Jess Colwill, December 29, 2016

The Biggest Hearthstone Stories of 2016

Hearthstone is now well into its second full year since it went fully live and seems to be going from strength to strength, cracking the 50 million players mark in March and climbing up the charts for hours-watched-on-Twitch so fast that it’s now at the point where even League of Legends is starting to look worried. The 2016 World Championship also saw a massive jump in prize money over 2015, quadrupling from $250,000 to a cool $1 million, as Pavel rose above DrHippi in the grand final. Now we’re talking!

The Old Gods want a word

Things kicked off in April with the Cthulhusorry, C’thunthemed expansion Whispers of the Old Gods, which introduced a whole new archetype and more importantly a whole new game mode. The introduction of Standard Mode (and the resulting relegation of regular, uncontrolled games to “Wild Mode”) was an extremely controversial move, but one which formalized the action for many pro players, bringing Hearthstone closer to the competitive level enjoyed by analog versions like the oft-compared Magic: The Gathering.

Hearthstone C'thun

Shaman players got a massive boost in Whispers with the introduction of the Evolve mechanic, Hunters gained some late-game advantages to offer more flexibility, and Mages were able to load up on more beasts and more spells. And of course, there’s the infamous Yogg-Saron...

RIP Yogg-Saron

No mention of Hearthstone in 2016 could go by without a tip of the tentacle to Yogg-Saron, a card that by Blizzard’s own definition is “the most controversial card we've ever made.” Depending on who you ask, Yogg’s Battlecry ability to cast a random spell for each spell you’ve cast this game was either the best thing to happen to the game or the final nail in the coffin of any competitive credibility Blizzard was hoping for.

Unfortunately for Yogg lovers, it seems Blizzard agreed, saying that the prevalence of such an insanely unpredictable card in high-level play was “not where we originally hoped it would end up.” The tentacled nightmare from beyond the realms of men was nerfed to great outcry, leaving only forum threads, Reddit posts, and whispered campfire tales to record the heyday when this Lovecraftian abomination dominated the table.

Kharazan’s Night of Nights

The solo adventure One Night in Karazahn only brought 45 new cards into the Hearthstone meta, but it was enough to get players talkingunless you were a Priest player that is, in which case nobody would blame you for retreating into your cloister to reflect on your sins.

Priest use in the Arena tanked after Karazahn introduced Purify, widely considered by many to be the worst card in the entire adventurealthough nobody on the internet can ever agree on anything, and some players swore by the Resurrect Priest build and the Onyx Bishop.

Hearthstone One Night in Karazhan

Druids got a huge buff with Menagerie Warden allowing big beasts to multiply on the board and Raven Idol for discovering new cards, while Mages enjoyed the free card in their hand from Babbling Book. Hunters giggled with delight at Kindly Grandmother, and everybody from Token Druid to Freeze Mage thought long and hard about new ways to use Arcane Giant. We may only have stayed in Karazahn for one night, but its impact is still being felt in decks all the way at the end of the year.

Blizzard Stepped up to Take Responsibility in the Fight Against Racism

Although the esports community is overwhelmingly a place of support and understanding, the competitive Hearthstone community was outraged this year when Terrence “TerrenceM” Miller had his great run at Dreamhack Austin with an excellent Renolock deck marred by some horrific racist abuse on the live Twitch stream. The level of offensive, racially-charged material was coming so thick and fast that one Twitch moderator claimed in their after-action report they weren’t even able to watch TerrenceM’s match because they had to spend their entire time deleting and banning people on the channel.

Hearthstone Terrencem

Blizzard could have shrugged and said, “Well, that’s the internet for ya,” but to their credit, they stepped up and publicly condemned the “hateful, offensive language” on display. They also announced that they would be updating their partner policies to ensure anybody they worked with was held responsible for the sort of chat that appeared around their games, giving a powerful incentive to make sure anybody who wants to host Blizzard titles needs to get their act together.

We Had a Taste of Gadgetzan’s Aggro Streets

Blizzard’s version of fantasy 1920s Chicago may have arrived in a dapper suit, but the meta changes were anything but smooth. Priests, who found themselves out of favor after Karazahn, waded back into the game with the arrival of Gadgetzan’s new cards like Kabal Talonpriest, Drakonid Operative, and Dragonfire Portion. Many still believe this isn’t enough to overcome the class’ fundamental problems, but the class has at least regained some credibility in the eyes of the pros.

Heartstone Mean Streets of Gadgetzan

We also saw a big boost in the usefulness of Reno Jackson-style "Highlander" decks with the launch of Gadgetzan, primarily as a way of dealing with the newfound power of highly aggro decks who now have to defeat their opponent twice. Cards like Kazakus, Inkmaster Solia, and Raza the Chained were a gift for Highlander decks who could now enjoy free spells and more besides to help deal with an out-of-control aggro opponent.

Jade Druid is the new hotness in our post-Gadgetzan meta, thanks to the incredible power of Jade Idol. This wonderful (or infuriating, depending on which side you’re on) card shuffles more copies of itself into the deck and combines brutally with Gadgetzan Auctioneer to fill your entire board with unstoppable Jade Golems. Yeesh!

Still, there’s plenty more in store for Hearthstone next year and the meta is always changing.

Hearthstone Championship Tour Changes

To round out the year, Blizzard announced sweeping changes to the professional circuit to be introduced in 2017, integrating international competition into the whole competitive calendar rather than concentrating it at BlizzCon. Speaking of BlizzCon, Blizzard has begun syncing the start of its new esports seasons with the release of new Standard sets in the early part of each year.

The latter change will mean that there is no Hearthstone World Championship at BlizzCon in 2017. Although, these esports issues will likely be settled in early 2018 before the launch of a new expansion.

The Hearthstone World Championship trophy.

Not only that, but Blizzard plans to introduce more fun "Inn-vitationals" throughout the year, adding a bit more frivolity to the extra-curricular activities of a game that does frivolity like no other esports title.

All of which means Hearthstone feels like it's in an exciting place going into 2017.

Jess Colwill

Jess is a writer and dog-lover from the eastern coast of Australia, who loves playing games (particularly anything by BioWare), listening to metal, baking, and fostering rescue dogs while they wait for new homes. You can find her on Twitter at @notsocryptic.