After months of speculation, badgering, and cajoling, Blizzard finally announced a much-anticipated nerf to one of Hearthstone's most dominant decks today. The so-called Patron Warrior has been decimating the meta since its release in the Blackrock Mountain adventure, and players have been calling for it to be fixed for nearly as long. That fix is coming next week, but Blizzard's approach is to make a drastic change that may be more than necessary or wise.
What's All This, Then?
First, some background. Blackrock Mountain introduced Grim Patron, a 5-mana 3/3 that puts another copy of itself on the board every time it survives damage. Combined with the Warrior spells like Whirlwind or the Death's Bite weapon, both of which hit everything on the board for 1 damage, you could easily get a field full of Grim Patrons. Combined with Warsong Commander, every one of them would have charge. That's quite a bit of damage, or you could use them strategically to clear the board and still easily have plenty of them left.
The real problem, however, came when players combined the Patron and Warsong Commander with another existing but rarely used card, the Frothing Berserker. It started with 2 attack and gained 1 attack whenever a minion takes damage, so if you already had a field full of Patrons, hitting them all with a Whirlwind would buff the Berserker to insane proportions. Thanks to the Commander it would start with charge and retain it after the buffs, so it could go into play and attack without even giving the other player a chance to respond.
It wasn't necessarily easy to put together that combo, but the Warrior had some special tools available. Warrior specializes in using armor, which can prolongue games longer than most other classes. It has powerful removal tools like Execute to get rid of large threats. One of its major card draw mechanics relies on minion damage, so it could refill its hand easily and discourage you from hitting the hero itself. Worst of all, the Frothing Berserker buffs counted damage done to your minions as well, so having a well-established board turned out to be a detriment.
It was awful. People hated it.
Fans even argued that Blizzard had an obligation to nerf it. When it nerfed Leeroy Jenkins to hobble the Miracle Rogue deck, it gave the rationale that minion battling is the core of Hearthstone, and going from an empty board to lethal simply isn't fun. That's definitely true, but the same applied easily to Patron Warrior, which left fans wondering why the company was so hesitant to fix the exact same problem it had addressed before.
Starting next week, Warsong Commander will no longer grant charge to minions at all. Instead, it will only slightly buff minions that already have charge. Much more severe than a mere stats change, this impacts the very nature of the card itself. It's unlikely to see serious play after the change takes effect.
Sympathy for the Devil
Patron Warrior wasn't all bad. By nature of the Warrior's power, it had spent months before Blackrock Mountain languishing without much variation. The only viable arch-type was Control Warrior, a solid but unsurprising deck type that emphasizes armoring up and outlasting your opponent with big plays. Patron Warrior allowed one of the classes to have multiple viable deck types, which is important for a card game like Hearthstone. After all, once you see your opponent's hero, you shouldn't immediately know what deck they're likely to be playing. Figuring that out is part of the challenge, and formulating an appropriate response is what separates the good players from the bad.
Control Warrior is still viable, and perhaps now more than ever after the Grand Tournament expansion. Thanks to some new armor tools, and Justicar Trueheart that makes his armor ability all the more powerful, we've seen a revitalization of this deck type in the meta. Alongside Patron Warrior, this meant there were two viable Warrior deck types.
After the nerf, Warrior will be back to one. Control Warrior will still be strong, but the guarantee that any Warrior you face will almost certainly be a Control Warrior means it will be significantly less powerful. The guesswork will be gone, so players will more easily be able to craft counter-strategies.
All that leads to the obvious question. What should Blizzard have done to nerf this overpowered deck? For an answer, I suggest we look to another class: Druid.
Like Warrior, Druid specializes in prolonging matches--this time with big taunts and a spell that restores everyone to full health. Its most common win condition is a two-card combo so prevalent it's known in Hearthstone circles as simply, "The Combo." Force of Nature grants three 2/2s that die at the end of the turn, and Savage Roar gives each of them (and your hero) +2 attack for the turn. The 9-mana combo amounts to 14 points of damage, and that's if the board is utterly empty. With just a minion or two, it can easily turn into a lethal combination even at full health.
Similar to Patron Warrior and the Miracle Rogue, The Combo circumvents the minion-on-minon combat that Blizzard says is vital to the Hearthstone experience. So why hasn't it been nerfed? Simply put, it doesn't rely entirely on a one-turn kill. While that goal is achievable with some minions on the board, you can't go from an empty board state to 30+ damage in a single turn. You need to wear down your opponent. Their taunt minions actually pose a threat instead of being fuel for your attack like in the case of Frothing Berserker. It's a brutal combination, but players can prepare for it and prevent it. It's ultimately been deemed as fair among the community and, apparently, the developers.
For this reason, I expected (and would have preferred) a much more subtle change to the Patron Warrior deck. Rather than kill the deck entirely, Blizzard could have simply made Warsong Commander's charge effect only applicable if a minion remains below 3 attack. Frothing Berskers and buffed Grim Patrons would lose their charge, giving opponents a chance to respond before things get out of hand.
A Warsong Commander, Grim Patron combo with Whirlwinds and Death's Bites could put six 3/3s on the board with charge, for a total of 18 damage. That's more than "The Combo," but it's a reasonable trade-off for a combination that requires three or four cards instead of only two. It would still allow Patron Warrior to exist, but like Combo Druid, it would need to do some table-setting to prepare for the finishing blow. Ultimately, this would be powerful, but not overpowered.
Instead, Blizzard has opted to make a wild swing, which is destined to render the Patron Warrior unplayable, and revert Control Warrior to the only viable deck type for high-level play. This nerf, while appreciated as the resolution to a long-standing problem in competitive play, is more drastic than it needed to be, and removes one of the only tools from Warrior players.