Mastering the Handlock: Advanced Guide

This is part 2 of this extensive deck guide series. Be sure to check out the other sections: Part 1: Beginner Guide Part 2: Advanced Strategies, Alternate Cards, and Tech Choices Part 3: Match-ups and Mulligans At the start of the Advanced Guide we want to talk about decisions. Handlock is a slow, Control deck, so naturally […]

This is part 2 of this extensive deck guide series. Be sure to check out the other sections:

So Many Possibilities

At the start of the Advanced Guide we want to talk about decisions. Handlock is a slow, Control deck, so naturally it benefits from having as many options every turn as it is possible. The more cards you have, the more things you can do every turn. It means that Handlock is incredibly difficult deck when it comes to deciding what’s the best play each turn. We want to go through couple of more common decisions and analyze them. Obviously it’s impossible to determine which play is right as the rule on the paper and then apply it to every case. But we hope that it’s gonna make new Handlock players’ time a little easier.

Life Tapping

Hero Power is your biggest and most important tool when playing Handlock. Without it, the deck would make no sense. The general rule is that you want to Tap as much as you can. But “as much as you can” depends mostly on your hand, your health and enemy you face. If you’re playing a slow, Control match you want to tap every turn unless there is no room for tapping due to the play you make. So, for example, it’s turn 4 and you have twilight-drake in your hand. You don’t Life Tap, because you want to put the Drake on the board. But now, it’s turn 6. You have Twilight Drake and Emperor Thaurissan. If both of them contest what’s on the enemy’s board, it’s better to Life Tap + play the Drake. It means that you gained one additional card, you didn’t fall back on the board and Emperor might as well come let’s say on turn 8 (along with another Tap).

On the other hand, against fast, Aggro decks, you can’t Tap that much. The problem here is that those decks have much higher tempo than you do. If you fall too behind on tempo, only molten-giants can save you. And you can’t base your whole game plan around drawing them. This means that throwing in Ancient Watcher (to let’s say Taunt it next turn) might be a better idea than Life Tapping most of time. Against Aggro you still need options, but the thing you need most is to survive.

Then, it depends on the deck you face and your health. You need to remember that Life Tapping doesn’t come for free. It costs you 2 health per Tap. And while you often want to be at low health, it’s not the case against certain decks. For example, if you face Freeze Mage, you don’t really want to go below 20 health, because then he can easily kill you in two turns (sometimes even one!). It means that Life Tapping has too high price. So against decks with a lot of burn, try to keep your health reasonably high and don’t Tap too much. On the other hand, if you face a Control Paladin, the deck that has almost no burst, you might as well tap to 10 health if they don’t have damage on the board (or you’re behind Taunts).

Be reasonable, think whether you need more options and what are the chances that enemy is gonna kill you (because you deal damage to yourself) or out-tempo you (because you are playing with 2 less mana when Tapping). If the chances are low, Tap. Remember to Tap BEFORE making a play. It’s one of the more common novice mistakes. First using some cards and then tapping. Think through your whole turn. Let’s say you’re at 10 mana and you want to use 7 mana this turn on a certain play. If you already decided that you’re gonna do this play, Tap first. It may open new possibilities, give you a new card to play. For example if enemy had played a big minion and you have no removal, you might think about playing sludge-belcher and sunfury-protector on your ancient-watcher. But what if you tap into big-game-hunter or siphon-soul? It might completely change your turn.

And the final thing about Tapping. Count your cards before doing that. It’s another common mistake among new Handlock players. From time to time they’re so focused on trying to make the best play and Life Tapping before, that they don’t count their cards first and Tap with an already full hand. As a Handlock, sometimes you’re gonna sit at 9-10 cards for a couple turns straight, so it’s somehow easy to make that mistake. If you first made some play and then tapped, you’d be one card ahead. Burning cards in Handlock is also pretty bad, because your slow games often go to Fatigue, and you want to have every possible card to play with. It also gives enemy an information about what you don’t have, e.g. if it was molten-giant they don’t have to worry about hitting your Hero so much.

Twilight Drake vs Mountain Giant

One of the most important questions when playing Handlock. It’s turn 4, you have both twilight-drake and mountain-giant in your hand. Which one do you play first?

