It’s been a busy couple weeks since my last post: Monster Hunt launched, our beloved Ben Brode left us, we had EU playoffs, and Iksar has guided the community in naming the best card ever (the community voted Dr. Boom, much to my chagrin). But the bit of recent news that got me to sit down and write this post was the recent nerf announcement announcement.
As with any nerf announcement announcement, the prospect of balance changes has the whole community buzzing. Either because the devs have specifically asked for our input, or because we’re just an opinionated bunch, or (probably) both, everyone seems to have an idea about how the cards should be changed. I disagree with a lot of those suggestions, and I fancy myself a bit of a student of game design (especially Hearthstone game design), so I figured I’d give my input as well.
Refresher on Some General Hearthstone Nerf “Policies”
We’ve never gotten any sort of official list of how Team 5 makes their nerf decisions, nor would I ever expect them to, as it seems like a very case-by-case decision, but we have gotten a lot of designer insights on specific nerfs and on nerfs generally. I see a lot of people suggesting or calling for nerfs that don’t fit our established norms, so I thought I’d start by reminding people of some of the established trends/policies/unofficial rules (whatever you want to call them) of Hearthstone nerfing. Of course, Team 5 could always choose to change their policies, but I still think that we should keep in mind in assessing likely nerfs and/or appealing to Team 5 for nerfs we might want. These aren’t all such “policies,” but they are some of the more germane ones. (I’m doing these from memory, but I started collecting designer insights a little while back if you want to try to look through my list for some specific citations.)
- The most important thing is fun. It tends to be unfun if one archetype dominates the metagame, but we also have seen changes to under-performing, uncommon decks simply because the decks felt bad to play against (like Quest Rogue). Conversely, however, it is dangerous and upsetting (see the next point) to nerf cards simply to “shake things up.” In terms of the types of “unfun,” it seems like it is more the job of rotations, new expansions, and events to fix “boredom” whereas it is more the job of nerfs to fix “feelsbadman” decks and moments.
- You want to have as few changes as possible. Blizzard has loosened up a bit on this recently, but there are a few reasons why Blizzard favors less frequent and less drastic card changes, including: new player confusion, maintaining a sense of value in player purchases, maintaining player confidence in the game designers, and just giving players who want to do so, a chance to “break” the meta.
- Only Classic cards, and a few select promo cards that already went in with the first Hall of Fame class, get moved to the Hall of Fame (Expansion cards are nerfed or allowed to rotate naturally, because they can be. Basic cards are likewise nerfed instead of rotated, but that’s because rotating them would mess up the starting game progression.) Additionally, Hall of Fame rotations only happen once per year, when the first set of the year comes out. All of that is to say that, this time around, it would be against established policies to move anything to the HoF.
- The preferred order of card changes is: mana cost -> attack or health -> rules text. To cut down on new player confusion, and to retain as much of the “soul” of nerfed cards as possible, they like to make changes as “obvious” as possible. To that end, even more obvious text changes would be preferred over nuanced ones (I doubt we’d see a “whenever” changed to an “after,” for instance). Of course, there are famous exceptions, but really those are just examples of times they decided the better impact on the game warranted the less obvious change.
This is the first time we’ve ever had a pretty limited pool of potential balance changes to choose from in that Iksar specifically named all the cards they are looking at possibly changing (at least, he made it seem like he named all the cards). Those cards are:
- Naga Sea Witch
- Sunkeeper Tarim
- Call to Arms
- Baku (and/or Justicar) Paladin Hero Power
- Spiteful Summoner
- Possessed Lackey
- Bloodreaver Gul’dan
- Dark Pact
- Kobold Librarian
- Quest Rogue
This is my second time typing out that list and it has only just occurred to me that Voidlord is not on it. That certainly throws a wrench into things. But I went back to check his posts and it isn’t named anywhere, so I’ll work under the assumption that this is the complete list.
