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A world without Pagle Overspark

A look at how the Hearthstone tournament meta will shift with the upcoming bans of Nat Pagle and Tinkmaster Overspark.

Before we get into the article in itself, a few words of backstory are in order. The two cards in question entered the meta game at different points, with Tinkmaster Overspark being first introduced by Octavian 'Kripparrian' Morosan as a part of his Paladin control deck, from where it gradually grew in popularity as an answer to popular threats such as Ragnaros and Sylvanas. It did not become an evident problem in itself until early in this year when the all too common Novice Engineer was nerfed, causing the competitive community to go looking for another source of card draw, which turned out to be Nat Pagle. Nat Pagle had previously been discounted because of his random nature, but as he began to see play the potential upsides of a four health creature that could be coined out on turn one slowly became apparent, especially in a world where buffers such as Shattered Sun Cleric and Dark Iron Dwarf were falling out of favor due to their recent nerfs as well.

This proliferation of two cards which rely on a virtual coin flip to determine a significant outcome in the game in turn lead to a realization that a new and powerful element of RNG had been introduced into the game, one which was harder to control than the RNG involved in the draw, which could be accounted for through better deck-building and thinning of the deck. While the cards in themselves average out, the sheer number of games in which they are played lead to an increased number of games being determined by the edge cases where the coinflips all came up in favor of one party, as showcased during the ESGN Fight Night Season 3 Ace Match, in which every coinflip seemingly came up DogeHouse. These events lead Dan 'Artosis' Stemkoski to propose that the competitive community move to ban these two cards from play during an episode of his show Turn 2, a move which slowly gathered support and is now being implemented in tournaments currently being recorded.

Understanding the impact of the cards

While this has been talked about quite extensively of late, it’s good to considering what the actual impact of these now banned cards are. First up is Nat Pagle, which is a simple card draw mechanic and an unreliable one at that. Pagle might not seem all that impressive at first glance, however when you consider his high durability for a two drop and the fact that he activates on the end of your turn, he becomes very hard to deal with indeed. Coined out on turn one, Pagle either trades for two cards or a card and a ping, most likely over the course of two turns. This means that Pagle is almost guaranteed to give you both card and tempo advantage, presuming your opponent can’t kill him with creatures, which most decks outside of pure aggro struggle to accomplish and which the aggro decks might rather not waste their turn doing.

Because of the card advantage generated by Pagle he’s a natural choice for control decks which want to draw a large hand in order to have efficient answers, allowing them to stay alive long enough to play their own threats. Because of the body and trading up in resources Pagle actually also makes a surprising amount of sense for tempo decks, although this may have been a somewhat under-explored aspect of the card due in part to tempo decks not being all that prevalent in the tournament meta. The only decks that didn’t really care for Pagle were the pure aggro decks for which cards were treated as something you just throw at your opponents face and hope he dies before you run out of steam. In this world, Pagle causes a delay which works against you as even with more cards on hand their collective worth is lowered the later into the game we get, as it becomes easier for your opponent to put out formidable answers.

The other card that’s on the receiving end of this ban is Tinkmaster Overspark, the unpredictable polymorph and/or pseudo silence that is used in place of hard removal in most decks. Coming in at a very cheap three mana and leaving behind a 2/2 body, the Tinkmaster is a very under budgeted card for the effect he has on the board. The reasoning here is of course that the potential of creating a 5/5 Devilsaur is enough of a risk that cost has to remain low, but when you consider the targets that tend to get Tinked, your Ragnaroses, Cairne Bloodhoofs, Yseras or just your everyday giants, any outcome of the Tink is strictly speaking an advantageous play.

Tinkmaster is a card which fills a gap for the classes that lack good hard removal. While you can run him in an aggro deck as an answer to big taunters, you’re generally better off running multi-purpose removals, silences or even a Black Knight. As such, Tinkmaster was more of a feature of the control decks, coming first into the meta as a one card answer for the Paladin deck, which previously struggled making their two Equalities stretch out over the course of the game. The prevalence of this card is more a symptom of the issues faced by certain decks when going up against the myriad of threats that especially slower decks can put out, and the relative decline of the super slow decks is in part due to the fact that cards like Tink swing the advantage in favor of the midgame burst combo’s, especially when you also have Pagle helping you draw into those combo’s.

