Burying Undertaker: Thoughts on the Nerf

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Just yesterday, Blizzard announced an upcoming balance change to Undertaker. The change is a big one, removing the health bonus when deathrattle minions are played so Undertaker only ever grows in attack. I’ve had a lot of people ask me for my opinions on the subject, so I wanted to share my thoughts on the Undertaker nerf in a quick post here.

The short version is that I’m very much in favor of the change. I’ve felt like Undertaker has been a problem ever since it was released. I said as much in my commentary about the Starving Buzzard and Leeroy Jenkins nerfs all the way back in September. Hearthstone’s game engine is one that naturally tends toward the snowballing of early advantages due to the direct attacking system, and Undertaker in its original form allowed for that snowball to start rolling as early as the first turn of the game. I have played many games in which my opponent coined out a first turn Undertaker along with another deathrattle minion and I just knew the game was over on the spot because I couldn’t deal with it right away – and I am sure I’m not alone in that.

Mechwarper

“I’ll miss you, buddy!”

undertaker

“Bring out your…wait…why are they dragging *me* away?”

I do think that it’s important for Hearthstone to have cards like Undertaker that encourage players to look at the card pool differently. Without strong synergy-based cards to build around, players would simply select whatever minions and spells offered the best rate for their cost. With cards like Undertaker and Mechwarper in the mix, however, players have reason to look at a wider swath of the card pool than efficiency alone would justify.

That said, I’m not a big fan of Undertaker’s specific design. While gaining stats is obviously a well that design often needs to go to in order to make a card attractive, especially in a direct attacking game, it can also be a very dangerous one when it’s too easy to enable, especially on a cheap creature, as we’ve seen with Undertaker.

Mostly I don’t like the way in which Undertaker grows – simply playing deathrattle minions. I think Baron Rivendare is a much better deathrattle “tribal” design, since the whole idea behind deathrattle is that is cares about minions dying. I think a much cooler design for Undertaker might have been that he grows every time a deathrattle minion dies. With that design, he’d likely be better as a higher cost minion so you could set up a board to enable him the turn you play him. In any case, that’s not the world that we live in.

But we soon will live in a world with a one cost Undertaker that grows in attack every time you play a deathrattle minion. This is clearly a much weaker card than the current iteration. Players will be able to reliably use removal spells like Holy Smite, Frostbolt, Darkbomb, and Arcane Shot to kill Undertaker no matter how many times it has grown. That’s a huge deal, since one of the big problems with Undertaker has always been the difficulty in finding a window to actually get it off the board. If your opponent plays a first turn Undertaker on the play, and you have a three damage spell in your hand, sometimes if you don’t Coin it out you might find yourself staring down a 3/4 and two one cost deathrattle minions with no way to stem the bleeding.

Losing the health increase ensures that Undertaker will only ever be used in dedicated aggressive decks, since it’s no longer capable of working as a board control tool against small minions. While I may have enjoyed playing Undertaker Priest for a while, that’s probably a good thing. Undertaker board dominance against other small minions made it incredibly frustrating to play against with any kind of aggressive or midrange deck, because it easily could kill multiple opposing creatures before dying itself – if it even ever did die, which is no guarantee when it’s constantly growing and potentially even getting healed, like when it sees play in Priest. Undertaker could even get big enough that it could win fights with minions well up the curve and live – which is pretty insane for a one drop. Now, it will trade with most other quality one drops, as well as low cost removal spells.

In its current form, Undertaker decks are often quite difficult to beat even for decks that prepared for them specifically. I was playing a Paladin deck for a while this week that used multiple copies of Scarlet Purifier, and even when I was able to use its battle cry ability to kill multiple creatures my opponent controlled, I would often just lose to the Undertaker that was already in play. I don’t expect to win every game where I play one of my “hate” cards, but I’d expect it to at least give me a good shot!

With the Undertaker change, aggressive decks will be much more manageable. Gone will be the games that are all but decided on the first turn when you don’t have a way to remove your opponent’s Undertaker. Cards like Zombie Chow and Shielded Minibot will be much more reliable anti-beatdown measures. Midrange and control decks will breathe a sigh of relief that they may at least get a chance to play their cards before the game ends.

And yet somehow, I’m sure, Hunter will rise again. It always does.

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