Ben Nagy’s Big Picture – Shaman Past, Present, and Future

Finally, we’ll be discussing the Shaman class. Shaman was a strong class in beta, and possibly the class that has the most potential decks to be built in it. From Overload Synergy, to Ramp decks, to Control or even Combo decks, Shaman has seen it all, and has the best options for midrange play that […]

Introduction

Finally, we’ll be discussing the Shaman class. Shaman was a strong class in beta, and possibly the class that has the most potential decks to be built in it. From Overload Synergy, to Ramp decks, to Control or even Combo decks, Shaman has seen it all, and has the best options for midrange play that can adapt to your opponent’s strategy. So why has it recently been in so much trouble? The last year or so, Shaman has hardly seen any play. If you look at the list of Shaman cards that have been released, they’re not lower in power level than the other classes. In fact, they’re pretty powerful cards relative to a lot of the singles in the other Eight. But top players and even amateurs alike have been mostly neglecting the Shaman class, and with good reason. Despite Shaman being given some awesome effects, it just hasn’t quite made for a solid class. Today we’ll explore what makes Shaman what it is today, how it has evolved over the last couple of years, and where Blizzard is (and should be) taking the class. If you haven’t read last week’s article on evaluating classes, I recommend you doing so here. Also, although mostly centering on Rogue, if this material interests you, Falathar wrote an excellent article on classes here.

Welcome to Ben Nagy’s Big Picture, where we will look at how new cards/sets, various aspects of Hearthstone, and changes in the metagame reflect how Hearthstone is positioned against other games in the genre, and what that means for the future of the game. You’ll get a game designer’s perspective on how Hearthstone is being built from the ground up, which will help with your understanding of the changes Blizzard makes, as well as become more skilled at playing.

With the help of these articles, you’ll be able to see deeper into how Hearthstone ticks, impress your friends with your pro-level knowledge, opinions, and perspective on the Hearthstone game, and be the go-to guy in your circle for keeping up-to-date with commentary on the latest events in the world of Hearthstone.

What Makes a Class Well-Balanced vs Other Classes?

One thing we are going to discuss quite a bit today is the concept of classes not standing alone in power level, but being tied to prominent decklists or archetypes. Ideally, each class is equivalently balanced on a basic level, in that each hero power isn’t significantly better or worse than any other. Rather, we must evaluate a class’ power in terms of each grouping of class cards that can make a cohesive strategy, and then how well that strategy clicks with the class’s hero power.

Each class will have a variety of cards that can match with almost any strategy, so that the class has options. Warlock is a class that primarily favors aggro decks, as its wide array of demons and cards like Hellfire and Twisting Nether. But Lord Jaraxxus still exists to enable other slower plays, even if that isn’t the primary strategy that a bulk of Warlock cards fit best with.

Similarly, neutral cards expand those options, by giving a more conservatively costed alternative to a number of effects. For example, Antique Healbot is very powerful because it gives staying power to any class, and isn’t overpriced for its effect. Going back to Warlock, Molten Giant and Mountain Giant click with Warlock’s hero power, and thus enable that deck to work. Without the Giants and Twilight Drake, Handlock decks would simply never have been a viable option for the class. This means that until recently, the only decent Warlock deck would have been Zoo. Not a very versatile class, which would have lowered the perceived value of Warlock decks, especially in a tournament setting, where seeing that your opponent was playing a Warlock deck would also immediately tell you they were playing a Zoo deck.

So, we arrive at two factors that affect how well we value a “class,” as a whole.

First is the variety of decks that this class can play. If the class can adapt to the current meta, we will see more of that class across a few different decklists. This gives the class more power, as we are more likely to explore what other cards and strategies are viable for that class as we tinker with decklists. And we will find new combos as we are playing with that class. This creates a cycle of viability for the class, that guarantees we will see a lot of play and discussion revolving around the class and the wide range of strategies it can support.

Secondly and most importantly, however, we must look at the environment in which the class exists, and how well the supporting cards for the class function. This includes neutral cards as well as class cards. But we are not looking at merely general power level of the cards, or how well they synergize with that class’ hero power. Instead, we must see how individual strategies and decks work out. This is one of Blizzard’s most important tasks: adequate playtesting to ensure that new cards balance the classes.

Let us look once more to Warlock as a class. As the metagame shifts towards more control decks that have adequate tools to stop aggro decks, Warlock will adapt by giving players the tools to either play a strong minion-based control game with a Handlock deck, or to outpace Control’s removal using the synergy of its hero power along with cheap minions to flood the board and stick.

Warrior, then, was a much better class a few months ago, as it had several strategies that were eminently viable for it: both normal Control (if that’s what the meta game demanded) as well as Patron Warrior decks, which saw play a majority of the time. As Patron Warrior faded, Control decks became more viable, which allowed Warrior’s Control decklists to shine. To the untrained eye, Warrior still appears to be a solid class that has been seeing some good play. But if you look into the future, there currently is nowhere for Warrior to go when Control falls out of favor. New cards will need to be introduced that give Warrior, at that time, a new strategy to hold onto so that it can still be viable and compete. Otherwise, Warrior will become outmoded.

