Ben Nagy’s Big Picture – Are Nerfs Really Necessary?
Although there has already been significant discussion regarding the Warsong Commander nerf, most of it has revolved around how this change will impact the Grim Patron Warrior deck that has gained tremendous popularity in both the tournament scene and at higher ladder ranks. While the analysis regarding this aspect of the change has been nearly exhaustive, there has been a relative lack of content discussing what this change signifies for Hearthstone as a game.
Welcome to Ben Nagy’s Big Picture, where we will look at how new cards/sets, changes in specific cards, and changes in the metagame reflect how Hearthstone is positioned against other games in the genre, and what that means for the future of the game. You’ll get a game designer’s perspective on how Hearthstone is being built from the ground up, which will help with your understanding of the changes Blizzard makes, as well as become more skilled at playing.
With the help of these articles, you’ll be able to see deeper into how Hearthstone ticks, impress your friends with your pro-level knowledge, opinions, and perspective on the Hearthstone game, and be the go-to guy in your circle for keeping up-to-date with commentary on the latest events in the world of Hearthstone.
The Nerf of Warsong Commander
Let’s start by looking at the specifics of the Warsong Commander nerf. Grim Patron Warrior is a deck that has been mostly used in tournaments and other high-level play, despite its generally low crafting cost, due to a number of very difficult decisions that make the deck hard to run, and for less experienced players, feel almost random in whether or not the deck would “go off.” By “go off,” we are claiming that the Grim Patron Warrior deck is what we call a Combo deck (as opposed to an Aggro or Control deck, for instance). Combo decks, as many of you know, play by generally stalling the game and drawing cards until the Combo player can amass the specific pieces of their Combo, and then often create a flurry of moves during a single turn or two that either directly win the game, or nearly place them there and provide the tools to finish their opponent off quickly.
There are four main pieces of the Grim Patron Warrior deck as they stand before the nerf were the Grim Patrons, Frothing Berserker, Whirlwind-effects (either in the form of Whirlwind, , or Unstable Ghoul), and of course Warsong Commander. While clearly the explosive power of this deck can be accessed by the right player, why was this combo deck such a problem? And while Blizzard could have chosen any of these parts to alter or nerf, why was Warsong Commander the one to go?
So What’s the Problem with this “Combo Deck?”
Hearthstone has been under a lot of scrutiny for giving too many tools to players for non-interactive decks, where players work on their own goals and have little to do with the opposing player. This is the real reason playing against Face Hunter (not Combo, but still very non-interactive) decks feels so un-fun: It often feels that you can do little regarding the outcome of the game. That whether you win or lose is dependent on the luck of you drawing enough early removal (in either the form of spells or minions) or enough other stalling tactics (freeze spells and healing) to break up their tempo and actualize the purpose of your own deck.
So how does this apply to Combo decks? Combo decks create un-interactive gameplay by primarily relying on stall tactics to wait it out until the player can draw the cards they need. Combo decks fit perfectly with the Warrior strategy, as the Warrior player can use weapons and a wide variety of removal spells to clear early threats, has access to armor to protect themselves until late into the game, and has also been granted several value cards that allow the Warrior player to draw cards.
Now, not all Combo decks create problems, and honestly, a healthy metagame needs Combo decks as much as any other archetype of deck, but these have to be crafted carefully in Hearthstone to balance and not overpower Aggro, Midrange, Control, etc, specifically due to some of Hearthstone’s unique properties which make Combo more of a problem than it is for other games in the genre.
Since the name of the game for Combo decks is consistency, this means lots of card draw and a consistent mana curve. The mana curve and card consistency are both taken care of as a part of the game’s core mechanics. Your mana is predictable every turn, as you can guarantee that on turn five (with the exception of a few decks), you will always have five mana. This makes it easy to plan when you’ll play your cards if you can get them in your hand fast enough. That’s where the card drawing comes in. With only 30 cards in the deck, and a maximum of 2 copies for most cards, particularly in Combo decks, this makes it much more likely that the card you draw next will be one of the four big components of your Grim Patron Warrior deck, as we discussed earlier.
