Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Predicting the Hearthstone "Standard" Rebalancing Nerfs - Neutral Minions

As was announced earlier last 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. This will also involve a rebalancing of several Basic and Classic cards.

As a reminder, this series of posts (part 1 here) (part 2 here) (part 3 here) will focus on predicting what cards will be changed, and for the ones most likely to change, what the predicted change will be.

In today's prediction of the Standard Format rebalancing, I cover the neutral minions.

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 - Unlike several of the class cards, the neutral minions in the Basic Set are really underwhelming for the most part. That has led to a situation where not many of the cards are regularly used, at least outside the lower ranks and by beginning players working up a collection. Given that these cards are automatically unlocked by leveling heroes, that seems to be an appropriate place for this set.

However, it does not provide much in the way of opportunities to discuss potential nerfs. If Blizzard intended to possibly buff some cards, then this set of neutral minions would have some candidates, but that is not the case. So I have picked the best and that's all to discuss.

Acidic Swamp Ooze

The Swamp Ooze is one of the best utility creatures in the game, offering a 3/2 body for 2 mana while also destroying an opponent's weapon. Against weapon classes, especially when those classes are at the top of the ladder, this card is a relatively under-costed bomb. Of course, the card is just a decent vanilla creature when playing against a non-weapon class. That makes this one of those skill-testing deck building options (called "tech" cards by regular card game players), and those should always be a viable option in a game like this. Unless another weapon-breaking card is to be designed, this likely should stay as a good option like other similar tech cards.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Slim to none.



Overview - The original set of packs that a player could buy in Hearthstone definitely set the tone for this game, including having cards of wildly different power levels and plenty of random effects. While this is a nice baseline for the game to build a future upon, the new goal for Blizzard is to let new set designs shine and change the competitive format we play in the game, keeping everything fresh. Thus, some of the cards which are the most powerful in Classic will need to be tuned back down in power level so as to let future design space open up for cards that will rotate in and out of Standard Format instead of being constant. There's really a ton that could be discussed, after the dearth of options for rebalancing in the Basic Set, so let's jump right in and see what needs changed.

Abusive Sergeant

Starting at the bottom of the mana scale in the Classic Set, one of the most regular inclusions in aggressive decks has been this card. The Sergeant is not a terribly effective turn 1 play, but later in the game it can help aggressive decks be quite explosive in working towards the finish of the game. This card appears a little better on average than Dark Iron Dwarf with the same Battlecry, which is a little strange to see a duplicate of in the Classic Set. Nevertheless, the weak body on this card and the poor value as a turn 1 play keeps this in check compared to the next card on this list.

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

Leper Gnome

The best neutral one-mana card in the game is Leper Gnome, and it is not particularly close. This card has broken into some non-aggressive decks just based on power level alone. Unlike Abusive Sergeant, the Leper Gnome is one of the best plays that can be made in the game on turn 1. Furthermore, the card guarantees two damage and usually causes much more. That has made it difficult to design one-mana cards which can reliably compete for spots in aggressive decks. In other words, this is precisely the type of card which Blizzard wants to change to force innovation in the Standard Format, particularly in aggressive decks.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Very likely, more than 50%.

How to Rebalance - It seems right that this card should still exist, but the power level needs to be adjusted down a slight bit. In view of that, the best change is likely to adjust the Deathrattle. It should cause only a loss of 1 life, or perhaps instead cause 1 damage to a random enemy rather than always to the opposing hero. Those would keep this card in some play, but allow for better alternative cheap minions to have a legitimate chance in new set designs.


The final one-mana creature which may deserve some attention is this one, which has only seen significant play in Secret Paladin builds. Of course, those decks will lose a ton of powerful cards when the rotation occurs, which means this will be one of only a few cards left (along with Mysterious Challenger) which will potentially maintain the core of this deck. In most cases, this is not anywhere near the degenerate power level that Undertaker was with Deathrattle cards (which were minions rather than relatively weak secrets), which should keep this card safe. But it must make the radar for a small amount of consideration based on the strength of Secret Paladin, particularly if there is any risk that decks continues to be on the top of competitive play.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Slim to none.

