Culling Classic: How the Continuous Nerfs Render Entire Playstyles Non-Viable

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.

Classical Symphony

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.

Yellorambo

Luci Kelemen is an avid strategy gamer and writer who has been following Hearthstone ever since its inception. His content has previously appeared on HearthstonePlayers and Tempo/Storm's site.

Check out Yellorambo on Twitter!

24 Comments

  1. […] Classic set’s evergreen status less and less tenable over time – something we’ve discussed fairly recently on the site –, and it will be really interesting to see how this incarnation of Team 5 treats the […]

  2. Raymond
    January 19, 2019 at 8:32 am

    What about my design space….! If a archetype or deck is there for to long I think it is healthy to break it. MtG does the same. So other decks can step up.

    The new MechaTuna is a very good example. Would probably not have been created without the nerfs. Creativity needs bounderies.

    You do not need to replace the whole Classic set. But allowing cards to stay available after a rotation by moving them to the classic sets creates design Space in the new sets…

  3. Marbolid
    January 18, 2019 at 11:53 am

    See I like how none of the prior nerfs got mentioned. Leeroy, Auctioneer, Novice Engi, stuff getting sent to HoF, apart from Novice engi, most decks that played those cards died outright. Actual miracle rogue, gone. Any type of control mage that isn’t elementals, gone, midrange zoo? GONE. But when does this article come out? After druid nerfs ofc. Waraxe needed a better nerf(2/2/2 bc: +1 dmg 1 turn), but pirate warrior died cause of patches and the meta shift. Druids still not been off the meta board since jade/FoN nerf. Manawyrm, also a horrible nerf, making it a 1/1/2 would have been fine. Team 5 just sucks at any practicle game design because they either dont play the game enough or dont play it at all.

  4. TardisGreen
    January 18, 2019 at 6:11 am

    The author of the article fails to understand that cards like Fiery Win Axe, Wild Growth, and Innervate were BROKEN.

    I really wish this Salt Queen would find another hobby. It’s articles are insanely slanted.

    • fareh
      January 18, 2019 at 9:23 am

      They were around for over 3 years and suddenly they become broken??? The cards are not the problem, the problem is they belog to a classic/non rotatin set… Team 5 needs to start implementing rotating basic sets, like MagicTG do with is base sets, that way they could keep refreshing the meta each 2 years.

      Otherwise they will have to nerf almost every decent card in basic set eventually…

      • TardisGreen
        January 18, 2019 at 1:07 pm

        NO. They were always BROKEN. Did you ever see a Warrior deck that didn’t run Win Axe? Control, Combo, Aggro, Tempo, whatever. It was an auto include.

        • Clayassault
          January 23, 2019 at 10:01 am

          You ever see a MTG deck that didn’t run land? A Pokemon deck that didn’t run trainer cards? Lots of card games have cards you need to include. Doesn’t mean the card is bad just needs more variety. The problem is Team 5 can’t decide what power level to make anything. A large part of that is the mana system. A lot of cards have the power level somewhere in the middle. If you move it down a mana crystal is strong, move it up its weak. There is not middle ground so it just depends on the flavor of the year. Mammoth was OP so Raven has been bad in comparison.

          I think that all of the core cards should fall on the weaker side of the scale. If anything they just need to be more consistent with the gutting of classic.

          • TardisGreen
            February 1, 2019 at 4:05 pm

            Hex changed from 3 to 4. Saw play in SWS.

            Blade Flurry took a brutal nerf. Still saw play in KBR.

            FWA has been occasionally used as a 1-of in OW.

            These cards aren’t broken anymore. Not auto includes. WG into whatever 4-mana card, into Nourish game after game was both boring and broken. We are better off without these cards at their un-nerfed power level.

  5. JoyDivision
    January 18, 2019 at 6:11 am

    ‘… 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.’

    Too me, there’s no conflict … because of their high power level, those cards restricted design space. Therefore they were nerfed. Just a different way to describe the situation. 😉

    • JoyDivision
      January 18, 2019 at 6:41 am

      Regardless of that, yeah, the concept of Basic and Classic sets has to be redefined fundamentally.

