A Look in the Past: Nerfed/Changed Cards
Everyone who plays Hearthstone for a while knows that Blizzard isn’t fond of nerfing or changing cards. They prefer to release new ones, possibly counters, and look how the meta will shape up. However, sometimes the card is so poorly designed or overpowered that they need to set in and do something about it.
In a light of recent announcements (Small-time Buccaneer and Spirit Claws are going to get nerfed), I’ve decided to take a look in the past. In this article, I will talk a bit about most important nerfs / card changes in the history of Hearthstone and their impact on the meta. Covering every change ever made would be way too long, so instead I’ve decided to focus on the ones that lead to the biggest meta shifts and the most controversial/interesting ones.
P.S. If you want to read about the cards that were removed from the game back in the Alpha, you can check out my other article.
P.S.S. Sorry about the quality of some pre-nerf cards, it’s easy to find the latest version, but finding the old ones is sometimes a bit harder.
Unleash the Hounds
Unleash the Hounds has gone through a lot before landing at the current effect and mana cost. It was changed 3 times, even though the last 2 changes were just mana cost adjustments. Most of the players know how the card looks like now, but how did it look back in the Closed Beta?
On the right, you can see the card’s initial design. Instead of summoning a 1/1 Hound with Charge for each minion your opponent has, it used to give all your Beasts +1 Attack and Charge. It was one of the most hated cards back in the closed beta, as the Hunter was the first “combo deck”. While the combo might not be as strong right now, back then there weren’t as many counters + the game was way slower + people were generally worse players. The combo relied on playing a few very cheap Beasts and then giving them all Charge and +1 Attack with UTH. Basic combo piece was Young Dragonhawk – because of the Windfury, multiple attack buffs basically doubled their value. An example combo might have looked like that:
That’s 8 mana, 6 cards combo. And now, how much damage it deals? Each Dragonhawk will deal 1 + 1 from Timber Wolf + 1 from Dire Wolf + 1 from UTH = 4 * 2 = 8 damage. That’s 16 damage from Dragonhawks alone. Plus 2 damage from Timber Wolf. Plus 4 damage from Dire Wolf Alpha. Plus 5 damage from Bloodfen Raptor. That’s 16 + 2 + 4 + 5 = 27 damage.
Considering that you play Hunter, dealing the rest of damage was never a problem. Usually even 20 damage combos were lethal. And the strongest part about this combo is how flexible it was. While Young Dragonhawk was clearly the best combo piece, you didn’t have to play two of them each time. With a lot of small Beasts in the deck, you could assemble at least 15 damage combo every game. It was one of the most oppressive decks early in the beta, and it was incredibly cheap – you could play it without any Epics or Legendaries. Oh, those were the days.
In December 2013, the card was changed to the current state. But not exactly – it used to cost 4 mana at the start. However, Blizzard quickly realized that the card is way too weak at 4 mana. After a month or so, in January 2014, it was buffed to 2 mana. However, people heave quickly realized that 2 mana UTH is way too powerful. This time around it took Blizzard a bit longer to make the necessary changes – in May 2014, 4 months after the buff to 2 mana, the card was nerfed down to 3 mana – and that’s exactly how it looks right now.
While we’re still at the Hunter’s topic, there is another card that deserves a spot on this list. It’s the Starving Buzzard, part of another very problematic Hunter deck. A deck that dominated the meta for months, all thanks to one little combo – Starving Buzzard + Unleash the Hounds.
The first iteration of Starving Buzzard I remember was already very powerful, even without the combo. 2 mana 2/2 that draws you a card each time you summon a Beast. It was already played in the old UTH combo deck, because of all the cheap Beasts you’ve played – I mean, it was like a Gadgetzan Auctioneer turn, but for Hunter. You played Buzzard, you dropped a bunch of cheap beasts, you had both a big board and you’ve cycled through multiple cards. If it was late in the game, you might have even finished the game on the spot if you drew old UTH along the way.
