When Card Games Break

This video is brought to you by Squarespace. Whether you need a domain, website, or online store, make it with Squarespace. In my home town’s middle school cafeteria, the card game lunch room nerds were divided into 3 different tables: The Yugioh Nerds, The Magic nerds, and the Pokémon nerds. Actually, there was a fourth table – the Digimon nerds, but I mean, come on. I used to float between all of them as a spectator, but I remember one such day The Yugioh Table was in an uproar, because Upper Deck had released a new expansion pack that introduced a game-breaking combo which essentially allowed any player to win on their first turn if they could pull it off.

It worked like this… The card Catapult Turtle allowed its owner to sacrifice a monster on their side of the field and deduct half of that monster’s Attack Points from the opponent’s Life Total. Which is a pretty cool move, although because you can only have a maximum of 5 monsters on the field at a time, it had its limits.

However, when combined with the newly released Magical Scientist, this limit was essentially nullified. This card allowed the player to Special Summon virtually any number of creatures to the field immediately, which would then be loaded up on the Catapult, and shot at the opposing player (repeatedly) until their life points reached zero. Basically, if you got these two cards onto the field at the same time, the game was over. And, often you could pull this combo off on turn one, before your opponent even had a chance to play. The kids at the lunch room table were incredibly bummed out, because, naturally, all of them made decks centered around this combo – and when everybody is just trying to get an instant win, the game is no longer competitive, and, y’know, it stops being fun. I was reminded of that little episode a couple months ago when Hearthstone, one of the most popular online trading card games today, released a new expansion, and, in it, a minion whose special effect caused a similar controversy.

It seemed amazing to me that, over a decade later, some of the SAME design mistakes continue to plague the world’s most popular games. And that raised a compelling question in my mind that I want to discuss today – namely – what happens when you break a card game? (Sweet jazz music plays.) So, let’s talk about Shudderwock.

(Dope drum beat.) In April of 2018, Blizzard released The Witchwood, the eighth expansion to their online card game Hearthstone. It included a slew of new card mechanics, and it experimented with the existing ones by turning them on their heads and implementing them in new and exciting ways. The one we want to focus on is Battlecry. Basically, if a card has a Battlecry effect, then that effect activates when the card is played. It’s the easiest mechanic to understand.

This card has a Battlecry effect that Restores 3 Health. That means when you play this card from your hand, your health is, y’know, restored by 3. Easy peasy, right? But it gets more complicated than that.

There are TONS of Battlecry cards in the game, some with REALLY powerful effects – and while up to that point Blizzard had (arguably) done a good job of keeping the STACKING POTENTIAL of these cards under control, in WITCHWOOD, they decided to try something crazy. Enter Shudderwock. Shudderwock is a 9-mana card, which means you’re usually able to play it on that turn number. Probably means nothing to most of you, but essentially, this is what you call a LATE GAME card. As a match between two opponents progresses, the cards get more and more powerful. Your mana tops off on turn 10, so a 9-mana card usually signifies something with extreme power.

And Shudderwock doesn’t disappoint. It’s a 6 attack, 6 health creature. But the REALLY splashy part is its Battlecry effect, which simply reads: “Repeat all other Battlecries from cards you played this game. (Targets chosen randomly).” This is a crazy and incredibly over-the-top effect, and one that is really only suited for an online card game like Hearthstone. After all, online games have a built-in memory that keeps track of each card, and the order in which it’s played during the match.

Imagine trying to implement an effect like this during a tabletop game of Magic: The Gathering. A player would have to manually sort through all of his or her cards played during the match to figure out which Battlecries needed to be repeated, and, as far as selecting targets randomly, I guess you’d need to assign each potential target on the field with a number and either have a compatible die or random number generator to figure out which card is targeted with which effect, which is a headache in and of itself, and would take forever. Figuring it all out would be incredibly cumbersome and, most importantly, the opposite of fun gameplay. So, in theory, Hearthstone’s online arena, which does ALL that calculation and randomization instantly is the perfect environment to try out such a chaotic card effect. In *practice*, however, well – see for yourself. So, this is ME verses some random guy.

Hi, random guy. I’m playing a deck which is centered around Shudderwock’s ability. (Which by the way, in order to get Shudderwock, requires players to spend about $60 on the expansion pack, and even THEN you might not manage to pull the card from one of the randomly generated booster packs, meaning you’ll need to try again and keep spending more and more money until you get it.) Long story short, I finally got mine.

So the game’s proceeding normally. Plenty of fun and flashy animations. Hearthstone does this so well. It’s part of why it’s been so successful as a game.

We’re on turn ten, I’m all set up, I finally get to drop Shudderwock onto the field and THIS is the exact moment that the game stops being fun. You’ll see why in just a bit. So to pull Shudderwock’s one turn kill off, you need to play a combination of different cards earlier in the game, with the idea being that these smaller Battlecries, when repeated by Shudderwock later all at once, will be enough to overwhelm your opponent and drop their life points to 0.

These are the cards in question: Lifedrinker (a sort of mosquito fellow): whose Battlecry basically sucks 3 life points from your opponent and gives them to you. Saronite Chain Gang: A really annoying Minion whose battlecry causes it to make a copy of itself the moment you summon it. And Grumble, Worldshaker, whose Battlecry returns all other minions on the field to their owner’s hand and reduces their Mana cost to just 1.

Alone, these Battlecries are tough enough to deal with during a match. But when you play Shudderwock AFTER them, well… just try and follow me. Let’s say you’ve played ALL these cards in the early game, and now that it’s late game, you have enough Mana to play Shudderwock. Shudderwock enters the game, and its ability triggers – it now will recast all previous Battlecries you’ve used during the match. So it repeats the Lifedrinker Battlecry, sucking 3 health from your opponent and giving you a 3 health boost.

