The Druid Problem

The newest Hearthstone expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne, launched two weeks ago, and early indications were that Druids were the strongest class in it. You always have to take these early metas with a grain of salt (ask me about N’Zoth Paladin being the strongest Whispers of the Old Gods deck), but today Vicious Syndicate released their new meta statistics and the results are not pretty. Druid is far and away the strongest class, with multiple archetypes that blow away the best decks of the other classes. Token Druid is the strongest aggro deck, a machine that’s nearly impossible to dislodge from the board via other aggro decks or midrange decks, and Jade Druid has a stranglehold on the late game, with the ability to outlast and outvalue even the greediest control decks. It’s obviously not a healthy or fun place for the format to be.

So how did we get to this point? After all, before the new set came out, Druid was just one class of many in what had been a very diverse metagame. It’s natural to look at the new cards for an answer, but while there are several good ones in the set I don’t think any of them are single-handedly pushing the class from “strong, but reasonable” to “obscenely overpowered.” Rather, I think that Malfurion the Pestilent and Ultimate Infestation just represent the tipping point for what has been an ongoing problem in trying to balance the Druid class in Hearthstone.

Problem #1: Mana Ramp, and Blizzard’s Approach to It

Hearthstone is basically a derivative of Magic: the Gathering. Blizzard has as much as admitted this, and several of their designers and developers were poached from the Magic: the Gathering team. Essentially, Blizzard took the structure of Magic and did to it what the company had previously done to NetHack, Command & Conquer, and EverQuest — streamlined it, making it more user-friendly and accessible. To this end, they made three major changes to the way Magic plays: 1) Instead of having to draw and play resource cards, you gain resources automatically at a fixed rate; 2) You can’t play cards during your opponent’s turn; and 3) The attacker makes combat decisions, not the defender. There are very good reasons to make all three of these changes: Mana flood and screw has long been the most frustrating way to lose a game of Magic; not requiring both players to be active simultaneously at all times is ideal for a turn-based game that can only be played online; and if you can’t play cards on your opponent’s turn, it makes some sense that you shouldn’t make any other decisions either. However, a lot of the initial design for Hearthstone was cribbed from Magic without much considering how those three major changes affected how the game played. Charge, for example, is a fairly innocuous mechanic in Magic (where it’s called “haste”), but has long been one of the most problematic mechanics in Hearthstone. The fact that the defending player has very limited avenues of interaction on their opponent’s turn and the fact that the attacker decides where damage goes and how creature trades happen means that charge is much more powerful in Hearthstone than haste is in Magic. A lot of cards which would have been utterly worthless in Magic have needed to be nerfed in Hearthstone merely because they enabled obnoxious one-turn from-hand combo kills which would not have been possible in a world that contained blockers or instants.

Mana ramp is in a similar spot. It exists in Magic, most commonly in the form of creatures that can tap for mana as long as they’re on the board and spells that can search your deck for lands (the mana-generating resource cards) and put them in play or into your hand. Basically, you’re converting one resource, cards, into another, mana. When Blizzard was designing Hearthstone, they poached the mechanic, in the form of cards that give you empty Mana Crystals and cards that give you temporary ones. Since this mechanic evokes growth, they decided to center it almost exclusively in the nature-loving Druid class.

So far, so good. The problem, though, is this card:

200px-Excess_Mana(520)

Now, this isn’t actually a collectible card. Rather, it’s a card that generates if you try to play Wild Growth, the most basic mana ramping card, at ten mana, which in Hearthstone is the cap. (In Magic you can generate as much mana as you have resources to produce it, but in Hearthstone you can only have a maximum of ten mana available to you on a turn before you have to spend some of it.) In Magic, if you draw a Rampant Growth with thirteen lands on the field, that fourteenth land might not help very much, but by jiminy, you can cast that Rampant Growth and it’ll still do exactly what it says on the card. Wild Growth doesn’t have that advantage — if you play it at ten mana, it would do literally nothing except waste two mana. On its face, this is a user-friendly little anti-frustration feature, the kind the game and the company are so good at — you’re at ten mana and you draw a card that does nothing to help you, since you can’t increase your mana any further. So the game lets you cash it in for a random card off the top of your deck, and your day is a little brighter. Nice, right?

Well, not quite. See, the fact that mana ramp is bad if you draw it after you already have sufficient mana isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. It’s a balancing factor for ramp. Sure, maybe you can push out a turn-four World Breaker if you get a little lucky, but the drawback to those kinds of hot starts is that sometimes you’ll be in topdeck mode, hoping for any live draw that can save you, and you’ll draw Llanowar Elves instead. That’s not a problem; that’s the game working as intended. By including this little bonus, this little mitigation of the downside potential of ramp spells, Blizzard is undermining the opportunity cost of playing ramp, making it so that there’s no reason not to play it, if you can. This is frustration that should exist in the game, not be sandpapered away.

Maybe this wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Wild Growth was the only card that did it, but Blizzard has made a habit of ensuring that all the ramp spells have alternative modes or uses if you draw them off the top in the late game. Wild Growth and Nourish draw cards, and Mire Keeper produces bodies. Jade Blossom ticks up your Jade count in the early game and is a huge, efficient body if you draw it late. Even Innervate, historically the most worthless of the ramp cards on its own, has applications in the late game — you can play a ten-mana spell (*cough* Ultimate Infestation *cough*) then Innervate and use your Hero Power, Wrath, or make a couple of Jades with Jade Idol, or it can be used to “go off” with Gadgetzan Auctioneer as a free spell that enables more spells and more cards.

