The day has come, as we are witnessing the final hours of the United in Stormwind expansion - without a doubt one of the most divisive sets in recent history of Hearthstone. It had its many vocal detractors with their very justified arguments, but also more than a handful of fans who happened to appreciate the particular metagames that came about as a result. It's almost hard to believe it's been only 4 months; somehow it feels as if we've been following this eventful questline far, far longer.
This is hardly a proper goodbye, of course - it's not like all those cards are suddenly going away and we are not going to see them in play anymore (much as some players might've wished it be so). These older tools could only end up becoming far less impactful going forward, should the new expansion deliver on all of its promises. But then the city of Stormwind had also seemed appropriately alluring at one point in the past.
Expectations vs. Reality
If we look back at the early reactions along the way towards the release of United in Stormwind, there was a lot of hope (and cautious hype) regarding all the new upcoming mechanics - but above all else, great curiosity about the esteemed Questlines. We'd known Quests before, just without partial steps and with only one 'game-changing' reward upon their full completion. And aside from a few exceptions (The Caverns Below), we'd been conditioned not to expect great power levels.
It is very telling that most card reviews from the pre-expansion era marked various Questlines as mere 1 or 2 (as in 'downright unplayable' to 'pretty bad'): expecting them to be too slow, too difficult to complete, and overall very unlikely to make a greater impact. Cards like Battleground Battlemaster didn't seem all too threatening either, while Cornelius Roame became one of the highest ranked flag-bearers of the entire set. Oh, how little did we all know.
The New Status Quo and Timelines
It's very fitting then that the community as a whole was in for a very rude awakening, as the sheer power of a few chosen Questlines coupled with certain support cards was more than enough to shake up the known foundations of Hearthstone. The Demon Seed & friends ruled supreme, Sorcerer's Gambit enjoyed the untouched Incanter's Flow, and Battleground Battlemaster refused to be delegated to Arena-only threat.
Fires were lit and multiple debates raged across social media. It was pretty much impossible to open Reddit or Twitter without stumbling upon some desperate plea or an angry rant about Questlines and the necessity of their 'removal'. The kind of sentiment that managed to survive throughout the entirety of the Stormwind metagame, in one form or another.
Remember these early suspects? Feels like a long time ago, as we haven't seen them present in Standard format beyond that first month. The combo might've been hated by many and many more amusingly stumbled trying to navigate long animation times along with dozens of cards that had to be played within a single turn (something we would later see with Garrote Rogue as well). But it did have its masterful pilots as well, with the likes of Gaby and xBlyzes at the forefront.
Fast forward a little, that first month saw a number of balance changes, meant to slow down the speed of the game by a turn or two and reduce the efficiency of various decks. Even Iksar was prompted to note at the time that:
Been doing some research on how we can better track down a real answer here. I have heard more comments about best meta ever and worst meta ever during this expansion than I'm used to.
Initially, the notorious Questlines managed to dodge the direct nerfs. It wasn't until late September when the likes of The Demon Seed and Command the Elements saw adjustments (we had to wait until the final weeks of the expansion for Sorcerer's Gambit to join these ranks). Then the buffs also breathed some new life into Raid the Docks.
Before you say that United in Stormwind never truly did anything for us, let's remember the boogeymen disguised as Mindrender Illucia and Il'gynoth, already having a huge number of die-hard 'fans' earned across previous expansion metas (as nobody seems to remember Tickatus anymore). Both saw due and welcome nerfs once their pairings with Darkbishop Benedictus and Final Showdown, respectively, became too much to bear. So hey, there were at least a couple of won battles worth celebrating.
Later on the newest game mode had finally arrived with Hearthstone Mercenaries, and at least for a while most everyone seemed to forget about the existence of Constructed formats and the raging debates weren't as prevalent. After all, we were all getting pretty bored with what was available at the time, as the Deadmines Mini-Set ended up being greatly delayed. And once it finally arrived, it also gave us new toys for various other modes (Diablo here and there). Not that it stopped new controversies from arising: this time the public outrage was focused on Mr. Smite, and how much the maligned Charge mechanic was potentially breaking things. Well, at least that particular storm passed relatively quickly.
Meanwhile in Wild Mode
Wild format definitely deserves its own chapter, as it's widely believed to have taken a notable turn for the worse during the very lifespan of United in Stormwind. It's not even something I dabble in much personally, and yet even without keeping very close tabs on the community it's become impossible not to hear an united choir of concerned and often angry voices. Swaguar has very likely been among the most vocal critics throughout the expansion, with the most recent summary tweet referencing Roffle's discouragement as well:
I used to enjoy Hearthstone so much that I'd jam Wild for hours off stream. Now my time with Hearthstone off-stream is just testing decks and a little bit of BGs. And that's on top of generally streaming less. Blizzard, please step in. We need intervention.
We've heard plenty of similar sentiments from Zeddy and others in the scene as well, including our community members across Discord, comments, or the forums. Even our own FrostyFeet felt compelled to broach the subject a few months ago, with a lot of focus being given to the woes of the Wild format at the time:
Then there was also that time in recent memory when one of the known Wild Legend players made 'headlines' for achieving a top ladder finish in Standard instead - Hijo also had a few choice words to share.
And while another notorious card (that is, The Demon Seed) eventually joined Stealer of Souls on that very short Wild ban list, other issues remain. Not all of them are merely a result of the Stormwind set, mind (Sorcerer's Apprentice has a long storied history for example), but there are at least a couple more offenders.