How the metagame will be affected

Before we go into discussing the specific decks and how they are likely to come out of this shift in the tournament meta, it should be noted that Cairne Bloodhoof will be a general winner in this case. Cairne was already considered perhaps the strongest Legendary in the game, and without Tinkmaster around there’s no more question about which is the overall best neutral card that every non-aggro and non-miracle deck needs to include. Incidentally the loss of Tinkmaster also buffs up Sylvanas again, although at six mana she’s likely still too slow for a lot of decks, especially since players over time got a lot better at playing around her deathrattle, making her a considerably more situational play.

Please also note that the classes are listed below in order of how much the ban will affect them and is not intended to be a ranking of the classes after the change.

The winners

Right off the bat, it should be said that the clear winners here are the aggro decks. They generally lose nothing in this ban and are instead bolstered as their control opponents will have a slower time drawing into the answers they need in order to stop their relentless aggression. In an aggro vs. control match-up, the focus of the match will shift ever more onto the initial hand, and that’s exactly how the aggro deck wants it. Notably there is a slight loss for Hunter as the Unleash the Hounds combo has one less target to work off of, especially considering that Hunter also ran a very efficient means of dealing with the Pagle in the Ironbeak Owl, but on the whole this should still benefit Hunters as well as control decks may be forced into playing more card draw creatures in order to make up for missing out on Pagle.

The other big aggro deck right now is the Wurlock, abusing Life Tap in order to keep flooding the board with Murlocs until the opponent runs out of board clears or life, whichever happens first. The second coming of the Murlocs isn't directly affected by the banning of either Pagle or Tink, but slowing down the card draw of their opponents can heavily work in the Murlocs' favor, especially if the opponent misjudges the type of Warlock he’s up against and doesn't hold on to any potential aoe in his opening hand. All in all, life’s good for a Murloc.

Another winner is the Handlock deck, which while it did generally run Tinkmaster does not lose out on card draw as it had a far more reliable way to draw cards than Pagle. Handlock’s bane is the fact that it sits on low health for much of the game, making it weak to the mid-game burst combos such as the Force of Nature and Primal Roar or the Windfury combinations. If Druid and Shaman have a harder time getting to their combo’s then Handlock will in turn have an easier time stabilizing and finishing off the game. Handlock is also built around putting out efficient creatures and trying to give them taunts in order to protect itself until it can end the game. These big threats can easily drain the opponent of the now more scarce answers it does have, which means that as a whole being rid of Tinkmaster is likely to work out in the Handlocks favor in the long run.

There are two slightly different archetypes of the Shaman deck which are currently highly competitively viable, but for the purpose of this article we can largely treat the classic Janne 'Savjz' Mikkonen control deck and Cong 'StrifeCro’ Shu's faster Shaman deck as mostly equivalent. Both are control decks which build off of controlling the board and burst combos, which would indicate that these decks would be heavily reliant on both Pagle and Tink, and while this is largely true Shaman also has some of the best replacements for these cards. Mana Tide is more expensive, has lower health and generally is worse enough that even with Pagle’s considerable hit-or-miss nature these decks have mostly so far run one Mana Tide Totem, allowing for an easy substitution for an almost as good card while all the other control decks have to do considerably more downgrading. In the same sense while Tinkmaster does give you a body on the field, if there ever was a clear replacement for the card it would have to be Hex, which even comes in at the same three mana cost. Losing another cheap hard removal is not ideal, but with Earth Shocks as well as the currently mostly neglected Lava Burst as well further bolstering the Shaman deck, it’s likely to overtake Druid as the overall best deck in the game.

Mostly unaffected

There’s two main versions of Rogue and each will be affected differently. Miracle Rogue is the better known deck, which relies heavily on cycling through the deck and thinning it wherever possible. To this end the deck uses Gadgetzan Auctioneer as a primary source of drawing/cycling cards, but for a deck so reliant on getting to a handful of key cards, Nat Pagle is also a potentially useful tool. Still, Pagle is not absolutely necessary for the continued existence of this deck, and as it does not run Tinkmaster either, Miracle Rogue is likely to survive at close to the same strength as previously, which is to say middle of the pack.

The other Rogue deck which should be talked about the is the tempo deck which aims to put a fair amount of creatures on board and to abuse the good value rogue cards can get you in a tempo race. This deck utilizes both Pagle and Tinkmaster and doesn't have as strong of a fallback position in terms of drawing cards, something which can become a problem as in order to sustain great tempo the deck needs to put out efficient answers at the right time. This is further exacerbated with the loss of Tinkmaster, which provides a higher tempo alternative to Assassinate which is beneficial to the deck. While the deck can come back from these two setbacks, it’s likely to be in need of some heavy tweaking in order to get back into contention.

