Sometimes to look into the future you must first gaze back into the past. Hearthstone is an ever-evolving game. If you want to survive you cannot just look at the current meta or the current cards, you need to study the history of the game. Getting stuck in one mode or thinking that certain decks are the “best decks” will never allow you to evolve as a player or a deckbuilder. As such, this week we are going to travel back in time and look at how you can have success putting a new spin on an old archetype. In this case, that archetype is Zoo, which has been given a fresh face by P4wnyhof. This deck is extremely fun, and takes a swarm style approach to Warlock aggro, but ups the curve and makes it more midrange with the inclusion of Brann Bronzebeard and friends.
The new version of swarm Zoo was first made popular by Reynad, who made the original Zoo deck some two years ago. In it, you are supposed to flood the board with a bunch of small resilient minions, and then use those minions to press through damage. This plan works very well, but the original list would run out of steam a little too much for my liking. This new version runs a couple more threats and has some more consistent interactions. While it is easy to get caught up in some of the shiny new cards, when evaluating a deck you really want to focus on the list as a whole. In this case that list is an amalgamation of different styles working together to create a cohesive whole. While the whole may seem easy to understand, knowing the way those styles work will give you a full grasp on how to play this deck.
Acidic Swamp Ooze
I bring up Acidic Swamp Ooze because this is one of the few cards you can freely change around. A lot of this deck is built around the Zoo shell, but it is not locked into one set version of the deck. That means you can interchange cards as you please. One of the most important parts of Hearthstone is properly adapting your deck to the rest of the meta. If you are seeing a lot of weapons, then the ooze is a great choice, but if you are a seeing secrets you could play Kezan Mystic, or maybe Flame Juggler if you are facing down a ton of aggro. One of the best parts about Zoo is that it can operate with a wide number of different minions, provided that they have reasonable stats, which means you can always try new things. When it comes to the ooze, the point here is to play something that fits your curve no matter what tech card you choose to play. Zoo is a board control deck, and you have to have a solid curve to build off of for that to work. The ooze, even against a class with no weapons, is a 3/2 for two, which can trade and be aggressive. If you want to sub this out, make sure you are filling a similar role.
This deck is built like a traditional Zoo list, but runs a couple interesting tech cards. Jeweled Scarab is one of them. Honestly, I am surprised the beetle isn’t run in more Zoo lists after trying it out. Not only does this work very well on curve (as it lives in a similar sphere as Dark Peddler) but it is a very solid mid-to-late game drop that can really help smooth over your hand. Always remember that discover is four times more likely to give you a class card that a neutral card. With Warlock, those three drops could be a lot of useful removal spells like Drain Life, Demonwrath or Shadow Bolt. However, it can also give you Imp Gang Boss or Void Terror, which have been shown to be good in Zoo time and time again. Even if you don’t hit a Warlock card, Zoo is a deck that only cares about board presence and putting a minion down on curve is usually better than tapping.
One of the best things about Jeweled Scarab in a Zoo style shell is that its stats don’t matter. Something that holds the insect back in a lot of decks (especially Hunter) is that it is a 1/1. That means it gets eaten by every two drop in the game and provides no board presence of any kind. Not very good, and the trade off of smoothing out your curve usually isn’t worth falling behind that early. However, with Zoo that changes a little bit because Zoo does not really care about stats, they just care about minions. As anyone who has ever faced down an Imp-losion knows, a 1/1 can be buffed in a ton of ways to kill all sorts of minions. Abusive Sergeant turns it into three power, while Power Overwhelming lets it get big enough to kill off a Sludge Belcher or the like. You may not always have those buffs in your hand, but most people will kill off the 1/1 in fear, which gives you tempo in its own right.
The man himself. Despite all of the initial hype the three drop explorer got at the beginning of LOE, Brann Bronzebeard has not been used a whole lot. In fact, while he has hit legend more than a few times, the dwarf is seen as more of a fringe card than anything else. He is still a fringe card here, but a very powerful one that serves a very important purpose in this deck. As stated above, Zoo is a deck that only cares about value. That value can come from many places, be it card abilities, board presence, increased states or deathrattle. Brann has two distinct forms of that value, which makes him a dual threat. First, he is a 2/4 for four. The two health isn’t too bad in the early game, and that health allows him to be buffed and also survive (which is the most important part of Zoo). Second, his ability may very well be one of the most powerful in the game.
Abusive Sergeant, Dark Iron Dwarf, Reliquary Seeker, Gormok the Impaler, Jeweled Scarab, Dark Peddler, Defender of Argus, Dr. Boom and Loatheb. All of those cards have battlecry, which means they all interact with Brann Bronzebeard. When playing Brann, you almost never want to set him on curve unless you are really fighting for board early on or you can set him up without him dying. Otherwise, you should try and wait to get different triggers. Even something as simple as an Abusive Sergeant can be great at allowing you to trade up because it buffs four damage instead of two. When you have Brann in hand, constantly think about the cards it can interact with and how those can clear the board (Gormok does eight with Brann).
Gormok the Impaler
Gormok the Impaler is one of my favorite cards in the game and something I was really hyped on during the release of TGT. While he has yet to find a solid home, he has been good in many different swarm decks. This one is no different, and really gets a lot of use out of the tusked legendary. A 4/4 for four that does four damage is an incredibly strong card. Now, you might say that Gormok is not quite that good since his ability is situational, but in this deck you can always get him to trigger. That gives you an absolute tank that trades very well, and also gives you two types of board presence. The key to Gormok is knowing how and when to play him. This may sound straightforward, but it is not as easy as “I have four minions” it is a little more subtle than that.
