The price of losing Adventures and Hearthstone’s squeezed middle

It’s easy to imagine Ben Brode scratching his head. Team 5 have introduced a number of changes to make Hearthstone more generous. Blizzard added free weekly Tavern Brawl packs, guaranteed legendaries, no duplicate legendaries and the Welcome Bundle. What more do players want? And yet, complaints about the game’s cost only increase, especially on the Hearthstone subredddit. So what’s going on? The answer may lie in the move from Adventures to expansions, and who that affects.

Who loses?

Let’s roughly divide the Hearthstone community into three types of players. Blizzard understandably doesn’t release their internal sales and usage data, so this can’t be based in direct data. However, even painting in broad strokes can help here. We can consider how “hardcore” a player is in their spending habits and split them accordingly.

  • Casual low-spenders
  • Mid-level semi-hardcore spenders
  • Hardcore ‘Whales’

These three types of players are affected very differently; both by the generous changes and the switch to all-expansion rather than Adventure releases. Let’s look at them individually. Who wins out from these changes, and who loses?

The hardcore

Let’s talk about ‘whales’, the somewhat degrading catch-all term for people who spend the most on micro-transactions. In Hearthstone, these are the players who’ll be unpacking hundreds of packs on day one of expansion release. They likely aim for full or near-full collections, will certainly have multiple meta decks and may even craft golden cards. They may be pro or semi pro, stream or have a job related to Hearthstone.

So how do these players benefit? Well for starters, there’s one main change that has helped whales significantly. Removing unpacking duplicate legendaries has significantly buffed the benefit of opening large numbers of packs, as it’s far easier to get all or most of the legendaries if you don’t dust so many.

More importantly, hardcore players get more of what they want: content. With over a hundred cards, full-sized expansions can offer several times the raw number of cards as Adventures. This not only means more goodies to collect, it can mean more wacky, non-competitive legendaries that the hardcore player can enjoy messing around with. With Adventures, everything has to be tailored for maximal impact, but expansions can add the Yoggs, Rotfaces and Mayor Noggenfoggers.

The casual

Casual low-spenders make up the majority of Hearthstone’s user-base. They spend rarely, if at all, and mostly hover around lower ranks. They may not play Hearthstone as much, and may be more likely to be mobile users.

First off, casual players benefit most from many changes added to Hearthstone’s reward systems. Weekly packs from Tavern Brawls is great for someone who logs in less frequently. Free legendaries at the start of expansions and guaranteed legendaries in the first 10 packs is also perfect for low spenders. To round it all off, the $5 Welcome Bundle is a fantastic investment for newer players.

The casual player also wins out from the end of Adventures. Despite increases to the number of mandatory legendaries, the swap from expansions to Adventures can make it a lot easier for a starting or low-spending player to get the cards they need. The reason is simple; it’s far easier to craft commons and rares than to buy Adventures.

For low-spending casuals, the 700 gold cost per wing was a huge paywall. Often players would need to buy through all five wings for a single vital common. And with Adventures tailored for high impact, they were often necessary for a player to compete. And that $20 or 3500 gold would often be a terrible investment, as players would get tons of cards that they didn’t especially need amongst the few they actually wanted.

A squeezed middle?

So what about the mid-tier spenders? These are the players that will typically buy packs on a semi-regular basis, especially around expansions, and will only collect and craft the cards and decks they really want. Unfortunately, these are the players losing out, and make up a large proportion of the vocal, interactive community on Reddit and Blizzard’s forums.

Although they also benefit from free legendaries and packs, their proportionate impact is lower. The mid-tier spender will typically dust their unwanted legendaries anyway, making the likelihood of duplicates low regardless.

But these players are being punished by the swap to an all-expansion model. Adventures used to be perfect for mid-tier spenders. $20 for all the content was a great deal for those seeking to build a few powerful decks. But expansions make things a lot more expensive; a pre-order costs $40. But it doesn’t get you all of the content, and will often leave these players without the tools to make competitive decks for their favourite classes.

If Blizzard wants to reduce the complaints over cost on their most public forums, they need more targeted benefits for these mid-tier spenders.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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Nerf dodgers

Not every controversial card gets the nerf hammer. Sometimes, the community’s least-favourite meta-defining additions simply go on existing in their original state. Be it due to techs, rotations, meta shifts or the developers having bigger fish to fry. Meanwhile others are changed harshly, even if considered far less overpowered. What cards have consistently avoided changes despite outrage? And how did they avoid the wrath of the balance change?

Tunnel Trogg and Totem Golem

nerf

The terror of turn two, Totem Golem was never nerfed

From the moment it was introduced, Tunnel Trogg was making decks. Shortly after its release as part of LOE, there were already preliminary versions of the Aggro Shaman that would dominate the ladder for years to come. Strong one-cost minions always have the potential to be meta-defining, and Tunnel Trogg was no exception. With premium, sticky stats along with a terrifying snowball effect, it allowed for explosive Aggro openers.

Totem Golem, released earlier in the year with League of Explorers, was the perfect synergy. Tunnel Trogg into Totem Golem was a near-unbeatable one-two punch of early-game pressure. While several supporting Aggro cards were nerfed such as Tuskarr Totemic and Rockbiter Weapon, this core team was never touched. As a result, Aggro Shaman remained highly competitive and frequently tier one for almost two years.

