Hate cards are a class of cards within Hearthstone. These cards are specifically designed to provide an easy answer for specific issues player's may be encountering. Counter cards are a useful tool for developers to keep certain styles in cheque without having to constantly nerf them. The industry term for this design is a "safety valve":
Creating cards that offer a safety valve in case particular strategies become very popular is a common tactic in TCG development. In general, it’s a good philosophy, because it rewards format knowledge and intelligent deck building, and encourages the ebb and flow of the metagame as different strategies come in and out of prominence. Kezan Mystic is a great example of this. As Mech Mage and Midrange Hunter decks have grown in popularity, players have started using the Mystic in response to the popularity of traps.
The Problem of Big Game Hunter: I’ve Got the Fun in my Sights! by Brian "Brian Kibler" Kibler
The Problem of Big Game Hunter: I’ve Got the Fun in my Sights! by Brian "Brian Kibler" Kibler
Understanding how hate cards are designed and how best to use them is an important skill for all Hearthstone players. There are, however, more than one type of hate card. And among those hate cards, there are various knobs and dials which can be adjusted. Once all the design choices are made, players must add them all together and ultimately determine the playability of each card in their given metagame.
Types of Hate Cards
When it comes to designing hate cards there are two different paths you can take. There are hate cards which target a specific style of deck and there are hate cards which target a specific style of card.
Hate cards designed to target a style of deck aim to exploit the very cohesion that makes a deck powerful in the first place. Take Flamestrike for example. Flamestrike is a hate card aimed at keeping aggro and fast-midrange decks in check. The aforementioned decks are powerful because they all of their minions are low curve and can fill the board. Flamestrike is a perfect answer here because it exploits what is otherwise a strength of these aggro decks.
Hate cards designed to target a style of card aim to have a very specific effect and a reasonable stat line to compensate for times when they cannot find a target. Cabal Shadow Priest is one such example. While the Shadow Priest may not always find a minion under two Attack, a stat line weighing in at 4/5 is not wholly unreasonable. Evaluating the rate on these cards, however, is usually a bit tricky. When Cabal Shadow Priest finds a target its net value is worth more than six mana; on the other hand, a six mana 4/5 vanilla does not make the cut in constructed.
Characteristics of Hate Cards
Once the specific hate card has a target, there are still many decisions to be made: mumber of targets, mana cost versus size of the minion, variance of impact, variance in mana value, and probability of occurring are all key factors. The challenge for designers are to find the balance in these factors. For players, the challenge is finding which cards offer the best payoff most often.
The first design question is rather straightforward: do you want the card to hit one target or many? Cards such as Big Game Hunter or The Black Knight are powerful single-target effects where as Blood Knight or Mass Dispel have a lesser effect but more targets. In these cases, the latter must be more cautiously built. The tuning on hate cards that effect multiple targets must be very tight because they can have near infinite value in the right situations.
I mentioned earlier that stat budgets for hate cards are lower than a vanilla minion in that slot. As a result of this, playing hate cards is a risk because they are all negative tempo if they can't find a target. As a general rule, minions are generally one half to two mana over costed for their size: see Cabal Shadow Priest or Stampeding Kodo and Loatheb for a notable exception. The smaller a minion is compared to its mana cost the greater its effect will be so finding the balance is your challenge.
Variance within the impact of an effect is one of the harder aspects to evaluate. One of the reasons Big Game Hunter is so popular is that he has very low variance in the impact of his effect: always killing a seven plus attack minion is a very consistent effect. Acidic Swamp Ooze, on the other hand, has high variance in its impact since the weapons it can kill vary greatly in cost and value. These cards with higher variance, however, are those which tend to be more skill intensive. Cabal Shadow Priest against aggro decks is a good example. The Shadow Priest will always have targets so the player is required to determine if they should cash in the effect or wait and gamble for a higher payout.
The variance in mana value is where all of these factors culminate: how much mana are you sacrificing when you miss versus gaining when you hit? As a designer, this is where you need to try and strike a balance. Massive tempo swings in the mid game are generally not what you want to see as a designer because they tend to render the early game irrelevant. This is why very swingy cards -- such as Flamestrike -- tend to occupy the top of the curve.
Chance of Occurrence and Popularity
Despite all of these factors, the most important aspect of a hate card is how well it fits into the meta. No matter how strong Hungry Crab is, you are not going to run it because of how rarely it will find targets: unless, of course, you are Trump. In less extreme cases, the choice to play a card should be based on all of the above stats and criterion.
To simplify all of this data we have made this handy chart defining the key characteristics of each hate card. Then despite the fact that the actual numbers are known only to Blizzard, we will assess the probability of each effect to occur in a match. Bear in mind some approximation had to occur in the creation of this table; for example, 4/2s and 3/3s are counted as having a mana value of two and a half. Furthermore, some of the cards which can hit multiple targets are hard to define in terms of maximum impact. While it is in theory possible to calculate, knowing the value of a Blood Knight which eats seven Divine Shields is not super relevant so these cards were given a max value of ∞. Most of those numbers were added more for completion over accuracy.
Note: Aldor Peace Keeper and Vol'Jin are listed here as they are both highly efficient ways of dealing with large minions.
How Can I Apply This Information
All of this information is nice but how can you actually convert it into ladder wins? The most important part – as mentioned above – is understanding the meta and the decks you are likely to play against. In terms of a direct example, let’s take a look at The Black Knight.
The Black Knight is obviously a very powerful hate card for handling Taunts. Looking at the table we see that The Black Knight has a body worth four mana and that we’re paying two extra mana for the potential upside of his ability. We’ve listed the value of The Black Knight’s effect as ranging from two to six mana or four mana on average. We can say, therefore, that if The Black Knight finds a target in 50% of your games you can break even. That being said, including a hate card in your deck does come at the additional cost of watering down any other synergy components you may have. It’s probably better then to wait until The Black Knight is finding targets more than 50% of the time if you want to run him. From the current meta, for example, Combo Druid and Zoo usually runs three to four Taunts, Handlock will run many, but Patron generally no longer has any.
What This All Means and Potential Changes
Unlike the past article on randomness, where a number of cards were problematic for the game, most of the hate cards currently available are well balanced and implemented. The only two cards which stick out are Loatheb and Big Game Hunter.
While Loatheb does not stick out as a particularly over-powered card, there are two small issues with his design. Firstly, he is not below curve for a five drop so his effect is free; secondly, he goes against Blizzard's design philosophy of not having cards that prevent your opponent from playing on their turn. At the end of the day, however, neither of these issues are particularly problematic and the game is better off as a whole with Loatheb in it because he interacts with the powerful spell-based combo decks.
Big Game Hunter is similar to Loatheb in that he's good for the game but his mana efficiency is obscenely high. Not only does Big Game Hunter kill high cost minions, he does so at the opportunity cost of only half a mana compared to other three drops. In terms of potential fixes, Big Game Hunter could be changed to a more Kodo-like five mana 3/5. This change would fix the issue of Big Game Hunter being too much of a tempo swing and may remove him from his auto-include status. The downside of this change, however, is that it would buff Handlock by removing an answer to the turn four Mountain Giant.
Hate cards are an important part of Hearthstone and understanding them will make you a better player. While much of the skill is reading the meta, knowing when the expected value of a hate card is still crucial to success. After all, knowing when to hit a safety valve is generally good value.