Examining Dreamhack Summer’s Hearthstone Irregularities
Hey guys, I’m Lucky! I’ve reached #2 Legend NA this season and was the runner-up in the NESL #37 Preseason Cup (looks like all I can do is come in second haha).
Hopefully I can give you guys some additional insight into some of the more unconventional choices at this past Dreamhack 2014 June.
The first thing I want to focus on is Rdu’s Freeze Mage. You guys probably see a decent amount of Freeze Mage on the ladder nowadays, but, before Dreamhack, the number of people who played Freeze Mage at the top of the ladder were VERY slim.
Following the nerfs to the freeze spells, there were very few players who still believed in the deck’s competitive viability. Hotoform is the only high-ladder Freeze Mage that I personally remember playing against pre-Dreamhack.
Suffice to say, Rdu’s effective use of the deck at Dreamhack is directly responsible for its massive rise in popularity.
Now then, why is it that Rdu ran a deck that pretty much no one else at the top was running? Firstly, I’m sure he realized that Miracle Rogue (the deck we all love so dearly) would be a major presence at the tournament.
One of Miracle Rogue’s strengths is its ability to cheaply remove minions. Cards like Eviscerate, SI:7 Agent, Backstab, and Deadly Poisongive Rogue players a myriad of options to deal with pesky minions.
That is why Miracle can slaughter decks like Zoo, which rely on establishing board presence early on. Unfortunately for rogue, these cards are of very little use against the Freeze Mage. The mage doesn’t try to establish board presence at all. Instead, it simply stalls with freeze spells until it gets the cards that it needs to win.
The first of these cards is Alexstrasza, which puts the opponent down to 15 health. Then, they simply unleash their damage spells (Fireball, Frostbolt, Ice Lance, and possibly Pyroblast) the following turn to eliminate the opponent’s life total.
Miracle rogue suffers against the deck because it gives the Freeze Mage too much time to set up their “combo.” Despite the new developments of Miracle that focus a little more on board presence (i.e Azure Drake, 2x Earthen Ring Farseer, Gnomish Inventor/Sen'jin Shieldmasta), it isn’t nearly enough to pressure the mage.
The fearsome Leeroy Jenkins/Shadowstepcombo on its own isn’t enough to break through the mage’s two Ice Barrierand Ice Block. For these reasons, Rdu smartly brought Freeze Mage along to counter-pick miracle rogue. Though there was a little less Miracle in the tournament than most probably expected, his success is proof that the counter-strategy was largely successful.
This begs the second part of the question: If the deck is so successful at countering Miracle, which has been a dominant force on ladder recently, why was almost no one else at the top running this deck? I’m pretty sure the answer to this is the shifting of the Meta. I think a lot of people believed that post-nerf Freeze Mage’s power level wasn’t high enough to consider seriously. Obviously, this deck’s power level is fine (as proven by Rdu and its popularity in ladder nowadays).
The problem was the dominance of Hunter on the ladder. Freeze Mage had little to no chance against the midrange Hunter pre-nerf. Because there were so many Hunters around back then, the mirror match was incredibly common and running two Flares was pretty much a given. Flarealmost single-handedly wins the Hunter vs. Freeze Mage matchup. The importance of that card can’t be emphasized enough. A lot of people were impressed with Reynad when he held his Flare against his Dreamhack opponent’s Freeze Mage until the very last moment. He could have played it earlier to kill off two of the opponent’s secrets, which is insane value for just one mana (as the card replaces itself), but he knew that a better time to play the card would come. As he explains in his interview, keeping the Flare was a very obvious play for him.
The Freeze Mage relies on Alexstrasza to win, and it relies on its Ice Block to survive the turn that it plays Alexstrasza. Without Alexstrasza, the mage doesn’t have enough damage in its deck to finish off the opponent. However, by the time Alexstrasza can be played (turn nine, at the earliest), the mage’s health should be dangerously low, and this is especially true against Hunter, which excels at lowering the opponent’s life total.
