Knights of the Frozen Throne was released three weeks ago. In case of the latest expansion, three weeks were enough for the meta to more or less stabilize. While we're still waiting for the late boomers, like Token Shaman from Un'Goro (it was discovered over a month into the expansion), we can safely assume that as long as Blizzard won't step up to make some meta changes, the current power levels won't shift significantly until the Winter expansion.
The main feature of the Frozen Throne were Hero cards. Instead of going all-in and making a Death Knight class (which, to be honest, probably would do more harm than good, but it's a topic for another article), they've added an alternative version of each of the classes. Introduction of the Hero cards was a big step forward, as it is the first time Blizzard has created a new type of cards (Quest cards, while unique, were still a sub-type of Spells, just like Secrets). And they did a really good job - most of the Death Knight cards are flavorful, have cool effects and are quite balanced in their power (again, at least compared to the Un'Goro's Quests).
However, just like with any new experiment, it was impossible to expect that everything will be perfect. Some Death Knight Heroes have turned out to be better, others have been worse. Not only when it comes to the power, but also how it feels to play them or how fun they are in the long run. While fun is very subjective and hard to measure, in this article we'll try to tackle how successful each of the Death Knight heroes was. The rating will be based on a few things - how the Hero card fits the class, was it successful, does it see play in a viable meta deck, does it have potential to work better in the future etc. So instead of just looking at the current meta decks, we'll try to take a wider look while rating them from worst to best.
P.S. If you want to learn more about any of the Death Knight Hero cards, including details about their Hero Power, mechanics and interactions with other cards - click on any of the card images and scroll down to the card's guide!
The first Death Knight Hero also turned out to be the worst one of the bunch. If I was rating the cards in terms of fun, Rexxar would be much, much higher on the list. The new Hero Power - Build-a-Beast - is very enjoyable to play, and very skill-testing at the same time. Having more and more choices piling up, while creating very powerful monstrosities is both fun and rewarding. But sadly, the card is NOT what Hunter needed and it's NOT good. To be honest, putting the card into your average Midrange Hunter deck will probably decrease your win rate, and it's almost impossible to build your deck around that card.
If anything, last expansion's Dinomancy has already proven that Hunter does not want to change the Hero Power. Why change something that's already good? Steady Shot has always been a big part of the class' strategy. Having the ability to put your opponent on the clock with no extra cards is always great, especially against the decks that does not have a reliable access to healing. Playing an aggressive, tempo-oriented game and then weaving 2 extra damage per turn is what Hunter wants. Sure, Dinomancy was a very powerful Hero Power, but it costed the tempo and did nothing after the opponent has already stabilized - which was inevitable when playing versus slower decks. Build-a-Beast is a bit similar. While you add a lot of value into your deck, you strip yourself of your main late game win condition, which is spamming the Hero Power. Hoping to get a perfect build, possibly with Charge when your opponent has no Taunt, just to score the final points of damage is usually too much. And the thing about your high value Hero Power is that it lacks the necessary tempo. In order to build a Beast, you have to pay 2 extra mana every turn. Even the slower decks could often outtempo you with a well-timed removal and big minion played on the same turn. And once you fall behind as a Hunter, there is really nothing you can do.
While yes, the card is obviously a great fit into a slower, more Control-oriented Hunter deck, the main problem is that... such a deck doesn't exist. Blizzard has been trying to push it time and time again, but it just seems that's not how the class needs to play to be successful. The basic class tools, as well as the Hero Power, are geared towards the aggressive builds.
Deathstalker Rexxar might see play in the future, if the Hunter class gets even more powerful, Control tools. But will it ever get enough to compete with the "real" Control decks? It's hard to say. Right now the Hero card doesn't look good, and it probably won't look any better in the near future.
Once again, Valeera the Hollow is pretty high in terms of fun, but it lacks in terms of strength. The reason is a bit similar to the previous one – it just doesn’t fit the current Rogue decks. It’s too slow for the Tempo Rogue and mostly too slow for the Miracle. While some players are still utilizing it (it combos nicely with Arcane Giants), others have decided to drop it, because they feel like their decks are better without it. Some have tried to experiment with more unique decks like Mill Rogue, but they’re still just fun, off-meta builds (and will probably stay that way).
