How to Counter the King – Dethroning Midrange Shaman

Midrange Shaman is undoubtedly the strongest and the most popular deck on the ladder. Players are pulling their hair out facing Shaman after Shaman after Shaman. And if they get enough of that, they have two choices – join them or play a counter deck. If you’re here, I guess you’ve picked the second option. Recent nerfs […]

Introduction

Midrange Shaman is undoubtedly the strongest and the most popular deck on the ladder. Players are pulling their hair out facing Shaman after Shaman after Shaman. And if they get enough of that, they have two choices – join them or play a counter deck. If you’re here, I guess you’ve picked the second option.

Recent nerfs turned out to be a big hit to Aggro Shaman – both the high rolls from Tuskarr Totemic and burst from Rockbiter Weapon were a big part of the deck’s success. But it turned out that the biggest offender – Midrange Shaman – is still in a great shape. It turned out that removing 2 strong cards wasn’t a big hit, because Shamans have many more good cards at their disposal (for example Fire Elemental. According to the latest Vicious Syndicate Data Reaper Report, you encounter Shaman in about 1 in 4 games between rank 1 and rank 10. Numbers are probably even higher close to Legend or in high Legend, where the meta is the most competitive. While I don’t have a huge sample size, from my own statistics, nearly 40% of my matchups between rank 5 and Legend were Shamans (49 out of 123) and I’d say that maybe 2 or 3 out of those Shamans weren’t Midrange. After asking a few players, they have similar stats and experience getting to Legend this season.

This is certainly a terrible state of the meta, where you face exactly the same deck every third game or so. And the alarming thing is that more and more people are getting tired of Shamans and start playing Shamans themselves. If it was another deck, this state would be impossible – most of the decks have a very clear counters and when it gets out of control on the ladder, people start playing them and everything gets back to normal. In case of the Midrange Shaman, however, it’s much harder, because the deck has great matchups all over the board. There are only a few viable decks that have pretty equal matchups against it and even less decks with good matchups. And I’d like to focus on those today. But first, I’ll start with more general info. Why is Midrange Shaman so strong and what are the things you want to pay attention to when playing against it.

P.S. If you want to check out the most popular Midrange Shaman lists, I redirect you to vS again.

Most Consistent Deck In The History?

I don’t like throwing such bold statements around, but I think that I will have to. Midrange Shaman is the most consistent deck in Hearthstone’s history. And that’s why it’s so strong right now. It’s not about the high end potential, because we have decks that can be potentially stronger than Midrange Shaman. What matters most on the ladder is to win consistently, not win in a big way. And Midrange Shaman excels at that.

Most of the decks have some weaknesses. They might have weak board clears, they might not have enough early game tempo, they might not have strong minions, maybe not enough ways to refill the board after the clear, weak card draw/no way to cycle, not enough late game value, you know, stuff like that. Have you noticed something? Midrange Shamans don’t struggle against any of those. They are good at everything, without having any weak sides you could really exploit. I guess the only real weakness is the lack of protection against spell burn and being pretty weak without any board control and we’ll get back to that later.

Midrange Shaman has the early game tempo thanks to the strong minions – Tunnel Trogg/Totem Golem and removal – Spirit Claws/Lightning Bolt. It has good proactive mid game plays with Feral Spirit, Flametongue Totem, Thing from Below (which will usually cost 3-4 mana in mid game) and Azure Drake. But while most of the Midrange decks start falling off in the late game, Midrange Shaman doesn’t. Both Fire Elemental and Thunder Bluff Valiant can generate a lot of the late game value – some of the decks also run Ragnaros the Firelord or Bloodlust as a finisher. The deck has good AoE removal – Maelstrom Portal and Lightning Storm. It has arguably the best single target removal in the game – Hex (while Lightning Bolts and Spirit Claws are great against small/medium targets throughout the whole game). It has strong card draw, so it doesn’t run out of steam that easily – Mana Tide Totem and Azure Drake. It has ways to refill the board after it’s been cleared – Thing from Below is 0 mana in the late game, if you add another minion or two and Hero Power, the board is once again very scary.