Mage has been going in a number of different directions of late, with Max 'Nyhx' Siebel and 'Savjz' building their versions of an Antonidas board control deck while Jeffrey 'Trump' Shih has been championing a different style of Control Mage and finally others running heavy spell based decks such as 'Kungen’s cycling Freeze Mage deck. Some of these decks run Tink as a 50/50 better and cheaper Polymorph, but other versions choose to forego Tink for Polymorph and have been doing well with that setup also, indicating that losing Tink is not much of a problem. More so of an problem is the loss of Pagle again, perhaps hitting Kungen’s cycling deck a bit harder than the rest since it's so reliant on cycling through the deck but also likely forcing the other decks to look for new sources of card draw. Since most of the decks already run Acolyte of Pain and Azure Drakes, they most likely fallback position will be the somewhat weak Arcane Intellect, while the more spell based decks may end up relying more heavily on Gadgetzan Auctioneer. Either way, considering the precarious position of the Mage, even this minor setback is not good news.

While on the ladder Warrior has two major archetypes being played, when it comes to tournaments it’s pretty much all control all day, and control Warrior runs both Pagle and the Tinkmaster. As control Warrior is supremely slow it does in a sense have plenty of time to draw out the deck, but it can also be forced into throwing away cards against early onslaughts which is where having the early Pagle out could help the deck get over the early and mid-game humps and on to its big late-game threats. This need for efficient answers is also why losing out on the Tinkmaster can be a major concern for the deck, although one which can be somewhat covered up in slower match-up’s by adding Big Game Hunter or Black Knight. Overall the control Warrior may be forced to make some tweaks or take a more niché role, but it’s not the hardest hit of the decks.

Losing out

It’s interesting to think that while Paladin was the class that brought Tinkmaster into the meta it’s also likely one of the decks that was most adversely affected by other decks running Tinkmaster. The traditional Paladin decks quickly began to feel the hurt as their Tirion Fordring’s would all turn into a bunch of squirrels, and in general the “Healadin” decks provided some of the juiciest targets for Tinkmaster to always get good value, even when the gods of the coin flip were not on your side. So for all that Paladins desperately need more single target answers in their control decks, it’s likely to also help the now popular Case 'Koyuki' Kiyonaga Giants control variant. The bigger loss comes in the form of Pagle, which helped fill up the Paladins hand in order to enable the effective usage of the Mountain Giant and Twilight Drake. This Paladin is still not likely to play a lot of cards early, but it might cause some problems against aggressive decks which force earlier action and especially when having to go first. On the whole we may see this lead to some Paladins trying to implement the aggro version in tournament play, which will at least benefit early on from a surprise factor.

Priest is an odd bird which hasn’t quite figured out where it needs to be for the competitive scene. The old wisdom was that Priest was to be the ultimate slow control deck relying on Mind Control in order to simply take your threats and turn them against you in the most effective manner, but as the metagame has focused in more on mid game burst so the priest has acted to speed up it’s deck as well, even though it still lacks any reasonable burst outside of true fringe aggro builds. The 'ErA' priest deck and the modifications it’s seen from various other builders is still a deck which relies on both Pagle and Tink in order to draw out the deck and to deal with threats like Cairne Bloodhoof which priest traditionally has trouble getting at. Without Tink and with Cairne being as popular as he is Priest is likely going to continue having a hard time breaking through in constructed play.

The hardest loss of all is suffered by the now standard Watcher Control Druid deck, which not only requires card draw in order to get off it’s game winning combo but also lacks any good hard removal. Pagle was a strong card in Druid and when fishing was good it could help win games by itself, but equally having access to Ancients of Lore and Wrath will soften the blow of losing out on Pagle, especially since the other control decks also have to go without. Instead it’s the loss of Tinkmaster which will hurt the most, likely forcing Druids to return to running Naturalize in order to deal with big threats, something which is far from ideal when all control decks will be more constrained for card advantage. While these bans will his the Druid control and mid-game decks hard, it will still be a very solid deck overall and likely to remain popular enough that the Token Druid will mainly be seen as a surprise twist and not a primary build for which it likely isn't quite strong enough. It’s going to take another innovation from 'StrifeCro' or 'Koyuki' (who came up with the Force of Nature + Savage Roar combo) in order to get Druid back on top.