TL;DR: Between the "three types of cards," of power houses like Zilliax or Kobold Librarian, archetype-forcers like Drakonid Operative or Duskbreaker, and synergy-based archetype-pushers (not forcers) like Fire Fly, Nightmare Amalgam, or Masked Contender, I think:
It is important to shy away from archetype-forcing cards unless an effect is unique enough or can only exist at such a power level (such as Hadronox, or Hero Cards).
It is important to keep a limit on Neutral power-houses, lest we end up funnelling many decks down the same route and causing homogenisation between decklists and classes. Zilliax is the most prominent and powerful one that exists right now, though Tar Creeper (23.8% of decks) and Stonehill Defender (21.4% of decks) are very powerful as well.
It is important to recognise the value of synergy-based cards, both unpopular/weak (Untamed Beastmaster, Augmented Elekk) and strong (Fire Fly, Skull of the Man'ari), and appreciate how they add depth to Hearthstone by relying on interactions with other cards to shine.
Zilliax is a great card that has overall been very well designed. It is a card that, despite seeing play in about 1/3rd of all decks, doesn't feel baloney to play against or gives you the sense that you've won outright just by drawing and playing it. The second most included card is Fire Fly, in 24.3% of decks. That is a big difference between Number 1 and Number 2, and a testament as to the power level and versatility of Zilliax.
While I don't suggest that Zilliax should be nerfed — at least for now (we'll see how powerful he is post-rotation) — I want to suggest that people pause a moment and think about what having more Zilliax-like cards does for the game.
To do that, let's use an example from back in time: the good ol' days of Goblins vs Gnomes. Except people didn't think they were so good.
Back in the day here, there were a variety of Neutral cards that were excellent options in a ton of decks, to the point where unless you were going full-Aggro or full-greed, you would be running many of Neutral minions including:
Ragnaros the Firelord
Big Game Hunter
Now, in all fairness Big Game Hunter only became ubiquitous because Dr. Boom did, but a 3 Mana 4/2 "Tech that techs against every deck" speaks for itself. There was also a 3/2 Knife Juggler that was pretty popular, and the Haunted Creeper, which synergised quite well with it and was in general just a sticky board presence option.
As good as lots of these cards were by design (I know people hated the RNG of Dr. Boom and Piloted Shredder – and rightfully so), you see what happens when there is an inflation of these cards. What many people would call "Neutralstone." Many decks blur together because Midrange options are so good, so Aggro decks become a bit slower. Zoolock at this time ran Dr. Boom, so they also threw in Voidcaller and Mal'Ganis.
A couple of decks were specialised enough or had enough powerful class cards that they forewent many of these options. Like Combo Druid, which would still be around today if not for the swathe of nerfs of the Druid Classic/Basic set.
But for the most part, there were a great many of decks that would see at least a couple, if not many of the options described above. For no reason other than those minions simply being that good.
Zilliax is a fantastic card. But it is not one that you should want more and more of. In Hearthstone there really is such a thing as moderation, and having a powerful option like Zilliax is great, when you don't have too much of it.
And let's be clear about something: Zilliax sees play in 1/3rd of decks not because it's a Mech or has Magnetic. Those are largely non-factors. It sees play because it's just that good. There is a difference between it and, for instance, Fire Fly.
Fire Fly is, in my opinion, a better example of incredible design. While it is just a decent Aggro option in general, Fire Fly also promotes a variety of synergies that can push you to play it, including:
Having a Combo activator.
1-Cost synergy (Hello Quest Hunter my old friend).
Hand-size retention synergy (Mountain Giant).
Board flood synergy (Fungalmancer).
All the while continuing to be a very popular, powerful card that hardly feels like it wins or loses you the game when it is played.
So, a natural question is… what kind of cards "should" we want to see?
