Another Bites the Dust

YelloRambo here - today we'll take a look at Blizzard’s flawed nerfing policy. The latest victim was the infamous Undertaker.


Well, would you look at that: the long-awaited nerf of undertaker has finally happened – which means I now have to shelf all Frank Undertaker-related puns, unless there is a major plot twist in the third season of House of Cards we’re currently unaware of. The card’s text has been changed: it will now only gain one attack for every Deathrattle minion played instead of +1/+1. I’m not sure this is the right way to address the issue – then again, Blizzard’s record at balancing cards is quite frankly terrible so far in Hearthstone.

The cost of freedom is always high

Looking at the card changes made since the release of the game showcases a clear and quite frankly alarming trend in Blizzard’s nerfing policy. To be fair, it has understandably changed since the game’s release: not only did the amount of card adjustments get significantly lower as time went on, they have almost all been mana adjustments, not text modifications. If you check out the patch history, you’ll find that every significant card nerf past the beta stage was in form of a cost change instead of adjusting a card’s text – the notable exception being eaglehorn-bow’s slight change, only granting you a charge when a friendly Secret is triggered. In this sense, the way Blizzard chose to adjust the Undertaker should be a positive sign, even if it is most likely still not the right way to tinker with the card in my opinion.

As you’ll see in a bit, changing the mana cost has usually rendered the cards unplayable, apart from the indefatigable sylvanas-windrunner. The reason for this is the fact that upping the mana cost isn’t strictly a tempo issue: it also means that any particular card has to compete with very different alternatives all of a sudden in order to get a slot in your deck.

The unique possibilities of the digital nature of Hearthstone allow levels of balance control that is simply unavailable for its offline counterparts. It’s a shame that the developers are completely misusing their capabilities in this regard. And yes, I am very familiar with the buzzword of the day, which would be “perfect imbalance” – but it doesn’t take a very important thing into account: the very different needs of competitive and casual players. I’ve always thought that Blizzard considers the latter to be more important as it is a greater source of financial income, only throwing tokens at the competitive scene – their nerf policy just reinforces my thoughts on this issue.

An abandoned card design philosophy?

“Again, we need to look at the design philosophy: Blizzard wants the game to be about a battle for board control. It seems like that their attempts at enforcing this lead to overly excessive methods: seeing how Naxx has only inadvertently given tools to aggro players and the latest nerf is essentially neutering two very important cards at their disposal, it seems like the developers want to almost completely get rid of the aggro/control dichotomy in the game.”

The above is from one of my earlier articles on the subject which I wrote when the nerf bat hit leeroy-jenkins and the poor starving-buzzard – may both rest in peace. I’ve done some more digging on the subject since then and discovered an old article dating back to just over a year ago, written by Eric Dodds, one of the developers of Hearthstone.

It is an interesting – and if you’re like me, hilariously ironic – discussion on their card balance philosophy. It doesn’t seem like they are keeping tabs on it at all at this point.

They listed six different reasons that can lead to a card getting changed:

A card causes non-interactive games – This is what lead to the nerf of Freeze Mage and the almost complete destruction of Miracle Rogue. This makes me think that the echo-of-medivh-based control decks will eventually be nerfed to oblivion as well – and this is why I also wouldn’t expect viable mill decks in the metagame. The aggro-mill-control rock-paper-scissors dynamic of card games will most likely never be allowed to flourish in Hearthstone, as they most likely consider mill decks to be non-interactive as well. They’ve also done a lot to neuter the aggressive playstyle with the last two card sets, so I would expect the game to shift towards an even more control-oriented metagame now. (Which would naturally be countered by mill decks, but I would again expect those to be wrecked by the banhammer as soon as they actually become viable at a wide level.)

A card is frustrating to play against – this makes sense, though it is very difficult to ascertain in my opinion.

A card is causing confusion or isn’t intuitive enough – they bring up a very interesting example here about frostwolf-warlord, which used to have a fluctuating health count based on the amount of minions on the board. Apparently players found that too confusing. What about lightspawns then, I wonder?

A card is too strong compared to other cards of that cost – this is where it starts to get hilarious. Dodds states that “Card diversity goes down when everyone is playing the same cards at a certain mana cost. We want to avoid the feeling of limited minion choices based off of strength and cost while you are deck-building.” What about dr-boom? What about sludge-belchers? What about essentially every single Paladin running muster-for-battle, almost all Druids running keeper-of-the-grove – hell, what about Ramp Druid being the only currently viable Druid archetype? And don’t get me started on voljin in Priest and many other staple cards. Let’s face it: everyone is playing the same cards at a certain mana cost in a given archetype. That is not supposed to be a problem.

A specific build or style of play is too strong – I only include this to show why any arguments related to perfect imbalance are simply irrelevant in any discussion regarding Blizzard’s balancing policy.

