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

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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

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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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Ben Brode’s favorite meme isn’t playable: What happened?

As stated on a recent Reddit AMA, Hearthstone Game Director Ben Brode’s favorite meme is the infamous “4 mana 7/7”, Flamewreathed Faceless. Poking fun at the card’s perceived overpowered-ness and the community’s salt that erupted as a result, the meme now has an ironic twist: Flamewreathed Faceless is far from oppressive.

In fact, it’s currently borderline unplayable, seeing zero competitive use in any Shaman decks. How did this card go from all-conquering outrage and humor generator to storied collection-filer? How did the 4 mana 7/7 go from OP meme card to an unplayable meme card?

Rise of a Giant

When Flamewreathed Faceless was released as part of the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion, it became emblematic of the power and frustrations expressed in the all-conquering Aggro Shaman. The card quickly slotted in, forming a staple part of the deck. Being able to plop down a huge body that required an immediate answer granted the deck some surprise wins. This was especially effective against Control or Midrange lists that lacked cheap, single-target removal.

The main advantage of the 4 mana 7/7 was how impactful just a single attack to face would be. 7 health is a huge chunk of starting HP, and against a deck as aggressive as old Aggro Shaman, it’s crippling. Even the presence of Flamewreathed Faceless in a deck can prove fatal, as saving removal for it can leave a Tunnel Trogg or Totem Golem unchecked, allowing burn to finish the opponent off.

Servant of Trogg-Saron

Tunnel Trogg was a huge part of Flamewreathed Faceless’s success – and hate

Flamewreathed Faceless’s fortunes were intimately tied to that of a far smaller minion: Tunnel Trogg. This minion determined the power of Flamewreathed Faceless in two main ways. Firstly, it was a key and powerful synergy tool for the card’s 2 overload. Flamewreathed Faceless’s downside was always the lack of immediate board impact. Even at 4 mana, a deck as proactive as Aggro Shaman could rarely take turns simply plopping down stats. Buffing Tunnel Trogg by 2 provided a much-needed immediate damage impact.

More generally, Tunnel Trogg was the card that lead Aggro Shaman to come into being, and its the card whose rotation returned it to obscurity. Without its niche as a punchy minion with which to top curves, Flamewreathed faded with it. But surely the sheer value and efficiency of the 4 mana 7/7 would give it other uses?

Stats don’t rule all

Other cards can provide premium stats for cheap, without clunky overload mechanics

Unfortunately for meme-aficionados everywhere, Flamewreathed Faceless simply couldn’t find a home in other Shaman decks. Revive-focused “Bogchamp” Shamans flirted with it for a while, but ultimately its lack of taunt and crippling overload relegated it in favor of beefier Taunt minions that could be more easily comboed across multiple turns. Midrange Shamans found the tempo loss when it was hard-removed too damaging against control, and the vanilla body did little against aggro.

In short, the card fell into the trap of many Hearthstone cards: Not doing enough, soon enough. The downside of the overload meant that playing Flamewreathed became a short-cut to Tempo oblivion against many enemies. Sure it could trade favorably, but only if not removed and after giving up 6 mana across two turns.

If the card had Taunt or some other immediate effect, it perhaps would have lived on. But as it was, it became an unwieldy anchor on any deck that wanted to run out. Not contributing to win conditions and slowing down the game plan, it was an easy cut to make.

The meme, eternal

While Flamewreathed Faceless has vanished from competitive Hearthstone, it’s memory and memery live on. The joke changed/grew subtle. The punchline was less about Blizzard releasing an overpowered minion and more about the hysterical overreaction of Hearthstone’s community to ill-judged overpowered cards that prove anything but in the long run.

The fact that Purify sees play in strong, meta Standard decks without any changes, and the infamous 4 mana 7/7 is unplayable is a estament to the community’s collective inability to judge cards in the long run; and on the subtle and evolving ways memes can grow from complaints to community satire.


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

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