Team 5, the Blizzard group that develops the wildly successful digital card game Hearthstone, recently took the nerfbat to the Warsong Commander card. The nerf caused a bit of an uproar. This was not the first time the studio has had to make radical changes to one of their cards. The act itself is relatively benign, but the process itself bears with it several implications, some more obvious than others.
For those not familiar with the game, the Commander gave the Charge ability to low powered minions, allowing them to attack the same turn they are played. Charge can be quite potent, especially when you are able to play many minions in one turn. The Patron Warrior deck was built to do exactly that: play a Warsong Commander and play a Grim Patron, a creature that could produce copies of itself, each with charge thanks to the Commander. The rest of the deck was tailored to enable and exploit the combo. Seem powerful? It was very powerful, hence the nerf.The new version of Warsong Commander looks quite a bit different. Now, the card gives minions with Charge +1 attack. The card still has something to do with Charge, but similarities end there. To add insult to injury, the card is now effectively a less powerful version of an existing card that sees little to no play. This change didn’t make the Patron Warrior deck slower, or less effective, or less consistent. It dismantled the deck’s fundamental combo, completely eliminating it from the competitive meta.
Why didn’t the Warsong Commander change just consist of increasing the mana cost? In the past, when certain cards or decks have gotten out of control, their mana cost was increased. This prevents the cards from being played too early in a game, giving the opponent more time to develop a defense or counter. This was the case with Flare, Gadgetzan Auctioneer, and Leeroy Jenkins. Why the radical audible in card design with Warsong Commander? Ben Brode from Team 5 says in a recently released Designer Insight video that the original design of Warsong Commander had the unfortunate effect of limiting design space for future cards. Any future cards with attack 3 or less had to be designed with Warsong Commander’s presence in mind. The card was not only causing strife in the current competitive meta, it was also acting as a limiter behind the scenes.
There’s legitimacy to Ben’s point, but its implications worry me. The designers in Team 5 are not as ahead of the curve as they need to be in order to mitigate issues of card interaction across sets. Magic, the most popular trading card game, avoids these issues by being two years ahead in design. The cards currently being made today won’t be released until a full two years. The process is a rigorous and well-oiled machine, with enough time allocated to avoid the exact mess Team 5 has found themselves in with Warsong Commander’s design. Another way Magic avoids designing themselves into a corner is by rotating card sets in and out. At any given moment, the main competitive format only allows cards from the most recent year or so. This is largely a business decision, but it allows card design to exist in a vacuum. It would be unreasonable for anyone to expect the designers at Wizards of the Coast to design cards with every other card that exists in mind. The interactions would be near infinite. After all, that game has been around for nearly 22 years. Hearthstone isn’t nearly as old, but they are releasing cards at a rapid rate, and its still unreasonable to expect Team 5 to design with all cards in mind. Figure out a card rotation that works for the digital medium, otherwise they are going to run out of design space no matter what kind of cards they spit out.
One thing Ben mentioned that delighted me is Team 5’s commitment to a hands-off approach to card nerfs. I have seen some people call for a more active card balancing approach from Blizzard, asking for buffs and nerfs every 2-4 weeks. This would be a huge mistake. By adopting a design philosophy that discourages post-release card adjustments, Team 5 holds themselves to a stricter design discipline. Think about it this way: video games in general have gotten a bit looser with their development ever seen digital updates have been possible. Day one patches are extremely common. That approach with card design would encourage lazier development, whether it be conscious or subconscious. I for one applaud Team 5’s self-imposed limitation when it comes to card nerfs.
Hearthstone has been a massive success, but its clear that Team 5 has some serious thinking to do with regards to card rotation and design space. Designing a card game from the ground up is no simple task, and I don’t envy them. They’ve got some great ideas, and the game is great. In order to go the distance, they’ll need to start planning for the long game. In the mean time, we can all enjoy playing against something other than Patron Warrior. Huzzah!