An invitational tournament that was widely characterized as the first Hearthstone tournament to use the Standard format, Curse Trials, was played out over the past three days.
Now, the big caveat here is that Curse Trials had very little to do with Standard: it was the current card pool with Naxxramas and Goblins vs Gnomes banned. So, it was trying to emulate Standard by banning the cards that will rotate out of Standard with the next expansion while not incorporating the upcoming changes to cards that will stay nor, obviously, having access to the spring 2016 expansion that will be part of the first Standard rotation.
Nonetheless, maybe we can learn something from the tournament. Let’s dig deeper into the lineups and their performance to see what we can find.
The lineups: Druid and Shaman dominate
Out of the 16 invited players, 14 chose to bring a Druid deck (all of them variations of Midrange Combo Druid) as part of their three-deck lineup and 12 chose to bring Shaman – 11 Aggro Shamans and SuperJJ with a Midrange Shaman.
Here are the deck statistics (win records do not include non-streamed matches):
- Druid: 14 overall, 8 in top-8, 25-12 record excluding mirror matches
- Shaman: 12 overall, 6 in top-8, 13-22 record excluding mirror matches
- Rogue: 7 overall, 4 in top-8, 11-9 record excluding mirror matches
- Priest: 5 overall, 3 in top-8, 12-9 record excluding mirror matches
- Warrior: 5 overall, 2 in top-8, 7-15 record excluding mirror matches
- Mage: 2 overall, 0 top-8, 2-5 record
- Warlock: 1 overall, 1 in top-8, 2-0 record
- Hunter: 1 overall, 0 in top-8, 1-2 record
- Paladin: 1 overall, 0 in top-8, 2-1 record
Here is a summary of the players, their finishing ranks, and their decks with some main tech choices:
- 1. Thijs: Midrange Druid (Violet Teacher, Ragnaros), Dragon Priest, Dragon Warrior (Onyxia, Varian)
- 2. Savjz: Midrange Druid (Savage Combatant), Aggro Shaman, Dragon Priest (with Auchenai + Circle)
- 3.-4. Ostkaka: Midrange Druid (Savage Combatant, Ragnaros), Aggro Shaman (Hex, Tuskarr Totemic), Miracle Rogue
- 3.-4. SuperJJ: Midrange Druid (Savage Combatant), Malygos Miracle Rogue, Midrange Shaman
- 5.-8. Amnesiac: Midrange Druid (Savage Combatant, Ragnaros), Aggro Shaman, Miracle Rogue
- 5.-8. Lifecoach: Midrange Druid (Violet Teacher), Dragon Priest, Dragon Warrior
- 5.-8. Strifecro: Midrange Druid (Cenarius), Aggro Shaman (Arcane Golem), Teacher Sprint Rogue
- 5.-8. Trump: Midrange Druid (Senjin), Aggro Shaman (Wolfrider), Zoo Warlock (Flame Juggler, Mortal Coil)
- Eloise: Midrange Druid, Aggro Shaman, Dragon Warrior (Grom, Brawl)
- Firebat: Tempo Mage, Aggro Paladin (Flame Juggler, Jeweled Scarab, Argent Protector), Aggro Shaman
- Forsen: Midrange Druid (Savage Combatant), Aggro Shaman (Unbound Elemental, Flametongue Totem), Tempo Mage (Forgotten Torch)
- Kibler: Dragon Priest (Hungry Dragon, Museum Curator), Shaman, Dragon Warrior (Hungry Dragon)
- Kolento: Midrange Druid, Midrange Camel Hunter (King’s Elekk, Desert Camel, Jeweled Scarab, Tomb Spider, Stampeding Kodo), Miracle Rogue
- Orange: Midrange Druid (Savage Combatant), Aggro Shaman, Teacher Miracle Rogue
- RDU: Midrange Druid (Violet Teacher), Dragon Priest, Dragon Warrior
- Zalae: Midrange Druid (Savage Combatant), Aggro Shaman (Wolfrider), Teacher Rogue (Assassin’s Blade)
Druid: No surprises
As Druid stands to lose very little from the sets that are about to rotate out, it is no surprise that so many players chose to bring the class.
Of the cards that rotate out, Shade of Naxxramas had been replaced with Mounted Raptor without exceptions. This comes as no surprise, as Mounted Raptor already sees occasional play, and is one of the few remaining sticky minions.
Piloted Shredder was mostly replaced with Savage Combatant, although the G2 Esports team (Lifecoach, RDU, Thijs) had chosen to go with Violet Teacher instead, reminiscent of Token Druid, and Trump had a Sen’jin Shieldmasta as a 4 drop in his version.
