The Vanilla Test has been Corrupted by Naxxramas!

As Hearthstone grows bigger, the card pool gets larger, there are challenges for both player and the Dev team - What exactly makes a card good?


Those among you who have played CCGs for a time will be familiar with the Vanilla Test – the benchmark by which cards are evaluated. If Hearthstone is your first CCG, fear not!

In Hearthstone, you have thirty cards and a Hero Power with which to defeat your opponent. The minions that you choose, or choose to omit, play a large role in deciding whether you win or lose, so it is in your best interest to pick the best ones.

Every action that can be taken in a game comes at a cost, and in Hearthstone, those costs begin adding up the instant you pick a class. Certain cards are better positioned than others in certain metagames; so too are certain classes. This is why we saw an increase in the number of Priests and Warriors on the ladder a short time after Hunters took over; their Hero Powers directly offset that of Rexxar, and their class cards matched up well with what Hunters were trying to do.

I believe that this is the future of Hearthstone. The game is entirely digital and constantly being streamed by top pros. We cycle through iterations of the metagame so quickly that a deck that can spike a player to Legend from a low rank in one day can be rendered obsolete in the next. If a player sees a lot of Zoo on the ladder, they are able to add cards that are good against Zoo, and if a deck becomes dominant, there is a collective effort to crack the code and defeat it.

There is an article by YelloRambo that I highly recommend you take the time to read, which can be found here. He believes that the cards Blizzard prints in the future will become successively more powerful; that the game will require investment, of substantial time or money, in order to remain competitive as old cards become obsolete. He cites, as examples, many cards from Naxxramas that are clearly quite powerful.

I grant that Power Creep is a concern, but Hearthstone is a young game with an already substantial following and I am optimistic about its future. There is a lot of design space for new abilities, and if Blizzard handles their expansions well, the new minions will be tools with which skilled players can gain an edge in the meta, rather than crowd out existing decks.

Tailoring a deck to beat the metagame will continue be a matter of managing opportunity cost – the value of the best alternative foregone.

Evaluating Cost

The cost associated with running a particular minion is some amount of mana and a card slot. Even the most aggressive of decks shun wisp, the only minion currently in-game that does not cost any mana to play. Even though it is a 1/1 that can be cast for free, it occupies a slot that could be a more useful tool.

A Wisp will only ever be a Wisp, and that is very rarely good enough to put the game away. The card slot matters! Each time you commit a card to your deck, you are doing so at the cost of every card that you did not include. How then do we evaluate which cards are better than others, especially within the dynamic context that is the rapidly evolving Hearthstone metagame?

It is easy to learn but difficult to master. Odds are, though, that you are already well on your way. If you have found your way to this site then you do not need me to tell you that wisp is a bad card, but the difference between knowing that Wisp is a bad card and deciding to put shieldbearer in your Zoo deck to allow you to trade more efficiently (as Reynad did pre-Naxxramas) is substantial in terms of skill.

Being good at the game can take you to Legend. All that you need is a win rate greater than 50% and a good deal of time and you will make it there eventually.

But if you are good at the game and able to innovate against the top decks you will be catapulted there, and it is possible that you will be featured on this site!

Every tweak made to a deck will alter its match-ups. The key to cracking the metagame is finding a change (or an entirely new deck) that gives you some advantage in common match-ups without sacrificing too much against the rest of the field.

What Are We Getting?

From a design perspective, minions created at and before the 5 mana mark must have a firm ceiling to their power-level. If the power-level of any minion cost as such is too high, playing two of them as soon as you are able would ostensibly be the best possible play, and advance the board-state such that whomever was able to deploy their minions first would Seize the Initiative, and likely, the game. This makes for unexciting game-play, as victory is reduced to a roll of the dice, and significantly reduces the number of playable decks.

The possibility of casting two minions that cost more than 5 mana in one turn is nonexistent unless you are a Druid playing innervate or have managed to conserve the-coin. The power-level of minions spikes at 6 mana because playing a 6 mana minion puts stricter limits on what can be accomplished in a given turn. This is why so many potent Legendary minions exist at 6 mana e.g. cairne-bloodhoof, the-black-knight, sylvanas-windrunner, etc.

The rate that we expect for mana costs at and below 5 has become fairly well-established:

  • 1 Mana – 3 Stats + an Ability
  • 2 Mana – 5 Stats + an Ability
  • 3 Mana – 6-7 Stats + an Ability
  • 4 Mana – 8-9 Stats + an Ability
  • 5 Mana – 8-10 Stats + an Ability

With regards to stat distribution, it seems obvious to say that the fewer stat points that you have, the fewer number of possible distributions exist. Design space towards the bottom of the curve becomes more and more constricted.

As we travel up the curve, we do get more stat points to distribute, but if the number of points we had to distribute increased linearly all the way to 10 mana, many cheaper minions would likely become ineffectual. This is why, past 5 mana, there is more of a focus on unique abilities and effects as the increase in stat-points slows.

The largest bodies that we regularly see on the ladder today are the rooted ancient-of-war and members of the giant family (mountain-giant, molten-giant, and, honorarily, ragnaros-the-firelord). If these large minions were even larger, minions that cost less would be unable to compete.

Yes, hunters-mark and big-game-hunter exist, but a card like harvest-golem, one time value king, can only do so much.

Design space with regards to stat distribution is constrained at all points of the curve by position relative to other costs. It is constrained towards the bottom of the curve because of the lack of stat-points that developers have to work with without creating a game-breakingly powerful card, and it is constrained towards the top of the curve by a desire to keep cheaper minions playable.

I Mentioned Abilities

We are working with an eternal card pool; cards will never become unplayable unless Blizzard decides to take the game in a drastically different direction from the one it has publicly stated. That means that once a niche is filled by a particular card, it stays filled.

When I made the bullet-points above, at each mana cost I put that we expect an ability. How frequently do you see chillwind-yeti on the ladder nowadays? We want minions that can meaningfully impact the game-state regardless of when they are played, which means they should have text beyond their Attack and Health.

Of course the major archetypes: Face, Aggro, Midrange, Control, Ramp, and Combo all have different needs, and will evaluate minions differently e.g. a Face deck is more likely to highly value Charge than a Ramp deck, but abilities have become the most relevant bit of text on most minions.

The ladder does not mirror Arena in card evaluation as it once did. Post-Naxx, value has taken a backseat to synergy.

Most Zoo lists are playing power-overwhelming and void-terror. Hunters rely on starving-buzzard and unleash-the-hounds to draw cards and keep the board clear. Handlock is making a resurgence, using Life Tap to make mountain-giant and molten-giant cheaper. Priest uses zombie-chow to keep the board clear early, and combines it with auchenai-soulpriest later to deal substantial damage.

We are entering into a world where Vanilla need not apply.


YelloRambo and I draw different conclusions from the same information. I agree that Power Creep is a valid concern, and, if the coming expansions are handled poorly, could destroy the game, but what happens if they are handled well?

We all know, roughly, the stat-line that we expect from a minion of such and such a cost, but the stat-line is no longer how we evaluate most minions. They have to be strong enough to impact the game, but outside of a few minions with stat distributions that allow them to efficiently trade, we are more interested in ability than body.

Cards are judged in the context of what is being played, and since so much fresh information is available all the time, our evaluation of what cards are good is constantly changing. I expect cards released in future expansions to occupy specialized niches, or else begin trading stat-points for more potent abilities lower on the curve, and I am optimistic about what this means for the future of the game.

It means depth, and provides a way for the skilled to rise to the top.

What do you think?