Content of the article: "Why “build-around” cards make Hearthstone more fun, a needlessly long write up."
I can't speak to the experience of everyone else on this subreddit, but more and more this feels like a place where people post about everything they dislike about the game. I'm not going to claim venting has no place in online spaces, but the past few weeks especially I've seen such an overwhelming amount of salt in this community that I felt the need to personally make a post more focused on positive and lending itself to actual discussion to contrast, and to talk about the more game design-esque aspects of Hearthstone that are less talked about here.
- Disclaimer/about me I am in no way a professional player, I have played exclusively wild for a few years now, never attempting to go higher in legend than I need to get 11 bonus stars. I don't want this post to be about balance so much as the underlying designs of specific cards, and how I think certain designs make the game more (or sometimes less) fun to play. With all that being said, if I praise a card that happenings to be breaking standard I apologize for being ignorant about the games more popular format. I've been playing since a month after official release, so if I refer to some older cards or metas please bear with me.
- Terminology I'm gonna be using a few design terms I haven't seen widely used by anyone other than me, so for the sake of making this post understandable I'm gonna give some definitions and examples of the ones I'll be using frequently throughout this post. These are the broad categories I tend to group cards into.
The Jedi Curve More commonly referred to as the power curve, the Jedi Curve helps describe how much power you're expecting to get out of a card from it's combined effects and stats for the mana you spend on it. Vanilla minions like Yeti set the baseline for the curve, whereas other cards deviate from it in varying amounts.
Generic Power Cards like these are just plain old strong, they tend to slightly break the Jedi Curve and are powerful largely independent of other factors. You can jam these cards into most decks, and while they may not do anything too special, they certainly do perform. Some good examples of these include Zilliax and Piloted Shredder.
Specific Power The halfway point between build-around cards and generic power, these cards do certain things very well, but because they're more limited in what decks want their effects they aren't as prolific as generic power cards. Some good examples of these are cards like Overgrowth, Omega Assembly, and Defile.
Disruption This term is a bit more nebulous, but the short version is these are the "hate" cards you either run to beat that one specific deck you keep seeing over and over again on ladder, or you run them to interrupt your opponents game plan in some way. The best example of disruption cards are things like Acidic Swamp Ooze, Mana Burn, and Dirty Rat.
Build-Arounds Finally, into the actual meat of this post. These are the cards that want you to shift your deck around them in some way in order to make them gain some form of power that is breaking the Jedi Curve in some way. While build-arounds are typically poor cards in a vacuum, shifting your deck in a way that works around them makes them far more powerful than any other cards could be in that deck. One final thing that I'll be getting into later is build-around cards fall into a few different subcategories, which means they have the most variation in what's required to make them work. Three classic examples of these are Patches the Pirate, Reno Jackson and Baku the Mooneater.
One thing I would like to mention before I move on is that these are in no ways hard and fast categories, or that these are the only types of cards that exist. Plenty of cards fit into more than one of these descriptions. Loatheb is a card that is both excellent disruption and generic power, and while a card like King Togwaggle is certainly disruption, you have to build your deck in a specific way to properly make use of him.
Build around cards (like most card types in Hearthstone) aren't all similar, and basically all of them require different levels of dedication to get the most use out of them. In no particular order, here's the subgroups I drop specific styles of build-around cards into.
Light These are the basics when it comes to build-around cards, you don't have to put a ton of investment or change your deck too drastically to get these to work. Cards like Mad Scientist, Patches the Pirate and Town Crier are all good examples of this concept. While you only need a few cards to get these cards to work as good as they possibly can, without those cards to enable them they're quite poor.
Medium These are the cards that take more work to get functioning than their light build-around counterparts, typically for greater rewards. You'll need to add more cards (or perhaps deliberately not run others) to truly make these cards shine, but when they're in the right deck they succeed with flying colors. Good examples of this type of card are cards like Archwitch Willow, Corpsetaker, The Curator and Resurrect. While these cards don't necessarily define your deck all on their own, including them makes you consider cards you wouldn't normally be running, or skip out on cards you might otherwise like to run so you don't sabotage their effects.
Heavy Build-Arounds When you first saw the term build-around in the title of this post, this category is likely what your mind jumped to first. These cards demand you shift your whole deck around them, and offer very powerful effects in return for the sacrifices you make for them. Unlike the previous two categories, these decks tend not be able to just be added into other decks as "packages" but define the decks they're in all on their own. Things like Mysterious Challenger, Zephyrs (and the entire highlander suite), Mechathun, and Genn Greymane are all good examples of this. These cards can and often are game winning on their own, but enabling them requires some heavy sacrifices in terms of deckbuilding if you want access to the huge power turns they can provide.
