Around 2 weeks ago, a balance patch was hinted and we finally saw the changes that will be out by the end of the month. First – ranked will get new “floors” at 15, 10 and 5 and second – two cards will get nerfed (Small-Time Buccaneer and Spirit Claws). Even though those two are undoubtedly the most problematic cards, I’ve expected to see more nerfs. But after thinking for a bit about how small changes to 2 cards can affect the meta, the answer is: a lot.
Bear in mind that everything listed below are just my predictions, based on the impact of the nerfs on given decks and current matchup statistics. It’s impossible to predict the meta with 100% accuracy. However, after consulting with other high ranked players and seeing that we have similar opinions about the upcoming meta, I’m pretty confident that it should be accurate.
Analysis of the Changes
The two nerfed cards are currently some of the most played cards on the ladder. According to the statistics collected from ~10k games played in January, Small-Time Buccaneer was played in around 35% of games and Spirit Claws in around 15% (which is still a lot, considering that it’s a class card). Both cards (but mainly the Small-Time Buccaneer) were responsible for the current shape of the meta – infested by Pirates and Aggro decks. Now, how the nerfs will impact those cards?
Small-Time Buccaneer loses 1 health. 1 health is A LOT when we’re talking about 2 health 1-drop. He basically loses half of his health. Historically, 1-drops that had only 1 health and didn’t have any immediate effect (or Deathrattle, or Stealth) weren’t played. For a good reason – dealing with 1 health minion is much easier than dealing with a 2 health one. You don’t expect a 1 health minion to survive too long, so if he can’t do something immediately, he’s almost useless. However, the effect stays the same – it will still be a 3/1 after you equip the weapon. Is that good enough to include? I don’t think so. I’m not even sure whether a vanilla 3/1 for 1 would be that common and Small-Time Buccaneer is now even worse than that. You often can’t equip the weapon on the same turn you play it. So for 1 turn it will be a 1/1, not only vulnerable to every smallest source of damage, but also not being able to hurt some things back.
Let’s look through some common ways to deal with 1 health minion that couldn’t deal with 2 health minions. Mage’s, Druid’s and Rogue’s Hero Powers, Maelstrom Portal, Mortal Coil, Spirit Claws (even post nerf), N'Zoth's First Mate (1/3 weapon), Patches the Pirate, Whirlwind effects (e.g. Revenge and Ravaging Ghoul), Cruel Taskmaster. But then, there are also some minions that couldn’t deal with Small-Time Buccaneer before the change, but now will trade favorably or at least evenly after it’s down to 1 health: Sir Finley Mrrgglton, Voidwalker, Northshire Cleric, Netherspite Historian, Acolyte of Pain and even unbuffed Tunnel Trogg.
I’ve probably missed some, but that’s not even the point. Dealing with Small-Time Buccaneer will be way easier and the card will be less deadly. Imagine how many times Mage had to use Frostbolt to kill it, while now a simple Hero Power would be enough. It’s not a tempo gain, but in the long run it means that Mage has Frostbolt in hand. Now when Warrior drops Kor'kron Elite or a 7/3 Bloodsail Raider, now the Mage can kill those immediately instead of taking massive amounts of damage. Now every strong Pirate opening is pingable and even more – it gets absolutely ravaged by Maelstrom Portal or even a simple Whirlwind.
Small-Time Buccaneer will be gone from most decks. Shamans or Rogues won’t have a reason to play them anymore. Maybe dedicated Pirate decks, like Pirate Warrior, might still play it, because they simply need a lot of 1-drops, but I don’t think it will be an auto-include. If weapons are still common, even Bloodsail Corsair might be a better option.
Analysis of the second nerf – Spirit Claws – won’t be that long. The card’s functionality remains the same, but it costs 2 mana instead of 1. It’s important to note that the change is REALLY big. 1 and 2 mana is 100% increase in mana cost. Before the nerf, the card was even fine as a 1/3 weapon – while not very strong, it gave Shaman ways to ping, which in combination with other cards made a big difference. Right now, at 2 mana, it will suck as only the 1/3 weapon. To get value out of it, you will HAVE to get it activated. I’ve seen Aggro Shaman builds running only Bloodmage Thalnos as a way to activate it and still playing it, because of how powerful it was. Right now it wouldn’t be the case. I think that the card will still be decently strong. It won’t be overpowered, but it still might be used in the Midrange Builds that run Bloodmage Thalnos + 2x Azure Drake and that DON’T run Sir Finley Mrrgglton. So the card won’t be an auto-include into any Aggro & Midrange Shaman build, especially since there will be no reason to play 4 copies of early game weapons to activate Small-Time Buccaneer.
