Priest is the most controversial class in Hearthstone at the moment. It has proven to be extremely difficult for Blizzard to work with: the class has been at the center of controversy for much of its existence, and last year’s Priest rework did little to change this.
Does it have to be this way? What has Priest been in the past, what is it now, and what could it be in the future? Let’s take a journey through time and see what has happened to Priest since Hearthstone’s release.
This is Priest!
This is what Priest looks like in the Standard format at the moment. Every Priest deck that sees play is some variation of this same theme: tons of resource generation, some control tools, a couple of proactive minions and N'Zoth, God of the Deep to resurrect them, and tools to destroy or steal cards from the opponent’s hand or deck.
Priest’s ability to generate additional resources is impressive indeed: Raise Dead, Draconic Studies, Renew, Sethekk Veilweaver, Wandmaker, Venomous Scorpid, Palm Reading, and Southsea Scoundrel ensure that Priest is almost impossible to run out of resources. More than half of the deck generates additional resources!
The current Priest decks also have unparalleled capabilities to affect the opponent’s hand and deck with Mindrender Illucia, Southsea Scoundrel, and Mutanus the Devourer forcing the opponent to navigate a difficult passage of not keeping too many cards in hand, not holding key pieces alone or for too long, and also not over-committing to the board in case of a board clear. Hysteria and Soul Mirror can severely punish playing too many cards, while the aforementioned tools punish for playing too few.
A relatively aggressive deck with a high threat density can destroy Priest, but this level of resource generation and ways to punish the opponent for cards on the board, in hand, or in the deck has never been seen before.
This Priest identity is a surprisingly recent development. Would you believe that this style of Priest has been around for less than a year? But what was there before?
A Brief History of Priest
In the beginning, there was no Priest. When Hearthstone launched, the Priest class existed, of course, as no classes have ever been removed from the game, but it was bad. Looking at current Classic stats, Priest is so bad that it is practically unplayable, so the class did not have a particularly flashy beginning.
During the Curse of Naxxramas in mid-2014, most Priest decks were Control Priests and looked roughly like this:
There are plenty of stealing elements in the deck with Thoughtsteal, Shadow Madness, Cabal Shadow Priest, Sylvanas Windrunner, and Mind Control. Notably, none of them are able to affect anything that the opponent holds in their hand. This was typical of early Hearthstone design philosophy, as the gameplay experience of facing Magic-style discard decks was considered to feel bad and avoided at all costs. It is also worth noting that additional resource generation is almost unheard of at this point.
Priest did not look all that different during Whispers of the Old Gods in 2016:
The Circle of Healing combos are still there, as are some stealing capabilities with Cabal Shadow Priest, Sylvanas Windrunner, and the immensely powerful Entomb. All of these capabilities continue to target the board, which is still the center of action in Hearthstone at this point in time.
The Discover mechanic has been added to the game, but this deck only uses it with Museum Curator, which is far less powerful than any of the current Discover cards and is mostly included to be able to contest the board early and then seek either value or tempo, depending on the pace of the matchup.
Blizzard attempted to push a more midrange archetype for Priest by aligning the class with Dragons, but the class’s poor fit for tempo play meant that Dragon Priest was unable to properly establish itself in The Grand Tournament and in One Night in Karazhan despite multiple support cards. Dragon Priest only became a thing when Drakonid Operative was introduced in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan in December 2016:
Drakonid Operative was intentionally overpowered to finally make Dragon Priest a thing, and for a brief while Priest had a strong midrange deck at its disposal. The Standard format had been introduced in 2016, but at this point, Dragon Priest still had all of its synergy cards from Blackrock Mountain, The Grand Tournament, One Night in Karazhan, and Mean Streets of Gadgetzan: it took the combined power of four expansions of support to make Midrange Priest a strong deck!
Dragons typically had more Health than Attack, which made them perfect for Priest’s Hero Power to heal.
Journey to Un’Goro in 2017 saw another more aggressive Priest deck rise to fame, Silence Priest:
Silence Priest was another archetype that Blizzard had been pushing for quite some time, including with the introduction of Purify in One Night in Karazhan, but yet again, making a faster Priest deck actually viable proved to be a difficult task. Tar Creeper and Humongous Razorleaf were finally big enough and Shadow Visions added a new level of consistency to enable Divine Spirit and Inner Fire to act as a reliable win condition.
Journey to Un’Goro also added the first sight of infinite resource generation with Lyra the Sunshard, which was able to win games in combination with Radiant Elemental and tons of random spells. The combination was difficult enough to pull off that it did not dominate the game, and most Silence Priest decks eventually moved on from Lyra to a more aggressive and consistent direction. The feel-bad moments created by Lyra the Sunshard did not deter Blizzard, and while Priest did not get another resource-generation dynamo like Lyra for a long time, the option stayed on the drawing board.
Knights of the Frozen Throne in mid-2017 was one of the peaks of power creep in Hearthstone, and oh boy did Priest get some juicy win conditions!
