Dean “Iksar” Ayala Answers Questions About Balance Philosophy, Nerfs & Face Hunter / Resurrect Priest Dodging Changes (+Dragonmaw Poacher Arena Bug)

Nerf patch just went out last night and pro players are already busy testing new builds or reinventing the old archetypes (well, or just playing them like they were before and seeing if they still work). Hearthstone Senior Designer Dean “Iksar” Ayala was also busy, but in his case it was because he started answering questions about their nerfing philosophy, some of the decks that were or weren’t hit, as well as confirming a bug. Big thanks to czihong for compiling all of them into a single reddit post! You can read them all below, and here’s a summary:

  • Galakrond Shaman is the only deck that REALLY needed a nerf this expansion, they thought that it’s fun during playtesting and wanted to make it strong, but pushed it too far.
  • In past they would wait longer before making changes to other decks (which weren’t as clearly OP as Shaman). They decided to try a different approach of fast nerfs based on their research of what nerfed class “mains” do after the nerf (whether they stop playing or not). Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages (read more in the full answer).
  • They are open to buffing cards and not just nerfing under some circumstances, but it’s more difficult to balance stuff with buffs (e.g. if a deck is OP, you only have to nerf one deck, but you would have to buff a dozen of other decks to keep up with it – Stonekeep).
  • They nerfed both Invocation of Frost and Dragon's Pack because Galakrond Shaman was, according to their data, the best deck before this patch and they didn’t want it to still be that good, so they hit it harder preemptively.
  • Power level of Descent of Dragons is high, but its a bit overblown by players. They do, however, like the approach of being more risky with design ideas and then nerfing stuff that turns out to be broken (because being too safe produces boring cards – Stonekeep).
  • Face Hunter and Resurrect Priest didn’t get nerfed, because they aren’t actually that strong in higher ranks (past R10) – they are only problematic in lower ranks. It doesn’t mean that players in those ranks don’t matter, but the meta usually goes from top down the ladder. Things that are (and aren’t) played in Legend then slowly climb down the ladder. But if the decks will turn out to be problematic after the patch, they might push another balance update.
  • Dragonmaw Poacher is pickable in Arena again (and it’s OP) – it’s a bug that should get fixed soon (server-side, so no patch required).

Question: Does Pirate Warrior really need a nerf?

Answer: I think under the normal circumstances in Hearthstone history, maybe not.

The influx of card changes this expansion has a little to do with those cards being quite powerful, but it’s mostly that we wanted to try a different approach to the cadence we make card changes.

The changes I feel were absolutely necessary this expansion were the ones to Galakrond Shaman. It was really the only archetype that was at a power level unacceptable under any past circumstance. Even after the first round of changes, there turned out to be an undiscovered deck that played a little slower and was even more powerful than the version being used during the first couple weeks. During playtesting, we honestly just thought that Galakrond Shaman was an incredibly fun deck to play and wanted to push it to a level where it would be considered one of the more powerful decks. We pushed too far, it happens.

As far as the rest of the changes, I think in the past we would have waited a little longer to take action. There are some advantages and disadvantages to waiting. One of the advantages is that the fewer changes you make, the more I think players are motivated to deckbuild and create new solutions rather than depend on us to make balance changes to things that might appear to be slightly out of line. In general, it’s probably healthier for the game if your first reaction to a powerful strategy is to try and find ways to beat it rather than join along and ride the wave because investing time into finding alternatives is undermined by constant changes.

One of the core disadvantages is that change happens less frequently. If there is something that frustrates you, maybe you can play a different strategy but maybe you don’t enjoy that strategy as much. Maybe you don’t own the cards for it. Maybe your favorite class is just weak to whatever the popular deck is and you don’t get to play it. Some of these things are very hard to avoid, but a faster rate of change makes it so you are less likely to be frustrated by a particular thing for too long. Change can be fun. Expansions aren’t just fun for players with the new cards, they can be fun for players playing old strategies too because the meta environment totally changes.

