Why Do So Many Classic Cards See Play?

hearthstone 5 - Why Do So Many Classic Cards See Play?

Hey all, J_Alexander_HS back again today to talk about the all important question: why do so many classic cards see play? In the process, we can also talk a bit about some of the recent nerfs in light of that explanation.

Why do so many Evergreen cards see play?

In my most recent post, I noted that a lot of the most common cards in Standard come from the Evergreen set; about 40% of the most included 108 cards in fact.

Full disclosure: I don't think this is a bad thing.

If we look back on the announcement for Standard and some of the justifications made for it, one point sticks out in my head as being all important for this discussion: the classic set helps establish class identity. It introduces the primary mechanics of the class, the types of cards they use and, generally, the type of game plan they will pursue (which is also determined, in part, by their hero powers). Frostbolt, for instance, tells you about what it's like to be a Mage. You deal damage. You Freeze things.

Now that's all well and good, but Classic seems powerful, doesn't it? After all, it makes up a lot of the meta, by percentage of cards played. Now, in part, that's because Classic is simply the larger set. Classic has 240 cards (with another 133 from basic) while your average expansion only has about 130 or so. As such, we might expect Classic/Basic to naturally be better represented if all the power levels were equal. It should be about twice to three times as common as any other individual set, depending on if we count Basic.

However, there's more to the matter than that. Specifically, if the Evergreen sets are designed to introduce the main mechanics of a classic, you should expect that foundation to also have some degree of perpetual synergy with what comes later. In Rogue, Backstab will always have utility with the Combo mechanic because of it's cheap cost and, as such, people might regularly play Backstab as long as they play Combo cards. Because synergy tends to be powerful in Hearthstone, and because synergy is regularly present in classic cards, you should naturally expect a greater representation. Hunter has Secrets that are only seeing play because of new cards (Spellstone, Masked Contender, and Zul'jin) that came latter. The core helps define the playability of what's to come.

Changing those cards which are core to their classes in the Evergreen set thus redefines what it means to be a Shaman, or a Warrior, or whatever.

For some, that will be a desirable outcome. As some continuously say, they don't want the powerful thing a class does to be the same from year to year. Priests have been Divine Spiriting/Inner Firing people since the beginning of time, and that's unlikely to change in the future. So maybe it would be good if cards rotated in and out of the Evergreen set from time to time so that Priests don't continuously fall back on that combo year in and year out.

While I'm sympathetic to this argument to some degree, I also find it unpleasant on others.

As Ben Brode put it, they didn't want to keep making functional reprints of classic effects. Frostbolt was his example. They wanted Mage to have access to a direct damage spell that also froze the target. It tells you what it means to be a Mage in Hearthstone (and WoW). If they did away with the card in a rotation, they would have to keep making spells like "Icy Bolt" and "Frosty Bolt" and "Icy Frosty Bolt" over and over again if they wanted to maintain that aspect of class identity.

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Indeed, that is precisely what Magic, the Gathering does. Red has always been the color of direct damage burn spells. However, the particular flavor of burn changes from time to time. As such, you will find a large variety of cheap Red spells in Magic that deal damage to a face or creature. That's why there's Lightning Bolt, and Chain Lightning, and Shock, and Lava Spike, and Rift Bolt, and Skullcrack, and Fiery Temper, and so on and so on. They have dozens of flavors of what is largely the same general effect. Sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger, but always the same basic idea.

I would add that the new burn mechanics aren't usually substantial improvements in the "interesting" department. They're roughly as exciting to one another.

Putting all this together, if cards in the Evergreen set were always in flux we should expect to encounter some issues. First, if classic/basic cards synergize with many other class mechanics (as they define the class's core), the rotation of one or two keys pieces out with no replacement can have larger effects than are intended. This isn't always desirable and can leave a class high and dry, like what happened to Warrior when it lost Fiery War Axe to a nerf. Yes, the card was powerful, but without that power the entire class began to suffer in a big way it has yet to fully recover from, and it's playstyles have been shoehorned into only a smaller number of avenues.

To counteract this, we might see lots of functional reprints: new cards with similar effects to the older ones. That's all well and good, but then we're left with new cards that are either new coats of paint on the same mechanic or not adequate replacements because they're too weak. In the former case, the deck still functions the same (you're now playing Frosty Bolt instead of Frost Bolt), so why bother with a functional reprint at all? In the latter case, the old card might have rotated while the new card basically doesn't exist because it's not good enough to plug the hole.

To keep on the Warrior example, Woodcutter's Axe is no Fiery War Axe, and a control deck cannot simply sub on out for the other and expect to do as well. Not even close.

The Nerfs

This brings me to the nerfs. I've been asking for Druid nerfs for a long time, and we finally got some. While I like that some nerfs happened, I wish they had happened in a different way.

The core of what it has always meant to be a Druid involved ramping mana: using cards (and sometimes tempo) to gain mana in the future. That's what Wild Growth and Nourish did. There were costs to this strategy as well: spending mana and cards ramping meant you weren't spending mana or cards developing the board. This could mean you ran out of threats or you feel behind on board. There were costs and benefits associated with ramping, and that's what made it an interesting mechanic.

Nowhere is this more evident than the fact that Nourish wasn't really a card seeing heavy play in Druid decks for a long time and, when it was, there were meaningful decisions to be made between ramping or drawing with it.

Then along came Spreading Plague and Ultimate Infestation. These two cards turned that entire mechanic on its head. Lost the board because you were ramping instead of developing or answering threats? Not a problem, because Spreading Plague can help undo that loss. Lost card advantage because you were ramping and naturalizing your opponent's threats? Not a problem, because UI will refill your hand, life, and board presence.

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Those two cards were the massive offenders (see also Oakheart). Not just because of their power level, but because of how they acted in opposition to the fundamental nature of the class. They took away the main downsides to ramping and, understandably, frustrated people. Now it wasn't a question as to whether to play Nourish or what to do with it. You play it. You get mana crystals. Easy decisions both. You could ramp into card advantage and that was just silly.

This is why I fundamentally don't like the choice of nerf targets for Druid. Growth and Nourish are taking a big hit for the sins of Spreading Plague and UI; two cards that shouldn't have been made for Druid. Some might say that Growth and Nourish were constraining design space such that cards like Plague and UI couldn't have been made with them around.

Good. Plague and UI shouldn't have been made. If the design constraints of the ramp effects were taken into account, those problems wouldn't have existed. Or could have at least been reduced.

Because Growth and Nourish were hit – core parts of the class – we might expect that the class as whole begins to struggle moving forward. Druid, as a class, might pay for the sins of Plague and UI with markedly reduced power for the future, long after rotation. That's not necessarily a good thing, even if it feels good to have Druid nerfed in the immediate present.

By contrast, the nerf to Leeching Poison makes much more sense, and I say that as someone who loved the Kingsbane deck. Rogue shouldn't have access to lots of good healing. It's not exactly part of their identity within the game. Kingsbane – the weapon – doesn't need to suffer for the sins of Leeching Poison, nor does the entire class of Rogue.

And Level Up? That card is dying for the sins of Baku. But that's a post for another day.


  • Evergreen sets see lots of play both because they're larger-than-usual and because they define the synergies of the class. New cards get designed to work with that core, and it prevents Blizzard from needing to endlessly reprint the same kinds of effects over and over. They can instead find new ways to use old cards.

  • When balance problems arise because of new cards, especially ones that violate the foundations of a class, changes to the core mechanics of a class don't feel right. Like Fiery War Axe, the changes might end up crippling a class's power for a long time to come.

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