Naga Sea Witch (Nerf)
This is the one card on the list that is all but guaranteed. Iksar initially tweeted that the card allows “one of those strategies that is pretty cool to see once in a while[,] but when it’s a core part of the meta it gets really un-fun to play against… [and a]t this point it feels like it’s going to be higher than we would like [its] population [to be] unless a change happens[.]” He then clarified/corrected himself on Reddit, saying, “[w]hat I intended to say is that it takes time to understand whether a strategy is a flavor of the week, but in the case of NSW decks, that time has passed. We’ve been discussing a variety of changes for either just the cost or design.”
So, to me, this one’s basically a given to (finally) see some change. As Iksar said initially, I think the card is interesting and cool to see every once in a while, but a problem when it is seen too frequently, so for this one I would rather they just up the cost. An extra turn or two is just enough that the incredibly powerful Wild metagame will have no problem at all reacting to it, and/or it will force a big shift in the deck from a combo-like strategy to more of a control one. It also makes it impossible for you to play any non-giants on the same turn as the NSW, which is also sometimes relevant.
Spiteful Summoner (Leave)
I understand that the novelty has passed, that it limits design space, and that it is powerful enough that it often wins games very soon after it is played, but, to me, Spiteful Summoner does not seem like nearly as big of a problem card as most of the others on the list. There is currently only one viable Spiteful Summoner list, and it’s teetering on the edge between Tier 1 and Tier 2. Also, unlike some of the other cards on this list, it is pretty easily countered by other powerful cards in the metagame (Voodoo Doll, MCT, Equality, Vilespine Slayer, Vanish, SW:Death/Polymorph if they don’t roll Tyrantus, your own Spiteful, just playing taunts, rolling “poisonous” on an Adapt, etc.). Spiteful Summoner is also (usually) not a win condition in its own right, but a punctuation on a game. That is, if you are ahead it can slam the door on your opponent, but if you are already behind then your opponent may be able to easily deal with your 12/12, or just ignore it. This feels like the type of card that the metagame can correct, and that can be more easily indirectly nerfed by the addition of future sets, so I would leave it alone.
Edit: Right after I finished up this article, Peter Whalen made an appearance on The Angry Chicken podcast in which he talked a little bit about the nerf discussions. Of course, he couldn’t talk specifics, but he did say that, generally speaking, the biggest problem appeared to be mana-cheating, where powerful effects were happening a little too early. Spiteful Summoner appeared to be in the forefront of his mind as part of that discussion, so it seems that at least Peter might be leaning towards nerfing it and I might be wrong about what the team as a whole will end up doing with this card.
Slow Warlocks (Cube and Control) got the best deathknight in KFT and then a heaping spoonful of goodies to pair it with in KnC. It lost very little with rotation and got a few solid cards to fill the gaps in any event. It has been one of the three best classes in the game at all points since KnC, and that’s in spite of the fact that almost every other deck in the format is currently running four or more hate cards against it (2 weapon hates and 2 silences). When a class can remain that powerful for that long, despite the fact that the entire metagame is reacting to it, you have a pretty good indicator that the class is overpowered.
Iksar said they are looking at changing one or more of the following five cards, all of which see play in Cubelock and most other Warlock decks: Kobold Librarian, Dark Pact, Possessed Lackey, Doomguard, and Bloodreaver Gul’dan.
This is a tricky puzzle to figure out. Looking at the cards individually, they are each over-powered. However, looking at the list as a whole, it appears the big offender is burst from hand without counterplay. Aside from Kobold Librarian, all the cards in question are part of Cubelock’s big, burst-kill potential. Skull is another obvious piece of the burst, but it is the one piece that allows for significant, obvious counterplay, so it makes sense that it does not make the list. Umbra, Cube, and Faceless are also big-burst offenders, but they seem more like catalysts than the underlying problematic agents. All of that is to say that it looks like they are primarily targeting Cubelock, it makes sense to target Cubelock, and these seem to be good cards to look at for doing so.
Back when nothing in Cubelock got nerfed in the Raza/Patches/Corridor Creeper nerfset, I figured that was because Doomguard was scheduled to be added to the most recent Hall of Fame. That would have killed Cubelock and severely hampered Zoolock, making it much easier to target Warlock Control and possibly making this call for nerfs unnecessary. But, of course, I was wrong about that and it’s too late now.
