Mastering Discard Zoo Warlock: Advanced Guide

This is the Advanced part of the guide. It explains more complex things, including setting up the clock, positioning, playing around removals etc. For more basic concepts, check out the Beginner part of the guide. Zoo Warlock might be the most popular deck in the history of Hearthstone. It was present in nearly every meta and it pretty much […]

This is the Advanced part of the guide. It explains more complex things, including setting up the clock, positioning, playing around removals etc. For more basic concepts, check out the Beginner part of the guide.

Introduction

Zoo Warlock might be the most popular deck in the history of Hearthstone. It was present in nearly every meta and it pretty much always was a Tier 1-2 deck. Zoo was always my “go-to” ladder list pre-Legend. The games are fast, the deck is powerful and Warlock is my favorite class. I’ve hit Legend with different versions countless times.

Karazhan introduced two new cards that are crucial to the Zoo’s identity – Malchezaar’s Imp and Silverware Golem. They’ve divided Zoo players into two groups – the ones that prefer Discard Zoo and the ones that stick to the classic Zoo without those. Well, there are also some in-between decks that mix both of them, but we’re not going too deep into that.

Zoo Warlock is not the strongest deck around right now. It’s probably somewhere in Tier II. It means that it might not be the best choice once you get to Legend*, but pre-Legend is a whole different story. Zoo still remains as one of the best decks to grind pre-Legend ladder with. If you practice the deck a bit, it might be one of the easiest Legend grinds of your life.

*Maybe not the best choice, but it’s not that bad either. While I didn’t push for any high ranks, I’ve peaked around top 200 for a while. This late in the season it’s not a bad rank at all.

http://i.imgur.com/RltgQIq.jpg

**And Sjow just hit #2 Legend playing a very similar list (with Knife Jugglers instead of Argent Squires). So yeah, it definitely works :p

P.S. Just to avoid some confusion. Throughout the guide, I will refer to the whole archetype as “Zoo” and this specific deck as “Discard Zoo”. When I’ll refer to the older, pre-Karazhan Zoo builds, I’ll call it “Classic Zoo”.

Trading vs Going Face

First and foremost – trading vs going face. That’s a huge concern and it’s very easy to mess it up. On the one hand, this is Zoo, so you want to make as many efficient trades as possible. On the other, this is an aggressive deck, so you want to kill enemy. You have very low curve and you can’t afford to play really long game. In the early game, board control is your #1 priority. Unless enemy drops something that you just can’t kill and you have to ignore it, you want to make trades. When YOU make the trades, you can make them efficient, you can utilize attack buffs the way you like it etc. If you let enemy make trades, he’ll just kill of your key minions and leave you with no board. But at one point you need to start going face, especially if enemy is playing a slightly slower deck and can outvalue you in the long run. When is that?

There is no clear dividing line – it’s mostly about the matchup, the minion you’re going to leave on the board etc. The most important question is – can enemy punish you for not trading? By punish I mean a lot of different things. Buff the minion left on the board. Clear the board with AoE and still have some board presence. Utilize the minion’s extra effect (e.g. Spell Damage). Even get a good trade on the board.

Let’s say enemy drops a 3/3 minion on the board and you have Dire Wolf Alpha and a few other minions. If you have a decent trade (e.g. a 3/2 into 3/3), you generally want to make it. If you don’t – enemy kills your Dire Wolf for free and you’re losing a lot of value. Another example is playing against Druid who drops Azure Drake. Even if you don’t get an efficient trade, it’s generally a good idea to kill it, because Druid can easily punish you with spells boosted by Drake’s effect.

But there are also situations where you can’t really get punished. Let’s say you have a board of minions that you don’t really need to protect. Enemy Warrior drops Elise Starseeker. Unless you have a some really good trade, like Soulfire in your hand that you want to use, there is no real reason to kill it. Warrior can only punish you with a Brawl, and Elise winning it is a very unlucky outcome which there is no reason to play around. You let Warrior make a trade and you go face – this way you get extra 5 damage that might make a difference in the future.