Is Patches Dead?
The short answer is: no, it’s not.
The long answer… Patches the Pirate is an incredibly powerful card. Having a free 1/1 Charge at the start of every game is incredibly strong. And it didn’t get changed at all. However, it got indirectly nerfed by the nerf to Small-Time Buccaneer. If you play a full Pirate deck, you have TONS of cards that draw out Patches from your deck. In case of the decks that played only the “pirate package” of STB + Patches (+possibly 1-2 more Pirates), STB was the main way to summon Patches. Since STB won’t likely be played anymore, does it mean that Patches won’t be played either?
Yes and no. Like I’ve mentioned, Pirate decks will still want to play Patches, because there is just no reason to not play it. However, Shaman might not be able to play it anymore. STB will be bad, especially since the cheapest weapon in the deck also got nerfed. The only “good” 1-drop Pirate left for Shaman is Southsea Deckhand. But it also has weapon synergy, so it got indirectly nerfed in Shaman by the Spirit Claws nerf. There is also a Bloodsail Corsair I’ve mentioned before, but let’s be honest, its nowhere near close to the level of current Small-Time Buccaneer and it wouldn’t be played unless the meta was really weapon heavy (and with Pirates getting nerfed, we will only see LESS weapons). So I suspect that the Pirate package will be gone from Shaman.
But what about Rogue? I’ll be honest that it’s hard to say. Obviously, there will be no reason to run STB any more. But Rogue has access to other early game Pirates too. Swashburglar is commonly played. Southsea Deckhand is pretty strong in Rogue, as the class has a weapon up 90% of the time and it synergizes nicely with Cold Blood. Then, there is also Buccaneer – the card is definitely better in Rogue than Small-Time Buccaneer right now. The basic scenario of turn 1 Pirate into t2 Hero Power will look like this: if you have STB you will end up with a 3/1 body and 1/2 weapon, if you have Buccaneer you will end up with a 2/1 body and 2/2 weapon. The second scenario is stronger most of the time, as you threaten exactly as much damage, and the weapon isn’t as easy to destroy as 1 health minion + later in the game you can get some value out of Buccaneer immediately, while Small-Time Buccaneer will most likely die before getting any value (unless you Conceal it). Since Rogue has access to other Pirates, Patches might still be played and STB might just get replaced by something else – potentially a Buccaneer or Deckhand. While it would require some playtesting, I can see Rogues still running Patches alongside 2x Swashburglar and 1x Deckhand/Buccaneer.
Impact On The Meta
Of course, it’s impossible to predict how the whole meta will shape up. I will try to give more safe predictions. For example, instead of saying that “Jade decks will dominate the meta”, I will say that “Jade decks should get stronger”. Because it’s almost certain that they will, but it’s impossible to determine whether it will be enough for them to dominate the meta.
This part is mostly based on two assumptions, which I guess can’t be wrong:
- Pirate decks will be weaker after the nerfs.
- Shaman builds running Spirit Claws will also be weaker.
Which, in result, should lead to a few things:
- Since Aggro decks will get weaker, their popularity should go down. Which means the meta should slow down a bit (but don’t expect wonders).
- Since the meta should slow down, popularity of the decks that were too slow against Aggro should go up a bit.
- At the same time, popularity of the decks that were made to specifically to counter Aggro should go down a bit. That, or they will adjust and start playing a little more “greedy” builds.
If we translate that to the actual meta, we might see a few following things:
Pirate Warrior will still be strong
Yep, if you’ve expected the deck to be gone, I have bad news for you. The deck isn’t all about Small-Time Buccaneer. Sure, it’s a big part of the deck’s strength, but I won multiple games EASILY without ever drawing Small-Time Buccaneer. There are a lot of other early game plays available to Pirate Warrior. Yes, the deck might not be Tier 1. But people will still play it for one reason: it wins fast or loses fast. Hearthstone ladder doesn’t change, it’s still mostly about how many more wins than losses you can get per hour, not only about your win rate. That’s the same reason why people have played Face Hunter even when it wasn’t a very powerful deck. It’s just faster.
At the same time, Pirate Warrior is the “fun police” in Hearthstone. The more greedy the meta gets, the stronger Pirate Warrior becomes. So after the nerfs, the meta will naturally try to slow down a bit. But at the same time, meta slowing down means that Pirate Warrior gets stronger. Decks will still need to find the right balance between “being slow enough to fight against greedy decks” and “being fast enough to not lose to Pirate Warrior”.
