Just for Fun: Zelae’s Combolock

Today we’re looking at one of the most exciting new decks to come around the pike in months -- Zelae’s ESL-winning Combolock!

Introduction

Hey, guys. It’s RaFive. Today we’re looking at one of the most exciting new decks to come around the pike in months — Zelae’s ESL-winning Combolock!

Post-GvG, there’s been an incredible amount of diversity in the metagame, with some classes (Mage, Paladin) making huge comebacks, others nerfed almost out of the game (Rogue), and the traditionally strongest classes (Hunter, Warlock) getting a new set of toys with which to try on new strategies. The unpredictability of the metagame means there are lots of new niches to abuse, and Zelae has found one, building on Darkwonyx’s initial Combolock list to create a new and equally deadly strain. Running much less durdle and high end, I strongly prefer Zelae’s version as much tighter and more economical, stronger in the current meta, and less awkward to play.

The name “Combolock” comes from the game-winning combo of Arcane Golem + Power Overwhelming + Faceless Manipulator to do whopping amounts of burst damage to your opponent’s face and secure an unexpected (or expected but unblockable) win. Zelae claims a 75% winrate with the deck, and I can confirm it’s incredibly strong in this metagame. Let’s dive in!

Overview

Veteran players will instantly recognize the skeleton of the deck as Handlock (and will probably remember that the Faceless Manipulator combo enjoyed great Handlock popularity until the Leeroy Jenkins nerf). It’s got Mortal Coil for card advantage (and Hunter matchup success), maximum life gain with double Earthen Ring Farseer and double Antique Healbot (24 points of healing!) for extra sustainability and freer draw power, Siphon Soul and Ironbeak Owl to deal with fatties and other troublesome drops, and Twilight Drake to take advantage of the deck’s high draw power and slow pace.

That’s where the similarity begins to diverge, however. Gone are the Giants, Ancient Watcher, Lord Jaraxxus, Sylvanas Windrunner, the taunt-givers, and a few other miscellaneous cards, making way instead for extra beef at the margins (like the extra heals for maximum draw), the Arcane Golem combo, and cheap, effective board presence through Zombie Chow and Imp-losion. Shadowflame also gets changed out for the nimbler Hellfire, and since the only requirement for ultimate victory is a clear shot at the opponent’s face, of course The Black Knight is an obvious call.

In short, the deck is mostly early Naxx-era Handlock with no high end, extra heals, a less damaging but more persistent board, and insane surprise burst damage. Happily for poorer players who may enjoy watching Handlock on Twitch streams but (like myself) find the deck prohibitively expensive to run, this Combolock gives you a similar control-style experience that can be run competently with only a couple of epics (see Substitutions, below). It’s got the flexibility and strength against control that characterizes non-aggressive Warlock play, while still being budget-friendly for the F2Pers amongst us!

How to Play

The most important thing in the deck is the combo, of course. Drawing a timely combo will mean victory with up to a whopping 24 (!!!) points of damage in a single turn, while failing to assemble the combo will often mean you can’t set up enough damage to burst your opponent down on time.

Thankfully, this is Warlock we’re talking about here, so card draw is not an issue (to put it mildly), and you can usually (read: nearly always except in lengthy, high-skill matches) end the game without the full combo, although drawing into double Power Overwhelming is the minimum necessary to win in most cases. HOWEVER, all the cards in your win condition are completely useless in the earlier game AND you don’t ever want to play your combo pieces except to close out the game (with the possible exception of Faceless Manipulator in some control matchups), so always mulligan any combo pieces out of your opening hand. On mulligan, you’re looking for Zombie Chow and Darkbomb above all, as these are cheap, efficient early removal (plus Mortal Coil, especially against Hunter). Never hold anything 4+ cost unless you have the Coin.

Play up through turns 4-5 follows the basic Handlock script: remove what you need to, but focus on drawing a ton of cards and rolling out your fat board presence (Twilight Drake and Sludge Belcher). Since you can’t Shadowflame a giant or Ancient Watcher for insane board clear, staying ahead on board is more important than in Handlock, so make judicious use of Zombie Chow and Imp-losion. The latter, and Hellfire, are also extremely strong when combined with Bloodmage Thalnos. You fend the opponent’s larger threats off with Big Game Hunter and Siphon Soul (plus The Black Knight against Handlock and such).

The goal, ultimately, is just to keep the opponent from bursting you down, while you keep his face clear and set up a 12-24 damage burst to take the game. You have a lot of board stickiness through Imp-losion, Twilight Drake, and Sludge Belcher, while the burst from Power Overwhelming means you can focus all the rest of your cards to simply keeping the board state favorable to you while you casually whittle your opponent’s health down until he’s in range for a finishing strike. Then out comes double PO for the KO!

