For most Hearthstone players, the fact that Team 5 has shown a newfound willingness to regularly step in and adjust the meta is a positive – but even though it’s an objective improvement over the dark times when it took three months and the release of a new set to see a nerf to the dreaded Undertaker, there are certain downsides to stirring the pot on such a regular basis.
New Year, New Nerfs
It’s just as well that the 16.0.8 nerfs were just announced as I was writing this article. The latest round of updates continues hitting Galakrond Shaman which bounced back as a top tier deck in high Legend even after the initial impact of the last round of changes made. The developers have gone on record saying they feel like Galakrond decks are a bit overtuned overall, and Warlock and Warrior also had to suffer small nerfs to their support cards. Dragonqueen Alexstrasza can’t go infinite anymore, and no one in their right mind will complain about removing that level of highroll potential from Standard. Meanwhile, Necrium Apothecary was also adjusted, which feels like another knee-jerk reaction to Reddit complaints rather than a meaningful issue in the metagame. Just like the last round of nerfs, each individual change makes sense, but there’s a good argument to be made that there’s a bit too much of it going around.
Back in the days of the open beta, many sweeping changes were made to cards in the Classic set, and it felt like a huge step back for many when Team 5 opted for a much more conservative approach after the game’s official launch. Not leaning into the digital nature of their game was widely considered to be a poor decision (and arguably one of the main reasons why Artifact sank without a trace as the developers initially committed to no nerfs whatsoever before quickly changing their mind in light of plummeting player numbers), and the way Ben Brode and co. hoped the GvG cards would solve the Undertaker problem from The Curse of Naxxramas (notably including two useless counter tools in the form of Lil' Exorcist and Scarlet Purifier to counter a card which snowballed by gaining +1/+1 for each Deathrattle instead of just +1 Attack) was definitely not the way to go.
As the years went on, the growth of decktracking tools and strategy sites also meant that the community began to burn through the content at a much faster pace, leaving to mostly or completely solved metas halfway through an expansion cycle. This was one of the most significant complaints of veteran players in the past (alongside a lack of long-term targets or alternative game modes), and adjusting to this reality was one of the most promising moves made by the new Team 5 leadership over the course of the last year. The current approach also meshes better with the sort of pace mobile users have gotten used to in their games over the years, but it inevitably sacrifices a certain depth of the gameplay experience. Content shakeups like the Rise of Mechs and Doom in the Tomb events (problems with the latter notwithstanding) seem like a great solution, injecting new life into the metagame without releasing an entire new set and completely upending everything. However, once you throw multiple nerfs onto this pile even before the Galakrond’s Awakening adventure was even officially announced, one inevitably has to wonder whether there’s too much of a good thing.
The Downsides of Changing Too Much
Speaking personally, I’ve always preferred playing in stabilized metas. While most players prefer the fun and excitement and the experimentation of the immediate post-release period, I simply just get frustrated knowing that I’m playing an unoptimized deck against a suboptimal play strategy over and over again simply because no one knows better. (It’s no coincidence that my relative competitive successes, including top 100 ladder finishes and almost-runs in the HCT qualification process, all came during metas where the newly released set didn’t have as much of an immediate impact on Constructed: the evolution instead of the revolution of the top decks are what allow me to find the edges others may miss out on). Of course, I am very much aware that I’m in the minority of the playerbase in this regard (hell, I play chess in my spare time, the manual kind, just to make things even worse), and even I considered events like Rise of the Mechs a pure positive change in Team 5’s design philosophy.
Having a built-in shakeup in the middle of every expansion is a great thing, and as long as they’re kept as relevant and meaningful moments, they will naturally create a “before” and “after” snapshot in the community’s mind. However, if you add multiple nerfs to the equation, the timeframe between changes in the Constructed environment actually becomes pretty short, leaving much less room for mastery. Knowing that your deck could be nerfed in a few weeks’ time and then rendered useless by an event even if it survives makes experimentation a lot more daunting for F2P and low-budget players as well, not to mention how it severely impacts the fun for those select few of us who prefer playing with optimized decks against one another with clear strategic lines already established. And ultimately, if your fancy new set with all those powerful cards had to be followed by two sets of nerfs in a month’s time, doesn’t that reflect poorly on your product as a card game designer?
In fact, this is likely a part of why the overbearing community sentiment about the current Standard Constructed experience can be summed up as ‘meh’ so far. As much of a hype-damaging period it was to have Galakrond Shaman run riot at the start of the expansion, Battlegrounds picked up the slack, perhaps even more so than Team 5 would have preferred it. After they’ve made a systematic effort to reduce the replayability of the single-player content since Dungeon Run to push people back towards the ladder environments, one has to wonder how they’ll manage the impact of a PvP mode which doesn’t check for the players’ collection.
Small and regular changes make much more sense in that environment, and having such a large pool of potential cards and heroes to rotate in and out of the format (with the ability to design new ones from scratch with little effort) gives Battlegrounds a big leg up on other autobattler titles. It’ll go stale just as fast, if not faster, as its competitors but has much more convenient ways to spice things up. There’s also even less of an incentive to take competition seriously.
Of course, Spikes (to quote Magic’s term for the tryhard players) were always the red-headed stepchildren of the Hearthstone community. Entire game modes like Wild or the Arena are completely ignored, Battlegrounds was launched with a faulty MMR system with no intention to do a ranked reset after massive chasms were established by it at launch and the lack of an in-game tournament client has severely limited the possibilities of online competition over the years. Changing the meta three to five times in an expansion cycle may be fun for the casuals, but it gives even less reasons for those who play to win to take things seriously. When Magic’s new player numbers were flagging in the mid-noughties, the solution was to reduce entry-level complexity and costs, not to throw around a million erratas and nerf everything to the ground. Hearthstone’s design always leaned towards pre-baked archetypes instead of strong viable independent cards – even more micromanagement may not be the answer to the game’s current difficulties.