Why Overload is the Worst Mechanic in Hearthstone

Why Overload is the Worst Mechanic in Hearthstone Hot

JackwraithJackwraith   October 09, 2015  
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Overload, intended to be an advantage for the Shaman class, instead is one of the main factors in the class' inability to be competitive in constructed play, largely because it works against the essential tempo of the game.


I believe Hearthstone is meant to be a fairly rapid game. Like most card games, it can run anywhere from a couple minutes to over half an hour. Given the differences between it and its obvious forebear (Magic: The Gathering), I think Hearthstone was intended to be played in a time period even faster than your average MTG game. The most obvious reason is mana access. In MTG, you're restricted by the number of land/mana generator cards that you draw. If you're mana screwed, it's going to take you longer to get your deck moving in a winning direction, provided that you win at all. Mana flood often introduces the same problem. This is why MTG has so many search/reshuffle mechanisms and why Hearthstone has so few. In Hearthstone, you gain 1 mana, every turn, like clockwork. Your ability to play your hand is restricted by your ability to draw the right cards to keep tempo. The fact that your deck is half the size of a typical MTG deck, that minions function differently, and a few other things are also contributors toward that faster pace and, consequently, the importance of tempo.

Lightning Bolt

MTG decks can function without tempo. If it takes you a couple more turns to get rolling, unless you're facing an extreme aggro/burn deck, it's usually OK if you miss a drop here or there. When you do get a drop, you can always use any creature in the game as a blocker, so putting down a 2-drop on turn 6 isn't the same loss of rhythm as it is in Hearthstone, since that creature will still possess the basic utility needed to help keep you alive (in most circumstances.) Overload was designed to help Shamans "cheat" the strict mana progression of the game. By letting them play more powerful or equivalent cards for, typically, one less mana, Shamans were supposed to have an edge. Your opponent Coins out a 2-drop on turn 1? No problem. Your turn 1 response is to cast Lightning Bolt and you've 2-for-1'd him. Card advantage! His turn 2 response is to play a 2/3 or 3/2. Your turn 2 response is... nothing. Unless you have another Bolt or Rockbiter, you do nothing and you've surrendered the tempo and, thus, the advantage to your opponent. Now, he has board control and will drop something else on turn 3. Your turn 3 response will be to drop 1 minion, which he kills with his first and from then on, you're playing catch-up unless he misses a drop. In that respect, Overload actually works directly contrary to its intended purpose. Instead of giving the Shaman class the initiative, it steals it from them because they're unable to keep pace with the natural rhythm of the game. For the next turn, their opponent's mana pool grows like it should, but the Shaman's is stunted.

Lightning Storm

The situation gets even worse with other cards like Lightning Storm; to date, the Shaman's only reasonable AoE spell. A turn 3 cast of Lightning Storm to wipe out a rush board from a Hunter means that on turn 2, the Shaman can only cast a 2-drop or summon a totem in response to his opponent's 4-drop. You've now lost two turns of tempo as a consequence of playing what should be a devastating response to the opponent's initiative (I won't even get into the fact that Lightning Storm is afflicted with the Shaman's other problem (RNG) and often doesn't even clear the board, in addition to putting the Shaman behind the pace of the game.) What that loss of tempo represents is most easily identified by an economic concept: opportunity cost. When you play an Overload card, you're paying several costs. One of them is the mana used to play it on that turn. Another is the opportunity to play another card that turn. Another is the opportunity to have had a different card in your hand or in your deck. All of those are the standard costs of competitive card games of this nature. But Overload tacks on an additional cost: the opportunity to play a card on the following turn. In the end, that makes Overload cards more costly than their counterparts even if their raw mana cost (forgetting tempo for the moment) is identical. Lightning Bolt costs two mana. So does Darkbomb. But Darkbomb's opportunity cost only affects one turn, whereas Lightning Bolt's affects two. Hellfire costs 4 mana and damages both players. Lightning Storm costs 5 and may not even clear the board as well as Hellfire does. This gets worse when you look at other cards like Ancestral Knowledge, which costs more mana than comparable spells lke Arcane Intellect and still carries the greater opportunity cost.