Another situation where it’s wise to go face instead of trading is when you set up the taunts correctly. When you have two 1/1’s on the board and play Argus on them, you end up with two small Taunts. Very disposable – you don’t really care if they die. That’s a great way of stopping attacks. If enemy has a midrange or even big minion on the board, he still has to throw it into your 2/2. So you let him do that and go face instead if there is no clear punish.

Every turn after the early game, you want to set up enemy on a clock. Deal some damage to the face every turn and try to set up lethal in 2-3 turns. One of the main advantages of playing Zoo Warlock is that you can push enemy to the wall and make them play inefficiently. For example, Warrior doesn’t want to use Execute on a 3/1 minion, but he might be forced to do exactly that if you put enough pressure on him and he will feel like he can’t take any more damage.

One more important thing you need to consider. Sometimes, you need to take a risk, even though you might get punished. Discard Zoo is a fast deck. You can’t afford to play a really long game. If you feel that trading whatever enemy plays is harder and harder, you’re running out of resources and enemy might take control soon – you stop trading and go face. Just like that. Sure, you might get punished for that, but at this point you don’t care. Prolonging the game would only hurt you, so you take your chances and try to finish it in 2-3 turns. Flood the board, point everything at face, do only the most important trades and ignore rest of stuff.

Playing Around Removals

It’s a tip aimed especially at the new players: learn the cards opponents play. Learn what removals, especially AoE removals, are in each common meta deck. This comes with experience, but is VERY important when playing Zoo. This way you know what AoE you need to play around and whether you need to do it at all. If you don’t know how much damage you need to play around, you might trade in a wrong way. If you don’t know how many AoEs your opponent runs, you won’t be able to know if you can flood the board safely.

Control Warrior matchup is a great example, because there are a few layers of playing around AoE. First of all – you play around Brawl. This means that you don’t want to flood the whole board, if you already have ~4 minions, playing that Darkshire Councilman is like asking yourself to get B. You want to bait them first, by playing less meaningful minions, e.g. a few 1-drops and just force enemy to play it, because the board is getting too big. Then, there is playing around 1 damage AoE – Ravaging Ghoul and Revenge. You want to trade the way that least amount of your minions are at 1 health. This will make things harder for Warrior. After you get enemy down to 12 health or less (Armor doesn’t matter), Revenge becomes a 3 damage AoE. So now you need to play around that. Most of your minions would die to it immediately. So you prioritize buffing a 3 health minions to 4 health with Argus so they would survive. And you prioritize playing high health minions or sticky minions (e.g. Squire). Also, from turn 7 onwards you have Baron Geddon in mind. Since it’s a tech card and it’s not present in every Warrior list, you don’t always play around it, but if you can afford to, try to leave as many minions at 3+ health as possible. To play this matchup perfectly, you need to navigate around opponent’s potential board clears with incredibly high dexterity. It’s not easy and not always possible to do, but if playing around those won’t cost you much, why not just do that?

Playing around single target removal is not that important. With this deck, your aim is to have multiple minions on the board all the time, so single target removals don’t hurt you that much. Only when playing your biggest minion – Doomguard – you can try to play around some of them. E.g. if you know that enemy Midrange Shaman hasn’t used any Hex yet, instead of going face with your Doomguard, trade him into something immediately. In case enemy Hexes it, at least you’ve gained some value before it was gone. But AoE spells are way more important to play around.