What I would like them to do is change both Doomguard and Voidlord. These changes would make all the other cards significantly weaker by making cheating out the targets (what most of the rest of the deck is designed to do) significantly less effective. The Voidlord change does probably make Gul’dan a little bit better, but I think on balance it makes Control Warlock a little worse, because it makes it easier to get through the wall of taunts with one AoE/Mass Dispel/whatever, so it is okay. It also prevents Deathrattle synergy with Umbra and (in Wild) N’Zoth. I upped the cost 1 as well, because traditionally Battlecry is costed as more valuable than Deathrattle and it seems weird to “nerf” a card by buffing it, but it might actually not need that change. I’d, of course, test the card both ways and see if it still felt too good at 9 or if the hindrance to cheating it out was sufficient to overcome the additional value upon initial play.
But, again, the premise of this post is that they are only looking at changing the listed cards, and Voidlord is not on the list, so let’s look at other options.
The next best remaining option, in my mind, is to fix Lackey and/or Dark Pact, as it is the combination of the two that allows for the problematic effects. While Librarian and Gul’dan are both incredibly powerful, I don’t think either one warps the game in the way that the cheating out cards with Lackey + Pact does. I like powerful cards and I don’t think that it’s a problem that if Warlock gets to 10 mana it gets to play a card that usually wins it the game.
As far as I see it, there are two main options to fix Lackey/Pact: 1) we could limit the Lackey targets; or, 2) we could make either or both cards harder to play or slower.
I don’t think limiting Lackey’s pool works on its own, because any reasonable nerf (something like “Recruit a Demon that costs (8) or less”) would still include Doomguard as a potential target. So you’d have to pair it with the above Doomguard change. That change would allow you to keep slow Warlocks, but limit the amount they can cheat the mana curve, while still stopping the offending burst damage from hand.
However, I prefer the flavor of Lackey summoning the most badass Demons possible, and I think that raising the cost of Lackey + Pact just as effectively meets the underlying goal of preventing excessive mana cheating. Plus, as we mentioned above, more obvious changes (and mana cost is the most obvious change) are generally favored over less obvious changes, so I think the best fix, given the pool of cards we are looking at, is to just up the cost of Lackey and Pact by 1 each. That gives you a slightly better chance to counterplay a tempo Lackey (by giving you one more turn to find a silence or ignore it and get lethal) and makes it much slower for them to combine the two into a play you can’t interact with.
If you make these changes, I don’t think you need to touch any of the other Warlock cards in The List. These changes might be better than the ones I originally had planned as they actually let the archetype continue to exist, just in a less abusive form, whereas the above-proposed Doomguard change would likely kill the archetype completely.
I’m choosing to look at the options grouped like this because, even though they’re not all in the same deck like the Warlock ones are, in the age of Genn and Baku, they need to be treated as though they could be. Paladin is in an interesting spot where it (again) is dominating the ladder meta, but is not nearly as prevalent or powerful in tournament play. Still, where Paladin makes up 75% of the tier 1 ladder decks, and over 20% of the Rank 4-1 population (according to HS Replay and Vicious Syndicate), it makes sense that the class is being looked at. We want to make changes that weaken all Paladin decks a little bit, to bring them in line with the rest of the metagame, especially in light of the fact that we are nerfing Warlock, one of Paladin’s natural predators.
Iksar said that three cards/effects are being looked at for potential changes: Call to Arms, Sunkeeper Tarim, and the upgraded Paladin hero power.
First, I don’t love changing the upgraded Paladin hero power. Even though it is one of the best upgraded hero powers in the game, Baku has already lost a decent amount of value in Standard compared to the initial Witchwood meta (because Baku Hunter and Warrior are a lot less common now) and Paladin is basically the only deck that uses Baku in Wild. It would feel bad to so limit one of the banner legendaries of the set–especially when it is widely considered one of the few “safe crafts.” As a side note: if there were to be a change, I would hope that they would change both Baku and Justicar, because it makes no sense to me that Paladin would have two different upgraded hero powers where all the other classes only have one (and where all the cards seem to be written with only one upgraded hero power per class in mind).