Personally, I'm a fan of cards that shine the most when they synergise with other cards. Even though Cubelock was outright oppressive following Kobolds and Catacombs' release, I really liked the design of the deck. It wasn't any one card in it that was overpowered (with the exceptions of Bloodreaver Gul'dan, Defile, and Kobold Librarian) that made the deck tick, if you ask me. It wasn't Voidlord. It wasn't Doomguard. It wasn't Skull of the Man'ari, nor Possessed Lackey. And it wasn't Dark Pact or Amethyst Spellstone.
Cubelock was the result when you put a bunch of strong cards together, when they work extremely well. Ask yourself what happens when you literally remove one piece from the deck between the Lackey, Skull, Doomguard, or Voidlord. It crumbles.
And so, two cards that were balanced in a vacuum, the Lackey and Dark Pact, got nerfed. And rightfully so — the deck had to be made weaker, and when it was, the result was awesome. The deck was weaker, but it wasn't gone. Possessed Lackey and Dark Pact weren't killed, they were only made weaker but still survived in the context of the deck that made them targets for the nerfbat to begin with.
What cards are like this that didn't feature in an oppressive deck? There are actually four Neutral 3-Cost cards released in this Hearthstone year that I want to give credit to as great examples:
Nightmare Amalgam. Legitimately one of the best designed cards just because of its perfectly balanced flexibility. A 3 Mana 3/4, but it lends itself towards having synergy in a variety of decks, which makes it playable in, for example, Kibler's Elemental Dragon Shaman decklist.
Masked Contender, oh what Mad Scientist should have been. An extremely powerful effect to be certain, but this time within the context of a condition that must be met first. A card that is clearly powerful, but not necessarily broken, and works only in the context of other cards.
Augmented Elekk, the weakest of the list I think. A very niche effect, but this card has three specific cards with great synergy: Dire Frenzy, Master's Call, and The Marsh Queen. This is a clear value-oriented card who simply doesn't fit in the meta, but its design shouldn't be glossed over because of that. Plus it saw its place in some Tesspionage decks, and why wouldn't it?
Untamed Beastmaster, a card I'm also pairing with Dire Frenzy or even The Marsh Queen. More tempo oriented than the Elekk, but also unable to pair well with Master's Call, a massive drawback.
Notice how 3/4 of these are Vanilla statlines, so they're not utterly terrible by themselves, but they're also not going to be run by themselves either. They are decent cards in their own right, but they shine only when they get to be played in the context of other cards or the deck with them.
That, to me, is great Hearthstone card design.
Finally, I want to differentiate between simple power house cards like Zilliax, Stonehill Defender (a value generator that slots into an Aggro list like Odd Paladin?), Primordial Glyph, or Kobold Librarian; powerful synergy-based cards like Nightmare Amalgam and Fire Fly; and deck-creator cards like… Arcanologist.
What is the difference between Masked Contender and Arcanologist? Mostly, I would say it's just power level. Masked Contender is strong, but it works in a Secret deck — it does not make the Secret deck.
Arcanologist, as a Vanilla-statted card with tutor on a card that can be played the next turn, however, makes the Secret deck. Now, don't get me wrong: some cards have to be deck-creators for the deck to exist to begin with, such as Hadronox or Open the Waygate or Baku the Mooneater (and no, I'm not defending Baku!). But did Arcanologist with such a basic design need to be so generously statted?
Personally, I don't think so. I think there is a distinct difference between cards that push an archetype through synergy, and cards that make an archetype by being one of the biggest reasons you play them.
What are two much more blatant examples of this excessive push of an archetype? You likely dislike these cards much more than Arcanologist:
Drakonid Operative and,
The bottom line being is that it is important to not have too many generalist power-houses that decks run because there's no reason not to, nor too many deck-forcers that pushes a deck in excess just to make an archetype work. There is a middle-ground between a card that is powerful enough to force an archetype and a card that is powerful enough to fit in many archetypes. A card that is powerful enough to simply push an archetype rather than sit in the center of it. And it is no better epitomised by Fire Fly, in my opinion.
If you've read this in full, well done and thanks.
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