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Fixing a Hole in the Hearthstone Meta
By Joseph Nation Posted in Culture on September 8, 2017 0 Comments
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Blizzard making some beneficial nerfs in the game

After a disastrously balanced HCT Summer in which not only was every single player running Druid (and nearly every single ban was expended on it too), Blizzard’s hand was more or less forced into making card changes. In typical Blizzard fashion, they aimed to minimize the number of times they have to do changes, meaning that not only did we get a Druid nerf, but also nerfs to a pair of other top tier decks in Murloc Paladin and Pirate Warrior. Let’s go card by card and talk about the Hearthstone nerfs, and then make an overall stab at the metagame after the changes.

Innervate, Spreading Plague

The Druid class as a whole is extremely versatile, with decks ranging from ultra-aggressive token lists running eleven one-mana cards and only eight cards costing more than two mana, to the Jade Druid lists whose win condition in several matchups is Jade Idol, which only snowballs out of control at the stage when it’s the only card left in your deck. As a result, the nerfs to the class had to hit both ends of the spectrum, which this accomplishes. While the Innervate nerf hits all Druid decks, it primarily hits the ability to explode early in games. On the other end, Spreading Plague gave Druid an incredible defensive option that allowed it to sustain into late game, since the taunts created a situation where five mana could consistently create 15 to 25 points of effective healing. This nerf directly weakened key matchups that slower Druid decks are supposed to lose as well, since Druids are supposed to be weak against deck that can play multiple mid-size threats. As a result, Blizzard’s selection of nerf targets here was appropriate.

The nerfs themselves are reasonable too. For Innervate, taking it from two mana gained to one basically reduces the ability of Druid to just explode past a reasonable point on the curve for a single turn without paying some significant cost. A Bittertide Hydra on turn four is much less threatening than one on turn three, when only a few classes have the ability to remove it and the opponent hasn’t had as long to build up things to trade into it. Similarly, a primarily defensive card like Spreading Plague loses a lot of effectiveness at one additional mana in cost because in Hearthstone, for a defensive card to be worth playing, you also have to be able to play something alongside it. With one less mana to work with, the quality of card you can pair with Spreading Plague is decreased, as is the probability that you have a card that can even be played at all. Now, both of these nerfs may make the cards unplayable (in fact, I doubt we’ll see Innervate again), but they are good changes for Druid overall.

Fiery War Axe

The reasoning given for nerfing Fiery War Axe was insulting to the player-base. The card itself moved from one of the best weapons in the game to strictly worse than Rallying Blade and Eaglehorn Bow. And yes, as Fibonacci, the most famous Control Warrior player on the planet, pointed out, the deck in which it was most degenerate is rotating out in eight months. And yet it was absolutely the correct nerf, to the correct card, and it affected the archetypes in correct proportion to how much they needed to be impacted.

Pirate Warrior will mostly rotate out next April, but that doesn’t mean that Aggro Warrior that was centered around Fiery War Axe would have. In fact, Aggro Warrior is one of the oldest decks in Hearthstone history, having been around since beta. Expecting it to die out while leaving one of the most damage efficient cards in the game along with ways to efficiently buff it like Upgrade is simply not reasonable, and so it had to be scaled back. Further, ideally any nerf would heavily reduce the effectiveness in aggressive lists while also freeing up design space in control as well.

The nerf itself, then, was precisely correct. Adding an additional mana is extremely costly to aggressive decks, which need the ability to use all their mana in the most efficient manner in early turns so as to successfully kill their opponent. In the case of Pirate Warrior, having a large two mana weapon also enabled several of their curves, a player can no longer coin out a Fiery War Axe on turn one and play a five attack Bloodsail Raider (which would also summon Patches) on turn two. In order to activate their early cards that require a weapon, the Pirate Warrior now depends on N’zoth’s First Mate, and as such, the power of the deck is heavily decreased. There’s also the added benefit of reducing the number of extreme edge cases where the deck draws a hand that simply runs an opponent over too quickly to even interact. Meanwhile, for control oriented Warriors, this does cripple them temporarily, but past Control Warrior decks have been generally unhealthy for the game because they were simply too effective at removing any kind of threat. Fiery War Axe increases the odds of early minions sticking a little longer, and so while the card is still more than powerful enough to run (especially when Forge of Souls exists), it no longer gives the Control Warrior a card that flat out wins them a few matchups.

Hex

Then there’s Hex. Blizzard basically said it themselves on this particular nerf: it has nothing to do with current balance. Given the current performance of Shaman, this should absolutely be true given that Shaman is not only a middle tier class but is somewhat locked into a single token archetype.

Hex’s costing never made sense in the first place – the Mage spell Polymorph cost an extra mana but created a one-attack, one-defense sheep rather than Hex’s zero-attack, one-defense frog with taunt. In most cases, there’s not that much difference in value between the two created tokens, and Mage is the class whose identity revolved around removing minions.

This change will probably push Hex out of viability, though Shaman has fewer options for removal than Mage, so it might stick around at some level depending on what the Shaman class looks like a few expansions down the road. Regardless, cards like Polymorph and Hex, given how they interact with Hearthstone’s “card graveyard,” absolutely should be just below the playable threshold so that a player has to want to include them as a specific tech choice rather than just getting to run them regardless and then reaping the benefits when there’s a strong card that it happens to counter.

With that said, this change does absolutely feel like one where Blizzard was trying to minimize the number of times they do something to cards, and so while they had it planned for later, they went ahead and lumped it in now.

Murloc Warleader

Fifteen seconds evaluating what Murloc Warleader was should tell you that it’s not an okay card when a deck built around the Murloc tribe is viable. Even more so when that deck is built around board control like Murloc Paladin is, because Murloc Warleader is simply too efficient at generating raw stats. An opponent that gets behind on board and can’t answer a Warleader simply loses. With two other Murlocs on the board, Murloc Warleader produces nine total stats, in line with a four mana card. With three, it was twelve stats, which is somewhere between five and six mana. And since Murlocs are often designed to flood the board quickly, neither of those was an unlikely case.

In this case, however, the nerf in question does not leave the deck at an appropriate power level. Murloc Paladin was already a tier two deck at the legend level as more people understood how to respond to and prevent the early plays. As a result, it only needed a little bit of power taken off the top of it, and removing the health buff from Murloc Warleader reduces the effectiveness of several pieces by too much because of how much less likely it is that individual Murlocs can trade two cards for one with a Warleader on the board. Changing Warleader to grant one attack and one defense would’ve been much more appropriate, and while this does leave some unintuitive interactions in the game that Blizzard stated they were trying to remove, that shouldn’t come at the cost of a balanced deck.


Overall, there’s only one real question that follows about the meta from these nerfs: where does this leave Jade Druid? Several of the nerfs were to perceived counters to Jade Druid, as the aggressive Token Druid, Murloc Paladin, and Pirate Warrior that all took major hits. That said, these nerfs defined a set of weaknesses for Jade Druid again, and should weaken it in some current winning matchups. For example, Jade Druid should not be favored over Midrange Hunter or Zoo Warlock as it is right now, and worsening Jade Druid’s ability to slow down wide boards like those decks tend to produce should give those decks and advantageous matchup again. Further, if the Druid class is primarily using the Jade archetype again, then running Skulking Geist as a tech choice becomes much stronger. Basically, Jade Druid may be too strong, and we may be back here in a month pushing for more changes, but in the short run, Blizzard has put together a solid set of changes consistent with their previous ones that will probably benefit the game.

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