And where did this balancing policy take us, you may ask? Let’s take a look at the graveyard!

A playable card for a more civilized metagame

An extensive look at the card changes also reveal the fact that most nerfed cards see absolutely no play in Constructed mode after they get changed – which is not a particularly good thing. While a developer has indeed stated that they don’t mind having bad cards in the game – a question becoming painfully relevant after the introduction of Dr. Boom and its objectively favorable comparison to war-golem – and many have argued that Magic also routinely gets away with bad cards in its expansions, the card pool in Hearthstone is significantly smaller than of its counterpart, making this particular designing philosophy more damaging to players who have a limited collection.

„Is it the right call to shrink the card pool of a game that is already hurting a bit on variety? I would disagree. Even with the upcoming 100-card expansion, the number of available options is still nowhere near to what other collectible card games offer: this is one of the reasons I’m strongly against the idea of useless cards. Why are we wasting space on things like the silverback-patriarch, the stoneskin-gargoyle, the lights-justice and other garbage – apart from the fact that they can be constructed within the constraints of the Vanilla Test?” – this is yet another quote from my article about previous nerfs. My concerns are even stronger than they were before.

The point of nerfing cards is not to render a card unplayable – but that always seems to be the effect of the current actions of the development team. The latest patch on December 4th upped the cost of flare, gadgetzan-auctioneer and soulfire by 1, which basically led to the complete disappearance of said cards in high-level play. A similar thing happened to Leeroy Jenkins and Starving Buzzard – the notoriously bonkers 3-mana increase in cost of the latter was most definitely excessive. Going back even further, tinkmaster-overspark and nat-pagle have also been neutered to the point of unplayability, and essentially the same thing happened in beta with blood-imp, warsong-commander, charge and novice-engineer – not to mention the Mage’s freeze cards that also suffered from a price increase, sending the freeze mage archetype back to the Ice Age until the Curse of Naxxramas came along. The only time when a cost increase hasn’t made a card unplayable was the case of Sylvanas Windrunner – it was an auto-include at 5 and is still often played at 6.

This, at least in my mind, shows that adjusting the mana cost of a card is rarely an effective balancing solution as it usually ends up rendering cards unplayable – which is why I’m partly glad that Blizzard decided to adjust Undertaker’s text instead of increasing its cost to two. However, I’m still not a fan of the solution they’ve gone with – and I’m also not a fan of the fact that they like having bad cards in the game.

Taking on the Undertaker

Let’s face one thing before we even begin to talk about Undertaker: the supposed counter-cards introduced in Goblins versus Gnomes did absolutely nothing to address the problems with this card. (So yeah, another balance failure on Blizzard’s part. Nothing to see here, move along.) Now that we’ve got out of the way, let me postulate something a little bit wild:

The problem with Undertaker wasn’t the possibility of it growing out of reach – that only happens very rarely. The issue is that it was the perfect beachhead on turn 1 in the battle for board control: it usually two-for-ones, allowing the aggressive player to take the driver’s seat and never cede control.

Be honest with yourself: how often did you see an Undertaker grow to 4 health or above, provided you play at a decently high rank on ladder?

In fact, I decided to test this little theory of mine – because I also thought that the perceived issues with the ultra-aggressive Hunter decks don’t actually stem from Undertakers. I’ve experimented with a deck that replaced Undertakers with Clockwork Gnomes, otherwise running the exact same cards as the standard “face-Hunter”.

The main things I realized were that

a) my winrate was still above 50 percent

b) the matchup that suffered the most due to the change was paradoxically the Warrior, the class that probably has the most effective methods to neutralize an early Undertaker

which have also lead me to believe that the main problem with Undertaker isn’t the occasional snowball.

There were multiple suggestions as to how to adjust the card: I would have preferred any one of them over the current one. “Gain +1/+1 for each minion with Deathrattle” on the field would be my personal suggestion as it would allow the opponent to chip away at its strength. Starting the minion from 0/2 or 1/1 were also viable suggestions. The implemented change is the second worst possible in my mind, slightly edging out a cost increase to two. On the other hand, at least it’s good to know that Blizzard is willing to touch cards from the Curse of Naxxramas set: many have wondered if they would refrain from doing so in order to push players towards buying those supposedly essential cards.

Closing thoughts: the case for card buffs

Dota 2’s balancing policy is often brought up in discussion on the strange absence of buffs in Hearthstone since the release of the game. It’s a one-man show that is apparently ran admirably well: underplayed heroes see slow, incremental increases in their stats until enough people start using them: the same thing happens to overused characters. I much prefer that attitude than the one put on display by Blizzard, who seem to be fine with having absolutely useless cards in the game. If Lil’ Exorcist flat-out doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, why not take a look at it?

While there is a valid concern of power creep, I’m pretty sure the developers wouldn’t really mind. Dr. Boom was born into a world populated by War Golems, let no one forget that.