Parasitic In a similar vein to heavy build-around cards, these tend to be big packages of cards that are at their best when used with more cards of the same archetype, and tend to be lackluster without any of the other support cards. Typically these are cycles are card from a single set with a good amount of support, but that remained confined to that specific set. Some examples of parasitic mechanics are the Soul Shard package, C'Thun and his Cultists, the Libram Package and the Jade Golem mechanic. While these packages of cards don't necessarily define your deck, you'll be hard pressed to get any use out of them without a sizable portion of the package.
Synergistic Another sort of nebulous category, this covers all the cards specifically made to work with specific mechanics or tribes that aren't necessarily so much encouraging you to build a deck around them, but to build a deck with the mechanics or tribes they push. While there's a lot of overlap with light build-arounds here, it would've felt disingenuous to put Underbelly Angler in the same Category as Patches. Good examples of this type of card are things like Heistbaron Togwaggle, Underbelly Angler and Fresh Scent.
Once again, these are not hard and fast categories. There's a less overlap than the previous set of card categories, but there's still some. I hope all these terms are understandable to everyone, because now we're going to enter…
The Opinion Zone
This is the part where my bias starts to show, because I think build-around cards are the most fun you can have when actually building a deck in Hearthstone. I get a lot more enjoyment out of making decks that involve cards that you have to put a little bit of thought into how to make them good, as opposed to just saying "Zilliax is the best 5 drop so I'm putting in Zilliax" and that being all the thought I put into a deck. The biggest reason I love build-around cards comes down to one simple thing though: They're dynamic.
Let me explain that sentiment just a little bit more. When cards that fall in the generic power category get released, the only chance they get at seeing play is if they're stronger than other generic cards in that slot. If a card like that is too weak it risks never seeing play, and if it's too strong it invalidates all the past cards that were also getting by on generic power. Build-around cards tend to get stronger as new cards are released that can bring out even more of their potential power. For some examples on both ends, Ragnaros the Firelord was so powerful in 8 drop slot during his time in standard that no other 8 drops could even see play because he was just that strong. Post rotation however, Medivh the Guardian (and his synergy driven Atiesh) was the premier 8 drop in standard, but only in decks that could properly use him. This situation of cards with generic power far outside of the Jedi Curve crowding out everything they compete with is a big part of why the Hall of Fame was originally created. On the opposite side of the spectrum, let's look at a light build around card that's been kicking around in wild for a bit, Oaken Summons. While this card is undoubtedly powerful even today in wild, it's power has shifted as new cards have been added to the game in a way that makes it more interesting to think about. When Oaken Summons first released, it was run using Ironwood Golem as the only minion costing less than 4 in slow druid decks, so that the spell was consistently high tempo. Before Rise of Shadows dropped however, Archmage Vargoth arrived, and it was quickly discovered that you could use him to cheat out a full on second copy of the spell in addition to Vargoth himself, making the card better by including a newer synergy. Throughout the year, the Package swapped around to include Hecklebot and later Zul'Drak Ritualist, as the spell allowed to to ignore the (typically) negative battlecries of these over-statted taunt minions. Once again this pattern isn't unique, this sort of synergy accretion is incredibly frequent within the game as new expansions get added, especially in the Wild format.
As much as do love these sorts of build-around effects though, I'd be remiss if I didn't share the real reason I made this post: Not all build around effects lead to this level enjoyment. Once again I need to reveal my bias and say that I really dislike heavy and parasitic build-arounds and the effects they have on deckbuilding. While cards like Oaken summons get to drastically change in their use cases as new cards develop, parasitic packages like Jades and C'Thun don't get to enjoy to this same level of variety in how they construct decks simply because of the sheer number of cards from one set that need to be added in to even have them be functional. A different facet of this issue with heavy build-arounds comes into focus when playing with the Highlander suite. Playing a highlander deck and never drawing your highlander payoffs leads to a bad play experience, as it just feels like you made your deck worse for no actual reward, whereas if you're opponent draws every singleton card back to back it can feel like there was no possible way for you to actually out compete that kind of draw. While this form of RNG is inherent to card games, I feel as though highlander payoffs draw it into stark focus because you have 1 or 2 cards in your deck that are so far off the Jedi Curve you can win as long as you hit them, but the condition for playing them leads to an unsatisfying game if you just end up with them on the bottom of your deck.
So that's my loosely connect ramblings on why build-around cards are fun, if you read all the way through I really appreciate you because this ended up being way longer than I anticipated when I started. If anyone has any other good examples of synergy accretion and regular power creep in the comments I would love to hear it, or just leave a comment telling me why I'm wrong or if I put your favorite card in the wrong category. I'd love to hear the community as a whole speak to these sort of underlying design decisions, in my opinion it's one of the most interesting things to talk about in regards to this game. Thank you for reading, I'll be sure to respond to any criticisms/further thoughts in the comments once I get a bit of exercise.
- What are the absolute worst cards in your opinion?
- Deck of Kings (need some homebrew help)
- Unpopular Opinion?: Banning Transfer Student from Tournaments is silly
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