Going Deep – Patch 1.18 Thoughts

Hey Friends! Whatcha been up too? Not much? KK. Guess there is nothing to talk about then. Catch you next week! Strolls away…

Oh! I forgot. I guess there was a little something that happened recently. Just that tiny patch that hit Thursday. No big deal. Couple small changes – largely superficial. Probably won’t affect the metagame. But I guess we can talk about it since there is nothing else…

Jokes aside, this balance patch was pretty massive. This was the biggest balance update since the switch from closed to open beta. Since that time the only balance change we have had were the changes to Shimmerpack, Sand Warrior and Excavate. In this article I am going to summarize my feelings about all the changes. Since there are a lot, (most of which are minor) we can break them into sections. To be clear, I am only focused on Ranked. Some of the changes matter specifically for draft, but that is not the focus of this article.

Influence Nerfs

This series of changes actually represents a slight tweak in Eternal design philosophy that I find interesting. The influence system from Eternal is clearly heavily inspired by the mana system of Magic the Gathering, but there are some subtle differences that may not be obvious at first. For example, once you hit single Shadow influence you can play all the single Shadow cards that you want in a turn. In Magic as a comparison you are limited to just one Black card per turn if you only have one Swamp (or “black source”) in play. This means that influence fixing in Eternal is more powerful than Magic. Although I’m sure this was obvious to the designers from day one, it takes a while to internalize this system since the calibration of “power-level vs. influence requirement vs. color requirement” intuition must take a long time to perfect. As a result, we have seen influence requirements go up on a number of cards this patch, similar to how old Secret Pages was “nerfed” to Find the Way. This series of nerfs may also be partly in preparation for Set 2. Influence fixing in Set 1 allows you to easily run a 3-faction midrange deck, or a 4+ faction control deck with a little work. To me this implies that any additional fixing in Set 2 would make 3F+ decks trivial to build. This limits design space, and can ultimately lead to bizarre constructed environments like the Magic Standard environment during Khans of Tarkir + Battle for Zendikar Standard. Although “play all the factions” is an interesting space to explore, it might be best to leave most of that until down the road. For now, tightening up influence slightly across the board makes sense.

The specifics of these changes matter as well. Let’s talk about Azindel’s Gift. A number of the changes in this patch would be classified as “things that are not a problem right now, but were once a problem and could be a problem again”. 4F control back in closed beta was a really good deck. For those who did not play then, 4F control was basically TPJ control splashing Azindel’s Gift. This may seem crazy, but Gift is so crippling in midrange/control matchups that this small inclusion had a massive impact against decks like Combrei or Feln. At the time it seemed kind of insane, and even though this variety of deck is no longer seeing significant play at high levels, I see no reason why they can’t return at some point in the future. Gift is a great tool for Feln (or Felnscar) control to have access to, but this type of card should be limited to decks like this.

There are a couple influence nerfs here that seem to be geared toward slowing down Stonescar a little bit (I will obviously talk about the Champion nerf later). Stonescar Burn has hovered around the top of the tier list since open beta, and was only further cemented itself as one of the defining decks of the format when it gained Quarry from Jekk’s Bounty. In addition, the rise of Armory from the printing of Throne Warden plus Quarry has pushed Feln-based control almost entirely out of the format, which can be a bad match up for Burn. By adding an influence cost to both Drake and Reaper I would expect they come down on time roughly 10% less often (haven’t run the numbers, this is just a gut feeling). People generally underestimate the importance of curving out, so I’ll take this opportunity to go on a mini-rant: playing off-curve often makes the difference between winning and losing. If you are playing Burn and you are trying to race something like Rakano, having your Reaper come down on time will make a huge difference in each player’s clock. Missing FFF on 5 might mean that your Armory opponent might get an extra swing with their weapon while Drake sits on the sidelines. To compensate for this, Burn players may need to start putting more Seek Power into their decks, which will slow down their early game as well. I absolutely love the changes to Reaper and Drake, and they’re larger changes than most people will give them credit for.

