I’ve been playing Shadow Era for quite some time, and one of the important skills that one learns in any game is how to read the metagame. Essentially the metagame is the game beyond an individual match. There is strategy beyond building decks and playing individual matches that involves having a sense of what sorts of decks other people are playing, what decks are strong, and what decks can counter them (without being weak in other common matchups). The metagame is fluid and changes gradually over time, or drastically with balance changes. The current article is about the Shadow Era metagame, particularly as it pertains to one of my favorite heroes, Zhanna Mist.
It seems like only yesterday that we were all thinking of what sexy profession we would be for Halloween, America was still hopeful about ‘Dumb and Dumber To’, and Jojiwakabayashi was topping the Shadow Era Charts playing his Fat Zhanna deck. Only a month before that, everyone was playing a haste Zhanna, indeed everyone counted Zhanna as a solid choice for a tier 1 hero. Then she disappeared. What happened to her? Who killed our favorite priestess?
What makes priests powerful is their card pool. They all have access to some of the best control cards in the game, including Tidal Wave, Banish, Zail’s Hymn and Focused Prayer among others. They also have access to some excellent draw engines. This makes priests particularly suited to play control strategies, with very strong late-game cards as finishers. The haste Zhanna decks rellied on allies with haste, such as Fleet-Footed Messenger and Viska the Scarlet Blade to apply pressure, with King’s Pride sealing the deal as a strong win condition. A variant control deck archetype became popular soon after, which I like to call ‘Fat Zhanna’ because it uses a lot of fatty allies, as well as King’s Pride in an over-sized (50-60 card) deck. About a month ago, I was joking about how when this Fat Zhanna craze ended, someone needed to make a deck called ‘Diet Zhanna’. Little did I know how effective that diet would turn out to be!
Both of these decks, and really most priest decks, have the same weakness: they are slow. Their powerful control cards like Tidal Wave are so expensive that in the early to mid game, all they can do is take off pressure from the hero, and not help to apply it. Tidal Wave can wipe the board, but the opponent can just play more allies in the following turn. Priests also don’t have powerful shadow energy abilities to help keep control (like Banebow, Zaladar and Loest), really they just help take off pressure. Priest players must be able to both control the board with their abilities and play allies to keep board control, and that is generally impossible before the late game. So priest control decks tend to switch from an ability based stall and control strategy in the early and mid-game to an ally strategy in the late game. Sounds good, right?
Zhanna pays for her strong late game with a weak early game
It is good, but like everything else in this game, it’s got its share of weaknesses. The general rule of thumb with decks in shadow Era and in TCGs in general is that Control beats Mid-Range, which beats Rush, which beats Control. Now Shadow Era is balanced enough that this is not a hard and fast rule, a lucky or well-piloted Control deck can beat a Rush deck and a Rush deck can beat a Mid-Range deck, but generally those are the things that give them trouble. Why should this matter now?
My sense from my own experience and asking other players is that Zhanna’s weaknesses: rush mages, discard Zaladar and Serena just became too strong and too popular. This process seems to have happened slowly, and may have come in several stages. Here are some possible causes:
2.86 changes that may have contributed (taken from the Shadow Era Forums):
Fates 073 Fatebreak Familiar: Ability changed to “When an opposing player summons an ability with cost 3 or less, that ability has no effect and Fatebreak Familiar is killed.” (from “When an opposing player summons an ability with cost 2 or less, that ability has no effect and FateFatebreakiliar is killed.”)
Fates 074 Amulet of Conjuring: Ability changed to” 1SE: Draw 3 cards and remove 1 of your resources from play.” (from “1SE: Draw 2 cards and remove 1 of your resources from play.”)
Fates 195 Thoughtripper’s Cutlass. Durability increased to 4 (from 3). Ability changed to “When your hero kills an opposing ally in combat, that ally’s controller draws a card and discards a random card from their hand. While this weapon has at least 3 attack, cards discarded from opposing hands are placed in yours.”
Fates 054 Brimstone Devourer: Ability changed to “When Brimstone Devourericondiscarded from anywhere, the opposing ally with the lowest health takes 3 fire damage.” (from “When Brimstone Devourer is discarded from anywhere, the opposing hero or ally with the lowest health takes 3 fire damage.”)
Fatebreak Familiar was a minor change, but it took the 2cc ally from being a more fragile version of Puwen to something that can stop a fireball, Blood Frenzy or Speed Strike. Basically this small change gave mages much more versatility in that they can effectively stall many decks from setting up, or prevent some damage to the hero (in the case of fireball).
Amulet of Conjuring made Loest a force to be reckoned with. Before this card, Loest was an interesting choice, but generally a niche hero. He had a solid rush, but was not significantly better than any other mage decks at the time. Amulet of Conjuring’s additional draw made it possible for Loest to begin the game with an ally rush, supernova, and proceed to draw through his deck searching for burn cards.