There is probably no correct answer for this one. First of all – you need to analyze your opponent’s deck. What removals does he run. The biggest enemy of your Giant is big-game-hunter, while the Twilight Drake is countered by Silence. So if enemy runs Silence, but no Big Game Hunter (for example Zoo Warlock), dropping the Giant first is a good idea. If the Drake gets Silenced, you might lose too much tempo and not come back. On the other hand, if the deck has BGH but no Silence and you want your first minion to stick, Twilight Drake is a better move.

If the deck has an easy access to big creature removals, e.g. you’re playing against a Control Warrior (execute, shield-slam), you want to drop your Twilight Drake first to bait the removal. The chances that enemy has two answers are less likely, and your Giant is a bigger threat.

Against Druid if it’s turn 4, you want to start with the Drake. Druids run both Silence and BGH. The difference is that when it’s turn 4, Druid can’t Silence your Twilight Drake with keeper-of-the-grove and still finish it with Hero Power. You’re left with a 4/1 minion that will likely trade with a Keeper and result in 1 for 1. You don’t fall behind in terms of tempo. However, if you start with Mountain Giant and enemy uses Big Game Hunter, you’re left with nothing and he has a 4/2 on the board – you’re clearly behind.

In mirror match, against other Handlock, you usually want to start with Giant. Enemy might have answers for both of your threats (Big Game Hunter or ironbeak-owl + mortal-coil), but if you start with a Drake and enemy starts with a Giant, you’re in a bad spot. Even a 4/9 Drake loses to Mountain Giant hit + Mortal Coil, while his Giant still survives at 4 health.

Against Aggro decks you probably won’t have to make that decision, because you’re gonna play some cards before turn 4 instead of Tapping, so you won’t be able to play Mountain Giant. But if you can, go for it, you won’t have opportunity to play him later.

The general consensus is, however, that you want to get out your Mountain Giant as fast as you can. It’s much less flexible. Sometimes in later turns it’s gonna cost 6-7 mana because you can’t always Tap. Twilight Drake will always be a 4 mana minion, so even with only couple of cards in your hand you still might play it. Playing a 4/4 Drake is better than having a dead card  in form of 9 mana Mountain Giant.

Also, another question is: is it worth to Coin out Twilight Drake when you’re going second? The answer also depends on the situation, but generally there are three things you need to think about.

  • If you have Mountain Giant in your hand – don’t do that. It means that you’re pushing away your Mountain Giant at least until turn 5. Sometimes you might not have an opportunity to play it in a long time, because on turn 5 you often need to Taunt with sludge-belcher.
  • How big pressure are you under? If enemy has thrown a couple of threats on the board and you really have to answer them, pushing Drake one turn earlier might be a good idea. It can save you a lot of damage and give you something you can start killing their early minions with.
  • It depends on whether you have a good follow-up. If you have a second Drake you can play on turn 4, it’s fine. Having two big minions by turn 4 is good. If you have an Argus and you think that your Drake is gonna survive, it’s also fine. Even Life Tap + Ancient Watcher is not bad. But don’t Coin out Drake if you have no follow-up and you’re gonna end just tapping the next turn. Unless you’re under really big pressure, then you might go for it and just hope that you get something to play next turn.

Which AoE is better

Handlock players often wonder which AoE they should use in a certain situation. Sometimes it’s really easy, if enemy has a lot of high health creatures, you can’t take them down with hellfire. But there are situations when both of them clear the board. Which one you should use then?

hellfire is definitely less flexible in terms of damage. The good point about it is that it doesn’t require any creature on your side on the board. It’s great against Aggro decks, because 3 damage is usually enough to clear everything they might play. It’s also great against Patron Warrior, because all of their combos are easily cleared by 3 damage AoE. It’s good on turn 4, since you often have no minions on the board. It means that it’s impossible to Shadowflame AND that no of your minions are gonna get damaged for no reason. The good thing about Hellfire is that it can be also used to deal 3 damage to enemy Hero when pushing for lethal. Damaging yourself when you’re let’s say at 13 health may also be beneficial, because it might get you into free Molten Giants range.

shadowflame, on the other hand, is much more interesting and gives you a lot more opportunities. First of all, it’s better if you have many minions on the board. Rather than damage your whole board, you often prefer to just sacrifice one of your minions and leave the rest unharmed. You control how much damage you deal. You might Shadowflame some small minion like ironbeak-owl for 2 damage, the standard ancient-watcher for 4 or a molten-giant for 8 if you need a big AoE. It’s more flexible and strong through the whole game, even against Control decks.

