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Learning From Failed Synergies


Designing a card game isn’t easy. Just look at the inspired, but often horribly imbalanced, suggestions posted daily on the Custom Hearthstone subreddit. Every card added can have butterfly effects on the meta. Even something as simple as a streamer playing a deck can make an impact. As such, synergies have been one of the hardest parts of Hearthstone to properly balance.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the developers have wanted to push certain pre-ordained archetypes into play. When the user base is playing with pre-determined synergies, it’s easier to see what’s balanced and what’s fun. Similarly, it’s understandable why their efforts are sometimes less than successful.

Currently, archetypes brute-forced into existence take up more of the meta than ever. Obvious, designer-mandated synergies like Pirate Warrior, Dragon Priest, and Jade Druid/Shaman are ubiquitous. In this era of forced archetypes, it can be helpful to look back at how previous attempts haven’t gone so well.

Taunt Warrior

How it was meant to work:

Taunt decks sacrifice a lot of stats for little benefit

“Taunt” and Warrior weren’t associated until relatively recently. The class has always had a somewhat split personality. Divided between the aggressive Weapon and Charge themed synergies, the combo-oriented Whirlwind synergies, and the defensive, tanky Armor mechanic, it’s been hard to give a Warrior a unifying philosophy. Taunt was meant to be that philosophy; combining the pro-active plays of the Aggressive strategy with defensive minions, while linking the two together with synergistic combos.

On paper, the Taunt strategy seems solid. A Midrange deck that uses weapons for Board control (as Warrior is likely to do) is weak to a face-rush. Taunts prevent this, while advancing the Midrange gameplan. Cards like Bolster, King’s Defender, and Sparring Partner initially pushed Taunt. Later reinforcement came from Taunt minions such as Fierce Monkey, Obsidian Destroyer, and Bloodhoof Brave. In addition, Taunt generators and synergies were added continuously in the Hand-buff mechanic and with Protect the King.

Why it failed:

While the taunt-synergy strategy works on paper, it was much less potent in practice. For starters, the actual taunt buffs were situational and not overly impressive. Bolster was supposedly the linchpin of the archetype. But it required multiple taunt minions on the board to be worth casting, let alone building a deck around. What’s worse, a general scarcity of decently-statted Taunt minions made it very hard to build a viable deck.

The key problem, however, is that building a deck around Taunt is fundamentally anti-synergistic. Taunt is helpful for protecting face, yes; but it is arguably more vital for protecting key minions. Consider how Aggro Shaman runs Feral Spirits because they can guard its powerful, squishy Flametongue Totems and Tunnel Troggs. When you build a deck with all or almost all Taunt minions, you’re suffering stat penalties and overvaluing on all of your minions for very little benefit.

Lesson to learn:

A deck built around understatted minions needs extremely powerful synergies to work.

Shadow Priest

How it was meant to work:

Shadow Priest’s direct damage potential was more impressive than its minions

Priest is one of the few classes that has never had a truly viable aggressive deck. A defensive hero-power and a lack of early-game minions meant that it was impossible for priests to snowball the tempo necessary for an aggro victory. However, it has a number of powerful burst cards, most notably Mind Blast. In addition, Auchenai Soulpriest could turn healing into potentially game-ending burst; Shadowform turns a defensive hero-power into a game-ending one too.

The Shadow Priest philosophy then, would be heavily burn focused; push for face damage and never look back. The idea was to have symmetrical damage effects and powerful healing synergies. The Priest would use their own life as a resource, healing up to burst down the opponent. They would also convert those same heal cards to burn to close out games.

Shadowbomber and Spawn of Shadows were added to give a huge amount of damage to the opponent, while also hitting yourself. Meanwhile, Light of the Naaru, Flash Heal, and Embrace the Shadow provid more ability to turn healing into burst.

Why it failed:

Shadow Priest experiments failed to address Priest’s initial problem; a lack of early-game tempo. While burst damage is memorable and occasionally terrifying, it’s far out-paced in efficiency by repeated minion damage from an unanswered curve. Without reliable card-draw to keep up pressure, the low-efficiency cards simply can’t keep up. Furthermore, sacrificing tempo and damaging yourself in an aggro mirror turns out to be a pretty bad strategy.

Lesson to learn:

Aggro decks depend on early-game minions, not burst.

Totem Shaman

How it was meant to work:

Thing from Below is strongest in decks without many totem synergies

Before the unveiling of Standard, Shaman was undoubtedly the worst class in the game. Without its current arsenal of efficient early-game weapons, it struggled to utilize its board-clears in a world of efficient Deathrattle minions.

In order to help them out of their quandary, Shaman was given a number of potent synergistic cards revolving around Totems. Cards like Thunder Bluff Valiant, Draenei Totemcarver, Thing from Below, and Primal Fusion would reward totem-filled boards. Meanwhile, Totem Golem, Tuskarr Totemic, and Wicked Witch-doctor would generate them.

Why it failed:

Totem Shaman was a victim of its own success. While all the cards were playable, some were so strong that the others became unnecessary. Totem Golem is an insane standalone minion, pre-nerf Tuskarr Totemic’s RNG tempo swings won games regardless of synergy, and Thing from Below becomes great even with only a few hero powers and Totem minions. Aggro Shaman ran all of these cards and no other synergies, and benefited greatly. Midrange added Thunder Bluff Valiant, but otherwise was similarly independent of Totem synergies, relying mainly on the card’s individual strengths.

While highly synergistic Totem decks such as Xixo’s variant saw play to a lesser extent, they ultimately proved inferior to the ones that only took the very best standalone cards.

Lesson to learn:

Don’t make synergistic cards too powerful without their synergies.

Handbuff Hunter

How it was meant to work:

Handbuff: Hardly a Tempo apocalypse

The Handbuff mechanic was meant to be the ultimate in Midrange value. By sacrificing a small amount of tempo, small threats could easily be buffed into massive ones, leading to a game-ending cascade of massive minions. Furthermore, synergies would allow these minions to be even more potent. As a class that focused heavily on Midrange, Hunter would be an ideal home for these cards.

This was supported via the handbuff cards themselves, like Trogg Beastrager, Shakey Zipgunner, and Hidden Cache. Synergies like that of Rat Pack and Dispatch Kodo would allow these buffs to become more potent.

Why it failed:

The failure of handbuff is well documented. Essentially, the tempo sacrifice is too great, and the mechanic is too inconsistent. Hunter is by far the least successful, despite strong handbuff synergies. The lack of consistent card draw means that for Hunters, running out of cards is a virtual inevitability. In these cases, top-decking a card that either buffs cards you no longer have, or relies on handbuffs that you haven’t given it, is backbreaking.

Lesson to learn:

Inconsistent mechanics may seem a lot more powerful than they are in reality.


All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. Title image via

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