Hearthstone Nerfs: History and Moving Forward
Ranging from enormous praises to aggressive threats, Hearthstone players’ reactions definitely vary a lot, whenever new balance changes are announced.
Card balance is a topic that each card game company takes a different approach on. Blizzard’s, specifically, has been greatly controversial. It’s worth saying, that during the early stages of development, changes made to cards were quite frequent. However, with the release of new sets and the inclusion of the standard format, those changes have become rare.
It is also noteworthy that Blizzard clearly avoids buffing underplayed cards. They instead focus on nerfing those that are considered “meta-breaking” or “broken”, the cards that single-handedly enable a certain deck or archetype to dominate the ranked ladder and the tournament scene.
The Alpha stage of Hearthstone featured tons of changes, which are not really worth mentioning, since neither had the game established a meta, nor was the game accessible to many players. Those changes mainly consisted of minor changes to the mana, attack and health of various cards, as well as a few text corrections and adjustments. Some card effects were also changed, while a couple of them were replaced by other versions.
The Beta stage, however, introduced many players to the game, featured a few tournaments and lasted long enough to establish its own meta and introduce some of the craziest decks in Hearthstone’s history. Once again, the changes were plenty, so not all of them will be covered.
During that stage, Rogue started off as one of the strongest classes. Backstab used to deal 2 damage to any enemy minion, Defias Ringleader was a 2/3, Shiv and Conceal would cost 1 less mana. However, the true power of Rogue derived from Edwin VanCleef, who at that moment was a 1/1 stealth minion, and its Hero Power which read “Equip a 1/2 Dagger; or Give your weapon +1 Attack this turn.” With Gadgetzan Auctioneer costing only 5 mana and Leeroy Jenkins 4, miracle Rogue became one of the strongest archetypes in Beta. Later on, Blizzard realized that the mechanics of stealth and charge provide a non-interactive game play, and proceeded to nerf all of the above cards, as well as Rogue’s Hero Power.
Mage spells also received major nerfs as soon as Freeze Mage became a thing. Blizzard’s, Cone of Cold’s and Frost Nova’s mana cost was increased by one, and Pyroblast’s by 2.
Another nerf worth mentioning was that of Blood Imp’s. During the beta stage, it used to be a 1/1 stealth and it would provide +1 health to all friendly minions. This really helped Warlock decks play around area of effect removal, by buffing a flooded board’s Health Points.
At its first state, Warsong Commander would give charge to any friendly minion. Today someone can imagine how disastrous this can turn out to be. But in late 2013 Hearthstone players did not realize that, until some of them started playing this card along with Molten Giants (used to only cost 20 mana) and Youthful Brewmasters, which enabled the OTK (One-turn-kill) warrior archetype. The card was later nerfed so that it would only give charge to minions with 3 or less attack, thus rendering the OTK warrior unplayable.
Plenty of other nerfs, buffs and reworks took place during the Beta stage of Hearthstone, but were not as impactful to the meta of the game at that point.
Hearthstone released globally, and everyone was excited to play Blizzard’s brand new card game. First few months went-by without complaints, as people were trying to experiment with the huge pool of cards. After 3 changes, in the text and mana cost, Unleash the Hounds became what it is today.
Naxxramas and Goblins vs Gnomes
With Hearthstone’s first adventure release, Naxxramas, players were introduced to a few powerful cards, such as Loatheb, Antique Healbot, Haunted Creeper etc. .No changes had to be made so early, though, to the cards from the Naxxramas set.
Hunter slowly became one of the strongest classes, since Starving Buzzard gave him the ability to infinitely draw cards. It’s synergy with beasts and especially Unleash the Hounds, forced Blizzard to increase its cost and stats, making it a 5 mana 3/2 (previously a 2 mana 2/1). At this cost, Hunter players would not include it in their deck, as it was not as an effective and reliable draw mechanic. This nerf was paired with one of the most requested changes up to that time; Leeroy’s. As mentioned before, the charge mechanic is non-interactive, and in some cases makes the game uninteresting. With the existence of some very cheap buff cards, like Power overwhelming, cold blood, abusive sergeant, and some combo mechanics, such as Faceless Manipulator, Windfury and Shadowstep, Leeroy Jenkins was an auto-include in many decks. His fate was to have his mana cost increased from 4 to 5. This card still remains a balanced inclusion in some aggressive and combo decks.
Those changes however did not prove enough. Rogue and Hunter were still two very strong classes. Rogue’s ability to quickly cycle through the deck and finish its opponent with combo cards, demanded a nerf on Gadgetzan Auctioneer. This minion’s cost was increased from 5 to 6, making Valeera a slightly rare sight in ladder. Hunter’s powercard was Undertaker, who would get +1/+1 whenever a friendly Deathrattle minion was summoned. Those minions were plenty, and they were cheap. Hunter used to be able to quickly flood the board with cheap deathrattle minions and develop a large undertaker, ending the game in the first few turns. After numerous complaints, he was nerfed, and in its current state, he only gains +1 attack.
