Hey, guys. It’s RaFive, and today we’re going to talk about incorporating one of the most hotly debated cards in the game into one of the most hotly debated archetypes in the game. That’s right — we’re incorporating Sludge Belcher into Zoo. Today we’ll discuss the pros and cons of Belcher generally, look at how this refocuses the Zoo archetype, and finish with a look at the Belcher deck I’ve been playing on ladder.
This article will build on the modular deckbuilding concepts discussed in my article Evolutions of Zoo: Fundamentals, so it’s probably a good idea to quickly review.
Sludge Belcher caught a lot of flak in the days before the Naxxramas release. A lot of professional players evaluated the card as underpowered, just a Sen’jin Shieldmasta with a Goldshire Footman inside. Too slow, they said. Too vulnerable to silence, they said. Fast-forward to the present, and you can find every class trying Belchers out in high-level play, with it widely regarded as one of the most powerful, annoying cards in the game. So what’s so great about Belcher, and why is it so easy to miss?
In terms of a basic value test, Belcher looks solid but unexciting, and he also lacks any sort of flashy abilities or immediate impact. That’s why it’s so easy to miss the power of this card. What you’re really paying for with Belcher is two Taunts with one card, where one Taunt comes out only after the other one dies. It’s a reactive card that generates four notable advantages:
- Card advantage. Just like the Shaman’s Feral Spirit, Belcher gives you an extra minion without your having to put down an extra card, so with two Belchers in your deck, you’re effectively playing with 32 cards. This makes Belcher good for long games or overcrowded decks.
- Tempo drain. It generally takes at least two cards or two attacks of some kind in order to fully clear Belcher, which helps you recover tempo. Because of the asymmetric nature of Belcher’s two “forms,” clearing Belcher will frequently require inefficient trades, gaining further tempo advantage.
- Resists clear. Not only does Belcher generally take two steps to clear, the second part of Belcher doesn’t come out until the first part is dead. Unlike any other card in the game, Belcher leaves you with a Taunt in place after AoE or hard removal. That’s potentially invaluable no matter what kind of deck you’re playing — control decks get a stall, while aggro decks get protection behind which to trade or hit face.
- Deathrattle. Belcher buffs Undertaker. ‘Nuff said. (Belcher also interacts with Baron Rivendare, but you only get an additional 1 mana of value per Belcher death, which is too minimal and situational to be particularly advantageous.)
In short, Belcher is sticky, compact, and great at draining your opponent’s resources, making Belcher an ideal candidate for consideration in a Zoo list.
Belcher in Zoo
In Zoo decks, Belcher is basically an alternative pick for Defender of Argus. After extensive testing, I conclude that neither card is better than the other in Zoo, exactly; it just depends on which set of benefits and tradeoffs you want to incorporate. For example, two Belchers in a Zoo deck gives you the same four Taunts as the Defender, but you can play Belcher onto an empty board, whereas that’s one of the most horrible possible plays with the shield of Argus.
Defender of Argus in Zoo is generally used to buff minion attack for better trades; to buff minion life to play around AoE; and to throw up Taunts to protect your life total or critical attacking minions like Doomguard. Belcher provides an alternative AoE defense through stickiness (which is fine, since Argus isn’t actually all that great at buffing past AoE), and does much better as a Taunt wall than Argus, while sacrificing the extra attack power for your minions except Undertaker. The other benefits/tradeoffs in comparison are that Belcher is weaker to silence while Argus is weaker to AoE, and Argus costs less but Belcher makes a great on-curve play for turn 5 (since it’s almost always incorrect to play Doomguard that early), which gives you a smoother curve into the midgame.
Now that we’ve gone in-depth and examined Sludge Belcher’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s time to incorporate it into a Zoo list. The reasoning can be complex because there are so many synergies and interactions affected by each different card. I’ll try to unpack the major elements of my rationale:
- Shattered Sun Cleric fits here because it compensates for Belcher’s lack of attack/health buffs, while Belcher in its turn helps take the place of Harvest Golem as a sticky minion with Deathrattle. It also improves your matchup against Priest by giving Cabal Shadow Priest and Shadow Madness less to steal, which is important since both of those cards are significant threats to Belcher. It also makes Nerubian Egg much less likely to be a dead card in the earlier game, which is great for assembling the lineup of minions that Belcher will protect.
- Again, Belcher doesn’t buff attack, but Belcher is also a great wall to hide behind while your other minions trade or go for the face, so two copies each of Power Overwhelming, Abusive Sergeant, Dark Iron Dwarf make sense. The Dwarf in particular gives you a solid body to play on curve right behind the Belcher.
- Belcher is slow, so instead of Ironbeak Owl I’ve included one copy of Shadowflame as a hedge against aggressive decks that combos well with Power Overwhelming (particularly if you use it on Nerubian Egg to get a free minion). For similar reasons, I’m also running one Zombie Chow — it’s good for early board control and also gives an extra Deathrattle for Undertaker to compensate for lack of Harvest Golem and raise the odds that Undertaker will survive to be both buffed and defended by Belcher.
- Finally, I’ve — surprisingly enough! — discovered that Belcher raises the high-end of the deck enough where one Defender of Argus still fits quite nicely. This is definitely the “techiest” spot in the deck, though, so you could easily swap the Defender out for another Zombie Chow, for a Void Terror, even for Loatheb, although there’s enough higher value in here that you could honestly take a Doomguard out and replace with Loatheb — I learned playing Hunter that Loatheb into Sludge Belcher is an incredibly strong play for face damage in most cases.
Playing this deck is standard Zoo, although with Shadowflame and the wall that Belcher represents, it’s a good idea to roll Nerubian Egg out earlier and more aggressively than is standard for Zoo. One thing to note that’s very different from other decks is that you actually prefer for silence effects to hit Belcher most of the time, so don’t play Belcher in such manner that you can’t afford to have him silenced. The other big silence targets in this deck are Nerubian Egg and Haunted Creeper, both of which lose far more value for you silenced than Belcher does. (Silence is generally valued as a 1-mana effect. Egg’s Deathrattle is about a 3.5-mana effect and Creeper’s is about a 1.5-mana effect, while Belcher’s is only 1 mana. In addition, Creeper can get lots more value in Zoo trading up with attack buffs, raising the relative value of its Deathrattle.)
As far as substitutions, you should use my previous Evolutions of Zoo article to give you ideas on what to tech out and what sort of thing to tech back into its place, but honestly, it’s a powerful deck in this meta and I wouldn’t change much other than maybe fitting Loatheb in. Compared with traditional Zoo, this deck is weaker against Rogue (because of Belcher’s vulnerability to Sap), but better against Shaman and Handlock, and performs in the mirror matchup as well. It’s been highly successful on ladder both last season and the current season; in particular, if you play it well, it’s great for going on extended win streaks at lower levels.
If you’re looking to diversify your Zoo build and push it toward the midgame, there are few picks better than Sludge Belcher for its solid value and ability to drain your opponent’s resources and tempo as he tries to get past it. Incorporating Belcher into Zoo is also great deckbuilding practice because it gives us an example of how important it is to look at all the interactions that change when we change cards out. Give this list a try to keep improving it! I hope to see you all on ladder, building a better metagame.