The biggest problem with Valeera is how slow it is. It costs 9 mana to play it and it has no immediate impact on the board. All the good DK Heroes do something – spawn minions, kill minions, upgrade the board, give weapon. This one gives Stealth to your Hero. Which is a bit like Ice Block, just 6 mana more expensive (and while it plays around Eater of Secrets, it can’t stop the untargetable damage like Ragnaros the Firelord or Felfire Potion). It’s bad, because you basically give your opponent a full late game turn to do whatever he wants – develop the board, draw cards etc. You basically need a way to come back into the game pretty much every time after you play Valeera. Vanish + double Giant is probably the best one, but you still need to have all those cards, and it still didn’t stop the opponent from drawing or doing non-board-related thing (like developing his own Death Knight Hero).
Not to mention that 9 mana is a lot for any Rogue deck. Rogue is probably the most vulnerable class, with the last amount of survival tools like healing or Taunts. A majority of the Rogue games are decided even before you play Valeera.
I think that Valeera would actually fit another kind of Rogue more. A slower, even more Control-oriented build, maybe playing C’Thun, maybe playing Jades, maybe even Reno build in the Wild. But those decks simply aren’t viable enough, and the DK Hero simply doesn’t make a big enough difference. That’s why it’s so low in the ranking.
Unlike the last two, Frost Lich Jaina is (at least in my opinion) one of the less flavorful Hero cards. Instead of doing something really cool, you just spawn Water Elementals over and over again. Sure, the fact that your Elementals have Lifesteal makes some of the previously uncommon cards more fun (like Baron Geddon, or even Anomalus if you’re more adventurous), the effect is pretty dull in general.
But that’s not the reason why Frost Lich Jaina is pretty low on the list. Once again, it’s mostly because of the mana cost vs initial impact. Summoning a Water Elemental for 9 mana is NOT a good initial effect. While it does something to affect the board (unlike Valeera the Hollow), the impact is very low. With just 5 Armor gained, if you were going to die on the board, you’ll probably die anyway (or at the very least have your Ice Block popped).
Another problem with the card is that the value from the Hero Power is not guaranteed. It’s not “deal 1 damage and summon a Water Elemental” – you need to have a target for that. While it might not be that difficult at a lower level of play, better players will tend to play around it. When trying out the card, sometimes I had 2 or 3 turns in a row where I couldn’t summon anything, because there were simply no way to set up the opponent’s minions at 1 health.
In the current meta, it might be hard to survive to Turn 9 (facing Pirate Warriors, Aggro Druids etc.), and if you do, you’re most likely to play against Jade Druid or some other Death Knight Hero – like Shadowreaper Anduin, which can quite reliably remove your Elementals to deny your healing and then burst you down with his machine gun Hero Power. Decks with Frost Lich Jaina are currently some of the worst decks on the ladder.
But, it’s not the worst Death Knight, as I feel that it has some potential. Mage didn’t really get good Control cards this expansion, but it might change. I feel like this card has a better potential for the future than the last two, considering that it actually fits into the Control Mage’s general game plan.
We’re approaching middle of the stake right now, with Scourgelord Garrosh being the next pick. I like the card mostly because it made some very niche archetypes more viable – like the Tempo Warrior (which wasn’t seen since the Old Gods) and Giants Warrior (which can now go infinite with the new Dead Man's Hand). I think that this Hero card is one of the most balanced ones – it has its clear advantages, but also disadvantages. For one, the initial impact of this card is very high. Actually, you pay most of the card’s mana cost for the weapon, not for the Hero Power (like in case of Valeera or Jaina). The weapon alone would probably be costed around 7 mana, so paying 8 to play it is not a big stretch. It’s like a mini-Flamestrike times three. The Hero Power, however, is not that impactful compared to the other ones. Having a Whirlwind on demand is pretty solid in the decks that utilize such effects heavily, but let’s be honest, it’s one of the worse Hero Powers. Losing the ability to Armor Up also makes it a poor pick in some of the decks, like Control Warrior.