Everyone, Get in here!!!
The meta was stale for a while, until Blackrock Mountain was released, and with it Grim Patron. After a few weeks, Patron Warrior became one of the most notorious decks in Hearthstone’s history, dominating the ladder and Tournaments. This deck’s arsenal consisted of Grim Patrons, Frothing Berserkers, Warsong Commanders and a bunch of whirlwind effects. Even though this deck had the ability to develop huge OTKs, it required a lot of thinking and decision making. Nevertheless, Blizzard considered it too powerful for the game and decided to nerf Warsong Commander a second time. This card now only gives friendly charge minions +1 attack.
The Standard Format
Early in 2016, the standard format was introduced and with it came the biggest balance patch after Hearthstone’s release. At that point, combo Druid was one of the most powerful decks, who had 3 of its cards changed. Ancient of Lore now can only draw 1 card instead of 2, Keeper of the Grove was changed from a 2/4 to a 2/2, and Force of Nature was completely reworked. Aggro cards also took a big hit, as Knife Juggler’s attack was reduced from 3 to 2, and Leper Gnome’s attack was reduced from 2 to 1. Two of the biggest nerfs in this patch were the increase of Ironbeak Owl’s mana cost from 2 to 3, and Big Game Hunter’s from 3 to 5. Those two cards are now rarely played.
Whispers of the Old God and Karazhan
According to many posts and articles, the past few months 2 threats have been brought upon this world. Shaman, and Yogg-Saron, Hope's End. Whispers of the old Gods introduced many incredibly powerful cards for the aggressive Shaman archetype. With Karazhan, Shaman took its final form as a semi-midrange deck, with the potential to curve out insanely strong, either finishing the game early or grinding out its opponents. Yogg-Saron was also introduced in the Old Gods set. Reviewing this card, no one expected it to be what it finally was. People started having fun with it in ladder, but it was far from a “broken” card. Later in summer, players included it in Token Druid, which was the foundation on which Malygos Druid was built. A deck with insane ramp capabilities, a reliable finisher and a comeback mechanic in case it had its back against a wall. Yogg-Saron was also played in other decks, such as Tempo Mage and Control Warrior. His appearance in tournaments was what caused him to later be nerfed. The RNG and the non-interactive nature of this card made players furious, and many of them gave up on the game, or retired from the competitive scene.
So in October, Blizzard acknowledged this problem and proceeded to release another big balance patch. In it, two of shaman’s most powerful cards were nerfed. Rockbiter Weapon’s cost was increased from 1 to 2 and Tuskarr Totemic was changed so that it would only summon a basic totem, instead of any random totem. Call of the Wild’s and Execute’s mana cost was increased by 1. Charge was reworked so that would make the game play more interactive. This enabled the release of new cards that would not be abused by Charge, in a similar way to Raging Worgen. Lastly, Yogg-Saron, Hope’s End was reworked. This card will now stop casting spells if it is destroyed, Silenced, transformed or returned to the hand.
These changes were greatly appreciated by the community. Blizzard’s interference, although delayed (according to many players) definitely made ranked ladder and tournaments a lot more enjoyable to play and watch.
The future of Hearthstone’s Balance Changes
At the moment, Shaman remains the strongest class, with a dominant performance. With future standard rotations however, the class will lose many cards that currently make it the strongest. So discussions on nerfing more Shaman cards should be out of the question. What we should instead focus on is Blizzard’s approach to changes in cards. We can safely say that their reactions are not immediate, and they don’t take action until it’s too late (referring to the long periods where patron warrior and shaman/yogg dominated everything).
On a daily basis, we see many games, such as those in the MOBA genre and Overwatch regularly release balance patches. Whether those updates include minor fixes or complete reworks, they definitely are more frequent. Would that, however, work in a card game like Hearthstone? There is not a definite answer to this question. On one hand, the meta of the game takes weeks or months to form, and constantly undergoes changes. On the other hand, some cards prove to be overpowered in the first week of a set’s release. If the developers were to take an approach that would force them to quickly balance cards, they would be in a state where new decks and counters would pop-out on the ladder and tournaments. They would constantly be forced to change cards. The players would be confused by the quick rotation of decks and they would not have enough time to comprehend the card changes. If the developers, however, made the decision to never make any balance changes, the players would be left in a very stale meta, were 2-3 decks would make their presence everywhere, devouring every optimistic deck-builder who is trying to create a new, fun and interactive deck.
Some final notes…
Hearthstone has been out for less than 3 years. My personal advice to the developers would be to experiment. Try out different strategies in their developments and take different approaches to the aspects of the game. This way they will manage to get the whole community’s feedback and create an enjoyable environment for anyone who is interested in playing Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.
Ben Brode himself came out recenlty, briefly mentioning how the development team is not completely satisfied with the way the ladder works, and they are working on some new systems and changes. I guess, all we have to do is sit back and wait to see what turn our favorite game will take. Until then, have a good one.
by Nick ‘Hellthrower’ Gkavra