FTP Journeyman Guide: Beyond the Morass
Back after a short break from the game, this is the fifth part of the Free to Play Journeyman Hearthstone Guide Series. Be sure to check out the other articles in the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
The heat beneath the arena would sap the life from a lesser being. Sweat runs down your brow, an unwitting reminder of the months spent training for this moment, honing technique to perfection, turning the body into the very instrument of death. You’ve been out there on the sand surrounded by the crowd baying for blood hundreds of times before. But today offers something different.
Today there is a reward for the victor, something previously unknown to the gladiators. The promise of immediately acquiring something tangible after these barren years quickens the blood, heightens the senses. Today will be your day. Every sinew is prepared for the combat ahead; even your hair bristles with intent.
The gong sounds and you rise to stand before the Arena gate. You crack your knuckles to quell a moment of nervousness, and then heft your weapons as you glance at the gate keeper. He nods, and the crack of his whip drives the slaves to push against the wheel to which they are chained. Ponderously the gate rises, and dust drifts in carrying with it the stench of death. Your grip tightens on the hilts of your dual weapons.
Login Rewards, Blizzard-style
Although not from one of my games, the above image bears a chilling resemblance to mine when playing Ragnaros during the inaugural Tavern Brawl. Frontal lobotomies are known to cause less damage to the psyche. Fighting for 15 minutes to get a control of the board and then poof! for a measly 2 crystals and a spin of Fate’s wheel: “Oh, look, Twisting Nether, I win.” To play these games was to know exactly how the Romans felt whenever Asterix finally got more of the magic potion. But for me the truly disappointing aspect of Tavern Brawl is that it is nothing other than a glorified login reward – get a free Classic pack every week.
Surely Blizzard would not go to all that trouble for a login reward? While I’ve not played Tavern Brawl in the time between the opening day and the recent edition where both players had decks consisting primarily of Unstable Portals, the theme appears to be the same: win a game in a flavour of the week format based on maddening RNG and get a Classic pack. No need to play any more games thereafter. This is the bit that gets me. Why not have multiple rewards, such as earning 50g for beating Nefarian with Ragnaros five times? Thinking there was a reward beyond the first win, I played a significant number of brawls that first day. I never lost a game with Nefarian on either the US or EU servers, delighting in playing The Coin + Vaelastrasz on turn one while my opponent conceded. By stark contrast I won only once in roughly the same number of soul destroying games with Ragnaros (I believe it took me 8 or 9 losses before I even managed to clear Nefarian’s 30 armour). Had I been streaming those games they would almost certainly be part of a YouTube fail compilation by now, and some clown would have registered www.hasthundyrwonyet.com, with the page consisting of nothing other than the word “NO” on a flashing paisley background. I hate paisley. The match-up was unbalanced to the point where it appeared to never have been seriously tested prior to release. People did win with Ragnaros, some even claimed to have won successive games with the hero, but they were either lying or playing against the AFK bot. As I read elsewhere, “The way to win with Ragnaros is to concede and hope to get Nefarian in your next game“.
While I understand one can complete daily quests by playing Tavern Brawl rather than Ranked Mode, and the 10g reward for 3 wins quest is also included in the package, somehow I’d rather back myself to do these things by playing decks I have some control over. The Unstable Portal matchups, for instance, are nothing short of stupid. I won both games I played (US and EU servers) purely on the strength of getting cheap minions off the portals while my opponents did not (unless they were too dumb to develop their board when given the opportunity). For such an awe-inspiring demonstration of skill I got a free pack on each server, for which I am absolutely grateful even if all 10 cards earned are destined for the the dust heap, but had no incentive to keep playing.
Nobody likes a show-off anyway.
Fun is fun, and clearly Tavern Brawl is not to be taken seriously. But for players like myself with limited time available for gaming the key will always be balancing time vs reward. I have absolutely no intention of playing coin toss for my daily rewards; I like to think I can win more often in ranked play than that even with a collection hobbled by its lack of depth. So my suggestion for Tavern Brawl is simple: treat it like a login reward, get your win and your pack, and then go back to doing whatever you were before. Perhaps they might roll a format that allows you to easily complete a daily quest or ramp up the extra 10g awards in less time than normal, but I’d favour the chances of a Greek economic resurgence rather more strongly.
The Plague Quarter
Speaking of getting back to doing what one was before:
Prior to my hiatus I had amassed over 500g towards the cost of the second wing of The Curse of Naxxramas. The 3 quests that greeted me on my return totalled 200g – a mere formality. I approached the second wing in the same manner as the first. Assess the opponent’s hero power and choose a character with a hero power that would eliminate or overpower it; the decks themselves are largely irrelevant on normal difficulty, and I have no intention of wasting my time on Heroic difficulty just for a card back. Besides, its almost, but not quite, worse than the red, preschooler smudge pattern of the pre-order reward Blackrock Mountain card back.