Quick note on Steward of the Past – change is fine but a lot of other people think it should go further, and something should be changed like Steward’s ongoing effect. I think this is insanity. I was talking about this with RNG Eternal people, and Truedawn had a quote that summed up my thoughts on the subject very well:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 11.47.31 AM.png

Without pushed void hate you can’t have pushed void cards. Haunting Scream is an incredibly powerful card if you think about it, along with Dawnwalker and Vara. These void-interaction effects will only get more powerful as more cards are printed (better targets for reanimation plus better enablers). I don’t really want to go all the way down the hole of Steward balance conversations, but I think nerfing him substantially would be much more damaging to the health of the meta than people realize.

Aggro Nerfs

These are the most substantial changes of the patch by far. Aggro decks got hammered by nerfs. Jito costs 2, Paladin is a 2/1 and Champion of Chaos maxes out at 5/3 worth of stats. Let’s go through these one-by-one.

As you all know I was a big fan of the Rakano Jito deck. What you may not know is that I have been farming the top of the ladder playing that exact list I posted. The deck was insane, and I don’t think people respected it as much as they should have. This is partly because it’s bad draws were really bad, and because I think it was a more difficult deck to play than many gave it credit for. The deck was crazy explosive, if slightly inconsistent. As you all know of course, Rakano Jito was not the only Jito deck. Stonescar Jito has been popular basically since it was “discovered” around August. Not only are these decks exceptionally powerful now, the power level we were seeing last week was the floor of how powerful they could be in the future. Imagine what happens if they print even one pushed 1-drop in Set 2 that is in Fire, Justice or Shadow? Jito gets even better! This was clearly a change that needed to happen, and although I will miss doing 35 damage by turn 4, I always knew it wasn’t going to last. There may still be room for 1-drop heavy Rally/Queen decks, though right now that is not the direction the meta is going. Don’t totally sleep on these cards though, as much of the power is still around.

Crownwatch Paladin was the next change we should discuss. Could it really be balance patch without a nerf to Rakano? Patrick Chapin sums up the design philosophy around this approach here:

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 11.09.13 AM.png

In actuality, this nerf is very different from the previous changes to Rakano. The cards that were hit in the past were always weapons. Morningstar was nerfed first, then Deepforged Plate, and finally Gilded Glaive going from Open to Closed Beta. Not one of those changes touched any of the units in Rakano. I feel as if DWD was trying to keep the faction balanced (especially at beginner-level play) without touching the units, since they seemed fair at their core, and could fit into a variety of decks. It seems as if they finally gave up on this, and made one of the changes that could have been made last June. The other thing that I find fascinating about this change is that its relevance is very match-up dependant. Not every deck plays 1/1s, and those that do tend to play a lot. This means that the nerf has a huge impact when playing against Assembly Line or Scouting Party decks, and very little impact against the rest of the field. You compare this to the Jito change where the deck has been slowed overall. I’m very interested to see where Rakano shakes out overall, although with an abundance of Armory on the ladder it may not be the best time to tune Crownwatch Paladin decks. As I have said before though, the bench for Rakano is deep, so another deck will be built soon or later. In some ways this change feels very much like it is post-dated from a couple months ago given Rakano’s current struggles on the ladder, but it’s probably been necessary all along.

Now let’s talk about Champion of Chaos. As it says in the patch notes, this is probably the most important change of the patch. “ChaCha” was a messed up card. It basically made blocking a joke, and was a key cause of speeding up the format. Not only did she put you under a fast clock herself, one of the best ways to counter her was to go under her with even faster decks like Jito. Although there were several effective counters to ChaCha, if you didn’t have one immediately you were dead. Compare her to Sandstorm Titan. The ceiling on ChaCha was much higher than Titan, as you could be attacking on turn 4 with a 5/5 deadly + overwhelm, and you couldn’t chump block her to buy time. This makes ChaCha much more punishing of stumbles. By changing the bonuses such that she maxes out at 5/3 it obviously makes her vulnerable to Torch, as well as making blocking a more viable (though still unappealing) option, and increases vulnerability to relic weapons. It makes some difference in defensive capabilities as well, since she is more likely to trade while blocking instead of eating whatever it is blocking. I think this change is marvelous. Burn is likely still playable in more-or-less the same form it was before, though it will pack less punch.