The gameplay of these new Druid decks was exactly the same as the old Druid decks, but as we know that Blizzard will closely examine the Druid cards for the upcoming nerfs to Classic cards for Standard release, it remains to be seen how Druid decks play in actual Standard.
Shaman: Does it miss Crackle? How about that Midrange?
Aggro Shaman was another favorite, and that is no real surprise either – it basically loses Crackle and that’s it. Shaman did not do particularly well though, perhaps in part because of G2 Esports heavily targeting the deck with 3 players out of 16.
Crackle had been replaced by Wolfriders, Arcane Golems, or in case of Ostkaka with Hex and Tuskarr Totemic. Forsen even brought a deck reminiscent of early Aggro Shamans with Unbound Elemental and Flametongue Totem. It would take a closer analysis of all the games to see how badly Crackle was missed and whether that was a reason for the poor win rate – on a superficial level, the Aggro Shaman played much the same as it currently does.
SuperJJ did very well with his Midrange Shaman, it was clearly the strongest-performing Shaman deck in the tournament. With no sticky minions around to cause the Shaman endless woes, Shaman is in a much better spot to fight for the board. It is notable though that the decks in the tournament did not run that many board clears, which was a bit surprising considering how they are more powerful in the absence of sticky minions, so this helped Midrange Shaman perform. The lack of board clears can possibly be attributed to the expected (and realized) prevalence of Druid, which is very good against the slower control decks that tend to pack a number of such clears.
Dragons, Dragons, everywhere (Warrior, Priest)
Both Control Warrior and Control Priest were missing from the lineups, having been replaced by Dragon variants, with Savjz opting to bring a Dragon Priest with Auchenai Soulpriest and Circle of Healing, a hybrid between traditional Dragon and Control.
This was another fairly expected turn of events, as no Dragons rotate out with the upcoming Standard rotation, leaving the power level of Dragon decks fairly much untouched. Even though they are weaker than their Control counterparts right now, the cards the Control decks lose make the Dragon variants more interesting.
Dragon Warrior did not do too well though. The lack of Death’s Bite seemed to really hurt the Warrior, perhaps even more than anticipated, and Warrior decks really struggled throughout the tournament.
As a minor sidenote, Ysera was no longer a liability in Priest vs Priest, but a real powerhouse instead. Currently, with Shrinkmeister still in the card pool, Ysera is almost unplayable against Priest, but that may be about to change.
Rogue looking solid
The Rogue decks came in two main varieties: most players chose to run the Miracle line with Gadgetzan Auctioneer and Tomb Pillager for a ton of card draw with spells, while Strifecro and Zalae went with Violet Teachers instead, and at least Strifecro was running Sprint (I’m not sure what Zalae had).
Even without Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil, the signature card of the Oil Rogue, Rogue decks were doing OK at the very least with one of the best win rates in the tournament. Here again SuperJJ showed his great skills at reading the meta and brought a Malygos Miracle Rogue that was as solid as ever. In a field filled with Shaman, the winrate of the Rogues comes as somewhat of a surprise.
Why no Freeze Mage?
One deck that was conspicuously absent from the tournament was Freeze Mage. There were only two Mage decks overall, both of them of the Tempo variety. However, this should not yet be used to argue that Freeze Mage is gone. Given that this was a one-off event with a ruleset not quite the same as Standard will be, it was to be expected that players gravitate towards decks that resemble their current selves as much as possible, and the top 2 of those are Druid and Shaman – both bad matchups for Freeze Mage.
Once changes come in, Freeze Mage may very well come out in full power again.
Why no Reno?
There was not a single Reno Jackson deck in the tournament. This can perhaps be explained along the same lines as the absence of Freeze Mage: Druid can punish Reno decks (and to an extent, so can Aggro Shaman, you have to find Reno against it). Furthermore, the smaller card pool really hurts Reno decks, an issue that will not affect Standard, as the card pool upon Standard launch will be roughly of the same size as the current card pool.
Therefore, the absence of Reno from this tournament does not seem to predict whether it will be part of Standard or not. I guess it most likely will.
Where were all the Warlocks?
A more surprising miss is Warlock. Trump was the only one who brought Warlock with his Zoo, and there were no Handlocks or Renolocks. Again, the punishment delivered by Druid may have caused players to skip on the more control-oriented Warlock builds, but the absence of Zoo remains a mystery. By the way, Trump went 2-0 with his Zoo deck, so it was unbeaten in the tournament (he drew terribly as Shaman).