Bloodmage Thalnos

The first legendary-rarity card to make the list is Thalnos, which provides a lot of bang for the buck at only two mana. Thanks to the cheap cost, this card and the spell power boost is provides can help decks that combo out with spells (Miracle Rogue, when it existed, and more recently, Freeze Mage) become more reliable in the late game. However, it can also cycle with the "draw a card" Deathrattle when needed in the early game, making it a combination of other two mana cards like Loot Hoarder, Novice Engineer, and Kobold Geomancer. However, that combination comes with weaker stats at 1/1 and it can only have one copy in any deck, limiting its impact. This looks like just a card to watch for future potential abuse more so than an immediate problem.

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

Knife Juggler

The only card even more locked into almost every aggressive and aggressive-midrange deck than Leper Gnome is this one, Knife Juggler. The ability to throw a knife for every single creature summoned or cast form the hand can be devastating when combined with cards like Imp-losion, Muster for Battle, and Unleash the Hounds. Of course, some of those cards are rotating out of Standard, but others will likely continue to be added in future sets. That, plus the natural overuse of this ability in aggressive decks following the Juggler up with a ton of small creatures makes this simply too good to design around. It will change, if for no other reason than to open design whiteboard space for future aggressive two mana cards like Flame Juggler.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Almost certain. 

How to Rebalance - One potential option would be to lower the stats on this card from its current 3/2 for 2 mana state, but the creature is already fairly easy to kill and still remains a problem. Thus, the answer is likely to change the effect of the knife juggling ability, regardless of whether the statistics change. Assuming Flame Juggler is an example of what the development team wants to see play now, I expect Knife Juggler to drop to a 2/2 or 1/2 and the knife throwing to be limited to a one-time per turn ability (the first time a creature is played, throw a 1 damage knife).

A one-time battlecry would also be OK, but that would overlap too much with Flame Juggler and so that re-design has been left off the table.

Arcane Golem

Another fairly common card used in aggressive decks is this Golem, who smashes in for 4 damage at the low cost of 3 mana. However, this card has a huge downside if played before the end of the game, which means it usually is held back until well after turn 3. This gives the card just enough nuance to make "face" decks play with some decision-making, a good thing in a game like Hearthstone. If this gets rebalanced, it will be because the haste creature is too much like Leeroy Jenkins, which was too good as a 6/2 for 4 mana (similar to a 4/2 for 3 mana), especially when two can be played in the same deck. However, I think aggressive decks will take enough of a hit with the cards above to keep the Golem around for another year in its current form.

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

Big Game Hunter

Another strange card at the epic rarity, Big Game Hunter has stood out as perhaps the best and most often-used "tech" card. The ability to make any big creature with more than 7 power immediately disappear is great at 3 mana (just ask any Priest player about Shadow Word: Death), but the fact that a 4/2 minion remains is salt in the wound for the opponent who likely just spent a lot of mana on that threat. This is simply too good a body on a minion with that type of spell effect, and it has dampened the development and play of big minions which are the most fun to play in a minion-oriented card game (except the truly degenerate ones like Dr. Boom). If this effect is to remain, it likely needs to have some adjustment to the minion body to make it more in line with other tech cards. My only hesitation at this point is whether other "problem" cards will outshine this one for the first round of Standard Format rebalancing.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - 50/50.

How to Rebalance - This feels like an effect that should cost one more mana, so as to not make it exactly as cheap as the Priest spell counterpart. In addition, the body on the minion should be reduced in some small manner also. If Big Game Hunter were a 2/3 minion for 4 mana, that would be more palatable, should this one be rebalanced now.

Azure Drake

One card that is a staple in the middle of most Dragon decks is Azure Drake, thanks to the reasonable 4/4 body for 5 mana plus the "draw a card" Battlecry. The fact that this can also help spells be more powerful makes this a potential finisher as well. The main reason this would potentially be changed is if the power level of dragon decks is too high in the testing of the new Standard Format. Removing or changing this card would force play of weaker small dragons or less efficient big Dragons, both of which are easier to play around. However, I suspect Dragon decks will not become a problem but just a regular part of the Standard Format metagame for the next year while Blackrock Mountain remains legal. Thus, this one likely escapes any rebalancing (and possibly for the long term as well).

