A few days after Ben Brode thanked the Hearthstone community for our “feedback” regarding Druid, Blizzard dropped a total bombshell of a balance update on us. We were all expecting Druid to get hit hard by the nerf bat, but it’s safe to say that few would have anticipated the changes which we’ll ultimately be getting.
You can read the upcoming nerfs which will be coming in patch 9.1 with the developer commentary here. The changes are as follows:
— Now reads “Gain 1 Mana Crystal this turn only”.
— Down from 2 Mana.
Fiery War Axe (Warrior)
— Now costs 3 mana.
— Up from 2 mana.
— Now costs 4 mana
— Up from 3 mana.
Murloc Warleader (Neutral)
— Now reads “Your other Murlocs have +2 Attack”.
— Down from +2 Attack and +1 Health.
Spreading Plague (Druid)
— Now costs 6 mana.
— Up from 5 mana.
Also noted in the announcement were two more cards, Ultimate Infestation and Ice Block, which were discussed as targets for potential nerfs but were ultimately left untouched. I’ll discuss these two cards a littler later in the article.
There’s no debating that these changes are massive. Whether or not the Druid menace will die as a result of these nerfs remains to be determined, but it's safe to say that the game will never be the same after patch 9.1.
Now reads “Gain 1 Mana Crystal this turn only”
Innervate was always among the contenders for a nerf when it became clear that Druid decks were performing beyond reasonable expectations. Some players discussed moving the card to the Hall of Fame but I believe that a nerf to the card’s functionality makes much more sense. Innervate would still be problematic in the Wild format if it was moved the Hall of Fame, and Blizzard has made it clear that they only intend to move cards to the Hall of Fame at the beginning of a new Hearthstone year. Something had to be done to Innervate now.
Making Innervate become The Coin doesn’t completely kill the card, but it does solve all of the biggest problems it was causing. We should know from extensive experience with The Coin what playing a card one turn ahead of schedule is like, and it’s really not that bad. Non-Miracle Rogue decks don’t run Counterfeit Coin, so I wouldn’t expect to see Innervate in anything which isn’t doesn’t feature cards that gain advantage from casting spells (such as Gadgetzan Auctioneer and Violet Teacher). The tempo advantage which Innervate provides is now too low to justify its cost of card advantage.
Innervate was a key card in both Jade and Aggro Druid, the two most oppressive Druid decks, and I fully expect that the nerf to Innervate will be a massive hit to the power level of these two decks. I don’t think that either deck will be interested in the card now, which means both decks will have to replace it with tech cards and role players.
Does the Innervate nerf kill either of these decks? Absolutely not. I’ve been beaten plenty of times by both decks even when they don’t draw Innervate. However, I do think this nerf goes a long way towards bringing the overall power level of Druid down to a much more reasonable level.
Now costs 3 mana.
Perhaps better known as “Free Win Axe”, the nerf to FWA is one I welcome with open arms. It’s long been one of the most overpowered cards in the entire game and a source of continual ire from the Hearthstone community. Much like Innervate, FWA has long been an auto-include in virtually every Warrior deck under the sun due to its absurdly high power level. Hunter and Paladin play Eaglehorn Bow and Rallying Blade as a 3 mana 3/2 weapon often with no upside, and I have little doubt that Midrange and Control Warrior decks will continue to do the same with the new FWA.
Though the nerf to FWA does hurt a good deal of Warrior decks which were perfectly healthy for the current meta, I believe this nerf will have a much bigger positive than negative impact on the health of the game. Pirate Warrior is a widely disliked deck which heavily relies on FWA for fast starts in combination with Bloodsail Raider, Dread Corsair, Upgrade, and Bloodsail Cultist. Increasing the mana cost of FWA will greatly hurt the consistency of Pirate Warrior, and I fully expect the number of Pirate Warriors on ladder to drop to a much more manageable level.
