The introduction of the first new class to Hearthstone since release has been a wild ride, to say the least. Demon Hunter came, it saw, it conquered. Then it was nerfed, and nerfed, and nerfed, and then it conquered again. What is going on with this class?
A Brief History of Demon Hunter Nerfs
Demon Hunter now holds the ever-lasting record of the fastest nerfs in the game. On April 8th, just one day after the release of Ashes of Outland, four Demon Hunter cards were changed:
- Skull of Gul'dan mana cost was increased to six, up from five.
- Imprisoned Antaen mana cost was increased to six, up from five.
- Eye Beam Outcast cost was increased to one, up from zero.
- Aldrachi Warblades durability was decreased to two, down from three.
The crazy part is that these changes had no effect on the use of Skull of Gul'dan and Eye Beam. Aldrachi Warblades saw its popularity go down, but it is still a strong contender in any slower Demon Hunter lists, such as the recent Control Demon Hunter decks. Imprisoned Antaen was the only card from this first nerf batch that was actually cut from decks.
Less than two weeks later, on April 20th, Demon Hunter was hit again:
- Altruis the Outcast mana cost was increased to four, up from three. It also received an Attack buff to four, up from three. Given that no one has ever seen Altruis attack, this buff made no difference.
- Battlefiend Attack was decreased to one, down from two.
- Glaivebound Adept Attack was decreased to six, down from seven.
- Frenzied Felwing Health was decreased to two, down from three.
Most of these were minor adjustments that had hardly any effect on how the cards were used. At the time, I thought that Battlefiend losing one Attack would make it weaker, as it could potentially be value-traded by other one-drops, but its effect proved to be powerful enough to keep it a staple in every aggressive Demon Hunter deck. The change to Altruis the Outcast together with the simultaneous nerf to Kael'thas Sunstrider (mana cost increased to seven, up from six) was enough to remove OTK Demon Hunter from the meta, but made no difference to the more popular Tempo Demon Hunter. The nerf to the neutral Frenzied Felwing resulted in that card getting cut from most Tempo Demon Hunter decks, but the archetype quickly found good replacements.
One month later, on May 18th, it was time to nerf Demon Hunter again:
- Priestess of Fury Health was decreased to five, down from seven.
- Crimson Sigil Runner Attack was decreased to one, down from two.
This time, the changes had a clear effect: the slower variant of Tempo Demon Hunter that was built around Priestess of Fury ceased to exist, and only the Warglaives of Azzinoth variant survived. Crimson Sigil Runner was also cut from some of the lists: it remained a playable card but was no longer the best-performing card in the deck.
Finally, on June 18th, it was time for yet another Demon Hunter change:
- Twin Slice and Second Slice mana cost was increased to one, up from zero. They now give +2 Attack instead of +1 Attack.
Ironically, this change was devastating for the Wild format, where Odd Demon Hunter received a major buff from it and became even more of a monster. In Standard, it cut down the speed of Demon Hunter a little but caused no changes to the decks themselves.
The Nerfs Had a Bigger Effect Than You May Think
If you just look at Demon Hunter being at the top in April and Demon Hunter being at the top now, it is easy to think that the nerfs were ineffective. However, they did have several effects.
The initial Demon Hunter decks that dominated the ladder were based on the trio of Raging Felscreamer, Imprisoned Antaen, and Priestess of Fury. Have you seen any of those decks around recently? Nope, the Antaen nerf killed the trio and the Priestess nerf killed everything that remained of it.
At one point, many pro players were of the opinion that OTK Demon Hunter is the most powerful version of the class. The nerfs to Kael’thas and Altruis stopped that variant.
Meanwhile, the more aggressive Tempo Demon Hunter deck has kept evolving. Sure, it still retains its signature tools in Warglaives of Azzinoth, Metamorphosis, and Kayn Sunfury, but it has improved by leaps and bounds over the past weeks.
