"Nerfs", "Tweaks" and "Bans" are a mainstay of any competitive card game. They provide the developers and R&D departments running those games with get out clauses for potential oversights. Should a card come into circulation that outright breaks a certain archetype, developers can adjust a card's stats, abilities and in some cases it's legality in that card game. I'm here today to challenge the ideals of what is a successful adjustment to a card to neuter a specific archetype without killing it entirely. Different card games do it under different guises, I endeavor to find a universal method that stops degeneracy, but promotes player growth in finding other paths to victory through a proverbial roadblock in a nerf or ban.
Within Hearthstone, Warsong Commander is a hot topic right now, with players around the world split down the middle about whether or not the nerf is good for the game or not. Patron Warrior in itself is the first deck in Hearthstone to truly embrace the philosophy of an archetype. The philosophy of an archetype is a single strategy supported by cards that offer synergy to the line of play you are trying to make.
In late March 2015, Blackrock Mountain was spoiled to the masses and Grim Patron was largely dismissed by pro players everywhere. Flatly dismissed in some cases, as detailed in this quote by our current world champion Firebat;
"You can build some janky deck with like.. Whirlwinds... You have to build your whole deck around it to make it work and then at that point your deck sucks" - Firebat
As a veteran of other card games, specifically sneak peak drafts where I found a lot of my success as a Yu-Gi-Oh player, Grim Patron was instantly the standout card from the set even with the hype surrounding Emperor Thaurissan. I saw Grim Patron and cogs immediately began whirring. This was the first card released in Hearthstone that supported the idea of an archetype. Upon it's release I set to work on breaking the card, it took a few weeks but players around the world realized how much impact the card can create whilst combined with Warsong Commander.
Originally Patron Warrior's aim was to resolve a Grim Patron through use of area of effect spells, and to use the resources available to grind the opponent out of the game. It wasn't until players started splashing the concept with Frothing Berserkers that the deck really became prevalent. The OTK potential of the deck went through the roof and as a result a lot of players took notice.
It's this point in particular I would like to focus on. The ability for Frothing Berserker being able to break a game in a single turn and to put out an insane amount of damage instantly.
"Unfair" decks in other Card Games
In early 2007 in the Yu-Gi-Oh TCG the game was dominated by a core collection of cards that were just plain good. There were no strict archetypes to speak of. This format is now remembered by the players as the "Goat Control" format, where the combination of "Scapegoat" (A card similar to Mirror Image) and "Metamorphosis" (A card that sacrificed a monster to summon one of the same level from the fusion deck) was employed to cheese a very unfair monster into play in "Thousand Eyes Restrict". This card in itself dominated the meta, but there was lots of wiggle room outside of this combo to play the cards you liked, and what you felt were optimal monsters to counter-act the Goat Control meta. This meta is now remembered by players as one of the two greatest formats of all time, the second being the Tele-DaD format.
In line with the old story of power creeps, snakes were sent in to deal with the rats that were plaguing the meta. This forced developers to send in Mongooses to deal with the snakes that were now plaguing the meta. The game spiraled to a point where the power creep was so strong that Tele-DaD was a tier-one deck and it rendered the old Goat Control format redundant.
The aim of Tele-DaD was to use the its card draw synergy to find your combo pieces to win the game in a turn, whilst also having other power outlets that can sustain you and apply immense pressure until that tipping point in the match where you can push for lethal damage in a turn to end the game with very little the opponent can do about it. In this respect, Patron Warrior can be likened to Tele-DaD through similar mechanics of finding your game-ending combos through in-built synergy, replacing the draw engine with Hearthstone mechanics and exploits such as Acolyte of Pain and Whirlwind.
Tele-DaD went on to dominate 2008. The deck was without question tier zero (play it or don't bother playing) for a large expanse of time. At the time, players would complain about how unfair the Tele-DaD matchup was, and that something should be done to level the playing field. This Tele-Dad archetype went on to win an unprecedented 8 continental-level tournaments. Now remembered by players as the best format of all time, for it's skill intensive environment, where a single misplay would leave a door open for the opponent to counter and put you in a position where the game is simply an uphill battle.
