Will Blizzard ever accept combo decks?

  • Recently, we had game designer Max McCall post about Charge, which has been one of the more problematic properties on cards, in the developers' view, throughout Hearthstone's history:

    02/13/2017 11:37 AMPosted by Max McCall
    Charge becomes a problem for Hearthstone when you use it to kill your opponent out of nowhere in one turn. Playing Druid of the Claw as a 4/4 charge for 5 is good gameplay. Playing Bluegill Warrior, casting Power Overwhelming on it twice, then copying it with Faceless Manipulator to attack your opponent for 20 isn’t. In that example, charge is only a problem because of how efficient it makes converting minion buffs into direct damage. We could make more charge minions if we made minion buffs worse, but minion buffs have more design space than charge minions. Minion buffs are also fun and also enable you to catch up with weaker minions your opponent hasn’t gotten around to trading off yet.

    Note that it’s specifically cheap charge minions that tend to cause problems, because they’re easier to combine with buffs and Faceless Manipulator. No one uses Reckless Rocketeer or King Krush for evil. We’re cautiously experimenting with more expensive charge minions that are harder to use in degenerate combos. The Hogriders in Mean Streets were the first example of this, and it’s reassuring to see that no one is using them to one-shot their opponents. We’ll do more charge stuff in the future as we figure out what’s safe.

    So, we now have a developer statement that says that they believe that a 4-card, 9-mana combo that deals 20 damage, halved by one taunt and completely negated by two, is a problem for the game. So where does that leave combo decks?

    Historically, combo has been the most-nerfed archetype, particularly combo decks of the OTK variety. There have been a number of them:

    Freeze Mage (nerfed various Freeze spells by mana cost)
    Drunken Giants (Warsong Commander gives Charge only to minions with 2 attack or less)
    Grim Patron Warrior (Warsong Commander no longer gives Charge to anything)
    Miracle Rogue (Gadgetzan Auctioneer, Leeroy Jenkins, various combo pieces increased in mana cost)
    Beast Hunter OTK (Unleash the Hounds redesigned, then nerfed)

    We have a few combo decks in the current meta that may not be top-tier but can be effective occasionally, such as the Aviana-Kun-C'thun combo. And it, too, will kill someone in one turn when it goes off. But it hasn't been nerfed yet. Will it? Miracle Rogue is still around, despite nerfs and a shifting meta, and some would argue is the only remaining Rogue archetype. Is that why Gadgetzan Auctioneer hasn't been nerfed yet, ending all possibility of Rogue OTK?

    Where does this leave combo decks, as an archetype? What does a combo deck look like, in Hearthstone? In my opinion, it is the Grim Patron warrior at its height. That deck had a multitude of win conditions, and about half the deck functioned as combo pieces with each other. Which combo pieces you used to end the game depended on the circumstances, what deck you were facing, how aggressive they were and therefore how many combo pieces you had to expend defending in the early game. It was a dynamic, engaging deck, with several different approaches to attempt to counter it. It was by far, the most difficult deck to play in the game: out of all the high-quality decks, it had the greatest spread in win rates between top players and everyone else. The best of the best knew how to play it well to get to rather ridiculous win rates, but for most players it was a trap and not very effective.

    And it got shut down, hard, by the devs. Why? Because they did not agree that the first dozen turns of pressure, attempting to force the Warrior player to burn combo pieces in order to not die counted as interactivity, instead valuing the somewhat depressing OTK turn as the driving factor in whether the deck should exist or not. (Yes, I'm aware that it persisted in a different form after the Warsong Commander final nerf, and that it was still effective for a time.)

    So, then, I have a simple question for Max and Ben: What combo decks, either current or past, have you found acceptable? Where is that threshold of burst damage, and how hard does a combo have to be relative to its effectiveness to find your favor? What plans do you have in supporting more archetypes, more different ways of playing the game, like combo, moving forward? Do you disagree that combo itself is a valid archetype, as numerous other CCGs throughout their history have included in their repertoire?

    You could agree with me completely, print the best combo pieces the CCG genre has ever seen, but it won't matter if the combo decks all die to aggro on turn 5.
  • Hearthstone is fun because each game is a little different from the last. Combo decks make for very different types of games, where players can’t rely on their normal decision-making heuristics and have to reconsider their strategic approach to the game. So, in general, combo decks are good for Hearthstone because they add some texture to the ladder experience. But like any other deck, combo decks that become too popular cause issues.

    When we make cards like Emperor Thaurissan and Counterfeit Coin, we’re aware that they tend to enable combo decks. We don’t usually set out to make a particular combo deck be a particular power level; we are always worried about missing and making a deck more powerful than we’d like – and that goes for any type of deck, not just combo decks - but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want any combo decks at all. We do want combo decks. We just want them at the same level that we want other decks.

    Specific combo decks can be problems for the same reason that any other deck can be a problem: when a deck in Hearthstone gets too popular, you play against it so frequently that it stops being fun. Further, usually popular decks are powerful, so you are also likely to be losing more games than you win while also playing against the popular deck more often than you would like.

    Powerful combo decks tend to exacerbate this problem because most combo decks aren’t trying to interact with their opponents on any axis that involves minions. It is cool when, once in a while, you play a game against a deck that is all card drawing and removal and you have to consider how you want to ration your threats instead of finding little victories in profitable trades. It is less cool when you start playing a substantial fraction of your games against “Frost Nova, Doomsayer, go” before getting Ice Lanced out of the game. Figuring out a good trade is more fun than making educated guesses about how your opponent will kill your minions over the next few turns.

    I am not saying that some or all combo decks are inherently bad for Hearthstone. I am saying that when a deck is popular, it becomes less fun to play against. Popular combo decks have the further problem that they try to ignore opposing minions as much as possible, which is frustrating for most non-combo players.

    This is true whether or not a deck is easy or hard to play, although the decks that are hard to play tend to be less popular because less skilled players don’t play them as often.

    Also, saying that a combo deck is interactive because it has a bunch of removal is true only in the loosest sense of the word. Combo decks use their removal to try to reduce their interaction with their opponents as much as possible.

    Cards are interactive when they generate strategic options for both players. Minions are interactive because their controller has options on how to leverage their threat and their opponent has options on how to remove it. Removal itself reduces the strategic options for both players: it reduces the amount of stuff in play that can be interacted with.

    This isn’t to say that all removal is problematic – removal spells are very important for Hearthstone – but I see the idea of ‘this deck is interactive because it is really good at killing minions’ frequently and I wanted to challenge that assertion.

    Most combo decks, in addition to trying to avoid interacting with minions, also try to avoid letting their opponent interact with them. The problem with OTKs isn’t so much ‘I was at 30, then I lost’ as much as it is ‘I was at 30, then I lost, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.’ You can play a taunt minion against a Leeroy combo, but again, most combo decks are very good at killing minions, so the idea that a taunt minion will save you against a Miracle Rogue that’s drawn their whole deck is a stretch.

    So, most combo decks try to avoid interacting with their opponents as much as possible, and then win in a way that is extremely difficult for their opponent to interact with in a meaningful way. It’s good when those types of decks pop up on ladder occasionally. But when those types of strategies are too popular and powerful, they are frustrating, and we nerf them.

    When they are not popular, we tend to let them be. Usually they are less popular because they are less powerful; often they are less powerful because they have to interact with their opponent. For example, the Aviana-C’Thun combo has to play a lot of C’Thun minions, which facilitates interaction for both players. Combo decks that aren’t super popular or super powerful are great to have around; as I noted earlier, they do a lot to add variety to the ladder.