Noth the Plaguebringer gets a free 1/1 Skeleton whenever one of your minions dies. To me it seems obvious that the Mage’s 1 damage to anything will counteract the token army, and never mind Flamestrike. The game I played was trivial – even though it contains 24 basic cards my Almost-Basic Mage deck packs much too much power for the entirely basic AI. +2 Stoneskin Gargoyle.
Heigan the Unclean deals 2 damage to the leftmost player-controlled minion, so I figured if I played minions with more than 2 health and healed them with the Priest’s hero power I’d at worst nullify the ability. Naturally the AI (an acronym for “Astonishing Incompetance”) uses the ability just because it can, and because my priest deck uses Gurubashi Berserker and Northshire Cleric as key components, Heigan’s hero power represented an exploitable weakness. It took a short while for me to cobble together Divine Spirit, Mogu'shan Warden and Crazed Alchemist to bring about a premature end to a game that for perhaps the opening few turns saw the AI with the upper hand. The result was never seriously in doubt, however. +2 Unstable Ghoul.
Loatheb has a built-in Sinister Strike, and again I figured Priest’s healing powers would do the trick. Loatheb has the same infuriating 1-cost 2/3 charger as Heigan, but quite inexplicably its removal consists of cards that make spores that give the opponent’s in-play minions a permanent +8 attack. Are they trying to make this easy? In the end I messed up the kill, forgetting that Lightspawn could never benefit from +8 attack, but the fat lady had long since left the building. +2 Sludge Belcher +Loatheb.
Naturally, having added 3 of the most powerful cards in the game to my collection I promptly ignored them in order to complete the class challenges. The mage challenge was laughably simple, especially considering I’d already thrashed Noth with the same hero but a weaker deck. However, I managed to lose to Loatheb with the Hunter’s deck of Webspinners. Twice. I won the third game easily, the game where the AI didn’t open with a 2/3 charge minion on the opening turn, which happened to also be the only game my dying Webspinners got me beasts that cost less than 6 before I had 6 crystals. I don’t mind the RNG – if I did I’d stop playing altogether – but sometimes it gets a bit much. +2 Duplicate +2 Webspinner.
So how should one deploy Belchers and Loatheb? Everywhere!
Ok, not quite everywhere. The Belchers go in any non-aggro deck, while all decks consist of Loatheb and 29 other cards. Maybe one day when I have 15-20 non-Adventure-Set legendary minions I might alter this approach.
The Hunter’s hero power says one thing: attack. There are two ways of achieving this: balancing attack and defence, and the more balls-out out approach of saying “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead”. (Warning: that article contains language that is so far beyond strong its violent – not for the faint of brain.) Face Hunter doesn’t technically need an explanation other than “play sticky creatures and those with charge, and spend 80% of your time just attacking the opponent’s face, especially with the hero power”. It also doesn’t appreciate the new cards from the Plague Quarter, namely Webspinner, Sludge Belcher, and Loatheb. So this time we’re going to look at “Midrange Hunter”.
“Midrange” is something of an internet secret code for “good stuff”, which ultimately means that this kind of deck is loaded to the hilt with efficient and/or powerful creatures and spells rather than adhering to any specific strategy. Every card choice is designed to be better than whatever the opponent could play for the same cost or at the same time. “We’s gon’ win by bein’ smarter ‘an ’em, Jeb.” By nature, Hunter decks have low dust costs as the hero power is the real key and the men don’t matter quite so much as long as they can affect the game state. But if we’re not going Face then we need to look at overall card power rather than just the ratio of attack to casting cost.
The first question to ask is “How many Eaglehorn Bows do you have?” Since midrange is all about getting more bang for your buck, you’d prefer to ensure that you get at least 1 extra attack out of each of these. The trap of choice to trigger Eaglehorn’s special is Freezing Trap. This might not seem similar in effect to the hard damage of Explosive Trap, and against certain decks one would prefer to sweep away a number of small creatures, but the ability to save a minion while eliminating one of the opponent’s for a mere 2 crystals is unbeatable value. Did I really say “eliminate”? Yes. Sap is a tempo card that generally forces the opponent to replay the threat bounced to hand by it – if it was the opponent’s best play last turn, it’s probably his best play this turn as well. But Freezing Trap also adds 2 to the cost of the minion, something that makes that minion an unattractive option on any turn. This makes it an almost perfect card for the more control-oriented midrange deck, though there are times when the opponent will exploit cards like Antique Healbot after having pegged you as a midrange deck.
