Balance in Hearthstone is more of an art than a science. The aim is never to have perfectly equal winrates. Instead, the focus is on promoting fun gameplay. As such, it’s often hard to evaluate exactly whether or not one particular card change has a positive impact or not.
With that said, card changes have repeatedly missed their aim. Whether they masked a bigger problem, took away fun strategies, or simply didn’t go far enough, these card nerfs are examples of how difficult balancing can be.
Losing the Soul
Former Hearthstone Game Director Ben Brode’s explanation for the change to Warsong Commander was subject to widespread memery. Many mocked how the usually irrelevant 2/3 statline was considered Warsong Commander’s ‘soul’ more than its incredibly powerful effect. But it does highlight a core problem with nerfs: how to change cards that are fundamentally not in line with Hearthstone’s design goals without obliterating their core idea.
Unfortunately, this is hard to accomplish, as Warsong Commander proves. It went from busted to unplayable overnight, and lost all of its original synergies and utility. Instead of comboing with low-attack minions that don’t have charge, it synergises (poorly) with any charge minion, a complete reversal of its purpose. A better implementation was the change to the Warrior spell Charge, which kept its flavour and synergies while preventing its OTK potential from limiting design space.
Hitting the Wrong Target
Sometimes a nerf can serve as a scapegoat, hitting a ‘problem card’ that in fact was never the true issue. A perfect example of this is Small-Time Buccaneer, which terrorised the early Mean Streets meta. As a potential 1 mana 3/2 when you have a weapon up, every class that could utilise this card shot up in power level. As we realised too late when it was nerfed from a 1/2 to a 1/1, Small-Time wasn’t the real issue. In actuality, it was his faithful Pirate companion Patches, who went on to terrorize the meta until his eventual nerf later on. Or look at Rockbiter Weapons’ mana increase, which did nothing to stop the meta-crushing rise of Midrange Shaman.
These kinds of nerfs aren’t necessarily bad. The cards they hit are undoubtedly problematic, and very much deserve to be toned down in power within reason. But they are far from ideal, and there is undoubtedly a far better alternative. Team 5 has got better at identifying the cards that provide the biggest problem. When Jade Druid was dominant, the calls for nerfs were directed at the big, flashy Ultimate Infestation, and the fatigue-beating Jade Idol. But changing Spreading Plague and Innervate instead ended up being far more beneficial for the meta’s health, both short-term and long term.
The Ones That Got Off Easy
Another simple issue with many card changes is when they don’t go far enough. Sometimes a card’s core problems simply recede and aren’t solved. Leeroy Jenkins’ overly-ubiquitous neutral burst and gamebreaking combos rightly earned it a nerf. But two years later, it is still creating uncomfortable, design-space-limiting uninteractive neutral burst at 5 mana. Or take the Rogue Quest, which had to be nerfed twice in a year.
Sometimes a heavy hand is actually the fairest option. Take Corridor Creeper. Reduced to a 2/5 from 5/5, professionals and the community branded the card unplayable. But defying all expectations, the card still proved extremely balanced and playable in a variety of token decks.
Balance changes are easy to criticise, even more so with the benefit of hindsight. But it’s important to remember how difficult it is to time, manage and fine-tune card changes to a meta as unstable and wide-ranging as Hearthstone’s. And at least one promising sign is that the team appears to be getting better at it every year.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.