With all that said, I can’t help but feel that the nerf to FWA could have been handled better. Even though I’m happy to see it nerfed, something about leaving it at a lower power level than Rallying Blade leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Savjz had a great suggestion to have the card be only able to attack minions, which would do little to hurt Control Warrior while still hitting Pirate Warrior hard.
The most common complaint I’ve read about the nerf to FWA isn’t that the card was actually changed, but that the explanation which Blizzard offered for why they changed it was less than satisfactory:
The other option we considered for Fiery War Axe was to lower its attack to 2, but that change didn’t feel intuitive enough. Generally, changing the mana cost of a card is less disruptive, because you can always see the mana cost of cards in your hand.
Players were offended by this explanation as it implies that we’re either unable to read card text or that it’s too impractical to make changes to the actual text of a card. As we can see from the nerfs to Innervate and Murloc Warleader it’s clearly feasible to change the text of cards, so it seems that we’re either too dumb to read cards or that this particular argument for why FWA needed to be changed holds little water.
Now costs 4 Mana
This was the nerf that the community was most surprised by. Hex is largely unplayed in the current meta because Control Shaman just isn’t viable in a world of Jade Druids. The card might have been far back in the minds of most players, but this doesn’t mean that Hex wasn’t deserving of a change.
Hex is/was one of the most efficient removal spells in the entire game, and I believe that a change to 4 mana makes it more reasonable without killing its viability. It’s now pretty much in line with Polymorph which still manages to make its way into many Control Mage lists despite the efficiency of Mage’s other removal spells. I don’t think Hex will go away as a result of this nerf at all, but I do think that nerf to it opens the door for Blizzard to print a nice variety of new removal and card draw spells for Shaman.
Unlike the other nerfs we’ve read about so far, I don’t expect that there will be many decks which will cut Hex due to its increase in mana cost. It was rarely a card which was cast on curve anyways, and the decks which need it still want it badly enough that they will be willing to pay an extra mana for it.
Now reads “Your other Murlocs have +2 Attack”.
This is another nerf that people might not have been expecting but it might the update from this patch that I am most happy with. Removing the additional health that Murloc Warleader provides goes a very, very long ways towards hurting the resilience of Murloc decks without totally gutting the viability of the archetype. It feels like a win-win for everybody.
Part of the problem with Murloc Warleader was the odd interactions it created due to its health buff. Because health buffs take precedence over damage in Hearthstone, dealing 3 AOE damage to a board of 4 health Murlocs kills the 3/3 Warleader but leaves the rest of the Murlocs alive at one health. Warleader off a Finja attack (which would have otherwise dropped its health to 0) keeps the Finja alive at one health after all is said and done. This nerf will clean up all of these interactions messy interactions and more.
The change to Warleader also means that Murloc decks (particularly Murloc Paladin) can’t play so recklessly into AOE cards like Hellfire, Consecration, and Volcanic Potion. I fully anticipate that this nerf will greatly reduce the number of free wins that Murloc decks get off the classic curve of turn one Murloc Tidecaller, turn two Rockpool Hunter, turn three Murloc Warleader, turn four Gentle Megasaur. These games are unquestionably toxic and uninteresting so I’ll be happy to see them occur less frequently.
Now costs 6 mana.
Most players suspected that nerfing Innervate wouldn’t be enough to stop Jade Druid on its own. Spreading Plague was one of the other cards which was commonly discussed as a potential nerf target (along with Ultimate Infestation) so I’m not surprised to see it get hit. The card singlehandedly shored up Jade Druid’s matchups against aggressive decks and was far too effective for 5 mana.
I don’t think the real question is if Spreading Plague deserved a nerf or not, the question is if it was nerfed enough. Blizzard admits that they considered raising the cost of the card to 7 which is indicative of how big a problem this card really is. A raise to six mana ostensibly gives aggressive decks an extra turn to go wide on the board before they have to worry about facing down a board of 1/5 Taunt minions. That said, Druids will still be able to cast Spreading Plague before cards like Bloodlust become a problem if they find a single Wild Growth effect. I have my doubts that adding one mana to the cost of Spreading Plague will do much to curb its overall effectiveness and still expect to see plenty of it on the ladder.
