Evolutions of Zoo: Rushlock

In the second article for today, we're going to cover what I have to admit has been my favorite Zoo variant thus far -- face Zoo, or Rushlock!

Introduction

Hey, guys. It’s RaFive. Today we’re going to cover what I have to admit has been my favorite Zoo variant thus far — face Zoo, or Rushlock! We’ll cover what’s different on the list, what’s changed in the gameplay (which is radically different), and the ways in which you can tweak the deck to suit  your specific style and requirements.

Since Rushlock focuses on face attacks rather than board control, my fundamentals article earlier in this series is less useful, but still probably good for review material if you’re a newer player.

Overview

Zoo is traditionally an early game board control deck that pivots into rushing the opponent’s life total down in the midgame once board control is established. This gives it pretty excellent matchups against all archetypes, since Zoo usually packs enough speed to compete with aggressive decks while retaining enough high end to maintain pressure on control as games wear on. In the current meta, however, Zoo tends to get outrushed by Hunters running Explosive Trap and Unleash the Hounds, and the control variants of Priest and Warrior compete hard enough on board control in the midgame that they can stabilize and take the game over as Zoo runs out of steam.

Enter Rushlock, which takes the Zoo fundamentals and bends them to point past the opponent’s board and directly to his face. The early board and the abusable hero power get re-oriented toward quickly throwing lots of cheap damage at the opponent’s face and recovering fast after a clear. Zoo’s basic weakness is that it runs out of steam pretty quickly; Rushlock throws everything into securing the game before running out of steam is even a possibility.

It works. It’s fast enough to beat even Face Hunter at its own game, it outpaces control decks that don’t draw perfectly, and its games are even quicker than standard Zoo, making it an ideal candidate for climbing the ladder. As if all that weren’t enough to recommend it, it looks like standard (or even badly-built) Zoo in the early game and will frequently throw your opponent’s plays and mulligans off with the element of surprise. As if speed, power, and trickiness weren’t enough to recommend the deck, it’s also one of only a very few Legend-level decklists that incorporates no cards from Curse of Naxxramas, making it literally the cheapest strong deck in Hearthstone and one of the best for newer players just looking to start out (as well as a great pick for nostalgics like myself who want to prove that the game isn’t P2W).

The Deck

About half the deck is standard Zoo — Flame Imp, Voidwalker, Knife Juggler — while all the slow early board control minions like Haunted Creeper have been removed and replaced with face-oriented cards like Bluegill Warrior and Wolfrider. You have a ton of cheap minions and can recover faster than most opponents from a cleared board, so two copies of Hellfire are included as sweepers and to provide extra face damage that gets past taunts. I tested Loot Hoarder instead of Mortal Coil but found Hoarder slow, and no good for game-ending shenanigans like activating Leper Gnome to do 2 face damage — plus Mortal Coil is excellent against Hunter’s early lineup. That said, if you wanted to make a more Naxx-a-licious version of this deck, you could remove Argent Squire, Mortal Coil, Questing Adventurer, and Arcane Golem, and put in two each of Undertaker, Loot Hoarder, and Nerubian Egg for a slower deck with less rush power but more consistency and board stability.

Some versions of Rushlock run two copies of Arcane Golem. I’ve included only one because when you draw both Golems against control the extra 2 mana per turn usually turns the game against you. Instead, I’ve included one Questing Adventurer. If it survives its first turn, you have enough cheap cards (and play them anyway) that Adventurer ramps up quickly to become a serious threat that can easily snowball to win games. I find the instant damage potential from Golem to be too high to cut, but if you’re in a more control-heavy meta where the extra mana and the weak body are liabilities, you could run a second Adventurer instead, or, if you find yourself reliably drawing into Power Overwhelming at the right points, you might even run a Void Terror. I will specifically come out and say that I do not recommend Leeroy Jenkins for this deck. Your hero power lets you fill your hand with cheaper cards that can be combined to output far more damage than Leeroy at far lower cost, and by turns 5-6 many of your games will be in their final stages anyway.~

Rounding our your burst are the typical Warlock staples of Power Overwhelming and Soulfire. That’s sixteen points of potential face damage right there, and if each charge minion in the deck hits only once before being removed, that’s an extra fourteen damage. Add in eight more for the Leper Gnomes and Abusive Sergeants and you get 38 damage in the deck just from the dedicated damage output cards — it’s easy to see why this list is great at powering through most opponents.

