Hearthstone's Shaman class is in desperate need of help
Hearthstone classes need identity. That’s the root of competition, right? Diverse, multifaceted strategies rubbing against each other; from boxing, to soccer, to StarCraft. That’s what makes sports interesting. You pit a slow, grinding Control Warrior against a necrotic Face Hunter—and the world picks sides.
But you have to think that Blizzard might be scratching its heads about what to do with Shaman right now. While the other eight classes in Hearthstone have found solid places in the meta following Goblins vs. Gnomes and Blackrock Mountain, the Shaman has been left in the dust. The only thing that’s caught any traction is the fairly niche Mech Shaman, which is effective, but also inconsistent.
It’s gotten to the point where in a recent tournament Thijs "ThijsNL" Molendijk used his Shaman slot purely as an anti-Handlock option. His take on Shaman would lose against every other matchup outside of one specific scenario. That means that Molendijk, one of the best Hearthstone players in the world, thinks that Shaman is worthless enough to be used as a hedge. And that's crazy.
The problem most people point to is the overload mechanic. Overload is exclusive to Shamans, and it basically aims to give you a tempo bonus at the expense of future mana. Take a card like Earth Elemental: a five mana 7/8 with taunt, and the best value you can get for the price. Unfortunately, after playing it you’re unable to use three of your mana crystals next turn. So let’s say you drop it on turn five—you’re then looking at a turn six with only three mana. If you don't play it on turn five or six, you lose all the advantage. It effectively becomes an eight-mana card paid over multiple turns, significantly reducing the value.
It’s classic risk/reward, and similar concepts have worked in Priest (Thoughtsteal) Warlock (Doomguard, Flame Imp) and Mage (Unstable Portal). Unfortunately, overload hasn’t provided enough of an edge to be viable. Out of the 14 overload cards in Hearthstone, only three (Crackle, Lightning Storm, and Doomhammer) see any consistent play. There are other good cards that use the mechanic—Neptulon is a high-tier legendary and Fireguard Destroyer rules—but they haven’t been good enough to bring Shaman back in the meta.
It’s strange, because back in vanilla Hearthstone the basic Shaman deck was quite powerful. I’d venture to say it was almost as common as Zoo. But since Goblins vs. Gnomes, the game has become much more aggressive, and the locked mana that comes with formerly great cards like Lightning Bolt and Stormforged Axe just isn't tolerable anymore.
if you’re comparing raw stats, overload is the mechanic hit the hardest by Hearthstone's power creep. Consider the Piloted Shredder, a four mana 4/3 that spawns a random two-mana cost minion. It’s quite possible that it’ll offer much more value than Feral Spirit’s cumulative five mana for a pair of 2/3s. Feral Spirit was a fantastic card, but that was long before Shredder shifted the barometer.
Blizzard tried to solve this problem with the introduction of Lava Shock, a two-mana, two-damage spell which untaps all current and future mana crystals imprisoned by an overload. But it hasn’t been enough. Now, the very mechanic Shaman was designed around has hamstrung the class as a whole.
There’s a saying in Magic: the Gathering that there’s no such thing as bad mechanics, only bad cards. This essentially means that there isn’t any downside that can’t be overcome with tremendous value. The best example would be Doomguard. Burning two cards from your hand really sucks, but the 5/7 for five with charge is good enough that it’s worth it. Overload is on the other side of that spectrum right now. A system where mana is spent over the course of two turns isn’t implicitly bad, but the options aren’t good enough to encourage players to bite the bullet.
It’s difficult to know what Blizzard should do. It could readjust some choice cards in Shaman’s arsenal, (like making Lightning Storm only overload one mana instead of two for starters). it could take special care to make overload cards with huge, must-play abilities in the next expansion, or introduce more cards like Lava Shock that synergize with overloaded crystals. Or it could simply abandon the mechanic all together. Hearthstone has never had a top-to-bottom class redesign, certainly not in the same way it’s been done in League of Legends or even World of Warcraft. But it might not be out of the question here.
Let’s be clear: Overload isn’t Shaman's only problem. The class lacks reliable early game tempo and card draw, and its spells rely heavily on RNG. But overload should be what makes Shaman awesome. There should be an arsenal of options that can win a game while putting your mana on layaway. Unfortunately, we’re not there. We haven’t been there since January. Until that changes, Hearthstone will be an eight-class game.