The problem has been apparent since the game went into general release and became even more stark with the game's first major expansion, Goblins vs. Gnomes. By that time, Shaman had largely disappeared from competitive play and has never had a period where it had a place among the dominant deck archetypes, in contrast to every other class in the game. This is a consequence of several factors, including the aforementioned RNG, but also because not only is Overload a flawed mechanic for the current game, but also because many of the initial Overload cards, intended to be more powerful on the turn they're played, simply aren't. Several classes have cards that deal 3 damage for comparable mana cost to Lightning Bolt. Feral Spirit, once considered a staple despite the crippling Overload on turn 4, is now not only easily swept aside but considered an extreme drawback against one of the dominant decks of the moment: Patron Warrior (although that is, certainly, a coincidence of timing.) Blizzard's response when the problem became starkly apparent after GvG was to release two Shaman cards in Blackrock Mountain that addressed the problem from different angles: Lava Shock and Fireguard Destroyer.

Fireguard DestroyerLava Shock

Fireguard is simply a more powerful Overload card. No other 4-drop in the game has the collected stats of Fireguard except the likewise BRM-released Hungry Dragon, which comes with its own drawback. But the problem with Fireguard is that's all it is: a collection of stats. Certain incredibly stat-efficient but ability-less cards like Chillwind Yeti still occasionally make their way into constructed decks, but most of the time minions are played for their stats and their abilities. No one plays Bloodfen Raptor in constructed. Many decks play Knife Juggler. Fireguard has one more guaranteed point of Toughness than Yeti and a potential 1-3 more points of Attack (there's that RNG again.) But it won't slow down a Face Hunter deck nor will it stop the Patron combo. It has a 1 in 4 chance of not being targeted by Shadow Word: Death and a 1 in 4 chance of being targeted by Big Game Hunter. There's a 50% chance it won't even be able to deal with Mysterious Challenger when it comes out. Oh, and the guy who played the Yeti? He'll be able to play a 5-drop next turn. The Shaman won't. Fireguard makes a solid Arena card but, even then, you're running the risk of losing tempo where it's often even more important than in constructed. But it only sees play in competitive constructed decks because Shaman lacks good 4-drops. Lava Shock, OTOH, tried to address the problem from the mana side. For the price of two mana, you can eliminate the locks on your crystals both this turn and next turn. But the problem, again, is tempo: you have to pay 2 mana to do this! If you locked up your mana on turn 4 with Lightning Storm, you can release it with Lava Shock, but then you still only have 2 mana to use on turn 4. You still can't play a 4-drop, which is a loss of tempo. Furthermore, the Shock itself is woefully inefficient in comparison to other classes, many of which have cards that deal 2 damage to any target for 1 mana, like Holy Smite, or have cards that deal 2 damage for 2, but come with an added benefit, like Slam. Lava Shock tries to shore up a weakness in Shaman and does so with a mana-inefficient card. It's why even in Shaman decks that aspired to be competitive like Mech Shaman, Lava Shock rarely made an appearance. First, it's a bad card. Second, all competitive decks strive to avoid Overload because of its crippling effect.