Blizzard mentions that Ultimate Infestation “feels bad to lose to” in the patch notes, which is the understatement of the century if you ask me. The reason it feels so bad to lose to is because it is singlehandedly powerful enough to make up for a large number of mistakes made by those who play it. It feels awful to outplay a Druid opponent only to see the small advantage you worked so hard to create for yourself be completely wiped out by a card which takes almost no careful planning or skill to deploy.
I’m willing to accept the argument the problem itself isn’t Ultimate Infestation, but the effectiveness and variety of the ramp cards that Druid has access to. Between Wild Growth, Jade Blossom, Mire Keeper, and Nourish, Druid can reliably cast Ultimate Infestation multiple turns ahead of schedule when the 5 damage and 5/5 have a tremendous stabilizing effect on the board. If the card was only ever able to be cast on turn 10 it would be still be great, but it would place far more deck building restrictions on the Druid player to keep themselves alive until turn 10.
Though nerfing Innervate helps to delay the eventual casting of Ultimate Infestation, the multitude of other effective ramp cards still make it possible to reliably cast the card when it still has a major impact on the board. I just don’t think that the Innervate nerf goes far enough to curb the overall effectiveness of Ultimate Infestation to justify not changing the card in a major balance patch. As happy as I was to see Innervate and Spreading Plague get nerfed, I have a hard time understanding why Ultimate Infestation was left untouched.
Another card which has been frequently brought up in balance discussions, I’m very happy to see that Ice Block is safe for the time being. Blizzard all but guaranteed in their assessment of the card that they will put it in the Hall of Fame when the new Hearthstone year comes around. This makes sense for a variety of reasons, the most practical of which is that there is no clean way to nerf the card without completely changing its function.
I understand how this card can lead to some frustrating play experiences, particularly with newer players, and I believe there’s a good reason why the community at large would like to see it go. Quest Mage (and combo decks in general) are largely viewed as toxic to health of the game, and the deck completely relies on Ice Block to stay alive. But Ice Block also plays a critical role in the vitality of Control Mage, which I believe is quite healthy for the metagame. I’m willing to accept that Ice Block's too powerful for standard, but would need to see a more “fair” card take its place before being sending it off to the pastures of Wild.
Changes to the Meta
There is no question that both Jade Druid and Aggro Druid decks in their current state are oppressively powerful. The Druid class needed a nerf and I believe that the hit to Innervate was substantial enough to take the class down a notch.
If you were hoping that Druid would be completely dead as a result of this patch then I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. I expect both Jade and Aggro Druid to still be Tier 1 decks but that the reduced headache of toxic Innervate turns will allow opponents to make more conservative mulligan decisions. This should go a long way towards balancing the overall win rate of the class. I also believe that Midrange and Control decks which tech Skulking Geist into their lists will now be able to put up a much better fight than they were able to before.
The real winners of this expansion are non-Druid, non-Warrior, non-Shaman control decks. It was tough to justify playing a Control deck which wasn’t teched specifically to Jade Druid but I believe that it should now be safe for Control decks to start making deck building choices which will give them better matchups against a wider field. A slight downtick in Pirate Warrior and Murloc Paladin will also be great news for both Highlander Priest and Handlock.
Lost in the debate of the specifics of this update is the fact that Blizzard is showing a willingness to respond relatively quickly to community feedback, which bodes well for the longevity of the game. Even if this update wasn’t exactly what you were hoping for I think it’s fair to say that Blizzard deserves a good deal of credit for making such sweeping and overwhelmingly positive changes less than a month after the release of a new set. The nerfs might not be perfect, but I’m optimistic that they will bring about a much healthier and more diverse metagame than the one we currently have.
And now, a bonus video: