Hearthstone’s Murder at Castle Nathria expansion has been defined by three cards: Prince Renathal, Theotar, the Mad Duke, and Sire Denathrius. Throughout the expansion, these three Neutral Legendary cards have been among the four most popular cards in the game. The entire top four has been unchanged for the past months, with Brann Bronzebeard taking the final spot.
Such domination from Legendary cards of a newly-released expansion has never been seen before. The latest balance patch nerfed Theotar, the Mad Duke from four mana to five mana, but hardly any decks have dropped Theotar as a result. It has been the other changes that changed the meta that have eroded the dominant trio a little bit, but a little bit is all that has happened.
In this article, I will take a closer look at the popularity of the cards, their relationship with each other, and what all of this means for Hearthstone’s future.
Unparallelled Popularity in Standard
At its peak, Prince Renathal was included in two-thirds of all decks played on the Standard ladder. Right now, it is played in half of the decks. Sire Denathrius peaked at 60% and is still present in 45% of decks. Theotar, the Mad Duke, the card that was just nerfed, was used in 50% of decks right before the nerf and is still used in 42% of all decks now.
These are mind-boggling numbers. Because the cards are Neutral, they can be used by all classes, and this adds to their popularity. These are not cards that are used in just a couple of classes, either. All of them are used in just about all classes.
What Can Wild Reveal About Their True Power?
Standard format is one thing, but the ultimate power level of cards can only be found in Wild format. In Wild, the newcomers must compete against all cards from the history of the game, and the truly powerful rise to the top.
In Wild, Prince Renathal has been almost as popular as it is in Standard. It has maintained a steady place in around 50% of decks. That is truly phenomenal. Prince Renathal is by far the most popular card ever in Wild format. It is more than twice as popular as Loatheb!
Theotar, the Mad Duke and Sire Denathrius are also popular, but nowhere close to their Standard format number. Theotar, the Mad Duke is used in around 25% of decks, while Sire Denathrius is used in roughly 20% of decks. In Wild, Theotar, the Mad Duke has been cut from some decks after the nerf, especially Even Shaman. You just can’t use a five-mana card in that archetype, as you would lose Genn Greymane‘s effect.
While balance changes altered the popularity of the cards simply by changing the overall meta to favor more aggressive archetypes that do not use them, the meta in Wild is more stable, and no large changes are to be expected there.
The considerations about the cards in the two formats are likewise different. In Standard, their relationship is a key factor in their popularity. In Wild, they face a much more competitive environment and more substitutes. Theotar, the Mad Duke is the fastest and most effective disruption card in Standard, but Wild players also have access to Dirty Rat that can be even faster.
The Venthyr Triangle in Standard
All three cards depict key characters from World of Warcraft’s Venthyr faction. In some ways, it is appropriate that they are connected in a power struggle in Hearthstone too.
Prince Renathal is the most definitive and most powerful of the three cards. It changes the rules of Hearthstone itself with 10 additional starting Health and 10 additional cards in the deck. This additional Health has been a boon to Wild, where the power level is higher than in Standard, and Renathal enables additional strategies. Its effect in Standard is debatable: you need a lot more threats to push through 40 Health than 30 Health, and direct damage is all but off the table. Minions and buffs are needed to deal enough damage. Or, alternatively, you can use one of the other cards from the triangle…
Sire Denathrius can push through the Renathal Health pool. Now, Sire requires a lot of tokens to feed it, which also directs the way you build your deck, but as those minions are useful in fighting against Renathal anyway, it’s all good. Sire is also really difficult to counter unless you happen to run a specific card…
Theotar, the Mad Duke can not only prevent Sire Denathrius, it also grabs the card for your own use, in what can only be considered a major win. Well, unless your opponent also runs Theotar, and steals that Sire right back.
In Standard, the three cards are interlocked in a power struggle and each forces players to use the others as well. Note that this triangle does not happen in Wild because there are far more options to take on the roles of Denathrius and Theotar in that format. Renathal continues to be unique even in Wild.
Answers From Outside the Triangle
Even in Standard, there are some decks that can escape this trio and fight against them from the outside.