And last, but not least – Shaman utilizes the Hero Power best from all the classes. Jokes about Shaman’s Hero Power being the worst in the game were very common back in the day, but it’s not the case right now. Now I’d call it THE BEST Hero Power in the game. Because each totem can get much more value than other Hero Powers even would. Normally, you associate Hero Power with something you do when you have two. It’s usually a tempo loss and often not a great move – playing cards is that you want to do instead. But in case of Shaman, Hero Powering is not that weak at all. Each time Shaman presses the button, he makes Thing from Below cheaper. Each totem on the board is a potential threat with Flametongue in the mid game and Thunder Bluff Valiant or Bloodlust in the late game, so Shaman opponent’s are FORCED to clear the totems, wasting the minions or weapons attacks. Then the Taunt totem can protect more important minions, Healing totem can make Shaman’s trades much better by putting some minions out of the range, Spell Damage totem activates Spirit Claws and makes the AoE spells much more potent and 1/1 totem… well, this one is the worst one in most of the cases, but it still works nicely with all the potential buffs.

But why am I writing all of this? I think it’s important to understand the deck’s strengths before getting to the weaknesses. If you try to counter something, you should know what it does best and why.

General Tips

In this section I’d like to write down a few general tips on how to play against Shaman. If there would be one matchup you want to improve, it’s definitely this one, as it’s by far the most popular deck on the ladder. So before going to the specific counters, first try to improve your general knowledge of how to play against Midrange Shaman.

  • First try to determine which version of the deck opponent plays – normal Midrange Shaman or the Totem-focused version. Enemy playing Totemic Might, Primal Fusion or Wicked Witchdoctor is usually a tell that he plays the Totem version. This knowledge is important for two main reasons. First, against Totem version you have even higher priority to kill the totems. Like I’ll explain in the point below, it’s always important to do so, but against Totem version you can even sometimes AoE a bunch of totems to play around a big Totemic Might or Primal Fusion. Second reason is that the Totem-heavy versions have to cut some cards in order to fit the totem buffing and spawning package. Those cards are pretty much always Fire Elemental and Feral Spirit, but they often cut a Lightning Storm too. On the other hand, those versions ALWAYS run Bloodlust, so you absolutely have to play around it.
  • Clear the totems. I can’t stress out how important that is. While Shaman has some ways to come back on the board, it’s most powerful when playing proactively. Leaving a totem on the board, while it doesn’t seem like a big deal, can turn the whole game around. Flametongue Totem might be a dead card in the hand, but with something on the board it isn’t. Thunder Bluff Valiant might be pretty bad with no board, but when buffing two minions instead of one (and one has the potential to immediately attack), it can suddenly be much better. Leaving a Spell Damage totem makes it much easier for Shaman to clear your board and leaving another totem increases the chance of Shaman actually getting the Spell Damage. So I’ll repeat – CLEAR THE TOTEMS. It’s one of the most common mistakes average player makes against Midrange Shaman. Of course – there are some situations where it’s okay to leave a totem. E.g. enemy is in topdeck mode and is very unlikely to get one of the cards that get extra value from the totems. Maybe enemy has used most of them already. Maybe you set up lethal by ignoring the totem and it’s worth it to not give Shaman more time. But 90% of time, especially if you don’t know the matchup very well, it’s better to clear the totems.
  • I can extend the last point to the board control in general, but this one is more obvious. Shamans suck without the board. If you constantly clear their board, turn after turn, that’s a way to keep them back. Especially if you play a Control deck – if you clear the board all the time, you should eventually win the game.
  • Manage your AoEs. If you aren’t playing a very offensive deck, there is a big chance that you run some sort of AoE. It might be Brawl, it might be Excavated Evil, it might be Equality + Consecration. When playing against Shaman, you need to be REALLY careful when using those. The general idea is that if you don’t have to AoE, you don’t AoE. Why? Because if you blast all your AoEs prematurely while Shaman still has ways to refill the board, you’re most likely done. If you play against Shaman in the late game with no way to clear their board, they might flood the whole thing in a single turn. Thunder Bluff Valiant + Totem Golem + Thing From Below + Hero Power (for example) is a very likely combo to see in the late game. And that just floods the board with 3/6 that you absolutely have to kill, a 5/4, 5/5 Taunt and a random buffed Totem. Which gets even worse and worse each turn – Shamans won’t hesitate to play everything they’ve got once they know that you can’t clear it anymore. And your death will most likely be swift. I’ve seen people AoEing a bunch of Hero Power Totems + a Totem Golem or something. I mean, sure, they might be afraid of the Thunder Bluff Valiant. But if they have that, you can just AoE after (unless TBV would kill you). And if they don’t have that, you didn’t waste your AoE on almost non-existent board.