Against Aggro, you often want the damage instantly, without having to worry about playing something first. You might even have nothing you can play along Shadowflame, and when you really need to clear the board it might cost you the game. On the other hand, against Control Hellfire will rarely get great value. If you face a slow deck like Ramp Druid, most of the minions they play are way out of range of Hellfire. The answer is that Hellfire is better against Aggro decks and Shadowflame is better against Control. It means that if you have an opportunity to use either of two and the outcome will be the same, you prefer to use your less wanted one first. Agaisnt Aggro, go for the Shadowflame if you get a good opportunity (because later you might not have a minion to play with it), and against Control if you will be able to ever get a good Hellfire value, take your chance.

When to use Jaraxxus

This is another really interesting aspect of playing Handlock. In terms of possible value and power, lord-jaraxxus may be the strongest card in the whole game. However, it’s really hard to use him. When you play him, you skip your whole turn. It puts you behind on tempo and initiative, meaning that you need to prepare beforehand.

  • Have board control when using him. You want to have the minions on the board when you play him, so your turn won’t be completely skipped – you might still trade off your minions. If the board is completely clear (for example enemy wiped it with brawl + deaths-bite), using Jaraxxus can also work, but it gives your opponent the initiative.
  • Have ways to regain board control / Taunt after Jaraxxus. The 6/6’s are really strong, but they’re also slow. If enemy floods the board after you’ve played Jaraxxus, you need to be sure that you have some ways to regain the board control. Taunt givers, sunfury-protector and defender-of-argus are great. Once you play Jaraxxus you don’t really care about the value, but about surviving. You’ll get the value in the long run. Putting a Taunt on your new 6/6 and some other minion might be an ideal way to survive. Another way to regain board control is shadowflame. It combos really nicely with your Hero Power. Infernal + Shadowflame is 6 damage AoE, and you’re still left with 4 mana to use something like twilight-drake. Having a siphon-soul or big-game-hunter is also a good idea if they decide to use a big minion.
  • Be sure that enemy can’t burst you down. You don’t always play Jaraxxus to heal. Sometimes playing him at 20 health is a good play. But you need to be sure that you’re playing against a deck that can’t reliably burst you. For example, against Freeze Mage you don’t play him. You play him only in the situation when Mage puts you below 15 health or when you need 3 damage from the weapon to kill him. At 15, Mage can 2x fireball + frostbolt you (or actually many different combinations of cards). If enemy can’t burst you down from 15, it’s fine.
  • Aim to get emperor-thaurissan discount on your Jaraxxus (or keep the Coin). This one is not a rule, but it’s still pretty important. With a discount, you don’t lose so much tempo, because you can use your Hero Power to summon a 6/6 Infernal on the same turn. Having an empty board after Jaraxxus and having a 6/6 is a big, big difference. If you’re starting second and you keep the Coin until late game, you can do the same thing with Jaraxxus + Coin + Hero Power.

Those are just guidelines on when to play him. Truth is, often you don’t have a choice. For example, you’re in desperate need of the heal against Hunter. Or when you need to risk Jaraxxus because enemy is outvaluing you.

Jaraxxus is especially good in long, value games. Against decks like Control Priest, Control Warrior, Ramp Druid or in Handlock Mirror. In those matchups, since none of those decks can really burst you from 15 on empty board, you want to use Jaraxxus to get the value. Obviously, you still need to wait for a good opportunity, which may sometimes never come. You have to compare the potential risk (slowing down) to the potential value (getting a free 6/6 every turn). If you risk losing the game because of the tempo loss, think twice about using him.

Against Aggro decks, you want to wait until you get much heal value. You don’t care too much about the 6/6’s. Healing for ~10 with Jaraxxus often means getting out of reach, which usually wins you a game.

Alternate & Tech Cards

Handlock is a deck archetype, not a specific list. It means that players are using many different versions. The one we’ve posted is one of the most standard ones, with almost no tech cards and safe card choices. But if you feel more adventurous or you want to counter specific meta, you might consider adding some other cards. We’re gonna go through the list of some popular alternate & tech card choices.

Zombie Chow

One of the possible tech choices against Aggro decks. It gives you a great turn 1 play. Against deck like Face Hunter, he might trade for 2 minions. And the negative effect is meaningless, because you aren’t gonna get any Hero damage against Aggro deck in a first few turns. Getting Zombie Chow on turn 1 gives you much higher chance to win the game, because at worst it baits a removal and stops Aggro deck’s minion development. The bad thing about Chow is that he’s almost useless against slower decks. A 2/3 minion means nothing, and the 5 heal may actually sometimes matters. He might work as a cheap way to activate a 2 damage shadowflame or a cheap minion to Taunt. As a Handlock, you might afford to have couple of bad or dead cards since you Life Tap a lot, but still, drawing it in the late game in slow matchup might lose you a game. So if you face more Aggro decks than Control decks, you can add Zombie Chow to the mix.

