Hearthstone’s Year of the Phoenix Proved to Be a Shake-Up to Wild
Hearthstone’s last year of cards proved to be a tumultuous time for the card game in Wild.
The Year of the Phoenix is leaving Hearthstone to make way for the Year of the Gryphon, which will be paved with absolute uncertainty with how the Hearthstone metagame will behave. The Phoenix analogy truly shines through this, as the game will shed vestiges of the old Hearthstone to be reborn with so many changes.
Controversies and humongous changes paved the way for the Year of the Phoenix, which began with the set Ashes of Outland on April 7, 2020.
For the sake of card balances and metagame analysis, I will keep this to being based on the Wild format. All of my usage data comes from HSReplay and Team Wildside’s meta reports and will be cited appropriately.
Preceding Phoenix, in the Year of the Dragon, we had a large change to how the Priest class works, as well as a considerable Hall of Fame change.
A lot of Priest cards were buffed and nerfed. The Wild format paid a large cost for the developer’s opinions on how they wanted Priest in standard to look.
Particularly, Holy Smite lost its ability to target a player, and Power Word: Shield lost its card draw ability. This was a long process in eliminating Priest’s ability to deal direct damage to the opponent and having efficient cantrips.
The release of Ashes of Outland and was preceded by the Initiate set that introduced Demon Hunter as a new permanent class, the most unstable part of this year.
Demon Hunter was released with one-mana hero power. This meant that players could build an odd-cost deck with Baku the Mooneater to have a strictly better hero power than what the starting class has.
Odd Demon Hunter decks were immensely popular when Ashes of Outland was released. One day after the set was released, and one day into the Year of the Phoenix, the Hearthstone team implemented the fastest nerfs in the history of the game.
On April 8, the team nerfed Skull of Gul’Dan, Imprisoned Antaen, Eye Beam, and Aldrachi Warblades. All of these were very important for odd Demon Hunter, and it hurt all Demon Hunter builds when Skull of Gul’Dan and Imprisoned Antaen were no longer odd-cost cards (and prohibitively more expensive to cast).
All of these nowadays have poor winrates, though Eye Beam and Aldrachi Warblades remain solid staples in any Demon Hunter deck.
On April 13, Demon Hunter was hit yet again with nerfs, specifically hurting odd Demon Hunter decks. Altruis the Outcast, Battlefiend, and Glaivebound Adept were nerfed, with Altruis now having an even cost and thus being ineligible for odd Demon Hunter. Though Battlefiend and Glaivebound Adept were nerfed, they continue to serve as strong cards in their archetypes nowadays.
April’s wild metagame was paved with fast odd Demon Hunter decks that possessed the firepower to kill the opponent early, and thus, a new kind of Druid deck was born to be just as fast as that. These decks involved playing Kael’thas Sunstrider, with the deck being comprised of cheap zero-cost cards to synergize into Kael’thas’ ability to make cards like Ultimate Infestation free to cast.
Kael’Thas was nerfed to costing 7 mana as opposed to 6, but that didn’t stop the deck. It just made the deck one turn slower from achieving its goal. In fact, MarkMcKz, known for creating interesting OTK decks, showcased a deck that can kill the opponent on turn one with the recently nerfed Kael’Thas Sunstrider.
Speaking of combo decks, the card Bloodbloom was nerfed as well. Year of the Dragon saw the rise of Darkest Hour Warlock decks, which were known to cheat a full board of high-powered minions out as early as turn 5. Bloodbloom was instrumental in cheapening the cost of Darkest Hour, so it was nerfed into unplayability. (I played the deck before the nerf in my first ever video!)
April 13 was a doomsday scenario for a lot of decks. Quest Mage was a popular deck, known for its “Exodia turns” after playing six spells that didn’t start in their deck with the Quest card Open the Waygate. It suffered a nerf where the quest demanded the player cast eight spells rather than six, making it extremely difficult for this deck to beat aggro decks in time to get its quest reward, Time Warp.
Wild’s defensive tech options were hurt as well. Raza the Chained was unnerfed in the Year of the Dragon to where its battlecry made its Priest controller’s hero power cost 0 mana.
Bad Luck Albatross was a very strong card that stopped “highlander” cards like Raza because it could quickly disrupt their important battlecries by shuffling two useless 1/1 bird tokens into the opponent’s deck. The team nerfed Bad Luck Albatross to cost 4 mana, making it nearly impossible to activate its deathrattle in time to stop Raza’s battlecry from properly triggering.