Speaking of drawing cards, that’s another major issue with the way Blizzard handles ramp in Hearthstone. Another weakness of ramp as a mechanic is that it costs cards. Wild Growthing on turn two is a low-tempo play — it means you’re down a card and haven’t developed the board any, potentially allowing your opponent to get ahead of you. The idea is that you make a “down payment” by playing your ramp spell, which then pays off on later turns when you get to play more powerful stuff earlier than your opponent. However, if your more powerful plays get dealt with somehow, that’s supposed to be a problem — you dumped all these resources into ramping out Ysera and she got Siphon Souled as soon as you passed it back? This is another intended weakness of the ramp strategy — but it’s meaningless if the ramping player can easily draw more cards, which Druids have been able to do since the beginning of the game and are even better at now. Ancient of Lore was the original way to compensate for the card disadvantage inherent in ramp, but after it got nerfed they simply turned to Nourish and Azure Drake and Fandral + Raven Idol, and after Idol and Azure Drake rotated they simply added in Gadgetzan Auctioneer packages, and then Ultimate Infestation got printed and they didn’t even need that overpowered engine.

Blizzard nerfed Ancient of Lore because it was so common in Druid decks, but even now I don’t think they quite recognized why it was so common in Druid. It wasn’t because it was just a generically strong card — I mean, it was, but so are Ancient of War and Druid of the Claw, and those fall in and out of the meta. It was common because it allowed Druids to circumvent one of the main weaknesses of their most powerful strategy. If ramp is going to be a core component of Druid’s identity long-term, then drawing cards in large numbers just can’t be. Those two abilities are too powerful in combination to be part of the same class.

A third problem with ramp in Hearthstone is a lesser one, which is that you can’t interact with it. This is a lesser problem because I’m not sure you should be able to interact with it, or how you’d be able to do so without also gimping the other eight classes. Hearthstone doesn’t need Stone Rain. (Arguably, neither does Magic.) If ramp cards are allowed to be duds in the late game and if Druid’s card draw is reduced, I think ramp becomes risky enough that you can put up with not being able to Bolt your opponent’s Birds as you can in Magic, but it’s another axis on which this mechanic is far stronger in Hearthstone than it is in Magic.

Problem #2: Class Identity, and Blizzard’s Approach to It

Magic has something called the “color pie.” It’s a system of thinking about the game’s five factions: Each color has a philosophy that it believes in, and that translates in game terms into things the color is good at, things the color shares with the other colors, and things the color can’t or won’t do. This (in theory) maintains balance between the factions, keeps all five colors from becoming unrecognizable blobs who all work the same save flavor, and works in tandem with the game’s mana system in an interesting way. The mana system encourages players to play with only one color for the purposes of consistency, but the fact that all the colors have weaknesses encourages you to play more than one to cover those weaknesses. It’s up to the player to decide which is more important, and (again, in theory) there’s no absolute right answer as to which is correct.

Blizzard has implied in the past that they view Hearthstone’s nine classes along similar lines, but they mostly allow their decisions to be driven by flavor. Hearthstone, unlike Magic, is a spin-off product for an existing franchise, so it’s important that all the classes feel like their incarnations in other media, and abilities were parceled out based on what classes “felt like” they should have them rather than in terms of balance or fairness.

Magic’s designers talk publicly and at length about how the colors work and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and when they make internal changes to what color gets a game mechanic they’re usually pretty transparent about their process and line of thinking. Hearthstone’s designers… less so. Mostly you have to intuit the classes’ capabilities based on what Blizzard decides to print. Sometimes this works (anybody can play Divine Shield minions, but if you want a good Divine Shield minion, you play Paladin; most classes get burn spells, but if you want good burn spells, you play Mage; etc). Other times it’s more awkward (Rogues need healing mechanically, but they can’t heal, because if they could heal or stack armor, they’d just be Paladins or Warriors). Still others it doesn’t work at all (Druids can do anything).

Okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not by very much. The through-line Blizzard took with Druids when concepting the class was to build on their shapeshifting abilities. In World of WarCraft, Druids can change into different animal forms depending on the situation, so Blizzard decided that the Druid in Hearthstone should be mechanically focused on versatility. Their unique mechanic, Choose One, allows the player to pick between two effects depending on the situation. They have a large array of spell effects, and their minions are very strong. They can ramp pretty much without repercussions, as discussed at probably unconscionable length above. Even their Hero Power splits the difference between the Rogue’s efficient board control tool and the Warrior’s efficient defensive one.

The idea behind this emphasis on versatility was that Druid would have to pay more for their effects than a more limited version in another class… but Blizzard has mostly not bothered with this, and even if they did the fact that Druids can easily ramp would mitigate it anyway, so that’s out. Intended weaknesses for Druid are supposed to be that they’re bad at destroying high-health minions and bad at dealing with swarms, but… Naturalize is in the base set and Mulch was around for years, and Swipe’s a basic card and they just printed the ultimate swarm-stifler in Spreading Plague, so that’s out.

So I don’t know, honestly. I think Blizzard is just going to have to take a good long look at Druid’s kit and say “Druid doesn’t get this effect, not at any power level, not at any price” to some of it. “Versatility” is a very dangerous strength to give to only one faction in your nine-faction game. One class doesn’t need ramp and card draw and good individual creatures at every mana cost and taunt and individual creature buffs and team creature buffs and taunt and Beast synergy and poisonous and fatigue inevitability and healing and armor and removal and spell synergy and no weapons or Secrets to be hit by other decks’ tech cards. It’s just too much. They’ve allowed their flavor justifications (“Druids are versatile, surely they can do this”) to override the game’s mechanical need for all the factions to have weaknesses. Something needs to go. Otherwise, you’re either going to be in a situation where you can only print good Druid cards once a year, or you’re going to have Druid dominating the metagame whenever a critical mass of good cards builds up.

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