Again, to play devil’s advocate, the consistency of mana and card access also works in the favor of your opponent, who can reasonably assess the chance that you will play your combo on a given turn, and in a healthy meta where there are strong counters to these Combo decks, likely has access to the removal necessary to stop your progression. But because of the non-interactive nature of some of these Combo decks, players are required to have perfect counters the turn before the Grim Patron Warrior “goes off,” and this level of yomi is very inconsistent in itself.
Why a Nerf at All?
So now that we’ve determined why Grim Patron Warrior decks in their current form could be causing a problem for Hearthstone if left unchecked, why was a nerf the way to go? And was that an appropriate solution? Over the last year or so of post-beta Hearthstone, we’ve seen a number of nerfs to cards such as Starving Buzzard, Undertaker, and of course Warsong Commander. Blizzard has certainly done a great job of identifying the real problems that these cards produce, and fixing them to make sure that the gameplay stays fun. While players often complain that their favorite card, or at least one they liked, is now less powerful and not usable in the decks they had previously been using those cards in, the long term problems of those same players losing again and again to these un-fun decks cannot be overstated. The health of the game is the designers’ primary concern.
Some players have disliked the nerfs to these cards based on another reason: other CCGs (especially non-digital ones) don’t nerf cards, but find “healthier” ways to solve the problem, such as by changing the metagame with the addition of new cards, and or rotating cards out of the playable tournament formats. While this is true, Hearthstone couldn’t take advantage of either of these options at the time of this writing, and one of which I don’t believe could ever be a solution.
First of all, in regards to rotation, the bulk of the combo pieces for this deck are either recent (like Grim Patron itself) or in the base set (like Warsong Commander). As such, and without a rotation strategy yet announced by Blizzard, it is unlikely that this deck would be rotating out for a long time, quite possibly never. Not addressing this issue for a long time seems foolish, as it’s creating un-fun gameplay. No one wants to play a game that isn’t fun anymore!
Secondly, Grim Patron decks have been a problem for (relatively) quite a while. If Hearthstone was going to effectively counter the deck in the meta by introducing new cards, it would have done so in The Grand Tournament. Since the deck is still around, any cards they felt would have stopped the Grim Patron march clearly have not had the intended effect. In any case, as we’ll explore in the next section, that wasn’t the biggest of their problems.
While it’s easy to compare Hearthstone as a 1-to-1 corollary to other established CCGs (Magic: The Gathering being the most-used comparison), there are significant differences that both hinder and allow Hearthstone to act and react to the metagame differently. While Magic can’t simply change cards that are causing a problem due to its paper element, Hearthstone can do so, and should, in order to capture the competitive advantages that being solely in the digital medium grants them. While nerfing cards obviously requires great care, I feel that Blizzard is doing a terrific job of making sure that they are not abusing this power, and are first looking for other avenues to address problems.
Why Warsong Commander?
Since Charge is an inherently un-interactive mechanic, it has to be balanced carefully to make sure that it isn’t given too much power, as it was with the combination of Warsong Commander and Grim Patron. So the offending party isn’t a very powerful card that can replicate itself. That can be dealt with via mass removal, a strong board presence, or by being able to ignore it for a turn and often taking significant damage (but not resulting in a board clear plus that damage). The problem that made Grim Patron Warrior decks un-fun and un-interactive is how it as a Combo deck, “went off” via Warsong Commander’s Charge granting mechanic.
Warsong Commander was going to be a problem long before Grim Patron was ever introduced, and still would be a problem if it hadn’t been nerfed, due to how it constricted Blizzard’s design space. By this, I mean that, if left unchecked, Warsong Commander would limit the ability of Blizzard to create cool new cards with awesome new effects that had 3 or less Attack, because of the presence of Warsong Commander.
A strong example of this principle was actually given directly by Ben Brode in his interview, with Dreadsteed. Dreadsteed was originally going to be a neutral minion in Curse of Naxxramas, but because of its interaction with Warsong Commander, would have enabled a player using that combo to “machine gun down” all of their opponent’s minions. In order for more exciting and fresh 3-Attack-or-less minions to be created for both Warrior and Neutral card pools, Warsong Commander was the one that had to go.
Also, as a side-argument, the Warsong Commander card is also in the base set, meaning that it is both readily available to new players (and quite a complicated card to be used properly by these newer players), and will likely not be going anywhere if Hearthstone does ever introduce a rotating format.