- 1Mind Vision1
- 1Northshire Cleric1
- 1Pint-Size Potion1
- 1Potion of Madness1
- 1Power Word: Shield1
- 2Radiant Elemental1
- 2Shadow Visions1
- 2Shadow Word: Death1
- 2Shadow Word: Pain1
- 2Spirit Lash1
- 3Curious Glimmerroot1
- 4Holy Nova1
- 4Priest of the Feast1
- 4Shadow Word: Horror1
- 5Lyra the Sunshard1
- 5Raza the Chained1
- 6Cabal Shadow Priest1
- 6Dragonfire Potion1
- 8Shadowreaper Anduin1
Raza the Chained and Shadowreaper Anduin are one of the most powerful duos that Priest has ever had access to, and they remain immensely popular in Wild. The Machine Gun Priest is a powerful deck that plays cheap cards and shoots people in the face with a refreshing, zero-cost Hero Power. This early version of it is nowhere near as deadly as the current Wild versions that are built from a much larger card pool, but the core idea remains the same. Note how little resource generation there is in the deck: the deck has a proactive win condition, and it does not stray from its target.
Knight of the Frozen Throne also added some oomph to Big Priest / Resurrect Priest:
The addition of Eternal Servitude and Shadow Essence made it possible for Priest to more reliably cheat out big minions and bring them back should they fall. This style of Priest is still played in Wild.
2018 and 2019 added some new combo decks for Priest:
Combo decks were not part of Hearthstone in its early days, but as years went by, specific combo cards started to get introduced into the game. Mecha'thun and Chef Nomi together with Seance formed the win conditions of the above combo decks. They represent a traditional combo style where you needed to draw your entire deck in order to pull off your combo, something that many newer combo decks no longer need to do.
Combo decks have been a difficult archetype for Hearthstone because the game lacks interaction during the opponent’s turn, which makes combo decks a nightmare to balance. Counters to combo decks have been tough to create, as they are easily either too weak or so strong that they are used successfully even against regular decks, and they usually involve some level of hand destruction, which Hearthstone originally categorically avoided.
The final step in Priest’s development towards its current form came in Descent of Dragons in December 2019 in the form of Galakrond, the Unspeakable:
Galakrond Priest was the first Priest deck that was able to generate infinite resources with Galakrond’s Hero Power. Even though this was a major asset in a long match, Galakrond was not easy to find from your deck, and other decks could still fight you all the way to fatigue if necessary. Because the random generation was limited to minions, it provided only limited control tools: you would need to fight for the board with your random minions, and while you had an advantage, it was not insurmountable.
Notice how this Galakrond Priest deck from April 2020 – Ashes of Outland – still includes only a limited number of cards that generate additional resources: Galakrond, the Unspeakable and its synergy cards generate minions only, while only Renew, Vulpera Scoundrel, and Thoughtsteal can also generate spells.
2020 is the year that made Priest what it is today.
- Ashes of Outland gave Priest Renew, Sethekk Veilweaver, and Soul Mirror.
- Scholomance Academy added Draconic Studies, Wandmaker, Mindrender Illucia, Raise Dead, and Gift of Luminance.
- Madness at the Darkmoon Faire introduced Palm Reading, Nazmani Bloodweaver, and Rally!.
Blizzard has pushed random resource generation for Priest as hard as they pushed Dragons and Silence in previous years. It took them more than a year to get it done, but now we are experiencing the peak of random-generation Priest.
What Is Priest’s Class Identity?
For the vast majority of Hearthstone’s history, Priest has been a control class. A Hero Power focused on healing heavily pushes Priest into this direction, and other Priest archetypes have only been enabled through several expansions of hard pushing.
After the Priest rework, all hints of Priest dealing damage through Shadow magic have been removed from the game, and so have all opportunities to build minions with gigantic Health pools. Priest was culled, its win conditions gutted. In their stead, the last five expansions have steadily built a Priest based on random effects as their only playstyle. This is the consistent Priest class identity that Blizzard has pushed for almost two years now, starting with Descent of Dragons and Galakrond, the Unspeakable.
The current Priest class identity is a colossal failure.
Priest’s Hero Power makes it difficult to enable other playstyles than control for the class, but control does not mean random. It may have been too strong, but Shadowreaper Anduin showed the way to a Control Priest that uses Shadow magic as their win condition. Dragon Priest and Silence Priest showed the power of high-Health minions in a healing class. The tools to build meaningful Priest cards exist. In the Wild format, Priest decks are far less reliant on random effects because they still have access to meaningful win conditions. Blizzard chose to build Priest into the most hated class in the game even when it is not performing well, but alternatives exist.
After such a long push, we are stuck with the random Priest at least until the Standard rotation in Spring 2022, and given the way Blizzard’s design process works, perhaps until the Standard rotation in Spring 2023. Hearthstone is often held captive of its design decisions for years, and Priest’s identity is no different.
In World of Warcraft – you know, the game where all of our classes come from – Priests do roughly one of three things: heal their allies, shield their allies, or deal damage. Shadow Priests are actually some of the best damage dealers in the game, reminiscent of what Shadowreaper Anduin is in the Wild format. There is plenty of material for inspiration in World of Warcraft, and none of it includes Priest as a random-effect generator.
Priest could be so much more. Priest could be a damage-dealing Shadow Priest. Priest could be a Discipline Priest that heals their minions through damage. Priest could be the ultimate healing class as a Holy Priest. The source material already contains Priest’s class identity. It has not been successfully translated into Hearthstone yet, but there have been some hints at it, especially in Shadowreaper Anduin. Blizzard could still find the way to do it, but only if they leave their chosen Priest class identity as the random class behind.