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The Problem of Power Creep in Hearthstone

Apr 6, 2016
Via Extra Credit.

What is Power Creep?

Power Creep is something that you’d have likely heard before if you play card games. While it is not a concept strictly confined to card games, that is where you will see the most obvious examples. So what is it in card games? Power Creep is when a card or group of cards come out that are so much stronger than the average cards already in the game that the entire average power level of the game shifts upwards. For example, if you have a game where every card in the game has a value of one, and then you print a card with a value of four, with no downsides, suddenly no one would play anything except the one with a value of four. Also, down the line, no cards could be printed that had a value less than four, because they wouldn’t be played either.

Hearthstone examples

In Hearthstone, Power Creep is best seen in the form of Piloted Shredder. Prior to the card’s release, there were good four drops in several classes, and Chillwind Yeti was a strong but fair neutral minion that could be used in the four drop slot as well. But there was no four drop that was significantly better than the others. Then Shredder came out. Suddenly we had a neutral minion that was better than every single four drop in the game, class cards included. This meant that unless there was something a deck really wanted, they would automatically play Shredder over anything else in that slot, and it became an auto-include in many archetypes. This was a clear example of Power Creep, as Shredder was better than any previously made four drop. What it meant was that from that point on, every four drop printed had to either be stronger than Shredder, or simply not see play. And this was the situation that we experienced for a year and a bit, as every four drop released was simply overshadowed by Shredder, since Blizzard refused – rightly – to create a more powerful card to contest it.

Piloted Shredder

So why is Power Creep bad?

Power Creep is definitely bad. The problem is that every time the average power level increases, a whole group of cards becomes obsolete, and the game becomes a bit faster paced. Here’s an easy example: Arcane Missiles is a one mana spell that does three damage split randomly. Now imagine they put out Arcane-er Missiles, that does four damage. No one would ever play the original. Now to create a new card that saw play, they creates Super Arcanest Missiles, that does five damage. Obviously you see where I’m going with this. If Power Creep is allowed to exist permanently, eventually the game gets to a point where you simply win on turn one. Magic the Gathering experiences some of those issues in certain formats, where, because they have so many cards to work from, oftentimes games are won or lost on turn one.

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So what can be done to combat Power Creep?

Given that at some point a mistake will be made and Power Creep will occur, the easiest way to combat it, when it’s limited to a few cards, is to simply nerf or ban those select cards. This brings the power level back down to where it was before they were released. Magic the Gathering has a long list of banned cards because they turned out to simply be too strong, and Wizards of the Coast didn’t want them to ruin tournaments. Blizzard is very poor about rolling out nerfs, but they have nerfed a few cards in the past when they became too problematic for too long. But nerfing and banning is a short-term solution, especially in Blizzard’s case, who are strongly against the idea of nerfing.
What Blizzard has decided to do, in lieu of nerfing cards, is implement a Standard format. The Standard format only includes the most recent two years of cards, meaning anything beyond that cut off is not allowed to be played. This means that any time they create a set which is significantly above the power level of the rest of the game, it is only around for a maximum of two years. And if they release stronger cards in that time period to combat the other strong cards, those too will cycle out. For a team who tries their best to avoid nerfing, Standard is the perfect solution, essentially time gating how long any card can be overpowered.

The Grand Tournament

The Grand Tournament

The Grand Tournament expansion was a perfect example of why Power Creep is a problem. An entire set was put out with all of the cards around the same power level as the basic set. Yet virtually none of them were played, because the strength of the Goblins vs. Gnomes and Naxxramas sets were so far over the power curve. Now that they are both cycling out, and the upcoming Whispers of the Old Gods expansion seems to be around the same power level as TGT, it will be interesting to go back to see which cards from the earlier set will become viable once again. Standard will solve a lot of problems for Hearthstone, and hopefully it will give Blizzard an opportunity to respect Power Creep better in the future.

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Stephen Draper
Stephen has a degree in English from Brock University. He grew up playing video games and card games, always having an affection for strategy. He picked up League of Legends in early Season One and has since achieved Diamond rank multiple times. He also picked up Hearthstone in Beta and has since achieved Legend consistently. When he isn’t reading, writing, or gaming, he’s probably watching other people game.
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