The card was clearly too strong, so it got nerfed a bit. It was changed to 2 mana 2/1 in December 2013, which definitely made it more balanced, as now it dies to anything. But at the same time, you need to remember that Blizzard has made a big change to Unleash the Hounds. While initially it wasn’t combo’d with Buzzard because of the 4 mana cost, imagine what happened when it was buffed to 2 mana. Yes, we had 4 months period when Starving Buzzard + Unleash the Hounds combo costed only 4 mana. Now, imagine what this combo did on average. Let’s say you’ve faced a decent board of 4 minions. For 4 mana, you could play a 2/1, summon 4x 1/1 with Charge AND draw 4 cards. If that’s not enough, you also played cards like Hunter's Mark (which costed 0 mana back then if someone doesn’t remember the Standard format nerfs) which let you kill ANYTHING you want or Timber Wolf to make all your Hounds have 2 Attack instead of 1. This combo usually resulted in a full board clear, drawing TONS of cards and possibly even making a decent board in the end. And what if your opponent played around it and didn’t play more than 2-3 minions ever? Well, then you could play the old Leeroy Jenkins, who used to cost 4 mana, adding 2 extra minions on your opponent’s side of the board and THEN play your combo. Now, that’s the combo Hunter would need to get back into the meta.
Then, in May 2014 Unleash the Hounds was nerfed to 3 mana, basically looking as it looks right now. Did the Hunter era of Buzzard + Unleash stop? Hell no. The combo was a bit weaker, obviously, but still very powerful. It took 4 more months, but the combo was basically killed between the Naxxramas and GvG. In September 2014, Starving Buzzard was changed to the current state. Which basically killed the card. It was one of the first examples of how Blizzard likes to overnerf the problematic cards. They did make sure that Buzzard will never see play again. Increasing the mana cost by 3 and giving only +1/+1 as a compensation. Well, it’s not like I miss the old Buzzard, but at 4 mana it might at least be playable (compared to the Cult Master).
What if I said that the meta we currently have is actually healthy compared to what we used to see when Undertaker was reigning? Most of the new players probably wouldn’t believe me, but yes, it was worse. First of all – mind you that we didn’t have as many anti-Aggro cards back then as we have right now. Early game answers were also limited – every class had less early game removals, so it was harder to answer turn 1 Undertaker than it would be now.
But, let’s start from the beginning. Undertaker was a card released in Naxxramas – alongside many powerful Deathrattle cards, like Haunted Creeper, Nerubian Egg or Mad Scientist. After all, Deathrattle was the theme of a whole adventure. The card itself wouldn’t be as powerful if there wouldn’t be strong, early game Deathrattles. Sadly for us, there were plenty.
Biggest offender was Undertaker Hunter. The deck was broken as hell, if I remember correctly it had the highest win rate ever in Hearthstone. And it was a pretty mindless deck. If you opened with Undertaker and your opponent didn’t answer it immediately, you just won. Yes, just like that. But it’s not like you lost automatically if he did answer, no. ON TOP of a growing Undertaker, all the Deathrattle cards you played were powerful by themselves. And so, Hunter has played cards like Leper Gnome (pre-nerf, it used to have 2 Attack), Webspinner, Haunted Creeper, Loot Hoarder and Mad Scientist. Play 2 copies of each and that was enough to dominate the early game. With so many small drops, after opening with Undertaker, it didn’t take long until he grew out of control. The biggest problem was growing health, actually. It often was 4 health by turn 2 and 5-6 health by turn 3. At this point you needed a hard removal like Execute or Hex to deal with it. With a 1-drop. But you of course had the rest of the board to deal with too – and you had to stabilize against Hunter shooting you in the face with Hero Power each turn.