How to Play

The gameplan is pretty simple: flood the board with minions and whack the opponent’s life total down as quickly as possible. The devil, of course, is in the details. A lot of control-loving players will turn up their noses and sniff disdainfully at how even a trained chimpanzee could play a rush deck, but while the skill floor for Rushlock is pretty comfortable, I actually have found this to be a high-skill deck that requires a well-developed sense of when to draw, what to put down, and, most importantly, when to trade. With Rushlock, you’ll win a lot of games by the skin of your teeth, so maximizing damage and maximizing your board security means the difference between victory and defeat. Unfortunately, while there are plenty of resources online to give you the basic rules for when and how to trade minions, this is mostly a sense you’ll have to develop through experience. As a rule of thumb, though, hit face unless you can justify trading with an imminent threat. Argent Squire + Abusive Sergeant (possibly buffed by Dire Wolf Alpha as well) is your ideal trade engine since it builds your board and doesn’t kill off any of your minions.

Mulligan is pretty straightforward. You always want something to put down on turn 1 and turn 2, so mulligan hard for early-game minions. (While Flame Imp is your ideal turn 1 play, you have eight good turn 1 minions, so you’ll usually draw something worth playing within four cards.) Always throw back Soulfire and Power Overwhelming, as these represent your primary burst and should only be played after you’ve carefully paved the way. Never hold 3-drops unless you have a great lineup, e.g., if you’re going second against Hunter and you have Flame Imp, Knife Juggler, Abusive Sergeant, and Wolfrider, then you keep Wolfrider, turn 1 coin out Juggler, turn 2 Imp + Sergeant to buff Juggler’s attack, turn 3 wolf.

Your epic finisher is Hellfire into Power Overwhelming + Arcane Golem (or Wolfrider) into Soulfire — 15 damage for 8 mana. There are, of course, a lot of ways to mix and match that combo, like double Soulfire or double Power Overwhelming, but starting turn 6 your lowest mana-efficient combo (double Wolfrider) does six damage and your most efficient possible combo (Arcane Golem + Power Overwhelming x2 + Abusive Sergeant + Soulfire x2) does 22 damage, so after the early turns start checking for lethal and thinking about whether you could conceivably draw into lethal. Note that Hellfire here is primarily used as later-game direct damage finisher that bypasses Taunt, and should only be used earlier if it clears the board of significant threats or sets the opponent up for lethal on the next turn.

Last but not least, Ironbeak Owl deserves some special mention. In the current Taunt-heavy metagame, rush decks like this one can literally start to hit a wall without a cheap way to get past that leaves our minions charging for face, so two copies of the Owl are absolutely mandatory against control (and whether or not you pull Owl out in time will usually decide your games against control decks). Against aggressive decks with few Taunt cards, however — I’m thinking specifically of Face Hunter, here — the Owls are best deployed early against sticky minions that threaten your board’s unrestricted access to the opponent’s face. Haunted Creeper, in particular, is a card that’s ridiculously efficient against the many 1-health minions in this deck, and typically should get silenced if you can afford to do so. Remember that you’re playing a fast rush deck, and many of the big creatures like Savannah Highmane that’d normally be good silence targets simply won’t come out early enough to be worth silencing. Generally speaking, it’s better to silence stuff earlier against any aggro/midrange deck that doesn’t run Sludge Belcher, since you’ll typically be setting up lethal by the time any bigger targets roll out.

Matchups are about what you’d expect. This deck can generally out-aggro aggression, and so has excellent matchups against Zoo and Hunter in particular. With its speed and burst damage, it wrecks Handlock as well as Miracle Rogue without perfect draws. Weak matchups are Priest and Warrior — these mostly come down to when you draw Ironbeak Owl and how much tempo/value you get out of its silence. Fast Druid can generally be outpaced but Taunt-heavy Ramp Druids will be problematic. All in all, however, matchups in the current meta are unbelievably good for a deck this fast and consistent.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of this guide, Rushlock is — to my surprise! — the most fun I’ve had with any of the decks in this series so far. It’s fast, it’s surprising, it’s flashy, and it takes actual skill to play well. It’s absolutely strong enough to get you to Legend, and the speed of the games means you’ll do it faster than with almost any other deck. The traditional board-control Zoo will always have a special place in my heart and will always have a place on my page of decks, but Rushlock is a fantastic fit for the current, aggro-heavy ladder. I hope to see y’all running this list in-game — get out there and have a blast building a better metagame!