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

Leeroy Jenkins

Now we turn to two cards which were previously adjusted with nerfs, in this case a 4-mana card that now costs 5 mana. Leroy Jenkins is still used as a finisher in some aggressive decks as well as Rogue decks which abuse Shadowstep for a big damage turn. However, this is a legendary card so that combo can be difficult to reliably set up. Plus, a 6/2 with a downside for 5 mana is really not so good as to be something that can't be designed around. Indeed, it's basically like a bigger version of Arcane Golem, which tends to see much more play as a 4/2 for 3 mana. That was not deemed problematic above, and likewise, I suspect this card is settled in fine at 5 mana when combined with being legendary and thus limited to one copy per deck.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Slim to none.

Gadgetzan Auctioneer

Another card which increased in mana thanks to spell-abusing decks like Miracle Rogue is this one, as Auctioneer used to be the staple card draw engine at 5 mana. Although Auctioneer can still be played in those decks and protected with support cards like Conceal, placing that at 7 total mana before the turn where any degenerate plays can happen has proven to keep the spell-based Rogues in line. This stays on the radar because any card that potentially draws a bunch of cards at once or during a single turn will remain a serious threat for combo enabling and broken decks which are disfavored in the main competition format. Like Leeroy Jenkins, the previous adjustment should keep this card from current rebalancing.

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

Sylvanas Windrunner

Now we come to a series of some of the best legendary-rarity cards in Hearthstone, many of these being staples of early decks and continuing to some extent today. Sylvanas originally competed with the likes of Cairne Bloodhoof, but when better and more efficient (non-legendary) Deathrattle cards became available in Naxxramas and Goblins vs. Gnomes, this was the only 6-mana legendary that continued to see some play. The Deathrattle does have the word random in it, which makes it less controlled than the spell with the same effect (Mind Control at a whopping 10 mana). In addition, this effect can be silenced and played around by a good opponent. As a result, the effect tends to play fair in most circumstances. I think this therefore stays on the watch list for future rebalancing, but it does not limit the design space for new cards (especially powerful legendaries) too much for the upcoming Standard Format.

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

Baron Geddon

Another card that saw a ton of play in control decks before Naxxramas (and even after the first expansion set or two, at least until Dr. Boom supplanted all 7 mana cards forever) was this one, as the ability to control a board of small creatures each turn was devastating for early aggressive decks. With some of the cards making those aggressive decks good enough to overwhelm Baron Geddon rotating out, and others likely seeing rebalancing as set forth above, this primary weapon of control decks could once again become highly relevant and powerful. There is likely nothing wrong with the board sweeping effect at the mana cost, especially with it being applied to both sides of the board, but the minion body itself may be a little too much when added with this ability.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - 50/50.

How to Rebalance - If this card is deemed slightly too powerful in its current form, the easy fix is to bring some of the minion stats down. Perhaps a 6/4 or a 5/5 for the same 7 mana cost would be more in line with other cards intended to be the baseline that the Standard Format builds upon. However, there may be no need to nerf this card unless internal testing shows it to be too good with the weakening that is likely coming for aggressive decks.

Ragnaros the Firelord

Another card which felt the effects of Dr. Boom becoming so prevalent was Ragnaros, a staple control card and finisher for many different types of decks in the early days of Hearthstone. There are many factors which keep this card in check, including the all-important "Can't Attack" line. The random nature of the effect can lead to big swings depending on whether the fates are in your favor that game, and I personally think that is the kind of fun and (somewhat controllable) unpredictability that the Hearthstone developers continue to want in their game. For now, this card remains likely OK but don't expect it to avoid close scrutiny in the future.