The card was so broken that it was played in multiple other decks too. Most notably, it was pretty commonly seen in Zoo Warlock – it didn’t play as many aggressive minions, but did play stuff like Zombie Chow, Nerubian Egg or Voidcaller instead – it was still easy to grow a big Undertaker, which was excellent board control tool. But my personal favorite, the deck I’ve played myself for quite a lot was Undertaker Priest. It was a Midrange/Tempo deck that focused on the early game board control, growing Undertaker to huge numbers and then keeping it alive with health buffs and Hero Power. Dark Cultist had insane synergy with Undertaker and Deathlord could protect it early when it was still vulnerable to minion trades. It was one of the first decks I hit Legend with, very powerful – not as powerful as Undertaker Hunter, but well, nothing was.
Blizzard tried their standard “instead of nerfing a card, let’s release some counters” – and they indeed tried. Some anti-Deathrattle cards like Lil' Exorcist or were released, but they didn’t do anything. They did target Deathrattles instead of the source of a problem – Undertaker. They didn’t stop Undertaker from growing and simply killing them while surviving. I’d even say that GvG was good for Undertaker – some powerful Deathrattle cards like Piloted Shredder or another 1-drop Deathrattle – Clockwork Gnome, which were obviously used in Undertaker Hunter too. On top of that, Hunter has got another very powerful tool – Glaivezooka – which made the Aggro Hunter decks even stronger.
In the end, Undertaker was nerfed about 6 months after it was released, or almost 2 months after GvG was released, in January 2015. No one missed him.
People who have started playing Hearthstone quite recently probably know Freeze Mage as a rather niche deck. It’s cool, it’s gimmicky, it’s annoying to play against, it’s powerful in certain matchup but gets straight up countered by others… Standard stuff. But some of you may now know that Freeze Mage is one of the oldest decks in Hearthstone. It was actually the first full deck I’ve built when I’ve started playing the game back in September 2013. It was different than most of the decks, it felt really amazing to play it, because instead of playing minions on the curve it did something fun – it stalled the game, then burned down the opponent.
On the right side, you can see an example Freeze Mage deck from those times. Do you notice something weird about it? Hmm… Yes, all the AoE freezes are 1 mana cheaper. Oh, and the Pyroblast is at 8 mana instead of 10. I’ve mentioned the Leeroy being at 4 mana earlier in the article already, but yes, it’s also played in this deck (why not play the third Fireball?). And yes, the deck was really broken. While Cone of Cold only sees occasional play after the nerf to 4 mana, it was very viable at 3 mana. And both Frost Nova at 2 mana and Blizzard at 5 mana were straight up broken. Stalling the game was even easier than it is now. Not only Aggro decks weren’t as popular (there wasn’t even a reason to play Ice Barrier, even if you had an occasional Aggro deck, it was way slower than it is now – combination of early removals, AoEs and Doomsayer was usually enough to stop it.
So, what was the counter, you might ask? Control Warrior wasn’t a thing yet back then. But you know what was? Healadin. Or, well, Control Paladin. Basically a slow Paladin decks with TONS of healing. Back then, we didn’t have as many healing options as we have right now. Paladin was the master of healing – the deck used to run cards like Holy Light, Guardian of Kings, Lay on Hands, sometimes even some neutral healing options like Earthen Ring Farseer. Well, the deck wasn’t exactly a straight up counter, but it was basically a contest of whether you draw more burn or Paladin draws more healing. There was no Emperor Thaurissan to even attempt a 1-turn-kill, so in some games you just run out of burn.
In the end, since the freeze mechanic was deemed “too annoying to play against” (and well, for a good reason), the 3 cards were nerfed in December 2013. Shortly after (January 2014), Pyroblast was also nerfed to 8 mana (also for a good reason, I remember some games where all you needed to do was 10 damage, then turn 8 Pyro into turn 9 Pyro to win the game, while you couldn’t be killed thanks to the Ice Block). And so, the broken-as-hell Freeze Mage didn’t exist any longer. However, it doesn’t mean that the deck was gone. Sometimes Blizzard hit really right with the nerfs – at 1 more mana the cards were still playable, but they weren’t broken anymore. And well, Freeze Mage exists to this day – while it’s not a very popular ladder choice in the current meta, it’s a deck that will always eventually find its way – either to the tournament play or the ladder.
