Want to nerf a card? Why not destroy it instead?

Nerfing a card, or nerfing in any game, happens. But nerfing a card to oblivion is much rarer. YelloRambo discusses the recent nerfs!

My Condolences

Have you already said your goodbyes to leeroy-jenkins? The poor guy is on his deathbed – the doctors have said that despite their best efforts, he is almost guaranteed to succumb to the terrible illness known as the “Blizzard nerfing policy”. Also let’s not forget the rotten carcass of the starving-buzzard – that poor thing is currently on top of the rubbish pile behind the hospital as it has become so worthless that no one was even willing to give it a proper burial.

I suppose there’s a very important distinction to be made. The discussion about whether or not we should nerf a card or a particular combo is not the same as the discussion over the way it should be neutered.

The Battle for The Battle for Board Control

As most of you are probably aware, Blizzard is committed to steer the game towards a battle for board control instead of the prevalent combo finishers. That is a decision I personally agree with – however, the way they seem to be going towards achieving this goal seems to be quite destructive.

Nerfing a card should not necessarily equal rendering it completely useless – only less omnipresent or less powerful. As it stands, however, most of the nerfs implemented so far have rendered the cards – and in many cases, the decks built around them – absolutely unplayable.

Earlier patches have been targeting decks like OTK Warrior and Freeze Mage’s original form (the latter requiring the nerf of 4 specific mage cards(!)) but there has been a well-documented and still ongoing attempt to clamp down on aggressive decks. The inclusion of many powerful control cards in The Curse of Naxxramas – that are, by the way, a serious cause for concern when it comes to power creep – were apparently not enough. It seems like that the inclusion of minions like sludge-belcher, unstable-ghoul, deathlord, loatheb and some other goodies were not enough to solve this issue – even though some of them completely wrecked the Vanilla Test. In fact, the overly powerful nature of some of the Naxx cards has caused many new problems as the Hunter-dominated post-expansion metagame clearly shows.

What else then? Well, how about nerfing some cards that are essential to the currently popular aggro decks – to the extent that they become absolutely unplayable?

This is the contentious part, of course – as this is a cornerstone of a design philosophy. I personally don’t believe that it’s a good idea to make an overly popular card so bad that it ends up completely useless. Where are the pyroblasts, the warsong-commanders, the novice-engineers, the blood-imps, the nat-pagles, the tinkmaster-oversparks? They didn’t become non-overpowered: they ended up in the gutter.

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?

A visit to the hospital

Let’s take a look at the two minions that are getting hammered on in the current patch: Leeroy Jenkins and the Starving Buzzard. (Incidentally, this sounds like a lovely title for a grimdark Pixar movie financed by Blizzard.) Leeroy is, of course, a fireball in minion form, or so we have thought for a long time – until we realized its combo potential. Not only Miracle Rogue makes extensive use of Mr. At Least I Had Chicken, but Handlock also had the option to deal 20 damage in one turn by combining it with Power Overwhelming and Faceless Manipulator.

These options are now completely gone. Its role as a finisher in aggro (and some specific midrange) decks may stay, but the heftier price may warrant the inclusion of other minions in its place. Essentially, all the benefits of using this card has evaporated as it has absolutely no staying power on the board, and dealing significant burst damage can be accomplished in many other ways – ways which may now be more viable because of the increased mana cost of this contentious legendary.

The other issue was, of course, the effectiveness of the Hunter class. Blizzard has been struggling for a long time to find Rexxar’s sweet spot and they still don’t seem to be anywhere closer to the solution: it seems any time they make some changes to the class, it oscillates between completely unplayable and meta-dominating. I personally agree with those who think that changing around Unleash the Hounds and its related combo pieces does not solve the class’ larger problem: namely the fact that the other Beasts are just too weak on their own.

This is very easy to realize once you look at the stats: Hunter is only the 6th in the list of average wins and 7th in terms of popularity according to the data provided by arenamastery.com – results vary depending on where you look but the general consensus seems to be that there is a good reason for the class’ unpopularity in Arena: the fact that the class-specific minions rely a bit too heavily on combo interactions. How funny that Blizzard is currently destroying one of these combos.

