In the Arena Matchup series, we take a broad overview of the most powerful and most popular cards and combos each class runs in the Arena, and we discuss how and to what degree we should play around these cards. More importantly, we analyze the weaknesses of each class and outline a plan of attack to best bring down each opponent.
The Priest class, represented by Anduin Wrynn, is one of the classes making a dramatic rise in popularity in the Arena since the Naxx expansion was released, and for good reason. Always a class that needed a board to function, the Priest got a much needed early game anchor with the new Naxx class card, the Dark Cultist.
We will discuss how we can take down the new and improved Anduin by holding down the board and fully exploiting the structural vulnerabilities of an Arena Priest.
ADWCTA’s 10-Point Checklist
- Dark Cultist incoming! Save that coin.
- Clear the board, always.
- Protect 4-attack minions, keep them above 2 health.
- Play around SW:Pain and SW:Death. Why yes it is possible.
- Don’t hurt his minion, hoping to finish it off the turn. It will be healed.
- Save silences and large/hard removals for the end-game; fatties are guaranteed.
- After Turn 10, don’t play a large minion you cannot remove if it gets Mind Control-ed; make sure your minions are properly damaged.
- Leave Auchenai Soulpriest alive if you are nearing lethal. It can’t suicide onto 4-attack minions.
- Don’t let Holy Nova take down more than 2 of your minions.
- Kill Anduin.
For general Arena gameplay strategies, and explanations of the terms used (like “tempo”), check out my On Mastery of Arena series here.
The Dark Cultist
The knock against Priest has always been that this class could not hold its own in the early game. Anduin was always caught in an awkward position between (i) wanting mid-late game minions that he could heal and (ii) needing to throw small things on the board early and praying that they stuck. In the pre-Naxx world, this was a difficult balance to strike in the draft.
However, in the post-Naxx world, one card stands alone in the cold and empty void of the Priest’s early game. The Dark Cultist can trade positively for board tempo and/or card advantage in almost every situation, single-handedly revolutionizing the Priest’s early game. In fact, the only common removals that can remove the Dark Cultist for 3 mana or less either (i) belong to the Warlock and Warrior, the two least played classes in the Arena, or (ii) are valuable hard removals such as Hex, SW:Pain and Deadly Shot. Buffs like Shatter Sun Cleric, Abusive Sargent, or Dire Wolf Alpha also work if you have the board. However, this still leaves a wide swatch of situations in which we will simply not have any way to deal with the Dark Cultist. The rest of this section assumes we do not have one of the few removals, or buffs, in hand that can deal with the Dark Cultist with 3 or less mana. We will go blow by blow to see exactly what effect the Dark Cultist has on the board when it dropped as a 3-drop.
Situation #1 – Coin out a 2-drop.
Anduin goes first, passes his first turn. We coin out a Bloodfen Raptor. Anduin plays a Bloodfen Raptor. We play a second Bloodfen Raptor. Anduin plays Dark Cultist. BOOM. We have three mana and are screwed. We can trade both minions into the Dark Cultist, 2 for 1 ourselves on card advantage, and then drop a 3/3, which will die to the Priest’s new 3/5 Bloodfen Raptor. Or, we can remove Anduin’s Bloodfen Raptor first with a spell and then trade, which, will give Anduin the board the next turn to play a 4-mana minion, also known as Lightspawn or Chillwind Yeti, so we are still screwed. Or, if we’re lucky enough to have a hero power that pings (Mage, Rogue, Druid), we can do the same trade without losing a card! But, we still concede the board either way, which Anduin will continue to heal, buff, and draw cards from for the rest of the match. So, we are still screwed. Okay, that didn’t work out so well. =/
Situation #2 – Hold the coin.
Anduin goes first, passes his first turn. We pass our first turn. Anduin plays a Bloodfen Raptor. We play a Bloodfen Raptor. Anduin plays a Dark Cultist. BOOM. We have three mana, and are screwed. . . or are we? As it turns out, we still have the coin! This means we can actually coin out a Chillwind Yeti, or other 4-mana minion, which will not die to the Dark Cultist the next turn! We are not screwed. Horray! The Dark Cultist can only trade itself into our 4-drop effectively if Anduin plays a Dark Iron Dwarf. Otherwise, to the extent the Dark Cultist suicides himself into our 4-mana minion in order to trigger the deathrattle, we’re actually up a card, and still have not lost the board necessarily, because at 4-mana, we are generally free to use all of our large removals. This is a much better play than Situation #1.
Situation #3 – Play the curve.
