Despite Ben Brode acknowledging how difficult it is to communicate nerfs to a substantial part of the Hearthstone community, if you’re reading this article you probably have heard of the nerf that now makes Warsong Commander utterly unplayable. I’m pretty ambivalent towards this drastic change. It’s not because I don’t have an opinion on it; it’s because I have so many opinions both in favor of and against it. That’s what I’m going to be sharing here.
When Nerfs Should Happen
Firstly, let’s talk about when a nerf is justified. Ben Brode, in Designer Insights, talks about why nerfs aren’t typically preferable. It takes away something that players previously had and enjoyed. That being said, game designers are human, and sometimes they mess up. They create cards that are too powerful or shift the direction of the game in a way that’s less fun. In my opinion, the two factors of whether or not a card should be nerfed is if it’s compromising the entertainment and/or competitive value of the game. So, that being established, let’s delve into the consequences of this nerf on both the funness (totally a word) of the game and on the competitive scene.
Does the current Grim Patron deck make for a better or worse gameplay experience?
Enjoyment is quite subjective, so it’s hard to say exactly whether Grim Patron makes the game more fun or not. That being said, it’s possible to make some generalities when the broad sentiment of the community falls in a particular way. Now, I have no quantitative analysis to back me up, but I’m pretty sure the overwhelming Reddit response (which is not an entirely accurate representation of the Hearthstone community but not a terrible one either) was, initially, that it was something that should have happened a while ago. Of course, critics of the decision did exist, but I’m talking about the general sentiment of the community. This was mostly predictable, given that Patron memes and complaints were becoming the most cliché presence on the subreddit. I can’t prove it, but I feel like this sentiment only started shifting after various pros (Tiddler, Dart, Th3RaT, to name a few) spoke out adamantly against the nerf. These pros hold a ton of influence within the community, and, given their extensive investment and skill in the game, it’s hard to say it’s unwarranted. However, most of the criticism comes in the form of the nerf’s effect on the competitive scene (which I will address in a bit). When assessing the nerf on purely gameplay/entertainment value, these pros’ words shouldn’t hold more weight than the average Hearthstone player trying to enjoy the game. Therefore, I think it’s true that most people found playing against Patron to be less fun given that the Hearthstone community’s initial response to the nerf was a resounding, warm welcome.
Still, even if you don’t buy my expert, infallible, totally undeniable (totally not redundant) analysis on the general attitude of the community, I think, by looking at the technical aspects of the Patron/Warsongs’ mechanics, you could intuitively reach the conclusion that Patron is not a fun deck to play against. My first argument is: Watch this video. The Hearthstone dev team has repeatedly stressed the importance of Hearthstone being a minion-based game. The game is so much duller when there aren’t interactions between the two players competing against each other. Minions on the board create more options that develop more complex and interactive gameplay. Patron has a large degree of complexity, but the problem is that it’s only for the player who’s playing Patron. It feels more like a game of Solitaire than a competition between two players. As you can see in the video, even if players try to hold back minions and play around the deadly warsong/patron combo, sometimes there’s just nothing they can do but watch as their 40 armor is instantly vaporized by just two hits to the face. That’s frustrating. Also, don’t even try to tell me those are anomalies because, honestly, that’s like the main win condition for patron against most control decks.
One argument is that, by nerfing patron, the game will become dominated by tempo/aggro-based decks. Many pros, most prominently Strifecro, predicted that Secret Paladin will now dominate the meta. This makes sense given that Patron was one of Paladin’s major counters. Dart goes further in saying that it won’t just be Secret Paladin but it’ll be a tempo-based game in general and that it leads to a more predictable and stale meta. I’m not overly concerned about this issue though because I don’t think there’s any way you can say for sure that this dreaded tempo-dominated metagame will show up. If tempo decks become the norm, then control decks will pop up in a way that tech well against them. Secondly, even if tempo decks do see a surge in popularity, its unclear that it results in a stale and predictable meta. In fact, I think tempo-based decks (decks that play minions on curve) are the kind of matches Blizzard wants to promote.
Also, while it’s true Secret Paladin might become even more popular, I feel like it can be easily checked by hunters running flare. If we see more flare in the meta, people will be more reluctant to run Secret Paladin. And this is getting kind of tangential, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Mysterious Challenger is nerfed. The problem with MC is that it is overly powerful to make up for the weak cards you have to put in your deck to take advantage of it. MC might be ok now, but it severely limits Blizzard’s ability to create secrets for the Paladin class in the future. Firstly, just introducing more secrets to Paladin lets MC play a ridiculous number of secrets at once. Secondly, if the secrets become more viable (like Avenge), then MC just becomes unfairly strong. A big reason for nerfing cards is that it limits “design space,” and MC is a clear example of that.
That brings me to the last advantage of the Warsong nerf. Brode has emphasized that Warsong’s mechanics limited design space. The example he gave is that he couldn’t make Dreadsteed a neutral card because of its synergy with Warsong. Obviously greater flexibility and options in card designs leads to a more complex and dynamic game, so this is another additional way in which the nerf improves the gameplay experience. For the most part, it seems that this nerf is justified from a gameplay standpoint. Patron lacked interaction between players and prevented the game designers from including cards they otherwise would be able to.
Was Patron Good for the Competitive Scene?