That said, the deck should get significantly less popular at Legend, where you want to min-max as much as possible. In Legend, how long you play each game doesn’t really matter, what matters is your win rate. 2% win rate drop won’t be as punishing in lower ranks, but it will be in Legend.
Shamanstone is not over
Let’s not fool ourselves thinking that Shaman will be gone from the meta. The class still has TONS of powerful cards and if not one build, then another will dominate. Remember that Shaman still has early game cards like Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem. To be fair, I think that Shamanstone won’t be gone. Shaman’s popularity should definitely go down by a bit, but few % less doesn’t mean that you won’t see Shamans at all. But what kind of Shamans we will be more likely to see?
Ever since the Gadgetzan meta has stabilized, Aggro Shaman (and more specifically Aggro Jade Shaman) was the most powerful Shaman build. Lately Midrange Jade Shaman was getting more traction, but Aggro was still #1 (both in terms of popularity and in terms of power). However, these two nerfs affect Aggro Shaman the most. While Midrange Builds were also running Pirate package and Spirit Claws, those cards weren’t as necessary as in Aggro. The Pirate Package was there mostly to stand a chance in faster matchups (and well, because it was pretty broken). Spirit Claws nerf also affects the Aggro decks more than Midrange ones. More mana you need to spend to play the same card = less tempo you have. With Spirit Claws at 1 mana, you could e.g. play turn 3 Totem Golem and still have enough mana to squeeze in those Spirit Claws to finish some 1 health minion off. Right now it won’t be possible. You will have to choose between one or the other, making your turn significantly stronger.
An average game with the Midrange Shaman lasts longer, so not only 1 mana of tempo is less important, but you can also wait longer to get the full value out of the weapon (as in, wait until you actually have Spell Damage). The fact that you Hero Power more often when playing Midrange also means that the card will be activated more consistently. So Spirit Claws, a very important card in Aggro decks, might not be played at all. But it might still be played in Midrange.
So while those changes affect all sorts of Shamans, the Aggro builds will be hurt most. Which might finally be the moment when Midrange builds take over the Aggro as the #1 Shaman deck.
The more classic version of Midrange Shaman was outshined by the Midrange Jade Shaman for a while already and I don’t think that this specific thing will change. I think that Midrange Jade Shaman will be the strongest Shaman build after the changes, maybe even strongest deck on the ladder in general. And that might have a big effect on the rest of the meta.
Anti-Aggro decks will be weaker
That’s an obvious conclusion. If Aggro will be weaker, anti-Aggro decks will also be weaker. There are two decks I have in mind right now. First of all – Control Warrior. The deck might suffer even more than the Aggro decks themselves. In the current meta, the only reason to play Control Warrior was to counter Aggro. It had good matchups against Aggro Shaman, Pirate Warrior, a decent matchup against Miracle Rogue (since the current builds are pretty aggressive) and that’s pretty much it. The deck had poor or even terrible matchup against Reno decks, Jade decks, Midrange Shaman, Dragon Priest etc. If Aggro decks will get weaker and less popular, it automatically means that the biggest reason to play Control Warrior will be gone. It’s true that Control Warrior builds can be adjusted to fight against slow decks instead, but they will still be subpar to Reno decks (mainly because Warrior doesn’t have Kazakus). And if Jade decks become more popular, that’s like a nightmare scenario for every Control Warrior player.
The other quite popular anti-Aggro deck is Reno Mage. But this time around, I suspect that the deck won’t be affected that much. Sure, current builds are optimized to fight against Aggro and if Aggro would disappear from the meta, Reno Mage’s win rate would go down significantly. However, this time around it might be a matter of optimization. Reno Mage can get more greedy way better than Control Warrior can. If Aggro would become less popular, Reno Mage could just switch a few cards around and it should still be in the meta. Depending on how much Aggro will still be played, the deck can be optimized to still work decently against them, but also have more late game power in form of cards like Medivh, the Guardian or Ragnaros the Firelord. Reno Mage is very flexible and can vary from super anti-Aggro to a Control-heavy, greedy build.
Overall, if the meta slows down a bit and becomes a little bit more Midrange, it might be a good time to remove some anti-Aggro techs from your deck and play something slower. But let’s not forget that if you make your deck too slow, Pirate Warrior can always be there to punish you, so don’t overact.
Decks countered by Aggro will be stronger
I can certainly say that builds that currently struggled vs Aggro will definitely get a little more breathing space and should improve a bit in the current meta.