Buffs to Primal

This group of changes amounts to roughly…fine? As they say in the patch notes, they are looking to buff Primal overall, but this series of changes don’t represent an important buff to Primal as far as I can tell. In some respects I would say the issue with Primal is not the quality of its support cards, but a relative lack of pay-off cards. I was actually just listening to Top Level Podcast, which is done by Patrick Chapin and Michael Flores, and they were having a conversation about a hypothetical Mardu control deck. I’m going to summarize the spirit of the conversation below. It should be noted that these are not exact quotes as the conversation was longer than we need for our purposes. What these cards do is not super important for the point I am trying to make.

Patrick: Ok, so what do you want to put in this deck?

Michael: I’m thinking Goblin Dark Dwellers.

P: That sounds good, what else.

M: What about Tormenting Voice?

P: Well, I suppose that is a card you can play, but is that the reason to play the deck.

M: It works well with Goblin Dark Dwellers.

P: Sure, but it is not the thing that is drawing you to play the deck. You don’t play Mardu Control so you can play Tormenting Voice. That doesn’t win you games. Chandra wins you games. Gideon wins you games. What are the powerful cards that we actually want to play in this deck?

This conversation does a wonderful job of articulating the difference between pay-off cards and support cards. Support cards are the things you fill your deck with so that you have 75 cards, and that your deck functions smoothly. Pay-off cards are the things you want to be playing. Sandstorm Titan and Obelisk are some of the reasons people want to be based in Time. No want wants to be Time based so they can play Temple Scribe, even though he is a fine role-filler. Torch and Oni Ronin are reasons to be Fire. Deathstrike and Steward of the Past are reasons to be in Shadow, etc. In the case of Primal the support cards have always been fine, but why do you want to be Primal? Wisdom of the Elders? Permafrost? Lightning Storm was honestly one of the major reasons to want to play Primal, but now that Jito is nerfed there are a lot less free wins off getting a 3-for-1 on turn 2 or 3. Adding health to clunky 6 drop finishers is not exactly getting me excited to build Primal decks. Currently, there are very few Primal pay-offs. What I feel Primal needs the most is some appealing 4-drops, as that slot in their decks is essentially naked.

Of these changes the only one that I think actually matters is the shift to Champion of Wisdom. 3/3 base stats on a 4-drop is just not acceptable, especially when many Elysian midrange decks present minimal Torch targets. The fact that you can now play Champion of Wisdom and reasonably expect her to live long enough to hit TTTT means that she is significantly better, although still not an all-star.

Of the rest of these changes I can’t really point to any that seem particularly important. Cobalt monument will see a little more play. Thunderstrike Dragon has an outside chance of making into Feln Control as a finisher, but I am skeptical. Jarral still looks like a win-more card (I would trade 7th point of health for overwhelm any day). Tundra Explorer and Explorer Emeritus still seem underwhelming for ranked. Overall I don’t think these buffs represent a significant buff to Primal, although it may be possible that shifts in the metagame create an opening. I kinda hope I am missing something, and there is a sweet dinosaur deck with Gruan as a 2-drop, or Jarral + Accelerated Evolution brew. We’ll see.

A brief note on draft – before the patch many thought Primal was the best faction in draft (I would probably agree). Scaly Gruan, Tundra Explorer and Windshaper all got substantial buffs, which could further cement Primal as the best faction. The buff to some Primal bombs is also no joke – two 5/5 Thunderstrike Dragons were almost impossible to answer, how do you answer two 5/6 Dragons? I don’t think this is to the point of being imbalanced, but Primal is certainly much better positioned in draft compared to ranked.

Nerfs to Primal

With all these buffs to primal, there were also 2 nerfs. Staff of Stories was changed from 0/5 to 0/4, and Withering Witch was changed from a 1/4 to a 1/1. Let’s start by talking about Staff.

