On Patron Warrior and Nerfs: Everyone Get Out of Here!

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Patron Warrior has been the talk of the town since shortly after the full Blackrock Mountain release. After skeptics initially dismissed it as a “gimmick” deck, Patron Warrior continued to put up impressive performances both on ladder and in tournaments until it was finally taken seriously. Since that time, the deck has been touted as the most powerful available by many pro players, getting a unanimous vote as the #1 deck in multiple metagame roundups.

frothingberserkerAt first, many players thought they could counter Patron Warrior simply by playing spells like Hellfire, Shadowflame, or Lightbomb to clear the board of the deck’s namesake Grim Patrons. As time has gone on and lists and play patterns have become more refined, however, it has become quite clear that such measures aren’t sufficient to contain the deck. Even if you can deal with a half dozen Grim Patrons in one fell swoop, you’re still at risk of facing lethal out of nowhere thanks to a charging Frothing Berserker. I’ve had a board of Ysera and Sludge Belcher against absolutely nothing on my opponent’s side with a full thirty health and died the very next turn.

What makes Patron Warrior so powerful is its ability to attack on multiple angles. It can play to flood the board with Patrons, it can play to set up a single lethal attack, and it can even play to generate massive amounts of armor to avoid dying against aggressive decks thanks to Armorsmith. Weapons are among the most flexible cards in the game, since they can be used to remove opposing minions or attack the opponent’s face directly. And thanks to the Warrior’s Armor Up hero power, Patron decks can use those weapons as removal without nearly as high a cost as the other weapon classes. Similarly, Armor Up gives Patron Warrior the ability to absorb incoming damage in the early and middle turns of the game as it sits back and waits to draw the right pieces of its various combos.

leeroychangeI have no problem with decks that are capable of winning in powerful and dramatic fashion, but Patron Warrior seems to run afoul of the same “rules” that saw Leeroy Jenkins nerfed late last year. The deck can consistently assemble a massive amount of burst damage from its hand that is extremely difficult for opponents to stop.

Under the logic that saw Leeroy Jenkins himself nerfed, the target for the nerf bat would likely be either Frothing Berserker or Warsong Commander. Frothing Berserker is the card that, like Leeroy, actually delivers the killing blow, while Warsong Commander enables it to have charge and thus close out the game in one turn without the opponent having a chance to react. I suggested recently that I felt like Warsong Commander perhaps ought to be changed in some fashion simply because the kind of things it enables are largely non-interactive, and I still feel that’s a reasonable direction to take, but I think in this case there may be better options.

emperorthaurissianSome players have suggested Emperor Thaurissan as the culprit, and it’s hard to deny that he plays a huge role in the power level of Patron Warrior, especially in the deck’s ability to end the game in a single turn. While I think Emperor is certainly a dangerous card – and I said as much when he was first spoiled, suggesting that he is the sort of card that opens the door to potentially non-interactive combo kills – I think he’s the kind of card that Hearthstone needs, because he makes exciting things possible.

Hearthstone’s gameplay has a very linear progression to it. Because you gain a mana crystal every turn, and because your mana crystals max out at ten, games have a tendency to play out very similarly to one another. You can always play a two drop on turn two, a three drop on turn three, and so on. Even late in the game, with a max of ten mana, you can at best play a ten drop or two five drops. There is no room in this system, inherently at least, for especially exciting or powerful things to happen simply because what’s possible is capped. Hearthstone can never have cards like the Eldrazi in Magic, which are hugely powerful monsters with costs beyond that which most decks can reasonably expect to pay in a normal game. The biggest we can go is ten mana for something like Deathwing, which can’t be too exciting or powerful because a high percentage of games actually reach that point.

Emperor Thaurissan helps break up that linear curve, and opens up the top of it to a nearly unbounded degree. It allows turns that produce Reddit-worthy screenshots, and creates the potential for fun and exciting things to happen that otherwise could not.

Of course, along with this excitement comes the danger of things like double Force of Nature plus double Savage Roar, or the Patron Warrior one turn kill combos, and whatever else is going to come next. And while it’s cool and exciting for these kind of things to happen every so often, it’s not nearly as fun when they’re happening all the time. The problem isn’t so much the fact that they’re possible at all, but rather the frequency with which they occur.

I’d argue that with Patron Warrior these huge one turn kill combos happen more often than they should. In fact, they would probably happen even more often, but the other dimensions of the deck – like the ability to spawn a huge board of Grim Patrons – win the game before things even get to that point. In that sense, Patron Warrior feels a lot like the old Handlock decks with the Leeroy/Power Overwhelming/Faceless Manipulator combo. Most of the time you can just win the game with your deck’s core minion plan – Molten Giants or Grim Patrons – but when that fails, you have the ability to blow your opponent out with a huge burst combo late in the game.

The real problem...

The real problem…

In the case of Handlock and Miracle Rogue, the problem was never really Leeroy. The problem was that both decks had the ability to consistently draw through their decks to assemble their game-ending combo. Miracle Rogue used Gadgetzan Auctioneer, while Handlock simply leaned on Lifetap. In either case, though, it was the fact that the deck was capable of so easily putting all of the pieces together that led to the problem – not Leeroy himself. As I pointed out back when Leeroy was nerfed, Al-Akir plus double Rockbiter Weapon does the same amount of burst damage as Leeroy plus double Shadowstep with the same amount of cards, and no one has ever legitimately looked to get any of those cards nerfed. Why did Leeroy have to pay for the sins of Gadgetzan and Lifetap?

Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting that Patron Warrior is unbeatable, or even necessarily even the best deck. My argument is based more in the sort of play pattern the deck generates, which often results in killing the opponent in a single large attack. Blizzard has rightfully taken action against decks capable of similar burst damage combos in the past, and I believe they should do the same with Patron Warrior in the name of interactive gameplay.

I think the easiest nerf available to Blizzard to impact Grim Patron’s consistently without totally dismantling the deck is to simply change Battle Rage to only draw cards for each damaged minion you control. This means that it would no longer be possible to simply cycle the card for two mana if your hero is damaged, and it incrementally reduces the power level of the spell when you do have a bunch of damaged minions. Right now, the card has far too high a possible reward – drawing four or more cards for just two mana – for its virtually non-existent risk, since it can almost always be cashed in for a new card at worst.

battleragecardIncidentally, the change also helps get rid of the obnoxious and unintuitive fact that it’s often correct to simply not damage a Patron Warrior player early on, or for the Patron player to pass without using their hero power because they want to be damaged. It’s a sad state of affairs to see a Mage and Warrior both pass on turn two without spending any mana because the Mage doesn’t want to damage the Warrior and the Warrior doesn’t want to stop himself from getting damaged.

There are a lot of other routes Blizzard could take that could also take Patron Warrior down a notch, like reverting Warsong Commander’s ability to grant charge to summoned minions to cut down on the power of Grim Patron explosions, or even changing Emperor Thaurissan so that his ability can’t reduce the cost of spells below one to make late game combo turns harder to pull off. Either of those feel like they more fundamentally change the way the cards work and run the risk of killing the strategy entirely, while changing Battle Rage would simply reduce the power level and consistency of the deck without eliminating any of its fundamental play patterns.

Would this change mean that Battle Rage is no longer strong enough to justify a spot in Patron Warrior decks? Perhaps. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Hearthstone has a track record of making card drawing effects too efficient, as we’ve seen in the past with Starving Buzzard and Gadgetzan Auctioneer, and weakening them has done a lot to make the game more fun. All of the key parts of Patron Warrior would still be around – they’d just be a bit harder to piece together, and I think that would be a good thing.

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