Because Alexstrasza costs nine mana, the mage is unable to play any sort of freezing spell that would ensure her safety on the same turn that Alexstrasza is played. Therefore, it is critical that an Ice Block is set up prior to the Alexstrasza being played. With Ice Block, the mage can, in most circumstances, guarantee that she will be able to unleash her damage spells the following turn. Unfortunately, Flare completely disrupts this game plan. The Hunter simply uses Flare the turn that Alexstrasza is played and finishes the mage off. As long as the Hunter draws its Flares against the mage, it should easily win the matchup. And fortunately, it’s pretty easy for the Hunter to find its Flares because of Tracking and Starving Buzzard.
Anyways, because of Flare, Freeze Mage was never considered a top-tier deck. It kept getting pummeled by Hunter, which you would face like every other match. I don’t think enough people realized at the time that Flare was pretty much the only reason Freeze Mage wasn’t viable. I think many (top) players’ surprise with Reynad holding onto the Flare is proof that the card’s importance in the matchup was at least slightly overlooked.
Rdu must’ve realized before the majority of us that since Hunter is now far less common in the meta following the UTH-nerf, it was time for the Freeze Mage to shine again. The $10,000 he won by going 3-0 in the finals with the deck certainly makes his claim very convincing.
Reynad's Strange Selections - Stranglethorn Tiger
The second thing that I wanted to focus attention on is Reynad’s card selections. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised that he was running both Stranglethorn Tigerand Oasis Snapjawin his Hunter deck. From time to time, Stranglethorn Tiger has been utilized in competitive play, but it’s always been a pretty rare sight. I’m starting to think that might change, at least in Hunter decks.
At 5/5, the Stranglethorn Tiger boasts solid stats. If Blizzard were to introduce a five-mana neutral minion, it would almost definitely be a 5/6 or 6/5 (the stats right between Chillwind Yetiand Boulderfist Ogre). Right now, there aren’t that many options at the five-mana slot. Azure Drake is really the only standout minion in the five-mana category (Auctioneer is too situational, doesn’t count). Due to this fact, I would imagine that this hypothetical card would see quite a lot of play, maybe even more than Yeti. The Stranglethorn Tiger is about as close as it gets to this hypothetical card. Admittedly, its stat is one worse, and that’s actually pretty significant. Fortunately for our feline friend, it has a lot of things going for it. Most obviously, Stranglethorn Tiger has stealth.
Stealth is useful for obvious reasons, but I think its usefulness is amplified in a Hunter deck. All Hunter decks revolve around the idea that once the opponent’s health total hits zero, the opponent loses. Some of you are probably thinking, “no duh, that’s what every deck tries to do.” But hear me out; I think a lot of times players get too caught up with things like tempo or card advantage or board presence. Decks like Hunter humble us and remind us that no amount of tempo/card advantage/board control is going to help when our hp reaches zero.
Stealth helps the Hunter achieve that goal of sniping away at the opponent’s life total. Unless your opponent has a taunt, the Stranglethorn Tiger is basically guaranteed to do at least five points of damage to your opponent. The stealth ability plays around your opponent’s board control. When using Hunter, you’re often not trying to dominate the board like other decks do. A lot of the times you simply hit face and whittle away at your opponent. While your opponent would probably like to trade with your minions and preserve her health total, that option is taken away from him with Stealth.
A lot of us associate charge minions such as Bluegill Warrioror Wolfriderwith burn decks. I would argue that the stealth mechanic is almost as useful to burn decks as the charge mechanic is. The Stranglethorn Tiger’s stealth fits right along with Hunter’s “Burn” philosophy. The fact that it’s also a beast and synergizes with cards like Houndmaster, Kill Command, Starving Buzzard, and Timber Wolfshould make one wonder why it sees such little play.