The different between 4 and 5 health is really really small. Both are out of Torch range but inside Obliterate range. Both can be killed by a Sandstorm Titan in 1 hit, but survive a hit from most 1-to-3 power units. The difference is fairly trivial, and anyone telling you otherwise is just being reactionary. Why was Staff nerfed though? It may not be a big nerf, but it is still a downgrade. I can’t say that I know, though I have a couple suspicions. First is that Throne Warden + Staff was a little more powerful than they would like. Warden has obviously not been around since the beginning of the game, so now that Staff has a 4/4 aegis buddy the chance that Staff sticks around for a while increase. I also imagine that “armor matters” cards from Set 2 could be involved. For example, I would be shocked if a Shield Slam analog were not somewhere in the pipeline, if not in Set 2. It seems like the kind of card that would fit into a Hooru deck, and we expect Set 2 to include cards from the “minor faction” pairs (Hooru, Argentport, etc.). 5 Armor may be too good in that environment, especially given that Staff is the only weapon where you get value from having it stick around and not attacking. Any “armor matters” card will get added benefit from this. As it stands, I doubt Staff needed to be nerfed that badly, but the impact is minor, so it isn’t a big deal. I don’t expect this to have any real effect on deck building.

Now the most controversial nerf – Withering Witch is now a 1/1. This is a more substantial nerf than Staff, but is also not as big as some people make it out to be. For those who have not played against Witch very much, the major applications are in combination with either Lightning Storm or Black Sky Harbinger to kill an opponent’s entire board. This is obviously very powerful, and the core functionality of these combos is maintained even with the nerf to Witch (although Witch will die if you Witch>Storm rather than Storm>Witch). The 1/1 body is less useful though, and there is no question I have been forced to play her just to stall while trying to draw into either a Storm or a Harbinger. Given the history of Feln decks, it doesn’t seem to me that Witch was overpowering the ladder, so this nerf seems odd and I was confused when I first heard. Before moving on with the discussion I should share the note from DWD on why Witch was changed:

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I think the first line of this explanation is the most important: non-intuitive interactions. DWD has made it clear that they are not a fan of non-intuitive interactions. The nerf to Witch is in the same camp as Excavate, Witching Hour and Crown of Possibilities in the past (you could probably throw Unstable Form into the camp as well). Most of these changes were not nerfed based on power level. Although they could become powerful when fully enabled, they were changed largely for their “non-intuitive interactions”. I imagine the question of where to set the line of complexity is hard as a game designer. You clearly don’t want new players getting crushed by obscure combos left and right, but at the same time you want there to be some depth for your more enfranchised players to explore. Was Witch too powerful for competitive play? Probably not, though she is clearly very good. Is she too complex for brand new players? Certainly. I would love to know how heavily she is played at all the different skill levels to assess the impact she has on newer players.

I think some people might see me a little bit as a DWD shill who is willing to praise whatever they do no matter what. I spent an entire article explaining why one of the most controversial cards in the game was important for game balance, so I can understand why people might see me this way. In the case of Withering Witch I am actually going to go on the record and say I am not a fan of this change. Although it is not a huge nerf to Feln-based strategies, I just don’t think Feln should be nerfed at all. I still think people were over-reacting to this change when it first was announced, but I just don’t think it was necessary. Perhaps a rarity shift would have been a better strategy for protecting new players?

And Finally…SPIRE CHAPLAIN!!

Spire+Chaplain.png

I would be lying if I said I understood. This card is medium in draft, and unplayable in constructed. Buffing it but keeping it in Torch range seems almost irrelevant. Maybe this is supposed to go in some Feln Cauldron concoction? If someone can post a winning record with Spire Chaplain deck (2 or more Chaplains) in top Master I will mail them a cookie or something. I have run into the card a couple of times on ladder in Combrei Obelisk decks, but it really looked like a 3/3 for 3 to me. If DWD wants to slowly increase the power level of all the weak cards I won’t stop them, as sooner or later something interesting will happen.

Conclusions

There was actually a lot that came out in the community response to the patch that I wish I could address here. I am already 3,500 words into this article, so I’m thinking it best to leave things here for now. What I will say is that people should calm down a little bit in their responses to these kinds of changes. Although you may not be a fan of some of the rebalancing DWD does, it is often best to give things a chance and try out the new metagame before being too critical. I think the meta right now is wide open, allowing for a lot of innovation and rewarding good deck builders. I discuss a lot of this in my podcast that I just published yesterday, where I have a conversation with Bairdrus about Ladder + ETS meta changes because of the patch. If people enjoy me writing about game design related topics I may expand on some of these thoughts in the future, but for now we can leave things there. Hope you enjoyed, and be sure to leave you thoughts in the comments or on Reddit!

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