I tested this deck from ranks 10-8. Matchups against Handlock are extremely favorable, since your deck is quicker while packing plenty of removal and crazy finishing burst. Control Warrior likewise can’t keep up as long as you can keep minions on the board and avoid any Armorsmith shenanigans (jamming their Acolyte of Pain with an Ironbeak Owl can also work wonders). Priest can be a little tricky, but careful counterplay will win the day. Mech Mage is weak against the card advantage gained from lots of draws, lots of heals, and lots of Hellfire.

The weakness of the deck thus far is aggression (Freeze Mage also hard counters the deck, but Ice Block is currently so rare on ladder you don’t need to worry about it). Without the possibility of double Molten Giant plus a Taunt-giver to stall an aggressive board, you have to rely on your heals and removal to stabilize against highly aggressive, sticky boards. This means that Zoo is actually not a great matchup for the deck. Midrange Hunter with Savannah Highmane and Sludge Belcher is also tricky, but comparatively easier because of Mortal Coil early on and Hunter’s tendency to have Haunted Creeper as the only genuinely sticky minion before Highmane (whereas this deck is quite weak against strong Nerubian Egg play early game). Double combo Druid is also tough because of the crazy amount of burst it represents compared with the relatively low amount of Taunt in Combolock. However, I have a feeling the deck could be teched to improve its aggressive matchups while still retaining most of its strength against control — keep reading!

Substitutions

The most flexible spots, per Zelae, are one of the Big Game Hunters, one of the Siphon Souls, and Bloodmage Thalnos. I’ll agree unequivocally with the first recommendation and quibble a bit with the second two. Two BGH is absolutely overkill for ladder — the main F2P decks (Hunter, Zoo, and mech Mage) are everywhere and run only one BGH target, if that. While there have been plenty of games that have had me use both my Siphon Souls, I can also see the possibility of something leaner in this spot to help out against aggression. With Bloodmage Thalnos, I have to disagree with Zelae — while its presence doesn’t make or break the deck by any means, if you’ve got it, I’d run it. It’s pulled my butt out of the fire in many games, plus the cheap spellpower boost draws enough attention that’s practically a soft taunt, plus Thalnos cycles himself and keeps your hand nice and full for those Twilight Drakes and faster combos.

As a rule of thumb, this deck already has tons of tech and tons of spells, so if you want to firm it up against various forms of ladder cancer, it’s best to strip out the tech and spells and replace them with value minions. You should replace BGH with whatever tech card helps in the specific matchups you find most problematic, so maybe Harvest Golem, Mind Control Tech, Loatheb, or Sylvanas Windrunner. (If you want less conventional options, Stampeding Kodo or Ogre Brute significantly improve your board pressure since you’re usually playing reactively anyway). Any of these cards would do well as a Siphon Soul replacement, too (or even for Thalnos), and Cairne Bloodhoof isn’t a bad call to replace Siphon, either. I also have to confess I almost never found myself using Ironbeak Owl, and could see swapping one out for another. I wouldn’t touch Zombie Chow, the heals, the Twilight Drakes and Sludge Belchers, or Imp-losion (or, of course, any of the combo pieces), since all these cards are crucial to your successful play and running two-of is strongly recommended for consistency’s sake.

As a final note, I intimated above that this is a more F2P-friendly deck than usual for slow, control-ish Warlock. Although the version listed at right runs three epics and two legendaries, you can cut Thalnos and BGH #2 for (say) Mind Control Tech and Loatheb without losing a lick of effectiveness. It may be heresy to say it, but you can &probably& cut Faceless Manipulator, if you have to — there’s enough flexibility in the rest of the deck to set up a burst that you don’t necessarily have to duplicate, although I don’t recommend this. The Black Knight really is ideal for this deck’s mana curve and gameplan, but any powerful 6-7 mana curve-topper can do in a pinch — Dr. Boom and Sylvanas Windrunner both work wonders, Piloted Sky Golem is a solid lower-budget replacement (Cairne will also do here if need be, as will Troggzor the Earthinator), and if you’re really desperate for a budget version, Sunwalker or Argent Commander make sense but will significantly weaken the deck.

Conclusion

After months of slogging through the shenanigans of Demonlock and other durdleicious attempts to break the metagame, I’d say Warlock finally has a true, viable third option as far as competitive lists, and it’s Combolock. It’s a high-skill deck and probably won’t become the new ladder cancer, but I expect to see speedier, more combo-riffic variations on Handlock popping up quite a bit more often from now on. Darkwonyx may have pioneered the idea, but Zelae has definitely polished it into something we can consider archetypical of a new playstyle. I get much the same feeling from this deck as from early midrange Hunters before they became the go-to deck on ladder. Thanks to Zelae for this immense contribution toward building a better meta!