Brimstone Devourer was nerfed, this made Discard Zaladar slightly less strong, pushing him out of Loest’s way, at the same time, it forced Zaladar players to consider other options, and led to the rise in popularity of Dagger of Fate. Dagger of Fate turns out to be a very strong card that no one seemed to notice for some time. When people started to see how strong it was on Zaladar, they started coming up with other uses for it, including several Aramia rush decks.
Thoughtripper’s Cutlass did not do that much to Zhanna directly, all it really did is change Serena from an auto-win for Zhanna into an even match. As a Serena player, I still found myself concerned when facing Zhanna decks after the buff to Cutlass, but I felt like I had good chances. Serena then became somewhat popular, which made it much more difficult for Zhanna to win consistently.
2.87 Changes that may have contributed:
Fates 162 Platinum Chainmail: Ability changed to “Friendly allies have +1 attack while in combat with allies with cost 3 or less. Platinum Chainmail doesn’t lose durability in combat with allies with cost 3 or less.” (from “Friendly allies have +1 attack while in combat with allies with cost 2 or less. Platinum Chainmail doesn’t lose durability in combat with allies with cost 2 or less.”)
Fates 112 Bloodpack Shaman: Ability changed to “When Bloodpack Shaman is summoned, while every ally in your graveyard is a wulven ally, target Wulven ally in your graveyard with cost 3 or less is returned to your hand.” (from “When Bloodpack Shaman is summoned, the top Wulven ally in your graveyard with cost 3 or less is returned to your hand.”)
Fates 113 Death from Above: Ability changed to “Target friendly Wulven ally that is not disabled or frozen kills target opposing ally with cost 4 or less.” (from “Target friendly ally that is not disabled or frozen kills target opposing ally with cost 4 or less.”)
Fates 141 Grave Resistance: Added Sustain: 1HP.
Platinum Chainmail was buffed which should have been a buff to control decks seeking to slow a rush. Indeed it can serve that function well. Unfortunately, perhaps this was not a strong enough buff to keep Zhanna competitive.
The Bloodpack Shaman, Death from Above and Grave Resistance nerfs all served to kill a specific deck that I really hated: Undead Moonstalker. The combination of cheap but difficult to kill allies, solid draw and pseudo draw, cheap ally removal and Moonstalker’s ability made that deck strong against any physical combat based heroes, as well as burn decks (Moonstalker’s traditional weakness). I believe that the strength of this deck negatively affected the meta, and am glad that it is gone (or at least limited now). Unfortunately, I also believe that it was one of the things that was holding mages in check. Specifically, undead and Grave Resistance made it much harder for mages to control the board with direct damage. The nerf to Grave Resistance in particular, though small is a significant nerf when faced with rush and burn decks, that seek to death race their opponent. Every point of health matters in those matches, and losing 3 or 6 to one or two grave resistances proved too high a cost to pay. This effectively limited the dominance of undead, and without that check to the power of mages, they have become dominant.
Too much Zhanna Hate!
Due to these changes, the meta has slowly shifted and during this transition, I have seen fewer and fewer Zhanna players. The current meta provides many difficult challenges for priest control decks:
Aramia rush decks are far too fast, efficient and consistent. A player must be able to wipe the board, destroy items and heal, all while keeping up draw. The only benefit here for Zhanna is that many of the popular Aramia decks rely on bilateral draw. This makes it possible for Zhanna to preserve shadow energy for use of her ability rather than powering draw engines. Any nerfs to such decks may help to make Zhanna more competitive.
Loest rush decks are still very strong, although many people have adapted to this with some effect. Loest had a limited role in the world championships, but his strength contributed to the dominance of mid-range decks, as control decks were no longer viable. Even my Serena, which is normally a control hero, was only successful because I managed to come up with a variant that was closer to a mid-range deck. Loest seems less powerful now in light of this preponderance of mid-range decks, however a nerf to the power of these decks may help the meta as a whole. If Zhanna does not automatically lose to Loest, then I believe we will be seeing her again. Paradoxically, I think this may also lead to more Loest decks, as mid-range will become less strong.
There are several other heroes and decks that pose problems for Zhanna, but they are not auto-losses for her. These include Zaladar that is no longer completely overpowered, Serena that is no longer weak, and many other heroes capable of exerting some control or rushing. I believe that if the meta shifts away from rush mages, or if balance changes push that shift, we will see Zhanna again. In the meantime, you might see me around the Quick Matches, taking a break from Serena’s greedy hands to play a game or two with Fat Zhanna.
Thanks to Starval Ragosonos and many people in the Shadow Era forums for helping to shape my views on this topic.