The first balance patch of Castle Nathria was not exactly a stellar success. Before the patch, four classes lacked a viable deck: Rogue, Demon Hunter, Paladin, and Warrior. After the patch, three classes still do. Rogue has been the only one that has entered the mainstream meta, and arguably the class could have done so even without the buff to Edwin, Defias Kingpin, as the Miracle Rogue archetype was still under heavy refinement when the patch arrived.
The rise of Druid that happened after the patch is also partially independent of the balance patch itself. Aggro Druid started to see play some days before the patch, and the patch had only a minor effect on its success. Aggro Druid would have become a larger part of the meta even without the patch.
Why Was Snowfall Guardian Nerfed?
So, what did the patch accomplish? The deck that suffered the most from the patch is Control Shaman. The nerf to Snowfall Guardian weakened multiple matchups for the archetype. Most notably, it flipped its matchups against Spooky Mage and Ramp Druid from favored to unfavored. Shaman used to be able to lock Mage and Druid from the game when they went wide by freezing the board and creating a huge threat at the same time. With the nerfed Snowfall Guardian, Shaman no longer has this big threat that can end the game after the freeze.
What classes do you meet most often on the ladder now? Mage and Druid. It is easy to link their rise to the Shaman nerf. This narrative has some merit, as Control Shaman was a major hindrance to Ramp Druid. However, there are actually fewer Spooky Mages on the ladder now than before, and Aggro Druid was rising already before the patch. Aggro Druid’s excellent matchup against Ramp Druid is a factor in its popularity, but Ramp Druid was one of the most popular decks already before the Shaman nerf. Without the nerf, all three would still be present in a major way and Control Shaman would likely be the most popular deck on top of them. Instead of meeting Mages and Druids, you would meet Mages, Druids, and Shamans. You would still get blown out of games and have your entire board frozen for multiple turns. In fact, you would have your board frozen even more often.
One major reason why Control Shaman was nerfed in the first balance patch was that it lacked weaknesses. Shaman was the only class with the tools to dismantle any opponent. Sure, Shaman had plenty of matchups that were close to 50/50, but there was nothing in the game that could seriously challenge it for domination. Combine this with Snowfall Guardian being the strongest card in the deck even though it was added to the game already in December 2021, and nerfing this specific card started to look extremely attractive.
If Snowfall Guardian had not been nerfed, the meta would still mainly focus on a few classes. Druid would be slightly less common and Shaman would be somewhat more popular. With Snowfall Guardian nerfed, there is more room for other classes to shine now that Shaman is not holding them back. The nerfs just did not go far enough, and the old tyrant was simply replaced by the next tyrants-in-waiting. The weaker classes did not get a chance to shine after all.
What More Is Needed?
Aleco tweeted that a new balance patch is being worked on and should arrive next week. This time, the focus will be more on nerfs. That makes perfect sense when looking at the state of the ladder right now. The top classes continue to hold too strong of a grip on the meta to let variety through. Control Shaman is now in line with the other mediocre decks: it remains playable, but it is no longer dominant.
Ironically, the complaints about not being able to do anything in a game have found a new target. Spooky Mage is now the new Control Shaman. Between Blizzard, Grey Sage Parrot, Varden Dawngrasp, and Magister Dawngrasp, Mage can freeze the entire board six times in a row. Shaman’s four freezes were child’s play!
Unlike Control Shaman, Spooky Mage does not kill you immediately after freezing the board. The ultimate lethality of the deck comes from Magister Dawngrasp‘s scaling Hero Power. Freezing the board, even if it happens many times, is just an annoyance when not paired with lethality. Snowfall Guardian can still freeze the board, but many Control Shaman decks have ditched the card after the nerf, as buying more time does not result in a win without the muscle that a big minion provided. Likewise, it may not be necessary to address the Mage’s board freezes directly: if they cannot be combined with a tempo swing, they will not find space in the deck anyway.
Making Magister Dawngrasp less lethal would go a long way in making Mage feel less oppressive to board-based decks. For example, if the Hero Power scaled by one point of damage instead of two, that could already provide the necessary relief.
Then there is the eternal Druid question. Druids who ramp, win games. Sometimes even Druids who do not ramp but go wide and buff up their board win games. Herald of Nature is the key card in Aggro Druid, but Aggro Druid mainly punishes inaction. There are multiple potential counters to the archetype, although Herald of Nature could be touched if Blizzard wants to create more breathing space around Aggro Druid.
But those Ramp Druids. Ramp Druid always finds a way to stay relevant, and whenever it is playable, it is popular. The games where it completely blows out the opponent through immense mana advantage are something many players tend to find fun. As long as they are not on the receiving end, anyway. Is it time to talk about Wildheart Guff? The card is an insane outlier in performance. However, removing ramp from Druid can quickly cripple the archetype. We have all had games where our Druid opponents just cannot find a ramp card to save their lives. Those games are nasty, brutish, and short. Ramp Druid is a deck of extremes, and a difficult challenge to balance.
If not Guff, or maybe in addition to it, it might be time to talk about Sire Denathrius. Aleco mentioned that some Neutral cards may be affected by the next patch, and I cannot think of anything else than Sire Denathrius and Theotar, the Mad Duke. The increase in lethality brought by Sire Denathrius is through the roof. Nothing can defend against it. Except for Theotar, the Mad Duke, as you can always just use Theotar to steal Denathrius before it can be used.
The current Standard format is characterized by powerful individual cards that you try to find and play before your opponent. On the other hand, you also try to find your Theotar to steal the opponent’s big card in case they found theirs before you could find yours. Theotar looks completely different in Wild by the way! In a format that is even more lethal and where decks have multiple crazy cards, Theotar looks perfectly balanced. It would be a shame to take it away from Wild just because Standard decks rely too much on individual cards.
A nerf to Sire Denathrius, such as changing the Infuse effect from one to two, could force decks to include multiple win conditions more often. This would naturally weaken Theotar in Standard and possibly require no changes to it.
Are We Just Going for Another Round?
If this next layer of top decks is nerfed, are we just going to replace them with the next couple of strong decks? Is real variety even achievable?
Behind the current top decks, the strongest archetype is Quest Hunter. Unlike them, Quest Hunter does not have a clear outlier to target. The most promising approach to pre-emptively nerf Quest Hunter would be to increase the requirements of Defend the Dwarven District itself.
Looking at current data, that could be a point where the current elite is brought to an equal level with the average decks, and the meta has the potential to open up.
None of this would be possible if Shaman had not been nerfed. It was the strongest deck in the format with no weaknesses that could be exposed by nerfing any of its competitors. There was no one who could challenge it. If Blizzard made a mistake with the first balance patch, it was by not going deep enough to fix the meta in one fell swoop.
Then again, it is tricky to fix a meta in a single go. You can see the current meta: The best decks. The best cards. Which decks counter which decks. But to get deeper into the next layers of the meta, you need to analyze the position carefully, and you may still end up being wrong. In recent expansions, Blizzard has chiseled away at the top decks until they reach the meta they want. Castle Nathria meta should be the same. Whatever is revealed after the next patch, Blizzard will react again.
One final thought. With the current package-based design, if Blizzard digs deep enough, we will see the return of Kazakusan, Mech Paladin, and Mech Mage. If they do it just right, all those old packages may live in harmony with the current packages. That might actually be an interesting meta.