I think that Blizzard made the right call by nerfing Warsong Commander, but how they did it has been a topic of some debate. Personally, I find it difficult if not impossible to say they chose the best option or not for the new card because as they stated, they play tested “30 or 40” different versions of the card, and found this to be the best option. Who are we to say that Blizzard has made the wrong choice of card design, and how can we possibly argue with many playtests of “30 or 40” card versions?
Nonetheless, as a game designer, I would want to approach this card redesign by keeping truer to the original card while eliminating the problems we have already seen and spoken about. To be clear, this solution doesn’t completely remove the inherent problems of limited Blizzard’s design space, but I believe sufficiently does the job, with less disappointment from players that the Grim Patron Warrior deck has been completely removed from play.
Battlecry: Give your minions with 3 or less Attack Charge.
As a one-of effect, you are now left with a 2/3 on the board, and only having granted Charge to minions who had 3 or less Attack at the time of its entry. -ed ? No dice. New Patrons generated after attacking into minions? No soap. Dreadsteed machine-guns? Not going to happen. The same deck still being playable but with an appropriately adjusted power level? Absolutely.
What Do Other Pros Say?
Instead, Warsong Commander will be granting all Charge minions +1 Attack; a safe bet. Here’s what the other Pros have said about this:
Trump believes the nerf is too severe, and “fixes” the nerf by raising the power level of the new card via its mana cost and its stats. Though honestly, I believe that the nerfed card is plenty strong still as it stands.
Kripp says the card is now totally useless, but I’d disagree with him. While the card is no longer useful in Grim Patron decks, this card would be very valuable in a Charge-rush Warrior deck, which Warrior certainly supports and that this change could also signify that Warrior decks will be receiving more cards in the future for this Charge strategy.
As usual, Brian Kibler is right on the money, saying that Warsong Commander created lots of un-interactive gameplay, and that “Hearthstone is better with it being essentially gone.” He’s looking forward to the new metagame at BlizzCon.
ADWCTA takes issue with the lack of support for Warrior in Arena, and believes that this change reflects a lack of prioritizing for Arena players. While this nerf does weaken Warrior in Arena, the card was causing a problem in constructed play, which is where the nerf was intended to have the most impact. Honestly, I’m not sure how the card could have been fixed without it impacting Arena, but he certainly brings an important player base to mind when we think of how we’re changing cards.
Frodan also acknowledged that “future planned cards are limited in design based on Warsong’s existence.” He’s also looking forward to what BlizzCon will bring.
Firebat says that Patron Warrior felt like the only deck players could still outplay their opponents with. While that is certainly a matter of opinion, it certainly appears that his opinion is more based on the strategic gameplay elements of the card and deck, than its long term implications for the life of the game. While he may have the right perspective for a World Champion, there are a host of players not at World Championship level that Hearthstone is also designed for, and as we stated above, non-interactive gameplay just isn’t fun.
Tides of Time
Tides of Time said that he didn’t understand the removal of Patron Warrior while leaving Secret Paladin a viable deck. While we may discuss the implications of Secret Paladin at a later time, I don’t believe that Secret Paladin is as harmful to the metagame as Patron Warrior, and Warsong Commander in particular.
Hopefully sometime this week in between school classes, around the water cooler in the office, or even at a Fireside Gathering, you’ll be able to discuss Grim Patron Warrior decks and the Warsong Commander nerf (an other nerfs) with a higher level of understanding. Hearthstone is a game about learning, and it’s not only important to learn what’s happening with the new decks that are released, and the latest announcements of changes to the game, but it can also be important to understand how Hearthstone is built to be the amazing, fun game that it is. And hopefully this week as the patch changing Warsong Commander goes live, and while your friend mouths off yet again about how unfair the Warsong Commander nerf is, you’ll be able to show off a deeper understanding of the game and show your friends the “Big Picture.”
– Ben Nagy
I want to engage you readers in this week’s article. What do you think about Hearthstone’s pattern of nerfing? About the new Warsong Commander, and loss of Grim Patron Warrior? How would you have redesigned the card? Leave your answers and any questions you may have in the Comments below!