So, why are we trying something different? Some of it has to do with research. We dug through a bunch of data trying to find out what the behavior of players is when they have a strategy they play get nerfed. I think it’s pretty reasonable to assume that a dedicated Shaman player might see a large decrease in play if their deck is nerfed in a way that makes them less excited to play it. It turns out, data hasn’t really backed up that theory in a way we might have expected. We’ve done this kind of research in the past, but as Garrosh might say, times change.

Of course, we’ve just started on a track to a different strategy. It’s possible we’ll find that over time increasing the cadence of change fatigues players in a way we would only find out after sticking to the strategy for a longer period. It’s possible that because we’re opting to change more cards more often, we’ll end up changing cards players didn’t think needed changes at a rate that makes people unhappy. We look to the audience for feedback on that, so let us know!


Question: If you’re nerfing cards this quick, are you up for buffing cards if you end up nerfing stuff too hard?

Answer: We are, the window for success on buffs is super small though. We would be changing a super low population strategy with the hope it ends up in the window of 3-5% play rate or something.

Also making buffs usually requires much more change for similar impact. You could theoretically take a ‘bad’ deck to a decent deck with one change, but that one changed card would have to be so powerful that it would make for a bad experience.

Still, I’m sure there will be a circumstance where a buff makes sense and falls into place, just not this time.


Question: Was it absolutely necessary, according to data, to nerf both Dragon’s Pack and Invocation of Frost?

Answer: It’s a subjective thing. I think it depends on what necessary means to you. Past us would probably have held off on the second round of nerfs and waited to see if the meta didn’t go high Shaman population. These second round of changes was mostly preemptive.

All of our data pointed to the post first-round nerf Shaman still being the best overall deck and it was still being refined. It hadn’t hit huge play rate yet, but we expect that it would have. Opted to make a change instead of waiting to find out.


Question: Is Descent of Dragons power level something to expect more of in the future? Because to be honest I like the “make a really strong set, then tweak it post-launch until we get it right” approach you guys are trying right now.

Answer: The raw power of this set is pretty high, but I think the level at which people describe it is a little overblown. Galakrond archetypes are very meta and they are high density DoD, which makes the set representation really high. If the meta shifts, DoD population goes way down.

But yes, we tend to be less safe with the idea that it’s better to push and miss on the high power side than it is to play safe and miss on the low power side. We are trying to get it exactly right and not just power creep sets but there will always be misses.


Question: Why didn’t you nerf Hunter or Priest whatsoever?

Answer: Face Hunter and Priest have both been very popular and rather successful from about rank 10 and down. Rank 10 to Legend don’t see very much success from either deck.

The reason we chose not to make changes to Priest or Hunter in this patch was not because players at those ranks don’t matter, it’s because we generally see a trickle down effect on the meta that starts in Legend and moves down to rank 17-18. We’d expect the population of both those decks to decrease as players experiment with new decks.

Face Hunter is generally popular at lower ranks because it’s a fairly low cost deck. Right now it’s weak to a lot of the Shaman, Rogue, and Warlock strategies out there and I imagine that will still be true after the nerfs to those decks. If Face Hunter still continues to be super high population after after 16.2 has been out for a bit it’s likely we would address that deck in some way that makes for a more varied experience.

Edit: I flubbed the matchup data, I was referring to Rezz Priest win rates when mentioning its matchups with Rogue, Shaman, and Warlock. Would still expect the population of Hunter to go down as decks like Pirate Warrior and Galakrond Warrior rise up in population at lower ranks.


Question: Why is Dragonmaw Poacher back in Arena?

Answer: It’s a bug introduced with the new patch. I think Keaton may have already fixed it internally but we have to coordinate with the team to deploy the fix to you all. It’s a server side change so it shouldn’t be too long, will check in the morning.