Anduin goes second, and does nothing. We play a Bloodfen Raptor. Anduin coins out a Dark Cultist. BOOM. We have three mana, and are screwed. Well, we’re actually not that screwed. Because Anduin has used the coin, his next play will be a 3-mana play (or healing the Dark Cultist), while our next play will be 4-mana. This means by dropping a 3-mana minion this turn and attacking past the Dark Cultist, Anduin can only remove one of our two minions. If Anduin heals the Dark Cultist after removing our Bloodfen Raptor, we can trade using our other 3-drop, and give Anduin the card advantage, but keep the board. If Anduin drops another, 3-drop, we can trade for that minion using our minion, and play a 4-drop with more than 3 defense, so the Dark Cultist can only suicide onto our large minion. We are now in the same situation as Situation #2: alive and kicking on the board.
All of this is to spell out the one vital but not so obvious rule for playing against the post-Naxx Priest early game: Do not coin out the 2-drop. That is, unless we have a 3-mana removal or buff to take care of the Dark Cultist.
Nothing Shall Live
The most important thing to know about the Priest’s game is that the Arena Priest has no burst damage, and is not susceptible to burst damage. All games against Anduin are won and lost based on who controls the board throughout the entire course of the game. On top of that, Priests can heal the board at any time in a variety of ways, through hero power, Holy Nova, or Circle of Healing, so leaving any trades on the board is extremely dangerous. Therefore, it should be incredibly obvious what our first, second, and third priority should be when it comes to killing Anduin. Sadly, I have faced enough opponents as Priest to know that a shocking number of Arena players choose not to follow the only game-long rule that exists in a Priest matchup: If at all possible, clear the board. Do not be fancy. Do not hold back. Just remove everything.
If you need any more convincing, consider the micro implications of key high value Priest cards that buff Anduin’s minions. Between Power Word: Shield and Temple Enforcer, Anduin can quickly turn an even board into a dramatically unfavorable one for us. . . if we let his minions live. This means that all trades must be made until we are closing in on lethal. Consider two Bloodfen Raptors on the board, one for Anduin and one for us. If we do not affirmatively trade our Bloodfen Raptor into his, then we risk the next turn Anduin playing a Power Word: Shield and eating our Bloodfen Raptor for free (and then either healing it up to a 3/3 or dropping another 2-drop). As tempting as it is to wipe that smirk off Anduin’s face, we must hold ourselves back and make all trades on the board, even unfavorable ones. If we have an empty board, we should burn our removals first, before putting out even trades on the board.
Caveat #1 – An extra +2/3 health (depending on what turn it is) will not make a difference. If a Bloodfen Raptor is threatening our damaged Venture Co. Mercenary, that’s fine. We can still attack to the face. Anduin will need some +health combo to pull off a positive trade in this situation, and it’s really more mana/card efficient all around for him to take the good trade on the board. There is no need to play around situations where a combo is required to boost a minion’s health above the death threshold in a trade.
Caveat #2 – Anduin’s minions are smaller than our minions. Because Anduin cannot increase the attack of his minions (Priest is actually the worst class as this), we should treat the board no differently if the attack is less than our minion’s health. The typical rule we follow is to play around a possible +1 attack if we’re aggressive, and +2 attack if we’re control.
Caveat #3 – We have a large board of or good card advantage; we’re *so* ahead. Here, we can consider concentrating our attacks on Anduin himself and let him choose which target to heal, himself or his minion. Anduin may have more large minions than we can handle in his hand, but if we can spread far and wide (with minions above 2 health) and keep consistent damage to find lethal in a couple of turns, we can prevent Anduin from being able to heal his minions, because he needs to heal himself. Or, even if we are a bit slower on the lethal and Anduin gets value from healing his minion, our card advantage may still allow us to replenish our minions on the board faster than he can remove them.
Fours are Sacred
By now, having diligently cleared the board each turn and played around the Dark Cultist, we should be in the fight for the board. Now, let’s make sure we can hold onto this thing for good. The way to hold onto a board against the Priest is by dropping, creating, and then protecting our 4-attack minions.
Because a Priest only has two common cards which deal direct damage, and they deal only two damage each, Anduin is forced to use his board to remove our 4-attack minions. Further, with any board presence, we can also be sure to take away all good/neutral trades available on the board for Anduin that remove our 4-attack minions. If we succeed in keeping our 4-attack minions above 2 health, then they are all effectively Faerie Dragons and Spectral Knights. At worst, a 4-attack minion should trade 2 for 1 in card advantage, but our real goal is to make sure Anduin has no way to remove these guys at all.
Our first 4-attack minion should be played as soon as possible. We’ll get deeper into the tempo swings in the next section, but for now, know that early-mid game tempo swings have much greater impact on the board relative to late-game tempo swings. So, a 4-attack minion early stabilizes our board and forces Anduin to play all the tricks in his book of non-class cards (such as Dark Iron Dwarf or Shatter Sun Cleric or charge minions).
We can follow this initial 4-attack minion with as many 4-attack minion plays as we have, except for the last one in our hand. So long as we are in a fight for the board, and to the extent we have other options, we should save our last 4-attack minion for when the coast is clear. By holding a 4-attack minion back, we bait out all of Anduin’s removals that can actually affect 4-drops, such as charge minions or Holy Fire. Nothing breaks a Priest’s back more than a 4-attack minion after he’s exhausted all of his removal resources in the earlier fight for the board on our less important minions.
