Thursday, February 18, 2016

Predicting the Hearthstone "Standard" Rebalancing Nerfs - Druid, Hunter and Mage

As was announced earlier this month, Hearthstone will be adding formats to the constructed part of the game.  Hearthstone has a growing card pool that now requires multiple formats to ensure freshness of competitive formats and accessibility for new players.

Thus, Standard Format will be born when the first large expansion of 2016 is released, presumably in the next couple months.  At that point, all non-Classic and non-Basic cards (those are staying in Standard) from before the previous calendar year will rotate out of Standard.  In short, the adventure cards from Naxxramas and the Goblins vs. Gnomes expansion will no longer be legal in this new Standard Format.

The game as it currently stands, with everything legal, will continue as the Wild Format.  This will be the Eternal (Vintage/Legacy) type format, for those with Magic the Gathering backgrounds. 

Because the decision was made to leave Basic (cards earned by leveling heroes) and Classic (original set of Hearthstone) cards legal in Standard, the development team at Blizzard has indicated that several of these older cards will need to be adjusted/rebalanced to keep the format and classes lively and fresh.  In other words, any overpowered cards that would tend to make it hard to design new and interesting ways to play a class will likely face imminent "nerfs," e.g., adjustments to make them weaker and more in line with the design goals of the Standard Format. 

More specifically, Ben Brode was quoted in an interview as saying "more than two but less than 20 cards" will receive nerf treatment, and "buffs" or improvements to cards will not be occurring at this time.  That line is setting expectations, so let's assume for the sake of argument 8 to 12 cards will be receiving some adjustments.

This series of posts will focus on predicting what cards will be changed, and for the ones most likely to change, what the predicted change will be.  I envision that this will be a fun thought experiment for anyone who both plays Hearthstone (or card games) and anyone who likes to design or balance games. 

Without further ado, let's get started.


In today's prediction of the Standard Format rebalancing, I cover the first three classes in Hearthstone: Druid, Hunter, and Mage. 

In the discussion below, I look at several potential problematic or more powerful cards in each of these classes, with a consideration of the current metagame and strong decks that will remain Standard Format legal when the first rotation happens this spring.  I have endeavored to be conservative in picking cards for discussion, including more cards than not to try and identify all possible rebalancing angles.

(All card images herein contain copyrighted and other material owned by Blizzard Entertainment)



Overview - There has long been one very standard build of druid decks that find success on constructed ladder play, and that is a midrange druid with mana ramp cards that eventually lead into the Savage Roar-Force of Nature combo (9 mana for 14 damage from an empty board state, much more damage if any pre-existing creatures are on board already). It's clear that other concepts like Beast Druid have suffered from how good this midrange build is, and many of the cards for that midrange deck are in Basic and Standard. 

This is the only class that is absolutely guaranteed to see major changes, as Ben Brode has mentioned these cards in Druid multiple times when the rebalancing topic comes up. Let's look at the potential culprits.

Savage Roar - Basic

One half of the omnipresent Druid combo is this card, which takes any board full of creatures (thanks to Force of Nature or not) and makes it an instant death for the opponent. That has led to some interesting token-style builds as well, which may be worth encouraging. However, Druid has plenty of other buff spells and this does not fit in as an overpowered/under-costed version of Bloodlust for this class. Thus, this card is likely headed for a serious nerf.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Almost Certain

How to Redesign - There's two simple options here: increase the mana cost to 4 (5 would be too much because of Bloodlust) or reduce the effect. One potential reduced effect would be to remove the hero from the bonus, and another would be to reduce the benefit to +1 attack. But that would be worse than Power of the Wild, which seems like a poor re-design. If this card is to be effectively killed, that would do it. However, to keep it interesting I will say an increase to 4 mana and the exclusion of the hero from the benefit.

