The Precarious Act of Balancing
The Hearthstone community is awash in unrest after only 1 card was changed out of the game’s massive collection of 698.
It successfully removed an overpowered archetype from dominance while leaving variations on it viable, if not competitive. Meanwhile the developers, and most of the community seemingly agreed the card was unhealthy for the game. So what went wrong?
It may simply be that both parties misunderstood what game balance is.
The archetypal deck in question here is named Patron Warrior. It established and maintained an overbearing effect on the online ladder, and especially professional play for roughly 6 months. Finally a nerf came and effectively destroyed one situationally powerful combo piece Patron Warrior relied on. With it the deck was successfully toppled.
Popular perception holds that the nerf was timed to remove it from the competitive scene before the international Blizzcon tournament while allowing a buffer to let the competitors adjust their deck lineups accordingly. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment, the proximity to such a major tournament suggests that the scope of the current fallout was unexpected.
Practically overnight the entire game balance shifted. A new deck rose to preeminence, and other similarly aggressive decks surged onto the ladder. At the same time, some more conservative decks fell from favor.
The one card that triggered this avalanche appears in exactly none of these other decks. So how did it have such a profound effect?
For many the term “balance” conjures images of a scale with the power of one set of game mechanics weighed directly against another. And in this sense Patron Warrior was certainly unbalanced.
But few games are so limited in scope and complexity for this metaphor to fit. It would suggest that Blizzard only adjusted 1/698th of such a system. Instead imagine game “balance” in terms of its broader definition: representing a series of opposing forces that have achieved equilibrium. We can imagine Patron Warrior as a keystone in a stone arch, or an entire species of alpha predator. Using the latter metaphor, it’s immediately apparent why its departure would cause such an upheaval to its ecosystem.
Of course it’s important to address the balance of x vs y in game. But perhaps more important is how a game’s systems interact behind the scenes. Mechanic sets lean on each other. Balance changes must always be approached with the delicacy of the Jenga game they are.
For those interested in a more detailed look at what allowed this deck to exert so much force on Hearthstone’s meta I recommend the following excellent article and/or video by the popular Hearthstone streamer Noxious. He picks up on some interesting subtleties of the nature of Hearthstone’s ladder, and tournament scene.
Fair warning: Hearthstone jargon abounds.