We can also create 4-attack minions on the fly with buffs and control the growth of cards like Questing Adventurer and Flesheating Ghoul to keep them at 4 attack for one turn at least.
Shadow Word: Tempo
Okay, so if all of our cards are 4-attack minions, we’ll kill Anduin. Unfortunately for this matchup, our Arena decks consist of a wide variety of minions, most of which do not have exactly 4 attack. All of our other minions are vulnerable to two difficult to play around hard removals that win games by getting Anduin onto the board: Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Word: Death. Effectively playing around these two cards (and Dark Cultist) when we have the board can completely shut down the Arena Priest.
Shadow Word: Pain. For 2 mana, Anduin can remove anything that has 3 or less attack. This covers most 3-drops, half of the 4-drops, and even some 5-drops, gaining Anduin 1 tempo, 2 tempo, and 3 tempo respectively. Consider a typical 2-mana removal like Frostbolt, which allows removal of 3-drops with 2-mana (same gain of 1 tempo), removal of 4-drops with 4/6 mana (even tempo, or loss of 2 tempo), and a general inability to remove 5-drops. In no case is the Frostbolt (a top-value card) getting more than 1 tempo! On the other hand, Shadow Word: Pain can gain up to triple that amount of tempo. This is a huge difference-maker on the board as it is the equivalent of giving the Priest a free Innervate (or better). While we cannot play around this card forever, we can limit its damage by not providing early high-value targets for this card. Instead, if we have the option to do so while using our mana efficiently, we should play smaller (3 or less mana) or larger (3+ attack) minions. As a general rule, do not provide 4-mana targets before turn 6, or 5-mana targets before turn 8. Of course, this rule can be broken if we get a good read, such as “he does not have a 2/3 drop”, or if we actively want him to put down smaller minions because the negative tempo effect of a large minion on the board would be worse for us than 2 or 3 tempo. In such a case, the effective opportunity cost of playing this card for Anduin instead of dropping a large minion may be more than simply 2 mana.
Shadow Word: Death. For 3 mana, Anduin can remove anything that has 5 or more attack. This covers a couple 4-drops, some 5-drops, and most 6+ drops, gaining Anduin 1 tempo, 2 tempo, and 3 tempo respectively. The analysis is generally the same as above. However, in addition to delaying playing our high attack minions, because this card can remove most of our biggest threats, we should also try to bait out the card first by playing less threatening targets if we have the option (for example, playing a Lord of the Arena before a Stormwind Champion or Ironbark Protector). Whereas giving Anduin +2 tempo via Shadow Word: Pain on turn 5 is not great, giving him +2 tempo via Shadow Word: Death on turn 5 is more acceptable if you have larger minions to follow up with on later turns.
Mind Control. Finally, one of the largest potential swings in tempo and card advantage comes from Anduin using Mind Control on one of our large minions. While the card may seem scary, it’s actually one of the easiest to play around removals in the game. As long as we don’t drop large minions after Anduin has 10 mana, he will not have any mind control targets, so we actually control when Anduin can use this card. If we have a removal, we can play anything we want, as Mind Control is just a 2 for 1 card that takes the entire turn. However, if we do not have a removal, we need to set up the board so that we can remove any one of our own minions with another minion (or two unimportant ones). This includes making sure our large minions that are already on the board before turn 10 get properly damaged so that we can remove them if they turn on us. Remember, the Priest has no damage-dealing removals that deal more than 2 damage, so hurting your large minions has very little consequence on the board state. Because this card is such a huge swing in the game on a proper target, I always play around it in this way until my opponent has no cards left in his hand. In some cases when I have the board, this means skipping a turn rather than play a huge minion I can’t remove into a Mind Control.
About the Author
ADWCTA enjoys long runs in the Arena, yelling Lok’tar Ogar! in public places, and thinking deep thoughts about Hearthstone’s game design. He started playing Hearthstone in open beta and has been a top-level Arena player since launch. He averages 8.0+ wins/run with his top 6 classes. He is also a Legend-level Ranked player, but thinks that’s way less awesome than his Arena record.
ADWCTA produces all of his Hearthstone Arena content with fellow infinite Arena player Merps, and together they developed the most-consulted Arena Tier List for all your Arena needs.
ADWCTA & Merps also live stream the “Lightforge” podcast (available on all podcast platforms) with deep discussions about the Arena meta and gameplay techniques, as well as the “Arena Coop” gameplay series, providing in-depth commentary on every pick and play to give the stream a coaching vibe. ADWCTA thinks listening to the Lightforge and watching the Arena Coop is the very best way to improve your game. He may be wrong, but why you take that risk? Check out both series on YouTube, and follow live on Twitch.