So how did they escape changes? Part of the reason lies in how weak Shaman was prior to Tunnel Trogg. No doubt the developers didn’t want to spoil its time in the sun. By the time it was clear that Aggro Shaman was dangerously dominant, it was to be temporarily suppressed by Midrange Shaman, confusing the issue despite relying on similar cards. After Aggro Shaman found a resurgence in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan thanks to some other cards on this list, the developers considered it too close to the Standard rotation to alter Totem Golem or Tunnel Trogg. As such, this dominating pair made it into wild after almost two years of domination without any balance changes at all.

Ice Block

Ice Block is controversial, but never quite impactful enough on the meta to justify a nerf

This one is intensely divisive. Some see it as the savior of Control in a world of Aggro and Midrange. Others consider it to be antithetical to good game design, an inherently frustrating and unfair card. Whatever your opinion of it, the card’s huge power is undeniable. It defined old Freeze Mage, once the only consistently effective burst-based combo deck. Now it props up a variety of Control, Combo and even Tempo Mages. The main source of divisiveness comes not from its pure power level, but the way it renders entire boards of damage useless. You’re helpless to interact with their hero as they burst you down over multiple turns.

RNG card generation has made things even more frustrating. With the potential of four or more of these defensive secrets per game through cards like Primordial Glyph, Babbling Book and Cabalist’s Tome, some games can feel completely lacking in interactivity. But despite these frustrations, it has never seen a balance change.

Part of the reason is its relatively limited impact on the meta. Freeze Mage and its contemporaries never truly dominated to the extent that decks like Midrange Shaman or Pirate Warrior did. A high skill cap, limited flexibility against Aggro and hard counters like Secret removal or Control Warrior kept it relatively constrained.

Now Ice Block seems to be on the dev’s hit-list, but its success now may work in its favour. As an iconic Classic card, Team 5 say they will likely consider moving it to Wild instead of changing it. This lets it live on in perpetuity, as well as granting it another season of Standard before the end-of-year rotations.

Patches the Pirate

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It’s hard to think of a nerf for Patches that makes sense

Patches may be the single most impactful Hearthstone card of all time. Currently, around 30% of the decks on Ladder run it according to hsreplay.net. In the past, this has been even higher. Patches’ power is hard to properly calculate. He typically costs zero mana and zero cards (as well as thinning your deck). His only downside is the requirement to run Pirates, and the possibility of drawing him. The massive disparity between Patches the free minion and Patches the Stonetusk Boar is represented in deck winrates. Typically, the winrate nosedives below 50% when he’s drawn and shoots up when he’s pulled from the deck.

As incredibly powerful, virtually mandatory, meta shaping aggro card, it’s hard to see why Patches was never changed. But things become clearer when you consider the nature of the card. Patches is a 1/1, meaning that the stats could not be reduced without utterly destroying the card. The mana cost is almost always irrelevant, and when it isn’t, Patches is not an issue. If anything, increasing the mana cost would simply be a buff to Evolve Shaman. The only other sensible option would be to remove his Charge, but considering his voice lines, concept and art all imply charge, that would be an unsatisfactory solution.

As it is, it’s likely we’ll not see any changes to Patches until he fires off to take charge of Wild with the next Standard rotation.

Jades

nerf

Some jade cards are significantly undercosted; but changing them would be delicate

There are a number of Jade cards that are powerful. Beyond the oft-griped about Jade Idol, there are the incredibly efficient Jade Claws and Jade Lightning in Shaman, and the ubiquitous Aya Blackpaw. While the former is credited with near single-handedly killing off Control decks, Claws and Lightning’s incredible tempo made them strong in almost every Shaman deck. Aya on the other hand is arguably better than a tri-class Savannah Highmane, offering huge stats split across three awkward bodies.

There are two main reasons why these controversial and powerful cards haven’t seen significant balance changes. Firstly, they were largely propping up otherwise mediocre classes. For a long time, Druid had little to offer other than Jade. Meanwhile, Shaman is only just competitive with its single Evolve archetype. Despite being incredibly strong cards, when they were part of overpowered decks, other cards took the heat instead as designers were slow to nerf flagship new mechanics like Jade.

The second reason is down to Jade’s ‘parasitic’ nature. As each Jade card’s power is heavily dependent on the density of other Jade cards, nerfing one can have massive consequences. Even making a single one slightly too slow or over-costed is enough to prevent Jade from working. Just look at Jade Rogue; simply the lack of a third class Jade option meant that despite efficient Jade tools, it never took off. Even Shaman’s slightly over-costed Jade Chieftain led to Jade Shaman being far less successful than Jade Druid.

For these reasons, the developers seem to be more keen on printing counters to Jade and hitting adjacent cards than altering itself. That philosophy recently saw Spreading Plague, Hex and Innervate hit instead of the core Jade options. If that mindset persists, it’s unlikely we’ll see any future changes until they rotate out next year.

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. Deck stats via hsreplay.net.

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The Patches problem: Good legendaries, expensive decks?