Totem Golemimage

The developers acknowledged that Shaman needed help when they announced The Grand Tournament. With it came cards like Healing Wave (RNG and deck design dependent) and Totem Golem (Overload.) The Golem seems like a great card: a 3/4 for 2 mana. No other 2-drop comes close to competing with those stats except Milhouse Manastorm and no one wants to see that card except when it emerges from your dead Piloted Shredder. But, again, it's really 3 mana and, on turn 3, you're a step behind, often only able to summon a totem and hope you get Healing Stream to heal the damage the Golem takes from clearing your opponent's board. Plus, like the Fireguard, it's a collection of stats with no other ability except to hinder yours. In the end, the only card for which Overload isn't a significant hindrance is Stormforged Axe because the Axe can actually be used without being hindered by Overload in the subsequent turn and beyond and can't simply be wiped off the board or ignored like Golem can be, barring 3 other cards in the entire game (Ooze, Harrison, Sabotage.) The Axe can be directly compared to weapons like Coghammer. The latter pays an extra mana to give a minion Taunt and Divine Shield while the Axe gets played a turn earlier. Yes, the Coghammer is the vastly superior card for being played a turn later (or the same turn with Coin) and that about sums up the situation: Overload cards are weaker than their direct counterparts and more costly, which is why they're largely avoided in constructed play and half the reason that the Shaman class is not competitive, being given its own tier in Tempostorm's latest analysis of Hearthstone competitive play. If that's ever going to change, Overload has to be revised.

Posted: 09 Oct 2015 09:42 by Gary Sax #212214
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Great post! I love seeing people with CCG experience breaking down Heartstone, rather than pure videogame players who have only gotten on board with thinking about these things recently.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 10:24 by Jackwraith #212221
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Thanks. Some card images and the link to Tempostorm didn't make it. I'll try to get those cleaned up.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 13:40 by Jexik #212235
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The totems are pretty cool, and unique to the class.

But they're only what you really want about 1/4 of the time. That new Thunder Bluff Valiant guy is pretty cool.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 14:36 by engelstein #212237
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As an exercise, how could we change Overload to work?

I like the 'borrowing mana from the future' idea. It should really make Shaman a mega-rush deck. However, as you say, the edge isn't enough to carry you through the next turn of low mana.

What we need to do is change the way that the mana is paid back. Here are a few off-the-cuff ideas, most of which are probably completely unworkable:

1. You choose which turn to pay back your Overload debt. It just keeps accumulating if you keep playing Overload cards until you decide to pay it. HOWEVER - You must pay it back the next turn once you hit 10 mana. In other words, Once you hit 10 mana it goes back to the current Overload mechanic.

I like this idea because it gives you more control over what happens. And by 10 mana you often have extra anyway. Also, the decision on when to take it becomes a bit more strategic.

2. Same as #1, but 10 mana you instead take all the overload points as damage, instead of mana loss. Or maybe have a choice or something.

3. Overload doesn't cost you mana next turn. Instead you burn that many cards off of your deck.

All of these ideas will push Shaman into being more of a rush class. But it seems like that's kinda what Overload wants to be anyway.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 15:09 by iguanaDitty #212243
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The overload value is actually life points paid? Obviously not an issue early in the game but could be bad late. Probably too close thematically to where Warlock is at though.

Overload is the same but also allows you to pick which totem you get next? I like this one, it gives you both a benefit and a drawback.

Overload actually hits in two turns? Probably too complicated to keep track of.

Rather than hurt you Overload gives your opponent x mana? This is probably terrible.

I like the burn that many cards off your deck one.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 16:03 by Erik Twice #212247
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That was a great read, as an outsider I can see why it would be poor.

From what I see, I'm not surprised that most of these cards are underpowered or not actually better than the default, non-time consuming spell. It seems misguided to me to try to build the basics of a faction, the meat and potatoes of it, with something as inherently unstable as "get the benefit now, pay later". When it comes down to it, I cannot see any benefit to making a Lighting Bolt (or whatever Hearthstone's equivalent is called) more complicated because the effect is not the interesting part of the card.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 17:04 by Jackwraith #212250
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Engelstein, those are some good ideas. Like Iquanaditty, I think the life point one (although thematically similar to what used to be called "mana burn" in MTG) is probably closer to Warlock territory than Blizzard would like. However, it would fall in line with the "supercharged with the elements" theme that Shaman has been known for in WoW. If Overload burned cards, I'd be even less likely to play it in Control decks for the same reason I wouldn't play Fel Reaver: every card has a precise reason for being present in the deck and I want to draw them faster, not burn them. That concept would work for Shaman aggro, but not for control or combo decks, so we'd probably need something more general.