Sure, Zoo is missing a bunch of sticky minions, but the losses do not seem to be irreplaceable. In fact, Trump was running Flame Jugglers in his build, something that I have already done for a good while instead of Haunted Creepers, and Flame Juggler is a more than adequate replacement for the Creeper.
As many of the invited players have a long history of playing Warlock decks, this absence was truly strange, and given the performance of Zoo in the tournament, seems to indicate a failure to correctly read the new environment – it’s not easy to get all your predictions right when entering a new environment no one has played yet.
Hunter is hurting, maybe
Only one player chose to bring Hunter, Kolento, and he did so with a relatively slow Midrange Camel build. As Midrange Hunter is losing most of the soul of the deck in the Standard rotation, I found this to be a strange choice. Desert Camel can be great at times, but it is so very unreliable, as Kolento found out when he drew his Injured Kvaldir just before getting to play the Camel. I just have a hard time seeing a consistent Midrange Hunter deck unless the spring expansion brings something new to the class.
Face Hunter was left untested. Perhaps that’s quite understandable as well, as Druid has a pretty decent matchup against Face Hunter, and Shaman is not a superb matchup for Face Hunter either. Still, Face Hunter is an aggro deck that can never be underestimated, and with the right build, it would have been interesting to see how it could have performed. This aspect of the meta was left unclear.
So is Paladin dead now?
It is probably too early to predict the demise of Paladin, as there was only one present in the tournament, an Aggro Paladin brought by Firebat, and it performed at a respectable 2-1.
Sure, Paladin loses most of its early curve cards, but Firebat brought in Flame Jugglers (again, this card is the real sleeper star of TGT) and even an Argent Protector that enabled some sweet trades (I run one in my Secret Paladin right now by the way).
How good can the Paladin be in the new meta was left unexplored by this tournament. Is Secret Paladin dead, even? Sure, it loses Avenge, as well as all the cards other Paladin lists lose, but it might be too early still even to predict its demise. Patron Warrior was reinvented after the loss of the Warsong Commander in a new form, and perhaps Secret Paladin can be as well. (How many people would be happy about that is another matter.)
The new old way to heal: Earthen Ring Farseer
With Antique Healbot banned from the tournament, many decks turned to the Earthen Ring Farseer for healing, often in conjunction with Brann Bronzebeard. Earthen Ring Farseer was even seen in Dragon Priest, as well as in two copies in some of the Rogue decks, so it had really become the go-to card for healing.
This showcases how shallow the current card pool is when it comes to healing, a concern that will most likely be addressed in some way in the spring expansion.
Is SuperJJ the best meta reader among the pro players?
What particularly impressed me was the lineup SuperJJ brought to the field. The only Midrange Shaman and the only Malygos Miracle Rogue brought him all the way to the semi-finals. Combine this with how he won Seatstory Cup 4 late last year with his Reno Freeze Mage, another completely original deck at the time, and a picture of great meta reading and deckbuilding skills begins to emerge.
G2 Esports, the first real Hearthstone team?
Another interesting observation is that G2 Esports (Lifecoach, RDU, Thijs) is shaping up to be a real team, as they had tried and tested the decks together and all brought the same lineup, much like teams in Magic do (think ChannelFireball, Face-to-Face Games, and East West Bowl in the Pro Tour Gate of the Oathwatch recently).
Most teams in Hearthstone have been rather loose and practice groups have often been arranged over team limits, such as Archon Orange practicing a lot with the SK team members, many of whom are Swedish like Orange.
It remains to be seen whether Hearthstone teams develop more to the direction of Magic teams, but it seems likely, as being able to test things in-house and come up with a strong lineup to a major tournament seems too advantageous to pass up on.
While it was definitely not Standard format Hearthstone, the Curse Trials was nonetheless as interesting tournament. It showcased some of the strengths and weaknesses of various classes in their current shape without Naxxramas and Goblins vs Gnomes. It also showed how reading a new meta before the games begin is very difficult even for pro players, as there were a number of calls that in hindsight seemed to be off.
It is important to note that the meta from this tournament will not correspond with the actual Standard meta, for example when it comes to Reno Jackson and Freeze Mage, both of which were absent from this environment for understandable reasons, but those reasons are unlikely to apply to Standard.
It is an exciting time to be involved with Hearthstone, as the new format is fast approaching, and as the glimpse given by the Curse Trials into new formats indicates, there will be a lot of iteration before the new environment begins to be figured out.