With a new expansion coming up, the debate around Hearthstone’s cost has come up again. The pre-order tempts some, but many more are having conflicted thoughts. Despite guaranteed and free legendaries, weekly brawl packs and free arena runs, the perceived cost of maintaining a competitive or semi-competitive collection is higher than ever. With users arguably receiving more handouts, the reasons behind this are often down to a fundamental dilemma in the design of Legendary minions.

Tempo Rogue, the new Wallet Warrior?

The best Vanilla legendaries were slow

One reason why Hearthstone feels a lot more expensive is the rising dust cost of many decks. For example, let’s look at the latest meta tyrant; Tempo Rogue. Aggro/Midrange decks used to be the cheapest, but modern optimised Tempo Rogues run similar numbers of legendaries to old Control Warriors.

In Classic, Wallet Warrior’s legendary heavy lists included cards like Harrison, Cairne, Sylvanas, Ragnaros, Alexstrasza, Grommash, Baron Geddon and Ysera. Only the greediest lists would include all of these cards, with many eschewing one or more. If we expect typical Wallet Warrior to have five to seven legendaries, then lists like Ike’s Barnes Tempo Rogue begin to look similarly restrictive. With seven legendaries (with multiple more optional inclusions), the dust cost of this popular, competitive Aggro/Midrange deck is on par with the most expensive decks of old. And it’s not just Rogues. Even historically cheap decks like Zoo and Midrange Paladin require multiple legendaries and handfuls of Epics. Though budget lists are available, they often pale in comparison in power level.

How did this happen? Why are almost all competitive decks so dependent on legendaries and epics?

The rise of the early-game legendary

Low-cost Classic legendaries weren’t exactly Aggro powerhouses

The problem can be summed up in two ways. Top-level legendaries became mandatory for non-control decks, especially Aggro. From Vanilla to Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, there were very few truly game-changing early legendaries for Aggro (arguably Sir Finley Mrrglton, though he was less vital for board presence). Sure, there was Bloodmage Thalnos and Edwin Vancleef, but these were combo tools more than Aggro. Leeroy was always an ever-present burst option, but only as a late-game finisher.

Legendaries were often necessary, of course, but they came down in more niche Control decks, at less vital stages of the game. Sure, getting that Doctor Boom down on seven was important for a lot of decks, but far less important than it is to draw Keleseth or to pull Patches. legendaries felt impactful, due to their high cost and impressive effects, whilst being less impactful in reality. This meant that low-budget players could still compete, while those with legendaries still felt awesome using them.

Pricey pirates and Princes

The problem of the Aggro, mandatory legendary is Patches. Patches is a huge stumbling block for any new or returning player due to the sheer number of decks that rely on him. Unlike other legendaries, he practically must be crafted, as no adequate substitute exists. And the decks he works best in are the decks that would otherwise be the cheapest! Patches effectively adds a 1600 dust hurdle to any new collection, and severely cuts into the amount of dust players have left over for fun experimentation.

This got worse with the introduction of Prince Keleseth. The surprisingly effective two-drop redefined Rogue and Zoo Warlock with its incredible power. But aside from making it unreliable, Keleseth’s Legendary status adds yet another 1600 dust barrier to those seeking to do well on ladder.

The problem with these uber-powerful early-game legendaries is that they make the decks that should be cheap as expensive as the ones that already cost a lot, squeezing out anyone who wants to do even moderately well on a budget.

Rethinking legendaries

Should Team 5 stop making legendaries like Patches?

There are two ways around this. One would be to accept that Aggro decks will continue to be expensive, and continue to price ladder success highly. This could be combined with printing fewer high-powered late-game Legendaries, making Control and Midrange cheaper. However, this would restrict the number of cool, powerful one-off effects that make those kinds of decks so interesting.

The best option might simply be to stop printing incredibly powerful early legendaries. Aggro and Midrange rely on these board-establishing minions to compete. Making them Legendary only increases both the barrier of entry and the variance to detrimental extents.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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Will Kobolds and Catacombs’ Legendary weapons belong in a museum?

Kobolds and Catacombs, Hearthstone’s upcoming expansion, is all about treasure. Among the fantastical trophies are new Legendary weapons. With one per class, it will give even non-weapon classes powerful options.

But these unique cards have an Achilles’ heel. There are a very limited number of incredibly potent Weapon removal cards in Hearthstone. With tech so few but so impactful, will this make the new weapons dead on arrival?

Echoes of a hunter

Every class will have new legendary weapons, but will they be too easily countered?

To understand the danger of overly powerful tech, we need to go back in time. Big Game Hunter in its original three mana state was the epitome of the overly impactful tech card. The 4/2 terror was a good enough tempo play to include in almost any deck. Even those with multiple efficient hard removal options like Control Warrior could run it.

The sheer crushing efficiency of a well-timed BGH shut out a huge number of 7+ attack minions from the meta. Even the mighty Ragnaros could often find itself squeezed out.

The problem with BGH was that although it was never “OP” (as the meta could react to its presence), it still had a hugely disproportionate warping effect. Numerous big and fun minions never got a chance to shine. When it was nerfed to five mana, it opened up many new opportunities for both deckbuilding and card design. But what has this got to do with weapons?