First and possibly most importantly – Jade decks. I’m mostly talking about Jade Druid, as it’s the most viable “slow” Jade deck, but it will also have effect on the other slow Jade decks. So, the thing about Jade Druid is that it’s a deck with very polarized matchups. On the one hand, it was known for working really well against slow decks. It has a positive win rate in Reno matchups and in other Control matchups. That’s because the deck can’t be outvalued in the long run – it can only be outtempo’d and those decks couldn’t always do. However, another well known piece of information is that Jade Druid’s worst matchups are Aggro decks. It couldn’t handle the early pressure of Aggro Shaman or Pirate Warrior. If those decks would be less popular, it automatically means that Jade Druid might become more popular. Which is a little bit problematic.
The problem here is that Jade Druid might become the new “fun police” if it’s not stopped. But even a worse kind of fun police. Because if your bad deck building or deck choice gets punished by Pirate Warrior, at least you lose in 5 turns. If your bad deck building or deck choice gets punished by Jade Druid, the game might last for 15 minutes.
Also, if Jade Druid becomes more popular, it also automatically means that even the nerfed Aggro decks will still have a reason to be played extensively. Which might in the end result in a meta shifting between more Jade Druid, then more Aggro decks, then Jade Druid will disappear because of the Aggro, then Aggro will disappear because Jade Druid disappeared, then Jade Druid will reappear because Aggro disappeared… In an endless cycle like that.
However, we can’t take the Jade decks resurgence for granted. Other kind of decks that Jade Druid struggles against are fast, Midrange decks like Dragon Warrior, Dragon Priest or – yes – Midrange Shaman. Which might mean that Jade decks instead of getting rid of a bad matchup will just trade one bad matchup for another.
Reno Warlock might also get a bit stronger, because even after adjusting the deck to beat Aggro it still had poor matchups against those decks. On the other hand, RenoLock crushed Midrange decks, especially after a few adjustments, and Midrange can get more popular. However, once again, Jade Druid might be a problem here – RenoLock struggles against Jade Druid, so if that deck becomes popular, its performance might drop.
The most interesting case might be Miracle Rogue. Because on the one hand, Small-Time Buccaneer nerf will also directly lower the Miracle Rogue’s performance, as the card was amazing in each build. On the other hand, Pirate Warrior and Aggro Shaman were the worst common matchups Miracle Rogue had. So while it gets a little bit less powerful, two worst matchups are getting an even bigger hit. So in the end, I think that it might result in Miracle Rogue being stronger than it is now. Which is a little bit scary if you think about it. Miracle Rogue is one of the most scary decks if it can’t be kept in check by Aggro.
Non-meta decks might get back into the meta
And that last conclusion is a big unknown. There are a few decks that were decently popular in the past, even right before the Gadgetzan, but the wave of Aggro decks have stopped them from being played. We have decks like Anyfin Paladin, Secret Hunter, Tempo Mage or Zoo Warlock – each of those decks was at least playable (some were strong meta decks) just a few months ago. And each of those decks has something in common – they all have bad matchups against Pirate Warrior and Aggro Shaman. When those two decks are nerfed, some of them might make their way back into the meta. And some of them have really solid matchups against other meta decks. For example – Zoo Warlock. The decj is terrible against Pirate Warrior and Aggro Shaman, BUT it has an insane matchup against Jade Druid – even better than the other Aggro decks had. So if for some reason, Jade Druid starts to dominate the meta, we might see Zoo Warlock being played as the counter.
But as I’ve mentioned – it’s a big unknown. If Aggro turns out to be played 20% less, it won’t likely be enough for the decks to get back to the meta. Those decks will definitely have a higher chance to be played post-patch, but they might still not be good enough in the end. I think that Anyfin Paladin has the highest chance to see play, as it’s already sometimes seen on the ladder and its worst matchup is Pirate Warrior.
As you can see, meta isn’t something you can easily predict. One small change can have a huge impact on everything people play. One deck getting weaker might mean other decks become more played, which in the end might also mean some non-meta decks resurging to counter those decks. But on the other hand, there is a chance that actually nothing will change. If it turns out that the nerfs weren’t enough to make those decks significantly weaker, we might see pretty much exactly the same meta as we see now, just with a few adjustments. But I’m pretty confident that it won’t happen – while I don’t expect any revolution, I think that some things will definitely change.
We also need to remember that the new Standard year will be there soon. If not for those changes, the meta after new expansion would probably still be dominated by Pirates. Right now there is a much higher chance that ~2 months from now, we’re going to see a completely new meta. At least that’s what I hope for.
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Good luck on the ladder and until next time!