Arena Matchups: Killing Thrall

ADWCTA discusses how you can minimize the value of powerful Shaman class cards, and fully exploit the Shaman's vulnerabilities in the Arena.


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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 Shaman class, represented by Thrall, has a veritable Swiss army knife of elemental spells, weapons, minions, and totems to dissect anyone who gets in the way. Even without a hero power that pings for damage, the Shaman has stayed at the top of the Arena class rankings since the game’s release.

We will discuss how we can avoid destruction at the hands of the elements by fully exploiting the structural vulnerabilities of an Arena Shaman.

ADWCTA’s 10-Point Checklist

  1. Avoid dropping a 2-health minion into his turn 2 if there is another option.
  2. Keep your minions at 4 health or above, where possible.
  3. Trade away lower health minions away asap.
  4. Prioritize clearing totems over non-threatening minions, and non-lethal face damage.
  5. Have a backup plan for Flametongue Totem / Mana Tide Totem / overload clears.
  6. Keep track of how much he’s overloaded the next turn, and feel safe playing vulnerable minions.
  7. Bait overload cards like Forked Lightning or Stormforged Axe before turns 4 and 6.
  8. Keep in mind Bloodlust and Windfury lethal.
  9. Hold onto that Mind Control Tech / mass removal, it will get value later on.
  10. Kill Thrall.

For general Arena gameplay strategies, and explanations of the terms used (like “tempo”), check out my On Mastery of Arena series here.

The Elements Will Destroy You

Can’t say we weren’t warned. The elements will destroy us. Let’s start by taking a deeper look at Thrall’s gallery of small removals in order to isolate his weaknesses.

Stormforged Axe. This card wins games. As good as the Fiery War Axe is, a Stormforged Axe on turn 2 to remove a 3/2 minion followed by a 2-drop or another one of Thrall’s small removals will more often than not win the game right there. With a 2-charge weapon in hand, Thrall can effectively trade 1:1 at worst with any of his minions against any of ours, twice. And, if he doesn’t find a good spot to use the remaining charges, he can still hold the weapon forever without penalty. The Stormforged Axe effectively removes a 2-drop and then also prevents us from making two good trades over the course of the game. The tempo value here is massive. So, is there anything we can do? A solid 3-drop on Thrall’s overloaded next turn (where he can only drop a 2-drop) will be a good first step to forcing another use of the Axe, but it’s hardly up to us whether we have a 3-drop in our hand. There are only three kinks to the Stormforged Axe, and to the extent we are in a position to abuse one of these factors, we should:

  1. Put a 2/3 or higher health/deathrattle minion out before Thrall’s turn 2, and drop the 3/2 minion the turn after. This prevents the Axe from coming out on curve. If Thrall is to use the Axe on turn 3, he will likely waste the lingering mana, and then be overloaded on the key turn 4;
  2. In connection with this, the mulligan phase is critical, and 2/3s and 3-drops should be mulliganed for aggressively. This does not mean we should mulligan away 3/2s or early removal, but it does mean we should keep premium 3-drops that require two hits, even when we have no 2-drops yet;
  3. Thrall gets hurt by the Axe. Three uses of the Axe will usually cost Thrall ~10 health. Unlike a Warrior, Thrall the Shaman (strangely) cannot heal himself in this game. So, any strategies with burst or Hunter should seek to take back the game in the mid-game to put enough damage on Thrall to force him to make inefficient trades for the rest of the game.

Of course, it is not always possible to do any of this, but to the extent any of these options are available, we should do it.

Rockbiter Weapon, Lightning Bolt. Okay, so we’ve dropped a 2/3 minion instead of the 3/2 minion as instructed. The very next turn, on his turn 2, Thrall uses Rockbiter Weapon or Lightning Bolt and removes our minion. It didn’t work! Sure it did. Thrall’s now missing the other two charges from his Axe in hand, and if it’s a Lightning Bolt, he’s also overloaded so the trade is essentially his 2 mana for your 2 mana, all while anti-ramping (also known as overloading) himself so that he can’t play a 3-drop the next turn. It’s a huge win for us, actually. The existence of these two cards also means that if Thrall drops a 2-drop in response to our 2-drop, we should absolutely trade to prevent the turn 3 removal + another 2-drop play for Thrall (that is, unless we have a small removal in hand as insurance). Otherwise, these are just normal, mana-efficient, removal spells.

