I’m watching my Shudderwock Shaman opponent intensely. They’ve drawn every card in their deck, every piece of the battlecry puzzle. With a petulant “Greetings, friend”, they drop their final trump card, the Shudderwock they’ve been building up to all game. Jaws bite, claws catch: and then Grumble’s battlecry triggers immediately. Having spent the entire game building a combo I had no hope of interacting with other than killing them, the game was lost on a roll of the dice. Is this really the way combo decks should function?
Some disruption effects are necessary
One of the core aspects of Hearthstone’s design philosophy is that there isn’t over-complicated disruption. Paper TCGs, with their complicated phases and interactions, don’t translate well to a smooth online experience. This means that you can’t actively interact with your opponent’s actions on their turn.
Unfortunately, that leads to some unwelcome side effects. Namely, it’s very difficult to stop your opponent from executing their gameplan outside of removing their minions. Charge minions, battlecries and spells can all create uninteractive win conditions that are impossible to counter directly. Not to mention the feelings of frustration and helplessness that comes with it. Here’s where anti-combo tools come in.
As such, we have concepts like secrets, taunts, freezes and armor to combat direct, one-off attacks on our life totals. But since Dirty Rat and Deathlord rotated out, there’s almost no way to interact with cards that generate hand-based combos, be it infinite charging 4/4s with Valeera the Hollow or endless Shudderwocks from Shaman.
The problem here isn’t the power level, it’s the polarization and poor gameplay that results from a lack of potential counters.
Disruption can’t be too strong
One thing I want to make clear is that Control decks should always have counters. Too much disruption leads to incredibly tedious gameplay, where all pro-active strategies are inefficient compared to sitting back and grinding out a dull war of attrition. That’s fine sometimes, but if the whole meta were like that, Hearthstone would lose fans fast. Control decks need greedy combo strategies to allow diversity of strategies that push pro-active plans to flourish.
Current combo decks, Shudderwock Shaman in particular, aren’t even overly powerful. The odds of the non-murmuring elemental version just failing to add additional Shudderwocks is actually relatively high at 20% or so, meaning even the most reactive deck has a decent chance to win. Combo decks don’t need to be weaker; they just need to feel less frustrating.
Agency is important
When losing or winning just comes down to unavoidable RNG, there’s an element of frustration for both players. There needs to be disruption cards that, while not efficient enough to play frequently, or effective enough to shut down combo completely, give a sense of control back to both players. It should be possible to set up and play around, with significant risk and reward for proper usage. Above all, it should make players feel smart when they utilise or avoid it properly, without making it overly reliable.
Dirty Rat was very close to this, though it unfortunately came down to RNG more often than not. Regardless, it could serve as a great blueprint for potential combo-breakers to come.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.