Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Patch Notes or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Metagame

So right now there's a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth going on because Blizzard have released their most recent patch notes for Hearthstone, and instead of fixing what the people on Reddit think is broken today, they've tried to fix what people on Reddit thought was broken yesterday. In particular, lots of people are angry about Mages, and Mages didn't get nerfed. In fact, claim some of the subreddit's more brilliant minds, the fact that things were nerfed that were not Mages means that Mages are actually being buffed.

As usual, the internet is overreacting, and here's why.

It's not actually that hard to make a deck that can reliably beat a Mage. People have been doing it for a long time, and it usually comes down to a combination of weapon (or other direct) damage, healing, and large minions. If you don't believe me, go and get the Trolladin running and try it out. Hilarity will ensue. The problem with this, as I'm sure you've realised, is that these three components fare extremely badly against the current popular metagame, which revolves around large swarms of cheap minions (Curi's Warlock deck is probably the definitive example of this). Mages are one of the few decks that can really deal with the swarm meta because of their large numbers of freezes and board clears, and so we have a Rock-Paper-Scissors arrangement: Trolladin beats Mages, Mages beat Swarm, and Swarm beats Trolladin. Reddit is angry because they don't have a deck that beats Swarm and Mages.

This isn't quite as unreasonable as it might sound, because currently the number of Mages is too low to make it worth playing Trolladin, but high enough to significantly dent the win ratio of anyone playing Swarm. Add to this the dominance of Mages in a recent tournament and you can almost understand why people are crying. So, if there is a problem, how can we fix it?

To answer that we need to know just how the problem arose in the first place. You don't have to go back very far to find people complaining about Priests as much as they are now about Mages: in fact, one of the highest-rated /r/hearthstone posts of all time is a 'humorous' complaint about Mind Control. While Priests were by no means completely overpowered, they had a number of abilities which made their presence disproportionately felt. Shadows Words Pain and Death provided exceptional single-target removal and Mind Control dominated the end-game: if you had enough mana to play a really scary threat, a Priest had enough mana to turn it against you. The metagame shifted to accomodate the threat posed by these abilities. If one used large numbers of cheap minions, the loss of one or two to Shadow Words was less painful, and if the Priest survived into the end-game then using Mind Control on a small minion simply wasn't economical. It was found that combining the swarm with the more powerful buff cards such as Defender of Argus and Shattered Sun Cleric made it viable against fat minions as well, and so the Swarm rose.

This was great news for Mages, because their biggest weakness is large minions. There are only two Polymorphs in a deck, and if one starts throwing Fireballs into minions then one loses a large part of the burn required for victory. Freezes and Ice Block allowed them to stall through the Swarm's relentless aggression and deliver a killing blow with Pyroblast, but AoE abilities are massively inefficient against small numbers of minions, and if she can't get good useage out of her sweeps then a Mage is going to lose.

So far, we have seen how a strong end-game ability - Mind Control - has helped the Mage to victory by reducing the number of large minions being played. However, Blizzard have now nerfed Mind Control by increasing its mana cost to 10. People have been characterising this as 'too little, too late' - and perhaps it is - but my hope is that either intentionally or deliberately Blizzard have allowed the possibility of a return to larger minions. They are also slightly reducing the strength of the most popular swarm decks - Warlocks - by increasing the self-damage dealt by Flame Imps, and by lowering the health of the Shattered Sun Cleric and Argent Commander, two of the strongest neutral cards in the current meta and a large part of mid-to-late-game Swarm's success. Weakening these also increases the viability of anti-Mage decks running fewer, larger minions.[1]

So, that's my prediction. A slightly nerfed Swarm and a safer end-game will produce decks that focus on fewer, larger minions, possibly with large combo and buff capabilities, which will be strongest against Mages and at least competitive against aggro and rush decks. The system is working as intended.


There is no denying that Mages are on the strong side. I don't think they're actually overpowered, but they could use a tweak. The best suspect is Pyroblast, which is probably the biggest problem with the Mage right now. Constant stalling and delaying through freezes is annoying, but it wouldn't matter as much if one weren't racing against time before the Mage draws Pyro and ends the game. The simplest solution is to raise its cost to 10 mana. This not only gives the other class more time to deal critical damage, but also reduces the likelihood of the Mage dealing critical damage by preventing the combination of Pyroblast with Frostbolt/Fireblast/Arcane Missiles. It might also be necessary to reduce the damage, but that should wait for the next patch as it may well be that people don't want to run double-Pyro if it costs 10 mana, and therefore the potential total damage of the spell is halved anyway.

Taking care of Pyroblast is probably all that is needed. People have been whining a lot about freezes, and yes, they are annoying if you're running massive packs of minions, so stop running massive packs of minions into freezes. If the control was just control rather than a delaying tactic until Pyro ends the game I think they would be much more tolerable; certainly it should be held back for a patch to see what happens. If larger minions make a comeback freezes will be less useful anyway.

Similarly, larger minions would take the sting out of Fireball by acting as a psychological spell taunt - the metagame should be allowed to adapt before it is nerfed.

I think that's the most important thing to remember here. People seem to expect the developer to step in every time one class or strategy becomes dominant, but in almost all cases the metagame is able to adjust itself. Priests have fallen down the rankings without any devine intervention, and it's only relatively recently that people have started really noticing Mages (they've been solid for ages but it took the plague of aggro decks to make them really shine). One tournament does not a summer make, and am sure that the better players will be able to adapt.


It's probably worth mentioning the tournaments and arena. In both these areas Mages are rather stronger than they are in constructed. In tournaments, this is because the classes that are strongest against Mages - Rogues, Warriors and Paladins - are severely damaged by the sideboard rules which allow people to swap in Acidic Swamp Oozes and Harrison Jones to devastate weapon-users. This is one of those problems that really does require a developer fix, as the reason sideboarding is allowed is because it's impossible to prevent with the current state of the client (it's still in beta, let's remember).

When it comes to arenas Mages are dominant for three reasons:

  1. The easiest and simplest (though not necessarily best) arena strategy is to take lots of low-mana minions and aggro to victory, and Mages have very easy common counters to that.
  2. Cards like Flamestrike are inherently on the higher end of the power curve.
  3. With the exception of secrets, Mage cards are highly independent and perform at near-equal power regardless of the other cards in the deck. As you can't rely on getting specific cards in arena, independent cards like Chillwind Yeti are naturally stronger. Almost all Mage cards are highly independent.
Arena balance is a problem, but not one I'm going to discuss here. The semi-random allocation of heroes means that the implications of imbalance issues are reduced in any case.

[1] Of course, it's important to note that the reduction of these minions to two health is great for Mages as it brings them into Blizzard range, but the same is also true of Druids and Priests.

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