Why no one is playing Rogue anymore
Once upon a time, long before Goblins vs. Gnomes and The Grand Tournament, Rogue was my favorite class in Hearthstone. Its purpose was simple and direct. Bundle up your cheap spells to rip off massive, borderline-game-breaking combos. You draw half your deck off a Gadgetzan Auctioneer, stealth it with double Cold Blood, and swing in with your Leeroy-Shadowstep-Leeroy next turn for good measure. Miracle Rogue. One of the original, meta-shaping one-turn-kill deck, and something Blizzard eventually had to stamp out with a nerf.
I’d never argue against the Miracle nerf. You can’t let players engineer bulletproof draw engines with no repercussions. Playing against Miracle often felt like an arbitrary race against time. Kill them before they get the Auctioneers. If you’re too late—well, concede or enjoy the fireworks. Miracle did do a good job, however, of combining Rogue’s ingredients into something character-defining. The base class cards, (Sap, Conceal, Eviscerate, etc.) all point to the same thing: evasion, massive burst damage, more evasion. That’s kind of what Miracle was, right? You keep your board unclearable, you sabotage taunts, you win the game with one fancy trick. Yeah there were balance issues, but it made sense, right? Direction! Definitiveness! A sense of purpose! That’s the exact thing missing from Rogue right now.
Right now, Rogue is the most unplayed class in Hearthstone. TempoStorm’s weekly Meta Snapshot only shows one archetype, the decent but outclassed Oil Rogue, nestled deep in the third tier. We’ve seen exactly zero new trends pop up since The Grand Tournament; Miracle is still dead, Mill Rogue is still a gimmick, Control Rogue is a faint, incorporeal idea. It’d be nice to chalk that up to a lack of innovation. But frankly, the cards introduced in our latest expansion tell a different story.
There’s Buccaneer and Shady Dealer, two pirate synergy cards that are so much weaker than new dragon synergy stalwarts like Wyrmrest Agent and Twilight Guardian it’s almost laughable. There’s Burgle and Cutpurse, two decent tricks that barely move the needle.There’s Beneath The Grounds, an intriguing delayed-value spell that’s yet to turn Mill archetypes into anything more than a gimmick. There’s Shado-pan Rider and Undercity Valiant, two solid, pile-of-stats minions that are far better in arena than constructed. There’s the legendary, Anub’arak, a promising minion that’s tremendously weak to silence and requires an unplayably slow deck to work, and finally Poisoned Blade, which might possibly be the worst card in the game.
Compare that set to Shaman, which got a slew of new, super-specific totem-driven cards that pushed Totem Shaman (albeit briefly) to top-tier status following The Grand Tournament’s release. Compare it to Hunter, which got cards designed to explicitly encourage slower decks, and a spell in Lock and Load that you can build a whole new archetype around. Compare it to Druid, which got cards to buff its existing token archetypes (Living Roots,) ramp archetypes (Darnassus Aspirant, Aviana) beast archetypes (Druid of the Sabre, Wildwalker, Savage Combatant, Knight of the Wild,) and the potential for a whole new dimension with Astral Communion for good measure.
I mean, just look at the aforementioned Shado-pan Calvary. It’s a good card! A five-mana 3/7 that can become a 6/7 if you play it as part of a combo. It's got a good upside, but it’s almost completely irrelevant in constructed. Playing a Boulderfist Ogre a turn ahead of time in a game where you’re routinely dealing with Paladins dropping five secrets at a time and Warriors filling a board full of Patrons doesn’t cut it. If you play a Shady Dealer on a board with a Pirate, you get a three-mana 5/4 instead of a three-mana 4/3. Again, that’s not bad. But it routinely goes up against cards like Piloted Shredder that just purely outclass it.
The blandness of the Rogue’s Grand Tournament set could’ve been defended more if the class was already in a good place. Take Mage. Mage didn’t get any auto-includes in the expansion. But that’s okay because Freeze Mage, Tempo Mage, and Mech Mage were all already playable enough that they didn’t need any nurturing. It’s the same reason Hybrid Hunter and Face Hunter didn’t get any new cards (save for maybe Brave Archer, but I’m not optimistic). Rogue wasn’t quite as derelict as Shaman or Priest pre-expansion, but Oil Rogue was still barely holding on, and now it’s completely buried.
The card Blizzard would like to believe could work competitively is the much-disparaged Poisoned Blade. It’s a four-mana 1/4 weapon that, when equipped, allows your hero power to add an integer to its attack value. The point was to make the "inspire" mechanic work in Rogue, because the class' hero power isn't necessarily usable every turn: you don't have any need to equip a new weapon every turn. And there’s a world out there where you could press your button 30 times with Poisoned Blade and swing in for 30 damage. On paper this is an interesting idea, “a mechanic you could build a deck around,” which is what Rogue needs more than anything, but it missed the point in a pretty spectacular way. Rogue already has an archetype that relies on big weapon combos. It’s called Oil Rogue, and it’s not being played because the meta is too fast. Poisoned Blade offers a much slower, much more deliberate version of Oil Rogue that’s also about 1,000 times weaker to Acidic Swamp Ooze and Harrison Jones. It was doomed from the start.
So where does that leave us? Unfortunately, I don’t think Rogue can be fixed until another injection of cards, which is a real shame for people who like the class. But I also think it stands as a solid lesson for Blizzard. You can’t shuffle vaguely above-average cards with no unifying theme. Grim Patron, Mysterious Challenger, Totem Golem, hell, pre-nerf Gadgetzan Auctioneer, those are all strong ideas. A five-mana Boulderfist Ogre is not a strong idea. And hey, I get it! Card design is really, really hard. Coming up with an idea that pushes a class forward without it being overpowered is a job literally none of us are equipped to do. But when you default on that responsibility with a new expansion, well, then a class gets left in the dust. Heaven help Valeera, let’s hope she finds her way back soon.