Druid of the Claw - Classic

Another card that seems to be in every Druid deck is this one, as both options are solid creatures for the cost of 5 mana. However, the different forms or choice is something Druid does well as a theme, and this card is actually less powerful than Sludge Belcher as far as overall minion stats go. While Sludge Belcher is more of a problem because it is available to all classes, big taunt minions seems alright for Druid. It can be and has been designed around, as with Sludge Belcher.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Slim to None

Force of Nature - Classic

The other half of the Druid combo, this card is just like many other epic rarity cards because it seems quirky and could find some different uses. With the relatively minor change in functionality I propose will happen to Savage Roar, this card will also need to be changed to avoid any hint of the combo knocking out other interesting design spaces for the class. Hearthstone is all about creature combat and removal, and I think this could be made an interesting alternative tool to Starfall and Swipe.

Likelihood of Rebalance - More likely than not, over 50%

How to Redesign - The most interesting option I have seen is cutting this card in half, making it cost three mana and summon three 1/1 trees with charge. However, there's plenty of small token generators and that is a bit too much like Muster for Battle. I think the simple change is to increase the mana cost to 7 (which likely reduces the combo likelihood to nil), or keep the mana cost lower and make the Treants not capable of attacking heroes.  That converts this to an interesting piece of removal rather than a combo piece, right where an epic should be.

Ancient of Lore - Classic

Much like Druid of the Claw, this epic rarity card for Druid sees play in almost every Druid deck currently.  Of course, that is partially a result of the two modes of this battlecry-type effect being right in line with the normal strategy of Druid with the combo cards included from above: that being, the need to draw both pieces of the combo and the need to stay alive long enough to play the combo. The health side of this is on par with comparable options in Paladin and neutral minions, but there's not a lot of minions which enable card draw, let alone multiple cards. That side of this card may prove to be a touch too powerful, and if so, then I would expect a minor change to the mana cost (8, for example) would be warranted. All cards that draw multiple cards will be subject to high scrutiny in this review and future Standard rebalancing reviews, as that tends to be the most broken type of card in cards games.  However, this seems more like a "wait and see" if it's a problem card in 2016 before action is taken now, particularly in view of the bigger problems noted above in this class.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Not very likely, less than 50%.



Overview - Despite supporting a strong aggressive Face Hunter strategy as well as a midrange beast-style strategy since the game's inception, the Hunter class has been brought into check by other classes becoming more powerful over time. While there's a risk that Hunter could rise again when a rotation occurs, a review of the Basic and Classic class cards for Hunter reveals that there's not a ton which could be considered overpowered.

Thus, the examples below are taken more from the context of cards which have consistently seen play in most Hunter decks over the past two years, rather than truly problematic cards which have stifled more recent Hunter cards in expansions that will remain Standard Format legal.

Explosive Trap/Freezing Trap - Classic/Classic

Let's begin with the two most used secrets for the Hunter class. The reason these have seen more play than others like Misdirection and Snake Trap is because they fully support the typical aggressive or tempo roles that Hunter plays well. There's zero option to change the mana cost on these, as Hunter secrets are forever set at two mana. Furthermore, any revision (other than maybe altering the penalty on freezing trap to be less mana-intensive) would render these cards pretty unplayable. Secrets like this can be played around by smart players, and there's enough other secrets like Bear Trap which see play that make these not really problematic.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Slim to None

Animal Companion - Basic

Another card that sees play in almost every style of Hunter deck is Animal Companion, which gives a  random one of three beasts: a 4/4 taunt bear, a 4/2 has boar, or a 2/4 buff lion which gives all other minions +1 attack. In some cases this can be huge value, as other similar analogues (Ogre Brute as a 4/4 for 3 mana, Arcane Golem as a 4/2 haste for 3 mana, etc.) are weaker or have drawbacks. But the random nature and unpredictability of what comes out of this spell makes it largely fair and balanced, as it could easily provide what the Hunter does not want or need. A solid card, not overpowered, and the beast theme will always be welcome in Hunter.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Slim to None.

The only other card that even came on the radar for discussion was Savannah Highmane, but the fact that it can be silenced and it's original body is weaker than the terrible Boulderfist Ogre makes this nothing too far out of the ordinary, much like the rest of the Hunter Classic and Basic cards. There's just not much to see here.



Overview - With Mage, the class appears mostly healthy in view of multiple major decks finding success in recent months.  These decks include Mech Mage, an aggressive style; Tempo Mage, a midrange deck that tries to out-value the opponent over the course of the game; and Freeze Mage, a control/combo style deck. It's a good sign when a class can support all types of decks reliably, and that may protect the Basic and Classic cards from significant rebalancing.