Quick-fixes and their impacts on the game
In Yu-Gi-Oh, banhammers are more frequent than nerfs. That banhammer was eventually swung at player's biggest gripe - Dark Armed Dragon. Dark Armed Dragon was a card that was free to summon should your graveyard reach the requirements of containing only three dark monsters. It had 2800 attack, and you could banish one dark monster to destroy one card on the field.
To put this into perspective for non Yu-Gi-Oh players, it's the equivalent of playing the Warsong/Frothing combo, only with less set-up. While Yu-Gi-Oh offered mechanics to offer you outs to Dark Armed Dragon, if one were to hit the board uncontested another two could easily follow and end the game right then and there.
Yu-Gi-Oh's research and development department released an unprecedented mid-format emergency banlist, nailing enabler cards such as Dimension Fusion, a card that in Hearthstone that would summon five minions with charge at a cost of a quarter of your life total, and also cut player's draw engines through hitting Allure of Darkness (Draw 2, and discard one at zero mana effectively). Whilst this pushed players to think outside of the box, the deck still had success. There were six of these "Filter" cards in Tele-DaD. Not strictly +1 draw cards, seen more as a method of thinning the deck efficiently to find the combo pieces early.
The problem was eventually dealt with by limiting the problem in many player's eyes (In Dark Armed Dragon) whilst still keeping the toolbox open for other players to work and play around with strategies that the enablers promoted, without the game-ending impact of Dark Armed Dragon hanging over the game like a dark cloud.
Nerfs in Hearthstone
It's this point in particular that I would like to make about the entire Warsong Commander nerf situation. Whilst the nerf of Warsong effectively kills the Grim Patron archetype, it punishes deck builders and game enthusiasts alike that put work in to refine a list only for one degenerate card in Frothing Berserker creating a problem that got out of hand.
In my opinion, it would be far more effective to deal with the problem, not the enabler in this situation to continue to stimulate deck builders to challenge ideas. I feel that the nerf to Warsong has killed an entire archetype. The Patron Warrior archetype in itself isn't entirely devastating, as there are cards that exist in Hearthstone that can undo the work that the Patron player puts in, whilst not being fundamentally unfair. The fundamentally unfair card in this situation is Frothing Berserker I feel that Berserker is the prime candidate as it's impact ends a game, and that in itself is the unfair mechanism in Patron Warrior.
With a nerf to Frothing Berserker, the Patron Warrior deck is a linear control deck not too unlike Freeze Mage, with a single line of play in mind to put yourself in a position to win a game through use of the resources gained from two or three Patron triggers, rather than winning a game in a single turn through use of Frothing Berserker.
The comparison I would draw between the two decks would be that they are both fundamentally sound, and can win in their own rights, but the unfair "win-more" or "win-conditions" in Frothing Berserker and Dark Armed Dragon were where the problems were rooted, as both are fundamentally acceptable without the proverbial game-winning cherries atop of the well grounded cakes. This is the problem that I would suggest needs attention, as the decks both function very well at a competitive level without these unfair cherries. Alongside this, players would be left with a plethora of options that still make warrior a varied class without killing a deck off entirely.
In summary, I believe that nerfing the fundamental problem in any card game is the best move, rather than enablers. Degenerate strategies will always be available in card games, and with the release of more and more sets I guarantee that Frothing Berserker will be a problem again in the future, and I believe hitting this problem card rather than the enabler offers developers more wiggle room to expand on archetypes without unfair cards stopping the ability to release cards that could interact with the "problem" they nerfed an enabler to deal with a communities complaints.
Sending larger problems in to deal with issues is a problem in itself. Vaccinating the problem mid-outbreak is far more effective rather than culling the genetic defect that caused it.