For Hunters it's more so the powers combined with Baku the Mooneater. Warrior's cheap Pirates were always pretty prevalent in the format, they just didn't have the means to wage long games consistently without running out of fuel. That much has changed.
What Even is Combo and Where is my Control?
On top of everything else, we've had another not-so-silent dispute keeping us from staying united throughout this past expansion's lifespan: that of various obscure terms being used to talk about the game, and that of archetypes. You know, the good old aggro, midrange, combo, and control. With some players even taking it one step further towards a proper confusion. We could probably add 'tempo' to this pile, and one might be fully excused for wanting to mute the conversations around these topics altogether. A fair headache prevention, if nothing else.
You might've stumbled upon various memes and genuine remarks about the ongoing 'solitaire meta': all games seemingly ending by turn 7, slower strategies not being allowed to even exist, there not being much diversity to speak of, and so on. These were some valid concerns, to be sure, even as players argued whether something like Handlock (what with its pesky The Demon Seed) or Libram Paladin had the right to be labelled as 'Control'. For many people such titles are better reserved for the likes of Priest (think 'attrition style') as we saw it during Forged in the Barrens.
I know that I do not miss the prolonged torture that was facing Control Priest during some of the previous metagames, even as I recognize all the problems that arose during the rule of United in Stormwind. It has certainly been a very polarizing experience, and many players justifiably felt they couldn't find their place there. It's not particularly enjoyable to be always racing against the clock because some forms of one-turn-kill strategies that cannot be reasonably countered exist. The games as a whole felt considerably less open-ended.
To the developers' credit, they did try to give even Control Priests a clearer win condition (one that didn't escape controversy of its own), but as you might've guessed - it ultimately wasn't nearly swift enough. Otherwise it might've resulted in a brand new flurry of complaints, for all we know.
Feno recently went on record to talk about the end of United in Stormwind, not for the first time echoing the sentiments of various other streamers and pro players alike:
*Trigger Warning* Since expansion is coming to an end i just wanna say that this was one of my favorite expansions ever. Not so much because it was all combo decks but more for the fact that the residentsleeper remove everything you do control decks with no wincon didn't exist.
With that being said I'm now muting this tweet for the sake of my sanity :)
As you can tell by the disclaimers, it's expected to be more or less an unpopular opinion; at least as far as the wider public is concerned. Clearly this set had a particular tendency to hit the nerve. Questlines and players' feelings were being discussed far and wide.
Back in the day, we've seen opposite sentiments from the likes of Dekkster or RegisKillbin. And Brian Kibler has been perhaps the most prominent and consistent presence who spoke against the state of the Stormwind metagame at various intervals throughout. Which actually gave us this amusing exchange where Iksar inadvertently taunted Kibler into scheduling regular daily "Hey quests stink" tweets. It was pretty much worth it to see certain 'ratio-ed' responses.
J_Alexander had his own short analysis on the subject to share, and we've seen the player mood reflected across various comments or forum threads such as the one we had here. Even when the likes of Questline Mage weren't particularly powerful, it was both popular with some players and being thoroughly disliked by others.
Sidisi has also offered some good thoughts on the topic of competitively consistent decks and off-meta creations. As the two weren't particularly aligned during the Stormwind expansion - to put it mildly. Both WickedGood and Ridiculous Hat jumped in with thoughtful takes of their own, as they often do. Perhaps this sums things best:
but none of this matters, because the problem with stormwind for the folks who don't like it is simple: "i can't play the game at my own pace" games are too short to get invested, proactivity is necessary at all stages of the game, and the punishment for being slow is a loss
is it the quests? is it the from-hand burst? is it the bulk draw? yes, and also the powerful starts from aggressive decks and the super swingy late game bombs that attack reactive strategies on multiple axes that they can't possibly be prepared for
As much as any one short summary might, that is. I'm already looking forward to possible simpler times where the community might be able to land on the same page far more often. Or at least where it doesn't feel like following various diverse comments across different media is akin to navigating a minefield. This has been a very strange experience, one where I actually greatly enjoyed watching various esports tournaments and seeing games play out at the highest level, but perhaps haven't enjoyed playing on ladder nearly half as much.
Alterac Valley Salvation?
Nobody knows for certain what to expect, as it bears repeating how we tend to be notoriously bad at predicting future states of the game. There won't be any decisive answers after the first day, not after the first week either. A number of players have already expressed their concerns, doubting whether the new cards might be able to make a proper dent across the existing landscape. But we also know from the recent Q&A held by Celestalon that the developers will be keeping a close watch on the situation:
I know we've heard a lot of concerns about Quests potentially still dominating the meta in AV, making the slower cards fun but nonviable. I wanted to come back to this question, now that I've heard from the Final design team:
We’ll always be monitoring the live state of game. We expect Alterac Valley to shake up the metagame pretty substantially and if any deck (including Questlock) is oppressive, we’ll make changes — that’s been our philosophy for quite a while.
In terms of framing expectations, one of the balance goals of Alterac Valley is to make slower strategies more viable. While we don’t want to micromanage exactly which cards are/aren’t allowed to succeed, any changes we make will have that goal for balance softly in mind.
With that in mind, we can at least look forward to the future and perhaps forget about Questlines for a moment as we explore Hero cards and various new ways to play. The gates of Stormwind may remain shut as we march on.
We know very well that many among you had a bone to pick with the United in Stormwind metagames and Questlines as a whole, but was it all bad? Perhaps somebody out there has genuinely enjoyed themselves and is sad to see this particular chapter come to a close?