Blizzard's Patron Warrior nerf was the right decision, but did it go too far?
Now this is a nerf.
For months we’ve been speculating if and how Blizzard would address the rise of Grim Patron Warrior, the combo deck that’s been at the top of the ladder for months following the introduction of five-mana 3/3 Grim Patron minion back at Blackrock Mountain. Blizzard has always said it prefers to handle balance issues within the game, and after the 130 card injection of The Grand Tournament didn’t change the status quo, some sort of hard, sanctioned edit seemed inevitable.
But I don’t know if anyone expected it to be this drastic.
There’s been a lot of proposed potential nerfs to Patron, maybe change Frothing Berserker from a 2/4 to a 2/3? Maybe make Grim Patron a 3/2? Maybe up the mana cost or add another drawback? The dialogue was never about obliterating Grim Patron, it was about reducing the deck’s power level in a responsible way to make the game more interactive. We’ve all seen the videos of people getting bursted down from 50 health on an empty board, and we could all agree that stuff like that shouldn’t be possible. And you know what? If Grim Patron was a 3/2, some of those more ridiculous examples would snuffed out.
Blizzard decided to go the opposite way, however. It changed Warsong Commander, the super powerful utility minion that gives charge to minions with three attack or less. That was the key. You drop your Warsong and play your Frothing Berserkers and Grim Patrons. They all get charge, you throw down a couple Inner Rages and Whirlwinds, all of a sudden you can win the game in one or two turns. A major change to Warsong always seemed off-limits because it was so key to the archetype. Without Warsong any sort of Charge/Enrage/Combo Warrior doesn’t work anymore. Hell, the underplayed and gimmicky Worgen Warrior wouldn’t work anymore! There’s only been one time in recent memory that Blizzard has smashed a class-defining combo, and even then it didn’t seem like it was on purpose (RIP Miracle Rogue.)
Now, Warsong Commander’s text reads “gives your charge minions +1 attack.” Most importantly, Warsong Commander doesn’t give minions charge anymore. That is HUGE. Yes you can still fill a board with tons of Grim Patrons and massive Frothing Berserkers, but now they won’t be able to attack until the next turn. That makes them easily removed by…. Flamestrike, Frostbolt, Holy Nova, Hellfire, Brawl, Equality/Consecration, you know, pretty much any removal spell in the game. There is a super, super outside chance that Patron Warrior survives on the power of its ability to generate board presence, but it will be nowhere near top-tier. The safe money says the deck is dead, which, for the most part, is a cause for celebration.
Patron Warrior was a difficult deck to pilot, but it wasn’t impossible. If you were good at it, it sported a positive winrate against everything except Warlock. Something that powerful doesn’t deserve to be in a competitive card game. It was also really difficult to play around. Patron could punish you on an empty board, on a full board, in a long game or in a short game. Playing against a Patron Warrior often felt like you were just trying to kill them before they assembled their combo pieces. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Freeze Mage is one of the oldest combo decks in Hearthstone and I don’t think anyone has a problem with losing to a backdoor Pyroblast after 15 turns, but that’s also because at its best, Freeze Mage could crank out maybe 30 damage if everything went right. Patron, on the other hand, could routinely deal 50+ damage to face purely out of their hand. We’ve seen it happen.
I think the most interesting subplot of this nerf is that it feels like Blizzard is trying to uproot Patron Warrior from the game entirely. By removing Warsong Commander’s ability to give minions charge, the fundamental advantage that Patron Warrior had, its defining characteristic, is now gone. You get the feeling that Blizzard is trying to protect itself from the future. For instance: Let’s say it decided to nerf Frothing Berserker to a 2/3. Now the deck isn’t quite as powerful, but still playable. But what if, next expansion, they introduce another minion with three or less attack that’s devastating when played with Warsong? It’s the same problem all over again. Nerfing the Commander allows Blizzard a lot more design flexibility going forward.
It’s still pretty crazy though, right? Blizzard has all the internal data, it can track win-rates and trends better than any of us. This is a huge, game-defining change, and you have to imagine that the Grim Patron numbers were absolutely insane internally. I suppose it’s good to know that Blizzard isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, but I still don’t know how I feel about all this. Grim Patron was broken, but was it broken enough to be completely smite it from the face of the earth? I’m not sure.