So far so good – in fact, let’s say you managed to play TWO Lifedrinkers before Shudderwock drops, that’s 6 health sucked from your opponent! But THEN Shudderwock uses Saronite Chain Gang’s Battlecry, meaning it summons a copy of itself. But wait a minute! That means this NEW Shudderwock’s Battlecry is activated… which means Lifedrinker’s Battlecry is activated again, sucking ANOTHER 6 life from your opponent. And then THAT Shudderwock uses Saronite Chain Gang’s Battlecry… so IT creates a copy of ITSELF and then the copy of the copy’s Battlecry starts, and… well, you see what happens, right?

Eventually your board FILLS with Shudderwocks… and even if your opponent somehow manages to survive because your turn reached its time limit…. I mean, what are they even supposed to do against a board like this? And remember – you played Grumble, Worldshaker too, so most of those Shudderwock copies will go to your hand, with a reduced cost of 1. So on your next turn, you literally have a hand FULL of 1-Mana Shudderwocks to play, who will all create even more copies, and then THOSE copies will create copies… you get it by now. Plus, just for fun you could play Murmuring Elemental before dropping your first Shudderwock, and it will ensure its Battlecry triggers twice, if you want this whole routine to last even longer. Now, in THEORY, this ridiculously over-the-top late game combo should be pretty funny and neat to watch, but here’s the problem: When a Battlecry effect happens in Hearthstone, a corresponding game animation plays.

For a normal match, no big deal – you play a card and it’s got a neat little 3-second flurry you get to watch before you can play your next card. But imagine being caught in a constant loop of those 3-second flurries – that’s not really fun to sit through, right? Right. Not only is it not fun for my opponent, it’s not fun for ME.

I literally am forced to wait and stare at my phone while the Battlecry animations play out, unable to do any kind of input. Because you can’t do anything until a card’s effect resolves – and this one, well, didn’t. (Shudderwock’s Battlecry animation playing again and again and again and again and again and again……) You basically had to just watch until someone’s health finally dropped down to 0. Here’s an extremely sped up version of me playing Shudderwock. I’m not doing anything, here. This is just a solid 3-4 minutes of nothing but Battlecry animations.

I’m going to win. The second I played the card, I knew the match was over, my opponent knew the match was over – but both of us had to wait for the process to play out before we could start a new game. If you’re the loser, this is infuriating. You’re essentially forced to watch yourself lose for several minutes. It’s demoralizing, feels like a total waste of time, and it makes you want to stop playing. If you’re the winner… this gets old.

Really, really fast. After its release, The Shudderwock Situation became so bad on Hearthstone’s servers that lots of players would just automatically resign when they were matched against the deck type because they just didn’t want to have to waste time playing against it. A slow-paced Shudderwock deck can drag the time of a single match to upwards of 23 minutes – half an hour if they’re purposely trolling you. Would you want to sit through a half-hour game that you know you’re just going to lose… especially when, in that time, you know you could play at least two OTHER matches and have a decent shot of winning them? Of course not. And this game-breaking combo was so dispiriting, that, just like in the middle school cafeteria, lots of players became so frustrated that they just didn’t want to play anymore.

I sort-of had an on-and-off relationship with Hearthstone myself, but after a day or two of dealing with Shudderwock – I decided to quit the game, and I’ve never played it since. For Blizzard’s part, they EVENTUALLY got around to addressing the issue. After a month of letting Shudderwock rip through the metagame, they released a patch that attempted to alleviate the issue by doubling the animation speed of Shudderwock’s effect, and giving it a 20 Battlecry limit. This isn’t the first time Blizzard has attempted to fix a broken mechanic.

They regularly alter the properties of certain cards in a process called ‘nerfing’ to try and keep the game balanced. But that raises an ethical question, namely: If YOU were a player who spent $60 dollars or more to get hold of a certain card so that you could remain competitive, and then the makers of the game CHANGED how that card worked so that it no longer had the same properties you sought in the first place… Do they have any obligation to compensate you? This opens up a bigger discussion about the nature of online card games as a whole, compared to tabletop. If you buy a physical card that gets nerfed for competitive organized play (or placed on some kind of restricted list, which is more often the case) you can still theoretically play games privately using that card as it was originally released – and, in that way, retain a little bit of the original purchase value. But in an online system that can LITERALLY change the text and value on every card you purchase at any time without your consent or even warning, what are you actually purchasing?

In that sense, do you even own the card? And, where should game designers draw the line? Because, after all, you can apply this same conundrum to ANY kind of game in the digital era in which we now live. In 1997, I could go to the store, purchase a video game, and I could trust that the game would play the same way every time I turned it on. I knew what I was buying, in a sense. But today, when I purchase a game through an ONLINE service, that game will likely be routinely patched – sometimes altering the game so much that after a year or two, it bears little to no resemblance to what I originally purchased.

This CAN be a positive, but, in a game like Hearthstone which has a regular rotation of cards and gameplay mechanics, the negatives can often be glaring. These days, games are perishable items. Just like milk, they have a shelf life. They will not stay the same after you purchase them, even if you want them to.

Does this mean that gamers need to adjust their expectations? Or, do designers need to be more accommodating to their customer base? I can’t give you an answer to these questions because I don’t know the answer.

But I’d love to hear what you think in the comments. One thing’s for sure: card games have come a very long way since I played them as a kid, and I find myself both excited and scared to see where they go from here. Big thanks to this video’s sponsor, Squarespace. Hey, do you have an idea for a website? I promote Squarespace often on this channel, and that’s because I believe in them.

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Talk to you again, soon.