You want your traps on command so you need Mad Scientist from Curse of Naxxramas Wing 4 to fetch them for you. And obviously we will play Savannah Highmane, a card so efficient it might as well be German. Note: the Hyenas summoned by Highmane’s Deathrattle are also beasts, unlike the decidedly unbeastly Spiders from Haunted Creeper because the developers thought, “We’ll just nerf it now to save us the bother of having to do it later when Hunter is the best class again”. This leaves us with the deck core on the right. You can add just about whatever you like to that to flesh out the remaining 13 slots – usually a single Hunter's Mark, Knife Juggler and its cousin Unleash the Hounds, more traps to abuse Eaglehorn, Houndmaster for +2 to the face on a fatter, suddenly taunty beast, and especially the “best 4-drop in the game” Piloted Shredder. If you’re lucky enough to have Dr. Boom so much the better – in fact having enough of those cards just mentioned eases the reliance on Sludge Belcher to fend off aggro decks (which generally make it sad with Ironbeak Owl anyway). But for those of us without such extensive collections, Sludge Belcher and Loatheb are significant upgrades on whatever Hunter deck we had before.
When we take a step back and reconsider this deck we see that although it only really requires 4-6 Classic set rares to get off the ground, there is a tremendous focus on cards in the Naxxramas set; this is the set where we will get our “value”. By comparison, for 120 dust we can “buy” 2 Shredders and a Glaivezooka and completely ignore Ghosts ‘n Goblins until we have 1600 dust for Dr. Boom. However, from the perspective of my collection this deck is a complete non-starter – I’m missing 8 of the 17 cards listed there and right now I’m saving my gold for a rainy day so those Eaglehorns and Highmanes are distant purchases or RNG luck from rewards earned in Tavern Brawl’s RNG format (just highlighting the RNG part so people understand the chances of me opening either of these in a pack any time soon are, sadly, no better than Arsenal’s chances of staying in the English Premier League’s relegation zone).
So why am I telling you about it? Because while my luck was centred around opening legendary minions in packs, you might have had your luck getting Highmanes, Eaglehorns, and Knife Jugglers but aren’t really sure in which direction to take the deck. This is supposedly a “guide”, after all, even if I’m showing you the scenic route and won’t stop talking about it.
So what is my plan for Hunter? Without Eaglehorn Bow most Hunter decks struggle to get going – in fact the only Hunter weapon I have is the exorbitantly priced Gladiator's Longbow, which is a place-holder for 100 of the 1600 dust I need for Dr. Boom. Or it could be an even trade for an Eaglehorn… Stop whispering to me, Seductive Inner Voice! Even without weapons or Knife Juggler my collection is better placed to run a Face deck, though presently it more closely resembles a Beast deck. It’s not terrible, but it could be much, much better. I also happen to enjoy the unexpected nature of Snipe and how it picks off Azure Drake, Warsong Commander, and especially Armorsmith.
Enter the Dragons
More important than where this deck is now, is where I plan to take it. There are two key cards in all Hunter decks on my horizon: Mad Scientist and Quick Shot. Face plays the full compliment of 4. Midrange and so-called Hybrid Hunter decks generally play both Scientists but only 1 Quick Shot. Given that I have no Highmanes I’m seriously tempted to spend the next 700g on unlocking the first wing of Blackrock Mountain (Grim Patron, Gang Up, Resurrect, Emperor Thaurissan, Quick Shot, and Dragon's Breath). Quick Shot isn’t going to turn my Hunter deck into a monster, though it will help, but the rest of my collection could benefit from the Patron, Thaurissan, and even Resurrect. Let’s compare with Naxx Wing 3: Dancing Swords, Spectral Knight, Deathlord, Baron Rivendare, Reincarnate and Voidcaller. Barring Voidcaller that’s an underwhelming set of cards for 700g, and my collection of Demons isn’t quite a legion, so this seems on the surface to be unwise expenditure.
Ahh, but wing 4 is where it’s at: Undertaker, Mad Scientist, Zombie Chow, Wailing Soul, Stalagg, Feugen, Death's Bite and Dark Cultist. 4 signature cards – Death’s Bite is absolutely necessary if you enjoy Warrior, Cultist appears in over half the decent Priest decks, Chow is an automatic one-of in any control deck, and Scientist is rocket sauce for Hunter and Mage.
Ultimately we’re spending 2100g to get all these cards, and much as I like Kel'Thuzad Blackrock Mountain’s wing 1 gives much more gas than Naxxramas wing 5. So, BRM 1 vs Naxx 3. I guess it comes down to “How close am I to building Patron Warrior?” The answer: as close as a box of tissues to a runny nose. I’m mainly missing Frothing Berserker and Armorsmith – but I have duplicates of most of the commons, including those Unstable Ghouls from Naxx 2 (I even have a Commanding Shout). My Druid deck would like Thaurissan, as well, and there are those 2 Quick Shots…. It’s the “shot” in the arm my collection would appreciate. Buh dum tiss, I’ll get my coat….
Next time we’ll have a look at my Warrior deck in the wake of gaining Grim Patron, and I’ll touch once more on the Arena debate.
As ever, thanks for your time. Comments and criticism most welcome.