I’ve been thinking for some time about how best to discuss the Warlock hero power, and whether or not it remains balanced as new cards are released. For a brief time following GvG, Warlock was rarely seen on ladder, and Zoo had all but disappeared, perhaps dispelling the common thought Warlock’s hero power was too strong.
Since then, and especially after Blackrock Mountain, Warlock has made a significant resurgence in multiple forms. The oldest, Handlock, never disappeared, remaining a staple of top-level play and a consistent tournament contender. Demon Warlock variations across a wide spectrum of styles have become increasingly common and successful. Zoo, too, has had a resurgence with the inclusion of more demon-focused cards, including Imp Gang Boss. In fact, three Warlock decks appear in top 7 of the most recent Tempo Storm meta snapshot article, and two in the top tier.
While Warlock isn’t totally on top, its hero power does seem to grow in strength as new cards are released. Now, with Warlock having waned and waxed again, it’s time to take a closer look at its hero power to question whether it will need to be reworked as more cards (and more powerful cards) are added to the game.
Effect on the Game
Warlock’s hero power has a special place among hero powers, in that it deals with a fundamentally different resource in Hearthstone that other hero powers: card advantage. The Warlock trades the standard two mana and a bit of life for an extra card. One could argue that Warlock also uses life more as a resource than other classes, although weapon classes, and especially Rogue, can stake a claim to the same.
Because the Warlock hero power works differently, it can’t readily be compared to other hero powers, each of which has an internal 2 mana for 2 something logic. Warrior gains 2 armour, Priest heals 2, Hunter does 2 damage to the opponent. Druid gets 1 armour and does 1 damage, while Rogue gets to do 1 damage twice. Shaman gets a totem totalling 2 stats (and doing something in the case of 0/2s), while Paladin gets a Silver Hand Recruit totalling 2 stats. Mage, a slight outlier, trades 1 damage for the ability to aim its damage.
Warlock, however, doesn’t fit into this logic. Sure, the Warlock loses 2 life, but that’s an extra cost. The benefit is a card. That benefit is hard to weigh, although increasingly, it appears to be significantly greater than the other classes. An extra card isn’t only more options in a turn, its also the ability to do more in a turn, especially when your deck, like Zoo, has generally low-cost creatures. In some cases, such as with Handlock, having more cards in hand also has direct benefits on the other cards in your hand, such as Twilight Drake and Mountain Giant. It also significantly increases the chance of drawing the cards needed in any situation.
More importantly, it obviates the need for Warlock to include any card draw mechanisms in its deck. Card draw is so fundamentally important to Hearthstone that few high-level decks lack a mechanism for drawing more cards. These draw mechanisms necessarily eat up card slots that could be used to increase the overall card quality of the deck. That is, except for Warlock, whose card draw mechanism is built in, ensuring that it can build a deck for maximum card and draw quality. Only rarely do any of the other classes’ hero powers replace cards that would otherwise be included in the deck.
Finally, the hero power also often means that Warlock decks tend not to feel very Warlock-y, instead simply being full of neutral cards that synergize more readily with its innate power. Only Demonlock, a deck that’s never truly hit the top-tier, comes close to the vision Blizzard obviously has for the class. Unless the hero power is reworked, or demons are buffed once again, it’s very unlikely that a true Warlock deck will ever see significant play.
Balancing the Power
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept behind Warlock’s hero power, but it does have to be adequately balanced, which is a very hard thing to do. Unlike other hero powers, its utility changes depending on the quality of cards in the deck and the options that it can provide in the deck or metagame. It’s very hard to quantify the value of an extra card. In a sense, it’s a dynamic hero power with a utility that varies depending on meta game factors, while other classes’ hero powers remain relatively static.
Early in the Beta and following Hearthstone’s release, when discussions of Warlock’s hero power began, many noted that Warlock has generally weaker class cards to compensate. While this claim is questionable, especially following the recent inclusion of cards like Imp-losion, [Dark Bomb] and Imp Gang Boss, it’s also less relevant as the number of neutral minions and neutral minion effects increases. There was once a time when it was quite difficult for Warlock to find healing, lacking strong minions or spells to perform that role. However, the addition of Antique Healbot in GvG changed that. Indeed, there are few roles Warlock can’t at least adequately fill from amongst the neutral cards. For this reason, both Handlock and Zoo frequently use relatively few class cards (leading to the prevalence of Warlock decks without Warlock flavour). It’s currently very hard to argue that Warlock’s hero power is balanced by the class having worse card quality in general. While that could be true of its class cards, it can draw from the neutral pool to make up the difference.
Beyond this, the only inherent balancing mechanism is the life cost. However, Warlock’s use of life is of little significance. As is often said, paying life only matters if you run out of it, and Warlock has ways of healing or protecting itself in the late game that mitigate any early losses. Indeed, losing life can be a benefit to Warlock in certain situations, such as when Molten Giants are ready to be played.
There’s therefore very little currently balancing the Warlock hero power. As new cards are released into the neutral pool, and as powerful Warlock cards are added, Warlock’s hero power is likely to grow in power.
Is this a problem? That remains to be seen. Warlock’s current status isn’t broken. But in my view, the hero power is going to end up being a design restraint, in the Blizzard will either have to consider every new neutral card with respect to Warlock, or they’ll have to modify the hero power.
Let’s assume for a moment that it does need to be reworked and examine some options. Again, this is a purely hypothetical exercise – its unlikely this will happen. Blizzard often seems content to create their own design restraints, as they did with Mad Scientist and Kezan Mystic, which significantly limits future secret development. But it’s an interesting thought experiment nonetheless.
Certainly, the hero power should not be overhauled completely. Too much within the class depends on it, and to change it would be a core change to the class that would likely also require a redesign of its cards. This is simply too much. The mana cost could be changed to 3, although this would go strongly against Blizzard’s clear intention that hero powers cost 2 mana. It would also be an enormous nerf to the power, which may see Warlock face a precipitous decline in use.
The most straightforward option would be testing the hero power at a cost of 3 life in addition to its mana cost. This is unlikely to seriously change any current archetypes, but 3 life will make the Warlock player think just a little more about hitting the button. Zoo, especially, would have to actually consider its life total from time to time, instead of merely ignoring any damage done to itself. I hope that Blizzard does experiment with this in its tests, or perhaps it has. Regardless, this appears to be the least intrusive solution that might see some changes to the meta.
Other options require thinking a little bit more outside of the box. Having a 2-turn cooldown on the hero power is one possibility, although that likely is going too far in nerfing the ability, and would effectively cut its utility in half.
Conversely, the ability could have a chance to draw a chicken instead of a card from the deck when used. I’m not a fan of RNG-based effects, and I don’t like this option, although it does make clicking the Warlock hero power less of an obvious play on most turns. It still provides some value, especially in Handlock, but not the much higher value of drawing a card.
One option I’ve been giving some thought to is the possibility that the card drawn costs 1 additional mana. Mana increasing and decreasing effects have become common in Hearthstone, and this would provide an extra, delayed cost to using the ability. A turn 2 tap is still possible, and in many cases it won’t slow down the early game. It also wouldn’t likely hinder the core mechanics of Handlock or Zoo, but it would still slow them down just a little, especially in the mid-game when they rely more on cards drawn through lifetaps. Whether this effect is too great is unclear, but slowing down the play of their cards seems a nice balance to their extra speed in drawing them. Personally, if a change is to be made, this is my preferred option. Of course, I don’t expect that it will happen, and certainly not unless Warlock proves to consistently rise to the top.
What do you think? Is Warlock’s hero power overpowered or do you think it will be in future? If so, what change makes the most sense?