I like the "pay later" concept best once you get into the superfluous mana stage, but I wonder if that wouldn't be TOO aggro-oriented, such that a Shaman Zoo deck would be so enabled by the speed of Overload that it would be irrelevant for them to pay it on turn 5 once they'd dumped their hand? Of course, that sounds like a mechanic with an actual bonus to it, right? I think what Blizzard is attempting with most of their class mechanics is a bonus for wise play (like Rogue's Combo mechanic) and a penalty for unwise play (also like Combo, because you can easily dump your hand too quickly and stall in the midgame.) The problem with Overload is that it's almost universally poor because of the overall pace of the game, which is something that I think they failed to anticipate (and why Face Hunter is so reviled but also so widely played in order to get out of the lower ranks for the first week of every season.)

I think their approach has been to create ever more powerful Overload cards to try to make the mechanic enticing. But they cut back on the overall power of the cards in the last two expansions (BRM and TGT) such that Totem Golem still isn't generally worth its cost. (TGT has been largely rejected for top-level competitive play because the cards in GvG and Naxx are so much more powerful/useful. Unfortunately, the "power" cards that were supposed to save Shaman still can't compete with the strength and speed of the current meta. My initial thought was simply that Overload needs to be removed. Not all of the classes even have mechanics that identify them. Rogue has Combo, but Mage and Warrior and Priest don't have mechanics. They have themes (Spells, self/minion damage, healing/capture, respectively.) Shaman, OTOH, has two mechanics (Overload and RNG) that are central to the class' play and neither of them are productive in the current game; similar to how Warlock's discard isn't, as most Warlock players go out of their way to avoid it, since random discard in 30-card decks is too high a price to pay for what most of the cards do.

I guess what I'd consider a proper exercise of Overload is a constant presence of the resulting effect. So, you pay Overload for Feral Spirit and next turn both wolves gain +1/+1 or you summon a third. You pay Overload for Lightning Bolt and next turn the static charge it generated hits another random enemy for 2 damage. Either of those effects means that even if you're not able to keep pace with your opponent, at least the mana you're unable to use on that next turn contributes in some way to the board state. Or something more general (in order to minimize card descriptions) such as: You play Feral Spirit and, if you choose to pay the Overload next turn, you get an extra draw at the end of your turn (thus assisting with another significant Shaman problem: draw.) Perhaps there's no choice, as I don't have a good idea in mind for NOT paying it. You'd still lose tempo, but at least you'd gain some card advantage.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 20:06 by jeb #212252
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Would it make any difference if Overload just impacted the next available mana? Like, it's turn 3, I can Rockbiter Weapon {1) and Crackle {2 o1} for the experience we're all familiar with. OR, I could just Crackle {2 o1} and "give up" that third mana this turn. Is that the same? Worse? Better? I feel like it lets you better "control" your Overload, amortizing it across turns. If you are in topdeck mode, a late game Elemental Destruction {4 o5} could make a lot of your deck uncastable next turn in the current regime, but in my proposed regime, it only effects this turn. Curious about your thoughts.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 21:55 by Jackwraith #212253
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Hm. It seems like what it would add up to is a more flexible approach, since if you don't need to use that spare mana, you can use it to fulfill the Overload. But does that mean you'd still be paying the inflated costs of some of the cards? Lightning Storm isn't worth 5 mana. The only reason it's used is because of the lack of options. At this point, I don't think Feral Spirit is worth 5, either, but Bolt and Crackle and a couple others would work better under your proposal. I wonder how the UI would function? Would it just burn the available mana if you didn't use it? That kind of automation would seem to make the most sense.
Posted: 10 Oct 2015 01:42 by Jackwraith #212259
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OK. Did some editing to put the pics and the TS link back in.