Possible switches: Darkbomb, Siphon Soul (when you face almost only Aggro)

Acidic Swamp Ooze

An anti-weapon tech. Most of decks run it as an anti-Patron Warrior tech right now, but in Handlock the Patron Warrior is a good matchup anyway. The point of using Ooze is a little different here. It’s to make a Hunter and Aggro Paladin matchups a little easier. Both of the decks, to some extent, rely on the weapons to kill you. With Acidic Swamp Ooze you might destroy those weapon and “heal” yourself. Weapon destruction is really strong in the current meta, because even in a great Patron and pretty good Control Warrior matchups, having something to get rid of Death’s Bite is nice. The other weapon destruction option is harrison-jones. It’s not that good in Handlock, though. You usually don’t need more card draw than your Hero Power, and having it cost 5 mana severely limits your options on the turn you play. Also, many of the Aggro weapons are much cheaper than 4-5 mana, so you want to have an early response. Great option if you face a lot of decks that use weapons. Mediocre against classes like Druid or Mage.

Possible switches: Mortal Coil, Darkbomb

Loatheb

Loatheb is a really strong 5-drop, one of the best in the game. It has good 5/5 stats for 5 mana and the effect is amazing. Dropping it on turn 5 is a good play most of time, but especially in Handlock you want to keep him until some special occasions. The idea is to reduce opponent’s options or buy you an additional turn. In Aggro, Loatheb is used to protect your board and seal the game. While it sometimes happens in Handlock, his use here is much more defensive. For example, when you’re at low health, dropping Loatheb along Molten Giant and Taunt puts a big wall enemy can’t get through because he can’t use spells. Other option is using Loatheb + shadowflame to clear the board. It’s good when you need to clear the board and buy yourself another turn to let’s say use Jaraxxus or Healbot after. Loatheb is great against spell-heavy decks like Oil Rogue or different Mages. It might solely win you a game against let’s say Freeze Mage. And on top of everything it’s a pretty big minion that you can trade with something.

Possible switches: Mortal Coil, Darkbomb, Sludge Belcher

Ragnaros the Firelord

Ragnaros have fallen out of favor a little after introduction of Dr. Boom. And it’s not because that it became replaced with it – many decks started running Big Game Hunter. For the decks that didn’t have many Big Game Hunter targets, it was pretty bad, because it was much harder to get value of your big minions like Ragnaros. It’s a little different when it comes to the Handlock. Your deck runs five other 7+ attack minions. It means that by the time you play Ragnaros, enemy should’ve already used his Big Game Hunter. Ragnaros can get a lot of value in slow matchups. If not killed by Big Game Hunter, he usually gets at least 2 for 1. If he stays on the board for few turns, he might either push for a lot of damage or kill couple of minions. The problem with Ragnaros is that he’s also slow. Against Aggro decks, the game is often decided before you can even play him. And if you do, those decks tend to run a lot of small creatures or tokens. Hitting a shielded-minibot‘s Divine Shield or nerubian-egg is definitely not what you want.

Possible switches: Mortail Coil (if you face a lot of Control), Lord Jaraxxus

Faceless Manipulator

Faceless Manipulator is another interesting minion. If you’re playing against a lot of Aggro, don’t think about adding him, because he’s too slow. But against Control decks, it’s really flexible. It can become anything there is on the board. It means that if you play Ragnaros, next turn you can Faceless him to get second one. You run a lot of great Faceless targets like Giants, Sylvanas Windrunner, Emperor Thaurissan. Even something like Twilight Drake might be a decent target if you don’t have anything better. Against Control decks, enemy is also gonna play a lot of big creatures. You’re often gonna end up Facelessing the ysera or ancient-of-war. If you’re being pushed hard, you might go for a triple Taunted Molten Giant play (2x Molten Giant + Sunfury Protector + Faceless on Molten). That’s probably the only way you’re gonna use the card against Aggro decks. Really strong play, an additional 8/8 Taunt may save you in some extreme cases.

