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February 2, 2017

Table of Contents

Ben Nagy’s Big Picture – Are Nerfs Really Necessary?

Introduction


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?


So why was Warsong Commander the piece of this puzzle that was changed? After all, it wasn’t a problem before Grim Patron had been introduced. Isn’t it possible the new card is the problem?

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.

Ben’s Recommendations


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.

Warsong Commander
3
Battlecry: Give your minions with 3 or less Attack Charge.
2/3

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
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.

Kripparian
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.

Brian Kibler
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
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
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
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.

Conclusion


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!

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6 Comments

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  1. Ben Nagy says:

    You bring up two excellent points, SuperUai. I know that my nerfed version doesn’t completely solve the problem, and that their nerfed version is not nearly as powerful, but if you’ll allow me to play devil’s advocate…

    The ability for Frothing Berserker to become a 20/1 was heavily dependent on a (nearly) full board on one side or the other, plus several additional attacks. That’s where the Patrons did significant work, even without Charge. However, expecting a large board on your opponent’s side just isn’t very consistent, since obviously the Warsong/Frothing combo by itself existed since the early days of Hearthstone. So the ability for Grim Patrons to replicate gave the deck significant steam. Now when we look at the deck, the non-interactive burst element of it is a single card maxing out at around 20 attack. Keep in mind that Warsong Commander would have to be played before any replication of the Patrons on your turn, or else Frothing Berserker would be too big to gain the Charge bonus. This gives players an easy turn in advance to clear any Patrons, and see the combo coming: a fair amount of time considering other non-cancerous combo decks such as Freeze Mage take often longer to set up. But let us assume that on average, that a Grim Patron remains on board at the start of the Patron player’s turn (which honestly is probably generous). One single Taunt creature completely nullifies this assault, or at least ensures that the only thing hitting the face is the 20 damage, not immediate lethal. 20 damage is a lot, but not unreasonable for the amount of time it takes to set up properly (again, look to Freeze Mage). The potential for that burst that can kill your opponent is still there, but there are a few easy counters that can take care of that. It may still warp the metagame a little, but this is the reason this deck was too inconsistent to see any real play before Grim Patron. Frothing Berserker is the perhaps the powerhouse that makes Grim Patron decks look impressive, but it isn’t the actual engine that made it work. Grim Patrons continually spawning and gaining Charge rendered counters such as Taunt minions or even Explosive Trap null.

    Since Warsong Commander was a problem, and had far too high of a power level, it needed to get nerfed. And honestly, the only necessary criterion was that it not be at its current power level. It may no longer be a competitive level card, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still useful. I think it would be a fair assumption that a Charge Warrior deck could be expected to play both, and have those abilities stack. As unlikely as it may seem, someone could easily picture having two Raid Leaders and two Warsong Commanders in play, giving Charge minions a burst of +4 attack. Very enticing. You an I may know that that is an unreasonable expectation and this would not be a competitive level deck, but keep in mind that not every player for Hearthstone is trying to hit Legend and be competitive. Many players work exclusively in the casual and Arena fields, and just enjoy creating theory decks and having fun. If they get their improbably combo off even one in ten games, they’re satisfied. The new Warsong Commander may not appeal to you, but it appeals to someone, and no longer causes any problems for the game. That is why their nerf was safer than mine.

    If any of this is still unclear let me know. I agree with both your points (good analysis, surely), just wanted to discuss a little deeper into why this fix and nerf aren’t as big of a problem as they may initially appear.

    • SuperUai says:

      Okay, sorry, let me be more clear: the main problem was TWO Frothing Berserkers (FB) getting 20/1 with charge.

      Let’s play with your nerf.
      My hand: 2 FB, 1 Warsong Commander (WC), 1 whirlwind, 1 unstable ghoul (UG), all of them has reduced cost by 1.
      My board: 1 Frostbite with 1 endurance.

      Enemy board: 1 Sludge Belcher (SB) (using your One taunt suggestion).

      I play 2 FB, 1 UG and 1 WC, I now have 4 minions, 3 with charge. Hit the SB (FB attack bonus count: +1, total +1), Frostbite’s deathrattle triggers (+5, +6), hit th Slime with UG (+2, +9), whirlwind (+5, +14), UG dies (+4, +18). My FBs are now 20/1 and there you have lethal, even against a Warrior Control you can threaten lethal. One freaking minion on the other side of the table. THE BEST taunt minion in the game. If I had only one Patron Warrior in the board, as you said it could be achieved, the numbers would go crazy high!

      What really gets me most intrigued is how long it took for us to see this combo. FB + WC are with us since beta and no one could came up with this after Naxxaramas!

      In the Arena field, they completely destroyed hear, almost all commons are better than her right now.

      I agree, the nerf was too much. My nerf version would be: 3 mana; 2/3; Battlecry: Give charge to one minion. This still maintain the combo deck, you can still OTK your oponnet, but you can’t OTK with two 20/1.

      The new Warsong Commander does not appeal to anyone! You have the Charge spell, that already gives you +2 attack AND charge to non-charge minions and you have Raid Leader.

  2. SuperUai says:

    Just a heads up, you fix suggestion for Warsong Commander does not fix anything. The main problem of the deck was not the Grim Patron getting charge, yes it was one of the features, but the main problem was the Frothing Berserkers getting 20/1 with charge. With your fix we could still get it.