Here is a quick spreadsheet of most popular AoEs or pseudo-AoEs played by each class:

  • Druid – Swipe (Spell Damage is very common in popular Druid lists, so have that in mind)
  • Hunter – Explosive Trap (not very popular, but still something you should have in mind), Unleash the Hounds
  • Mage – Flamestrike, Blizzard (slower lists also run Frost Nova + Doomsayer)
  • Paladin – Consecration, Wild Pyromancer (+possibly Equality)
  • Priest – Excavated Evil, Holy Nova (more rare than Excavated Evil, used mostly by Dragon Priest), Wild Pyromancer, Auchenai Soulpriest + Circle of Healing
  • Rogue – Fan of Knives (remember that they can quite easily make it into 2 damage AoE with Spell Damage)
  • Shaman – Lightning Storm, Maelstrom Portal
  • Warlock – Hellfire, Shadowflame, Demonwrath, Twisting Nether (but remember that only slower Warlock lists run AoE – Zoo doesn’t)
  • Warrior – Ravaging Ghoul, Revenge, Brawl, Baron Geddon, Wild Pyromancer (in Combo lists, most likely in combination with Commanding Shout).

I know that it might be a lot to remember for new players, but trust me – it’s really crucial to know how much AoE damage enemy can deal to you when playing Zoo list. More experienced players probably already know all of that, but you also need to take that to your heart – there is a big difference between knowing something and using that knowledge in practice.

Positioning

I’ve already talked a bit about positioning in the first part of the guide. But I want to develop on that point, because it’s really important aspect of playing any Zoo list. Trust me, your play will improve a lot if you will remember all of that. Remember our small positioning guide? It goes like that, from left to right:

High value minions you don’t want to trade off —-> Big minions —-> Minions that don’t want to die (Deathrattle, Divine Shield etc.) —> Small/disposable minions you want to trade off in the first place —-> ONE minion that doesn’t want to die

Why is this kind of positioning important? It seems silly for someone who hasn’t played a lot of Zoo, but it actually makes a lot of sense. This deck runs two different cards (4 copies in total) that benefit from the right positioning – Dire Wolf Alpha and Defender of Argus. Both are crucial elements of pretty much every Zoo list. But why this kind of positioning?

Let’s start with Dire Wolf Alpha. This position favors the doggy for a few reasons. First of all – you keep all the minions that you want to trade off together. So when push comes to shove, you play Dire Wolf and you can trade them all one by one, with every one of them having +1 attack. Those are the minions you most commonly buff with doggy – the ones you want to trade anyway. Then, there are Deathrattles/Divine Shields/Imp Gang Boss. Those spawn something after dying or don’t die immediately. So they break this perfect line of minion after minion getting buffed, because they don’t make place for another minion in the line. But sadly, those are the minions you often WANT to buff attack of – especially 1-drops, Squire and Villager. That’s why you still keep them close, but not in between of non-Deathrattle minions. Having most of them on the left and one on the right is perfect. You can trade minions off until you get to the Deathrattle minion on both sides, which you can also trade away then.  Now an example of a bad board state – If you have, from left to right – Abusive Sergeant, Argent Squire, Flame Imp. No matter where you play Dire Wolf, you can buff only two of them (assuming Argent Squire still has Divine Shield). But if Argent Squire was on the left, you could buff all of them after making a trade with Abusive/Flame Imp.

Then, even further on the left are big minions. Why there? Because you won’t likely need to buff them with Dire Wolf anyway. The 5 attack of Doomguard pretty much trades into anything you want anyway. Not to mention that big minions often don’t die after trading them, so they would also break the doggy line. And this kind of positioning is better for Argus, I’ll explain that later. And on the far, far left, there are most valuable minions. If you don’t want to trade with those, they have very low priority for Dire Wolf buff. In this deck there aren’t really minions like that – maybe Malchezaar’s Imp if you have quite a lot of Discard synergies. Throwing him in the middle would mean that you either trade him away or it wastes the Dire Wolf buff.

And Defender of Argus. Here explanation is even more simple. Depending on your board state and matchup, you usually want to buff a certain group of minions, so you keep them together. You might want to buff 2 small minions if you need small Taunts to tank hits from big minions on the opponent’s side. You might want to buff & Taunt 2 sticky/Deathrattle minions if you don’t play around AoE and want them to die in the first place, so your board presence won’t get significantly weaker even after they die. Or you might want to buff one/two Argent Squires, because Divine Shield gets extra value from buffs and Taunt. And if you need big Taunts to either protect rest of the board, make them survive a trade or when playing against deck that wants to rush you down – you Taunt two big guys, who should also be grouped together. This way you end up with biggest Taunts possible.

