The February Surprise: A Forward-Looking and Controversial Balance Update

Kudos to Team 5: who would have thought that we would receive not one, but two unexpected balance changes at the end of a Standard rotation? To be fair, the first one was mostly surprising due to the fact it was announced less than 24 hours before going live – but this one is truly a shocker. Never have we received a double set of nerfs inside on expansion cycle, and such aggressive targeting of Classic cards so close to a rotation is also a very thought-provoking (and controversial) move by the Hearthstone developers.

Another One Bites the Dust

Apparently, the December card nerfs were just not good enough: five more are going to take a hit to their power level with this update, four of which are from the evergreen set. Apart from Emerald Spellstone’s price increase – intended to make the card less viable as a tempo option in Wild –, the stated goal is the same for all of these changes: to make them less of an auto-include going forward. Your mileage may vary about whether this description actually applies to all of them…

The headline adjustment has to be the one made to Cold Blood: costing two mana, it is now a strictly worse Eviscerate, also impossible to include in Odd decks. While the change may make sense if you consider the current constraints in Standard, an important teaching opportunity (and deckbuilding conundrum) was lost: putting the two cards side by side, it was clear that the reason Eviscerate cost twice as much was that it was balanced out by the requirement to stick a minion on the board. Of course, that didn’t actually come into play very often thanks to the Charge keyword, but now Cold Blood is only worth including for redundancy reasons, making things just a little less interesting.

The change to Flametongue Totem is yet another one of those baffling adjustments to Shaman. The class is already struggling, had to suffer through a nerf to its core hard removal option, its only viable Standard deck was butchered and now its aggressive, token-based approach – not even very effective in the current environment – was forced to take a hit. It’s tough to figure out an explanation as to why this is the class that’s targeted so heavily. The last – and only – time Shaman was a problem was during the early parts of the Year of the Kraken. Aggro Shaman was very strong during the WotOG days – and eventually got hit by nerfs to Rockbiter Weapon and Tuskarr Totemic – but the class’ true rise to dominance came during One Night in Karazhan thanks to its busted Midrange archetype. Not only did that deck get away without a nerf, but even the MSoG days only saw an adjustment to Spirit Claws, a non-evergreen card. These latest changes feel incredibly weird and unwarranted knowing the class’ history.

The nerf to Equality highlights a key problem introduced by Baku the Mooneater and Genn Greymane: in many cases, simply bumping up a card’s cost by one mana is no longer a viable option to change it. A three-mana version of this spell would be an auto-include in Odd Paladin for the rest of time. However, it’s worth mentioning that the card really wasn’t an omnipresent tool in Paladin decks before: most aggressive decks opted against running it due to the prevalence of cheap Silence options or a lack of reliable ways to deliver that one point of damage required.

There’s also another reason to disagree with this change: while it’s true that it’s a powerful board clear coupled with Wild Pyromancer, many classes have two-card full clears, and Paladin’s other option in the form of Consecration has never been that strong, especially when you consider that it is often required as an Equality activator in a pinch. The class’ slower archetypes always struggled against fast, swarmy opponents – now it has even less of an opportunity to fight back. This is not a problem Shrink Ray is going to help with, and much like Fiery War Axe, it feels like the permanent removal of an important control tool for nebulous reasons in the current Standard environment.

Can you believe that Hunter's Mark originally cost zero mana? Again, it feels like its second nerf has more to do with the other tools made available to the class than anything wrong with the card itself. Hunter has historically lacked reliable hard removal and card draw: now that both were printed in copious amounts, propelling Rexxar to the top of the charts, it’s time to adjust… the one that is permanent. Interesting.

Rounding off the changes, Hunter’s Emerald Spellstone is getting the Patches the Pirate/Raza the Chained treatment, getting a kick in the backside just as it’s leaving Standard. It’s likely the least controversial of the bunch, though one has to wonder why it was so urgent that it had to be pushed out in February.

What’s Next?

One of the main reasons why many are looking forward to the first set of 2019 is that it will mark the first release that was developed after the departure of Ben Brode and co. in its entirety. We’ve been reading the tea leaves for a while now about how the “new kids on the block” intend to change things, but it’s becoming clear that they’re more than willing to bring a sledgehammer to bear, especially where the Classic set is concerned.

