It’s safe to say that Team 5 has a fairly patchy record when it comes to nerfs in Hearthstone: many of the adjusted cards were purposefully nuked to oblivion in the name of “design space”, variety or by simply misjudging the impact of the changes. Still, there are quite a few interesting exceptions to the rule where the re-worked spells and minions remained viable in the game – so much so that some of them even went through a second round of fixes later down the line!
Old Dogs, New Tricks
While there were a myriad of interesting card changes in the beta as well, we’re going to mainly focus on the post-launch nerfs, which the developers clearly want to use sparingly, making it even more important for them to get the details right. We’ll treat Unleash the Hounds as an exception as the card has seen the most adjustments made to an individual spell past the alpha stage of the game, making it a very interesting case. Initially, it gave all of your friendly Beasts +1 Attack and Charge, making it an incredibly potent finisher for Hunter. Its complete rework turned it into what we know it as today, initially costed as 4 mana, which rendered it useless, which led to its eventual buff to 2 mana that made it simply overpowered, essentially in combination with the two-cost version of Starving Buzzard that was around at the time. It eventually found the sweet spot at three mana, sticking around to this day as a viable option for the class.
That’s more of an exception rather than the norm as cards with Charge are completely butchered on purpose by most nerfs. Apart from Unleash the Hounds, Leeroy Jenkins also survived the seemingly back-breaking increase in its cost, so much so that by now it’s crazy to imagine that it used to only cost four mana at one point. Dubbed the “neutral Fireball” by many, the card was clearly intended as a joke, but players quickly found the SMOrc-ing effectiveness of such a tool. The real target of the price hike was the original iteration of Miracle Rogue which was capable of dealing 26 damage from hand with two Shadowsteps and two Cold Bloods using ten mana – back in the day, that was considered to be too much, leading to the birth of the “fun and interactive” meme. Oh, how times change! Leeroy remained a viable burn option for most ultra-aggressive decks and still has a home in most Miracle Rogue builds, picking up chicken left, right and center whenever that archetype finds a place in the metagame.
Astonishingly, the deck also survived nerfs to its primary card engine in Gadgetzan Auctioneer in the next patch two months later – back in those days, changes were still arriving fairly fast –, increasing its cost from five to six mana. As it turns out, the ability to use Conceal on the card was still good enough, and as we see today, its interaction with Rogue’s plethora of 0-cost spells makes it effective even without the ability to hide in the shadows for a turn.
Speaking of 0-cost spells, Soulfire used to be free initially to compensate for the discarded card, but its presence in the original iteration of Zoo, which was very effective at emptying its hand, essentially circumventing the intended downside on a regular basis – not to mention the fact that having such a free removal spell was incredibly swingy in the mirror matches as well. The card remained viable, though Power Overwhelming was generally favored in its place in Zoo decks until that spell was removed from Standard, but it played a major part in a combo deck revolving around Malygos and cheap spells later down the line.
The Hall of Fame was a real game-changer when it came to the nerfs as from that point on, problematic Classic cards could simply be rotated out instead of effectively removing them from the game with an overbearing nerf. Sylvanas Windrunner somehow made it there after already picking up a nerf previously: originally costing five mana in the beta period, it was an incredibly potent card in combination with Brawl in a Control Warrior’s arsenal. It remained viable in mid-range and control decks even at an increased price, to such an extent that it was eventually removed from Standard to ensure greater variety.
Ironbeak Owl is also one of those cards that used to be everywhere, at least when it used to cost 2 mana – the importance of the cheap Silence seemed to be simultaneously recognized by all the participants of the 2014 World Championship, and the hooting continued non-stop until April 2016 when it got hit by a 50% increase in its cost to “make Silence effects more costly”. Interestingly enough, this marked the rise of Spellbreaker, which is now the new source of nearly omnipresent Silence effects on the ladder as the playerbase once again seems to recognize its utility and importance, even at a more prohibitive cost.
When You’re Too Good for Your Own Good
Just like Silence, cheap hard removal options also got hit over time to make them less viable in tempo decks, but none of them became unplayable due to the change. Execute’s mana increase was mainly directed at the very popular Dragon Warrior archetype while also trying to future-proof the idea that it’s prohibitive to include in other aggressive decks – the strategy seemed to work quite well as most Pirate Warrior lists omitted the card in favor of more tools that could hit the face. Hunter's Mark got a low-key adjustment from 0 mana to 1, which is in line with the previous example and, like Soulfire, only had a negligible impact on the card’s playability.
A similar nerf happened to Hex last September, much to the surprise of the community. The patch note explicitly states that “we’re not making the change to Hex due to a current power-level problem”, adding that “Shaman is a class that currently has a lot of flexibility, but is lacking in both class identity and identifiable weaknesses” – a fairly interesting statement considering how the class only had one semi-viable deck at the time in the form of Evolve Shaman, and nothing of note ever since! It remains to be seen how the worsened nature of the class’ primary hard removal option helps with its identity – one has to wonder whether the change was perhaps made with Even Shaman’s eventual arrival in mind.
A quick note on Murlocs: their adjustments seemed to have very little to do with balance reasons and more with the spaghetti code. Removing their ability to buff the opponent’s creatures as well got rid of a unique trait of the tribe, and Murloc Warleader’s eventual nerf meant that it wasn’t providing extra health anymore, which seemed to stem just as much from the mechanic’s unintuitive nature in Hearthstone than a power level concern. Still, the card obviously remains a pillar of any deck that likes to mrgl.
The same patch brought us two other well-executed nerfs (no pun intended), even if Fiery War Axe’s change remains controversial to this day. It is now guaranteed to be only a part of control decks, but it is still viable there, even if only as a shadow of its former self. Spreading Plague also remained perfectly playable at six mana: the card, much like Sylvanas of old, will likely remain omnipresent in the slower Druid archetypes until its eventual rotation.
Oh, and there was also a change to The Caverns Below – well, we all know how that turned out…
If you’re wondering where the other 11.1 nerfs fall on the scale from “nuke” to “prod”, it’s likely still early to tell. Most of the Classic card changes were due to their enduring and evergreen nature in the past – no longer an issue with the Hall of Fame, and the expansion-specific cards are usually handled with kid gloves in comparison, trying to solve a meta conundrum at a given moment. Their long-term viability will only be known to us once the next set rolls around, but so far, Cubelock remains a very strong option on the ladder, if slightly less oppressive than before while Quest Rogue and Spiteful Druid still have a niche presence as well. They may not all be bullseyes, but they might be good enough for a double 20.