I'm going to say it now: The Hearthstone Legend card back is cursed. It may look tantalising and innocent. All gold. All shiny. But under that gilded exterior lies a deck of sorrows. Either that, or I've gone completely mad. Have I lost my sanity, or is there something sinister at work? Let's explore the, uh, adventure that is climbing Hearthstone's ranked ladder, shall we?
I predominately played three decks on my way to Legend: Dragon Priest, Pirate Warrior and Aggro Shaman. The first deck got me to around Rank 7, but Dragon Priest's heavy focus on generating value via Drakonid Operative, Netherspite Historian and Brann Bronzebeard was simply too slow.
I had a win rate of 65 per cent, sure, but each victory took 10 minutes on average and those that didn't last that long were ones I was losing to aggressive decks that wiped the floor with me by turn five.
So, in my bid to accelerate the process, I switched to Pirate Warrior. This quickly got me to Rank 5, at which point I started hitting mirror matches consistently. Frustration set in as the game was often decided by whoever had the better opening hand and a win rate of 50 per cent wasn't good enough.
It was then that I read the following piece of wisdom from Zhandaly, a moderator on /r/CompetitiveHS:
All you gotta do is be the meta or beat the meta.
And the meta, clearly, was Pirate Warrior, with a smattering of Jade Druid. So what deck had the best match-up against these contenders?
That's right, good old Aggro Shaman with its potent, cheap board wipes and ridiculous out-of-hand damage. But the fast variant of Shaman had fallen out of favour after the nerfs to Spirit Claws and Small-Time Buccaneer.
That didn't mean the deck, with a few tweaks, couldn't work. It still had one of the most powerful early curves available: Tunnel Trogg into Totem Golem (or Jade Claws). If your opponent failed to answer these early threats, or had to spend resources inefficiently dealing with them, a win soon followed.
And it was very strong, with games lasting about five minutes. Against Pirate Warrior, coining out Maelstrom Portal in response to a Southsea Deckhand / Patches / N'Zoth's First Mate worked wonders and Jade Druid struggled with the wide, early boards, unless they drew Swipe or Innervated out an Ancient of War.
Even then, the deck had so much burst from hand you could just count the damage and blow them up with a well-timed Bloodmage Thalnos (or Wrath of Air totem).
I managed to reach Rank 2 with this build, but I was still unhappy with my Pirate Warrior match-up. Perhaps I wasn't playing it quite right, but it still accounted for most of my losses. It was clear I needed some additional tech.
That's when I hit upon this tweaked list, which served me for my final push to Legend:
I cleared out an entire afternoon and evening to conduct my assault on the higher ranks of Hearthstone's Americas ladder. With a caffeinated drink by my side and a mind possessed with a single purpose, I fired up the game and prepared myself for a gruelling few hours of being guided by elephants.
I proceeded to win 10 games in a row, accumulating exactly the stars needed to make Legend. It was simultaneously the most anti-climatic yet exhilarating moment of my gaming career, excluding that one time I soloed five terrorists in a Counter-Strike 1.6 match after my team was slaughtered.
Here are the raw stats of that streak, courtesy of Hearthstone Deck Tracker (click the image to expand):
In total, I played 87 games from Rank 5 to Legend. I was expecting to play a lot more. In my blazing, 10-win streak I faced exactly what I expected: five Pirate Warriors, four Jade Druids and a Reno Mage (one of the deck's worst match-ups, but I managed to steal a win).
I shouldn't have been surprised -- I had a deck designed to beat the meta and it worked as advertised. I definitely got lucky in a few of those matches, but the decision to use Aggro Shaman is how I made Legend.
The first thing I did after my achievement -- other than go for a long walk to calm down -- was to change my cardback from Heroic Naxxramas to the Legend one.
This was a mistake.
It's hard to go from a 10-win streak resulting in breaching Legend to, well, a regular series of Hearthstone matches, where a random Babbling Book can win you an all-but-lost match. Even so, after switching cardbacks, I felt like I was losing more.
Like, loads more.
Now that I've had a month to think about it, I've come to the conclusion that, before I hit Legend, I took the game a lot more seriously. I considered each turn, often waiting until the rope started to burn before making my play.
Post-Legend, that level of patience is gone. I'm stuffing around with sub-optimal decks. I'll play a card because it has a cool animation, not because it contests the board.
I'm having fun, basically.
I also hit Legend just before the game went through a massive shift -- well, for Standard at least. All the match-ups, all the cards, all the statistics -- everything went out the window. I'd spent weeks learning the ins and outs of the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan meta. Suddenly, most of that knowledge was useless.
Combined with my new, lackadaisical attitude, it's little wonder I wasn't playing as well as I had. I just didn't expect the effect to be so profound.
So, is the Legend cardback a curse? No, of course not. In fact, I've come to consider it a blessing. No longer do I get stressed jumping into ranked mode. If I lose a game, so what? Honestly, it feels like a burden has been lifted; I've "won" Hearthstone and have no intention of playing professionally, so there's no point grinding to Legend each month.
Speaking of which, hitting Legend once was enough for me. The decks and cards I've mentioned in this post aren't super relevant anymore in the current meta, but there are a few tips I can share if you're looking to get a golden cardback of your own.
1. Prepare for the grind: Until Blizzard decides to change how the ranked ladder works, accept that you'll need to play a great many games to reach Legend. The rule of thumb is that it'll take you about as long to reach Rank 5 as it will Legend, mainly because you stop getting bonus stars at this level.
If you're curious, numbers are available comparing win rates to games required.
2. You will Lose. Deal with it: The randomness of card games like Hearthstone means that you will lose games and those losses will sometimes be out of your control. The important thing is not to get angry or frustrated and allow that emotion to affect your other games.
Some suggest you take a break if you lose more than two games in a row, but I took that further: win or lose, I took a short break to think about how I played, what I could have done better, etc. This helped massively during my win streak.
3. Stick with one deck: This is definitely up for debate. I've seen it suggested you switch decks based on the meta or win rates. There's merit to this, but I can't emphasise enough how critical it is to know the strengths and weaknesses of your deck and how it fares against the competition. The only way to get this down pat is to play the crap out of said deck.
If you need to switch, first think if there are any tech cards you can use to boost your win rate against a troublesome match-up. In the case of the Aggro Shaman deck I played, this turned out to be exchanging Argent Squire for Bloodsail Corsair to punish Pirate Warrior's weapon usage and add an extra activator for Patches.
4. "Be the meta or beat the meta": Reading this piece of advice was the turning point for me. At any one time, there will be various "Tier 1" decks -- decks that perform above and beyond other options. That said, these decks still have unfavourable match-ups, so minimising those is the key to winning consistently.
You can read all the guides in the world, but if you can't adapt to the meta, be it by changing decks or adding tech cards, you're going to have a hard time climbing to Legend.
5. Have... fun?: I'm not going to sugar-coat it -- grinding to Legend is not fun. Hitting Legend? Yeah, that felt amazing. Should you have fun on your climb? For sure, if you can. For me, the march from Rank 5 was about 20 per cent fun, 80 per cent stress. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I did it. But Hearthstone's ranked ladder, in its current state, is not what I'd called enjoyable.
I cant't confess to having the answers. All I know is that Blizzard / Team 5 needs to take a long, hard look at the game's competitive side and make some tough decisions. I don't understand how the pros do it every month -- I'd be sick of the game.