This brings us to Shaman.

Why Isn’t Shaman Generally a Powerful Class?

The fundamental design of the Shaman class keeps it in an odd space to be a truly well-respected class. The pendulum of environments usually swings from favoring aggro-focused decks to control-focused decks.

Shaman is neither of these.

The Shaman hero power, core mechanic, and majority of its class cards are all focused towards midrange play. This should mean that Shaman has a viable deck in almost any environment. It can out-aggro the control decks, and out-control the aggro decks. It fits this midrange deck space rather well, but this keeps it from specializing in being really good in either extreme. Warrior may only generally be good half the time, when the meta favors control decks. But when it is, it is really good, and can win a lot of matches based on its core strengths and not relying on any particular decklist or strategy.

Shaman doesn’t have this. Shaman adapts and changes well in relation to your opponent’s strategy, but isn’t so hot on taking a proactive stance itself. Even cards such as Windfury minions and Bloodlust mostly wait for an opening to get some good value and burst down the opponent. They usually give the opponent plenty of avenues to stop the Shaman player before they can pose too much of a real threat.

This brings us to the core problem of the Shaman class: Shaman hasn’t supported a specific decklist or strategy well. Instead, it has focused on giving players “good stuff” that has no specific home.

How Shaman Was Balanced at the Beginning of Hearthstone

Players who weren’t around during beta will likely feel that Shaman has always been a weak class. But this is not so. Shaman was once actually quite a strong quite because it had excellent answers to everything that opposing classes could put out. In fact, Brian Kibler first hit Legend using Shaman.

So why has it gone from a very powerful class with many midrange options to where it is today?

As Hearthstone has evolved, classes have been given more and more tools that fit with core strategies. Warrior has been given ways to slow down the game, as Hunter has been given more options to speed it up. But Shaman never really received much that would grant it any benefit in either an extremely Control-oriented environment, nor in a heavily Aggro-oriented environment. Instead, it remained firmly planted in its midrange state.

Early Hearthstone was on average, almost always a midrange game, because players did not have as many specific tools as they do now for controlling the pacing of the game. More cards added to a game, and more options available to players, will always lead to more consistent and more powerful decks. Shaman is equally more powerful now as some of the other classes who are now often used. So why doesn’t this feel to be the case?

As the game and card pool have grown, the developers have wanted to ensure they could control the environment more. A game that feels the same every time you sit down to play it is not terribly fun. A game that changes every few months, however, allows everyone to play the way that they want. Some players are only satisfied by playing long, drawn out control and combo decks where they feel in the driver’s seat for the entire match. Other players want to close out a game quickly with aggro decks to plough through opponents. If either one of these players is satisfied all the time, by definition, the other player is not getting the experience they are looking for from Hearthstone, and may look elsewhere.

In order to satisfy both extremes of players, and everyone in between, Blizzard has adopted the revolving environment style from other popular CCGs. By this system, through the introduction of new, more powerful cards in more recent sets, which major strategy prevails shifts over time as new counters to the old favorite strategy are introduced. This creates polarizing gameplay, but is to the ultimate benefit of the game. However, much more difficult to swing towards than the extremes are the midrange areas in between. This is especially true in a game where the format doesn’t rotate, meaning that the cards which came out last year, for example, are still viable in today’s matchups, as opposed to being disallowed.

Where Shaman is Now

Shaman has gotten the short end of the stick by not being polarized into a specific secondary strategy. Midrange should have a place and a core class, but Shaman, in order to be viable in as many environments as other classes, should also have a bent towards aggro or control games so that it has a place it can go when midrange doesn’t have quite enough “oomph” to make Shaman a viable class to play.

The problem with the Shaman class is that it has been given quality cards that don’t fit any unified strategy.

One important design tool is “typecasting” your classes or other factions, so that you don’t lose sight of where that class fits in the larger scheme of things. I believe that Shaman has, for the last year or so, been mostly ignored because it already had a very specific place: midrange. However, because midrange has been mostly ignored (Hearthstone has been swinging around Aggro for so long), Shaman hasn’t had a whole lot of viable decklists for players to pick up and work with.

Even with new cards introduced through the last couple of sets, even though they have been good cards, Shaman’s best decks have still been the same few lists it had in beta with a few card replacements. The class has not evolved, and so has died in the waves of “new” that Blizzard has brought.

Shaman in League of Explorers and Onwards

But Blizzard looks to be taking notice of Shaman’s lack of vim and vigor. League of Explorers has given us a few unique strategies that I believe Blizzard has slowly been building into the Shaman class.

