Hellbringer, Ironlock, and Zerglock: Zoo in the Post-GvG Meta

Warlock gets some impressive cards in the expansion. Come check out how these cards fit into the Warlock deck list featured in this article!

Introduction

The expansion is upon us. The earthquake is set to rip through the metagame.

Hey, guys. It’s RaFive, and today we’re going to talk about what happens to Zoo Warlock post-nerf and post-expansion. To put it succinctly, the Naxxramas-era Undertaker Zoo will no longer hold maximum competitive value after the expansion, with the Soulfire nerf slowing Zoo’s tempo as better potential synergies enter the game along with counters to Zoo’s traditional favorite tactics. My goal is to break these changes down for you, and make some suggestions / predictions about the best way to go forward from here for veteran Zoo players looking to continue the playstyle after the expansion.

The Nerf

It’s not where I expected Blizzard to nerf, but Soulfire now costs 1 mana. This is actually a bigger change than it might seem. Before, Soulfire was a pure tempo play for Warlock’s early-to-mid-game — it gave you the option of burning a card in your hand as a resource to swing tempo by putting out damage after you’d already exhausted your mana for the term. Having to spend mana to activate the effect makes Soulfire much less desirable in Zoo, and in Warlock generally — it’s kinda like a Power Overwhelming that randomly kills something in your hand instead of letting you choose to kill something of yours on the board. That’s a pretty crappy deal, and so I expect Soulfire to go down to one or zero copies, with Darkbomb as an alternative in heavier decks, and double PO as an auto-include in future Zoo-style decks as a more consistent Soulfire alternative with Deathrattle and Void Terror synergy. Note those two synergies, because they signal where Zoo is headed from here.

The tempo loss also means Zoo lists will either have to move up or down in range to compensate. Zoo is already among the faster decks in Hearthstone, so downrange means we’re in Murlock or Rushlock territory. I’ve given Rushlock a go on the ladder and found it fun and powerful but lacking against control decks and weak against the Taunt-heavier metagame we’re in. Murlocs are fun, but with 15 at most worth including in a deck, all of them relatively underpowered, I don’t see them becoming powerful enough in Warlock to be a mainstream thing. This means the best direction for Zoo to move in response to the Soulfire nerf — if it can’t do something to compensate and keep roughly its current tempo — is toward a more midrange board control style.

Fire, Iron, and Earth: The Impact of GvG

Warlock gets some impressive cards in the expansion. The problem is, none of them really fit into Zoo except maybe Anima Golem with some crazy Blood Imp type shenanigans. Imp-losion is potentially a decent way to recover from a wipe, but it’s slow and heavy and vulnerable to AoE — a much better play on, say, turn 7-8 than on turn 4. Even Fel Cannon has weak attack and only fits into an extremely Mech-heavy deck (aside from the obvious Nerubian Egg trigger synergy). There’s nothing that fits obviously into a high-tempo board-control model powered by inexpensive mutually synergistic minions and frequent draws.

There are some powerful cards in the set, however. If you can Life Tap twice with Floating Watcher on the board, you’ve summoned an 8/8 with additional ramp potential for an initial cost of just 5 mana. Darkbomb is cheap, consistent reach and removal that’s extremely strong in a deck with bigger, slower minions where the more measured pace means more mana available and Soulfire doesn’t fit because the discards are too costly. Imp-losion also makes the most sense on slightly later turns where, say, you play Dread Infernal on turn 6 and follow up on turn 7 with an Imp-losion and a Void Terror to remove, give yourself a token, and set up another strong minion for board control. Even Anima Golem probably fits best in a slower deck than Zoo traditionally runs, baiting out an opponent’s removal and establishing minimal board control with sticky minions on earlier turns followed by the Golem and Nerubian Egg on turn 8 — see, we’re still in sequence! — to burn the remainder of the opponent’s tempo out and swing decisively in our favor with, say, Mal’Ganis on turn 9. The demon lord is a strong enough card (forcing your opponent to play board control, let us note with our Zoo thinking caps on) with enough immediate-effect blowout potential to immediately win games unanswered. Warlock players will definitely try to find ways to exploit him in their decks.

The new neutral cards tell a quicker story when you apply them to board control approaches in Warlock. The mechs make for a pretty fast, aggressive start, Clockwork Gnome synergizing with Undertaker, Cogmaster as possible (if weak-ish) support, and of course the almighty Mechwarper, alongside other picks for an aggressive early Deathrattle-mech deck like Micro Machine and Piloted Shredder (plus even Mimiron’s Head if you want to include a possibility of OTK durdle). These are supported by solid midrangey board control minions like Spider Tank and Tinkertown Technician and finishers like Gazlowe, but countered by cards like Lil’ Exorcist, Scarlet Purifier, and Explosive Sheep.

The Troggs also deserve special mention as tough minions which force opponents to play the board or risk detrimental ramp-up, making them ideal for inclusion in midrange board control lists as a means to force your opponent to play where your deck is strongest. Troggzor the Earthinator in particular is an insanely powerful card when played where your opponent does not have enough attack on the board to remove him — like Savannah Highmane, he’ll have a tendency to stick and do serious damage, since removing him with spells is simply not an option.

There’s also a potential Zoo MVP I discovered playing Arena over the weekend: Hobgoblin. The restrictions on his effect are substantial, but the effect is so incredibly powerful that it’s easy to see whole decks built around this ugly little sucker. He’s like Gadgetzan Auctioneer crossed with Murloc Warleader, rewarding you with insane tempo for playing low-attack minions. With Hobgoblin on the board, a Voidwalker becomes a Sen’jin Shieldmasta for one mana. An Argent Squire becomes a Silvermoon Guardian for one mana. There should be significant potential here for an aggressive low-curve deck designed to overwhelm opponents through sheer tempo advantage gained by doubling or tripling the value of multiple cheap minions thrown down consecutively.