For me, the concern comes from putting these severe changes side-by-side with their incredible about-face over Giggling Inventor, a card that went from “intended […] to be powerful because we’ve found that having powerful neutral Taunt minions tends to make games more interesting” to “one of the most powerful and popular cards we’ve ever created” that “stepped beyond its intended role” in less than a month in their eyes. While showing increased flexibility is great by itself – remember how long it took for them to finally do something about Undertaker? –, making far-reaching changes like these about evergreen cards coupled with massive swings in opinion feels like a toxic, overly reactive combination.

It’s also worth mentioning that most cases where omnipresent cards were touched in order to only make them viable in certain archetypes led to their complete unplayability: just ask Mana Wyrm, Fiery War Axe, Rockbiter Weapon, Call of the Wild, Abusive Sergeant and many of their other friends in the trashcan.

All in all, the increased frequency (and arguably, the severity) of these changes are making the 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 Hall of Fame rotations at the end of the Hearthstone year. So far, it seems like they prefer the good ol’ nerf bat to Harrison Jones’ battlecry.


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!

Leave a Reply


  1. CocoAsticot
    February 5, 2019 at 4:23 am

    Just Come play MTG Arena folks!!
    More interactivity, more decks and format diversity, more pleasure.

  2. BubbleHearth
    February 3, 2019 at 12:51 am

    I agree with most of what was said here (Tweeg and Orasha). Some of these nerfs are puzzling though.

    Sad to see Odd Rogues take the hit. One of the rare budget decks that had it’s place in Tier 1. Jury is still out on the whole Pirate thing for rogues, so who knows if we will see many around post nerf. Granted you can still win without Cold Blood, but your chances will be diminished quite dramatically, without an obvious replacement.

    I think for the sake of the game, both Hunters and Paladin’s needed some changes. They are so prevalent in the standard meta that I simply refuse to join ranks and play them much. With so many Tier 1 builds in these classes, the game gets stale. In ranked play, you see more than your fair share of Hunters and Paladins. Or you see their counterparts, class decks designed to beat hunters and paladins. For the most part I find it tiresome to play against them so often…very little variety in an established meta. I still think the best counter for hunters and paladins is the “Consede” button.

    I think the Hunter changes are just an annoying speed bump for them on the road to upper ranked play. I doubt this will even factor at all for Hunters. My guess is the Rogue / Shaman changes open the door for other aggro builds to take their place. Likely Warlocks will see the greatest benefits from the upcoming nerfs with respect to aggro builds.

    I get that Blizzard wants people to experiment, but there is a serious disincentive to do that at the moment. I don’t think the nerfs will change that fundamental premise. Take the recent druid nerfs. Druids dominated the Tier 1 meta for quite some time, and now it’s as though the class is a cautionary tale. While you can still win with a druid, you would fair much better playing a Hunter/Paladin/Rogue or frankly any other class. It didn’t really do much but change the guard in terms of Tier 1 decks. If you are at all serious about winning at this game, you likely won’t stray from tried and tested Tier 1 meta decks. After all why would you? If a 60% win rate is good, it’s hard to spend much time doing things that will usually result in lowering your win rate even further in the hopes of finding some hidden synergy. There isn’t much reward out there for players trying to carve their own path or for newcomers either.

  3. HS
    February 2, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    The real reason for the nerfs : all HS streamer are playing auto chess, and i’m pretty sure this nerfs are not enough to change this, for the streamers an for me.

  4. Darkfear
    February 1, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    As a hunter main im sad that i lost my only victory condition againts priest…. because if i play spellstone he just hysteria or scream that way i kept it until 10 mana so i can combo with Thunder rhyno for 14 dmg lethal… now that combo is gone

  5. Electronick
    February 1, 2019 at 10:05 am

    I fail to see the logic behind the equality nerf. Paladin’s are one of the few control archetypes that are actually viable at the moment. I’m assuming they think that OTK Paladin is an issue, but that’s rotating out in a few months time. Plus it’s only a tier 2 deck. I realise even Paladin is tier 1 but I don’t exactly see it dominating standard….plus it loses Tarim and Steed at rotation.
    Control paladin is a strong favourite with a lot of older players.

