the Death Knight location now sees play in all major archetypes in the class! It is not used in every deck, but perhaps it eventually will be.
If you want to play something other than Death Knight, Dragon Paladin is the other control deck that is doing reasonably well at the moment:
You know what they say: where you see a turn two Thaddius, I see a turn two Equality.
Dragon Paladin is not a new deck and does not even use any mini-set cards. This list has been around for more than a month already, but the new mini-set meta is what has allowed it to succeed. Even a small edge against Evolve Shaman and Unholy Death Knight is enough to propel a deck to a good rank with their current popularity.
However, should we see a balance patch that addresses the main meta tyrants, we can expect control to become weaker again. Control decks have many vulnerabilities, and they are on the spotlight now only because they are some of the only answers to the current meta tyrants. And control decks are not even a hard counter to Evolve Shaman! They are just some of the only decks that have the tools to beat a turn-two 11/11, when they happen to draw those tools early enough.
Where Balance Patch?
I had hoped for a wide variety of new ideas to bring to you all. But the current meta is one of the more oppressive ones we have had. We are just a few days into the mini-set, so there is always a chance that things can change. But Evolve Shaman does not look like it is going to budge easily. Whether you try to go under it and take it down fast or be on the defense and withstand its assault, it has ways to just end the game and win. There is no avenue of attack that is wildly successful. Consequently, only a few decks can survive.
The above five decks are the best hope you have to succeed on the ladder right now. There are other decks that are still around. Mage is the most prominent of those. Aggro Mage, Big Spell Mage, and Ping Mage are all alive. Barely. Just surviving on the edge, hoping for better days. Imp Warlocks, Curse Imp Warlocks, Spell Demon Hunters, and Pure Paladins are also in the same situation. They can win roughly half of the time. But the more Shamans they meet, the weaker they become. I don’t think any of them will survive in the long term without a balance patch.
On the bright side, if you like to play control decks, this is a brief window where they are viable during this expansion. Other than that, we need a breakthrough innovation in Shaman countering, or a balance patch. I would place my bets on a balance patch.