The balance changes in 9.1 targeted one set above all others. The Basic Innervate, Hex and Fiery War Axe make up three of the five changed cards. These three changes also attracted the lion’s share of controversy. Hot debate sprang up about class identity, viability and diversity. At the core of this controversy was a fundamental lack of agreement and communication. What is the purpose of the Basic set?
One possible interpretation for the purpose of Basic is simply that of teaching new players. The Basic set often includes very simple cards that express the most straightforward of concepts. Cards like Magma Rager teaching the value of Health; Hand of Protection introducing Divine Shield, and Healing Touch showing healing.
If Basic were to follow this philosophy, simplicity would be key. Regardless of viability (beyond being obviously terrible even for new players), the cards would need to be easy to understand. This was partly the explanation behind the changes to Innervate and Fiery War Axe. Adding additional text to bring FWA in line with Eaglehorn Bow or to distinguish Innervate from Coin would add too much complexity.
The downside of this approach is that overly simple cards can often be detrimental to balance. Nuance is often necessary, particularly for cheap cards. You can’t just set a minion’s attack to 2.5 to be able to keep its text straightforward while keeping it viable! And balance is very important for class defining cards that could be around forever.
Another philosophy for Basic is that of a “Skeleton” for a deck; key cards that remain constant and ensure archetypes and classes remain viable. This has been the practical outcome of Basic. Class cards like Swipe, Fireball, Animal Companion, Backstab and Flametongue are incredibly efficient. Their continued inclusion in Standard helps maintain the same archetypes season after season. It means that favourite classes are less likely to disappear. Decks stick around longer, and certain play styles remain constant.
This appeals to many players. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper. If a third or even half of decks never change, then that’s fewer card packs that need to be purchased in order to have ladder-worthy decks. What’s more, if you love a particular deck, it stays viable in standard for a long, long time.
This naturally comes at a cost. Blizzard loses out on revenue. Metas can feel stale, and certain archetypes can block others from ever being viable. It’s often boring to play with and against the same cards as a significant proportional of the same decks forever.
Finally, it’s possible that Basic could exist as a kind of fail-safe for what certain classes can do. The cards would not be top tier, but would be strong enough to warrant inclusion if the meta or deck demanded it. Druids won’t always have efficient responses to wide boards, but they will have Starfall. Priest won’t always have the most effective early removal, but they will have Holy Smite and Shadow Word Pain. Hunter will have Hunter’s Mark to fall back on if they really need removal. Strong, but not auto-include cards can give classes leeway regardless of the latest cards in the set, without forcing the designers to print the umpteenth Priest AOE or Mage draw.
This allows classes a limited amount of flexibility regardless of metas. For instance, a meta where zoo-style flood decks with wide boards won’t necessarily mean some classes become completely nonviable. It also provides a decent launching point for newer players to build their collection, whilst retaining freshness across expansions without keeping all half-decent cards behind a paywall.
Of course, downsides still exist. For one, balancing cards perfectly on the cusp between viability and uselessness is even more difficult than usual card design; especially if they’ll be around forever. And to shore up certain unintentional recurring class weaknesses, then either new cards would need to be introduced to Basic or old ones buffed. What’s more, additional flexibility can come at the cost of class identity in many cases.
Above all, Blizzard needs to adequately communicate what they want from Basic. Their current strategy of explaining individual card nerfs but without fully elucidating their overarching strategy only fuels criticism. Until they can provide a coherent explanation as to why Swipe is an acceptable eternal auto-include but not Fiery War Axe, then conspiracy theories will flourish. Already, players are accusing Blizzard of simply going for a cash grab by making “free” basic cards nonviable.
By making clear their strategy for Basic, Blizzard can both take control of the narrative and allow players to direct their feedback more helpfully. Not only that, but by focusing their internal philosophy, they can help make their own efforts clearer to themselves.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.
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