A Hearthstone player and writer from Poland, Stonekeep has been in a love-hate relationship with Hearthstone since Closed Beta. Over that time, he has achieved many high Legend climbs and infinite Arena runs. He's the current admin of Hearthstone Top Decks.

Check out Stonekeep on Twitter!

Leave a Reply


  1. Bladeblade7
    January 13, 2020 at 10:30 am

    I keep waiting for the meta to settle before I spend my dust on a fun deck with a high win rate. But it still hasn’t settled. Making a deck and then having a key card nerfed is no guarantee that the entire deck doesn’t get invalidated and I’ve wasted my precious dust on a bunch of cards I’m not going to be able to use…

  2. OldManSanns
    January 10, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    >>I don’t know what data have look this man, but galak shaman wasnt the best deck
    Dood, they literally have ALL the data. Not the subset of data that HsReplay captures from players running their app, not the week-old information from Viscous Syndicate, not MetaStats’s version that automatically filters out decks if their algorithm considers it to be statistically insignificant… They have all the results for every game real-time, databases of everyone’s card collections, records for crafting trends and meta shifts, and staff whose fulltime job is to analyze all of it. If they say it was the best overall deck and that they expected it to otherwise hit a huge play rate in the near future, I’d believe them.

  3. PitLord
    January 10, 2020 at 11:00 am

    “All of our data pointed to the post first-round nerf Shaman still being the best overall deck and it was still being refined”.

    So you don’t kill on the first try and we kill preemptive on the second time? I don’t know what data have look this man, but galak shaman wasnt the best deck and definitely not the most played after the first nerf, sure good but not a tyrant.

  4. Alahra
    January 10, 2020 at 10:36 am

    I’ve definitely got nerf fatigue, myself, and with every nerf patch I honestly feel less motivated to play. While sometimes nerfs are necessary, I’ve felt like they’re being used more to create an influx of interest than anything else over the past year or so, to the point where even decks that aren’t really oppressive are just as likely to be hit as format warping ones. That leaves me feeling like it’s not really safe to invest in cards and decks these days, and I’ve gone from a player who pre-ordered every set since I picked up the game during KFT to F2P.

    I’d personally like to see a much slower pace for nerfs, and also greater tolerance for powerful decks both from the community and from Blizzard. I much prefer for metas to grow and change in more organic ways, and the frequent nerfs and even standard-impacting events makes it feel like we never really get a fully developed meta anymore.

    That’s just me though—by and large the community seems pretty happy with the pace of change in the game as of late.

    • Beerdserkr
      January 10, 2020 at 4:25 pm

      A f’n men! I feel exactly the same, its getting nuts, they have nerfed every deck I’ve been playing so far this expansion and I am afraid the nerfs aren’t over yet, if they nerf this last deck I will be done.

    • Andrzej
      January 11, 2020 at 1:36 am

      It’s fun that they’re putting more stuff in the game, but i fell that things are going too quickly. More often it looks misguided.

    • JoyDivision
      January 11, 2020 at 6:56 am

      This! Blizzard was to slow with changes in the past, and now they are to fast.

      And in 2 weeks, we’re getting 35 new cards – which means ‘next new metagame’. No chance to develop anything …

      • JoyDivision
        January 11, 2020 at 6:56 am

        Make that two times too :/

        • Stonekeep - Site Admin
          January 11, 2020 at 7:35 am

          And the cards are stretched out over a few weeks, which means that depending on their strength, the meta might change slightly every week :p

          But I have to agree with you – I like quick balance changes and more content in general, but it’s been too much this time around. Expansion, two balance updates new adventure’s launch packed into ~1.5 months.

          While I do not mind it as a player, it makes my job super difficult. I can’t keep anything up to date without it being irrelevant again in a week :/

  5. Shurchil
    January 10, 2020 at 6:33 am

    “Galakrond Shaman is the only deck that REALLY needed a nerf this expansion”

    “Thats why we nerfed 3 other decent decks as well that were actually fun and beatable because…uhm…reasons.”