Like many other fantasy enthusiasts, I’m a big fan of dragons. The idea of such massive, majestic, and powerful beings has captured my imagination since I was a kid. When I was young, I collected dragon figurines, made of materials from lead to pewter to blown glass. Even as I grew older, my fascination remained, leading to me earning the nickname “The Dragonmaster” in competitive Magic circles for my success with dragon-filled decks in a time when they were rarely seen at the top tables of any tournament. Even today, I build Hearthstone decks full of dragons just because, and even occasionally play them live on my stream while wearing a dragon costume.
Okay, maybe I’m a bigger fan of dragons than the average fantasy buff.
Lately, though, dragons have had it pretty rough in the world of Hearthstone. It’s hunting season out there, and dragons are the biggest of game. I have all but given up playing my Dragonmaster Druid deck simply because it’s so frustrating to lose every game to Big Game Hunter.
Big Game Hunter is a card that I think is very troubled. I suspect I understand the motivation behind it, but I believe the effects that it has on the game are largely negative.
Mark Rosewater, the Head Designer of Magic the Gathering, long ago posited what he described as the psychographics of Magic players – Timmy, Johnny, and Spike.
Spike is playing to prove something. He wants to win, and his approach to the game and the cards and decks that he plays are all based around that central principle. Spike cares less about *how* he wins than the simple fact that he does.
Johnny wants to express something. He wants to show the world how clever he can be. He wants to win in crazy and creative ways, while playing wacky or unusual decks. He too wants to win, but he wants to do it on his own terms.
Timmy wants to feel something. He plays games for big, exciting moments, like crushing his opponents with an awesome giant dragon. While he wants to win, like Johnny his desire for success is often secondary to his desire for a certain kind of experience.
I would describe myself as a Timmy-Spike. I play games to win, but I like winning in dramatic fashion. I derive far more enjoyment out of crushing my opponents with giant dragons than anything else.
Big Game Hunter is the enemy of that kind of fun. Big Game Hunter is Timmy’s worst enemy.
One of the biggest challenges of a game like Hearthstone is the way that card effects are split between the different classes. As the Head Developer of the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game during its first few years, this is a challenge with which I am quite familiar. There are certain kinds of effects that are fairly core to any given game engine, and it can be difficult to split those up in a way that is both coherent and balanced.
In Hearthstone, every class has a way to deal with a big opposing minion. Rogues have the simplest incarnation with Assasinate. Priests have Shadow Word: Death. Shaman have Hex. Mages have Polymorph. Warlocks have Siphon Soul. Warriors have Execute. Hunters have Hunter’s Mark. Paladins have Equality. And even Druids have Naturalize, if they really want it.
In game design, that kind of breakdown is generally quite intentional. Giving different classes or factions varying strengths and weaknesses is important to differentiate them and give them character. Sometimes there are effects that are deemed crucial for every class to have access to for one reason or another, and these effects are either made available to every class or put on neutral cards; or, in the case of the ability to kill large minions in Hearthstone, both.
So if every class has a way to kill big minions already, why does BGH exist? Here’s how I imagine Big Game Hunter came into being. It wasn’t designed to kill Dragons, or Ragnaros, or even the Dr Booms of the future. I don’t actually have any special knowledge behind the scenes, but if I were a betting man, I’d wager that Big Game Hunter exists because of the Giants.
My guess is that the Hearthstone team really liked the variable cost designs of Molten and Mountain Giant. At some point during development, though, it became clear that putting them into a Warlock deck led to them coming out so early in the game that many decks had serious trouble dealing with them. With other big minions, decks could try to combat them by winning quickly, or by using whatever their classes removal spells might be, but 8/8 minions that could come out as early as turn four were often too much to handle. This, I imagine, led to the creation of Big Game Hunter, with the notion that if these Giant Warlock decks were popular, people could fight back against them with Big Game Hunter.
Creating cards that offer a “safety valve” in case particular strategies become very popular is a common tactic in TCG development. In general, it’s a good philosophy, because it rewards format knowledge and intelligent deck building, and encourages the ebb and flow of the metagame as different strategies come in and out of prominence. Kezan Mystic is a great example of this. As Mechmage and Midrange Hunter decks have grown in popularity, players have started using the Mystic in response to the popularity of traps.
The problem is that Big Game Hunter is a bad safety valve. A good safety valve is something like like Kezan Mystic, or Acidic Swamp Ooze. They’re cards that a player who is struggling with a particular strategy can look to include in their decks to help, but that come with a cost in matchups where their abilities aren’t useful. Secrets and weapons are fairly narrow categories of cards, so the number of cards and decks impacted by the popularity of Mystic and Ooze is limited.
Big Game Hunter, on the other hand, impacts every big minion in the game. It hunts down giants and dragons and elemental lords alike. That’s an extremely broad swath of cards to be targeted by what is likely intended to be a narrow metagame option.
When I was originally building MechMage, I tried using Fel Reaver, in part as an attempt to prove to the community that its drawback was not as bad as they thought. Ultimately, I ended up cutting it, not because I was losing to fatigue, but because it kept dying to Big Game Hunter. Big Game Hunter distorts the playability of every big minion in the game. Any minion with seven or more power has a bullseye on its head.
Look at Mech BearCat, or Druid of the Fang, Mogor the Ogre, or even Bolvar Fordragon. They’re all cool cards that have seen virtually no play since their release in Goblins vs Gnomes, at least in part due to their vulnerability to Big Game Hunter. The same is true of classic cards like Prophet Velen.
In fact, if you look at the seven plus attack minions that do see competitive play, they’re almost all things like Dr Boom, Alexstrasza, Neptulon, Baron Geddon, or Ragnaros. They either have an immediate impact on the game or leave additional value behind even if they are killed immediately by a Big Game Hunter. The swing from losing a big minion to BGH without getting anything out of it is just too much.
Paradoxically, Big Game Hunter means that “better” cards are frequently actually worse. People jokingly suggest “nerfing” Dr Boom to a 6/7, since removing the card’s vulnerability to BGH by reducing its attack would actually make it better. Foe Reaper would be worse if it were a 7/9 rather than a 6/9. That’s a very strange place for a game’s development to stand, but it’s where Hearthstone is right now.
The big problem with Big Game Hunter isn’t just its impact on the current metagame. It’s that it suppresses the viability of every future minion design, as well. Future MechBearCats, Fel Reavers, Druids of the Fang, Prophet Velens, and dragons alike will all find themselves as dust fodder for as long as BGH is on the hunt. And that sucks, because winning in big, dramatic fashion is the way a lot of players – like me – have the most fun.
How can Big Game Hunter be fixed? Frankly, I’m not sure. I do think that the giants are a problem. They’re certainly cool cards, but if BGH oppressing every other big minion is the cost of them existing, I’m not sure they’re worth it. I actually think the giants themselves are totally fine on their own, but the ability to consistently play them early in the game due to the Warlock hero power is what puts them over the edge.
Lifetap: This is why we can’t have nice things.
In all seriousness, I think Big Game Hunter ultimately makes Hearthstone less fun. It oppresses an entire class of cards that ought to be among the most exciting in the game, but instead are relegated to the sidelines for fear of BGH blowouts. And it will continue to do so for future cards for as long as it exists in its current form. A change to Big Game Hunter would certainly have systemic metagame implications, but would go a long way toward making Hearthstone more fun for Timmy’s like me.