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


Everyone's favorite control/combo dragon leads off in the 9 mana slot, and Alexstraza has provided the firepower for decks like Freeze Mage and Control Warrior to efficiently finish off opponents after locking down a game for many turns. In certain circumstances, this utility knife of a dragon can be used to heal from a precariously low life total against aggressive decks, although it is less effective than Reno Jackson at that. While I personally like playing this dragon, it does feel like a bit of an auto-include in many control/combo strategies, and those are the types of cards which seem more likely to be rebalanced for Standard Format. Plus, if Blizzard wants the other major dragons to shine and have "a day in the sun." it is time for this card to be brought more in line on the same power level as those other dragons.

Likelihood of Rebalancing - Very likely, more than 50%.

How to Rebalance - This will prove to be one of the harder cards to "fix," as the dragons bring unique flavor which should remain in this game. As a first step, it would be fun to see most of the dragons have similar stats and be very hard to kill, so I think a change to 4/12 could be in order for this minion. As far as changing the Battlecry, it could go to something completely different (or become a Deathrattle), but I think a simple change that keeps the same flavor would be to make it set a hero's remaining health to 20.  That limits the combo potential of this card, while making it a dragon that should still see play as an alternative or complement to Reno Jackson strategies. Of course, the existence of a "fixed" version of a healing card in Reno Jackson may signal that a bigger change is coming to this card. But for now, I will say this becomes a 4/12 that sets one hero's health to 20.


The other dragon that sees some play in multiple decks is Ysera, whether that be as a top-end threat for tempo dragon-based strategies or as another weapon in a control player's arsenal. The Dream Cards are very powerful, but not necessarily game-breaking unless Ysera is allowed to sit there without opposition for a few turns. The 4/12 dragon body really works with this ability, as the player wants to get more than one Dream Card out of playing this dragon. The only thing that makes me wonder if this will be dropped slightly in power is if Blizzard wants to encourage more experimentation in Standard Format with other dragons like Onyxia and Malygos. If so, then this may be weakened (and the easy way to do this would be to modify some of the Dream Cards to be slightly more costly or weaker in effect).

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

Sea Giant

To end the discussion of Classic Set, let's take a look at one of the Giants. Each of the Giants requires some type of board state to make the minion cheaper, and Molten Giant and Mountain Giant tend to be harder to race out because losing life below 20 life and having a bunch of cards in hand is not always possible. However, in a game that encourages and sometimes demands minion-based strategies and interactions, Sea Giant can be "cheated" into play at very low cost in some circumstances. That has led to this becoming a staple once again in so-called "Zoo" decks which tend to play powerful and cheap minions on every turn. If this card needs to be changed to let other Giant designs shine in the future sets, then perhaps a small adjustment in the base mana cost will be the answer. However, for now, I think the epic-rarity original Giants stay safe from the rebalancing hammer.

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


FINAL LIST FOR REBALANCING (summarizing the 4 article series)

Here's my conclusions on which cards will be announced to be rebalanced or changed for the upcoming first year of the Standard Format. My specific conclusions and recommendations for redesign can be found in the appropriate articles linked above. As you can see, I have identified 8 cards which seem destined for some chopping blocks, and another 5 which are potential options should Blizzard's Team 5 end up reworking 10-12 cards as originally posited (based on Ben Brode's quote that 2 to 20 cards are in the mix for rebalancing).

More Than 50% Likelihood, or Almost Certain

Savage Roar - Druid
Force of Nature - Druid
Divine Favor - Paladin
Doomhammer - Shaman
Battle Rage - Warrior
Leper Gnome - Neutral
Knife Juggler - Neutral
Alexstraza - Neutral

50/50 Likelihood

Sorcerer's Apprentice - Mage
Tirion Fordring - Paladin
Northshire Cleric - Priest
Big Game Hunter - Neutral
Baron Geddon - Neutral


Did I miss any big cards which you believe will definitely get the rebalancing axe? Let me know in the comments or on the Reddit posts where I link this.  There's certainly room for differing opinion when it comes to game design, but the changes summarized above should leave plenty of design space for powerful new cards to come into Standard Format and actually shake up the meta of what decks people play on competitive Ladder.

Thanks for reading this and the other articles in this series. Most of the comments have come on Reddit, and I appreciate the feedback and discussion that has helped make this interesting for more readers.

Until next time, come quickly Standard Format...please come quickly. 

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