Note: The article was written before the nerfs, so Platebreaker might no longer be in the meta, but everything about Armor design is still relevant.
I recently spotted something I had never expected to see in Hearthstone. Just take a look at this #1 Legend deck list:
See the last card in the Neutral section of the list? Yes, it is a real, living example of Platebreaker, a card from Descent of Dragons that has never seen play in the year it has been available to players. It is an anti-Armor tech card, which limits it mainly as an anti-Warrior tech with some anti-Druid possibilities depending on the meta.
Now, just because a deck reaches #1 Legend does not mean that it is a great deck: the matchups it is optimized for can be extremely narrow, and it can fail in the ladder overall (for a recent example, think about Highlander Druid). However, this Demon Hunter deck has been popular enough since its creation that we have some statistics available about it, and the deck is indeed good.
Then again, even if the deck reaches #1 Legend and the deck is good, it does not mean that the deck is perfect. There can still be suboptimal individual cards in a good deck. Because there are some good statistics available on this deck, we can safely say that Platebreaker is actually not a strong card in the deck even at Legend rank. It is performing slightly over one percentage point worse than the second-weakest card in the deck, which makes it a clear candidate for replacement.
Whew, it’s all good, then! That was a scare.
Thinking about it a little more, however, actually makes me a little scared still. Even if Platebreaker is sub-optimal and should not be part of the deck, it got way closer than I’m comfortable with. One percentage point is not the kind of difference you usually see with narrow tech cards: typically they fall behind by multiple percentage points. Even though you should not run Platebreaker in your deck, the fact that it got even close to being good enough is scary.
All of this is a prelude to the real question: what is the role of Armor in Hearthstone? Is Armor helping the game, or is it hurting the game?
What Makes Armor So Good?
Armor creates this nice, different feel to the way various classes gain health in the game. Priests and Paladins heal themselves, Warlocks hurt and heal themselves, Druids can use both healing and armor, and Warriors are all about putting on more gear when going gets tough.
The most significant difference between Health and Armor is that your maximum Health is limited, but your maximum Armor is not. This has major consequences to the way control decks work in Hearthstone: As a Priest, Paladin, Shaman, or Warlock, you are limited to 30 Health. That’s it. If there is a damage-based combo that can deal more than that, and the opponent survives long enough to pull it off, you’re gone. If there is a midrange deck that starts the pressure after a couple of turns, you cannot stack up Health to survive the upcoming onslaught. As a Warrior or Druid, you have the ability to get a big health buffer in the form of Armor, depending on the availability of Armor cards. Warrior has by far the most reliable access to Armor with their Hero Power, whereas Druids in Wild can stack up thousands of points of Armor in the late-game with the right combos.
Generally, having Armor is better than having Health because Platebreaker is the only threat to your Armor, and as it is a very narrow tech card, you can expect to never see it in play.
In contrast, there is a major anti-Health tech card in the game: Alexstrasza. Alexstrasza has been a part of many combo decks, and it used to be a silver bullet to many adventure bosses in the early days of the game and actually caused Blizzard to add Armor to adventure bosses as a countermeasure. If we think about cards that limit design space, one of Blizzard’s favorite reasons for nerfs, Alexstrasza should have been changed six years ago.
Of course, any defensive strategy can perish at the hands of a lethal combo that is not based on limited damage. Whether it is Mecha'thun, Uther of the Ebon Blade, or just infinite Fireballs from Archmage Antonidas, game-ending combos can defeat any defensive strategy.
Nonetheless, because there are very few counters to it, stacking up armor is an effective defensive strategy, and Warrior has been the master of this strategy for a long time. Justicar Trueheart in The Grand Tournament, Odd Warrior in The Witchwood, and a variety of Warrior decks running Risky Skipper, Armorsmith, and Bloodsworn Mercenary for the past year have all shared the ability to generate tens of points of Armor to outlast vast amounts of damage.
Overall, then, Armor is not unbeatable, but it is vastly superior to Health. Have you noticed how the majority of viable control decks in Hearthstone have always been Warrior decks? Armor is one of the main reasons for that.
What if We Had Access to More Health?
Blizzard has experimented with giving players more Health once: the Priest Quest Awaken the Makers from Journey to Un’Goro gave Amara, Warden of Hope as its reward, and Amara could set your current and maximum Health to 40. However, the Quest was difficult to complete and Amara only arrived at the scene fairly late in the game. Against aggressive decks, getting to play Amara usually won the game, whereas against slow decks that one-time boost to 40 did not make much of a difference. It was more about the big instant heal than it was about the increased Health cap.
Blizzard could, of course, change the starting Health in the game. That would promote slower gameplay overall and could dramatically change the balance of power in the game. Suddenly, aggro decks would need to be able to push much longer to reach the finish line and decks such as Face Hunter would suffer tremendously while midrange decks that are full of threats would benefit immensely. That would be an interesting change, albeit one that would make Hearthstone less casual as games would last significantly longer on average, and that goes against the overall design philosophy of the game. Therefore, I don’t expect to see such a change anytime soon.
Looking at other games, there is also another path to more Health: removing the Health cap. In games such as Magic: The Gathering and Eternal, your starting Health is not your maximum Health. If you heal yourself when you are at your starting Health, you will smoothly go over it and just gain additional Health.
Right now, the only control deck that can feel safe against the burst potential of Soul Demon Hunter or ETC Warrior is Control Warrior because they can amass enough Armor to avoid dying in a single turn to a limited-damage combo. Why is Warrior given this advantage over all the other classes? Is Warrior’s toolkit otherwise inferior in a way that their Armor build-up helps to balance the game? I would argue that it is not, Warrior has several powerful archetypes at many levels of aggression, and that is with a Hero Power that can only heal themselves and is therefore useless for aggro decks.
If we had access to more Health, we could see more viable control decks emerge. It would not magically turn the game into a control versus control battles, especially if starting Health was untouched, but it would remedy the unfair advantage that Warrior has enjoyed all these years, the advantage that has made it the premium control class over all others: Armor.
Just imagine a world where Priest’s turn two play was not to heal the opponent’s face but to heal their own to go to 32 Health overall. A world where all the healing available to Control Paladin could actually be used proactively, instead of casting Lay on Hands to draw three cards for eight mana because you have not taken any damage. A world where Lifestealing Demons in Control Warlock would threaten to give the Warlock an immense Health pool.
They could all still be killed by aggro in much the same way as they can now, but they would start at an even footing with Warrior for the first time. There is the small question as to what to do with Warrior’s Hero Power, which would then be strictly inferior to Priest’s Hero Power, but given the differences in class cards, it might not even need to be changed.
Armor is fine for flavor, but the competitive advantage it gives to Warrior is not fine. It limits the options people have for playing control decks, and in a game that already favors tempo over value in its base design, promoting one control deck over the others with this massive health advantage is unwarranted.