The first is obviously Everyfin is Awesome. This fits with the Murloc synergy theme developed by Neptulon. Shaman’s excellent removal is well-paired with inexpensive minions, allowing you to create board presence on the same turns that you are Overloaded or have other cards to play that turn. The Murloc strategy, and Everyfin is Awesome in particular, puts Shaman in a dominant and unique place of the Aggro wheel, compared to Druid’s Combo take on a similar theme (Bloodlust vs Savage Roar).

Everyfin is Awesome rewards aggressive Murloc plays and devoting tons of resources to the board–a very aggro play. Because it pairs so well with other Shaman cards and the Murloc library already out there, it greatly expands Shaman’s viable strategies. Note that this card also disincentivizes using your hero power too often for maximum benefit, slowing players (especially newer players who generally want to gain maximum benefit from everything) from focusing too much on Shaman’s midrange advantages. However, the card still clicks well with that hero power, granting your totems some stats that may make them significantly more useful, should you have some lying around on the battlefield.

This card is an excellent example of how to very quickly expand the card pool of a class: by syncing it with synergies already found in abundance in your neutral card pool. It also does a great job of fitting with the Shaman cards already in existence, such as Bloodlust, so that it feels right at home in Shaman.

The next best addition to the Shaman class is Tunnel Trogg. This card fits with the Overload strategy also being currently built by Blizzard. Why do I call it the Overload strategy, instead of just a mechanic? Lava Shock. This card didn’t just make Overload a more viable option for play, removing one of the primary disadvantages of the Shaman’s most unique and powerful mechanic. This turns Overload into a full strategy, where you now have the option to play overloaded cards that may not make sense or give you full benefit, merely to pump up a few of your minions on board, a la Unbound Elemental.

More support is needed for Overload to take off and be a serious strategy, but there is possibly enough potential value in cards yet to be released, that midrange may have a bit of power over the extremes at some point of Hearthstone’s environment. This shows another possibly avenue for the future of Shaman to travel.

Rumbling Elemental is exactly the problem that Shaman has been facing. While there may be room for a decent midrange deck that takes advantage of Battlecry abilities in Shaman, and the card isn’t terrible, it doesn’t fit any major strategy or particularly well-defined synergy, so it will likely take up space in the Shaman player’s collection for some time. Note that, again, this isn’t a bad card, and indeed may be quite fun to use for many players. But it isn’t the type of card that makes for quality tournament finishes or for consistent ladder plays. It’s a “build around me” card that may see some play if picked early on in an Arena match, but will fare poorly in constructed.

Shaman needs more cards like the former, and less of the latter. Shaman is a class that is already filled with Rumbling Elementals. What it needs are definitive strategy cards that fit in with core concepts for where Shaman is moving, and where its future lies.

Ben’s Suggestions

As evidenced by the League of Explorers, it appears that Blizzard has a handle on getting Shaman back to an even ground with other classes. It is easy to say that Shaman needs a dramatic change, but sometimes just a single card or two can push a class into new ground for updated strategies or whole new territory. Take a look at the following two concepts:

Elemental Disturbance

Spell

2

Deal damage equal to the number of your locked mana crystals.

Windspeaker Murloc

Minion

6

2/3

Battlecry: Give your Murlocs Windfury until end of turn.

Neither of these cards has been tested or played with in any sort of environment, so it always difficult to tell how well these cards are balanced, and how effective they would be at changing the Shaman class. However, I believe that either one of these, due to their extreme power level and specific strategies, would greatly influence the class, and allow powerful Shaman decks. You wouldn’t need more than just these two cards to greatly influence players towards either an Overload strategy or Murloc synergy strategy. You don’t need a lot of cards to support a class. You just need a few cards that are interesting/powerful enough in the right direction to make the strategy work.

Finally, let’s take a look at a card that would not just expand on Shaman mechanics, but would also stretch them a bit, to redefine the class and explore new territory.

Wild Elemental

Minion

4

2/4

Whenever a minion you control dies, summon a random totem.

It is likely that some mechanic like this might be held in reserve for a Death Knight class, if Blizzard decides to release one at some point. But it is interesting to see how well this fits with the Deathrattle Shaman decks that were popular with Baron Rivendare and Rebirth. A class’ identity can be changed so easily, which is why Blizzard has to be careful when slowly introducing new mechanics and concepts to existing classes.

Conclusion

Classes are very delicate things, which is why Blizzard has moved slowly and carefully to correct classes that may feel out of alignment, or that aren’t offering players pieces they want to play with. However, with the addition of League of Explorers, it appears that Shaman is coming back, and will be properly supported again soon. Whether they will do by expanding on already seen territory, and making old strategies viable, or whether they will instead try to advance new ground with the Shaman class in an upcoming set has yet to be seen. But I am confident that very soon, Shaman players will be rewarded for their waiting with new cards and decks that will put Shaman back in the spotlight, and make it once again a viable option.

Join me next week as I expand on some of the discussion from today to talk about Complexity Creep, and how it fits in the Big Picture.

-Ben Nagy

I want to engage you readers in this week’s article. What cards/strategies would you like to see support for in Shaman? Leave your answers and any questions you may have in the Comments below!