Warsong Commander: The Design Limitation Problem

This article was started on the flight to Ukraine from on October 13th! Planes are good for writing.

In the wake of the announced change to Warsong Commander, I think a good discussion is taking place over the problem, or rather the existence of, design limitation. By design limitation I’m referring to the tendency that certain cards have to limit the ability of the developers to publish new cards that would, because of existing ones, become a problem.

This usually has to do with overly powerful combinations although it doesn’t have to; some cards may simply limit design space by being too good on their own and forcing, in and of themselves, an eventual power creep (*cough* Piloted Shredder *cough*). Other reasons for design limitation may even have to do with things like potential infinite loops, or redundancy of purpose. Giving Mages another Frostbolt called Flamebolt doesn’t exactly feel balanced, nor does it feel like compelling design.

I won't cover every potential bit of design limitation encountered in Hearthstone of course, but I'll touch on some points that I think are at least interesting to consider when looking at the history of nerfs, and what the future may bring.

WHO LIMITS WHAT, AND HOW?

"I demand that new, viable Paladin secrets are added to the game.
Why? Stop asking questions."

The concept of design space limitation isn’t a new one either; it’s inherent to game design. Whenever an element you create pushes you into developing future elements around it, and the hope is that you’re always looking back on existing content before making more, you’re being limited. There are of course varying degrees of limitation, and I think that’s where the disagreements on the meaning of the term occur. I could come up with a card nearly identical to Cold Blood for Warlocks. Would it be balanced? In a vacuum, yes; in the game as it exists, probably not. Power Overwhelming already being a thing makes the addition of a Cold Blood-like card to the class nearly unthinkable. Card power is obviously contextual, and so every card added to the game has to go through a process of balancing revolving around already existing elements.

Great examples are Bane of Doom and Demonfuse.

How does Bane of Doom limit design space? Well, it has to make Blizzard reluctant to publish new, powerful Demons without a drawback. If they keep making powerful and large demons, the following increase in Bane of Doom’s expected power would make it completely obscene. On the flipside, you also can’t make too many good low cost Demons the likes of Flame Imp or Voidwalker without pushing Zoo’s power level too far above the curve. What is the result of these two restrictions? The simultaneous addition of Wrathguard and Fearsome Doomguard. The first is a cheap demon that COULD fit in Zoo Warlock, with an above average size for its cost but a potentially crippling drawback, while the second increases the value of Bane of Doom considerably yet is counterpointed by the concurrent addition of the Wrathguard. Bane of Doom thus limits and is limited by design, forcing it in a certain direction.

Likewise, Demonfuse makes the idea of any non-Discarding Demon with Charge terrifying when you consider the existence of Power Overwhelming. What if a 2/1 Demon with Charge were to be made? Alone, it's no more than a Bluegill Warrior or Druid of the Saber, but it is MUCH more powerful thanks to Demonfuse. A 5/4 Demon with Charge for 3 Mana can be scary if there is no immediate answer from the opponent. If you stack Power Overwhelming alongside it over the course of an entire game, we’re talking about a potential 14 damage from minion buffs alone, for a total of 6 mana. In a typical Zoo deck that makes a few adjustments, the damage output becomes insane! There is a line that can be crossed that makes a previously acceptable card unacceptable, and it’s generally tied to the addition of new cards to the pool. There may come a day when Demonfuse will be considered unacceptable from this perspective, but that day has not yet come.

In a way then, every card is both limited and limiting design-wise, but all cards are not equal in that regard.

CHARGE, OR LACK OF COUNTERPLAY

"If everyone gets out of here, can they at least have chicken?"
- Demoralized Garrosh

Warsong Commander was redesigned, once again, now with a completely new ability; rather than give Charge to minions you summon that have 3 or less Attack, it now gives all your minions with Charge +1 Attack. You have to find a way to give your minions Charge on your own, now. The Alpha/Beta version of the Warsong Commander gave all your other minions Charge regardless of their Attack, and it was changed alongside the Charge card when Blizzard realized just how limited (read: nonexistent) our ability to stop Charge-based combos was in Hearthstone. After the first change, I imagine the developers did not really conceive that a day would come where giving minions with 3 or less Attack would make the same issue arise. Technically, as long as they didn’t give Warriors a Dreadsteed-like card they should be fine, right? Well, Grim Patron was Blizzard’s intended gift to the Warrior class, but I doubt they expected it to perform as insanely well as it has. And so even the modified Warsong Commander led to another low interaction, solitaire-like Combo deck capitalizing on a playstyle that the developers had intently attempted to keep down through past nerfs.