Of course, this kind of positioning is not perfect. Sometimes you will need to break the line if that will be dictated by the trades. Sometimes you will need to put Dire Wolf besides a big minion, because you will need that extra 1 point of damage. Sometimes you want to pop your Divine Shields or Deathrattles instead of trading your small stuff away. But in general, this kind of positioning shouldn’t hurt you, while it might give you extra win now and then. I’m serious – sometimes missing a good trade or 1-2 face damage might be a difference between winning and losing. So if you really want to maximize your win rate and play the best Zoo you can, learn this positioning and try to use it in practice.

P.S. Sadly, you don’t get to choose where Silverware Golem spawns if it’s summoned from discard. It’s always on the far right. But after it spawns, you can still try to adjust your positioning around it. Luckily, far right is not the worst kind of positioning for Silverware Golem. At least it doesn’t spawn in random location, that could mess some things up.

Alternate/Tech Cards

Discard Zoo list is still far from being the most optimal thing. Since the meta isn’t perfect for Zoo players, not a lot of pros are grinding the deck right now. And so, any developments are very slow. I feel like there is still the best possible list to find out. It doesn’t mean that this one is bad, no. But depending on the meta, matchups you face and stuff like that it can still be optimized. If you want to change a bit here and there, those are some of the cards you can consider playing:

Fist of Jaraxxus

Fist of Jaraxxus. Why isn’t it in the deck? It’s another discard synergy card. It would make the discard mechanics even better! I mean, sure, it would make them better. But it would lower the overall quality of the deck quite significantly.

Fist of Jaraxxus was a cool concept, but it suffers from a few things. First of all – it’s random. It can hit Shaman’s 0/2 Totem instead of Totem Golem. It can even hit face when you don’t really need it (I mean, later in the game 4 face damage might be great, but it’s pretty useless on the first turns). You have zero control over it. Second of all – it’s unplayable by itself. Silverware Golem can be at least dropped as 3/3 for 3. It’s not good, but you can play it without hurting your tempo that much. On the other hand, paying 4 mana for random 4 damage is… nope, that’s worth about 2 mana (akin to Flamecannon), not 4. And last, but not least, it’s much worse on the empty board. Having 3/3 on the board is worth much more than dealing 4 face damage in most of cases. So dropping a turn 5 Doomguard on empty board just to deal 4 extra face damage might not be worth it.

It definitely has its moments, but overall it’s not a good card. This deck would love to have another discard synergy similar to Silverware Golem, but something a little stronger than that.

Power Overwhelming

Staple in every Classic Zoo list, it’s semi-common in Discard ones. Sometimes one-of, some lists even run two. I don’t particularly like it alongside Soulfire, as those cards are doing similar job. You also often want to keep the Power Overwhelming until you get a good opportunity to use it – you can’t just use it any time to deal 4 face damage. I mean, you can, but it’s not really worth it. And keeping cards in list with so many discards is risky.

On the other hand, PO is very strong card and it gives you even better trading potential. I particularly like it in Shaman matchup – it’s a great counter to the Thing from Below. Just throw PO on a 1/1 and the tempo Shaman gained is pretty much negated. It’s also solid finisher. You can’t really combo Soulfire and Doomguard, so your reach potential is lower in this deck. With PO, you can PO something on the board + play Doomguard or Soulfire from your hand for 8-9 burst damage.

I probably wouldn’t run two PO’s in Discard Warlock, but one of can be a nice addition.

