Another patch, another butchered evergreen card: in fact, not one but two core Druid spells were nerfed on December 19th as both Wild Growth and Nourish took massive hits that are guaranteed to shake up the playstyle of the class for the rest of Hearthstone’s history. It’s the sort of move that makes a lot of sense if you look at the surface arguments but deeper examination shows that the very reasons that led to these balance changes are the real problems, not the cards from the Classic set that ended up gutted and still bleeding at the back of an Azerothian alleyway.
In what seems like a recurring occurrence by now, Team 5 has bundled a bunch of much-needed Standard nerfs with the sudden and unexpected butchery of Classic cards. This isn’t a first time the developers capsized an entire playstyle, though perhaps the most thorough hit job they’ve done – and an important example for this discussion – is the original Face Hunter. Over half of the cards featured in that deck were nerfed at some point, and it’s no coincidence that no such all-out burn-based archetype exists in the game since then, and especially nothing come close to it that’s currently being piloted by Rexxar. As usual, the changes to Leper Gnome and Abusive Sergeant (both of which were 2/1 minions originally) were explained by the need to make other 1-drops more viable and to create design space, but it’s fairly clear in retrospect that these changes were much more about their overall power level than anything else.
Note that crippling changes like these make much more sense for Neutral cards that can quickly become omnipresent or archetype-defining, and also when a problematic keyword is attached to a class card (like Warsong Commander that could simply never become inflexible enough to be able to grant Charge to anything, hence its eventual meme-worthy butchery). They make a lot less sense when they are made to core class cards, especially when they function as a reaction to a rotation-specific problem that doesn’t actually stem from the tool Team 5 decided to target in search of a permanent solution.
Perhaps the most notorious example of this would be Fiery War Axe, a card that was always the hallmark of Control Warrior builds and one of their best (and arguably only) tools to reliably combat early minion spread by the opposition. With Pirate Warrior’s stock running high for over a year (a situation caused in no small part by Patches the Pirate, a clear problem card that would also get an eventual nerf), Team 5 decided to up its mana cost to three. The change rendered it objectively inferior to both other such weapons from other classes (Eaglehorn Bow or Rallying Blade) and even a Warrior-specific option in the form of King's Defender. Control players like Fibonacci were understandably outraged by the change, and it’s quite clear that the supposedly freed design space hasn’t delivered anything viable, with Woodcutter's Axe being the only card of similar ilk, one that failed to see serious play to this day. As strong as certain Control Warrior builds are right now, it’s a testament to its diminished core that it required an upgraded hero power, a second set of board clears, a tool that shores up its core weakness of dealing with multiple mid-sized threats in the form of Supercollider and a wide variety of research generation tools.
It’s quite likely the same will be said about Mana Wyrm: while its nerf did free up design space that will now allow the developers to create strong class-specific one-drops, the flipside of the argument is that it’s now yet another archetype that has to be built from the ground up for Mage, a process that often goes awry in Hearthstone. It’s pretty much guaranteed that Druid is going to suffer a similar fate, essentially losing all three of its ramp tools from the Classic era now that Wild Growth and Nourish joined Innervate on the garbage pile. The changes have kneecapped a class that was running rampart for most of the Year of the Raven – but it was clear that it wasn’t the ramp itself that made Druid so strong and flexible but the fact that it was facing no downside for sacrificing tempo and a card in hand due to powerful reload tools, including the infamous Ultimate Infestation, a card that is somehow considered just fine despite packing 17 mana’s worth of value.
And yet, on a basic level, permanent solutions to such temporary problems actually make a lot of sense. The evergreen cards are going to be the source of recurring problems, and if you’ve identified them as such – like Warsong Commander – adjusting or nerfing them makes a lot of sense. The real problem is that this doesn’t mesh well with the foundation of the Standard format: Hearthstone’s rotating Constructed setup revolves around the Classic set, the one responsible for the different classes’ identity and core playstyle. With most Classic nerfs pushing the cards to unplayability in recent years, not only does this differentiation take a hit, it also means that more archetypes need to be propped up by the periodic new releases in order to make them work. In turn, there are even fewer opportunities for the players to create decks that are not based around Team 5’s prearranged concepts, something which has dogged Hearthstone since basically the dawn of time.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Fundamentally, Hearthstone’s developers always preferred to give us dioramas rather than a LEGO set, pre-baking archetypes instead of providing strong individual tools for the players to go nuts with. (Personally, this is why I enjoy the exceptions to these rules like the WoTOG-era Dragon Warrior and the old Prince Keleseth-based Tempo Rogue deck so much.) Your mileage may very well vary on this one, but it can’t be denied that it’s very difficult to create a Constructed-viable deck that wasn’t at least in part explicitly pushed by the developers via some sort of synergy or keyword – and a lack of individually strong cards make nerfs like the ones made to Druid all the more impactful. Not only did they lose powerful tool, they also missed out on a lot of potentially powerful tools in the past that weren’t printed because of their previous existence.
While part of it is simply the same old “design space” malarkey we keep hearing about these changes (with often little to show for it in the future), the real issue is that the Classic set was purposefully designed with these cards in mind, and once you take out powerful core tools from a class’ evergreen arsenal, you basically set up yourself to continuously print something in the same niche for every Standard cycle or risk giving up the precious design space you’ve opened up for yourself.
Does this sound like a pointless, bloated mess to you? This is exactly why most card games with a rotation system opted to go with a hand-designed Core set aimed to cover all bases instead of merely carrying over their original bunch of cards forever. With the massively different power levels between the classes’ evergreen options (like Priest’s AoE-shaped hole that’s begging to be filled every single rotation), there’s a good argument to be made about ditching the Classic set from a gameplay perspective. Rethinking the evergreen toolkits of each hero would go a long way towards fixing Hearthstone’s recurring balance issues, and it would certainly be a healthier approach than periodically gutting Classic cards without providing a proper replacement.
Nerfs like these are so brutal that they also tend to wreck their archetypes for the eternal format, forever denying their fans from the opportunity of playing them again in any form. (One has to wonder why these cards were butchered the way they were instead of being moved to the Hall of Fame, especially considering how close we are to the end of the Year of the Raven.) While it’s true that some of the classes regularly sink into unplayability for multiple expansions in a row (think Hunter and Paladin around MSoG or Karazhan), a strong sign that Team 5’s current ethos wouldn’t guarantee a balanced metagame even if there was a larger emphasis on new releases, one can’t help but feel that the Classic set’s continued reduction – both in terms of strength and the number of cards it holds – indicate that it’s going to become a chain around everyone’s neck as time goes on unless fundamental changes are made.