Forked Lightning. Also known as the master of overload. This removal absolutely crushes the dreams of inexperience Shamans who mismanage their overload. It is not vital to always play around this card on Thrall’s turn 3, for example, because the loss of tempo for Thrall on his turn 4 will be devastating to his board position. In fact, you should be glad to give up two 2-health minions (which, as we’ve seen in the Stormforged Axe section, are not terribly valuable against Thrall), to be more or less guaranteed the board going into the mid-game. This card is far more dangerous in the late game, where 2 overloaded mana crystals is less important, and where it can remove larger damaged minions. At that point there isn’t much we can do but put out more low-value small minions or high health minions and hope that the RNG works in our favor.

Fire Elemental. Possibly the best common card in the Arena game. This card can be temporarily jammed by forcing an overload on Thrall’s turn 5, or by trading away all vulnerable targets before Thrall’s turn 6. We shouldn’t go crazy with playing around this card though, as even in the best case scenario, Thrall will just combo the Fire Elemental on turn 7 with a spell to remove our large minion. As long as there’s no 4/1 target or higher for the Fire Elemental to take out, we should be satisfied. Note that in the late game, there is rarely any significant difference between having 1 health and having 2 health on a minion when facing a Shaman.

As you can see. . . that is a *lot* of class cards that more or less do the same thing. A typical Arena Shaman will have more than enough small removals to absolutely wreck everything you put out at 3 health or less. The way to really put Thrall in a bind is to trade off your small targets as soon as possible, preserving your more valuable higher health minions. More than any other class’ defining cards, the Shaman’s class cards are narrowly focused to serve the same purpose: Remove small things. With the lone exceptions of Hex and Lava Burst (rare), Thrall has no ability to deal even 4 damage or otherwise incapacitate your minions. So, anything with at least 4 health is dangerous enough to Thrall that he might consider using a Hex on. This means the mass majority of mid-range minions are safe from Thrall’s hand! No wonder Hex only costs 3 mana, they had to give the poor guy something for all the 4-health+ minions we’re dropping on him. For each small removal trapped in Thrall’s hand, Thrall will eventually 2 for 1 himself to use it, or will burn it on an inefficient target (either to supplement an attacker’s damage to trade up, or on an irrelevant 2-drop in the late game).  This relegates powerful class cards to having little impact on the board overall; as the Shaman has precious few cards that can gain card advantage, inefficient use of these key cards is a large setback.

An Overloaded Seesaw

Matches against the Shaman often seesaw back and forth on the board. Because overload allows Thrall to use more mana than is typically available on that turn, and Hex and Rockbiter Weapon are two of the most mana-efficient removals in the entire game, Thrall can cause massive tempo shifts on the board with most of his class cards. Where Jaina’s Flamestrike takes an entire turn and Valeera’s Assassinate takes 5 mana, Thrall’s Lightning Storm and Hex are a mere 3 mana each. Where typically, 1 mana can dish out only two damage (Arcane Shot and Holy Smite), Thrall’s 1 mana can dish out three or four damage, and with spellpower potentially even six damage. This means that as long as Thrall has cards in his hand, even a semi-contested board is not safe in this matchup. Thrall is always in control, and can flip the board at any time of his choosing. So, more than in any other matchup, we need to prepare for the board flip.

While there’s little we can do about Hex and Rockbiter Weapon, we can fight back against the overload cards in three ways.

Strategy #1: Bait the Awkwardness.

