Tournament Viability and Why All Classes Are Not Created Equal

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A number of classes are missing from the competitive Hearthstone scene. What makes other classes more suited to tournament play than others?

For a while now, tournaments relying on the best-of-5 and best-of-7 format have seen the same old classes coming through, chosen by player after player. There’s a very simple reason for this, but what about the other classes? Why don’t we see many players tearing through brackets with Priests and Shamans?

What is it about some classes that just make them more tournament viable than others? What weaknesses do the lesser used classes have, and is there a way to overcome them with the cards and expansions that are available right now?

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For players taking part in tournaments, consistency is key to do well, fight their way to the finals, and eventually (hopefully) a tournament win. As far as the style of play goes, minimising the effects of RNG and your opponent’s plays – keeping the game in your control as much as possible – is the obvious path, players want to be playing on their own terms, of course they do.

Decks with high amounts of removal spells and sticky minions are, of course, a great way to achieve this, reactive play with control decks are a good way of controlling the circumstances of the game and lessening the impact of future effects. Decks that focus on removal and control through minions – your standard Zoo Warlock – also do a great job, using their minions rather than weapons or spells to close out games.

Of course, the weakness of these types of decks is their reliance on the board existing as a mechanic in the game, and with that, we come to the post-Blackrock Mountain tournament meta.

The introduction of Emperor Thaurissan to the game was a turning point. Up until that point, the game was actually fairly balanced. There were still classes that were better than others, but for the most part aggro, midrange and heavy control decks were fairly evenly matched, and the few combo decks that there were – Miracle Rogue and Freeze Mage come to mind – were either rendered inert with patches, or players had learned to play around.

Emperor Thaurissan would prove to give life to the weaknesses of decks and classes that had only been ‘potential weak points’ up until that point. The introduction of the card combined with the final realisation of the Oil Rogue decks, bought the Combo types of decks to the forefront, where they’ve firmly stuck since then.

Now, the Patron Warriors and Freeze Mages and Oil Rogues, decks like that, they’re undoubtedly strong, but that power comes with the downsides of them being hard to play and master, and being strongly draw-dependent. This is fine, and the weaknesses that come with the strengths do seem to balance the success of the decks out nicely enough. However, in tournament play, they are extremely popular; lately it’s been almost a guarantee that every player will bring at least one of them along, sometimes two.

Why is that? There are other good decks out there, and players can do incredibly well in the game with any deck and any class, so why doesn’t it translate to tournaments? Well, the answer’s simple. The decks are, at their peak and played as well as possible by the best players, extremely consistent, with at least decent matchups against most other decks in the game – exactly what players of that level would be looking for.

Even past the top three classes, the middle three are still used at least somewhat in tournaments, so what of the lesser-seen classes in competitive play?? After seeing a spike in use after the Goblins VS Gnomes expansion, whatever happened to Priest? Consistently one of the best classes in the game until recently, when will we see Druid again? Can Shaman overcome its own class mechanic? Why are they not being used as often now?

Druid

For the last few months, the Druid class has been in a weird place. Heavily oriented towards midrange and control play, the class has a great mechanic with being able to ramp up its mana, giving it a good chance against pretty much any deck in the game. It’s dropped in popularity as of late in tournaments, however, with players such as Savjz and Forsen saying that Druid’s currently in the worst state it’s ever been in as a class.

It’s fairly hard to see why, but it’s definitely there. The class has solid enough minions, but it’s unfortunate that they still don’t seem to trade that well with newer threats. The lack of direct removal is arguably more of a problem than ever, but the class’ main strength, its spells and control over the board, simply aren’t enough to keep up with the game’s combo decks at the moment. Though good minions, cards like Druid of the Claw and Ancient of Lore, the Druid’s main minions, just can’t push damage through fast enough to get in a finisher with the Force of Nature/Savage Roar combo the class is famous for.

Though it boasts some of the strongest board-based spells in the game – most notable being Swipe – combo decks that don’t actually have a board most of the time just don’t care about them. The Druid’s problem is most notable against the Patron Warrior deck, where the Druid’s main spell is actually punished by the deck.

Priest

The Priest class has always been nearer to the bottom of the pile, for a long time being the class with by far the lowest winrate on the competitive ladder, but still enjoyed success and tournament play with popular streamers such as Amaz. With the Curse of Naxxramas expansion, Priest gained some great upgrades, and for a short while Deathrattle Priest was a fairly decent deck.

What seems to stop it from being a useful tournament class, however, is that it seems to be constantly going through an identity crisis. Though it’s obviously not meant to be a class focused around control and not aggressive play, and its cards reflect that, it just doesn’t have the resources to make it a viable way to play. Even being seen as the healing class, it’s often just not enough to survive through games against the other classes, it doesn’t have early-game cards to mount pressure during the opening stages, and its late-game cards aren’t actually that great either.

It has area-of-effect spells to help it out in Holy Nova and Lightbomb, but both are fairly situational. The class just can’t keep the board presence enough to go toe-to-toe with any other class, even having to sacrifice its own board too to pull off the Auchenai Soulpriest/Circle of Healing board clear. It’s not fast enough to put pressure against control and combo decks, it’s not slow enough to survive the combo decks, it’s a class that would be more suited to a midrange style of play, but it just doesn’t have the resources for it.

It’s not as much a problem with how the class falls in this new combo-based tournament meta, it’s a problem with how the class was designed in the first place that really keeps it down, and it’s just not possible to be consistent with that.

Shaman

Shaman has been in the same boat as Druid for the most part, it used to be a good class before the expansions, but just hasn’t been able to catch up with the changes that have been brought to the game. Unlike Druid, however, Shaman now has its own class mechanic working against it. Overload was easy to live with in the past, your spell would have taken care of whatever you wanted it to, but now, with stickier minions everwhere, the Shaman’s spells just aren’t doing the job.

With the overall increased cost of the spells, just having the advantage of being able to cast them earlier just isn’t enough anymore. Spending 5 mana on summoning a couple of Taunt minions just isn’t a good use of a turn now when a common minion – Piloted Shredder – can still trade against them, and even trade favourably.

Mech Shaman decks have had some success, so it’s not all bad for the class, and in terms of the style of deck, it’s in a good place, being a midrange deck, but with the heightened cost of its class spells and even some minions, coupled with the dampening of their effectiveness, it’s just not viable at the moment against other decks – decks that have been revised on a weekly basis to become the most efficient versions.

It’s just a shame that the only class of the three to not have problems revolving around the board state is so deeply flawed in another way. Combining the strengths of the three, it feels like you could just about come up with a viable class. While the middle three classes – Warlock, Paladin and Mage – still see use, and are still successful, the top six seem to be leaving the rest in the dust.

With other classes being played with the highest skill level, and being played with the absolute highest efficiency possible every single turn, classes with flaws like this just aren’t going to be viable in tournaments that rely on that quality of play.

With the possibility of a new expansion being announced on the 22nd let’s hope that it carries with it some change for these classes. The only opportunity for them might be the expansion heavily buffing everything but the current combo decks, but I suppose we’ll see. No matter what it is though, I’m sure we’ll all be excited about what Blizzard can bring to the game and how it can shake up the tournament scene.

Daniel Field

Seasoned Hearthstone veteran, lethal-spotter, music aficionado and aspiring journalist, Daniel "Bosun" Field hopes to become an eSports caster one day, but for now is content shouting at streams and motorsport until his time comes.

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