      • fareh
        January 18, 2019 at 9:25 am

        This is the key, HS desperately need a rotating classic set with additions/substractions, like MTG do

      • Pindead
        January 18, 2019 at 1:52 pm

        They nerf design restrictive cards and they keep printing pack fillers for the classes they’ve nerfed. Warrior was bad for a long time. Pirate warrior was the only serious warrior archetype. Then they nerfed war axe. So we could have expected good cards for warrior. But nothing came. Only bad cards and unplayable archetypes. At least now warrior has baku and collider to compete. But they should be faster at balancing the bad classes like they did for warlock in k&c.

        • JoyDivision
          January 23, 2019 at 12:27 am

          Same now for Mage because of the Mana Wyrm nerf. Don’t expect to see any competitively viable Mage deck anytime soon … :/

  6. UtopiaTree
    January 18, 2019 at 5:40 am

    Evergeen cards was a retarded idea. And yeah what happened to putting cards in the Hall of Fame? They should have done this with Chain Gang too, my friend is really upset that he can never play all his Shudderwock decks again. They never undo nerfs or buff cards either. This is just one of many reasons why Eternal is better.

  7. Robert
    January 18, 2019 at 4:27 am

    What you people fail to understand is that Blizzard could not care less about the health or balance of the game.
    All they care about is money. Money comes from people buying new packs.
    Ever green cards are a huge problem because they allow people to keep having fun without paying for new cards.
    They need to get rid of all playable ever green cards but they can not do it in a single shot because people will get angry.
    They do it slowly but surely masking it as balance changes so people don’t mind.

    • JoyDivision
      January 18, 2019 at 6:48 am

      I’m afraid you’re right about this. :/

      Nonetheless, I’d actually appreciate it for the sake of HS getting better as a game.

  8. Babster71
    January 18, 2019 at 12:37 am

    About a year ago I considered this a problem and decided to design a bunch of changes to classic (just off the top of my head) but was never willing to post them because of how little attention I knew it would get. I’m so glad that this has finally been realised

  9. BenRoller
    January 17, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    I disagree with some of this article’s assertions (several of the nerfed cards are still playable, though no longer auto-includes), but I agree that a new Classic would be good for the game, beneficial for newcomers and veterans alike. Give the rookies solid tools to figure out the game, and give the hardcore lifers a more balanced environment and hopefully some fun reprints. Also, a new format between Standard and Wild would be a healthy addition to the game.

    • Ronadan
      January 17, 2019 at 10:28 pm

      when your “auto-included” card become “rarely used”, those are pretty much dead. from like 70% presence in warrior decks (maybe even higher, i don’t remember anymore, but u can say it was everywhere), fwa came down to 0.3% presence, according to hsreplay.com. this, in my opinion, is quite the definition of “unplayable”.

      about a new format, well although i understand it and more or less like the idea, i don’t think blizz actually ever do that. wild is just way too wild and they won’t add another format that is hard to control.

  10. MM
    January 17, 2019 at 4:05 pm

    One clear trend is nerf early game cards that decide the game outcome in the first card played , which is good. Mana wyrm, fwa, wild grown. But when they explain why they did this, they never say the true.
    We need a new core set

  11. Tiger
    January 17, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    Good points! I hope Team 5 read your article. Well done.

  12. graydwarf
    January 17, 2019 at 1:56 pm

    good article. Classic set might need an overhaul in the future if they keep nerfing it.

  13. Chris
    January 17, 2019 at 11:19 am

    I don’t understand why they don’t do a classic 2.0 with new artwork that bans a good chunk of cards while retaining existing and adding new cards. You would still be able to use your current collection of non banned cards with the old art. Heck I would even pay for just new artwork on the old set.

  14. Sebastian
    January 17, 2019 at 11:12 am

    Hearthstone needs core sets as mtg had tbh

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