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How Hearthstone descended into complete lunacy

Deck of Lunacy card art

(Image credit: Blizzard)

The Hearthstone dev team was out in force prior to the launch of Forged in the Barrens, and one of the key interview topics was the planned dramatic reduction in the amount of random card generation and effects. The Year of the Dragon had pushed the game harder than ever towards high-powered splashy RNG effects like Dragonqueen Alexstrasza that made climbing the ladder feel like you were part of a really long Trolden video. After two years of 'created by' craziness, it was time for the pendulum to swing back. 

So why does playing Standard right now feel like a particularly wacky Tavern Brawl?

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The prior expansion, Madness at the Darkmoon Faire, didn't have a huge impact on the meta at launch. The legendary Mage spell Deck of Lunacy was one of many cards that struggled to make the cut, despite the fact that it seemed like it should slot straight into No Minion Mage, a deck archetype that had been teetering on high-level playability. Fast forward to now and Deck of Lunacy is the most powerful card in Standard and it's not even close. We're talking a winrate of 69.3 percent when kept in the mulligan according to the stats on HSReplay.net. That's the kind of polarizing power we haven't seen since Prince Keleseth's reign of 2-Mana terror.

As its name suggests, No Minion Mage is entirely reliant on spells. The payoff from cards like Font of Power and Apexis Blast explicitly comes from running a deck with no minions whatsoever, while other cards like Incanter's Flow and Refreshing Spring Water hit their maximum potential in the complete absence of minions. But Deck of Lunacy is the ultimate reward. It's a 2-Mana spell, the text of which reads: "Transform spells in your deck into ones that cost (3) more. (They keep their original Cost.)". When every single card in your deck becomes dramatically undercosted, you're bound to scam some wins. Nonetheless, prior to Forged in the Barrens, No Minion Mage could be fairly classified as fun but not exactly top tier. So what changed?

No Minion Mage did receive some strong tools with Forged in Barrens, but even Refreshing Spring Water (which has drawn comparisons with Yugioh's super-busted Pot of Greed) wasn't enough to make players realise the deck was a powerhouse overnight. Perhaps the fact that Mage lost so many powerful spells as part of the rotation process—including Blizzard and Power of Creation—meant that players overlooked the No Minion archetype when theorycrafting. But it was exactly that rotation which also led to Deck of Lunacy's spike in power.

Come on and slam

The truth is that Deck of Lunacy has always been an extremely powerful effect in a deck that lacked the right meta to be successful. On 26 November last year, Vicious Syndicate (a Hearthstone analysis site) wrote: "Deck of Lunacy has proven to be a fairly powerful and toxic opener for Spell Mage, but it wasn’t enough to lift the archetype to a more competitive Tier. It is likely going to drift back to meme status, though Deck of Lunacy’s performance suggests that it might be hit by a future nerf once the Mage class is actually good again." 

This prediction has become eerily prescient, especially as it was made before the authors knew what was going to happen to the quality of random spells.

The huge disruption made to the card pool from the rotation of the Classic, Basic, and Year of the Dragon sets has raised the average quality of cards across the board, (essentially because Blizzard set out to remove a lot of unplayed chaff), and that's been felt strongly by all cards that generate other random cards. For Deck of Lunacy's purposes, there just aren't that many options at certain Mana costs, and the ones that are there tend to be quite good. The upshot is that your high roll outcomes become startlingly consistent.

For example, there are only seven 6-Mana spells in the entire game currently, and four of those draw you more cards, which of course will have also been juiced by Deck of Lunacy. At 9 Mana, the only spell in standard is Libram of Hope—and at 10 Mana, it's either Survival of the Fittest or—the dream—Nagrand Slam. That's a very high chance to unleash a herd of angry Clefthoofs on your opponent's face and board. And sometimes it happens on turn four.

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The previous problem for No Minion Mage is that it had a hard time if you kept hitting it in the face, and there was a lot of that going around last November. Both the Aggro and Soul variants of Demon Hunter dealt serious damage from hand very quickly, and even after they were nerfed, the release of Nitroboost Poison shortly thereafter allowed Rogue to pick up the slack. But in the Year of the Gryphon, it's easier than ever to build a defence against that sort of aggression.

As we've already covered, the new Watch Post cards have transformed Standard into a waiting game. Early board development is severely punished by Mor'Shan Watch Post and even Far Watch Post is enough to force aggressive decks to trade more minions than they can afford. Aggression has been curtailed so substantially that taking a few turns to set up the rest of the game is a reasonable proposition—and there's not a better setup turn than Deck of Lunacy into Skull of Gul'Dan for 3 Mana.

Lunacy is not the kind of deck defining card we're happy about being tier 1, so if it's defining the meta it's a clear target for change.

Dean Ayala, lead designer, Hearthstone

Unsurprisingly, No Minion Mage is popular! Thijs hit rank 1 legend, and in a blast from the past, even Savjz was having fun playing constructed Hearthstone again. The release of Classic brought lapsed players back to the client, but Deck of Lunacy is giving them something goofy and powerful to do in Standard. Just don't expect it to last. 

Hearthstone's lead designer Dean "Iksar" Ayala made it clear that the current state of affairs is not something the team is happy about. In a Twitter AMA last Friday, he said: "Generally speaking, Lunacy is not the kind of deck defining card we're happy about being tier 1, so if it's defining the meta in any real capacity it's a clear target for change." Developer communication doesn't get more clear than that, so don't get too attached to your Clefthoofs. While it can seem premature to talk about nerfs within the first week of the set's launch, Team 5 moves fast at balancing these days. Just ask Demon Hunter mains. 

The more worrying thing is that Mage isn't even the biggest outlier in terms of power. Paladin as a whole is showing a terrifying 57 percent winrate on the front page of HSReplay at time of writing. And according to the data it has no natural counter. In fact, Mage is the only other class with a winrate over 50 percent. Everyone else is grasping at straws. 

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It's normal for the design team to push boundaries with a new expansion and make adjustments to ensure the Standard environment matches their vision. Which is another way of saying this set is bound to see nerfs sooner rather than later. ZachO from Vicious Syndicate saw the future with Deck of Lunacy and has also made some predictions that look likely to come to pass. At the very least, Paladin needs some adjustment. The Watch Posts getting toned down in power would also allow aggressive decks to at least play the game.

Pen Flinger has been cast more than twice as many times as the nearest most-played card. A particular problem given how annoying its voice lines are. (Image credit: HSReplay.net)

One final thought on card changes: Pen Flinger is an annoying little jerk who has long overstayed his welcome. An obvious tweak here is to make it only able to target minions, but Team 5 may also go the nuclear route and bump the card to 2-Mana if they really want to make it unplayable.

With quick intervention, Standard should be interesting again soon. Iksar was quoted as saying: "Goal is to adjust power outliers in minor ways rather than clip decks completely out of the meta. We're a live service game that makes adjustments and content on a regular basis. We want players to see and know that this is an actively cared for and curated experience." Spell Mage will likely stick around, but it will need to find more fair ways to win. And that means casting more cards that actually started in your deck, you lunatics.

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