Dominating the meta season after season, the Hunter class is infamous for being the aggressive powerhouse in Hearthstone, abusing his Hero Power, Steady Shot to put pressure on his opponent. In this article, I will analyze nerfs, card additions and meta changes that influenced Hunter, and made it as dominating as it is today. I feature decklists from LiquidHearth’s Power Rankings from as far back as early 2014, insight from JABLOL and theories from the Hearthstone community.
Hunter has quite evolved since Hearthstone’s beta, namely revolving around the changes to the card Unleash the Hounds and Starving Buzzard.
Back in beta, Unleash the Hounds was a 1-cost spell that gave your beasts +1 Attack and Charge. This led to the inception of an OTK Hunter; abusing cards such as the then 1-mana Unleash, Timber Wolf and Young Dragonhawk. Blizzard felt this was “unfun for the game environment”, so they changed the card to become a 4-mana version of what we know today. This led Hunter to severely drop in popularity, rendering the card unplayable to most.
Shortly after, Blizzard felt it was necessary to relieve Hunter players of such an expensive AOE, buffing it to 2-mana. This led to the first prominent Face Hunter, played by Chakki back in April of 2014.
Chakki is one of the pioneers of Face Hunter, incorporating Flare for help in the mirror and for cycle, 2-mana Starving Buzzard for those insane deck-digging combos and the game-closing Leeroy Jenkins, Chakki effectively built a deck which dominated ladder and tournaments alike.
At the time, Hunter was a binary class. You could play a fast, aggressive deck relying on Buzzard-Unleash combos, or attempt to build a list to revolve around the class’ Beast synergy. Noticing the community’s Hunter theorycrafting, a player by the name of JAB attempted to bring the community’s Beast-themed decks to life. This spawned the first Midrange Hunter.
Hunter was one of the top classes at the time, along with this comes more innovation. One of my favorite Hunter players, JABLOL incepted the first iteration of what we know today as Midrange Hunter with this decklist.
JAB piloted this deck to Legend Rank as far back as early 2014. This list shows the core elements of Midrange Hunter, namely the strong curve, control elements (Secrets, pre-nerf Tinkmaster, Houndmasters and the sole Stampeding Kodo) and aggro elements (Leeroy, Tracking, etc.), all coming together in harmony to mold a strong Hunter list. After a short interview with JAB, he confided to me that the list was meant to combat the abundance of Druids on the ladder, namely with inclusions such as Deadly Shot and Tinkmaster. At the time, there were very little creatures with Deathrattles, so Deadly Shot was a lot stronger of a card.
From JAB’s list, Lifecoach presented his “Sunshine Hunter”. This list favored consistency in cards over tech, more early drops and less traps.
The Sunshine list was post UTH-nerf, but even at that point, the then 5-mana Buzzard + Hounds combo was still insane, letting you draw plenty of cards for just one mana more. The Sunshine list also included Scavenging Hyenas, to further abuse Unleash the Hounds. Furthermore, using Houndmaster on another beast could make the Scavenging Hyena even harder to get to, and breaking through the taunt would give the Hyena another buff.
The Sunshine Hunter list emulated the core mechanics of Midrange Hunter we see today, prioritizing early board control, and then applying pressure via strong minions and Tempo until you could finish your opponents with Kill Command, Savannah Highmane, Leeroy or Unleash the Hounds.
As the meta progressed, almost every top metadeck picked up Leeroy, abusing the low-cost finisher with Shadowstep combos in Miracle Rogue, or being a premier source of damage for Shockadins and Hunters. Eventually, Leeroy started even seeing play in Handlock. Blizzard felt it was time to nerf the card, increasing its cost to 5-mana. This spelled the end for Miracle Rogues and Face Hunters alike.
Before the release of The Curse of Naxxramas, Blizzard opted to nerf Starving Buzzard. This actually wasn’t the first nerf, as before Hearthstone’s official release, the card was a 2/2 for 2-mana. This presented a tough body to deal with at the time, with being immune to Druid, Mage, Rogue or Paladin’s Hero Powers. This led to Buzzard being even more dominating at the time, being a weak, but not a fragile, 2-drop. This let Hunter players have a chance to abuse the Buzzard for more than one turn, as it wasn’t removed by a mere Hero Power. Blizzard felt this was too strong, and nerfed it into a 2/1, while still staying at 2-Mana.
As it turns out, Starving Buzzard remained problematic, with the Health nerf only making the card more fragile, and even with the Unleash the Hounds nerf, the 5-mana AOE + Draw Engine was still extremely powerful. As the release of Naxxramas loomed in the distance, Blizzard gutted Hunter’s only source of card draw, reducing the card to an unplayable 5-mana 3/2. Although still a strong combo, even at the time 8 mana was way too expensive for the class-defining combo to be viable. Hunter had to rely on Flare from then on, as it was their only source of draw, being cheap, useful cycle.
The Naxxramas expansion led to many classes gaining new, meta-changing cards. Namely, Haunted Creeper, Mad Scientists and the notorious Undertaker. Not to be confused with the WWE wrestler, Undertaker was a 1-mana 1/2 which gained +1/+1 for each Deathrattle played. This led to decks revolving around Undertaker’s insane snowball potential, with Undertaker Hunter being one of them. This let Hunter stay relevant and have it remain as one of the Top 3 meta classes.
The Undertaker trend kept up until shortly after Goblins vs. Gnomes, with classes utilizing the extra deathrattles and utility, until Blizzard finally decided to axe the card. Hunter, and many other classes lost their precious Undertaker, as Blizzard quickly realized how unbalanced the meta became. Blizzard also saw that Hunter didn’t need Starving Buzzard, Leeroy or Flare (more on that below) to dominate the meta.
This concludes part 1 of our Hunter History series! Next time we'll discuss the impact of Goblins vs Gnomes, the nerfs to Flare and the introduction of Quickshot on the Hunter meta at that point of time. If you have any comments or feedback that you'd like to express, please do in the comments below.