More than playability

weapons

BGH was powerful, but its impact was far greater than just its winrate

When we consider a card’s “power”, we often think about how good it is in a given deck or game situation. But “power” can be more than that; it can also be a measure of how much it impacts the meta. A deck’s 52% winrate is one thing if it’s a rising star and another if it’s two months into the expansion and every other deck is specifically targeting it.

Similarly, a card can be powerful even if it has a mediocre winrate when played if it has a disproportionate impact on what other cards, classes or archetypes are viable.

Big Game Hunter wasn’t the most overpowered card in its three mana state. But as a near-universal option with very little downside, it shut off so many cards that it was eventually nerfed. Similarly, weapon removal cards could be an overly impactful option if every class gets expensive, powerful weapons.

Scaling up

The current weapon removals we have make sense in a world of cheap weapons. Since cards like War Axe, Jade Claws and the Rogue hero power cost very little, the cards to counter them have to be cheap and efficient to matter. It’s fine to have a weapon destruction effect on a two mana 3/2 or a three mana 3/3 when you’re countering the cheap cards of aggressive decks.

The problem is that these cards are designed to efficiently beat cheap weapons, but they’re far more effective at defeating expensive options. Spending two mana to kill a 3/1 War Axe is one thing, it’s quite another to shut down a Gorehowl.

If Kobolds and Catacombs adds loads of powerful, expensive weaponry, then weapon removal simply becomes too crushing to pass up on. This not only limits the impact of cool new cards, it has knock on effects for classes that typically run weapons like Warrior and Hunter. With everyone running more weapons and weapon removal, there’s little reason to choose classes whose strengths are weapons.

All or nothing

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, the problem is knotty, and not as simple as changing a single card. Most effective weapon removal is all or nothing, destroying them outright. This makes it equally effective at taking out cheap weapons as expensive ones. What’s more, these cards can’t just be nerfed; cheap weapons still need a counter, and there are few ways to interact with them otherwise. In order to fix this, Blizzard needs to adopt a multi-pronged strategy.

First, there needs to be more cards that counter cheap weapons or soft-counter weapons in general. More freeze minions and effects, more ways of reducing attack and durability rather than killing weapons outright, and other innovative strategies to deal with weapons in ways that don’t scale disproportionately.

Oozes and adventurers

weapons

Ooze doesn’t care if you have a Doomhammer or a Light’s Justice; they all get slimed

Then there needs to be changes to existing weapon techs. Acidic Swamp Ooze and its Gluttonous counterpart look to be the biggest targets. As a neutral two mana basic with an aggressive statline, Ironbeak Owl was a similar card that saw a nerf. Gluttonous Ooze is a bit more niche, expensive and defensive but still could shut down expensive weapons too harshly. They could either be rotated out or changed to interact with weapons in a less all-or-nothing fashion. They, for instance, could reduce a weapons attack by three, or reduce durability by two. Harrison Jones may also be problematic, but as a five mana investment it could remain a necessary, more dedicated counter to expensive weaponry.

As it is, the results will not be completely disastrous. The meta will adapt as ever, and a few of the best weapons will likely find a place in it, checked by tech. But if you run the risk of running the cool new Legendary weapon you unpacked, just be prepared to give your opponent a healthy museum collection.

 

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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Does design space matter?

‘Design Space’ has become a bit of a meme. The designer terminology has been widely mocked since the Blade Flurry nerf. But for all the rhetoric, what does design space actually mean? Why is it so important? And is it a valid reason to change or rotate cards? To understand this, we first need to understand the different types and impacts of design space.

What is design space?

Design space, is essentially the possibility of all the potential cards that could reasonably be designed for Hearthstone. The exact limits would be subjective, but contains all reasonably straightforward cards that fall within accepted power levels. This will vary depending on who you ask; for instance, designer Mike Donais famously jumps at the opportunity to print a card that breaks unspoken rules. But generally, it consists of all possible cards that would not be obscenely overpowered or underpowered, would massively undermine class identity or would be exceedingly unfun to play against.

Considering design space’s flexibility, it might not make sense to justify changes or rotations based on it. But cards can have a massive impact on design space, regardless of where you consider the exact borders are.

Negative design space

Changing cards like Charge opens design space, but may reduce current diversity

Negative design space is what we’re most familiar with. This is the concept of certain cards ‘restricting’ the ability of the developers to design. A card reduces design space when it interacts with a theoretical card to produce an unfair, overpowered, or otherwise game-breaking result. This means that the theoretical card could no longer fall into “could be printed” and into “would break the game”. This can apply to whole swathes of theoretical card.

Take Warrior’s Charge in its 3 mana single-target incarnation. This version of Charge made a lot of potential cards untenable. Its ability to give any minion charge meant that cheap minions with Windfury were often limited due to being able to push huge OTK damage with buffs.

In Charge’s new iteration that does not allow for hero damage, it opens up great many more possibilities, specifically Un’goro’s Adapt minions with their cheap Windfury potential.

What did Blade Flurry die for?

Envenom Weapon didn’t even work with Blade Flurry

Blade Flurry is the most infamous change justified by restricted design space. It also provoked the widespread use of sarcastic comments of “design space” being freed up on every bad Rogue card since.