Curse Imp Warlock is the most popular deck that uses no cards from this trio, although it does use Brann Bronzebeard. The power of the Abyssal Curses gives the deck enough punch to break through Renathal’s 40 Health and it is aggressive enough to end games before Sire Denathrius. It also does not rely on any individual card for victory, so it cannot be easily countered with Theotar, the Mad Duke. That is a lot of hoops to jump through, but Curse Imp Warlock can successfully navigate them all.
- 1Flame Imp2
- 1Flustered Librarian2
- 1Grimoire of Sacrifice2
- 1Touch of the Nathrezim2
- 1Wicked Shipment2
- 2Impending Catastrophe2
- 2Vile Library2
- 3Dragged Below2
- 3Fiendish Circle2
- 3Sira’kess Cultist2
- 3Tamsin Roame1
- 4Mischievous Imp2
- 5Lady Darkvein1
- 6Abyssal Wave2
- 6Dreadlich Tamsin1
- 6Imp King Rafaam1
Aggro Druid provides another escape from the clutches of the Venthyr trio. A minion-based aggressive deck that can buff its tokens is exactly the kind of deck that can beat 40 Health, end the game before Sire Denathrius, and not care too much about Theotar, the Mad Duke.
Naga Priest and Bless Priest (also called Miracle Priest) provide a third alternative. These decks are also based on buffs, but this time you make just one (or two) huge minions and use them to hit face.
Miracle Rogue resembles the Priest decks in creating a big threat, although in this case, it can also be a giant weapon and there is some additional early tempo in the form of Wildpaw Gnoll and Scribbling Stenographer.
- 1Blackwater Cutlass2
- 1Door of Shadows2
- 1Gone Fishin’2
- 1SI:7 Extortion2
- 1Sinister Strike1
- 2Maestra of the Masquerade1
- 2Serrated Bone Spike2
- 2Tooth of Nefarian2
- 2Wicked Stab (Rank 1)2
- 3Shroud of Concealment2
- 3Sinstone Graveyard2
- 4Edwin, Defias Kingpin1
- 5Necrolord Draka1
- 5Wildpaw Gnoll2
- 7Scribbling Stenographer2
Finally, Fel Relic Demon Hunter can push enough damage in the mid-game to go under the infamous trio.
- Aggro Druid buffs up a minion board to end the game
- Miracle Priest and Miracle Rogue generate a huge individual minion to win
- Curse Imp Warlock and Fel Relic Demon Hunter have class-specific win conditions for the mid-game, before Sire Denathrius can be used. They also have enough redundancy to prevent Theotar, the Mad Duke from single-handedly winning the game.
You have to be really fast or at least moderately fast with some redundancy to succeed in the meta without the main dominant Legendary cards. The moderately fast options all run Brann Bronzebeard, so they cannot completely escape the main power cards either.
Are Renathal, Theotar, and Denathrius a Problem?
In Standard format, it is hard to escape the power trio. There are some decks that can do it, but the requirements are steep and most classes are not equipped to handle them. Having such game-defining Neutral Legendary cards makes many games feel the same even though the details change between classes. Life is different in Wild, where the power level is higher and all cards apart from Prince Renathal have competition and substitutes.
The next expansion will add more cards to the Standard card pool and most likely increase the power level again. When that happens, Sire Denathrius and Theotar, the Mad Duke will face new competition. It is unlikely for anything to challenge Prince Renathal, as the card is so unique. Overall, there is a good chance that the next meta can succeed.
What I’m more worried about is the meta next spring after the Standard rotation. The card pool will be smaller again, and we may re-experience the current triangle effect in Standard. It is possible that this can be avoided with good design, but Blizzard may also need to consider other options. Rotating Prince Renathal, Theotar, the Mad Duke, and Sire Denathrius out of Standard format a year early should be on the table. They are fine in Wild. They are borderline problematic in the current five-set Standard meta and should be fine in the upcoming six-set Standard meta in December. But a four-set Standard meta next April? We need a lot of good cards in the next two expansions to create enough win conditions to avoid the current trio from dominating the meta again.