Once again, some of you might not remember, but Warsong Commander is another card that was changed not once, not twice, but three times. The first change is quite meaningless – it has happened somewhere during the Alpha, so we can just ignore it. Back when I’ve started playing, we had the second version of the Warsong Commander. The most powerful of them all.
3 mana 2/3 minion that gives all your other minions Charge. What can possibly go wrong? Even in the dark ages of Hearthstone, when everyone sucked at deck building, people have realized how powerful that card is. I mean, giving ANYTHING Charge means that some crazy combos could be possible, possible quite easily. The first notable usage of the card was in the Molten Giant OTK Warrior deck. Basically, the deck’s goal was to get down to 10 or less health without dying and then just win the game. Just like that? Well, yeah. Warsong Commander + Molten Giant (pre-nerf ones used to cost 20) + 2x Youthful Brewmaster = 30 damage (24 from 3 Giant hits, 2x 3 from Brewmasters). Perfect 7 mana OTK, you didn’t need to play Emperor Thaurissan or anything like that. Of course, you often didn’t need the whole combo to win – sometimes charging 2x 8/8 was alone to assert the dominance. But instead of talking, let me show you how the combo looked in action:
Of course, there was some counterplay – often even a single Taunt could stop the “OTK”, trying to burst the Warrior down from ~20 health, basically making him unable to play the Giants was another tactic. The deck wasn’t as powerful as many other combo decks were throughout the history, but you also need to understand that the information spread was much slower. A lot of people have just got into the beta and didn’t really read reddit or whatever, they’ve just played it. “Playing around” something was often unthinkable, and so OTK Warriors were semi-popular on the ladder. It seems like it wasn’t the Blizzard’s intention when designing this card, so in January 2014, it was nerfed and now only worked on minions with 3 or less attack. However, the card has seen virtually no play for over a year, until Blackrock Mountain pre-patch. The card was then fixed to work with SUMMONED minions, because even though the tooltip obviously said that, it didn’t work with SUMMONED minions, only PLAYED minions (and that’s a big difference). Then Blackrock Mountain hit and then… Patron Warrior was born.
Warsong Commander was undoubtedly one of the most important cards in the Patron Warrior deck. It was THE reason why the deck was so powerful and unstoppable for months straight. Since pretty much every minion in your deck had 3 or less Attack, you could basically give anything you wanted Charge. And the minions played had insane synergy with Charge – most notably two cards, Frothing Berserker and . Frothing Berserker, when given Charge, didn’t lose it even if it got buffed. Buffed A LOT. Considering that Patron Warrior played tons of Whirlwind effects, getting Frothing to 20+ attack wasn’t anything weird. With two of them, you could easily OTK your opponent. Sometimes even 60 damage combos happened. Yes, Control Warrior with tons of Armor wasn’t safe from the combos, even if he was playing the game perfectly. Then, there were Grim Patron combos. After you’ve Charged the 3/3 into something and it didn’t die, it spawned another 3/3. And that 3/3 – thanks to the pre-patch fix – also got Charge. It means that, given the right board to bump your Patrons into, you could easily get a full board while clearing a lot of stuff at the same time. Warsong Commander + Grim Patron turns often used to be full board clears and board floods at the same time. Once again, if you want to take a look at the few Grim Patron OTKs, be my guest (I’ve posted this video in my last article, but some of you might have not seen it):
All thanks to the Warsong Commander. Patron Warrior remained Tier 1 deck for 6 months straight. Even though its overall win rate on the ladder wasn’t too high, it was probably even sub 50%, certain players were consistently grinding high Legend ranks when playing Patron Warrior. It shows that the deck was insanely hard to play at the highest level. There was A LOT of planning and counting involved, you rarely could just “do whatever” and still win. Even though I’m a really fast learner, it took me over 200 Patron Warrior games to understand the deck and I can’t say that I’ve ever mastered it. I would probably have to play 2 or 3 times more games with it than I did to really master it. And for that reason, I really liked the deck. I think that we should have way more decks like that. Decks that can showcase individual player’s skill, decks that are below average in the hand of rank 15 player, but become Tier 1 when piloted correctly. Sure, Patron Warrior was TOO strong and really annoying to play against (you often had no way to counter it, he just played the combo and you died, it wasn’t exactly fun). But I’d love to see a similar concept of deck’s power scaling really well with player’s skill in the future (I mean, we have some decks like that, but not to such a huge extent).
