The Hearthstone: Saviors of Uldum AMA took place July 9th on Reddit, during which Hearthstone game designer Dean Ayala, AKA Iksar answered a question about Wild balance changes.  He said, “Barnes comes up as a topic of conversation a lot and it’s something we’ve been looking at a little closer in the last week or so as Saviors of Uldum gets closer and closer to release. One of the biggest concerns we’ve had with changing Barnes is that the Resurrect Priest deck is a favorite of many Wild players, and taking away Barnes might make it feel like they can’t play their favorite deck anymore. The spirit of Wild to some degree is that it should be a place where you can go to play your favorite deck no matter when you come back to the game. That said, there have been so many cards released that fall into the Resurrect Priest archetype that I think we could make a change to Barnes without making it feel like that deck is unable to function. We don’t have any changes planned on or before the release of Saviors of Uldum, though we’ll revisit this topic once the expansion releases and we have a better idea of what Wild looks like post-Uldum.”

Naturally, the mention of Big Priest created quite a stir on the post, mostly people arguing that ‘they nerfed deck X, why are they not nerfing Big Priest?’  What was interesting is what he said about Big Priest further down in the thread: “Unsurprisingly, some of the most loved decks are usually some [of] the most hated.”

The point Ayala may have been alluding to was that Big Priest makes people play Wild.  Big Priest is one of the few Wild decks that you will see at low ranks, high ranks, and quite often in Casual. lists in the last 30 days from Rank 25 to Legend, on all servers, approximately 36,000 Big Priest games were recorded. This is not as popular as Wild’s new hotness, Cyclone Mage, with approximately 54,000 recorded games, but higher than many other popular decks such as Odd Paladin (26,000), Murloc Shaman (23,000) and Odd Rogue (20,000). So Ayala is right; as much as Big Priest is a “feelsbad” deck to play against, it’s also immensely popular. 

The developers know Big Priest is not destroying the meta with a ridiculous win rate like Undertaker Hunter did in the early days of Hearthstone.  The deck does very poorly against aggressive decks such as Odd Paladin, Mech Hunter, Cyclone Mage, etc., especially if it doesn’t draw Barnes early.  Since Big Priest’s win rate isn’t polarizing, that makes it less of an immediate need for them to address, but the ‘most hated deck in Wild Hearthstone’ is going on two years of age soon.  Big Priest only disappeared during the few months that Star Aligner Druid ran rampant on the ladder.  Big Priest was too slow to beat it, and didn’t work well with Dirty Rat, which counters Star Aligner. 

In the past Hearthstone has nerfed decks because they weren’t fun to play against such as Patron Warrior, Kingsbane, and Quest Rogue.  As many Redditors lamented in the thread: ‘Why has Big Priest been allowed to exist for so long?’  Ayala addressed this complaint saying, “Design and balance are always a subjective thing. Which card is too powerful? Which deck archetype truly crosses the sacred boundary of fun?! It’s not an exact science. In the case of Kingsbane Rogue we thought that deck invalidated most control strategies, and it was also quite a bit more popular in Wild than Big Priest has been.”

Ayala’s replies do not totally dismiss the thought of finally nerfing the deck – particularly Barnes, but the design team wants to see how it will work with the new unrevealed Uldum cards.  Perhaps there are good Big Priest counters forthcoming. 

Regardless if they nerf Barnes or not, some players believe that the resurrect cards Eternal Servitude, Resurrection, Catrina Muerte, Lesser Diamond Spellstone, and Mass Resurrection are the real culprits of the deck’s problem.  There are only so many times a player can transform an enemy Big Priest minion with Hex, Polymorph, Devolve, and the like before finally succumbing to the parade of resurrect cards.  If a Big Priest opponent doesn’t draw Barnes, but still plays Shadow Essence into The Lich King or Ragnaros, and your answer is buried in your deck, that can feel very soul crushing.  There have been thoughts in the Hearthstone community of raising the mana cost of the cards or taking the word ‘friendly’ out of the card text when referring to the resurrected minion.  This would certainly lessen the strength of the deck, but enable it to remain as an archetype in Priest. 

The Hearthstone developers have said in the past that they favor resurrection effects being part of the flavor of Priest.  Based on that and Ayala’s previous statement saying that they could make a change to Barnes and allow Big Priest to still function, we should assume that Barnes would remain the nerf target over the resurrect cards.

There has been some precedence of playing a version of Big Priest without Barnes to success.  The thought is that having no Barnes eliminates him from polluting the resurrect pool.  Meanwhile, the Barnesless Big Priest player smartly uses removal effects to get to the late turns, just as they would if they had not drawn Barnes naturally. 

Another card that helps bridge the gap to the late game antics is Archmage Vargoth.  A newer addition to Big Priest, Vargoth is seen as another early troublesome minion.  He can frustrate Wild players almost as much as Barnes, because when Vargoth is resurrected, he casts the resurrect card again.  Vargoth, costing only four mana, can be almost just as much of a highroll in that respect. It can be very frustrating to clear a board only to have the opponent play a Lesser Diamond Spellstone that resurrects Vargoth who then casts another Spellstone refilling the board.  While Barnes is a highroll card, Vargoth can be either a highroll card or late game finisher.

If the Hearthstone developers decide to change Barnes, Big Priest would continue to exist with newer cards like Vargoth and Catrina Muerte adding more punch to the back end of the deck.  The skill to winning consistently with Big Priest has always relied on drawing early removal cards and playing them well.  It is frustrating that Big Priest has continued to high roll for nearly two years now, but the fact that Big Priest has such large player numbers means it’s actually good for the popularity of the format.  As much as Wild players complain that Blizzard ignores the Wild format, the fact that they are treading carefully with a Barnes nerf could be a good thing for the health of Wild…as strange as it seems.

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