  6. Tweeg
    February 1, 2019 at 9:35 am

    Rambo, you certainly did hit the nail on the head here. The nerfs remain more controversial than anything and the logic surrounding them doesn’t seem to buy Team 5 any favours. I think they fail to realize the current staleness and direction of the game is really causing them to lose valuable assets in the terms of competitive streamers and a new player base. They have got rid of the basic fundamentals of the game, which is interaction and minion-based combat into flashy stall mechanics and OTK wonder and awe type archetypes. This is less about playing the game and not even presenting a strategy that once seemed like a puzzle for combo or OTK decks. It doesn’t do anyone any favours. Developing cards like “Time out” where it basically allows your opponent to do nothing and no real way to play around it feels very lazy and basically shows that it rewards greed. Yes, we have a meta where there are a lot of playable classes, but to what level? The majority of them act the same where you stall, clear, draw as many cards as you want. Card draw was supposed to be a very powerful effect in the game with some downside of losing tempo. Now, you don’t even care about the state of the board and it is less about minions and the combat system of the game.

    Priest is a classic example of this. Sit idly by for half the game and do nothing. Then the problematic cards kick in. Druid is another example where you put in a bunch of garbage cards just for the sake of cycle. Playing an auctioneer on turn 6 should not allow you to draw some 10 cards. There is absolutely no strategy required for it, just cycle. Any Mech’Cthun deck falls under the same light. This is a time where life as a resource and managing resources mean absolutely nothing as well. The sooner Team 5 realizes this, the better the game can become. It is too often where it feels like your decisions do not matter or you are not even playing the game.

    Baku/Genn are the real mistakes here. Nerfing cold blood and flame tongue do absolutely nothing, but take away further identities from classes. These type of decks should exist to punish the greedy decks, however, the current-state-of-affairs allow for these cards to not really even make that much of an impact consistently. There are too many restrictions put into place. Odd Warrior is another prime example. 4 armour a turn to gain. It’s a joke and only promoting staleness. Equality, as I mentioned before, has to be in tandem with another card to really only give paladin the big swing it needs. That is resource management. Hunters mark? Seriously, 2 mana is way too much. The problem was candle shot. I don’t know why people can’t see this.

  7. Yrkomm16
    February 1, 2019 at 9:34 am

    Pls help me – what do you guys think what cards will replace Flametongue in Even Shaman and Cold Blood in Odd Rogue in both formats. I wasted a tons of dust on this decks and I’m crying right now 🙁

    • Tweeg
      February 1, 2019 at 9:36 am

      Flametongue – Dire Wolf Alpha. Cold Blood, just another 1 drop or a deadly poison inclusion if you are trying for another type of rogue deck.

    • Bajula
      February 1, 2019 at 10:56 am

      Even Shaman in Wild will probably not survive the nerfs. People don’t quite seem to realize how much of a centerpiece Flametounge is, and that without it not only will the hero power be really hard to utilize for gaining board control but also every other token generating card (Mealstorm, Jade) will be significantly worse, not to mention it’s one of the few burn resources the deck has and is a totem, so Thing From Below will also struggle to get out on board early on.

      Odd Rouge is nearly the same case. Losing Cold Blood will decrease the deck’s capability to put on early threats and finish games off, and these are decisive factors in an aggro deck.

      To answer your question: there are no real replacements for these cards.

      Although, I am not entirely sure if the same is true for the standard versions. In Even Shaman I would probably run Dark Iron Dwarf or Argus (in case you already run Dire Wolf Alpha). In Odd Rouge maybe Acherus Veteran… I don’t see any other decent replacement options.

      • Qwerty019283
        February 1, 2019 at 5:46 pm

        will mech hunter be viable again? it has insurmountable odd rogue and even shaman matchups.

        • Bajula
          February 2, 2019 at 4:26 am

          I believe so, although, there might be some other “sleeper” archetypes as well like Aggro Druid, Zoolock that were previously suppressed, and now will try to fill in that empty place left for aggro. We will see who it turns out…

    • Orasha
      February 1, 2019 at 5:28 pm

      In standard, Odd Rogue and Even Shaman both probably get dumpstered by these nerfs. The “good” news is that with Odd Rogue out of the way other aggro decks that couldn’t beat it may rise up and become better.

      In Wild, Odd Rogue is better then Aggro Kingsbane Rogue, and that will probably flip after the nerfs. Odd Rogue miiiight still be viable, but you should cut Argent Horseriders for basically any other good 3 drop. Most Wild lists don’t run Deadly Poison currently, and post-nerf that might be worth exploring.

      For Wild Even Shaman, I think it will probably stay around. Some of your early game will be worse, but the busted power cards remain. Devolve, Crackle, TFB, 4 mana 7/7, Totem Golem, they’re all insane. Maybe Draenai gets cut since you have less totems but that’s not even a certainty.