Needless to say, a 3/2 for 5 is ridiculous and useless, no matter what card text you give to it. (May I remind everyone that the Buzzard used to be a 2/2 for 2 back in the good old days?) The main use of this minion was to combo with unleash-the-hounds – the developers have already attempted to solve the problems caused by its effectiveness by increasing the cost of the AoE to 3 from 2, giving that very important extra turn to most classes. Why render another card completely useless now then? Hunters cannot wait until turn 9 to pull off their combo and they need to put up so much pressure that they cannot afford to drop a 5-mana 3/2 in the midgame. For all intents and purposes, a Cult Master will have the same effect with the combo, only costing 7 mana: make no mistake, this card is dead and gone.

Nerf Wars

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.

For instance, almost every single 1-drop of the Warlock class has undergone a nerf at some point as well during development: the blood-imp, for instance, is completely out of the constructed scene now, except when some lunatic summons it with bane-of-doom. (I think the Murloc deck is very indicative of their idea of an aggressive deck: it should be a lot more volatile and unreliable than the ones currently in play – and as such, not particularly useful.)

Changing a card’s price is bound to have a larger effect than slightly changing its stats (for instance, making Leeroy a 5/2 for 4 with its current card text) simply because it will have to compete with different cards for a slot in a deck. While merely changing the stats would keep the combo possibilities open, just less effective, this method effectively kills them off – for instance, the Handlock combo will literally become impossible in its current form.

I also disagree with these nerfs because they target the wrong element of the combos: the minions. Sure, Miracle Rogue won’t be able to do 26 damage in one turn but it can use an arcane-golem to do 20 with three mana to spare: is that going to be any better, especially considering that it will be possible to run two of those minions instead of the lone Leeroy Jenkins? I personally don’t think so. Same goes for the Handlock combo.

Minions are a lot easier to replace in combos than the class-specific cards are: my preferred solution to the contentious Miracle-issue would have definitely been to increase the cost of shadowstep to 1: the card still provides a benefit but puts a cap on spell cycling and limits the damage output of the finisher. As for the Hunter, the problematic card has always been Unleash the Hounds, not the Buzzard: it’s probably undergone more iterations than any other card in the game to date, and for a good reason. If the players manage to find some other source of card draw (which I don’t think is impossible), UtH will still have massive combo potential with things like the scavenging-hyena – the problem still isn’t solved.

Unleash the Problems

The underlying concern is the role Unleash the Hounds is trying to fulfill: the area of effect card of the Hunter class. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that having a bunch of 1/1-s on the board is absolutely useless as an AoE on its own – which is why players are essentially obligated to find some way to combo them with something else: and it is almost impossible to gauge and adjust the strength of said combinations as a developer.

The issue of the omnipresent Hunters shouldn’t be solved by destroying one of their class-specific minions but by reworking their AoE – it seems like cool experiment of “an AoE that isn’t really an AoE” just isn’t working: it either ends up as too powerful or too weak. The current direction of Hunter-specific changes seem to cement their situation as a class whose game play solely relies upon one card – changing its mana cost or the stats of one of its combo pieces will not change that. Completely readjusting Unleash the Hounds again would ensure a much healthier place for Hunter in the metagame.

Looking back at the history of Hunter over the course of the – relatively short – lifespan of the game so far, it’s always been either the top of the pack or one of the most useless classes. I think this is also due to the fact that Blizzard is struggling to find a method to nerf cards in a way that still makes them viable – and I think that this is a huge problem from a developer’s standpoint. It’s simply bad design. It is akin to what a raging fan community would do after getting annoyed by losing to Miracle for the fourth time in a row.

I respect Blizzard’s massive pool of data and the talent behind the game but I seriously disagree with their attitude displayed towards powerful combos and overly prevalent classes or deck types: if something is too strong, you don’t have to kill it outright. Sometimes, just cutting off a limb or two is just as good. (No, I’m not speaking from experience, why do you ask?)