Huge Nerfs and the Return of ComboStone
The world of Hearthstone was a calm and peaceful place. Hunters, Paladins and Shamans frolicked among the tropical trees that surround Gurubashi Arena, sparring happily in a perfectly balanced contest of wills.
Soon after King Rastakhan began his reign, a great upheaval gave way to this contented state of affairs. Uther Lightbringer, together with his horde of little knights and their Raid Leaders, were knocked down a few pegs; but once he’d stood up dusted himself off with a chuckle, all was once again well in the jungle.
Or was it?
Last week, just as Deathwing swept away the old world of Azeroth, a new rumbling swept through Hearthstone. Some of the biggest nerfs to the Classic set in the game’s history came into force on February 5, and their impact has been a topic of serious debate.
Metaphors aside, it’s self-evident that the developers were not happy with the state of the metagame after the first batch of Rastakhan’s Rumble changes, back in mid-December. Two balance patches in one expansion is unprecedented.
Let’s dive into what the changes have done, why they happened and what it all means for Hearthstone going forward.
Shaman’s Renewed Plight
In Rastakhan’s first batch of nerfs on December 19, Druidstone and Kingsbane Rogue were put to a firm end. Through the Saronite Chain Gang change to no longer summon a copy of itself, Shudderwock Shaman also lost much of its strength. According to HSReplay, the once-menacing Shudderwock Shaman now languishes at a measly 40% winrate.
This reduced Shaman’s roster of competitive decklists to Even token decks, based around plentiful value-heavy Elementals and burst damage. As of last week, poor Thrall can barely rely on Genn Greymane at all.
With Flametongue Totem now at 3 Mana, Shaman’s overall viability as a class has taken a serious hit. It has no deck above 1% popularity, with its strongest Even deck at 0.4% – meaning less than 1/100th of HSReplay’s sample of over 7 million games played in the last week featured the class’s best deck. Meanwhile, Druid – whose demise was widely foretold following the Wild Growth and Nourish nerfs – is actually more than twice as popular as Shaman in Ranked.
It appears that in the perhaps never-ending quest for increased deck diversity, Thrall has largely failed the quest objectives. A recent interview by Iksar, a developer, revealed that Shaman has been particularly challenging to design for, due to their Swiss army knife-style flexibility. Shamans are about summoning totems – and then what?
The Shamanstone (4 Mana 7/7! 2 Mana 3/4! 0 Mana 5/5 Taunt! By the Holy Light!) of yore is well and truly a thing of the past. Where can the class turn from here? I’m betting that Thrall’s sub-optimal state right now is temporary purgatory before a much-needed boost in the next expansion, but of course we’ll have to wait and see.
Be Careful What You Wish For
The new meta master, if the official forums and Reddit would have you believe, is OTK, with Priest at the forefront. Mind Blast, Malygos and Prophet Velen, combined with various cloning and resurrect cards into a fearsome instant-death deck , is terrorizing Ranked mode. A Mecha’thun version also exists, which Iksar singled out as a serious offender in terms of gameplay and interactivity.
The complaints are the usual ones, which are all but guaranteed to resurface whenever combo decks are strong. It’s uninteractive: you cannot stop Velen or Malygos from dying or being copied. It’s got very little counterplay: you can’t rush face or Silence anything, because of its plethora of board clears and heals. It’s too expensive/it’s pay-to-win: the deck can cost nearly 10k Arcane Dust.
We’ve heard all this before. If aggro is weak, which most players and commentators would seem to prefer, then combo decks, therefore, must be stronger. It is the nature of combo decks that they feature complex cards (eg. Zerek’s Cloning Gallery), which are rarer and thus more expensive.
Most of the best combo decks of the past have also been more or less ‘uninteractive’. Miracle Rogue, the now-tarnished gem of pro players and streamers alike, was one. Quest Rogue was another. Malygos decks of every variety tend to revolve around insane bursts of damage with next to no setup or board presence. Why else do such cards exist?
Some combo decks have indeed been absurdly one-sided, like beta’s Molten Giant Warrior and today’s Barnes decks in Wild. But done well, combo decks symbolize what is good about Hearthstone. Aggro invites its worst qualities.
My point is that combo decks will always be a sizeable part of the Ranked ladder, and it’s usually a good thing when aggro forms a smaller part. If you want old-school minion-based trading, play Arena.
Attack on Planet Classic
One of the major criticisms of this set of changes is that it’s yet another example of the slow leeching of power away from the evergreen Classic set. I made the point in a previous article that Team 5’s more vigorous nerf pacing would be the biggest overall change to Hearthstone in the coming year. It’s clear now that we’re already seeing the effects of that new level of responsiveness, for better or worse.
The patch notes begin with a huge understatement: “[w]e think Hearthstone is most fun when strategies are consistently evolving.” This is a fundamental point that I believe underpins, if not dictates, the entirety of Hearthstone’s design philosophy.
Ultimately, the goal with every change has to be freshness. Novelty is what most players of more than a couple months crave, and all additions to the game must reflect that imperative.
It doesn’t matter if the decks containing nerfed cards aren’t the most popular. If it was otherwise, Hunter and Odd Paladin would have been hit a lot harder. Shudderwock Shaman was somewhat rare before the Saronite change, as was Malygos Druid.
It’s for this reason that when immensely popular cards do get nerfed, it’s less often and usually less drastic. 6 Mana Emerald Spellstone is really just a slap on the wrist, and actually opens up the possibility of Even Hunter
Was Baku the reason why Equality had to be 4 Mana? Developer Iksar says no. If 3 Mana Equality was the correct solution, Odd Paladin itself would then be adjusted. I think this nerf will soon become one of those changes we look back upon, and express astonishment that it was ever different.
Remember when Fiery War Axe was 2 Mana? The Win Axe was the definition of an auto-include. We’ll soon view 2 Mana Equality in the same way, and Cold Blood too.