For the uninitiated, Blade Flurry was once a terrifying tool in Rogue’s arsenal. At 2 mana, it could cut through a board and deal massive face damage; especially with Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil weapon buffs. But “Oil Rogue” ended when Blade Flurry’s cost was doubled, and the face damage was removed. This is par for the course; but the justification was new. Instead of simply stating it was too powerful, Team 5 also invoked design space; stating it was “an obstacle to adding better cards for Rogues”.

Many took this to mean new, powerful Rogue weapons and weapon buffs as powerful as Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil were forthcoming. However, they were disappointed for a long time. Only Un’goro, which released nearly a year after the change, contained any substantial weapon buffs in Envenom Weapon (which didn’t even synergise!).

So was the ‘Design Space’ justification just a poorly thought-out excuse?

Means to an End?

Blade Flurry was purportedly changed for new Rogue cards, but it took a while

The answer to that question may depend on whether you view design space as a good thing on its own, or only if it results in more varied cards. And the answer to that question might depend on whether you’re on Team 5 or not.

From a consumer perspective, design space on its own doesn’t seem to do much good. Sure, it’s heartening to think of all the possible fantastic card creations that might have made it, but it doesn’t make much difference if it doesn’t actually translate to new gameplay. The Rogue player who can’t make a Control deck due to a lack of a board clear isn’t much cheered by the fact that the developers could have added all sorts of cool new cards, but then didn’t.

But it might be worth having some empathy with the designers for. Though it might not always be capitalised on, design space can give devs the breathing room they need to innovate. While it may not be directly utilised, it makes for easier testing without too much worrying about broken interactions and starting from scratch. So while we may not appreciate the direct benefits, it may be worth considering the indirect bonuses it brings.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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Warrior’s next good 2 drop

For the first time in the class’ history, Warrior is well and truly in the dumpster. With historically low play and win rates on ladder, the War Axe nerf’s impact has been staggering. Clearly, the class will need additional early game tools in order to remain relevant in future expansions. But what should warrior’s replacement 2 drops look like?

Looking back

Warrior has a number of other viable turn 2 options. Unfortunately, none of them are on par with other classes’ options, or can be a viable successor to the “Win Axe”.

Armorsmith is a decent anti-aggro option, but can’t generate board control against anything with more than one attack. Cruel Taskmaster is similarly weak, with the added caveat of being more niche. Heroic Strike could, theoretically, be used as a removal as well as a burst tool, though that has never turned out well in anything other than aggro decks. And Slam can almost never get a card draw and lead to a  minion being killed on 2.

The common theme of these cards is not that they aren’t useful, it’s just that they lack efficiency and value. Warrior could afford to run niche cards thanks to the supreme early efficiency of War Axe; without it, they’re left with nothing that can efficiently fight for board without expending too many resources. In order to fix this, Blizzard could look to a number of other classes for inspiration.

Synergistic Draw

Is card advantage the key to 2 drops? If so, we might see an “Armor-ologist”

One of the most impactful 2 drops in recent memory has been Mage’s Arcanologist. With a powerful synergistic battlecry, it paved the way for a variety of Control, Tempo and Freeze Mages. It’s battlecry meant that despite being a relatively unimpactful two-drop, it generated card advantage while fighting for the board.

Obviously, Warrior can’t just copy Arcanologist; the class has no secrets. And an Arcanologist for Weapons would likely be both slightly too strong and too aggressive. A better option might be s 2 cost minion that draws an Armor-gain or Armor-synergy card from your deck; rewarding more controlling warrior, and ones that play around with lifegain.

Utility Generation

Cheap spell generation can be great in certain decks

Another impactful 2 drop to copy from could be Razorpetal Lasher. This unassuming 2/2 can generate surprising value from the 1 mana 1 damage spell it adds to your hand. With Warrior’s surplus of low-impact spells, there’s plenty of inspiration to give Warrior’s a similar effect. Perhaps a 2 mana 2/2 that added a 1 mana version of “Inner Rage” to your hand. Alternatively, something that added “Charge”.

Even better, Warrior could take an idea from Warlock’s Dark Peddler and Paladin’s Hydrologist. Discover mechanics on cheap cards can be potent without feeling unfair. Warrior’s low impact 1 mana spells could see a lot more play if discovered off some cheap minion. What’s more, most of these low-impact spells are reactive and situational, making for more interesting gameplay situations and skill tests.

Toned-down weapons

Of course, Team 5 nerfed Fiery War Axe for a reason. They can’t now print an Epic 2 mana 3/2 weapon (we hope). But we may see cards along the lines of Jade Claws; strong weapons that while not quite at the same power level, still fight for early board well. The danger of re-creating pirate warrior might prevent this until after Patches rotate out, or maybe earlier if Team 5 can find a way to make cheap weapons good without being unstoppable in aggro.

There could be multiple ways of achieving a 2 mana weapon that would be less useless than a Stormforged Axe while not being on the power-level of pre-nerf axe. One recurring idea is that of a weapon with ‘Enrage’. This would introduce counterplay whereby not having a damaged hero would reduce the power of your weaponry.