May 18 featured more nerfs to hurt specifically the odd Demon Hunter archetype. Priestess of Fury’s health was dropped and Crimson Sigil Runner now has an irrelevant attack stat. Though these cards aren’t nearly as powerful as they were before, they are still solid cards to play in Wild.
Ironically, on June 18, the card Twin Slice got nerfed to cost 1 mana rather than zero. This is ironic because this gave odd Demon Hunter a second chance at being relevant again. And thus, the card Cobalt Spellkin found an unlikely home in odd Demon Hunter. Since this card generates two 1-cost spells from the player’s class, grabbing Twin Slice from this battlecry was nearly guaranteed. Back then, there were only two other 1-cost spells to join it.
On July 14, the card Metamorphosis was nerfed from dealing 5 to 4 damage with its hero power upgrade. Warglaives of Azzinoth, a very controversial card at the time, had its cost increased to costing 6 mana, making it unusable in odd Demon Hunter.
The card Corsair Cache was nerfed as well, which now no longer buffs weapon attack and only increased the weapon’s durability instead. This hurt the dominant Pirate and Bomb Warrior archetypes, making them slower at weapon damage output.
On Aug. 18, after the release of the Scholomance Academy set, the final nail in the coffin was dug deep into the Kael’Thas OTK decks. The card’s ability was changed to make the player’s third spell cost 1 instead of 0. For too long, these decks plagued both Wild and Standard, but finally, this card’s reign of terror was stopped.
The rate of nerfs remained calm after this. Odd Demon Hunter was properly put to rest and resided as a Tier 3 deck, according to Team Wildside.
Darkglare Warlock and Raza Priest were the most suffocating decks around this time, with Kingsbane Rogue following alongside. You can see how Darkglare performs in one of the videos I made before its nerf.
On Sept. 8, the developers nerfed the card Secret Passage nerfed to only provide four cards rather than five, which didn’t slow down the deck too much. However, the card Darkglare now only refreshed one mana crystal instead of two when the player took damage on their turn, banishing the deck from its highly vaunted spot in tier 1 for a while.
Darkglare Warlock and Kingsbane (weapon) Rogue were very obnoxiously powerful decks. Their Achilles Heel was that they were powerful decks in the Standard format as well, making them more viable targets for the Hearthstone team to nerf.
With Darkglare Warlock and Kingsbane Rogue reduced to being good and reliable decks, this left Raza Priest at the top of the game. It was so popular within the meta that people played odd and inefficient tech cards to stop it, like Beneath the Grounds and The Darkness, of all things.
Due to the popularity of Raza Priest decks, the Bomb Warrior archetype focused on shuffling multiple copies of Bomb cards in the opponent’s deck, bloomed as a deck to stem the Raza flood.
Then, on Sept. 29, the team noticed a very obnoxious meme deck entering the ranks of Wild and Standard and put a stop to it. For a while, Turtle Mage was a popular deck, as the card Tortollan Pilgrim could be used in conjunction to cast copies of the card Potion of Illusion to recur itself and generate infinite value. Now, Tortollan Pilgrim can no longer cast copies of spells from the deck, but now it has to cast the actual card itself.
Quest Mage slumped into low-level play when the card Evocation was nerfed to cost 2 mana on October 22. This was a move to protect Standard players from the power that Evocation provided, but it very much slowed Quest Mage’s ability to win to a grinding halt.
The final set of the year marked the last large volley of nerfs to plague Wild. After Madness at the Darkmoon Faire was released, Voracious Reader and Lorekeeper Polkelt both received mana cost increases.
Voracious Reader now costs 3 mana, but it’s still a very strong card. The newly emerged Aggro Druid still plays the card to this day because it’s still that good.
Polkelt was bumped to costing 5 mana, making it too slow for some control decks. It’s still a fantastic card to put in specific combo piece decks like Raza Priest.
Then, on Jan. 8, 2021, they increased the cost of Edwin VanCleef, an already struggling card, to being unplayable at 4 mana. Foxy Fraud is a great card in Standard, so its nerf can be attributed to very fast combo turns that involved cheesing a giant Edwin VanCleef out on turn 2.
Now, here’s another hysterical moment for the Year of the Phoenix. The Darkmoon Races miniset, the first miniset, by the way, released a very efficient and interesting removal spell called Hysteria.