Given that the Scourgelord Garrosh decks are pretty difficult to pilot, I think that we need to give this card some more time. Some players are still trying to brew successful Tempo Warrior decks and alike, and others (like Dog) have been having some success with the most interesting variant – lists running Dead Man’s Hand.
While those decks are all off-meta or pretty weak right now, I feel like this DK Hero has quite a lot of potential in the future. Just one or two more cards that synergize well with Whirlwind effects and we might see a Tempo Warrior comeback.
Uther of the Ebon Blade, when played in a classic Control Paladin, is another very dull DK. You’re pretty much getting a 5/3 weapon with Lifesteal and a +1/+1 on your Hero Power. While the main selling point of this Hero card for some people is the alternative win condition, if you’re playing a normal Control deck, it simply doesn’t happen. After over 30 games with Control Paladin, I haven’t got all four Horsemen on the board even once, and got to three only on some rare occasions, usually when I was winning the game already.
However, even completely ignoring the Horsemen win condition, this DK Hero can be described with one word – solid. It’s nothing special, nothing flashy, just another good addition to the Control Paladin’s archetype. The deck isn’t exactly the best right now, but there were some Top 100 Legend climbs with different variants. Which makes it a perfect card to put in the middle – it’s just average. Control Paladin might or might not get better next expansion, and Uther of the Ebon Blade will probably stay in the deck, because it’s simply a good addition.
But I can’t talk about this card without mentioning the ultimate Exodia combo. You thought that Quest Mage was the one, right? But no, no, Quest Mage isn’t even close. It can still be stopped – by Ice Block, by lots of Armor etc. The Four Horsemen combo is unstoppable and just wins you the game on the spot.
All you need is Burgly Bully giving you a couple of Coins and Auctionmaster Beardo in your hand. Sounds simple, but in reality, the combo isn’t consistent at all. Not only you need to draw all the pieces, but Burgly Bullies need to give you at least 3 Coins (or 2 Coins + 1 mana Secret from Hydrologist) – if they’re killed by minion trades or with weapons, the whole plan fails. Well, at least it’s fun.
Thrall, Deathseer continues the trend of Shaman manipulating with minion’s mana cost, changing them into random minions with lower/higher cost. Which I really hate as a mechanic, because it’s just too random for my taste. I like to know what to expect when I play something, or against something. But, that aside, the Shaman’s DK Hero is a really solid card.
The most important thing is that it has significant immediate impact on the board. Evolve Shaman decks tend to play a lot of cheap Tokens. The good thing about it is that there are a lot of opportunities to Evolve the wide boards. And the thing is, even playing this on the curve can have a huge impact on the game. Evolving Hero Power Totems or 1/1 Tokens into 3 mana minions is already good enough, but if you managed to stick a Saronite Chain Gang from Turn 4, now you get two random 6-drops on top of that. Thrall, Deathseer can turn the innocent board into something that threatens lethal next turn. Skipping the 2 mana cost (unless you run some 0 mana minions in your Shaman deck) is also pretty important, as you can’t mess your board by rolling a Doomsayer.
The Hero Power is also quite impactful. Not only it lets you reroll the bad minions (e.g. if you Evolve a 4-drop into 5-drop and get a Bomb Squad, you can immediately get rid of it), but it’s a great trading tool. You get a big minion, you kill something, you Evolve it to heal it completely (and probably getting something better).
However, I don’t think that the current Token Shaman decks it’s played in are the most optimal. The Token strategy greatly benefits from having the extra bodies on the board, so the Totem Hero Power might be better in some cases. However, we still have a lot of time to find the best deck to fit this card into… or do we?
The only thing I’m worried about when it comes to this card is longevity. Evolve is the basic card in this strategy, and it leaves Standard in 2018 – two expansion from now. Unless they add some substitute, the Evolve decks might rotate out with it. After all, there is no point in running good Evolve targets like Doppelgangster or Saronite Chain Gang with this card being the only way to Evolve them.
