If you spend any time on deck building sites, the Hearthstone Reddit, or just play around on the game’s ranked ladder for any amount of time, you probably know that the community has been struggling with the rise of Pirate Warrior decks ever since Mean Streets of Gadgetzan released earlier this month.
“Fuck Warrior Pirate” was a common sentiment throughout December. The deck and its variants were cheap, incredible fast-paced, and difficult to play against with other, arguably more interesting Gadgetzan decks like Jade Druid or Kazakus mage. For a period of time it felt like every other deck being played in Ranked was Pirate Warrior, and it seemed to be ruining the meta for the mid-range of the ladder as a result..
Gadgetzan cards like Patches the Pirate and Small-Time Buccaneer created new synergies between Southsea pirate minions and classic weapons like Fiery War Ax that allow players to be dealing between two and four damage on turn one, up to anywhere from five to ten by turns three, four, and five. That’s because with so many one-mana pirates that receive big bonuses every time they’re played in conjunction with a weapon, pirate warrior players can manage relatively good board control early on while still dealing massive damage to their opponent.
Patches, who is automatically summoned to the field from your deck the first time a pirate is played, is effectively a free minion who can be used to make favorable trades against an opponent’s minions or buffed to cause even more headaches. Meanwhile Buccaneer triples its attack when a weapon is held, all for a single mana in a deck that’s sure to be filled not only with War Axes but also Rusty Hooks. The result is a deck that ramps up quickly and has plenty of ways to maintain early control of the board if whoever is on the receiving end opens the game with a sub-optimal mulligan.
Pair that with heavy hitters like Arcanite Reaper with an Upgrade!, turning the 5/2 weapon into a 6/3 for only one mana more, and even if the Pirate Warrior needs to buy time in the mid game, it can still be lethal going into the late game if its opponent isn’t careful. Within days of Gadgetzan’s release, pro player Simon “Sottle” Welch’s build began circulating far and wide thanks to its straight-forward logic and promise of easy ranking.
All good things must come to an end though, and even the flashy relentlessness of Pirate Warrior eventually took a back seat to the more complex prowess of Jade Shamen and re-worked Reno Warlock decks. I still play a variation on the Scottle’s build every day however, not because I’m a mindless player looking for easy wins, but because, in many ways, Pirate Warrior distilled Hearthstone down into its key elements and let players toy around with them at lightning speed.
Like Steven Zaillian’s child prodigy playing clock chess in Washington Square Park in Searching For Bobby Fischer, the aggression of Pirate Warrior after Gadgetzan’s release helped clear away some of the fog by turning matches into a series of rapid moves and counter-moves. Matches with the deck are quick, win or lose, and so filled with repetition that it becomes more like openings in chess than a turn-based collectible card game. Do you go to the face-with War Ax on turn three or wait to clear a path for dropping dual 5/3 Bloodsail Raiders on turn four? Is it worth pawning Upgrade! for a turn one weapon or should you hold on to it until the first Arcanite Reaper comes out?
The variations are both obvious and familiar, making it easier to see the consequences for losing tempo on turn two when you’ve made it within one life of finishing your opponent off on turn seven before falling to her army of 6/6 Jade Golems. In this way Pirate Warrior has helped Hearthstone reveal an aspect of itself that few were exploring with more expensive, build-up oriented decks, especially when two Pirate Warriors face-off against each other in mirror matches. It’s not the height of competitive Hearthstone, just a different side of it.
And like Blitz chess, Pirate Warrior was such a welcome development precisely because of how it re-oriented the middle-range of Ranked Hearthstone away from late-game combos or board-clearing maneuvers toward a messier war of attrition where every match is tense and every outcome built on the sum of small advantages. It wasn’t an attack on the integrity of Hearthstone, just like speed chess isn’t an attack on the purity of that game. Pirate Warrior simply showed that the ideas and principles of Hearthstone could be re-organized along a more streamlined and cut-throat axis, and thereby let players plumb the depths of some of its more shallow waters.