Delayed reaction

Don’t expect Warrior to get super-powered 2 drops straight away, however. Hearthstone plans its releases far in advance; and Team 5 likely weren’t anticipating the War Axe nerf to have such a huge immediate impact. They likely don’t have a whole trove of saved 2 mana powerhouses for such an occasion.

In the meantime, Warrior will still cling to relevance. Pirate is still passable and Fatigue Warrior experiments are still ongoing. But die hard fans of the class can still hope that, maybe one day, there’ll be a 2 drop worthy of stepping into the shoes of the mighty War Axe.

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What makes a good meme card?

There’s something magic about certain cards. Every expansion has a few minions that at first, appears to be absolutely unplayable. But something about it inspires people. Instead of being cast aside, it is seized upon. Something that really should not work creates fleeting moments of hilarious effectiveness, in between embarrassing failures. But what exactly is it that creates the recipe for these kind of noncompetitive but strangely compelling cards?

They suck

Would Executus be fun as an overpowered autoinclude?

A fascinating effect on a terrible card

A key component in these meme cards is that they can’t be too effective. Sure, building a deck around the Rogue Quest was compelling at first, but after a few weeks of ladder dominance it began to wear thin. The best meme cards skirt the edges of brilliance, while retaining numerous crippling flaws. A prime example is Majordomo Executus. It has tantalising potential, but could never achieve any kind of consistent effectiveness due to the suicidal eight health cap and prohibitive nine mana cost.

By keeping the card low power-level, it ensures the joke never goes stale, as those who have the courage to try it out are doing it out of love, not desire to grind out ranks.

They’re innovative

To compensate for their over the top inefficiency, meme cards have to have a powerful pull. This is best achieved by it doing something no other card does. Weasel Tunneler embodies this perfectly. Sabotaging your opponent’s deck is the exact kind of wacky, nefarious scheme that gets people’s mind racing. It’s the kind of disruption you can’t get from any other card.

Not only does this allow for testing of new mechanics, it also lets Team 5 play it safe with potentially infuriating mechanics. If a weasel-tunneler-like card was ever competitively viable, it would be the most infuriating card in the game. But thanks to its sheer terribleness, it never feels horrible to play against, while still being hilarious when it works.

They’re inconsistent

Unliklihood of working makes Zerus more satisfying when he works

Of course, a card just being bad and innovative wouldn’t make it entertaining. It’s also necessary that the card is inconsistent; often relying on RNG to even have a chance of working. Shifter Zerus is perfect in this regard. Theoretically, with perfect RNG, it could be the best card in the game. However, the massive range of outcomes means that getting the right minion at the right time is almost impossible. This makes those one-in-a-thousand hail-mary situations where Zerus saves you that much sweeter.

By contrast, cards like Ticking Abomination are just consistently terrible, meaning that they never get those highs or lows where it decides games in your favour. Of course, this next ingredient sometimes changes this

They show up unexpectedly

The average Hearthstone player would never craft Nozdormu, much less put it in their deck. But sometimes, it can show up out of nowhere to decide games. In the Priest vs Quest Mage matchup, it’s actually a hilariously viable strategy to try and get Nozdormu off Free from Amber, disrupting their infinite combo with a 15 second turn timer.

These bad cards with unique effects also can make for some incredible game states. Archbishop Benedictus can be unexpectedly discovered vs a Fatigue Warrior. Lorewalker Cho can be evolved into. Back in the days of the Golden Monkey, a single Acidmaw could wipe whole boards in Legendary vs Legendary end-games. By not needing to show up in a deck to exist, meme cards can make the whole of Hearthstone that bit more exciting.

 

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The defining neutral cards of the Frozen Throne

Strong neutrals can define metas, and Knights of the Frozen Throne was no exception. From headline eight drops to snowballing dragons, the expansion’s most powerful neutral cards have all shaped the expansion’s most impactful decks. While Death Knights and Jades stole the show, these cards have been quietly working in the background to warp the meta around them.

The Lich King

A go-to for late-game value, the Lich has gotten a bit slow for today’s meta

One of the expansion’s first neutral hits, Arthas, could conceivably be included in almost any deck. With beefy stats, a defensive Taunt and powerful card-advantage grating ability, he was near ubiquitous early on. This was especially true during the reign of Jade Druid. Thanks to Druid’s limited removal, he could be a handy curve topper for Midrange and Control alike. His massive popularity even helped create a mini-meta where the Black Knight was commonly run.

The late-expansion meta treats him less kindly, however. As decks become more refined, big blobs of late-game value are harder and harder to justify. Especially when other late-game powerhouses like others on this list had more immediate board impact for less mana.

Bonemare

Making Don Hancho cry since 2017

King of seven in Arena and Constructed alike, Dr. Bone is still as popular as ever. Initial experiments with synergy cards like Skelemancer proved its value. Even without the synergy, its huge package of impactful stats justified its continued inclusion. Originally finding a home in Midrange Paladin, it has migrated over to the more popular Tempo Rogue.

Not only content to be a powerful inclusion in a number of board-centric Constructed decks, as a super-powerful Common it also has a huge Arena impact. The sheer stat efficiency of this card, coupled with the huge board swing, will likely mean that it will be a strong inclusion in any Midrange deck as long as it’s in Standard. Luckily, it has soft counters; Shadowreaper Anduin, turn six board clears and Silence effects can heavily limit its power.