Woe! The developers hate Combo decks! Well, not exactly.

Note that Blizzard rarely nerfs a card because of its own merits but rather because of what it does in the deck(s) that it works in. There are multiple facets to the overly powerful appearance of certain decks or cards, and I assume that is why Blizzard is so reluctant to smash an archetype to bits by changing the card that looks like it’s the biggest offender. Even though fancy cards with their own, unique mechanic like Demonfuse can become design space-limiting, most past nerfed cards share common traits.

The Charge keyword was at the root of many of past changes: from the old Unleash the Hounds giving your Beasts +1 Attack and Charge to a Shadowstepped Leeroy Jenkins finishing you in one go, or even Warlocks racing to get him paired with Power Overwhelmings and a Faceless Manipulator, Charge has frequently led to nearly unavoidable, lethal damage. There is in Hearthstone no method by which you can prevent an opponent from hitting you barring the pre-emptive setup of a Taunt minion which often merely delays the inevitable. Loatheb adds counterplay potential against spell-based combos and is arguably one of the most impactful cards if you’re in a position to seal the game on the following turn. Unavoidable damage doesn’t only lie in Charge minions, as Freeze Mage has indeed shown us, but it’s one of the most efficient paths to get there. The core problem with Charge, and especially when you can GIVE Charge to a minion of your choosing, is interactivity. I cannot react as you play your Charge minion; I can at best act pre-emptively or after the fact. I am still unsure whether or not I even like the idea that minions can attack immediately in Hearthstone; Charge is an intuitive mechanic to add in a Trading Card Game with a waiting turn for every minion, but I’m not convinced it was healthy for this one.

The mechanic has been Blizzard’s bane for a while now. With cheap Attack buffs such as Cold Blood, Power Overwhelming, Inner Rage or even Blessing of Might, there’s always a risk that a deck comes out to abuse them with a Charge-based combo that aims to blow someone out of the game in a single turn. It is a fine line to tread, and the developers have said repeatedly that they were aware of it. Lack of interactivity goes beyond Charge alone, as exemplified by the old Undertaker, but it is a defining trait of the mechanic.

Sometimes, and it is true of the Warsong Commander, unavoidable damage is the most harmful design-limiting factor.

THE CHEAP COST OF CARD DRAW

"I think I'm about to Fatigue myself. Again. First tier problems."
- Concealed Auctioneer

The other common piece of the “nerf plz” puzzle is strong card draw, making devastating combos easy to assemble and allowing them to be used as viable strategies. The ability to accumulate combo pieces reliably is what makes the difference between a functional combo deck and a gimmicky one. Card draw in Hearthstone is notoriously inexpensive compared to that of other Trading Card Games, and the lack of counterplay available against direct damage/Charge minions compounds the potency of that cheap draw.

A fairly old Combo deck, Freeze Mage, uses its Ice Blocks and Freeze effects as proxy card draw so that, by buying time, they’re able to find what they need in their deck. The deck was nerfed drastically in the Closed Beta of Hearthstone with cost increases on most of their Freeze effects. Since then, I think it stands as probably the best example of a well-built and balanced Combo deck. There is no single card that gets you through your deck, but a sequence of them. It is then a matter of playing your options as optimally as you can while weaving in stopgaps to see more cards over the course of the game, eventually culminating in one of multiple winning plays with Alexstrasza and/or Emperor Thaurissan with Archmage Antonidas. It's a slow process, but you can get there consistently.

One of the most known card draw engines in the game is the Warlock's hero power, Life Tap, but it is a costly method of drawing for the sake of getting combos off. It takes a lot of time and resources if the intent is to acquire combo pieces. This is why you rarely see Combo Warlock as a standalone deck, but you're more likely to see the inclusion of a combo within a Handlock-style deck. Malygos Warlock is another great example of a Combo deck done well.

The disparity in the strength of various card draw engines is quite pronounced; on the low end you have cards like Loot Hoarder which replace themselves with another card, effectively representing two cards when you draw them. In the middle, you have something like Arcane Intellect which, when you play it, means that you'll have seen a total of three cards. Then, there are cards that blow these completely out of the water. Patron Warriors use Battle Rage to draw anywhere from 1 to 8 cards, with what I've found to be an average of 3, Miracle Rogue used to rely on their Gadgetzan Auctioneers to go through their entire deck in a short amount of time, and let's not even speak of the infamous "Starving Buzzard + Unleash the Hounds" punishing you for even considering playing minions. Although not always strictly because of card draw, these decks were all problematic on some level.

