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Nerf Forward

Blizzard did it. They really did it. Warsong Commander nerfed hardcore.

#NeverForget

#NeverForgetToChargeForward

Specifically, the card was nerfed to simply say “Your charge minions have +1 Attack.”

There are a couple of things you have to say right off the bat. The first is “Thank Christ, Patron is dead.” I talked about the ridiculousness of Patron Warrior back in August, and it never really stopped being ridiculous. How long has it been a Tier 1, metagaming warping deck? Four months? Six?

Which is actually the second thing: err… why now? Oh wait, we’re heading into Blizzcon and the World Championship. This isn’t even the first time a high-profile card was nerfed specifically in weeks heading into said tournament. If I weren’t more cynical… ah, fuck it, I am exactly that cynical. As much as various commenters get their knickers in a wad over legitimately exciting randomness, nobody really wants to see 50+ damage delivered from an empty board.

Unless it’s double-combo Druid. Then it’s okay.

Then there’s the third thing, which is: “huh… this was the nerf they went with?” In the scheme of things, it is probably the best long-term one. As this Extra Credits mentions, you can’t just focus on making exciting cards today, you also have to give thought to what said exciting cards do to future design. The example in the video is Tuskarr Totemic, which is a Shaman 2-mana creature that summons ANY random totem. It’s a nice creature (assuming Shaman ever becomes playable again), but it’s mere existence means Blizzard can’t really create 8-mana totems or otherwise ones that would completely break the game by being summoned by a 2-mana card.

In a very similar way, an unnerfed Warsong Commander forces Blizzard to put every future 3-attack (or less) Warrior/Neutral creature under a microscope lest they repeat Grim Patron mistakes. Which is amusing in a way, considering I’m pretty sure Blizzard expressly considered the Grim Patron + Warsong Commander combo potential when they “fixed” Warsong Commander to also affect summoned (rather than simply played) minions.

The final thing I have to say is that I continue to be baffled by Blizzard’s balance philosophy here. How long does a clearly broken card or card interaction need to exist before it is addressed? The only real criteria seems to be “if it would embarrass us at Blizzcon.” Which is bonkers considering Hearthstone is perhaps the most perfect CCG to experience balance changes. There is no direct trading of cards in Hearthstone, no secondary market, so nerfing a card doesn’t actually destroy any value; every nerf is accompanied by getting full dust value of disenchanting the nerfed card, so you can spend that elsewhere. Compare that to Magic: the Gathering where a card getting banned in the Standard format can wipe out tens of thousands of dollars of value across the world.

In fact, do look at Magic. Back in January, Wizards of the Coast outright banned three cards and basically upended the Modern metagame thereby. Magic has a long history with errata as well, which is basically Wizards changing the text on printed, physical cards into something else. If you were just some high schoolers playing Magic on the weekends, you would just be left with some ridiculously powerful cards and no inkling that your combo wouldn’t actually work down at the comic shop or anywhere with an official judge. As far as I can tell, Wizards has really toned down the errata since the Urza’s expansions (which were the best), but the point is that they did it. And Blizzard doesn’t, when it would be incredibly easy to do so.

I know, I get it. If Blizzard changed things every time the metagame took an unhealthy turn, that in itself might make the metagame even worse. People might lose confidence in “investing” in Hearthstone, or may just throw their hands up and wait for nerfs to the best decks. Sometimes though, man, it makes it you think: if it’s unhealthy enough today to nerf, how long have we been unhealthy for what amounts to appearance’s sake?

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Hearthstone Balance

[Blaugust Day 10]

One of the most dominating decks out there in Hearthstone in the current metagame is Patron Warrior. This is a wombo-combo deck that can pull off such insane, come-from-behind wins that even Magic: the Gathering veterans of Extended would feel at home. In a game that is derided for being decided by coin flips, the deck itself doesn’t really feature any RNG beyond the standard that comes with drawing cards. Almost everything about the deck is mechanically perfect and efficient.

And it needs to die.

The question of the hour is how to do it. Or whether to nerf it at all. This Reddit thread got 1300+ comments in 8 hours and the opinions run the gamut. But before I get to that, let me briefly explain the cards and mechanics involved. Here is the lineup:

The usual suspects.

The usual suspects.

The strength of Patron Warrior are the sort of dual win conditions. The name of the deck comes from Grim Patron, there in the upper-right, and the sort of shenanigans that occur when you summon one with a Warsong Commander on the board. If you play both, you basically get a 3/X minion for every minion your opponent controls that has less than 3 attack – your first Grim Patron Charges into, say, a 2/2, summons a new 3/3 Grim Patron who gets Charge from the Warsong Commander and then attacks into another creature, etc etc etc.

