This article was started on the return flight from TwitchCon on September 27th, but I just now decided to finish it. I hope you enjoy it!
With the Hearthstone World Championship approaching, a lot of concern is being expressed over the predominance of the Patron Warrior deck. For multiple reasons, people are worried about the deck's overall performance, and some fear that Blizzcon may prove to be little more than an extension of last year's metagame, with little in the way of novelty or surprise.
The issue doesn't lie so much in that the decks brought by players to Blizzcon need to be novel and surprising, but rather in that the metagame, for the past few months, feels like it has been nothing but a succession of Patron Warriors refining their deck to the point where nothing can be brought to a tournament that isn't capable, at least at a 40% win rate, to beat it. It's impressive that this is true despite the fact that the most widely used format is Conquest, where even the best decks can only win ONCE.
I don't really want to discuss nerfs or changes to the Patron Warrior deck since I've already done so in this video and because I think it's been touched upon by MANY people already, so I'll merely be brushing the topic in broad strokes.
IS PATRON ACTUALLY BROKEN?
On second thought, release Bomb Lobber, Flamecannon, then make it 6 Mana and call it a day."
Exception made of the Archon Team League Championships where a deck's weakness to Patron Warrior was compensated for by the presence of multiple other decks to beat in a team's lineup, the deck has brought with its success its lot of oppression. Best-of-5 Conquest tournaments often consist of a player bringing among his decks a Patron Warrior and, on the other side, a player attempting to build a line-up that is capable of either handling Patron, or in some cases isolate it. Building counter-decks is a typical metagame trend and, in my mind, doesn't warrant too much worry. What astounds me though is how long it's been since I have seen anyone trying to build a counter-deck against anything but Patron Warrior, and the length to which players go to do so.
Is Patron unbeatable? Not at all. In fact, Blizzard's statistics (and Monk's!) show that the deck doesn't perform nearly as well as we might think it does. I attribute this to two factors primarily, namely the disparity of skill across all Ladder ranks, as well as the overrepresentation of decks that are tailored to beat Patron Warrior. It stands to reason that a metagame revolving around beating 'the big guy' would succeed at keeping him down. For a while now, Patron Warrior has been the single biggest obstacle to building anything. When building any deck, the first question you've had to ask yourself over the past six months was: "Is this able to go 50% against Patron Warrior?" And if your answer was "no" the deck was probably not worth making and subsequently scrapped. Again, this is typical of a metagame trend where a single deck stands out as the deck to beat. Not too worrisome just yet.
After all, metagames cycle. That's what they do; decks phase in and out of relevance as archetypes are invented or brought back from their grave. In some cases, decks are simply modified to beat other popular decks of the moment, until the deck you aim to beat disappears and renders your 'tech cards' irrelevant, while the core of your deck isn't impactful enough against the rest of your expected opponents.
If you don't know what I'm referring to, just picture a metagame filled with nothing but Patron Warriors. In an attempt to stop everyone from getting in here, variants of Handlock rise in popularity. In a world of perfect equilbrium, both classes have a 50% representation on the ladder, making Patron's overall performance decrease. In order to counter Handlock, Hunters decide their time has come and greet all the travelers who can't dig for their Molten Giants fast enough, knocking Handlock out of the field. And who comes to clean up the Huffer mess? Dragon Priest, maybe? The metagame cycled! From Patron Warrior to Handlock to Hunter to Priest. As you might imagine this is overly simplistic, but Hearthstone (and card games in general) has at its core a web of elements, in this case decks, that interact in a zero sum fashion.
NOT IMBALANCED, JUST OPPRESSIVE
- Triggered Anti-Mustache Militant
So why is Patron a problem, then? A reason lies in that, as far as the metagame cycle goes, it is never in an absolute losing position as long as the metagame doesn’t consist of only Patron and its counterdeck(s). If you pit Patron Warrior against nothing but its counterdecks it should logically phase out; realistically though, the metagame contains a wider variety of decks which means that unless it queues constantly into its bad matchups (of which there aren’t too many), Patron should maintain a higher-than-50% win rate. This logic applies to all decks, of course, and that isn’t on its own the most solid argument for a change to the archetype…at least not until you look at how many decks exist that fill the role of the “Patron Counter”.
When I think of Patron Warrior’s worst matchups, I think of…Midrange Druid, Control Warrior and Handlock (with its variants). These are three decks that don’t need Patron to be there to perform well, so there’s a good argument to be made in defense of Patron Warrior's overall balance. However, these same decks have more exploitable weaknesses than Patron Warrior does and their edge against the entire field is smaller. This of course means their time in the metagame is shorter-lived. And once they’re gone, everyone will get in here AGAIN!
It takes very little time for the metagame cycle to go back to Patron Warrior being an positive winrate deck, and that is I think the reason why people feel like the deck is “broken”. It’s not so much that the deck itself is unbeatable, but rather that it’s too frequently the optimal strategy because no metagame exists that can keep Patron at bay for long if even a single one of its bad matchups has a lower representation. For instance, looking at the example of the first section of the article, you could substitute Dragon Priest with Patron Warrior and shorten the metagame cycle even further.
For a while now, Patron Warrior has shortened the usual cycle of a metagame by quite a few steps, down to three. From "Patron" to "Counterdeck 1" to "Counterdeck 2" to Patron again. This hasn't happened in a while, and this is probably why it feels oppressive.
