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Baku and Genn may be leaving early - but that doesn't mean they were bad cards

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28th February, 2019
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A new standard year of competitive Hearthstone will soon be underway, with Blizzard today unveiling the early machinations of the Year of the Dragon – and dropping a massive bombshell in the process.

While there’s plenty to discuss in terms of the quality of life improvements, the big bombshell is no doubt the news that Baku the Mooneater and Genn Greymane are being moved to the Hall of Fame – alongside the four class cards from The Witchwood with odd or even synergy.

Very valid criticisms of their design have been raised by some of the biggest names in the Hearthstone scene but, while there were some calls to have the cards rotated early, the prospect of them leaving standard format in this fashion is an enormous surprise.

I spoke with Mike Donais, lead card designer, about how such a shocking change even came about.

“It was a combination of different factors,” he said.

“There’s the idea that, ‘oh this guy gets a hero power on turn one and I can’t interact with it at all’ – that was one of the factors, the uninteractibility.

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“The other one is like, ‘oh I’m just very slowly losing to his hero power over the course of 40 turns, that value’s going to out-value me’, and it’s not fun to lose in that fashion.

“But really, another big factor is that there’s a bunch of these decks. Because Odd Paladin and Even Paladin are so strong and so resilient – the cards don’t matter as much because the hero power is such a big percentage of it – the game wasn’t evolving as much and you weren’t seeing as much new stuff,” he added.

Hearthstone game designer Mike Donais.

Hearthstone game designer Mike Donais. (Photo: Blizzard Entertainment)

“When the idea first came up, the [response] was, ‘nah, nah, we’ll find out some other way to handle it’. We talked about making [the start of game effect] a battlecry, we talked about changing the upgraded hero powers … and whether that would even be enough.

“And then, how do you even change Genn? Because he changes your hero power to cost one. So there wasn’t really a lot of great options that we could find. We even talked about complete redesigns.

“But a lot of people loved the cards and how they changed deckbuilding, so we eventually decided ‘hey, we’re not bound by any specific rules, let’s move them to the Hall of Fame and let them be awesome forever.'”

As the internet is wont to do, there will no doubt be a mob reaction to the news that the early rotation is an ‘admission’ by Team 5 that odd and even decks were a ‘failure’ in design.

People always try to find objective justifications for their subjective thoughts on a topic – and that’s very true with Hearthstone.

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I could pen an essay on why Exodia Mage needs to be nerfed for an array of official-sounding reasons but, at the end of the day, I’d only be saying it because I personally hate the deck.

Similarly, with Baku and Genn, there’s nothing wrong with saying you simply don’t like a card. If enough people feel the same way, there’s also nothing wrong with asking the developers to make a change based purely on that feeling.

Are there legitimate design criticisms of those two cards? Of course. But there are also a fair few criticisms thrown around I feel need addressing.

Fans are right to say they want these cards gone, but there are some iffy criticisms too. (Photo: Blizzard Entertainment)

The first one was that they were stifling the metagame – which I flat out disagree with.

Were they near (or at) the top of the metagame for large stretches of 2018? Yes, but they didn’t have the stranglehold on the competitive scene many claimed they did.

Of the 18 possible odd and even decks, only seven were ever really tier 1 decks (in standard). Of those seven, Even Shaman fell away once Flametongue Totem got nerfed, while Odd Mage only became a thing when Rastakhan’s Rumble launched.

I’d also argue Odd Warrior saw a lot more play than it otherwise would have thanks to its favourable matchup against Priest and some Hunter decks.

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Granted, both Odd and Even Paladin were dominant for virtually the entire year, and it’s the specific interaction with Paladin hero power that clearly causes the most issues from a design point of view.

But both of those decks, as well as Odd Rogue and Even Warlock, were set to lose incredibly crucial pieces at the upcoming rotation anyway.

As Donais said, the value of the upgraded Paladin hero powers definitely made those decks more than a handful and did reduce variety within the Paladin class. But their power level was set to decrease significantly without cards like Fungalmancer, Vinecleaver, Unidentified Maul, Sunkeeper Tarim and Val’anyr.

Even Warlock will get crushed without Bloodreaver Gul’dan, Hooked Reaver and Amethyst Spellstone, while Odd Rogue takes a flew blows without Vilespine Slayer, Cobalt Scalebane and Vicious Fledgling.

Especially given Genn and Baku were considered weak upon first reveal, I’d argue the number of decks they ended up making viable was actually something of a sweetspot.

Two or three fewer, and they’re considered a waste of dust, while two or three more would definitely put them more in the overpowered category.

The other major line of thinking I disagree with is the extent to which they limited design space.

Countless comments across social media and all manner of forums read something along the lines of; “now, whenever Blizzard print a card, they have to worry about odd and even decks”.

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Newsflash: Blizzard have always had to keep top tier decks (or other cards) in mind whenever they’ve wanted to print something new. Genn and Baku simply did not create that challenge for the development team, and I’d argue they only made the challenge harder in the case of Paladin.

What other surprises will the Year of the Dragon hold? (Photo: Blizzard Entertainment)

In short, none of the viable odd and even decks – except for maybe Odd Mage – were a drastically different or new archetype to decks we’d already seen from those classes.

Silver Hand (or Recruit) Paladin was already gaining traction in late 2017 and early 2018, Even Warlock borrowed heavily from Handlock decks of yesteryear, while control Warrior decks have existed since time immemorial.

What does this mean in terms of odd and even design limitations? For starters, it’s entirely possible for Team 5 to print cards that don’t have synergy with the elements that make odd or even decks powerful.

You don’t include a six-cost card in an Even Warlock deck because it costs six, you’d include it because it benefits from having a large hand, or provides valuable healing or defence.

Therefore, the developers can feel pretty safe in printing even costed cards that don’t have any of those mechanics, knowing it won’t (in this example) put Even Warlock over the edge.

While you could argue this forces the team to run away from a host of mechanics to keep the power level of odd and even decks in check, I’d argue once again that they need to keep all of this mind for any card they print, based on what decks are powerful at any given time.

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In an earlier interview with Donais, around the launch of The Boomsday Project, we discussed how Dr Morrigan’s original design swapped the attack and cost of minions in your hand – but the idea of three-cost 9/9 Voidlords went some ways to shelving that.

Odd and even decks don’t win games just because of the modified hero power. Every card and mechanic in the game needs to have the right supporting cast, and I don’t think it’d be as hard as people think for the development team to print powerful class cards that don’t contribute to the power level of any viable odd or even archetypes within those classes.

Similarly, you could argue that odd and even decks increase the staples of class identity – like small minions for Paladin or armour for Warrior – to untenable power levels, which severely restricts design space.

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I’d argue that the development team, partly due to community demand, constantly works at creating new and exciting flavours for each class anyway. Without Genn and Baku, we’d still want to see new ways to play those classes.

At the end of the day, while I don’t necessarily agree with everything the anti-Genn and Baku crowd have to say, I definitely see where they’re coming from. As someone who plays a lot of Control Priest, there were few things more demoralising than seeing an Odd Warrior turn up and know I didn’t have a chance from turn one.

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The promise of an unrecognisably fresh metagame once the next expansion rolls around is, of course, very exciting.

But to call these cards ‘bad design’ or a ‘failed strategy’ is simply off the mark. They did what they were intended to do, created massive shifts in the competitive scene and (which has probably flown under the radar) proved a massive help to newer players in learning how to build decks.

No card or mechanic is perfect and, in this case, the community grew tired of the flaws in this set quicker than normal – which they are within their right to do.

Now, with a very exciting year ahead of us, it’ll be interesting to see what changes this has on the competitive scene.