But, back to the topic. On October 2015, just a few weeks before Blizzcon, Warsong Commander was killed. And it was one of the worst nerfs in the history. They made such an iconic card completely garbage. The nerf was so bad that even now, 1.5 years later, I still see “give your X minions +1 Attack” memes. It wasn’t the last word of Patron Warrior, the deck had seen a resurgence in popularity a few months later, but it was never as good without the Warsong.
Force of Nature + Savage Roar
Well, technically only Force of Nature was nerfed. And not so much “nerfed” as Changed, however the new version of the card was so weak that it has never seen any Constructed play (outside of playing it from Raven Idol). This is the most recent of the nerfs on the list, as it came with the wave of nerfs when Standard format was introduced. Druid got hit most, because besides FoN nerf, Ancient of Lore, Keeper of the Grove and Big Game Hunter (not neutral, but was played in every Druid list) got nerfed too.
But what’s the big deal with this nerf? So, before the nerf, we had a fun little combo. Force of Nature used to summon 2/2 Treants with Charge that died at the end of the turn. And Savage Roar does basically the same thing as it does now. So if you combo’d those together, you had a 14 damage combo from the hand, with no set up and no board presence. 14 damage for 9 mana doesn’t seem that oppressive. And well, the combo alone wasn’t. But the whole Midrange Druid deck was. The deck was so powerful that it used to apply constant pressure ever since turn 3-4. Playing a powerful card each turn on the curve, it was often impossible to stop it without taking damage. By turn 9, being at 14 health or lower was very common. And after you thought that you’ve already stabilized, you got combo’d.
The 14 damage combo was also only a base. Each minion on the board added to the combo, increasing the total damage heavily. With just a 2 attack minion and 5 attack minion on the board (let’s say Keeper of the Grove and Loatheb, because you often set up the combo with Loatheb), the combo did 25 damage instead. Druid had 7 attack on the board, BOOM, he has 25. On top of that, the combo wasn’t necessarily one-of (well, it was in some builds throughout the history, but most of the time there were 2 copies of each card). You also need to remember that Druid used to run Shade of Naxxramas – the card was growing in Stealth, pretty much safe from removals, often waiting for the combo turn. If you set up the Shade of Naxxramas a few turns before the combo, you could easily deal extra 6-7 damage with it.
If you drew two combos, you could just play one this turn and the second one next turn. No problem. Then again, with the help of Innervate, Emperor Thaurissan or both, you could perform a “double combo” – people used to call Force of Nature + 2x Savage Roar combination this way. This was even more powerful, as it did 22 damage from the empty board. In some matchups, in really long games, you could do even better – I remember using 2x Force of Nature and Savage Roar instead, for 26 damage, which was nearly always enough to kill my opponent. Here’s the example of “double combo” in action:
Those nerfs were in line with Blizzard consistently nerfing other combos. It seems that they just don’t want to have combo cards in Hearthstone. Midrange Druid (often called Combo Druid) was one of my most played decks ever. Even though the deck was pretty straightforward and easy to play, I’ve enjoyed it. I hit high Legend ranks on multiple occasions when playing the deck, so I will always remember it well. But at the same time, I know that most of the players have hated the deck and the combo very, very much.
That’s all folks. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the read about nerfed cards. While I agree with those nerfs (well, it’s hard to not agree), some of them were performed a little bit poorly and well, nostalgia won’t let me hate those cards after so long. I’d honestly love to see a Tavern Brawl with all cards being un-nerfed versions of themselves. While such ladder would be the worst experience ever, I think it would be fun to relive some of the combos and powerful decks in the Brawl environment. What do you think?
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Good luck on the ladder and until next time!