Welcome to Hearthstone History, a series where we talk about some of the ways classes have evolved through the beta and how iconic decks have come (and gone) in the past 2 years. If you want to check out the previous part of the series, head to Hearthstone History Part II: Freezing It Up for an overview of Freeze Mage.
A lot of you must have figured out what deck we are going to be talking about in this article, it is none other than the hope crushing king of control – Handlock. Handlock is a one of a kinddeck that may hold the crown of being the very best control deck in Hearthstone for years to come. The deck has lost a lot of its tools and it has disappeared from Standard but it does show up in new and unique forms every now and then with players trying to revive it. But the overwhelming dominance of Handlock we have all seen and feared is something that we might never experience again!
A lot of you might not have seen the deck in action, but for those who haven’t I will try to put things in perspective – Handlock was a deck that relied on having a high number of cards in your hand and use your hero power aggressively. The deck was filled with minions that benefited from hand size or low health. While most of the decks we see these days have life as their only resource, Warlocks have the ability to manipulate their health pool and hand size themselves through Life Tap and generate devastating board presence with specific cards. The deck also relies on staying out of lethal range as narrowly as possible and seeks to push out powerful minions turn after turn until the opponents cannot deal with them. It is one of the most complex decks to grace Hearthstone and it definitely is not easy to play. Unfortunately with so many burst heavy decks in the meta right now and the loss of various important tools as I mentioned earlier, the deck has almost faded away in Standard while Wild is still a great format to try the deck, although you will miss out on the devastating Molten Giant turns the deck had due to the card being nerfed.
One of the first experiences I had with the deck was against it when I was a new player. I was pushing damage with my minions and all of a sudden my opponent dropped 2 Molten Giants and played Lord Jaraxxus. I had no idea what was going on and finally did some digging on the internet to find out how the deck worked and it was one of my first proper decks I worked on building. It was extremely rewarding to flirt with death and have so many win conditions with me to dominate the board and overwhelm my opponent. Let’s take a look at some of the ways the deck transitioned through the months.
Classic Era: Time’s Up, Let’s Do This!
Handlock was one of the most oppressive decks when Hearthstone was in beta and it required severe rebalancing but it did not affect the power levels of the deck enough to make it unplayable which was a good thing. One of the biggest nerfs the deck received back in the day was the reduction in stats of the giants from being 10/10s to 8/8s. Twilight Drake was also an extremely powerful minion because it not only gained health but it also gained attack based on how many cards you had in hand. Defender of Argus used to be a 3/3 minion with the same effect it has right now. One of the most notable offenders in the deck was the 20 damage burst combo that these decks ran. Leeroy Jenkins used to be a 4 mana minion, allowing you to play Power Overwhelming and Faceless Manipulator with it for 10 mana and you could push 20 damage as a finisher combo, since the class does not have access to burst spells and sometimes you needed to close out games versus some decks. You also had access to a 0 mana version Soulfire which could add another dose of burst to the combo. Some people even ran 2 copies of Soulfire which raised the combo damage to 28 provided you did not discard the second copy of the card. Leeroy was eventually nerfed (long after the game was launched) to 5 mana making the combo unplayable (until Blackrock Mountain released) and Soulfire’s mana cost was raised from 0 to 1.
Even with several cards nerfed and the burst combo restricted, the deck continued to dominate ladder after the game came out of Beta for a long time time. In case you are wondering what the deck looked like back in the Classic days, here is an image of the deck with the old mana costs (The Bluegill Warrior version was a common sight on Kolento’s stream).
Curse of Naxxramas: *Belch* Excuse Me
Curse of Naxxramas brought new life to this old horse which began to show signs of aging due to the dominance of Combo Druid which started to become a consistent threat on ladder. With new tools like Zombie Chow and Sludge Belcher, Handlock solidified its position on ladder and it dominated yet again for quite a while. These 2 cards were exactly what the deck needed to maintain their run of dominance on ladder and players continued to crush their opponents with massive minions and taunts. Undertaker Hunter’s dominance slowed down the Handlock train for a while but the Undertaker dream for Hunter did not last too long in Hearthtone due to a nerf to the card allowing normalcy to return to the game. Loatheb was also a great add in the deck because you would be able to prevent burst damage from killing you and could potentially lock out entire turns with the card. It definitely goes down in history as one of the best legendaries in the game and we all miss it in Standard because of how well it fit into a plethora of decks and allowed decks to combat a range of decks like Freeze Mage, Combo Druid or even prevent board clears like Brawl from Control Warrior.