Second, I think Tarim is one of the best cards the game has ever printed–it is aggressive and defensive, and there are many games that are won or lost by whether it is drawn. That said, it feels OP in a fair way. Both players are always aware of it, so they can plan around it, and it encourages fighting for the board, which is Hearthstone at its core. I also like that it is even and it has taunt, because that means Even Paladin (in which it is weaker) plays it naturally, but Odd Paladin still has access to it for those crazy “oh my god, RNGsus smiled upon him with Stonehill Defender and won him the game” moments. I understand why it is on this list of cards they’re watching, but I hope they leave it how it is.
Finally, Call to Arms. Like Tarim, Call to Arms is one of the best cards ever printed. It’s even better now that Priests no longer have access to Duskbreaker to counter it, and feels like it’s the most important card in almost all Paladin decks that aren’t Odd Paladin. Unlike Tarim, though, it has a lot of RNG, has no real counterplays, and tends to make turns 1-3 (traditionally, the most important turns for most games) significantly less meaningful. The card is also overtly undercosted (by a massive amount, to boot) and definitely has significant room for change.
Like Lackey, there seems to be two main ways to change Call to Arms: 1) increase its cost; or 2) limit what it recruits. Considering that the card already uses pretty small numbers, there is limited room to reduce what it recruits. You could either reduce the number of targets to 1 or 2 (but, really, you could only reduce it to 2), and/or you could reduce the converted mana cost of them to 0 or 1 (but, really, you could only reduce it to 1). I don’t love reducing the number of minions pulled, because that hurts the flavor and makes the card a lot less exciting and feels like a much bigger nerf than it might initially appear to be.
Making it only pull minions that cost 1 or less is an interesting suggestion that I’ve seen get a bit of traction online. The thinking is that if you do that, you make the card unusable by either Baku (not allowed) or Genn (not worth it) Paladins, and you bring the card in line for Murloc and/or Aggro Paladin. I, however, am not in love with this proposal, either. Although it would be priced appropriately at that point (it seems about right in between Muster for Battle and Small-Time Recruits), it just feels a lot less exciting. Considering that there are so few viable 1-drops, it would probably just about ensure that either the card saw no play or everybody ran the same 6-8 one-drops. I like that the current version is a bit more opened up, as allowing for 2-drops more than doubles the number of viable targets.
Therefore, I again prefer just the basic fix: raise the cost by 1. This still keeps the card wide open and powerful, but not broken. It can now only be played too late for it to make the early game obsolete. It also accomplishes the twin goals of removing it from both Odd and Even Paladin because Odd would likely not bother playing it just to pull out 1-drops when that slot competes with Level Up!, Fungalmancer, Scalebane, Leeroy, etc. This, all around, seems like a more interesting card than limiting what the card could pull (more deckbuilding options, yay!), but it seems to accomplish the same goals. Again, of course, this fix also seems to best match the Hearthstone nerf policies, so I think this is the best option.
Quest Rogue (Leave–for now)
Quest Rogue is designed to be a niche deck that punishes decks for getting too greedy. However, we already saw it nerfed once because it was not fun to play against. For about a week in the early Witchwood metagame, it appeared that Quest Rogue was too good against the entire field, but it seems that the metagame has corrected itself and the Quest Rogue numbers are drastically lower once again. It does not appear (at least, outside of Legend, where I spend almost all of my time playing) that Quest Rogue is really seeing much play at all. Although the deck still has those feelsbadman non-games, where certain matchups are basically won or lost as soon as the game is queued up, I do not think those are frequent enough (at this point) to warrant a nerf. It does make sense to keep this deck on the watch list, but I expect that as new sets come out the metagame’s power level will increase and Quest Rogue will, generally, become less and less viable, so I think this particular problem has and will continue to fix itself.
Incredibly long post turned short, here are the card changes I would like to see Blizzard make (though, admittedly, I can’t run simulations or test like they can, so a tiny bit of fudging might be needed).
I don’t think any of the other cards on The List need changes. In some ways, I prefer changing Doomguard+Voidlord, but I think changing Lackey+Dark Pact is a good option as well. Thanks for reading!