You do not technically need your opponent to have creatures for things to get out of control, of course, as your deck is also filled with effects like Whirlwind that end up dealing 1 damage to all creatures. One Grim Patron becomes two, two becomes four, and so on (there is a 7-creature limit thankfully).

The win condition everyone hates though is that of Frothing Berserker. Warsong Commander will give Frothing Berserker Charge when it comes into play, and even if your opponent has zero creatures, a Frothing can balloon up to an 8/1 with three Whirlwind effects (since itself and the Commander are creatures taking damage). If your opponent has a single creature out with at least three health though? Now it’s an 11/1. Add in Grim Patron shenanigans and suddenly you start seeing OTK (one turn kill) screenshots like this one:

From empty board to overkill 2x.

From empty board to overkill 2x.

If you want a more in-depth guide from a Top-10 player, here you go.

It isn’t difficult to nerf Patron Warrior. In fact, it’s incredibly easy to do so in all sorts of ways. The design trick here is to do so in such a way that either A) reduces the effectiveness of the deck without killing it entirely, or if that’s not possible or wanted, then B) killing the deck with as little collateral damage as possible.

For example, Warsong Commander could be changed to read “Your other minions with 3 or less attack have Charge.” The idea being that while you can still have crazy powerful Frothing Berserkers, they would lose Charge the moment their attack got above 3. It’s not even all that intuitive that the summoned creatures retain the Charge ability granted from the Commander after their attack goes up in the first place, but that’s what happens. And in case you didn’t know, Warsong Commander has a history of enabling OTK combos, especially back in the day when it simply gave all your minions charge no matter their attack power. Hell, it was even changed again fairly recently to allow the Charge to apply to summoned minions, e.g. Grim Patrons, instead of just affecting creatures played from the hand.

Is nerfing Warsong Commander the right choice though?

Consider some alternatives. For example, a lot of the OTK shenanigans are only enabled from the use of Emperor Thaurissan permanently reducing card costs. Getting one trigger from Thaurissan can grant you the ability to play Warsong Commander, Grim Patron, and Frothing Berserker all on the same turn, possibly even turn 8. And if you had a Whirlwind in hand during the Thaurissan trigger? Suddenly you’re dealing with 11 Charge damage to the face. Or 21 Charge damage if you have a 2nd Whirlwind-like effect. Or even more depending on what your opponent’s board looks like. So another nerf avenue would be to tweak Thaurissan’s effect to, say, be unable to reduce card costs below 1. Or only reduce spells, or something.

Or perhaps we should zero-in on the OTK culprit himself: Frothing Berserker. One way is to change the trigger to key off only friendly minions taking damage. Or only enemy minions. Or even the nuclear option of “+1 attack for each damaged minion,” with the attack bonus going up and down as minions are killed or healed to full.

Some people in the Reddit thread think it’d be better to nerf the sort of card draw engine that Patron Warrior has access to. This isn’t a particularly viable avenue in my opinion, as the only real Warrior-specific draw card they could nerf is Battle Rage, which was already nerfed twice from before (it used to trigger off of all damaged minions, then all damaged characters with a cost of 3). How would you nerf it anyway? Make it a 50% chance to draw a card? It is absolutely true that Patron Warrior includes a lot of card draw to assemble its combo pieces, but a similar amount of drawing is available to most other decks.

My personal opinion is to change Frothing Berserker. Some have suggested a different approach to the nerf, such as changing its health to 3 so there are less opportunities for it to balloon out of control with Whirlwind effects. I’m not so sure that that is A) enough, or B) worth breaking the symmetry. Not all classes have a class-specific 2/4 for 3 with an ability yet, but that is clearly a theme:

Paladin card is from the new set.

Paladin card is from the new set.

I’m not saying they’re all equally powerful or useful – Flamewaker in particular can make for some huge tempo plays – but Frothing Berserker in particular seems to scale wildly higher than the others and is more open-ended. I know that I hate, hate, hate seeing that card on turn 2 in Arena because it basically means I must kill it immediately or simply be crushed under the weight of value.

So there it is. I am not entirely sure that the dev team actually are going to nerf any part of Patron Warrior, especially this close to the next expansion release (by the end of August). On the other hand, expansions are pretty much perfect times to nerf things, and we’ve seen them nerf cards at these times before. That being said… I’m not sure I want to see the metagame come The Grand Tournament if it spawns a deck that can destroy Patron Warrior without nerfs. It’s like swimming with something that consistently eats Great White Sharks.