Playing Around Their Cards

There are a few Shaman cards that you have to keep in mind all the time when playing this matchup. This section should help you with deciding on what to kill in the first place, how to do the trades (e.g. what HP your minions should be on) and how to not die to their burst. Of course, there are a few Shaman decks going around on the ladder – some might not play those cards, some might play one copy and others might run two etc. Trends often shift, but they shift GENERALLY – at least in ranks 5+. When someone finds a good list, suddenly everyone copies it and starts playing it. So it’s important to stay updated and check out which list is the most popular right now (watch some high level streams, check the sites with decklists etc.) I don’t know how stuff like that works in low ranks and how fast the latest trends get there, but I’d guess that there is still one or maybe two most popular lists that people play all the time. But if you have no clue what list opponent plays, what tech cards he uses, try to play around as much of those things as possible.

  • 3 single target damage. Shaman’s damage usually comes in 3’s. Lightning Bolt (or Rockbiter Weapon if someone still hasn’t updated their list), Spirit Claws and Fire Elemental all deal 3 damage. Bolt can deal 4 when buffed with Spell Damage, but that’s another story. Still, it’s important to play around 3 damage removals. It’s good to have in back of your head when doing the trades. If you have a 6 and 4 health minions on the board and you want to clear a 2 attack target, you might want to attack with your 6 health guy. This way you don’t put the 4 health guy in range of the 3 damage removals.
  • Flametongue Totem/Thunder Bluff Valiant – You play around those by clearing the board, but you already know that you should do that.
  • AoEs. Most of the Midrange Shaman lists run 2 AoEs, 2 copies of each – 2x Maelstrom Portal and 2x Lightning Storm. If you have multiple minions on the board, try to dictate your trades in a way that they won’t all die to the AoE. Let’s say you have two low health minions and one high health minion. If the Shaman isn’t out of AoEs yet, using the high health minion to make a trade is a very greedy move and it’s usually wrong. This way you get completely punished by the Lightning Storm – you end up with no board. But if instead you sacrifice one of your low health minions, you make Shaman’s Storm much worse. And it’s even more important to NOT leave all your minions at 1 health. While Storm is a big punish already, it costs 5 mana total (over 2 turns). If you play into Maelstrom Portal, you can get your board wiped for 2 mana and they even get an extra 1-drop.
  • Hex. One of the strongest single target removal in the game, maybe even THE strongest. The idea here is to not throw away your most important / biggest minion before baiting Hexes. But once Hexes are gone, you can play your biggie and Shaman will probably have really hard time dealing with it. For example, if you run Sylvanas Windrunner in your deck – dropping her when opponent hasn’t played a single Hex yet is a very risky play. Sometimes you have to do that if you have no other option, but Hexing her means one of your win conditions gone and enemy getting a tempo advantage (he still has 3 mana to develop something). Try to bait Hex with something else first before dropping your bombs. It’s even more important if you play a deck with a clear win condition that you want to stick to the board, e.g. Archmage Antonidas or Malygos. Once you bait both Hexes, when you drop it and it survives, you win the game.
  • Harrison Jones – Harrison Jones has became a very common tech recently, mainly because there are so many Shamans and each one of them is running 2x Spirit Claws. But if you play a weapon deck yourself, remember that it’s also a quite common tech in Midrange Shaman. So try to not pre-equip a weapon without attacking when they have 5+ mana available. And try to bait it with a smaller weapon before using your stronger one – e.g. in Warrior you want to bait Harrison with Fiery War Axe before equipping Gorehowl.
  • Bloodlust – They won’t likely use it to trade, but to kill you. So you should count the possible Bloodlust lethal every turn and try to play around it. A bunch of totems might become deadly with Bloodlust in the hand. And I mean it – that’s the easiest way to win in the Control matchup. A board with only 5 damage, but spread among 5 minions, a Bloodlust is extra 18 damage out of nowhere (so 23 in total). When counting for a potential lethal from Shaman’s side, you also want to take a few extra damage into account – probably 3-4. It’s very easy to squeeze in a Spirit Claws, Lightning Bolt or Flametongue Totem into the Bloodlust turn. You usually don’t want to AoE a board with almost no damage, but if Shaman threatens a Bloodlust lethal, you should consider doing that.
  • Ragnaros the Firelord – Not really something you “play around”, but something that you have to keep in mind. A lot of Midrange Shaman decks recently were playing Ragnaros as their another late game win condition. And I’ve seen people falling for it – using all the removals on Things from Below, Fire Elementals, Thunder Bluff Valiants and then having no way to kill Ragnaros. If you can, try to save one big removal for Ragnaros, because unanswered Rag can do A LOT of harm.