BLAMING THE FORMAT
Lest they hate Patron with all their might."
One thing to note about this overall feeling of imbalance regarding Patron is that its perceived dominance may partly have to do with the tournament formats of choice. Yes, Patron is an amazing Ladder deck, but it's not the only good one. As far as tournament goes however, it's very often a near auto-include because the tournaments are often run in "Best-of-5 Conquest", which means you have to bring THREE decks, each of which has to win. If all tournaments consisted of "Best-of-3 Conquest", there would be room to bring two of Patron's worst matchups in order to isolate it, but we can all agree that matches with low amounts of games lead to the highest variance in results. This is why "Best-of-5" is standard, and why Patron can afford a spot everytime.
To understand the reason behind the Conquest format, a quick throwback to the "Last Hero Standing" format of the olden days is in order, I think. Back then, you could keep playing with a deck until it lost, and people complained that deck diversity wasn't very interesting as a viewer. After all, a great Handlock or Control Warrior player could claim to have an edge against the entire field, which meant that you could be watching that same player get a perfect 3-0 victory playing the exact same deck. Not very diverse, mind you, but certainly skill-intensive.
However, there's more to Hearthstone than "skill", especially as an e-sport. We're pretty fickle viewers and we only like new decks as long as they're added to a larger pool of decks, rather than the only deck we see. When Patron Warrior started seeing play in tournaments, I was ecstatic. "Finally!", I said, "Warriors are getting their own viable Combo Deck! What a glorious day!" It was amazing for a while, but I've outgrown my initial excitement; I didn't outgrow it because I don't like the deck anymore, but because I feel like it's difficult for the game format we're using to accommodate for a highly dominant strategy. Six months of even the most awesome deck can leave you bored and wanting more. You can't blame the players for their choice to play Patron so what's wrong, then?
No bans. One of the things that disappeared alongside the Last Hero Standing format from the early era of Hearthstone tournaments is the idea of a class ban. Class bans allowed players to build a line-up that they wanted while refusing to play against what they thought would be the weakness of that line-up from their opponents' decks. Typically, this means players bring an extra deck to their roster with the knowledge that one would be banned, and that the other three would have to win. This is operable in Conquest OR Last Hero Standing; we just haven't seen much of it in recent days. Is it time to bring it back? I don't know, really.
On one hand I want to say yes, but on the other I recognize that the "default" ban would probably be Patron, the same way that people used to ban Hunter or Warlock. The only surprise we'd get would come from players letting their opponents play Warrior while having a heavily anti-Patron line-up, what with Oozes and Harrison Jones everywhere. Because players would expect their Patron to be banned, there's always the chance that they're out of practice with it, and get subsequently punished for bringing it. The biggest upside of allowing for bans is that you can choose what you want to target as opposed to being forced to target Patron! You can ban Patron and target something else, or you can ban something else and target Patron.
It all comes back to Patron one way or the other since you're either banning it or targeting it, but at least you're not forced to go up against it directly.
BRING MORE DECKS, PLAY LESS PATRON
The last stronghold against Patron lies in very long tournaments; best-of-9s, best-of-11s, etc. Tournaments that force players to bring a very large array of decks to an event guarantee viewers a show that doesn't revolve around getting everyone in here, slamming down 8/8s on turn 4 or having nature rise against the world. Admittedly though, this is quite the ordeal; the Archon Team League Championship was for me the best Hearthstone event due to its sheer size, duration and implied deck diversity. Since the decks were piloted by different players, it also gave us insight into individual strengths and weaknesses over a long period of time.
If more tournament organizers opt for that approach, viewers would get a lot more of the diversity that they're looking for. But it comes at a huge cost: how do you even manage a schedule where each match consists of potentially 7, 9 or 11 games? Is every tournament a Team tournament? Probably not. Do we escalate the games over multiple days? Maybe. But then how many players can invite for these matches? Do we have the same two players face off against each other over the course of multiple days? That sounds like it could be fun for a while, but it's not a long-term fix to the lack of tournament deck diversity.
Requiring players to bring more decks isn't the best way to tackle the problem since it really only affects the "e-sport" part of Hearthstone, ignoring entirely the disgruntlement that happens on Ladder. It would only be an applicable fix if we ever had a Custom Tournament Lobby system in the client itself, but barring that it's a temporary bandage on a gaping wound.
As you may have noticed, I have no absolute solution to offer. It's a puzzle, and I've sadly not found the key to solving it, nor do I expect to. I hope it's found sooner rather than later.
For larger tournaments, I think there is an avenue that hasn't been explored nearly enough yet: sideboarding. For those unfamiliar with the term, it implies that you're able to modify your deck between games. In a tournament setting, you'd be able to see your opponent's line-up and, after each game, modify some of the cards in your decks to accommodate for what you expect them to be playing. Thus, if you come unprepared against Patron Warrior, you'll have the opportunity to isolate them through the subsequent inclusion of 'tech' cards like Acidic Swamp Ooze or Harrison Jones.
Does Patron need a nerf? Maybe. But I don't want to kill the deck. I love it, and I think many people do too. It does need a bit of a change, and I hope it's done before Blizzcon, but I think it's a deck that mostly shows us the weaknesses of the tournament and ladder system at large, more so than a toxic deck like the old Undertaker Hunter.
On these words, you have a nice one!