The evolution of combo decks in Hearthstone

Trading Card Games have been out for a while, and many mechanics and concepts have been fleshed out via experimentation and experience mostly via Magic: the Gathering. One of the greatest parts of these games is the vastly different style decks that you can build.

Early on in Magic’s history, players identified three specific deck archetypes: Aggro, Combo, and Control. While decks have evolved to combine elements of each archetype, it seems that it has become increasingly difficult to play a pure “Engine Combo” deck the older the game gets.

What is Engine Combo?

Engine Combo is an archetype introduced early on in Magic’s life with a deck piloted by former MTG player Mike Long. Originally called “Wishing Well” and later called “Prosperous Bloom,” the deck would revolutionize deck-building and show the full potential of the game. Before this deck, you had obvious cards that worked well together. In Magic, it wasn’t hard to see the kill potential of Channel plus Fireball or, in Hearthstone, it’s easy to see the synergy in cards like Knife Juggler and Unleash the Hounds.

But Prosperous Bloom showed how an entire deck can act as an engine, where every card in the deck works with one another to create, usually, a one-hit kill. Basically, the deck used all of its cards to create a situation where it would use the card Drain Life, to hit the opponent with however much damage needed to kill it. The Magic community was amazed at the time, and deck-building would never be the same. While pure Engine Combo isn’t as common as it once was in Standard, pure combo decks are quite common in eternal formats. (Here’s some moreinformation about MTG’s first pure combo deck).

Does it exist in Hearthstone? Yes and No. A pure one-hit combo deck does exist in Hearthstone, but it is either unreliable, or much more of a control or midrange deck. At one time, however, Engine Combo decks did exist. There were two infamous ones that were both at the top of the meta during that era. First was Miracle Rogue, followed by Patron Warrior.

The Beta 1HKO Decks

According to lead designer Ben Brode, early in Hearthstone’s development, a one-hit kill combo deck was popular. It was a Rogue deck that centered around Rogue class card called Envenom, which doubled the attack of your weapon. During beta, the Rogue hero power worked differently than it does now. If you already had a weapon equipped, it would give the weapon +1 attack. So the strategy was quite simple: use your hero power to get a 7 or more power weapon, then use Envenom twice to swing for 28 or more damage on one turn. Blizzard identified it was a frustrating deck to play against, and Envenom was removed and replaced with Blade Flurry.

Another popular one-hit kill deck was through the Hunter class. Unleash the Hounds gave your beasts +1 Attack and Charge. Unleash the Hounds combined with other low-cost beasts would create a situation where you would swing for giant amount of damage on one turn.

The game changed after Beta, and those combos were nerfed. Unleash the Hounds was completely changed, Envenom was removed, and the Rogue hero power was changed.

One-Hit Kill “Miracle” Rogue

Although Envenom was out of the game and the Rogue hero power was changed, the idea of a one-hit kill deck was implanted in the minds of the players. Eventually a new combo deck emerged, which was believed to be the very best deck in the meta: Miracle Rogue. While it is usually difficult to identify a specific deck creator in today’s age of net-decking (a term used to refer to the act of looking up decklists online and copying them), the rise and popularity of this deck, alongside the coining of the term “Miracle” (the term is borrowed from a mechanic in MTG) is usually attributed to Aleksandr “Kolento” Malsh.

The deck utilized the low costed mana spells in combination with Gadgetzan Auctioneer to draw a giant amount of cards to find combo pieces. Once the hand is sculpted, the one hit combo is usually done with Leeroy Jenkins, a couple Cold Bloods, Leeroy casted again with Shadowstep, and if needed, finishing off the rest with Eviscerate or the weapon empowered with Deadly Poison for up to 30 or more damage. Miracle Rogue was the first out-of-beta, pure Engine Combo deck.

Blizzard didn’t seem happy about this deck. In a balance update, Leeroy Jenkins’ cost was changed from 4 to 5, and Blizzard explained, “Leeroy Jenkins created a strategy that revolved around trying to defeat your opponent in one turn without requiring any cards on the board. Fighting for board control and battles between minions make an overall game of Hearthstone more fun and compelling, but taking 20+ damage in one turn is not particularly fun or interactive.”

The change was understandable coming from the standpoint of thinking that board control was “more fun and compelling.” But it seemed Blizzard also wanted to get rid of an entire archetype, which a whole section of the player base enjoyed. Some players rejoiced, others were upset, and the rest still tried to make the combo work.

Even before the nerfs, Kolento said in an AMA on Liquid Hearth: “I was thinking that miracle can not compete with other decks anymore, but in tournaments Miracle Rogue can still show good results since decks are built to be good counters to common classes.”

Taking that quote along with the community’s reaction, the deck was a pretty fringe deck on the ranked ladder. Miracle Rogue took another hit when Blizzard made another change to a key part of the deck: Gadgetzan Auctioneer’s cost from 5 to 6. Blizzard gave a pretty vague reason why the card was nerfed.

“Card draw and card advantage are important to the game — overall, games are less interesting when a player draws their entire deck. This change brings Gadgetzan Auctioneer’s cost more in line with its power level.”

The nerf was done to widen the design space for future cards, not necessarily directly nerfing Miracle Rogue. At the time of the nerf, Goblins vs.Gnomes was being released, and a lot of community members thought that a good reason this nerf was done was because of the introduction of Spare Parts (low-cost spells that get generated randomly from other cards). Although that might not be 100 percent accurate, looking at the game’s long-term future, the nerf to Gadgetzan Auctioneer made sure the development of other cards, especially low-cost spells, wouldn’t be problematic.

After the nerfs, pure combo was pretty dead. Miracle Rogue was out of the meta and was replaced with Oil Rogue, a much more tempo-oriented combo/control deck utilizing the new card, Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil. It was a good, but meta-dependent, deck.

A new Pure combo deck unexpectedly emerged: Grim Patron Warrior.

Everyone get in here!

No one predicted that this new combo deck would truly take over the entire metagame.

At first glance, the card doesn’t look so good, especially with a 5-mana cost. When combined with Warsong Commander and cards that hit your own minions, however, such as Whirlwind, it isn’t too hard to create a board filled with Grim Patrons with charge. Throw in a Frothing Berserker and you can hit for a lot more than 30 on one turn.

The nerf eventually came in, changing Warsong Commander entirely, killing the one-hit KO from hand potential. Blizzard stated:

“In the case of Warsong Commander, we felt this change was necessary to help expand both future design space and to stand by our overarching game philosophy that battles between minions and fighting for board control is what makes Hearthstone fun and compelling.”

The future of pure Engine Combo: can it exist in Hearthstone?

Probably not. Combos will always exist, but not like they did with Miracle Rogue and Grim Patron Warrior. There are combo decks out there right now, and even Grim Patron is back as a top-tier deck, but it is much more mid range deck than pure combo. Players are always trying to make combo Rogue decks work, as a recent Liquid Hearth article goes over the three main Rogue combo-oriented decks.

But the Tier 1, one-hit KO decks are probably done. Most one-hit KO decks now require a lot more work, making them not that viable in the meta (example: one-hit KO Murloc Paladin). And it is clear that Blizzard doesn’t like these types of decks to control a huge portion of the metagame. Unlike MTG, we cannot interact with the opponent on his/her turn, making one-hit KO from hand combo decks problematic.