The player Yata found out this card had an infinite combo interaction with the cards Wretched Tiller and two Deathspeakers. He found this out the day Hearthstone spoiled the card, two days before the set was released!
Hysteria was nerfed to only target enemy minions on Jan. 28. But in that painful week, after the miniset Darkmoon Races was released, the meta was swarmed by Wretched Tiller OTK decks. It was quite embarrassing to see Wretched Tiller OTK quickly become a high-tier deck for the seven days the combo existed. The video next to this explains how the combo works.
If the Wretched Tiller scandal sounds familiar, that’s because it nearly mimicked the SN1P-SN4P controversy in the Year of the Dragon. The SN1P-SN4P fiasco ended up forcing the developer’s hands into changing how the Echo keyword worked. Though, kudos to the developers for stopping the Wretched Tiller combo faster than they did the SN1P-SN4P combo.
The meta was quite rocky and controversial during this time. We saw the triumphant rise of the new class Demon Hunter take wild by storm with odd Demon Hunter, only to be crushed by nerfs for the next three months of its popularity.
The rise and fall of Demon Hunter gave way to Raza Priest percolating in the background and being the most consistent and powerful deck to exist in Wild at that time.
Others tried to compete, but were dashed by nerfs. This is due to the fact that Raza Priest’s important cards, Shadowreaper Anduin, Raza the Chained, and Spawn of Shadows, were all Wild-only cards. The deck’s competitors all had cards that were relevant in standard. Thus, Raza Priest had an unfair advantage over other decks because the developers were more conscientious of standard than wild.
When odd Demon Hunter died off, the rest of the meta was tailored to either building fast aggro decks to outpace the terrifying control aspect of Raza Priest, with specific tech cards to stop it, or they played heavy control decks to stop the onslaught of aggro-heavy decks. Though, pure control decks like odd Warrior were not built to withstand the firepower Raza Priest provided.
Darkglare was another hot button deck that angered the community, but the developers suppressed it eventually. Darkglare was a sleeper card until they released Flesh Giant and Raise Dead in Scholomance Academy, which seriously turbo-boosted the archetype. Interestingly enough, even with the nerf, Darkglare is still considered a great deck to climb in Wild.
Kingsbane Rogue was a great deck to play again, as this year featured plenty of support for the archetype in Scholomance Academy. Due to the accelerated and powerful cards featured in Scholomance Academy and the need for fast aggro decks to combat Raza Priest, players created aggro Druid. This deck used many cheap minions and buff cards to hopefully annihilate the player by turn 4 or 5.
Secret Mage was a great deck beginning in the year, and it totally eclipsed Quest Mage because of the nerfs that deck experienced. Madness at the Darkmoon Faire really propelled it to great notoriety thanks to Sayge, Seer of Darkmoon and Rigged Faire Game.
Big Priest even made a comeback thanks to Darkmoon Faire. The new iteration of the deck ditched Barnes, a long time staple in resurrection strategies, in favor of the new and better card Blood of G’huun.
Darkmoon Faire featured great support for Odd Paladin to shine back to the top, with Oh My Yogg and Carnival Barker to keep the deck relevant.
Warrior’s great aggro deck eventually became Pirate Warrior, even through some of the nerfs it faced. The meta game diversified once Madness at the Darkmoon Faire was released, making Raza Priest less popular, so that edged Bomb Warrior out of the picture.
As a weird side note, Mill Rogue became a dubious yet popular deck to play on the Wild ladder thanks to the introduction of Prize Vendor and Cloak of Shadows released in Madness at the Darkmoon Faire.
The meta began with a chaotic start, but we now have a more defined idea of what the Wild meta will look like in Year of the Gryphon.
With the upcoming changes with the Core Set and a whole slew of nerf reverts to old cards like Starving Buzzard and the Caverns Below, the meta will be thrust through a turbulent free-for-all.
The developers are very vocal about how they don’t want to play an active role in the Wild metagame, but the new unnerfs and changes to old cards are a sign that they are edging away from that controversial stance and instead embracing Wild more.
I feel that it’s going to be difficult to see what will be the best deck and what will be pushed aside once these changes roll out, but I’m very eager to see this shake-up.
Relating back to the beginning of this article, the Year of the Phoenix is a great analogy for the game. The year was paved with mistakes and overall design blunders, but they were squared away before the Hearthstone year ended. In a way, the game is rising from the ashes of its failures, reborn into a bright and burning… Gryphon?