Much like Hunter and beasts, there's no doubt Mage will continue to synergize with spells and have some of the best spells in the game. That's fine because every class has to have an identity and Mage has one that has not proven to be overpowered or dominating the meta at any time. So while there's a lot of cards here that could/should merit some consideration, there's nothing that stands out as an immediate problem like in Druid.

Sorcerer's Apprentice - Classic

The first card on this list going by mana cost may end up being the most controversial #take in this first article. I suspect this card will be overlooked by most thanks to the proliferation of 2/3 and 3/2 creatures which have some sort of benefit attached (Knife Juggler, etc.). However, considering that Mage has been and always will be about spells, this particular benefit of reduction of spell cost runs a significant risk of powering up combos and getting out of control in a tempo game (if the Apprentice is not dealt with). Putting such an ability on a 3/2 for 2, which already has favorable stats for the mana cost, seems like a bit too much to reliably design other 2-drops around. In view of all these factors, I believe this is the card most likely in Mage to get a surprising minor adjustment.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - 50/50.

How to Redesign: As mentioned above, this does not have to be drastic. One option would be to increase the mana cost by 1, but I actually think the more inventive way to deal with this is to make the creature smaller (I think the potential should still exist for a combo when a player has 10 mana, even if it is hard to pull off). At 3/1 or perhaps 2/1, the card would be more in line with those small creatures having large ancillary benefits, which will likely remain the same following the Standard Format Rebalancing (Bloodmage Thalanos, for example).

Ice Block - Classic

Just like with the Hunter secrets, there's obviously no room for Mage secrets to receive an adjustment in mana cost. These are generally more powerful thanks to the higher mana cost compared to the Paladin and Hunter counterparts, and that is fine. However, this is the most quirky (surprise,'s epic rarity where all those cards seem to be) of the Mage secrets and it may single-handedly enable Freeze Mage control strategies to continue running rampant in the Standard Format. This is also perhaps the quintessential "feels bad man" card when losing a game to a Mage because of the card being played. Thus, I bet this gets a pretty close look, and stays on a watch list for future balancing changes, even though I do not believe it needs an adjustment at this time. Moreover, it will be hard to figure out how to rebalance this card without rendering it useless, which I doubt the development team wants to do.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Not very likely, less than 50%.

Flamestrike - Basic

This card comes up because it remains one of the best mass removal spells in the entire game, and it overlaps a bit with Blizzard, which is also in the Basic/Classic sets. If nothing else, I hope Flamestrike and some other Basic cards receive rarities (even if not on the face of the card with colored gems) so that it doesn't keep showing up at common in Arena draft while other mass removal is much more rare for other classes. However, that's not really a nerf or balancing change within the confines of this article series. The mana cost is very high for this and that makes it commensurate with the other similar spells in the game, significantly reducing a rebalancing.

Likelihood of Rebalancing: Slim to None.

Archmage Antonidas - Classic

The final card seriously considered in Mage is the first legendary rarity card, as Hunter and Druid do not present anything that sees heavy play. On the other hand, Antonidas is a staple of many Mage decks as a finisher. This particular legendary has proven much more effective than later ones, although Flame Leviathan was pretty much a joke on arrival. That being said, the fact that Fireball costs 4 mana and can't be case more than twice a turn makes Antonidas (in the absence of other enablers like Sorcerer's Apprentice) not terribly unbalanced. A strong finisher, for sure, but the opponent usually has a chance to respond before anything goes crazy. On that basis alone, and the fact that any tweaks would likely be minor/insignificant, this likely escapes rebalancing.

Likelihood of Rebalancing: Not very likely, less than 50%.


All told, these first three classes have resulted in only three cards which I identify as at least 50/50 candidates for rebalancing.  That may seem like a lot and on pace for much more than 10 overall, but I suspect when deep dives are taken into other classes, not many have the problems like Druid currently does for Standard Format moving forward.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, where three more classes will be discussed! Please share your own thoughts on Druid, Hunter, and Mage rebalancing in the comments below, as I'd love to hear feedback and differing opinions.

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