Possible switches: Mortal Coil, Sludge Belcher, Sylvanas Windrunner

Demons

As an alternative to standard Handlock, you might try to play a slightly more demonic version. You’re gonna end up adding only couple of them, so you won’t be ‘Demon Warlock’. The DemonHandlock list is completely viable, so you might experiment with it a bit.

If you make a Demon version of Handlock, you include two voidcallers no matter what. It’s the base of the deck. The minion is a great source of tempo. If not Silenced, his Deathrattle drops one of the minions from your hand into the board. The idea in Demon Handlock is to run few, but very strong Demons. It means that pretty much every outcome is great. With so many tapping, even if you run only 3-4 Demons besides Voidcallers, the chances that you’re gonna have some of them in your hand are relatively high. Dropping a really big Demon on turn 5 and then Taunting him up may straight up win you a game. Good against faster decks, because it lets you catch up in terms of tempo and they are gonna have hard time dealing with big Demons. Getting something like malganis for free can turn the game around. Decent against Control decks. They’re often gonna have an answer for your big Demon, but it’s still good tempo gain and one less answer for future threats. Also, getting out Jaraxxus may be both good and bad. It’s bad because you can’t use it as your Hero replacement any longer, but it’s good because you have a 3/15 minion on the board. Taunting it up, especially with defender-of-argus results in a big barrier enemy needs to get through. A 4/16 minion with a Taunt is a nightmare of Aggro decks.

Probably the strongest one, that sometimes shows up even in standard list, is malganis. This 9 mana Demon is so strong because it gives your Hero immunity. It means that your Hero can’t be targeted or damaged by anything, including your own Life Taps. Mal’Ganis is often gonna save you against enemy aggression or combos. He’s especially strong when you put him behind a Taunt and enemy has no way to deal with him. This way you can’t die to any spell burn. If you don’t get it from Voidcaller, it’s pretty slow, though. It has 9 attack – on the one hand, it means that you can push for a lot of damage every turn, but on the other it can be taken out by Big Game Hunter. In worst case scenario, it baits a big removal. In best case, can win you a game if enemy has no answer.

dread-infernal is one of the techs StrifeCro was trying. A 6/6 for 6 mana is pretty good. The effect can come really handy in many situations. Dealing 1 AoE damage means it’s great against most of the Aggro decks. Decks like Face Hunter or Aggro Paladin run a lot of 1 health minions, meaning Dread Infernal might clear couple of them with just his Battlecry. It also deals damage to your own minions, but since most of them have high health, it probably won’t matter. A 6/6 body is also tricky to deal with, because it can’t be taken out by Big Game Hunter, while is really threatening if it stays on the board.

Probably the most controversial choice among the big Demons – doomguard. The point is that you don’t want to use him from your hand unless you really need to clear something (because enemy is gonna kill you if you don’t) or you have lethal. He’s probably the best thing that can come out of your Voidcaller. Not only it has Charge, so you can instantly throw it into something, but due to high health (and pretty high attack), giving it Taunt gets a great value. If your hand quality is really low, you might sacrifice two cards and use him from your hand. Your aim is to drop him from Voidcallers, but you can’t really control your RNG so it won’t always happen. The good balance is to run only one Doomguard. The chances you’re gonna get both and they will sit dead in your hand are much smaller then.

Possible switches: It’s hard to say what cards you exactly want to switch out, because you need to balance the deck depending on which Demons you want to include.

Earthen Ring Farseer

Farseer was the most common healing choice in Handlock before introduction of antique-healbot. The 3/3 stats for 3 mana are decent and the healing is always welcome in Handlock. The great thing about Farseer is that the healing is targeted. That’s why the second use of Farseer is healing your minions in order to make better trades. In some situations you might even heal your enemy. Healing Grim Patron Warrior to deny one draw from battle-rage or another Handlock to put him out of Molten range may both be good plays which you can’t do with Healbot. Some lists still run one of those instead of one Healbot. Healbot is much better in Aggro matchup, when the 5 more healing really matters. Earthen Ring Farseer, however, is better against Midrange and Control decks. Because of how prevalent Aggro decks are on ladder, you shouldn’t replace both of your Healbots with Farseers right now.

Possible switches: Antique Healbot

More

This is part 2 of this extensive deck guide series. Be sure to check out the other sections:

Team HSP

Team HSP is a group of professional Hearthstone players. Consist some of the top players of the game and we love sharing our knowledge through articles and guides such as this. These guides are the result of hundreds hours of playing, research and analyzing games by the team. We hope you find these guides useful!