Goblins versus Gnomes: I Am Eternal
The Handlock party for Warlocks continued with some game breaking additions to the deck. The deck not only received Darkbomb, which was the perfect early game removal that they needed but they also got Antique Healbot which was a key heal card in the deck for months to come. The class legendary malganis was overlooked by a lot of people and it was just like the case of Mysterious Challenger where people took time to realize the true potential of the card. Even though it was expensive, being able to make yourself immune to burst meant a huge deal and it was a great addition to the ‘Demon Handlock’ deck which branched out of the core archetype. It had the same gameplan with a bunch of demon synergy cards thrown in. I have played both of these decks a lot but I have never been able to pinpoint which deck was better than the other because by winrates against the 9 classes and the overall winrates with both decks were very close to each other. Many people do believe that the demon variant was slightly better versus aggro. Voidcaller was one of the coolest additions to the deck because of the ability to draw out Mal’ganis or Lord Jaraxxus from your hand. Some decks even ran 1 Doomguard for more consistency for Voidcaller. Implosion was also tried and tested in the deck and it was a very good removal option versus aggressive decks. dr-boom became a key end game card for the deck as well because of how swingy the Boom Bot RNG was in destroying the board state against most decks. All round, GvG is one of the best sets for Warlock as a whole and it benefited greatly from the expansion.
Blackock Mountain: Discounts For Everyone
The only control card this expansion brought forward for the deck was Emperor Thaurissan which was a pivotal addition. Since you have a lot of cards in your hand all the time, Emperor was a great addition to the deck and by losing just 1 mana worth of stats on the card, you would be able to gain massive tempo in the following turns. The card continues to be a pivotal part of every control Warlock deck because of the great synergy with the Warlock hero power being able to amass massive card advantage. Imp Gang Boss began seeing play as well because how good the minion is versus aggro as well as its stickiness makes it a great 3 drop.
Handlock became extremely dominant in the competitive scene due to the rise of Patron Warrior and the trinity of Combo Druid, Handlock and Patron Warrior became an integral part of the competitive meta until Warsong Commander was nerfed.
The Grand Tournament: You Win or You Die!
The early months of The Grand Tournament did not change anything for Hearthstone due to the set paling in comparison compared to what the other expansions and adventures had to offer and there were no new additions to the deck and very few decks in the whole game got playable cards that were impactful enough to push their power levels (with the exception of Secret Paladin of course). The competitive meta was quite stale until October 2015 when Warsong Commander was finally nerfed ahead of Blizzcon This led to Secret Paladin and Combo Druid becoming very popular and it led to a hard time for Handlock and the deck began to lose its dominance on ladder. Frost Giant was tried but people realized the deck does not tap as often beyond the mid game making the card a bad fit in the deck.
League of Explorers: We’re Gonna be Rich!
Reno Jackson was the superstar of this expansion and it led to the birth of a new archetype – Reno Warlock. While all classes were trying to fit the new cool legendary into their decks, Reno managed to be the best possible fit in the Warlock class due to the hero power which allows you to cycle through your deck and get to Reno consistently. Renolock became the heir to the throne and for change to happen, the old makes way for the new. Renolock became one of the best counters to Secret Paladin and it also had various builds to fight the meta quite well. There were some variants that did try to include core Handlock in doubles but people later ditched the idea in favor of more consistent Reno triggers. With aggressive decks like Aggro Shaman being able to burst down opponents quite easily in the mid game, Handlock started falling out of favor heavily at this point of time and Renolock kept growing in popularity.
Whispers of the Old Gods: In Shambles
This was the moment when Handlock was hit hard and the whole deck archetype received a massive setback. With some of the most potent cards in the deck like Antique Healbot, Darkbomb, Sludge Belcher moving out the deck was expecting to face a lot of trouble from aggressive decks. But the nerf to Molten Giant is something everyone was taken aback by. With the cost of the card being raised from 20 to 25, it is a lot more difficult to play now and you have to go down to 5 health to play it for free which is really risky compared to 10 health. It was mildly upsetting for me as someone who played the deck all day long for months and I used it in dozens of online open tournaments, the level of strategy the deck allowed was incredible and we lost a big chunk of the anti-aggro tools making the deck practically unplayable in Standard.
Handlock made a small comeback through Faceless Shambler with Thijs taking a unique deck with Faceless Shambler to top Legend ranks. I tried the deck myself and it did have the same vibes as the previous generation decks but the lack of powerhouses like Belcher or Healbot left the deck feeling high and dry. But it does quite well in the current meta right now but you do need to get those early Doomsayer turns going to be able to push through with your board presence making it very volatile and unreliable but rewarding to play nonetheless.
One Night in Karazhan and The Future of Handlock
Handlock may see a comeback depending on what cards we get in the future. While Molten Giant turns may not be usable with some specific tools we surely will be able to bring the deck back to life in Standard. Among the things we need includes a replacement for Darkbomb and a defensive/comeback mechanism card. With Reno Jackson and Emperor Thaurissan going out next year when the first expansion hits, the future of Control Warlock decks is to be seen. We need 2 solid expansions in a row to make miracles happen. And from what we have seen in the past, a single card can make a whole lot of difference in the game!