Hearthstone’s online community is in a bit of a rut. There is a lot of discontent among players due to the strength of certain cards warping the meta so severely, and Blizzard’s unwillingness to change these cards. This is a recurring trend that has happened multiple times in the past, including Miracle Rogue, Undertaker Hunter and Patron Warrior. Each of these instances have resulted in massive nerfs, but often after the problem has been allowed to fester for months at a time.
While I 100% agree that Blizzard needs to make changes to cards more frequently, I want to discuss another issue in Hearthstone that is unrelated to the power level of the Pirates package or the oppressively strong nature of Shaman. Overpowered combinations of cards is an inevitability as it’s impossible to internally play test everything. However, something that can be better controlled is the actual mechanics of cards and what they actually mean. Enter Reno Jackson.
Why do people play Reno Jackson? The reason is that the card, when the effect triggers, is insane. A full heal is backbreaking against many aggro decks, while still having minimal value against control decks. They balance this extremely powerful effect by requiring you to only play one copy of every other card in your deck. Taken another way, this card actually reads:
What is the end result of this mechanic? Control decks are forced to build a less consistent, less powerful deck in order to enable a single card that is drastically more powerful than the other 29 cards. This means that games are often decided on whether or not you draw Reno. Aggro decks have no real way to “play around” Reno because if he hits the board, they typically cannot win. So the plan for Aggro becomes to ignore the fact that Reno exists, go all in and hope he’s on the bottom of the deck.
Card draw is not that random
Something I hear people say a lot is “This is a card game dependent on drawing random cards. It’s all luck anyway.” There is some truth there, but what’s important is to consider how luck manifests itself in the game. The best decks are very balanced in terms of early, mid and late game cards. Regardless of which cards you draw, you will generally end up with a very moderate set of results. There are times when you curve out perfectly and win turn five or times when you have no plays until turn five. However, these are more often exceptions to the norm. This is the reason that decks that rely on inconsistent combos or the perfect state generally are not competitive.
The best way to think about this is to consider a past examples: Face Hunter vs Control Warrior. In this matchup, the objective of Hunter is to play many low cost, aggressive minions and overwhelm the Warrior. The Warrior’s goal is to kill everything the Hunter plays until they can stabilize the board. In order to facilitate this, the Warrior plays 10-12+ good, low cost removal spells and weapons. As long as the Warrior draws a few of these cards in the first few turns, they stand a chance of surviving. If one or two of these cards are at the bottom of your deck, you still have 10 other options to potentially draw and utilize.
On the other hand, consider a common matchup from today: Aggro Shaman vs Reno anything. The Shaman plays the best aggressive minions and spells available and tries to kill the Reno player quickly. Like the Control Warrior, the Reno player includes as many low cost removal cards as possible. However, due to Reno’s restriction, they cannot run the same number or must substitute mediocre alternatives. As a result, it’s less likely that the Reno player will be able to draw the cards necessary to survive early and even if they do, they still might be dead because the quality of these cards are not comparable.
The one saving grace is that if you do manage to draw and play Reno, you often immediately win. Whereas if you don’t draw him, the rest of your deck is likely not strong enough to compete. With Control Warrior, depending on their draw, they might have between a 30-60% chance of winning a game, averaging out to 50%. On the other hand, you have a 10% chance of winning if you don’t draw Reno and a 90% chance of winning if you do draw him, averaging out to 50%.
When the results of a game are dictated by a single card, this create extremely polarized situations that are frustrating for both sides. Nobody wants to play a game where they feel they had no chance of winning. When your opponent draws Reno, you curse how lucky they were and feel cheated. When you don’t draw Reno, you rant about how face decks are a cancer ruining Hearthstone and how you’re never lucky.
The ideal Aggro vs Control matchup should be both players drawing some of the cards they need to play the early game. The Control player may eventually stabilize with little health left, while the Aggro player is hoping to topdeck that last point of lethal. It should not be waiting until turn 6 to see if Reno has been drawn and one of the two players conceding. People complain about how much unnecessary randomness Hearthstone has and I would argue Reno is one of the worst offenders.
Reno did not create new deck archetypes
First of all, what is an archetype? I consider a deck archetype as a style of play that feels different from another deck archetype. At the most basic level, you have Aggro, Midrange, Combo and Control. At a finer grain level you have Aggro Shaman, Midrange Druid, Freeze Mage and Control Warrior. If you go even deeper you might have a Control Warrior that wins with Grommash and Alexstrasza and a Control Warrior that wins exclusively from fatigue. All of these decks have different strengths, weaknesses, strategies, priorities and win conditions. They FEEL different to play.
On the other hand, deciding to run one or two copies of Holy Nova does not change the archetype of a Control Priest. Swapping a Slam for a greedy Ysera does not change the archetype of Control Warrior. People look at Reno Jackson and say “It created new decks like Renolock or Renomage!” This is absolutely false. Renolock is not a new deck archetype. It is simply a sub-optimal Control Warlock with a super powerful neutral heal. Instead of running 2x Hellfire, you run 1x Hellfire and 1x Demonwrath (e.g. worse version of Hellfire).
In other words, imagine if instead of releasing Reno Jackson, Blizzard said that all decks require 60 cards instead of 30, but the two card limit remained. Obviously the meta would drastically change, but not because any new archetypes were created. It would change because many decks simply don’t have enough options to fill out a 60 card deck, so they would become terrible. This doesn’t create new deck archetypes, it just makes certain ones better or worse.
Deck building should be about discovering synergies between cards and trying to make them work. Deciding which mediocre removal spell to use instead of the second copy of Frostbolt isn’t interesting deck building. It’s boring and at the highest levels comes down to playing a ton of games, recording your win rate and picking the option that gave you that extra 1% edge. What’s exciting is discovering unique decks like Evolve Shaman, Confuse Priest and Egg Druid. Even decks that have traditionally been looked down upon like Patron Warrior and Freeze Mage offer players a drastically different experience from the norm. Blizzard should be releasing cards with mechanics that allow new types of play, rather than simply restricting the cards you can choose and calling that good game design.
The worst part about this is that Blizzard looked at Reno Jackson and how many decks included him and probably thought “You know what we need? More Reno mechanics.” Now we have three more of these terrible “if you deck has no duplicate” cards that create new decks by essentially restricting the card pool. I can’t wait until we get a card that says “If you deck does not have odd mana cards, win the game”.
If you’ve never heard of Timmy, Johnny and Spike, I highly recommend reading this article. It wouldn’t surprise me if Reno Jackson was meant as a Johnny/Timmy card like Yogg-Saron or Majordomo Executus. It has a flashy, big effect but will never be strong enough to be played competitively. However, similar to Yogg-Saron, this backfired when Spike did the math and realized the card is actually extremely powerful. Fortunately, Yogg was so blatantly overpowered and terrible for the game that it couldn’t escape the nerf hammer that erased it from competitive play. The Reno mechanic on the other hand, will remain with us forever, always ruining Hearthstone from the shadows.