Unleash the Hounds is meant to punish you for overextending, but when you're giving your opponent a large amount of Hounds that each read "Draw a card", the punishment is too extreme. Battle Rage is meant to have synergy with the Enrage/Whirlwind effects thematic of the Warrior class, but it's not supposed to be slapped on top of a Charge-fueled Grim Patron cloning spree. Gadgetzan Auctioneer is meant to make you want to play spells, but it wasn't intended to let you draw your entire deck over two turns with useful, utility-oriented spells.

There are multiple facets to consider about problematic Combo decks, and card draw engines can in some cases be the most design-limiting parts.

BRING OUT THE SLEDGEHAMMER

"We heard your feedback about < insert card name> , and we agree with you.
Consequently, the card is still in your collection but might as well not be."

Rarely are cards overpowered in and of themselves; it’s usually a full package that Blizzard tackles by modifying (or destroying) the card they think is the most limiting for future design. You can hardly isolate Starving Buzzard as a problematic card without considering its interaction with Unleash the Hounds; likewise, you can't look at Warsong Commander and find it powerful until a minion exists that benefits massively from it. So how, then, do you approach the problem of nerfing the correct element?

If you're a player, you approach the problem from a more immediate perspective: you see the problem on a day-to-day basis with the same scenarios arising. Warsong Commander is played, Frothing Berserker comes out, and you're being hit in the face for 30 damage. Next game, Grim Patrons wipe your board and take you down over two turns. The following game is an Emperor Thaurissan blowout. You lose and lose and lose and think to yourself that the deck needs to be toned down somehow. If you only cut out ONE of these win conditions, surely the deck would be fine; after all, we don't want to kill the deck completely. Brainstorming quickly presents a few obvious tweaks: reduce the Health on the Frothing Berserker, make Warsong Commander an aura effect, Emperor Thaurissan needs to trigger at the start of the turn, etc. There are a hundred possibilities, each of them defensible through proper argumentation, but they're not all equally viable for the long term health of the game. This is the crux of the matter.

On the other side of the mirror, you're a developer, and you're looking at the future of your game. You already have a year's worth of content planned, or at least a solid chunk, and you're looking at the current state of the game, which is already past design as far as you're concerned. Your playerbase is frustrated, and you understand why. You share their sentiment, even, and it's time to act. You have more information and the ability to tilt the game in any direction. Which change do you make? You could attempt to change every outlying gameplay element and homogenize the power curve across the board, but that's either futile or a surefire way to make the game stale. When it comes to modifying largely functional game systems, a simple and elegant solution is probably the best one to go for. You have to find and make the change that's the most future-proof.

In this case, Warsong Commander was deemed the biggest offender: no 3-Attack-or-less minion that could abuse the Charge effect could ever be added as long as it existed. That's a lot of potential cards we would never be able to play with. Prior to Grim Patron's arrival and its subsequent combination with Warsong Commander, Frothing Berserker was fine, even weak. As for Grim Patron on its own, it should ba a lot milder if it can't go "Unleash the Hounds-mode" on the enemy board.

So she's getting the nerf sledgehammer. Not merely a mild change but a crushing one. Starving Buzzard-style, but even worse. There is no redeeming Webspinner-to-Buzzard sequence that can make Warsong Commander even remotely good. She just had her identity stripped away for the sake of making sure that the problems she caused never come back, what with already TWO rounds of changes in her history. The reasoning behind this is probably simple at its core: like the Buzzard, it is a Basic-rarity card that limits the power level of non-Basic cards by its very existence and warps the metagame, potentially forever. Where the Starving Buzzard was a problem because of its runaway card draw potential, the Warsong Commander incarnated the other side of the issue: lack of interactivity.

The sledgehammer has hit, and the sledgehammer is almighty.

FINAL WORDS


Design limitation isn't something that you can avoid at all; just by creating the framework of your game and its underpinning rules, or even through aesthetic choices, you're limiting yourself design-wise if your goal is to be consistent with already existing elements. I think this is a principle most people intuitively understand without necessarily enouncing it; it may seem obvious that you have to take into account your existing design, but some games are notoriously careless on that front.

Perceived imbalances are relative to the larger context, and there is no correct solution unless you're feeding in a ton of assumptions into your system, and these assumptions aren't the same for everyone. In reality, developers are in a position of having to draw a line in the sand. We might disagree with where the line is, or if they're even drawing it on the right shoreline, but it's reassuring to see that Blizzard is fully aware of the design limitation problems that cards bring alongside them.

Now, we just have to wait and see if Mysterious Challenger follows suit.


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