We discussed this a bit earlier, but there are several spots in the early/mid game where overloading will severely hurt Thrall’s tempo in the game and allow us to extend into a nice board. Baiting out the Stormforged Axe on turn 3 is particularly effective, as it not only wastes a mana on that turn, but also blocks the 4-drop from coming out on curve the next turn. Baiting out the Forked Lightning on turn 3 has a similar effect and is particularly effective if Thrall used his hero power on turn 2, signifying that he does not have a 2-drop in hand. Further, baiting out these cards on Thrall’s turn 5 will prevent the Fire Elemental from coming out the next turn, buying you a safe turn to properly trade away your minions. Even if we do not succeed in actually baiting out Thrall’s removals, these are still effective plays because they provide a refuge for us to play minions onto the board without fear of most removal spells. By baiting for the awkward overloads, we use the overload mechanic against Thrall and limit his options for how to deal with the board. He can overload this turn to get value, but then significantly sacrifice his tempo the next turn, or he can play minions onto the board to preserve his next turn’s tempo, but give us the initiative on the board to make good trades and trade away our vulnerable minions. In any case, it prevents Thrall from flipping the board on us for a couple more turns, and we can use that initiative during those turns to extract more value from good trades, or put Thrall into a low health situation.

Strategy #2: Prepare for the Board Flip.

Unfortunately, Thrall always has the option to bite the overload bullet and clear our board, while potentially also dropping a small minion on the board. This is okay. Overload cards are generally not mana efficient over the course of two turns, so Thrall gains minimum net tempo on the board from taking this course. The only scary thing Thrall can do is to drop a must-be-removal-asap minion (Questing Adventurer, Mana Tide Totem, Gadgetzan Auctioneer) on the turn the overload cards are played. This may catch some players off guard, having had a solid board the turn prior. But, the easiest way to prevent this is to keep a removal in our hand at all times before Thrall’s first big board flip. Once we deal with his threat, Thrall will usually run out of steam, having limited card draw and a hero power that merely taunts damage when he does not have the board.  With experience, it’s possible to get a good sense of exactly how vulnerable each board is to a flip by reading his cards and calculating draft odds, but generally, it’s best to hold on to a removal in this matchup.

Strategy #3: Abuse the Aftermath.

Okay, so now Thrall has overloaded himself and flipped the board. While it may seem that Thrall has successfully taken over the board for good, he usually has not. An overloaded Thrall in the mid-game can generally only totem up the next turn or play small insignificant minions, as he has already burned through several removals to clear our board. This is a great time to play our vulnerable minions and minions that require setup! Demolishers, Questing Adventurers, Cult Masters behind taunt. These more iffy plays usually require solid control of the board to be considered, but they are not a bad idea against an overloaded Thrall. These are same types of minions we loathe to see Thrall play after flipping the board. Now, we’ve turned his strategy (and his overload) against him! Or, we can simply drop a minion that is guaranteed to get a good trade next turn on the board. Either way, Thrall’s overloaded state allows us to take advantage of his more limited options the next turn to set up with no fear, so that in two turns we are more or less back to where the board was before the overload.

Ultimately, when facing Thrall, we need to think like Thrall. The overload mechanic is not always a positive, but rather just an extension of Thrall’s mana curve. In fact, overload often hurts more than it helps. Where we would typically bait out a Swipe or Fireball on turn 5 to lock out one mana and call it a success, baiting out overload cards will lock out the mana twice, on two turns!  Where a Swipe or Fireball is guaranteed to trade evenly in tempo at worst, overload cards often create net tempo loss over the course of two turns.  While it may look scary to have a board seesaw back and forth for most of the game, the cost of overload ensures that you will always have a fair shot to get back onto the board.

Totemic Might

Fact: Totems are the most annoying things in all of Hearthstone.

Totemic Call.  They can’t be removed by hero power ping, they taunt damage, they get buffed if left alone, and for each useless one Thrall gets out there that isn’t removed, the chances that he will get a useful one the next turn increases. Hero power totems snowball, and on a contested board, each totem we leave alone will likely stick around for a long long time, progressively increasing the utility of Thrall’s next hero power. A healing totem is good if Thrall has the initiative on the board to make trades, a spellpower totem is good if Thrall has any of his popular spells that deal damage, and we cannot even ignore totems if we are an aggro deck because the taunt totem is more likely to be generated each passing turn we leave other totems on the board, potentially ruining our lethal setup.