Reynad's Strange Selections - Oasis Snapjaw
The next card I want to touch on is Reynad’s decision to run Oasis Snapjaw. Unlike Stranglethorn Tiger, I’ve NEVER seen Oasis Snapjaw in competitive play before, so this card was a complete shocker to me. After thinking about it though, the card selection made a lot of sense to me. Most people don’t like Oasis Snapjaw because of its stat-distribution. It’s not balanced enough and skews too heavily on the hp side. Seven health is great and all, but two attack is too low for a 4-mana creature. So why did Reynad run it? I think just like Rdu’s Freeze Mage, the selection of Oasis Snapjaw was to help make the deck better against Miracle Rogue.
Against Miracle Rogue, the attack stat on a minion doesn’t really matter. Why? Unlike most decks, Miracle removes 80% of the opponent’s minions through spell damage (again, the backstabs/eviscerates/shiv/fan of knives). Reynad must’ve realized that Snapjaw’s low attack wasn’t a drawback in the matchup, and its high health forced the Rogue to spend more resources to kill it. Despite Reynad stating that the deck is relatively weak against Miracle, it went 2-0 against Miracle at Dreamhack (beating Savjz and danielctin14). I’m thinking Oasis Snapjaw helped out with that.
Reynad's Strange Selections - Faerie Dragon
The last card I want to discuss is also a selection by Reynad. The card I want to draw attention to is Faerie Dragon. Faerie Dragon, unlike Stranglethorn Tiger or Oasis Snapjaw, is played quite often. It isn’t, however, usually played in Ramp Druid decks. After all, Ramp Druid decks are based on accelerating the mana curve to bring out big minions. I think the decision to put in Faerie Dragon is interesting though, and I predict we will see a lot more experimentation of low-cost minions in the Ramp Druid.
It’s relatively intuitive why Faerie Dragon was given a deck slot in the Ramp Druid. Ramp has little to no board presence early on, and Faerie Dragon is a good minion to help with that. Its effect helps prevent it from dying to a lot of Miracle Rogue’s spells (though SI Agent’s hero power still kills it). It’s interesting to note that the Ramp Druid Reynad ran is almost exactly the same Ramp Druid that Strifecro ran in Tavern Takeover recently. The only difference is that Reynad took out a Cenariusfor the Faerie Dragon. Kolento also used a slight variation on Strifecro’s druid deck to reach #1 on EU ladder. He took out a Cairne Bloodhoofand The Black Knightfor two Sunfury Protectors. Like the Faerie Dragon, the Sunfury Protectoroffered early game board presence, and it also had the added benefit of putting up taunts later on in the game (which I think was, again, probably to counter Miracle Rogue).
There’s also one more reason that these low-cost minions were added. Strifecro made his Ramp Druid a combo deck that ran 2x Force of Natureand 2x Savage Roar(unusual for a Ramp Druid at the time). These low cost minions were not only setting up early game board presence, they were also setting up the combo more quickly. Having one more minion on the board to benefit from Savage Roar is a pretty big benefit. Kolento and Reynad probably saw the synergy of these minions with Savage Roar and that was also probably another reason for their addition. It seem as if Sunfury Protector and Faerie Dragon are playing a role similar to the early game minions that Token Druids run (like their argent squires/power of the wilds). My guess is that more people are going to play around with Strifecro’s original Ramp Druid and try to make the deck more combo-y like Token Druid. I think, eventually, the deck will look something like a hybrid between traditional Ramp Druid and Token Druid.
Overall, I think this year’s Dreamhack was a very promising sign. We saw a lot of innovation in the contestants’ decks and saw cards and decks that don’t normally see a lot of top-level play.
If there’s still this much room for experimentation with such a small card pool, I can only imagine how complex and deep this card game will become after a few expansions. Thank you guys for your time, and I hope you learned something from this article!
Please let me know if you enjoyed the article, or any comments/suggestions you have in the comments section below!