“Counter” Decks

And here comes the hardest part. What decks are good against Midrange Shaman? The problem is that not many of them. Most of the matchups are Shaman favorite. There are, however, some decks that are strong against Shaman. Or just don’t suck hard against Shaman. I’ll try to show you a few of them while explaining why the deck is good in this matchup.

Freeze Mage

Freeze Mage is probably the strongest meta deck against Midrange Shaman. Like I’ve said at the beginning – Shaman’s biggest weakness is the lack of protection against spell burn. They run no ways to gain health and almost completely rely on their board to do things. So it’s like a dream for the Freeze Mage player – early in the game Shaman doesn’t put that much pressure as some Aggro decks, so Mage can cycle, prepare the Secrets etc. Then in the mid game, Freeze Mage can easily stall the board with Frost Novas, Blizzards and then clear it with Flamestrike. And in the late game, if he sets up an Ice Block and plays Alexstrasza on the Shaman, it’s usually game over. It’s very easy for the Freeze Mage to burn enemy down from 15 and Shamans can’t heal.

While sure, the matchup is not auto win – if Mage misses the cycle he might run out of cards. If he misses the stall, Shaman can burst him down. If he misses the burn, he might not have enough damage after Alex. But it’s still one of the best Midrange Shaman counters.

So what’s the problem? Why don’t we see Freeze Mages all over the ladder? Because Freeze Mage is a very polarized deck. It has a lot of good/great matchups – Midrange/Control Shaman, Control Paladin, Zoo Warlock, RenoLock… but it has a lot of bad matchups. It sucks against Malygos Druid, it sucks against Tempo Mage, it sucks against Secret Hunter, it sucks against every Warrior archetype. And even though Midrange Shaman is the most popular decks on the ladder, four next most popular classes are Warrior, Mage, Druid and Hunter. And they’re all bad matchups for the Freeze Mage. It means that the bad matchups most likely outweigh the good ones. That’s why Freeze Mage is much more popular in tournaments, where you can target a specific lineup and ban the worst matchup. And it might be popular in very specific metas, e.g. if there are only Shamans in the high Legend, playing Freeze Mage might be a good idea.

But I generally wouldn’t recommend doing that on the ladder. Unless you REALLY hate Shamans and want to target them hard. But once you switch to Freeze Mage, you’ll probably face anything but Midrange Shamans. At least that’s what always happens to me. Murphy’s law at its finest.

And.. that’s it for the counters. Yes, Freeze Mage is the only real counter to Midrange Shamans. Other decks I’ll list here have only slightly positive matchup or are pretty even – they’re still good choices to target Shaman, but aren’t “counters”.

Control Warrior

Control Warrior is okay against Midrange Shaman. If you’re a good Control Warrior and you mostly face the FotM Midrange Shaman players – people who have started to play the deck because it’s so powerful and haven’t mastered it yet (so biggest part of the ladder), your win rate against Midrange Shaman should be decent. Control Warrior is my go-to deck against Midrange Shaman right now. This season, my stats with CW against Midrange Shaman are 16-3 – all the games were played past rank 5 (including Legend), so no low rank farming. But it’s still a very hard matchup – you have to tech against the Shaman and play nearly perfectly to achieve such win rate.

The main strength of Warrior in this matchup is the ability to prolong the game. Shaman’s mid/late game burst is a very powerful tool in most of the matchups. Most of the decks have to clear every threat all the time or else they just get bursted down. But when it comes to Warrior, with all the Armor stacking, he can often afford to ignore Shaman’s small-medium boards. When you’re at 40+ health, you don’t worry about dying to Bloodlust or any other kind of burst. And so, you force Shaman to put more threats onto the board. And then you set up a very good Brawl. Warrior lists run A LOT of AoEs – the ones I’m playing uses 2x Revenge, 2x Ravaging Ghoul, 2x Brawl and Baron Geddon. Besides that, weapons are a good way to kill small/medium threats. I’ve also teched in a single Doomsayer to improve this matchup even further. It’s just so much AoE than Shaman has to play around. Sometimes it’s even worth it to actually let Shaman get you down to below 12 health in order to activate a stronger Revenge. I tend to do that if I know that Shaman won’t kill me – I save all the Armor gain and let him get me down to 12 or less, then I clear the whole board with e.g. Slam + Revenge + Bash and start gaining Armor again.