This brings us to the Totem Rule: All totems must die, immediately. Well, almost.  The more accurate Totem Rule: All totems should be removed before removing other minions, unless we are making a trade to (1) actively protect a more valuable minion on the board or (2) prevent large amounts of face damage.

Consider the following case. We have a Sen’jin Shieldmasta; Thrall has a Bloodfen Raptor and an innocent-looking healing totem. Most players would either attack to the face or, more likely, attack the Bloodfen Raptor to take the good trade on the board. This is almost never the correct move. If the Sen’jin gets removed the next turn by any of Thrall’s common 2-3 damage removals, Thrall will be left with a totem and the board, and the totem snowball sequence described in the paragraph above begins. On the other hand, the Bloodfen Raptor would have to attack us in any case, unless Thrall wishes to use a Hex on the Sen’jin to protect a Bloodfen Raptor (not great value). Even if Thrall had a Dark Iron Dwarf in his hand, he would in any case be able to buff the totem and achieve the same end result on the board.  Outside of avoiding lethal, there is no upside to removing the Bloodfen Raptor over the healing totem, and only potential downside.  Totems may be annoying and taunt a lot of damage, but their effect on the overall board state should be minimal because they do not damage your minions; so, removing them first with mid-range minions is usually “free”.

Putting it all together, if presented with the choice, we should prioritize removing lingering totems with our 4+ health minions first to keep those minions at high health, while making trades with our lower health minions. This follows our philosophy of trading away smaller easily removed minions while protecting our larger ones, as well as our philosophy of absolute totem destruction.

Flametongue Totem, Mana Tide Totem.  Thrall also has two special totems we will also want to remove as quickly as possible, the Flametongue Totem and the Mana Tide Totem. A Flametongue Totem will give +2 free attack each turn to the totem on the right, while buffing all of Thrall’s other threats (on the left) by 2 damage for trades, which should be enough to trade up with anything you may drop. This is a ridiculous tempo engine. A Mana Tide Totem will give Thrall a card each turn it is not removed. This is a ridiculous card advantage engine. If Thrall can play either of these cards while controlling the board, then the game will quickly snowball out of control. Therefore, to the extent we have the option, we should try to keep in our hands a small removal, silence, or charge minion, until we control the board. That shouldn’t be hard to do. After all, we’re already doing something similar to prepare for the overload board clear (described earlier).

Two Lethal Finishers

Finally, we need to watch out for tricky burst damage from Thrall. Thrall has two cards which are absolutely devastating in the Arena given the proper setup. It is not uncommon in the Arena for Shamans to burst for 10+ damage than what is shown on the board. And you thought Pyroblast was bad.

Bloodlust. The setup is simple: Thrall needs a wide board. The classic tell that a Bloodlust may be coming is when Thrall begins to drop multiple minions and use his hero power on the same turn, each turn. If Thrall is that ahead on the board, he’s probably won anyway, but always keep Bloodlust in mind before deciding to hold off on certain removals for max value or going to the face to set up two turn lethal yourself. There is a good chance this backfires! The game can end very quickly if Thrall has a board and casts Bloodlust with another cheap burst spell (Lightning Bolt, Flametongue Totem), and that’s another point for the Totem Rule.  When calculating potential to be dealt lethal, we should account for Bloodlust +4 damage.

Windfury. Between Windspeaker and Windfury, Thrall has access to two low-value cards which can provide a good amount of reach. The classic tell that a Windfury finish may be in the works is an uncharacteristic attack to the face, giving up potential good trades on the board, or a large stealthed minion being put into play. At this point, heals and taunts should go up to the extent possible. Further, any boost to the windfury-ed minion’s attack will count for double, which is especially deadly with Rockbiter Weapon. When calculating potential to be dealt lethal, we should account for Windfury +6 damage.

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.

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