Small-Time Buccaneer has become arguably the most meta-warping card in the game. Warrior, Shaman and Rogue have risen on the back of its insane synergy with Patches and low-cost weapons. Meanwhile Paladin and Hunter’s lack of cheap weapons for the “pirate package” has lead to their near-extinction from the meta. This power has not gone unnoticed; in a recent IGN interview Mike Donais, principle game designer, indicated that the strength of the card was raising eyebrows at Team 5.
The card that I’m most worried about is Small-Time Buccaneer. That’d be the card I’m watching most closely.
– Mike Donais, speaking to IGN
So far, there seems to be growing community and developer desire for a rebalancing of Small-time Buccaneer to bring it in line with other one drops. But is such a change necessary? And what happens if the change makes the card unplayable, as happened with one drops like Leper Gnome?
Patching the Patches-summoner
The arguments for a nerf seem clear. They can be summed up as follows;
- Power: The card is simply better than almost any other one drop if you have the necessary weapon synergy
- Variance: While it does not explicitly contain any random effects, it massively increases the impact that your starting mulligan makes. The difference between Small-Time Buccaneer with a weapon and no Patches in hand and STB without and Patches in hand is equivalent to 5 stat points; and that’s assuming you draw it! It functions to make aggro matchups less strategic and more of a coin-flip
- Aggression: Small-Time Buccaneer pushes aggro decks to become more potent than perhaps they’ve ever been. Where turn 4 or 5 lethals were previously outliers, now they can be routine against many decks. Board snowballing can happen straight from turn one and happen incredibly quickly. While the level of aggro in the meta can be a matter of taste, the lack of midrange viability outside of pirate-aggro and Reno/control is surely detrimental to those who prefer that playstyle.
- Class balance: Paladin and Hunter have almost no ladder representation and few, if any, viable decks. A huge part of this is their inability to take part in or counter the swathes of Pirate decks due to their lack of early-game removal and potent, cheap weapons.
- Diversity: There is no meta-viable aggressive deck that does not incorporate Small-Time Buccaneer and the Pirate package. Unless a change is implemented, it could be argued that this will crowd out other innovative aggro decks until it rotates out of Standard.
A necess-arrrr-ry evil?
I’m not sure anyone would deny that Small-Time Buccaneer is one of the most powerful cards in the meta. However, it does have competition. Cards like Kazakus and Jade Idol, while miles slower, still have the ability to generate massive value and win games. it could be argued that Small Time Buccaneer’s power is required to prevent decks like Jade Druid and Reno Warlock, with their incredible value generation capabilities, from taking over the meta completely.
However, there are some flaws with this argument. Even greedy Renolocks can win if they draw Reno and some AOE in time. Jade Druids can hold off the aggression with a few well placed Swipes and Wraths and hide behind an Ancient of War or similar beefy taunt. While greedy control decks are indeed countered by hyper-aggressive face decks, they are arguably even harder countered by aggressive midrange. But it’s these aggressive midrange decks (in particular Midrange Hunter) that are being forced out hardest by Small-Time Buccaneer and the Pirates package. If Small-Time Buccaneer was brought down in power, then aggressive-leaning decks would likely just curve higher, play stickier minions and punish greed harder.
A Smaller-time Buccaneer
So if we take a rebalancing as necessary, what would a weaker Small-Time Buccaneer look like? Balancing one drops is notoriously tricky. With Hearthstone’s granular nature, even a single point of stats can be the difference between ubiquity and ignominy (just ask Abusive Sergeant!) Here are a few examples of how Small-Time Buccaneer could be changed while keeping it as a decent choice for Pirate decks (if not an ever-present staple for non-pirate aggro decks)
As I and others predicted a while ago, Small-Time Buccaneer quickly became a Rogue staple. Instead of providing the aggro springboard, its reliance on an anti-tempo hero power on Turn 2 made it a board control option rather than an all-in face tool. One popular community suggestion for Small-Time Buccaneer is to restrict it to a Rogue-only class card. By making Small-Time Buccaneer a Rogue-only card, the card’s aggro potential would be massively limited. In return, perhaps Rogue class card and meme Shadow Rager could go neutral with the other Ragers.
However, this is not a perfect solution. As well as being an unprecedented way of altering a card post-release, it would also make miracle Rogue relatively strong in a time where it is already top tier, while weakening its main counters. It’s also pretty unlikely that Team 5 would alter a neutral card’s “Soul” so drastically.
One sure-fire way to reduce a card’s power is to make the good numbers smaller or the bad numbers bigger. This change simply reduces the benefit from synergy by one, making it less of a powerhouse by a significant amount. While a conditional 2/2 may seem bad compared to the 2/2 Mistress of Mixtures or Enchanted Raven, the benefit from being a Pirate cannot be discounted, considering the huge stat benefit that Patches brings.
This version would likely still see play in the exact same decks, and be just somewhat less potent. While this change may seem like an easy one, the fact that it may not shake up the meta enough to bring about significant change may be a reason to discount it. It’s worth expecting that given Team 5’s extreme infrequency in balance changes, that the changes should make a big difference.
Perhaps a more divisive option would be to reduce the health of Small-Time Buccaneer to 1. No 3/1 minion for one has ever been printed (outside the cripplingly overloading Dust Devil). Reducing health would make the card far more vulnerable to pings, cheap AOE and 1 attack minions. The vulnerability would make more difference in some cases than others; Rogues, Druids and Mages would likely gain greatly from being able to hero-power it down, while Warrior and Shaman’s plethora of 1 damage options would also let them take it out with ease.
However, Hunter, Paladin, Warlock and Priest would likely still struggle, giving it a high likelihood of trading up regardless. Since Hunter and Paladin are the worst classes in the current meta, this hardly seems optimal.
One of the problems with Small-Time Buccaneer is its ease of activation. Any weapon at all counts, as long as it is equipped. Making it only work with weapons with 2 or more durability would mean more tactical choices and less all-purpose power in the dream scenario (turn one Small-Time Buccaneer into turn two weapon). Warriors and Shamans would have to choose between losing Small Time Buccaneer’s buff and a weapon charge off Fiery War Axe or Jade Claws or losing the STB altogether. As well as promoting more interesting decisions, it would make early game minions in general a more potent counter to the piratical threat, as well as reducing the variance of the card by making it less polarizing between its best and worst-case scenarios.
Downsides include benefiting 3 durability weapons like Spirit claws and N’zoth’s first mate’s Rusty Hook, and the increased complexity of the card text. Like other changes, it has the potential to be not enough to dethrone the card’s dominance.
The Soul of the Buccaneer
Team 5 has a history of not doing balancing by half-measures. Cards like Warsong Commander, Leper Gnome, Ancient of Lore and Molten Giant have gone from core staples to unplayable overnight. Completely reworking the mechanic to something that massively reduces the power level of the card to the point of effectively removing it from the game would not be exactly without precedent. Perhaps some would be happy to see such a change; and it would definitely have the desired effect of making the card less ubiquitous and powerful.
Though this is clearly an option, there are undoubtedly more elegant solutions out there that do not result in the effective removal of a card from the game.
No matter what Team 5 chooses, as long as some change does occur, the outcome is likely to be positive. Though it might not happen before the next standard rotation or perhaps even later, a bit more early-game diversity and balance is sure to be good for Hearthstone.
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