If we were judging cards by how much play they see right now, this would be unquestionable #1 just because of how popular the Druid is. And since every slower Druid deck runs this card, its presence on the ladder is huge. However, this card did not have as much impact on the Druid class and it wasn’t the reason why it became so strong in the first place. It’s a nice addition into the decks, because it’s solid, but it’s not insane.
But why is it solid, exactly? Well, the first thing I have to mention is the mana cost. At 7 mana, it’s one of the cheaper Hero cards. But not only that – the fact that a) you don’t need a specific board state to drop it (like Shaman’s) and b) Druid has ramp, makes it one of the easiest ones to get active. It’s pretty common to get it out around Turn 4-5 if you had enough ramp, and its impact at that point is very high.
The card’s initial impact on the board is not incredibly high, but it’s solid. 2x 1/5 Taunt, combined with 5 Armor gain, makes it one of the best Hero cards vs Aggro decks, because you gain ~15 life in total by just playing it, not to mention the +3 per turn for the rest of the game. Even in slower matchups, it’s a nice way to protect the rest of your board and stall the game for a bit. The card also offers flexibility of dropping two 1/2 Poisonous minions, which is most useful versus slower decks, especially just before the opponent’s normal develop turns. While they can be cleared quite easily with most of the AoEs, there is still a very high chance to mess with the opponent’s turn and buy you more time. And if opponent can’t answer them – it’s even better, he has to make some weird plays and drop a bunch of small minions or just play the big guy into an easy removal.
The Hero Power upgrade is also quite solid. While it’s not as good as Gul’dan’s, which combines both damage and healing, getting to pick one is good enough. In slow matchups you rarely need healing anyway, and 3 damage per turn can either get a lot of value when killing minions, or push the opponent into defensive position when attacking their face. Armor gain is especially useful if you’re the one playing defense – either vs aggressive or vs Combo decks.
The card is not flashy, but it’s simply strong. Especially if you manage to cheat it out with Fandral Staghelm, which spawns both Taunts and Poisonous minions, often making you immediately win the game (by protecting both the Poisonous minion AND Fandral).
The second most powerful Death Knight Hero, in my opinion, is Bloodreaver Gul’dan. Even though it might be weaker than the Druid’s one currently, it’s just because of the difference between the two classes. Druid is in a great shape, Warlock is not. However, Warlock’s DK made a much bigger impact on the class than the Druid’s. Remember that Warlock was absolutely the worst class pre-KFT, pretty much no one played it on the ladder and absolutely no one brought it to the important tournaments. And yet, Handlock had the second highest win rate after Jade Druid in the recent Chinese Summer Championship (Source). Handlock is also a semi-viable deck on the ladder and some people are even playing the DK Hero in Zoo (yes, in Zoo). While it’s not all thanks to the DK Hero, because other cards like Defile or Despicable Dreadlord also helped, but it’s fair to say that this card made a huge impact on the class.
It’s the slowest DK card in terms of mana cost, but not in terms of the tempo. The fact that you resummons all Demons that died this game makes it usually a good tempo swing in your favor. While of course it depends on the number of dead Demons, even bringing back two Voidwalkers, Despicable Dreadlord and Abyssal Enforcer or something like that, which is pretty average outcome, is already solid.
And the Hero Power is also crazy good. You can deal 3 damage and heal for 3 every single turn. It’s like turning your Hero Power into Bash, which was a solid card to run at 3 mana (or well, more precisely a better Drain Life, but I prefer comparing it to something playable). It’s great to keep the board control, it’s great to heal up the damage, it’s great to put pressure on the opponent. Hero Power becomes a solid win condition after you change into the DK Hero.
So all in all, I think that this card had both bigger impact on the class and higher potential for the future than Malfurion DK, that’s why I’ve rated it higher. I think that Warlock doesn’t need much, a shift in the meta (e.g. if Druid gets nerfed), maybe 1 or 2 more cards next expansion, and it might become one of the better meta decks.
