This is a guest post by Ville “Old Guardian” Kilkku. He is a multi-season EU legend on Hearthstone who has been playing games since VIC-20 was a thing. You can also find him in these places:
I have always had a soft spot for dragons in Hearthstone. Dragons are such a defining fantasy race all the way from Tolkien’s Middle Earth to George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. Dragons never go out of style! However, Hearthstone’s next Standard rotation will come in spring, and many dragon cards will be moved to Wild. Will dragon decks still exist in Standard after the rotation?
Dreams of Dragons
In Hearthstone, Dragon decks became viable with the release of The Grand Tournament. I remember opening my pre-order packs hastily so that I could put together a Dragon Priest deck, something people had dreamed of since Blackrock Mountain, but that had not been viable even with all the great dragon and dragon support cards in that adventure.
The Grand Tournament promised us a viable Dragon Priest deck: Wyrmrest Agent, Twilight Guardian, and Chillmaw would patch up the holes and give dragon decks some much-needed taunts as well as a tool, Chillmaw, that would stop the charging Grim Patrons that were popular back then (it actually worked some of the time by the way). Alas, I only managed to open one Wyrmrest Agent and had to spend all of my dust to craft the rest. Dragon Priest did not even turn out to be that good. It was OK, but there were always a number of better decks around, something that is true even today when Dragon Priest is at the peak of its power thanks to the incredible Drakonid Operative.
Overall, dragon decks have had some time in the limelight during Year of the Kraken. The steadiness of Dragon Priest has generally made it quite good at the release of new cards when the meta is still shaping up – only to fall once the meta is figured out and fully tweaked lists emerge. Dragon Warrior has been the most successful variant, having had its times as a tournament staple as well as a top ladder deck. The dragon package has also seen play incorporated into Reno lists in both Warlock and Mage. Dragon Druid did not quite survive the previous Standard rotation, but it was a viable legend-level alternative to Taunt Druid just before the Standard format hit.
Dragons Lost in the Year of the Mammoth Standard Rotation
Just like Mechs were gone when Year of the Kraken came, it seems that Dragons will take a big hit with Year of the Mammoth. Tons of dragon cards will be rotating out in spring:
Blackrock Mountain still forms the backbone of dragon decks. While it was not enough to make the archetype good on its own, it is the foundation. Dragon Consort (Paladin), Twilight Whelp (Priest), Blackwing Technician, Dragonkin Sorcerer, Hungry Dragon, Blackwing Corruptor, Drakonid Crusher, Volcanic Drake, Rend Blackhand, Chromaggus, and Nefarian all come from the set, and will depart from Standard soon. While not all of these cards see play nowadays, many of them are crucial pieces to the Dragon deck puzzle.
The Grand Tournament patched up the biggest holes left by Blackrock Mountain, and all of its dragon cards have been important: Wyrmrest Agent (Priest), Alexstrasza’s Champion (Warrior), Twilight Guardian, and Chillmaw. Especially losing all the Dragon-deck-specific taunt minions hurts a lot in this age of aggression.
The League of Explorers did not have any dragon cards in it, but as dragon decks have naturally included many battlecry minions, Brann Bronzebeard has been an auto-include in most of them.
To add up to all of these losses, Blizzard also announced that some Classic cards will depart from Standard in Year of the Mammoth, and amongst them is another dragon staple, Azure Drake. It seems that Azure Drake became a victim of Hearthstone’s limited pool of 5-drops, as most of the popular 5-drops were rotated out with Year of the Kraken (Sludge Belcher, Loatheb, Stalagg/Feugen, Vol’jin, and Antique Healbot) basically leaving people with Azure Drake to play. Only Shaman has a bunch of options for 5 mana, and its reliance on spell damage has meant that Azure Drake is a popular option even in Shaman decks.
That is a lot of cards to lose.
Dragons Remaining in Year of the Mammoth
Is there anything left in the rubble? Why, yes, there is, although whether they can be used to build a deck is not that clear.
The Classic set still has its big dragons left: Alexstrasza, Malygos, Nozdormu, Onyxia, Ysera, and Deathwing. With the exception of Nozdormu, all of these have seen play in dragon decks, depending on the prevalent meta. There is also Deathwing, Dragonlord from Whispers of the Old Gods, so the top end is still powerful.
Other than the big dragons, it’s slim pickings. The Classic set has Faerie Dragon for a 2-drop and Twilight Drake for a 4-drop. The problem with Twilight Drake is that most dragon decks are some kind of tempo decks, and generally do not accumulate large hands, so its effect is not always desirable.
Whispers of the Old Gods has Midnight Drake for a 4-drop (although attack is generally less useful than health, so Twilight Drake is superior, even in tempo decks) and Scaled Nightmare for a 6-drop. Scaled Nightmare can be scary, but it is also very, very slow, and dragon decks already have their share of slow with the really big dragons.