Having looked at the gameplay/entertainment aspect, let’s look at the competitive aspect of the deck. People scream that the deck is overpowered. Is it? Statistically speaking, it doesn’t seem to be. Monk compiled a fantastic sample of professional games here. It has 3,654 games that span the Blackrock Mountain era (pre-TGT). Looking at the stats, Grim Patron isn’t even an average deck based on win-rate, as it falls under 50%. It’s true that it’s the second most played deck, but that doesn’t really matter if the win-rate is under 50%. Also, Grim Patron is weaker now than it was during this BRM era because it didn’t get anything from TGT. While other decks got a little stronger (most notably druid), Grim Patron’s list remained exactly the same. Therefore, relatively speaking, the power level of the deck declined. Of course, people will argue the TGT-meta was better for Patron because of the rise of Secret Paladin (and how well Patron does against it). This is also true, but ultimately I think the increase in favorable matchups only cancels out the fact that Patron got literally nothing from TGT. Also, TGT lead to an increase in Handlocks and Druids, which are bad matchups, so it’s not even necessarily true that the meta was so much more favorable for Patron (this is the reason Sjow believes Patron is not the strongest deck).
What’s especially interesting about Patron’s win-rate in Monk’s stats is that it’s under 50% despite the fact that the sample size was entirely based on professional games. Players have long recognized that Patron is the most difficult deck in Hearthstone to play and that it scales with skill. This is incredibly useful in the competitive scene, because it reduces the likelihood that games are decided by luck and increases the chance that games are won by the player with more skill. You would think that, if anywhere, Grim Patron’s win-rate should shine at the professional level. Apparently, that’s not really the case. Professional players clearly have the skill to prepare decks that tech against/counter Patron. If a player is having a large amount of success with Grim Patron (like Lifecoach or Kolento), clearly it’s because that player is playing very skillfully and not just because he’s bringing an OP deck.
Tiddler, in LiquidHearth, says “You can’t just nerf a deck because it’s strong.” Well, aside from the grammatical technicality that Blizzard does have the authority to nerf any deck that it wants, this is just not true. A deck being too strong is totally grounds for a nerfing because an overpowered deck ruins the competitive scene. However, it just doesn’t seem that Grim Patron IS one of these overpowered decks. It seems to be a deck that only rewards the very few players that can pilot it to a level that even many professional peers can’t. If you follow Tempostorm’s Meta snapshots or LiquidHearth’s Power Rankings, you’ll see that Patron has been at the top for a very long time. This is probably the strongest argument that the deck is “too OP.” But firstly, it’s hard to weigh how much the opinions of a handful of pros should have when no statistical analysis or evidence is provided. Secondly, pros are more likely to rate the deck higher because it scales with skill (and presumably pros are skilled). Pros represent less than 0.01% of the Hearthstone community. For the vast majority of the Hearthstone community, it’s probably not an overpowered deck. Thirdly, some deck has to be ranked one. Even if it’s consistently considered the strongest deck, it’s not a big deal if it’s not consistently the strongest deck by a lot. The general consensus seems to be that it’s the strongest deck by a slight amount, and that seems to be fair given that it’s a deck that scales with skill. That’s exactly the kind of deck we want to see at the top, so that players with experience and talent are rewarded.
Was the Nerf a Good or Bad Idea?
From an entertainment value perspective, it seems the nerf makes a lot of sense. From a competitive standpoint, it doesn’t make as much sense. Despite all of the complaints, Patron was a unique deck that rewards the players who spend countless hours learning all of its intricacies. Clearly Blizzard thought that the entertainment value’s pros outweighed the competitive value’s cons. That’s fair, given that the competitive scene affects only a fraction of the community. I also strongly believe that most of the competitive scene’s viability is derived from the game’s popularity, which justifies why the “fun” factor takes precedence over the purely “competitive” factor.
All this being said, I do agree with the sentiment of many professionals who say that, even if this is a good nerf, the timing is terrible. You’ve allowed the deck to exist for this long; it’s unclear why letting it exist a little longer until the end of the World Championships isn’t a good idea. Many pros have practiced countless hours on the deck, and it’s unfair to unexpectedly take it away from them. Also, Grim Patron has been one of the most dominant decks this season, so it’s a little odd cutting it out of the World Championships. You would think that the World Championship should feature a lot of the decks that were prominent during the season.
In addition, another small point of criticism is why the nerf was so severe. Ben Brode pointed out that he did want to make the card pretty much unplayable in competitive HS, but I think the nerf went a little too far. Firstly, it’s just another terrible arena card (although admittedly, Warsong Commander was never a very good arena card). Secondly, it’s just good to have more viable cards because that leads to a greater number of options and a more diverse array of decks. For example, if Warsong Commander gave charge minions two additional attack instead of one, it would separate itself from a card like Raid Leader without being anywhere near powerful enough to see a lot (if any) competitive play. This isn’t really a big deal in my opinion, because it’s only just one more dead card in the game. However, it’s seriously astonishing how bad this card is now.
Ultimately, in order to enhance the gameplay experience for a majority of the community, Blizzard decided they would nerf Warsong, even if it came at a small expense to the competitive community.
While I think the nerf was justified, it does seem that the timing could have been more sensitive, and the nerf itself could be a little less…crude. I have a ton of respect for the Hearthstone dev team and the thought they put into the game (they tried thirty different nerfs before finally deciding on this one), but I feel as though the nerf could still have been a little more refined.