Competitive Hearthstone has a few unique aspects: for one, tournament matches are played with different rules than you’ll find on ladder! “Last Hero Standing” was the main format for the 2014 Hearthstone World Championship. Blizzard then went on to announce the “Conquest” format in January 2015. These days, both formats ask you to bring four decks from four different classes, and generally you can ban a specific class you don’t want to play against. In Conquest, you have to win a game with each of the decks – the winner of each round must use a different deck in the next round. By contrast, in Last Hero Standing you can play a deck any number of times… until it’s defeated!
Since its debut, Conquest has been the format of choice for Blizzard-sanctioned events and most open tournaments – except the Dreamhack Majors. At times, this willingness to stick by a decision is admirable. But with incredibly strong tech cards shaping the current metagame, it may be time to reconsider Conquest’s status as the official format!
Conquest in Un’Goro: A Brief History
When the format was first introduced, Conquest had no bans and required just three decks for events. Blizzard’s addition of the ban was a surprising decision at the time, and in hindsight has allowed lineups with glaring weaknesses to flourish. With a ban available, it’s easy to remove your worst matchup and tailor your deck to punish the ones remaining! As a result, niche tech cards are overly important in competitive Hearthstone – the metagame is destabilised by the ‘silver bullet’ cards that can shut down your entire strategy if drawn at the right time!
Let’s look at some examples of this in action. After the release of Journey to Un’Goro, the open tournament meta saw some interesting shifts during the first few weeks. Since most open tournaments use the Conquest (one ban) Bo5 format, I’m going to focus on that.
In the first week, decks were unrefined: this is usually the case after a good expansion comes out! A mix of solid older decks plus experimental new lists (mainly aggressive) were dominant in events. Pirate Warrior was super popular, with Zoo (now extinct) the second deck in most lineups. However players adapted almost immediately, switching to anti-Pirate Warrior lineups that included two copies of Golakka Crawler and weapon removal in almost every single deck.
Aggressive lineups usually included some combination of Druid, Pirate Warrior, and Zoo, so Golakka Crawler was insanely strong against these decks. This anti-aggro lineup destroyed a few tournaments, and several players posted winning lineups with new brews like Control Paladin, Control Priest, and Quest Warrior.
Ice is Nice: Freeze Mage Returns
At this point, players realized that Freeze Mage was still a viable contender.
With Ice Lance and Emperor Thaurissan gone to the Wild format, the deck had seemed dead. But Primordial Glyph and Arcanologist proved themselves incredibly strong cards. Medivh’s Valet’s good stats and effect also kept aggressive decks in check. Overall, Freeze Mage was the best deck of Un’Goro week two – mainly because it destroyed previous top decks: Zoo Warlock, Aggro Druid and Miracle Rogue. It also performed pretty well against Priest variants without heal, Quest Warrior lists without Shield Block, and so forth.
Freeze Mage’s dominance lasted for a while (relatively speaking), and players saw the deck everywhere on the ladder.
Finally, players came across an Un’Goro winner in the form of Uther: Midrange Paladin. With hard-to-kill minions like Stampeding Kodo, Wickerflame Burnbristle and Ragnaros, Lightlord plus Eye for an Eye from Hydrologist, Paladin kept Freeze Mage in check. Some players even included more healing in their decklists, making the matchup extremely favorable. Freeze had been in almost every single lineup a week before… but now it was completely unplayable.!
Freeze Mage: Conquered
Players who brought Freeze Mage to open cups during that week suffered endless defeat from healing and armor effects. Some other players tried to specifically counter Quest Warrior, but the deck is pretty resilient! Even when teched against, the Warrior list can kill very quickly with a rushed Quest completion.
There are some lineups, though, that have an edge against Quest Warrior. My teammate Feno pointed out how you could “soft target” Quest Warrior. These lineups usually include decks like Quest Rogue, Jade Druid, and Discover Mage. These three decks have something in common – the first is decent against Freeze Mage, while the other two destroy it.
These sorts of Midrange / Control decks became the norm overnight. And since aggro decks like Zoo were dropping in popularity, Paladin, Quest Warrior, and even Priest started rising! These lists could beat Freeze Mage but also did well against the reduced field of Aggro. All this upheaval meant the metagame faced another shift in the third week of April.
Rise of the Crab
Obviously, changes in the metagame are common in a card game. They’re even healthy to an extent, since they give better players a chance to adapt and stay ahead of the game. But after a certain point, too much variance signals that something may be amiss. Things started getting out of control when fellow Greek player Tholwmenos exploited the “greedy” decks such as Midrange Paladin and Quest Rogue. He quickly reached #1 Legend on EU with Aggro Murloc Paladin, and many players followed in his footsteps. However, one card completely countered the deck in the end: in my opinion, the most controversial card in Hearthstone history!
Hungry Crab seems unassuming. But for a measly 1 mana, you get the double effect of destroying a Murloc and getting a 3/4 on board! This is an insane tempo swing that nearly auto-wins against any Tempo / Aggro deck where it’s relevant. If Hungry Crabs decided games on ladder, it’s safe to say they dictated entire tournament series. It’s a natural response: Paladin was a powerful deck that did well against the field otherwise!
The problem is that many tech cards are so narrow but powerful, they completely shut down the archetype when run. If you bring Aggro Paladin to a tournament tomorrow, there’s a good chance someone running Crabs will destroy you. The problem is especially significant in events, where a single bad matchup can mean you’re eliminated from the cup altogether.
What’s next for Conquest?
Whatever the cause, we can be certain that players reacted very violently to meta changes during the first weeks of Un’Goro. It’s the first time in Hearthstone history that we’ve seen so many changes so quickly. All this chaos was – at least partially – due to the power of tech cards and polarising matchups (e.g. Quest Rogue vs Control)!
The lesson is that having a well-tuned lineup and adapting quickly to the metagame makes for huge advantages! Coaching from a trusted source can help find your optimal decklists, and some Sensei even specialize in tournament preparation! Regardless of what you’re playing, you’re also sure to come across unfavorable matchups from time to time – if you missed it, check out my article on that subject here!
Overall the Conquest format is perhaps suboptimal for the health of the metagame. This has expressed numerous times by other fellow professional players. But we’ll explore that subject in depth another time!
Until then, good luck in your open tournament adventures!