So if you face a lot of Shamans, Control Warrior should be a good deck choice. Especially if you are experienced Warrior player already and you know how to play this matchup. But once again, the ladder isn’t so bright. Only Shaman has pretty much no bad matchups. Sadly for the Control Warrior players, there are quite a lot of decks that you struggle against. Control Warrior is pretty bad against Miracle Rogue, which is quite popular in high ranks. It’s bad against any Paladin and most notably Anyfin Can Happen version. It’s terrible against more Midrange versions of the Hunter, including the popular Secret Hunter. It’s pretty bad against Dragon Warrior and it’s definitely not a favorite vs Malygos Druid (even though the matchup is rather close). So yeah, countering Shamans comes with a price. For every Shaman you play, you’ll probably need to go through a bad matchup or two.

Tempo Mage

Tempo Mage is not a favorite against Midrange Shaman, but the matchup is pretty even. However, unlike the last two, it has better matchups against other popular ladder decks – there are almost no clear counters to Tempo Mage. And so it might be the best deck to “counter” Shaman with right now.

Sadly, beating Shamans will most likely require some good RNG from the Tempo Mage’s side. Flamewaker is absolutely disgusting against Shaman – 2 attack can clear the totems, 4 health is hard to remove without Spell Damage or Maelstrom Portal to finish it off (remember, most common Shaman’s single target removals deal 3), the random pings can help with clearing the board. Spell Damage + Arcane Blast is amazing against 4 health minions like Totem Golem or Azure Drake. Tempo Mage has enough early game tempo to wrestle the early/mid game board control from Shaman, and that might be enough to keep Shaman at bay. And the best thing about this matchup is that face damage matters a lot – a very common way for Mage to win this matchup is to sneak some early/mid game damage with minions and then burn the Shaman down. Because like I’ve already said – Shaman can’t handle spell burn.

Still, there are two sides of this matchup. If Mage doesn’t get the early game tempo, it will be hard to get the board control back from the Shaman. Something as simple as t1 Spirit Claws into t2 Thalnos/Spell Damage totem might win Shaman the whole game, because it can clear all the Mage’s 1-drops and 2-drops easily. Missing some RNG like Arcane Missiles or Flamewaker procs leaving a minion at 1 health can also be pretty devastating. Not only Shaman can get a good trade then, but if there is no trade, a Healing Totem might get the minions out of ping range.

This matchup is basically a game of snowballing – who gets the early/mid game lead usually ends up snowballing the game. Because for both parties, one small advantage, like a single minion sticking into the board, might quickly lead to a complete dominance.

So yeah – this is not a clear Shaman counter like the last two. But it works okay, the matchup is even and Tempo Mage has no terrible matchups right now. Even the worst matchups aren’t clear counters – they’re like 40/60 or 45/55 for Tempo Mage. That’s why I feel like Tempo Mage might be one of the best decks to ladder with right now. You semi-target Shamans, or rather don’t concede this matchup completely, while having a decent shot at other matchups too.

Closing

Midrange Shaman is an insane deck. I don’t think we had such a dominant deck – both very strong and very popular – since Undertaker Hunter and that was a dark time in Hearthstone’s history. Pre-nerf Patron Warrior was very strong, but it wasn’t that popular on the ladder, because it had insanely high skill cap (unlike Midrange Shaman). We also had Secret Paladin, which was as popular as Midrange Shaman is right now, but it wasn’t as powerful, because it had clear counters.

However, learning how to play against the deck, picking the right decks and tech choices etc. can increase your win rate in this matchup greatly. If there was ever a deck that you should know how to play against and seek to counter, it’s probably this one. It’s still crazy that the deck has almost no clear counters – the decks that counter it have a lot of other bad matchups and thus aren’t the best ladder choices right now. And the deck I found working best against the heavy Shaman meta is the one that has only an even matchup against the Shaman himself…

I hope that you have learned something from reading this one. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comment section below. If you want to be up to date with my articles, you can follow me on Twitter.

Good luck on the ladder and until next time!