    The nerfed card is useless and will not give you any advantage on creating a “Charge Warrior”, because it would be better replaced by Raid Leader that will give +1 Attack to ANY minion, not only the Charged minions.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been dying to go on a tirade, and this article seems to be an appropriate place (don’t worry Nagy, it’s not directed towards you).

    I’ve played plenty of games as Patron Warrior, and even more games against it. I’ve had great games with and against it, as well as frustrating games. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe what I have to say is flavored with a large amount of bias.

    Players, be they casual or pro, have antagonized Patron Warrior constantly since the release of BRM. I think most of the antagonism has been light, but there are plenty of people on Reddit, Youtube, and Twitch that have shared more caustic opinions. Either way, the condemnations were thrown about very liberally. No discussion or article about Patron Warrior could avoid disdainful remarks, either from the author/participants or comments section. Of course, any powerful deck in Hearthstone (or powerful thing in any game) is going to catch heat, so a deck as powerful as Patron was due to receive (and merit) a lot of criticism.

    I’m astounded by the hypocrisy of the community. After severely and ubiquitously antagonizing Patron Warrior, they thunderously clamor about how inappropriate it was to nerf Patron. Of course it’s not everyone, and I’m not rebuking the comments that say the Warrior class has been unjustly hurt in arena, or that Warsong isn’t viable enough for other strategies. I’m just turned off by the bulk of commenters that claim that a Patron nerf was uncalled for. Do you have amnesia? Did you not see the all the complaints over the last seven months? Sadly, some of those same whiners are now whining about Patron getting nerfed at all. It’s pathetic when your outrage meter is at max all the time.

    It wasn’t all the time, but when a deck can unload 50+ damage from hand through combos, while having as much stability and consistency as Patron Warrior, it’s healthy to consider a nerf. Doing ~20-30 damage from hand on an empty board is really great, but that’s not obscene enough to warrant a nerf, which is one reason why Grim Patron itself didn’t need nerfing. Not only was Grim Patron’s burst potential within reason, but Grim Patron boards can be dealt with; they’re certainly sticky, but Hellfire, Flamestrike, Lightbomb, Brawl, and other methods were not absent in the meta. The worse offenders were Frothing Berserker and Warsong Commander. Grim Patron might punish you for playing minions with 1 or 2 attack, but Frothing punished you for playing minions of any attack value, and Frothing was the minion responsible for the most horrifying burst totals. No matter the minion though, all of these bursts could be done from your hand, thanks to Warsong.

    Warsong was absolutely the right card to nerf. The charge mechanic is the “non-interactive” component in Patron Warrior that seems to offend people, and has been responsible for many cards that required nerfing. Leeroy Jenkins was nerfed, after being found too easily exploitable at 4 mana for various combos. The spell Charge was nerfed due to the unholy trifecta (Gorehowl followed by Alex buffed by Charge). Warsong Commander was nerfed due to people playing charged Molten Giants and replaying them via brewmasters (which also were charged). The first and third versions of Unleash The Hounds were nerfed. It’s pretty clear that the charge mechanic can sometimes run amok.

    Ben Brode really sealed the Warsong nerf deal when he talked about design space and brought up that Dreadsteed could have been a neutral card, if not for Warsong Commander. God $#@%! damn it, lol! I would have loved to play a “Bloodsteed Shaman”. What the hell is that, you ask? It would have been a Shaman that tries to play Dreadsteed, multiply them (Reincarnate, Ancestral Spirit, Rivendare, KTZ), and whittle the opponent down, while threatening a sudden lethal via Bloodlust. It might not be a great deck, but I’d have fun with it, and Trolden would get some extra footage. It would even get boosts in future packs (Elemental Destruction).

    /tirade

  4. Ben Nagy says:

    If you have a link to those stats, I’d be appreciative!

    Either way, I agree that it is clear that Secret Paladin has been used more than Patron Warrior, to whatever extent. Secret Paladin may be overused, and may be overpowered, but I do not believe it as harmful to the metagame as Patron Warrior. While people may play differently against a Secret Paladin deck (particularly as players become more familiar with Paladin Secrets), it does not fundamentally warp the higher level and tournament metagame since most standard counters included in decks (cards like Flare, Polymorph, Lightbomb) along with solid gameplay can regularly overcome Secret Paladin decks. Compare this to Patron Warrior where, due to its non-interactivity and single turn kills, the only seriously considered option was to beat Patron Warrior before they could use their combo. This single deck (Patron Warrior) then relegates players to playing either Patron themselves, or to playing faster decks, leaving a variety of midrange and control options null since they are easily overcome by the influx of aggro and Patron decks. While Secret Paladin may be considerably “overpowered” for the level of skill it requires, and thus is also overused, it in no way stops other players from building a variety of decks. I believe in just the last week, we’ve seen a significant resurgence in innovation and new deck concepts on Ladder and in tournament play.

    A new Adventure is likely to be released in the next couple of months, which will assuredly shift the metagame once again. If Secret Paladin persists as an overused deck, similar to the consistent appearance of Face Hunter, then some action may be needed to inspire innovation once again. But the Secret Paladin deck in and of itself does not create the level of metagame problems and warping that Patron Warrior did. Especially at high levels of play, and in tournaments.

    Thank you for voicing your need for clarification! If this issue is still unclear, let me know.

  5. Anonymous says:

    only 10% player use patron.
    and now 80% use paladin and u said u “don’t believe that Secret Paladin is as harmful to the metagame as Patron Warrior, and Warsong Commander in particular”. ??????