Whenever. This article began as a commentary on card draw in Hearthstone, and morphed into something else entirely. Card draw is one of the most important elements of any collectible card game, and Hearthstone is no exception. The ability to cycle through one’s deck, in the hopes of drawing the particular counter or win condition card to seal a game, creates a critical advantage over decks that don’t have this power. The power level of these cards has also been something that Hearthstone has historically struggled with. Gadgetzan Auctioneer, Starving Buzzard, Nat Pagle, Battle Rage, and Divine Favor – all of these cards have been altered by Blizzard at some point. However, if one takes a step back and looks at all the cards that have been lightning rods for criticism over the course of the game, we keep coming back to one word: whenever.
Let me expound upon why this word is so troublesome. Hearthstone has quite a few cards that have the structure of “Whenever X happens, get Y”. Since that is a mouthful, I am going to refer to these cards as WIXYs. When a certain trigger occurs, a benefit is gained by the player. The problem with WIXYs is that Team 5 only has a limited amount of developers and time to playtest new cards. The internal playtesting a WIXY card goes through pales in comparison to the millions of games that will occur in the first couple weeks of a card being released to the general player base. Over time, the best and brightest in the community will be able to refine decks that make the most out of the WIXY cards being utilized. This leads to extremely powerful deck archtypes, and eventually, nerfs.
Perhaps the most iconic WIXY card is the original Undertaker. Undertaker used to read “Whenever you summon a minion with Deathrattle, gain +1/+1”. On its surface, the original Undertaker is a respectable one mana drop that can gain a few stats points to help trade favorably against higher mana drops. However, after hundreds of games of fine tuning, an aggressive Hunter deck with a large number of Deathrattle minions (Webspinner, Leper Gnome, Haunted Creeper, Mad Scientist, etc.) took over the meta. These cheap Deathrattle minions allowed Undertaker to grow into an overpowered monstrosity of a 1 drop, that could inflict a lot of damage while also being difficult to remove. There was many a game conceded when the first player passed, and the second player coined out double Undertaker or Undertaker / Leper Gnome. Eventually, Blizzard had no choice but to nerf the card to its current state, which is now fair but easy to remove, and therefore, no longer played. By the end of its heyday, the deck that became known as Undertaker hunter had to be dismantled – and a WIXY card was the namesake and anchor of the deck.
Speaking of WIXY cards that enabled meta-defining decks, let’s discuss Starving Buzzard and Gadgetzan Auctioneer. Both of these cards kept their original WIXY conditions, unlike Undertaker. However, Blizzard increased the mana cost of Auctioneer by 1, and of Starving Buzzard by 3. In combination with Unleash the Hounds, Starving Buzzard enabled a player to draw too many cards in one turn too easily, while also playing minions on the board. A late turn or Concealed Auctioneer would allow a Miracle Rogue player to draw through a large percentage of his deck, allowing him to easily obtain its win condition of Leeroy Jenkins and direct damage. The almost unlimited card drawing potential these two cards created led to their eventual nerfing.
Finally, the most recent meta shattering deck also featured a host of WIXY cards. Grim Patron Warrior dominated the meta for close to half a year. The lynchpin card of the deck, Warsong Commander, was a WIXY card (Whenever you summon a minion with 3 or less attack, give it charge) that did eventually get nerfed. However, Grim Patron and Frothing Berserker are also WIXY cards, and their existence, along with the multitude of minion damaging cards Warrior possesses, allows new Patron Warrior to hang around as a powerful deck. The old Patron Warrior deck highlights the principle of the playerbase taking a WIXY card and perfecting it into a world destroying masterpiece. The earliest versions of Patron Warrior were not very combo centric – in fact, they looked quite similar to what the deck looks like now, post Warsong nerf. Warsong Comander may have been a one off in the deck, Dr. Boom and Grommash were included as high value, high damage cards, and the deck did not have the extensive card draw the more refined deck eventually had. After hundreds of playtesting games, any card not essential to the combo – even the second War Axe! – was removed until the deck became a well-oiled soul crushing machine.
It is important to note that not all WIXY cards are overpowered or need to be limited in such a way. Some cards have an effect that is overall not that powerful. For example, Mech-Bear-Cat gives a player a spare part card whenever it takes damage. Even if you were to increase the built in limit of six spare part cards by buffing the health of Mech-Bear-Cat, the spare part cards themselves are not particularly strong. Also, sometimes there are enough conditions on a WIXY card to limit how easily the card can be used. Take Northshire Cleric’s effect – Whenever a minion is healed, draw a card. As I alluded to previously, card drawing is a very strong effect. Just like Auctioneer and Buzzard, you would think a WIXY card involving card draw would be in the crosshairs for a nerf. However, Cleric is appropriately balanced as written. The card is easily removable with a 1/3 stat block, and its effect requires 1) other 2) damaged minions and 3) a method to heal them. Because there are so many conditions for this card’s effect, the card is balanced as is.
So, what can we do now that we’ve identified that certain WIXY cards can be overly abused to the point where nerfing is required? Set limits. With the principle I am about to propose, we could fix just about all of these cards and add them back into the meta. Many card games have rules that are not written out explicitly on each card or in the game interface. Because Blizzard seems opposed to adding these rules that are not written out, we would have to take each card on an individual basis. In our imaginary world, restore all of the cards we mentioned to their original mana cost, attack and health stats, before being nerfed. Let’s go rapid fire, keeping in mind that I am applying arbitrary limits to these cards – lots of playtesting would be required to adequately determine what the limits should be.
1) Undertaker – Whenever you summon a minion with Deathrattle, gain +1/+1 (limit twice per game). That way, Undertaker could only grow to a ¾ – excellent stats for a 1 drop, but it wouldn’t be able to snowball into an unremovable 1 drop.
2) Starving Buzzard – Whenever you summon a beast, draw a card (limit 4 per turn).
3) Gadgetzan Auctioneer – Whenever you play a spell, draw a card (limit 3 per turn).
4) Warsong Commander – Would leave the nerf as is, as adding a limit would be too complicated and wordy, and Team 5 is correct in that the original card restricts future card design.
This principle allows the return of Miracle Rogue into the meta, Deathrattle Hunter and Priest could return, and a new beast hunter or spin on Midrange Hunter could emerge. It also allows Blizzard to keep the “soul of the card” – Team 5 wouldn’t have to change the mana, attack, health, or card text of WIXYs; they would just have to add a small phrase to reign in the effect. With this new principle, If you played a fourth spell with Auctioneer up, you would not draw a fourth card when the fourth spell had been played in a single turn. Blizzard could make it so that if you hovered over the card, there could be a tracker (similar to when a minion is buffed) letting you know how many more charges of the WIXY effect you have available, so it would be easy for players to keep track of.
Obviously this principle wouldn’t fix every overpowered card in the game – for example, this couldn’t fix overstatted minions (read Dr. Boom). I do think Blizzard could use this principle to limit the amount of nerfs and keep nerfed cards playable after their alterations – which has not been the case for all of these cards. In a follow up article, I will look at how setting limits can be used to modify card drawing in Hearthstone. Thanks for reading!