It's always hard to judge a Hearthstone metagame. When it comes to the brand new Onyxia's Lair mini-set, along with the rest of the Fractured in Alterac Valley expansion, there are just a whole lot of cards to consider.
What actually makes a good Hearthstone meta? I can't remember a time when there was a consensus 'positive' time for the game - portions of the player base are always going to be frustrated that their favourite deck type isn't represented in HSReplay's top tier.
At the moment, though, things are going pretty well for the health of the game.
What is the Alterac Valley?
The Fractured in Alterac Valley expansion brings the lore back to the Warcraft series' roots: scrapping between the Horde and the Alliance.
It's the Frostwolf orcs against the Stormpike dwarves, with all kinds of new-to-Hearthstone characters exploring an aspect of the Warcraft universe that hasn't really been touched upon since the early days of Blizzard’s premiere World of Warcraft MMORPG.
It's a good, fan-favourite theme. Other recent expansions have focused on the original Horde vs Alliance war, with Forged in the Barrens focusing on the former and United in Stormwind the latter, so it makes sense to bring them together in competition here.
In a three-expansion annual cycle, it's always nice to bring a narrative together; although I much preferred the over-the-top story that occurred in the Rise of Shadows/Saviors of Uldum/Descent of Dragons cycle, with iconic Hearthstone heroes and villains fighting it out.
Lots Of Viability
Sure, the Alterac Valley meta isn't fun and games for everyone. Non-aggro Priest players aren't doing brilliantly against aggressive decks like Aggro or OTK (one turn kill) Shaman right now. Even the meta-favouring Warrior continues to dominate. But it's still more than possible to churn out a positive win rate with lowly Priest - it just takes a bit more effort.
If it hasn't been made clear enough already, my favourite way to play Hearthstone is in a control style. I like to have answers for enemy threats, a win condition for later on, and big minions to chuck onto the board to reward my patience.
Unfortunately, an Aggro Druid or Face Hunter deck doesn't really care about this, and a fair few matchups can feel unwinnable. When those uneven brawls take up most of your time on the ranked queue, things can get pretty rough.
So far, though, there's been a solid amount of variety in the meta. A lot of matchups are reasonably well balanced and rely on the classic combination of RNG and skill, with complete stompings seeming quite rare in my experience.
The most important thing in Hearthstone is a variety of decks being viable. The Alterac Valley does a solid job of this, so surely the meta is in a better place than it has been for quite some time, right?
That all depends on what kind of Hearthstone player you are.
Open That Wallet
Before I get into it, let me first state that Hearthstone's new player experience has improved massively over the years. Your collection is swiftly bulked up through the quick completion of quests, and the objectives effectively double as tutorials that implore you to think more smartly about your play without outright saying it.
You get a free starter deck (most of which are somewhat viable), and, thanks to the new player ranking system, you quickly earn rewards while playing against other players at a similar level - gently encouraging you to take on the world while minimizing that matchmaking anxiety we’ve all experienced from time to time.
It's unfortunate, though, that even with the new player system and the reasonably generous rewards track that boosts your in-game currency as you play, Hearthstone remains an extremely expensive endeavour. As someone who has participated in almost every expansion since shortly after the game's release, I'm something of a whale. Free-to-play games love me: if I get hooked, I want to try (and pay for) it all.
If you're not willing to spend a significant amount on the game like I am (understandable), you'll be stuck playing just a couple of decks every time until you can organically rank yourself up enough to selectively craft your next one.
In fairness, going completely free-to-play is a valid and fun challenge in itself - popular content creator Trump (not that one) has made multiple series documenting his experience with spending no money on Hearthstone.
It's genuinely possible to perform well and build a solid collection while playing Hearthstone completely free, but opening up your wallet will give you a very different experience for the most part.
If you want to see everything the game has to offer though, it gets wildly expensive. If you check the meta on HSReplay and want to try a deck that covers your existing one's weaknesses, it's extremely challenging to find one that doesn't rely heavily on Epic and Legendary cards - the most expensive and rare of the bunch.
When you do find those decks - viable ones with an affordable price point - they're usually bog-standard aggro decks that don't take advantage of any of the most exciting and interesting parts of Hearthstone.
The reason I play Hearthstone is because of the wild and unpredictable interactions that happen when the fantastic creativity of the design team is allowed to run wild. Unfortunately, most players are unable to experience it first-hand in the current Hearthstone Alterac Valley meta, but that doesn't make it less deserving of your time.
I can't deny how much the game has been a part of my life over the years, yet it's still constantly amazing to me just how consistently the dev team are able to design the cards, write compelling, silly stories about them, and make them come to life on the board. It's just a shame that the way the gaming landscape right now seems to require a hell of a lot of arguably pay-to-win mechanics to properly enjoy.
I'll always have the advantage over someone brand new, but the most notable additions of the Fractured in Alterac Valley expansion do help bridge the gap, creating a Hearthstone meta that - while expensive for some - can still be enjoyed (to a degree) without monetary expectations looming overhead.