But, the unquestionable number one had to be the Priest’s DK – Shadowreaper Anduin. Highlander Priest, usually called Reno Priest back then, was a solid deck in Gadgetzan. But that’s it – a solid deck. And it was no longer a solid deck after Reno Jackson, the main reason to run the Highlander deck in the first place, rotated out. However, luckily for Priest, other two strong Highlander cards – Raza the Chained (which is definitely the strongest out of 3 Highlander Class Legendaries) and Kazakus remained in Standard. And the new DK Hero gave Priest a reason to go Highlander again.
Among the DK Heroes, Shadowreaper Anduin had the biggest impact on the class and the meta in general. While DK Malfurion is played often, it’s just a solid addition to the deck – you remove it and you can still play it. On the other hand, a whole new archetype was built around this single card, and that archetype is now the second most popular one in the game (after Jade Druid). It’s also pretty common in other Priest archetypes like Big Priest or Dragon Priest, although it’s not as impactful without Raza the Chained, mostly played for the initial effect and some extra damage.
Talking about the initial effect, it’s quite strong. It’s like an AoE version of Shadow Word: Death and sometimes this alone can win you the games. Even clearing a single big minion, like an 8/8, is often good enough. But imagine dropping it against a board with multiple 5+ Attack minions, it’s like playing a Lightbomb and it’s great. However, this effect is not the main reason to play this card, at least not in the Highlander build.
The main reason is the Hero Power. It’s very simple – it’s like a Shadowform, but it gets reset every time you play card. Normally, that would be very expensive. You could usually play one or two Hero Powers per turn, but that’s it. E.g. Hero Power + 5 mana card + Hero Power and you already reached your limit. But, that’s not the case if you also run Raza the Chained and make your Hero Power free. Now you can weave in a free Hero Power every time you play another card. Since the decks are usually heavy on cycle/getting extra cards from outside of your deck, it’s very common to Hero Power three or four times every single turn. And that’s 6-8 damage right there, damage you can distribute however you want. In fact, the combo is so powerful that you almost never lose the game in which you’re able to play both of those cards.
Not to mention that the card has brought Combo Priest back into the meta. Remember the old Prophet Velen + Mind Blast OTK combos in Priest? They were hard to pull off, required multiple pieces and a mana discount. Now it’s very easy to combo your opponent down, once again, thanks to those two cards. You play your Hero Power (2 damage) + Velen + Hero Power (4 damage) + Mind Blast (10 damage) + Hero Power (4 damage) + Holy Smite (4 damage) + Hero Power (4 damage) for a total of 28 damage. Add in a Radiant Elemental or a 0 mana spell like Silence or Circle of Healing for 32 damage proper OTK. For which you don’t need a lot of combo pieces, or any mana discounts.
Depending on the matchup and your needs, Shadowreaper Anduin lets you clear the board with the initial swing, slowly burn the opponent down, win the value war by removing everything they play or even OTK them. It’s definitely the best and most impactful DK Hero card, and it will definitely remain powerful until the first expansion of 2018, when Raza the Chained (and Kazakus) rotates out. However, I believe that even after that, the card will still see some play in slower Priest decks, just because it’s always an extra board clear + the Hero Power is solid even when it costs 2 mana.
As much as the Quest cards were mostly a miss, with only three of them seeing a competitive play at one point (and one of those three is nerfed right now), Death Knight Heroes seem to be a big hit. Even the weakest ones weren’t discarded right away and have their own niche, while the best ones made a huge impact on the meta and became auto-include into some of the decks.
We always love to see more unique mechanics and card types. While Un’Goro was mostly played safe, in Knights of the Frozen Throne Blizzard has shown that they aren’t afraid to experiment a bit. While the expansion is far from balanced (we still hope that something will be done about Druids before it’s too late), it’s still one of the most interesting ones.
And what do you think about the Death Knight Hero cards? Do you agree with our list? What are your favorites? Let us know in the comment section below!
A Hearthstone player and writer from Poland, Stonekeep has been in a love-hate relationship with Hearthstone since Closed Beta. He's achieved infinite Arena and multiple top 100 Legend climbs. You can follow him on Twitter @StonekeepHS.