Demonfire

Demonfire is a card that was never really used in competitive play. “Demon Warlock” never really took off and Zoo rarely ran enough small Demons to justify using Demonfire. Because here’s the thing – Demonfire is much better on a small Demon, early in the game. Buffing Doomguard from 5/7 to 7/9 is nice, but it’s a big body already, it’s already high on the removal priority and it doesn’t push the stats up that much. On the other hand, giving +2/+2 on turn 2 to one of your t1 Demons can be big.

Malchezaar’s Imp is the reason why some players run Demonfire in Zoo. Now the deck has three different 1 mana Demons, so Demonfire can hit on t2 much more often. Both Voidwalker and Imp become 3/5 and Flame Imp becomes 5/4. The first ones are serious threats right now, they get good trades against most of the early game stuff. And buffed Flame Imp most notably kills the Totem Golem without dying, so now enemy has to finish it off with something.

Buffing Imp Gang Boss is also a great way to turn it into token-making machine. With 6 health, it will often take extra hit or two before dying, meaning more 1/1’s for you.

And if you need it, you can use it as a small removal. 2 damage for 2 mana is not good, that’s true, but it might sometimes kill an important minion. And the thing is, enemy doesn’t really expect Zoo to immediately deal with something.

The card can sometimes work wonders, but is pretty situational in general. It can sit in your hand for a few turns without really gaining that much value. And Zoo always prefers to spread the stats around the board – buffing a single minion makes it worse against single target removals.

Knife Juggler

Juggler isn’t as strong as in the Classic Zoo, mainly because this deck doesn’t play Forbidden Ritual which combos greatly with Juggler. But it’s still okay. The amount of 1-drops this deck runs + combo with Imp Gang Boss/Possessed Villager means that it’s quite easy to get 2-3 juggles off each turn in the mid game. And those few random points of damage can either push some face damage or boost the trades. Juggler is best against decks running multiple low health minions – e.g. Aggro Paladin, Zoo Warlock. In those matchups it has highest chance of hitting something and even immediately killing it. But those deck’s aren’t really popular right now. Juggler isn’t that amazing against Shaman, because most of their minions have higher health. It’s still okay, but not GREAT. It’s also pretty bad against Druid – if they drop something, it’s usually big.

I mean, even in the worst case scenario it’s always a few extra points of face damage. So you can’t completely dismiss it. But I don’t like it in this particular list in this particular meta. But it’s still a consideration, because the card itself is pretty powerful even after the nerf.

Argent Horserider

I’ve seen Horserider from time to time in more aggressive Zoo lists and I quite like it. It’s a way faster 3-drop than Imp Gang Boss or Councilman. It gets immediate value, you can instantly charge it into something. It’s also a good way to come back on the board – especially in combination with Abusive Sergeant. With those two cards, for 4 mana you can kill some 4 health target and leave two 2/1’s on the board. That’s a pretty nice swing, especially since Abusive is nearly useless if you have no board prior to that.

On the other hand, 2 damage by itself isn’t that good in the current meta. Against Shaman, 3 is the number you’re looking for – 3 allows you to clear Tunnel Trogg, Flametongue Totem, Mana Tide Totem, Feral Spirit… So Argent Horserider, by itself, is not that amazing. But we need to remember that it’s Zoo we’re talking about, buffing the attack is not that hard of a task.

So while I’m not 100% convinced that Horserider is good in this deck and in this meta, it’s definitely not a bad card and you can test it out.

Closing

And that’s it for the Advanced part of the guide. I think that I could write more, but I’ve tried to keep it short (which I still kinda failed at, but you know). I have quite a lot of experience with Zoo Warlock and I’ve already played 100+ games on Discard Warlock this season. So if you have any concerns, you want to ask about strategy etc. – no problem, I’ll try my best to answer any question you have.

By the way – if you wonder why there are no matchups in this guide, the reason is simple. I’ll be releasing MUAs (Matchup Analysis) against the popular meta decks in separate posts. If you’d like to see a certain matchup covered first, tell me and I’ll see what I can do.

If you want to be up to date with my articles, you can follow me on Twitter.

Good luck on the ladder and until next time!