By the time most of you read this, the nerf bat will have been swung, and Starving Buzzard and Leeroy Jenkins will each be shadows of their former selves. I wanted to take a moment to look at these changes, as well as the general state of balance in Hearthstone, as well as to consider the implications of the nerfs for the constructed metagame moving forward.
First, let’s talk about the changes themselves. Of the two cards, Starving Buzzard took a much more dramatic hit, going from a two cost 2/1 to a five cost 3/2. Leeroy was changed with a much softer touch, with just a single additional mana added to his casting cost.
The Buzzard change was in response to the overwhelming popularity of Hunter decks on the ladder and the perception that the class is by far the most powerful available. If you look at recent tournaments, most players chose to ban Hunter in every match they played. To put things into perspective about just how prominent Hunters have been recently, here’s my matchup data from my climb to Legend this season.
Now that’s a lot of Hunters.
I was somewhat surprised by the degree to which Buzzard was hit, but I absolutely agree something had to be done. Even if Hunter wasn’t the best deck, Buzzard was simply too good, particularly in combination with Unleash the Hounds. Not only that, but it creates a very frustrating dynamic for the opponent in which they have to fear actually playing out any of their minions for fear of not only losing them to Unleash, but also feeding the opponent extra cards from Buzzard.
This dynamic is further exacerbated by the existence of Freezing Trap. Between Freezing Trap and Unleash the Hounds, Hunter decks put their opponents in the squeeze. If you’re trying to play around Unleash, you want to minimize the number of minions you commit to the board, but doing that leaves you open to fall irrecoverably behind if your opponent has Freezing Trap on a key turn.
More than anything else, though, the combination of Unleash plus Starving Buzzard just isn’t fun to play against. As Blizzard said in the official nerf announcement, Hearthstone is a game about playing minions, and the Buzzard/Unleash combo punishes a player for doing just that. It’s incredibly frustrating to feel like you just can’t play your cards, and even worse for Shaman and Paladins who can’t even use their Hero power without enabling massive card drawing power for the opponent.
I’ve seen some arguments that Buzzard is the wrong card to target, and it’s really Unleash the Hounds that is the culprit. That perspective is flawed for a few reasons. First of all, Unleash is a totally reasonable card on its own that offers cool synergies with things like Scavenging Hyena, Timber Wolf, and Leokk on its own. Buzzard is the card that pushes it over the edge by causing it to provide huge amounts of additional resources. Secondly, it’s important to be forward thinking when developing for a collectible game that intended to have future sets. While Hunter might be fine if Buzzard were left as-is and Unleash were changed, Buzzard would remain a development constraint moving forward that would prevent future cards that might generate multiple beasts for a low cost. In general, it’s best to target the engine card itself rather than whatever card with which it happens to combo, because you’re leaving the door open for future problems otherwise.
That’s precisely why I’m less convinced the Leeroy change was a good one. Leeroy, in itself, is hardly an oppressive card. It’s certainly powerful at closing out games in aggressive decks, but that’s not why its cost was increased. Leeroy was nerfed because of the role it plays in huge burst combos out of Miracle Rogue and Handlock – specifically, with Shadowstep and Power Overwhelming + Faceless Manipulator. Increasing Leeroy’s cost to five mana means that Leeroy + Shadowstep x2 is impossible in a single turn , as is Leeroy + Power Overwhelming + Faceless Manipulator, since these combos now cost 11 mana
I don’t think Leeroy is actually the problem in either of these cases. After all, both of them are combos involving three specific cards, one of which is a Legendary. The real problem is the reliability with which players can churn through their decks to find these combos. Leeroy feels like the scapegoat here, while the real culprits are Gadgetzan Auctioneer and the Warlock Hero power. These provide players with the ability to draw so many cards over the course of the game that they can easily assemble whatever hand they’re looking for. Without them, playing highly situational combo cards like Shadowstep and Power Overwhelming would come with a much greater cost, and while they may still be able to enable one-turn kills, they would do so much more rarely.
Some people have suggested that the Leeroy nerf means the death of Miracle Rogue, but a look at the decks from the Prismata Cup #2 shows that is far from the truth. The event was run this past weekend with Starving Buzzard and Leeroy Jenkins both banned, and Miracle was out in full force, with many of the competitors using Leeroy-less Rogue as one of their three decks in the Swiss rounds. The power of the deck has always come from the card draw of Gadgetzan Auctioneer, and it remains a strong contender despite the loss of the Leeroy-Shadowstep finisher.
Similarly, Handlock was heavily represented despite the nerf. While the Leeroy combo gave the deck a burst dimension that it otherwise lacks, the core of Handlock is the ability to control the board with mass removal and Giants, both of which are enabled by the Warlock hero power. Obviously the Starving Buzzard nerf played a huge role in the prominence of Handlock in the event, since the massive decline in the popularity of Hunters meant a dearth of the deck’s worst matchup, but neither deck targeted by the Leeroy nerf seemed to lose much steam in the wake of it.
In reality, I think the Leeroy nerf has more to do with player feelings than it does with power level. Losing a game from a high life total when your opponent had nothing in play at the start of a turn is very frustrating for many players, because it feels like there wasn’t much you could do to stop it.
If you think about it, though, Al-Akir plus two Rockbiter Weapons does as much damage as Leeroy plus double Shadowstep, and nearly as much as the Handlock version of the combo. It even requires the same number of specific cards. The reason Leeroy is viewed as a problem and Al-Akir is because of the dramatically higher consistency with which Warlock and Rogue decks are able to assemble their combo due to the card draw afforded to them by Gadgetzan Auctioneer and Lifetap, which are the real offenders.
On the subject of cards that are frustrating to play against, one card that I’m surprised was released in its current form is Undertaker. Hearthstone is a game that, due to direct attacking, inherently leads to a snowball effect of early board advantages. Undertaker is a card that can absolutely bury opponents once they fall behind. In fact, there are lots of situations where an opponent plays a turn one Undertaker and I feel like I can’t even really play my own creatures to the board, because they’ll just die for essentially nothing. This is especially pronounced in the Undertaker Priest mirror match, because the Priest hero power makes it incredibly difficult to come back from a disadvantaged board position via attrition of a minion’s health over time.
I’ve been playing with Undertaker myself, because the card is clearly extremely powerful, but it seems like the sort of card that the game might be better off without. It’s far from unbeatable – it’s weak to silence effects, for instance, and there is certainly removal that can deal with it – but it can engender such feelings of helplessness because of how quickly it can grow out of control that I’m not sure it’s good for the game overall. It’s certainly okay for there to be minions that can dominate the board and threaten everything an opponent plays. It’s less okay if those minions can be played on the first turn.
Overall, I’m excited to see how the metagame shapes up with the changes. Any time the balance of power shifts dramatically away from a dominant deck, it opens things up for a lot of innovation and experimentation, and that’s always my favorite part of any collectible card game.
I think the changes bode quite poorly for my own Priest deck. A lot of the strength of that particular build came from its good matchups against Hunter and Warrior decks. With Hunter taking a huge hit, I imagine we’ll see a significant decline in the popularity of Control Warrior as well, since a strong Hunter matchup was one of the reasons to play that deck. The rise of Handlock is certainly bad news, and we will no doubt see a lot of people experimenting with new builds of Miracle Rogue. The more midrange Rogue decks are probably a worse matchup than Leeroy Miracle because they have more interaction and less combo elements, which is another strike against Dragon Priest.
In any case, we shall see. Here’s to the brave new world, with a whole lot less Buzzards and whelp-spawning maniacs with a fondness for chicken.