One Night in Karazhan has a couple of good dragon cards: Netherspite Historian, which allows you to discover more dragons (although its power depends on the available pool of dragons), and Book Wyrm, which is a solid 6-drop when the meta is right for it. It also has the Paladin-only Nightbane Templar for a 3-drop. There are also cards that benefit from running a combination of beasts, dragons, and murlocs, although the only truly viable one of these is The Curator – a 7-drop that is both a taunt and card draw.
Mean Streets of Gadgetzan has the super-powerful Priest card Drakonid Operative as well as Wrathion, who could be a semi-decent taunt and card draw for 6 mana, with the downside that he is not a dragon himself, even though Wrathion in World of Warcraft is a black dragon. Blizzard, if you’re reading this, please add the Dragon tag to Wrathion for Year of the Mammoth.
Are the Remaining Building Blocks Enough?
In order to use dragon synergy cards, cards that require you to hold a dragon for their effect to activate, you need to have enough dragons in your deck. Some people have experimented with as few as 7, even in tournaments, but the reliability of those decks has not been good enough.
In practice, if you want to use early dragon synergy cards, such as Netherspite Historian, you want to have around 8-10 dragons in your deck.
There simply are not enough top tier dragon cards left to achieve this.
- There are several big dragons to choose from depending on the meta, but you will use only 1 or at most 2 of them in a deck.
- Drakonid Operative is superb, but it is only for Priest.
- Book Wyrm can be good depending on the meta, but it has often seen play as a one-off unless the meta has really favored the ability to destroy 3-attack minions.
- Twilight Drake is OK, especially in a meta where silence effects are rare, even though it does not support the tempo archetype very well.
- Faerie Dragon is mediocre at best.
Priest has the best chance to put something together thanks to its ability to run two Drakonid Operatives, but the entire early game is gone. No 1-drops, no taunts. Half of the cards in current Dragon Priest lists are gone. Priest class cards do not provide a way to fill the gaps. Paladin retains Nightbane Templar, but it is also missing early game cards to support it. Dragon Warrior loses around 10 cards, after which it is basically Tempo Warrior, not a dragon deck.
There will not be a single dragon with taunt left. In order to survive aggro, slower decks need taunt minions. Dragon decks will need to look for non-dragon options, which are weaker (Sen’jin Shieldmasta vs Twilight Guardian) and also cannot activate dragon synergies, a double loss for the archetype.
There will not be a single dragon cantrip left. With Azure Drake headed out, dragon decks lose important card draw. The Curator cannot fill a gap this wide.
Netherspite Historian will lose much of its flexibility. With early-game and mid-game dragons mostly gone, Netherspite Historian can usually just pick up a big dragon that best suits the matchup. It will not give you taunt minions. It will not give you card draw. It will not give you spell damage.
There will not be enough dragons left to build a one-off package for Reno decks (or perhaps they will be called Highlander decks again with Reno rotating out as well). Reno decks already had a hard time filling the spots to use dragon synergies reliably, and with both Twilight Guardian and Azure Drake gone, the task is nigh impossible.
The top end is still there, but early and mid-game is gone from dragon decks. The obvious question then becomes why not make a Control Dragon deck? Unfortunately, the big dragons are not fast win conditions, and the slow, grindy archetype died when Blizzard decided to introduce Jade Golems. No dragon deck can take on jades in a control game, only in a tempo game.
In order to survive, dragon decks desperately need help for early-mid-game. There is an expansion coming alongside the rotation, so Blizzard could easily save dragon decks, but like it was with mech decks before them, the era of dragon decks seems to be over.
Dragon decks might be gone, but dragons themselves will still see play
Even if a fully themed dragon deck can no longer be made viable, individual dragons will continue to see play. Ironically, the only dragon cards good enough to see play on their own merit are from the Classic set. All the good dragon cards from the remaining expansions rely on dragon synergies.
Twilight Drake remains as potent a card as ever. Whenever a deck has the strategy to collect a large hand of cards, Twilight Drake is a contender for a spot in that deck. Even more so when silence effects are not prevalent, and Blizzard did away with them with the nerfs last year.
Alexstrasza and Malygos are always contenders whenever a combo finisher is being considered. Being able to set your opponent to 15 health or giving your spells a major boost are useful abilities, and there are always attempts to build decks around them.
Deathwing fills a niche purpose as an expensive board clear, and there will always be decks that are willing to consider the price for the powerful effect.
Ysera and Onyxia are always ready for the right meta. Ysera is immensely powerful, although also very, very slow. Onyxia is a good number of stats, but it is also slow and suffers in any meta where even weak board clears (such as Maelstrom Portal) are prevalent.
In a way, all of this seems really backwards. All the dragon cards from expansions, meant to keep the meta fresh, are about to become useless because their support cards from the previous year are rotating out. Meanwhile, the dragon cards from the Classic set are still doing fine on their own and can play important roles in a large variety of decks.
This is all still a learning experience for Blizzard. With the rotation system, it is important to pay attention to release schedules and ensure that cards that belong together also rotate out together. Last year, the final stragglers of the mech tribe were left in the dark, and this year it seems to be dragons’ turn.