The Thing You See

hearthstone 1 - The Thing You See

Hey all, J_Alexander_HS back again today to talk about a particularly wide-spread tendency among Hearthstone players that can sometimes result in inaccurate perceptions or misplaced frustrations: the focus/emphasis people tend to put on cards that kill them or, maybe more precisely, those cards which have large immediate impacts.

While it might seem natural to focus in on the effects that seem large and game-changing – especially those that are game-ending – it’s important to understand the broader perspective on how all the pieces of decks work independently and together if you want to accurately understand both how to play/beat something, as well as manage (or, barring that, understand) your frustrations when it comes to losing. Focusing too narrowly on particularly flashy effects will only help you get things wrong.

These points are going to be especially relevant for discussions of nerfs. There are many cards that have been, can, or will be targeted for balance changes because they feel bad, rather than because they’re powerful in some unjustified way. In other words, some things feel more broken than they are and, conversely, some broken effects are going to go underappreciated. Let’s look at a few examples.

Warrior: Omega Devastator

, Brian Kibler suggested that – if one wanted to nerf Warrior – the card to change in his mind was Omega Devastator; specifically, he suggested the Mech tag could be removed so additional copies of the card cannot be discovered by Dr. Boom or Omega Assembly. That sounds reasonable to many because (a) the Devastator is a new card, and so its power level is fresh in people’s minds, and (b) it enters play with a truly, well, devastating impact some games. Burning a minion for 10 for only 4 mana with a 4/5 thrown in (that sometimes has rush, too) is too much for many to stomach.

However, when examining the stats from the largest-sample-size Bomb Warrior we have, HSreplay stats paint a different picture: Devastator is one of the worst cards in the deck during the mulligan (not surprising, given its effect doesn’t work until turn 10), and its drawn win rate isn’t too impressive either. These stats suggest that the proposed change to Devastator would probably not have a huge impact on the overall power level of the deck, despite the emphasis placed on that card.

  • What you don’t see

Now let’s turn to the matter of what we don’t see: Dr. Boom, Mad Genius. By this I don’t mean that people don’t see that card or appreciate its power – many do – but there are aspects to the card that aren’t visible during the game as well.

Starting with what we can see, Dr. Boom – a seven drop – has the highest mulligan WR in the deck as well as the highest drawn WR. When a 7-drop is beating out what are arguably the two strongest 1-drops in the game (Eternium Rover and Town Crier) during the mulligan phase, you can rest assured something might be going on with that card. The play patterns that it creates demonstrate some of what that something is: once the card comes down and gains armor immediately (keeping its player out of range of dying), the Warrior gains access to a near-endless stream of value and tempo that opponents cannot interact with meaningfully, as this is a hero card we’re talking about. Every turn you’re not killing Dr. Boom, you are progressively losing the game more and more.

But what can’t we see? What Dr. Boom does to deckbuilding. Because the hero cannot be interacted with and provides incredible tempo and value against all opponents, Warrior decks no longer need to worry too much about playing late-game threats. Their entire threat package during the deckbuilding phase can realistically be condensed into a single card slot. This allows the other 29 card slots to vary freely, becoming dedicated almost exclusively to removal tools. If Warriors didn’t have access to Dr. Boom, Control decks would need to be built substantially differently, otherwise the Warriors run the risk of getting out-valued by greedy opponents. When they have to build their deck differently, new weaknesses begin to open up in the strategy that can be effectively exploited

In sum, there is a trade-off between value and removal that Dr. Boom is allowing Warriors to ignore during deckbuilding a lot of the time. This aspect of the card is not immediately visible when played or when its text is read. It’s only by understanding the broader context behind the card – the invisible things it does to the game – that one can truly understand its power level and why the effect is less than desirable for the game.

Edwin/Spirit of the Shark

I want to group these cards together because they are both examples of the same thing: a card people think is better than it is. Edwin is an example of a good card people think is stronger than it is, while Shark is a bad card people think is stronger than it is.

What people see with respect to both cards are the big moments they generate: sometimes a Shark generate 3 extra lackeys in a turn, a Shadowstepped Lifedrinker that creates a 24-health life swing, or an Edwin that hits the board as a 10/10 on turn 2 (which is much more frustrating for people now that a ton of the efficient Classic/Basic answers to such things have been nerfed). It’s easy for those moments to stick out in your head because they are – at times – game-ending. Everyone can tell you a story about why they won or lost a game because of a large, early-game Edwin. Such plays are attention grabbing.