For example, the deck was initially very vulnerable to anything that can deal two damage because most of the minions in the deck had two health. Frenzied Felwing was crucial in those early days as a lone three-health minion, and when it was nerfed the deck needed some new solutions. Beaming Sidekick, Bonechewer Brawler, and Guardian Augmerchant were all answers to reduce the vulnerability to two-damage effects. Some lists have also experimented with Amani Berserker as an additional card in the same role.
Some of the tech cards used against Demon Hunters were also adapted for use in Demon Hunter decks themselves: Frozen Shadoweaver and Blowtorch Saboteur can help the deck in the mirror and they also provide more minions with higher than two Health for the deck, further reducing its vulnerability to spells such as Explosive Trap, Holy Nova, and Breath of the Infinite.
Demon Hunter is a new class. Everything about it is new, and it has taken some time to fine-tune it. The nerfs could have been effective against a class that was already well-tuned, but Demon Hunter has evolved faster than it has been nerfed. The current Demon Hunter decks are miles ahead of the ones that were played in April. I guess that gives some perspective into how completely broken the class was at release.
As a budget deck builder, I have felt the effects of the nerfs more than the average Demon Hunter player. Budget Demon Hunter decks have needed complete overhauls multiple times during Ashes of Outland, and I’m still not sure how to best respond to the Twin Slice change that struck my latest Questing Adventurer builds. Demon Hunter decks have become more and more expensive because the importance of Warglaives of Azzinoth, Metamorphosis, and Kayn Sunfury has increased and some of the newer tech cards used in the class – Vulpera Scoundrel and Blowtorch Saboteur – are Epic cards. All of the nerfs have hit the cheaper and more accessible Demon Hunter cards and not their signature powerhouses.
This can be interpreted as a good thing: the new player ranks are swarmed with Demon Hunters because the free set of cards for the class makes it a superior choice compared to anything else a brand new player can get their hands on. By nerfing some of the cheaper Demon Hunter cards and making it more difficult to build Demon Hunter decks on a budget, the pressure on new player ranks can be alleviated to an extent. A cynic might view it as an attempt to not provide players with too much free dust. We’ll never know the full thought process.
Looking into all of these details, the nerfs have done a lot to Demon Hunter. Yet, it is still at the top. Is it a problem? What can be done about it?
Is Demon Hunter a Problem?
Power level aside, I think Demon Hunter is a fun class to play. It has an interesting class mechanic in Outcast that can be skill-intensive and rewards planning your plays several turns ahead. It also has very low levels of randomness: your plays dictate the results, not the random resources you generate. I would even go as far as to say that Demon Hunter is the best-designed class in the game.
The problem is that Demon Hunter is such a smooth and powerful class to play that the old classes cannot compete against it with the inferior tools they have. When you cannot compete fair and square, what do you do? You scour every possible option to scam the game. Dragoncaster into Puzzle Box of Yogg-Saron. Breath of Dreams into Overgrowth into Exotic Mountseller with Bogbeam and Ironbark. An army of free cards from Heistbaron Togwaggle and Galakrond.
Demon Hunter is not the problem. Demon Hunter is what all classes should be: a fun and powerful class with a unique playstyle. The problem is successfully designing ten such classes and introducing new tools for them all three times a year while keeping them all balanced. Without Demon Hunter, all the ways to quickly do a broken thing and win the game would still be here. They would still have been found and they would still be present in top tier decks. Demon Hunter merely made that process faster by being such a huge target that had to be answered.
There are a couple of decks at the top that are unique and powerful without excessive randomness: in addition to Demon Hunter, Highlander Hunter, Bomb Warrior, and Enrage Warrior are such decks. All four have a completely different playstyle too. It is possible to have classes that are both strong and fair. The classes that are too weak have been given a variety of gimmicks to win games, or abandoned altogether. The result is a meta where traditional control and combo are both dead, but this is not because of Demon Hunter because you can build control decks to answer Demon Hunter despite all of its power.
What is going on with Demon Hunter is that it is a good class with a highly synergistic package of cards all introduced at the same time. Maybe one day all classes can be more like the current Demon Hunter and less like the current Druid.