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What's the difference between "nerf" and "debuff"?

2 Answers 2

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A nerf is typically a balance change made by developers of the game to reduce the effectiveness of an item or strategy:

January patch notes: Reduced the damage of the diamond axe from 9 to 7

A debuff on the other hand is typically a temporary status effect that is inflicted on players/characters in the game:

I got hit by a splash potion of weakness; my diamond axe only does 5 damage for the next few minutes.

Bear in mind that both of these terms share the same antonym of 'buff', which can easily lead to confusion. This would be a buff (opposite of nerf):

February patch notes: Increased the damage of the diamond axe from 9 to 10

This would also be a buff (the opposite of debuff):

I drank a potion of strength; my diamond axe now does 12 damage for the next few minutes.

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Typically, I would consider a nerf a lowering (or otherwise worsening) of the stats of a race/class/character/boss/playstyle/(etc...) in the game code (often as the result of a patch).

Debuffs tend to be more transitory - you often apply debuffs in-game to lower the stats of something for either a limited time, or until the target of the debuff dies.

There is some room for overlap...

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    One addendum: the main problem with the confusion is that the opposite of nerf and debuff is buff in both cases. A game code increase in power as well as an ability temporarily increasing your power are referred to as a buff.
    – Dulkan
    Aug 14, 2018 at 6:33

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