Yet looking at the stats of the cards, the reality doesn’t seem to line up fully with how they’re perceived. When kept in the mulligan (which only happens about 50% of the time, i.e., when the Rogue is on the Coin), Edwin’s win rate is barely above the deck’s average. The same can be said of his overall drawn win rate. Contrast that with something like Barnes. When in the opening hand, Barnes increases Priest’s win rate by about 14% (compared to about 1.5% for Edwin), while Barnes’ drawn win rate is the highest in the deck and it’s not even close. Therefore Barnes is almost kept 100% of the time in the mulligan (and I’m not convinced the 0.3% of players who mulliganed it didn’t just do so by accident). Edwin's effects on games are much less dramatic than Barnes in context since he's only kept half as often. Edwin is only kept when he will be at his best, and his best, on average, isn't that great comparatively. Not even close.

Things look even worse for the Spirit of the Shark. Across every single data set I’ve examined, Shark is either the lowest win rate card in the deck (whether in the mulligan or drawn), or very close to the worst. I have not come across any data yet which suggests it does anything but underperform. Despite that, it's a card that between a third and a half of players of the deck opt to keep in the mulligan. Imagine any other deck where half the players were consistently keeping the worst card in it in the mulligan.

People are both putting Shark in their deck (a mistake if you want to win) and keeping it in the mulligan (ditto) at rates far exceeding what is reasonable, given its performance. Meanwhile, there’s a vocal horde of people who are consistently out for Edwin’s blood and want to see the card changed (usually after they just lost to it) despite its stats (usually) not over-performing in impressive ways. What could yield such strange perceptions of power?

  • What you don’t see

In this case, what you don’t see is your opponent’s hand. Sometimes, it seems like people don’t even see their own hand.

What I mean by this first part is very simple: Shark and Edwin are combo cards. On their own, they just don’t do anything good. As my (increasingly infamous) tweet about “Edwin as a singular card is a three mana 2/2” tells you, Edwin – and Shark – are not just the kind of cards you can slam onto the board every game and have them be good. They aren’t Barnes; they aren’t even close.

What happens when you have a card that is independently bad but good in conjunction with something else? You get people who play the cards only when they’re good and almost never play the cards when they’re bad. This results in people getting a biased sample of information regarding the power level of the cards. If you only ever see opponents playing Shark or Edwin and having them be good, you might come away with the perception that these cards are much stronger than they are. You simply don’t see the cards rotting away in the hand and being useless because your opponents won’t play them when they’re bad.

That said, some people seem to not perceive the card being useless in their own hand either. It's a big memorable moment when you make a big play with Edwin or Shark. Lots of flashy stuff happens. What happens when they're just taking up space in your hand? Nothing. You might just complain that you had a bad draw without fully appreciating that the Shark has been consistently a part of those bad draws or that an Edwin was sitting dead all game. The big moments are hard to ignore, while the bad moments are easy to miss.

Which brings us nicely to another related example

Leeroy Jenkins

I have seen complaints about this card and a desire for it to be changed since basically the dawn of Hearthstone. Despite being changed once to massively cut down on his burst potential, many players are still unhappy with Leeroy. Every time a Hall of Fame discussion crops up, you can bet at least one person will mention Leeroy as their choice for the thing that has to go. Why? Because Leeroy kills people. Kind of a lot. It has one of the highest played win rates in Standard, alongside cards like Bloodlust, Savage Roar, Pyroblast, and other finishers. As Leeroy is one of the most common things people see before they die, it understandably upsets people.

  • What you don’t see

Like Edwin and Shark, Leeroy has a downside when dropped on his own. Independently, Leeroy is a five-mana Fireball that can’t bypass Taunt, which isn’t impressive. Yes, he can be combed for additional burst potential but, for the most part, Leeroy is unplayable before you’re killing your opponent. If you must play Leeroy and not be in a lethal scenario, something has gone wrong.

What people don’t see, then, are all the time Leeroy is rotting away in an opponent’s hand being useless. They don’t see the opportunity cost of including a card in your deck that can only be used to finish a game. It doesn’t help you get to that finishing stage too often, represents poor board presence, and is all around a “Feels Bad Man” card to have in your hand most of the time. However, because players are largely insulation from that knowledge, there are some who would seriously argue that Leeroy himself doesn’t have a downside. They have trouble imagining all the games Leeroy is losing an opponent because its not a playable card for most of the game.

tl;dr Large, flashy effects grab people's attention. These big moments are a large part of Hearthstone and can determine games. It's harder to pick up on the other factors that are determining these games which are less conspicuous. Despite not being as flashy, however, the more mundane aspects of Hearthstone are usually more important in determining wins or losses. They're more frequent, for certain. Some of the effects cards have on the game cannot be understood simply from reading the text on the card, either; they need to be understood in the broader context of deckbuilding a game flow.

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