Blizzard has announced plans to alter one of Hearthstone's cards, a move which will in turn drastically reduce the potency of one of the game's most powerful and established decks.
Until recent months, Warsong Commander had remained a member of Hearthstone's large roster of frankly unremarkable cards. Available only to the Warrior Hero, the card creates a minion with pretty unimpressive health and attacking stats when played, with its real potential potency coming from the bonus effect applied to a player's wider pool of minions.
As long as the Commander is out on the board, any subsequently played minion with less than three points of attacking power gains the Charge ability, allowing it to attack on the same turn it's played. Minions without this extra ability can't normally be utilised until the player's next turn, giving the opponent a chance to weigh up the situation, and respond to the threat with the tools in their own arsenal.
Even this wasn't enough to make the Warsong Commander a must-have card for Warriors though. Instead, it took the arrival of the Grim Patron card with this year's Blackrock Mountain expansion for the quiet commander to become unexpectedly overpowered. It would lead to a deck that has dominated Hearthstone's metagame ever since.
The Grim Patron is a rather humble character himself, but again it's that special additional flavour text that provides the source of the minion's real and devastating power. He's got three points of health and three points of attacking power - an equally feeble presence on the board - but if he takes damage and survives the encounter, he'll spawn another brother with the same base stats.
There are lots of ways of providing that extra damage. Perhaps the Patron's able to butt heads with an opposite number on the board, survive the fight and create another of his kind. Perhaps the Warrior himself casts a cheap area-of-effect spell which does a little bit of damage to every minion on the board - friend or foe. Perhaps another minion pings a little friendly fire onto his brother-in-arms as he's put into play.
You can perhaps see where all this is going. If Warsong Commander has been placed onto the board before any of this takes place, and if it's late enough in the game that the Warrior has the resources to play many, many cards, the end result is often an overwhelming show of immediate force that obliterates the opponent in a single turn. We haven't even mentioned another card in the deck that grows in strength each time a minion takes damage - it's perhaps superfluous to note at this point.
For the same reasons that have led to previous card nerfs in Hearthstone's history - a lack of interactivity between players - this behaviour has caught Blizzard's concerned attention. In an upcoming patch that's yet to be dated, the Warsong Commander will no longer grant the Charge ability to low-powered minions, but will instead gift an extra point of attacking power to those that already possess the ability to dish out damage on the turn they're played. The theorycrafters have yet to find a way of making hay out of this source of combos, but it feels instinctively like slim pickings. Grim Patron Warrior as we know it is dead.
You might imagine this change would be greeted cheerfully by the majority of players, but the plans have in fact divided the community, upsetting not just those with the mental stamina to wield this mathematically meaty deck at the highest levels of play. Grim Patron Warrior can be frustrating to lose to, but it's less common to encounter on the section of the competitive ladder where the average player fights. It's certainly a rare beast to face compared to the other, more simplistic decks that have had to be brought down to size by Blizzard in the past. For all of its devastating power, Grim Patron Warrior is a tough deck to play with any degree of consistency, and those who excel at it soon race to the upper echelons of competitive play.
Regardless of player ability, it's the radical nature of the retooling that has struck many as heavy-handed. Perhaps the resource cost of the card could have been increased, some have argued, making it harder to play in combination with a wealth of other spells and creatures. Perhaps in some other way it could have been tamed, rather than neutered outright. Warrior fans have not been spoiled for choice when it comes to deck options in Hearthstone's earliest years, and there now remains just one truly competitive archetype for those who have deep pockets and access to plenty of powerful Legendary cards.
Instead, it's tempting to turn towards the Grim Patron Warrior's dominating effect on tournament play for a clue as to why this is happening now. The change to Warsong Commander has yet to be dated, but rebalancing announcements made during one month's season of ranked competitive play have historically been put into place before the next one begins. If that proves to be the case here, Grim Patron will be a thing of the past by the time the finals of this year's Hearthstone World Championship take place at Blizzcon next month.
The concluding match of last year's finals ended in a rather awkward fashion, as extreme good fortune on one player's part met equally dreadful luck on the other's, resulting in an unremarkable march towards the finishing line. If it was a little embarrassing for those of us who evangelise about Hearthstone as a competitive game, it must have been excruciating for Blizzard who wish to position Hearthstone as a legitimate eSport that's yet to tap into its true potential. The prospect of two players barely interacting with one another on the game's grandest stage would be beyond contemplation.
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