Skulking Geist

When a six mana 4/6 that doesn’t impact the board was heavily played, you know that Jade was too powerful

Skulking Geist is arguably the worst card on this list, but it saw huge amounts of play regardless. When pre-nerf Jade Druid dominated ladder, Geist was one of the only ways Control could hope to survive at all. By discarding the infinite Idol win condition, Geist gave a faint hope of outlasting. However, the raw power of old Jade often overwhelmed its opponent regardless.

Despite all this, Geist saw large amounts of play across Control of all stripes. It created interesting side-effects too; catching other one mana spells in the wake of its scattershot approach to destroying Idols. Even now, if you’re facing off against a Control deck, it’s often wise to liberally spend your one mana spells before they get gobbled up by the greedy ghoul. Less popular now as Jade has become marginally less meta-defining, it’s still a must have for any decks that want to fatigue out their opponents.

Prince Keleseth

Like other buildarounds, Keleseth increases diversity at the cost of draw RNG

Keleseth was never meant to be this good. Reviews and expectations panned it, initially with good reason. Before the Fiery War Axe and Innervate nerfs, it seemed unlikely that any aggressive deck could compete with Pirate Warrior and Aggro Druid without two-drops. But as these dominating early strategies fell away, Keleseth deck’s slower approach was given room to breathe.

The card is polarising; incredibly potent when drawn and crippling when not, but decks like Tempo Rogue and some Zoolocks are able to forgo this downside and do okay enough without it to justify its inclusion. Keleseth can easily win the early board single handedly, making every one of your subsequent plays outclass the opponent’s. Combined with Shadowstep and Patches, it can look almost reminiscent of Quest Rogue with the right hand.

Cobalt Scalebane

Far better than that other five mana tribal card with Cobalt in its name

Cobalt Scalebane almost screams arena card. Its mediocre stats and slow, win-more effect is strong in Arena, yes; but it also has been surprisingly effective in Constructed. It provides a solid five-drop for any deck that wants it, and is decent even without board control.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to its success has been the rise of Priest. Priest has almost no good ways to deal with this. Surviving Dragonfire and all other Priest AOE, only Shadowreaper or Shadow Word Death are effective counters. And when this card comes down on five, it puts you on a terrifyingly short clock. While it may lose out if Priest falls in popularity or more immediately impactful five-drops come along, it’ll likely be turning 1/1’s into 4/1’s for some time.

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Custom cards via Hearthcards.net.

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Mage after Ice Block

Ice Block isn’t long for Standard. The designers heavily hinted that the Year of the Mammoth would be the last year of Standard Ice Block. This is arguably long overdue, and will be welcome for many. However, it could also be problematic.

As defensive tools go, Ice Block is almost unrivaled. By buying a “free” additional turn of survival, it can allow for burst lethals or stabilisation. It has seen play in almost every Controlling Mage deck ever, from Reno to Frost Lich Jaina. But without Ice Block to provide Mage with key survivability, how can late-game Mage decks survive?

Conditional lifegain

Is more Lifesteal the answer?

The answer to giving Mage enough survivability without Ice Block probably shouldn’t lie with unconditional lifegain. Reprinting an Antique-Healbot style big generous blob of health would be unsatisfying. Eroding class identity and deckbuilding choices is not worth the easy “fix” for survivability.

Instead, more cards that synergise and react to specific strategies and cards could allow for a more interesting solution. Frost Lich Jaina is a great recent example of this. By indirectly allowing healing with Lifesteal elementals, she gives Mages unparalleled late-game survivability, so long as she can keep a board.

More cards like this could make for interesting decks and decisions while boosting survivability. Lifesteal synergies would be perfect for this. It’s shown to be a powerful tool, especially when paired with damaging spells. Perhaps a Lifesteal spell, or a means of giving spells Lifesteal, could be an option.

Freeze upon Freeze upon Freeze?

Freeze locks down minions later on, but doesn’t stop burn

Keeping minions from attacking is pretty useful in Mage. Stalling is a powerful tool when you’re counting down the turns to burst out your opponent or set up a clear. With Ice Block gone, Mages might need more flexible Freeze options in order to lock down boards.

Additional Freeze tools, especially cheap ones, could give mage more opportunity to survive losing board control early until clears can be unleashed or lethal organised. Doing so would most likely give all controlling or late-game Mages a new lease of life.

Unfortunately, this could come with some downsides. Mage already has a wide variety of Freeze tools. They tend to have more trouble avoiding direct burn and clearing sticky boards than simply a lack of raw freeze. Over-focusing on Freeze can leave Mage more vulnerable to burn, while making minion-based matchups more polarised.

Advanced Disruption

Hand disruption could increase counterplay, but cause frustrations

Survivability isn’t just about the board. Mage has had a long-standing problem with dying to weapons, spells and charge minions. This is where Ice Block came in. Otherwise, these cards were almost impossible to interact with. One solution to the lack of Ice Block, then, could be additional ways of interacting with these cards. This falls outside the scope of most existing Hearthstone cards.