In sum, it seems to me that demon, mech, and Hobgoblin synergies are likely to be the main drivers of board control Warlock decks in GvG. Let’s look at what each of these different styles is likely to include.

Disclaimer

It’s important to understand the limits of a forecast like this. As of the writing of this article, GvG has been out for about 16 hours. This is a theorycrafting article. Don’t expect to be able to take relatively untested decklists and archetypes and blow out with them. I’m sharing my own thoughts and preparations, but I’m just a dude who happens to be good at Hearthstone. Even the pros are wrong a significant percentage of the time, especially about what will happen to the metagame after [insert event]. I might be right — in fact, I probably am — but that doesn’t mean I’m completely right, or right about everything. Caveat emptor.

Hellbringer Warlock

I’ve chosen to actually put together and showcase a deck from the Hellbringer type because it’s easily the most radical departure from traditional Zoo approaches. If you want to run a demon-heavy deck, Voidcaller is your absolute staple and this forces you to play a slower game than Zoo traditionally accepts.

For my list, I’ve cut the Zoo plan of aggression from turn 1 to make room for bigger minions and more removal, but I’ve kept early board presence to pressure slow decks and tamp down aggression. The plan is to cinch the match through ramping pressure up in the midgame to build a large board of heavier minions than Zoo can traditionally run. Double silences for the GvG metagame also permit Handlock-esque inclusion of Ancient Watcher as early pressure, a cheap taunt off Defender of Argus, and a target for powerful board clear via Shadowflame. Everything starts to deteriorate for the opponent on turns 3-4, as silences come down on Watchers, Ogre Brute provides a resilient and unpredictable threat to the board, Void Terror activates Nerubian Egg, Voidcaller threatens a turn 5 Mal’ganis, and so on.

Your main engines of pressure are Flame Imp on turn 1, Nerubian Egg and Ogre Brute for the rest of the early game, and Floating Watcher (hopefully summoned through Voidcaller) as a threat that ramps as you gain card advantage (and also synergizes with Flame Imp and Dread Infernal in a pinch). Imp-losion helps you come back from behind or secure your board while providing tokens for Void Terror to eat or Defender of Argus to buff. A single copy of Siphon Soul provides a small late-game life boost and removal for anything too scary for your midrange minions to handle if trading with Power Overwhelming is undesirable.

Ironlock

Mech is the best bet for a deck that plays like old Zoo; just swap in mech synergies where they make sense while keeping all the Zoo staple cards. Clockwork Gnome can be put in next to Leper Gnome for greedy Undertaker starts that until now haven’t been seen outside of Hunter. Micro Machine ramps fast and trades absurdly well if unanswered. Piloted Shredder provides an extra Deathrattle and sticks better than Dark Iron Dwarf while having the same pointy front end. Harvest Golem was already a Zoo staple and can now be brought out a turn earlier with Mechwarper, or you can run Tinkertown Technician as a 3-drop.

Perhaps most importantly, in an aggressive Ironlock deck without you can include Fel Reaver as a Doomguard substitute. With Mechwarper you can get the Reaver out on turn 4 (and if you have two warpers, turn THREE!), coming down early enough that the card burn doesn’t decide the outcome of the game and checkmating many decks outright. It’ll take a lot of skill to use Reaver correctly, but it could easily become an overwhelming force in Zoo.

Zerglock

Hobgoblin is going to be a game-breaker. There’s a deck-builder out there, right now, putting together a list that will become the new metagame cancer, and I’m willing to bet that list will include two copies of Hobgoblin. You gain even value off the card if you manage to buff even one minion, and if you can buff three or four, odds are you’ll win the game if your opponent doesn’t have immediate Flamestrike-level removal handy. There are high-quality 1-attack minions all over the 1- and 2-drop slots (including already-rampy minions like Undertaker and Micro Machine) which can hold their own when comboed with a few traditional Zoo buffing cards (like Defender of Argus) while you wait to draw into HG and swing the game.

That said, it’s still a deck that will likely take a high level of skill to play well, since it’s similar in many ways to a minion-based Miracle Rogue. Throwing Hobgoblin down with one minion on turn 4 will give you great value that turn, but will probably just get HG killed before he can provide further value since his presence is (or should be) always considered an imminent, top-priority threat. On the other hand, if you throw him down on turn 6 so you can play 2-3 extra minions at the same time, you need to be careful that your opponent can’t simply outlcass you with stronger cards (like, say, Ancient of Lore) that your swarming 3-4 mana minions simply can’t answer. This suggests to me that you might see Jeeves run as a card that HG can buff which keeps your hand filled with those sweet, delicious minions you need to keep quickly throwing down to overwhelm your opponent. Hence Zerglock.

(It’s also possible that Murlocs will make decent inclusions in a Hobgoblin deck, although I’m skeptical. Again, though, what better to call a Murloc Hobgoblin deck than Zerglock?)

Conclusion

Up until pretty recently, I had concluded that Warlock was going end up all Handlock and midrange. My playtesting suggests to me the future is much more diverse for Warlock as a class, with solid options across GvG for early aggression, midrange board control, and later-game control styles. Zoo in particular looks to benefit from this flexibility, with Hellbringer and other demon-heavy lists filling the midrange, Hobgoblin (and possibly Murloc) running a swarming, aggressive early-game style, and Ironlock bridging the gap, with solid options for both aggression and midrange play. I look forward to seeing how the community uses all the new options available in building a better metagame!