There are three current ways. Spell cost increase like Loatheb or Nerubian Unraveller could work, but minion based spell disruption tends to favour aggressive decks. Dirty Rat style battlecry-nullification already exists, but is too specific and does not affect spells or weapons. Finally, Armor can preemptively halt burn, but may fall too close to generic lifegain.

Potentially, more spell-focused disruption tactics could be included. This could consist of “Freezing” cards in the opponent’s hand, preventing their use for a turn. This and other strategies would need to be carefully monitored however. Team 5 is rightfully wary of overdoing disruption techniques, as too much creates counterplay but also intense frustration and feelings of powerlessness.

The Yogg approach?

Is a late game tempo swing the key?

A final option could be more late-game reactive tempo tools. Yogg used to be incredibly valuable in Mage, as its potential to clear and generate massive resources in a single turn was completely unrivaled; so long as it didn’t randomly lose you the game. Perhaps more spell-synergistic cards could be considered; albeit probably with slightly less variance.

Doing so would allow controlling mages to generate massive swing value if they could live to the late game. However, the card would need to be tooled so that it worked with cards in your hand or deck rather than being an overall value-bomb, to limit its power to the late-game Mages that would consider running the kind of synergistic packages such a card would require.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Custom cards via Hearthcards.net.

Note: All cards featured in this article are hypothetical examples of the Author’s design. They are meant for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to be well-designed or balanced.

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Are cheap Taunts just Aggro tools?

Hearthstone is a game that fundamentally rewards aggression and early board control. Throughout metas, the top dog is almost always an aggro deck. This can sometimes present design problems. How do you print strong cheap Taunts that are able to hold the board against Aggro without them being stronger in Aggro itself?

For many, the answer is obvious. Strong, cheap Taunt minions slow aggro and allow Midrange and Control to stabilise. Their defensive stats inherently prevent Aggro from utilising them effectively. However, the theory often doesn’t pan out in practice.

Protecting the face

Early on, total life matters a lot less than board control

Ostensibly, Taunts stop face damage. Aggro decks seek to dominate the early game and win through face damage. That the solution to this is early game taunts appears obvious. But things aren’t so simple. Stopping face damage on the first few turns is handy, sure; but an inefficient Taunt minion will often be far less effective than an early removal spell.

Aggro decks tend to be great at trading efficiently into minions early. After all, it’s this efficiency of gaining the board that allows them to adopt an aggressive playstyle in the first place. And soaking up face damage is all well and good; but on the first few turns, face damage is far less important than board control. There’s a reason why pre-nerf Fiery War Axe was one of the best anti-aggro tools out there. The face damage was irrelevant compared to the efficiency of removing early threats.

Safeguarding the snowball

taunt

It’s not easy to kill a Vicious Fledgling through one of these

On the flip side, early taunts are superb at helping an Aggro board survive. Old-school Aggro Shaman found great use in Feral Spirits to protect and buff a Tunnel Trogg, as well as providing good targets for Flametongue. Aggro Druid ran Tar Creeper and later Crypt Lord and Druid of the Swarm as both sticky buff targets and to make boards hard to get to. Murloc Paladin uses Righteous Protector to safeguard its Murlocs and as a target for Blessing of Kings. Dread Corsair is Pirate Warrior’s cheap or free board refill and protection for its high-attack Pirates.

There are recurring themes here; making it harder to kill high-priority minions, and buffs. The protection of high-priority minions is down to Taunt’s dual nature; apart from defending the face, it also protects the board. And when weapons or minions can’t kill your Frothing Beserker or Vicious Fledgling, they can have a crucial extra turn to grow out of control.

Beefy buffs

Flametongue had perfect aggressive synergy with taunts like Feral Spirits

Defensive Taunts are also deceptively powerful with buffs. Taunts tend to be best when defensively statted; this higher-health stat-line often scales up great. If you give +4/+4 to a 3/2, you’re left with a strong but relatively easily removed 7/6. But that same +4/+4 on a 1/4 makes for a far more sticky 5/8.

Similarly, defensive Taunt minions’ low attack means they can get great value from attack buffs from cards like Flametongue Totem or Direwolf Alpha. Often they can use it to value trade while staying alive and threatening. Or worse, simply go face and know the opponent still has a balanced-statted minion to get through that also protects the rest of your threatening board from minion damage.

Are downsides key?

taunt

Deathlord was the gold standard for early game anti-aggro Taunts.

Clearly, from a stat-for-stat perspective, simply making high health cheap Taunts won’t stop Aggro. So what can make a Taunt a Control tool?

The answer might lie in downsides. Deathlord may be a prime example of this. The risk of pulling a massive minion means that the only decks to risk running it would be ones with hard removal. Similarly, Dirty Rat can help stop certain decks early on but is so anti-tempo in many cases that Aggro would never consider running it.

However, the full answer may just lie in abandoning early Taunts altogether as anti-Aggro. Instead, more AOE and removal are card types that are proven to be effective anti-aggro tools that don’t threaten to make Aggro overbearing. The best recent example lies in cards like Defile and Sleep with the Fishes; strong, conditional, symmetrical early removal that fits perfectly into Control.

Aggro is inherently healthy for Hearthstone, but like all archetypes, should have its counters. Team 5 should recognise that cheap, efficient early Taunts is not that counter.


Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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