Setting up Gormok comes in two phases. The first phase is planning to use him a few turns before you actually do, and the second is knowing why you are going to play him. For instance, if you have Gormok early on against a Paladin, you typically want to start planning to play him on turn five. Why? Because that is the turn they most often play Sludge Belcher, which is an annoying minion to deal with. Gormok will enable you to trade with the belcher without having to lose your board. In that same vein, Gormok is also good against Rogue and Mage on turn five where they typically play Azure Drake. On the other hand, against something like Shaman you just want to run him out as soon as possible, and against Druid you typically want to just play him to get something big down to challenge their next play. He doesn’t always have to trigger, as a 4/4 when you’re ahead on board can really turn up the heat and lock your opponent out of the game.
Spells are once again all the rage in the meta, which means Loatheb is back. This card has always been good against any deck depending on spells (which is almost all of them). However, there was a time when its popularity waned. That time is now over. As with most good cards, Loatheb serves multiple purposes. Here, there are two reasons it is in this list, and both of those reasons will help you win games. Zoo is a deck that depends on slow board control. You want to build you board turn by turn, and make sure that you can keep as many minions around as possible. The way most decks fight that are with removal spells, which Loatheb directly fights. Not only does he save your minions that are already on board from AOE or targeted removal, but he also guarantees you a 5/5. In Zoo a 5/5 is gigantic, and can really clear out minions or pave the way for your small creatures. That is even more true when your opponent is locked out of spells for an entire turn.
Beyond controlling the board, the other important role Loatheb plays is his surprise factor. A lot of decks operate and depend on spells to win or stabilize games. For instance, Savage Roar/Force of Nature, Fireball/Frostbolt, Unleash the Hounds, Brawl or Lay on Hands. Almost every single finisher in the game is a spell, and those spells usually require the proper set up to happen. People often play to their spells turns before they are going to play them. If you can anticipate that, and play Loatheb the turn before, it can be devastating. Shutting down healing or AOE will almost always give you the next turn win, but Loatheb is also great when racing something like Hunter or Aggro Shaman since most of their end-game damage comes from spells.
How to play against the five decks I see the most on ladder.
This is a deck I did not expect to make my list of “top five”, but I happy that it did. Control Priest is a very interesting and cool deck that has found a huge resurgence due to Museum Curator and Entomb. Both of those cards are extremely powerful, and give it a lot more longevity than it once had. This is a very tricky matchup that falls just down the line of 50/50. The way to beat Priest is to always predict their upcoming plays. More than any other deck, they like to play a set card on each turn. Turn five is Holy Nova, six is Cabal Shadowpriest, etc. Out of all of their threats, the most important to watch out for is AOE. Priests makes a living off of board control, and if they can freely wipe your minions it will be very hard to win games.
There are two ways you can combat Priests board clears. One, you want to try and keep your deathrattle minions in their first form as much as possible. Even a simple Nerubian Egg can completely invalidate a Holy Nova or Wild Pyromancer. The second thing you want to do is commit just enough to the board to bait out removal while still holding threats in your hand. The best way to do this is to always makes sure you have some type of dangerous threat in your hand and one on the board. For instance, a 4/4 nerubian and a few minions does a great job of pulling out a Lightbomb while allowing you to tap freely. Once they clear the board, you can then quickly refill. Going back and forth this way is how you quickly wear down your opponent and run them low on cards.
Alright, I was wrong. I thought that Secret Paladin would slowly taper off during the weeks of LOE, and while it did for a minute, Uther has come roaring back to life. While I do tire of discussing the ways to beat Secret Paladin, it is such a big part of the meta it would not seem right to ignore it. As usual, Secret Paladin is a deck that tries to keep board control. Early secrets are the way they commonly do this. For that reason you need to do what you want to make sure you have an answer for all of their secrets, especially Avenge or Redemption. Plan for each when killing any minion on their side of the board. One of the strangest parts about this matchup is that it actually falls into your favor. Secret Paladin depends on board presence to win, and you control the game much better than they do.
While in some matchups your sticky minions or odd interactions make you strong, it is your buffs that will carry you here. Secret Paladin is a deck that likes their minions to trade with multiple minions and for their secrets to get them extra value. By using your buffs you can use your small minions to trade up. This will give you board long before them, which will then invalidate their bigger minions like Mysterious Challenger and Dr. Boom. Secret Paladin has the best turn six in the game, but you can put them on the ropes if you have board when that comes around. In addition, early board presence will also mitigate the damage you take, which makes it harder for them to kill you.
Tempostorm continues to flex its muscles and show that it can basically control the ladder whenever it wants. Aggro Shaman is not going anywhere anytime soon, and has become the new Hunter. That is, it is a very strong aggressive deck that depends on your slipping up in order to take over the game. When playing against a Shaman you need to do everything you can to not take damage. That means killing minions on sight, using your Defender of Argus and limiting your tapping as much as possible. They have a ton of burn damage, and you never want to slip anywhere near lethal range. Just note that lethal range against Shaman is much different than lethal range against other aggro decks. The have a very high ceiling, and even being around sixteen life is not always safe if they have a ton of cards in their hand.
The most important part about facing Aggro Shaman is being aggressive. Just like Hunter, Shaman will wear you down with burn and eventually kill you if you give them enough time. Your hero power will usually just bring you closer to death, but you also need to get cards down onto the board. If you start hitting them with damage they will go on the back foot and start to use their burn defensively instead of on your face. You can race them, but also never take damage if you don’t have to. Loatheb is the strongest card you have here, since it basically invalidates their entire turn. Shaman relies on spells to end the game, and putting down the fungus lover on a clutch turn when you are low on health can give you the win during a race.
While it has been some time since Gul’dan and his OP hero power was popular, Warlock decks have finally made it back to my list. Renolock is a very innovative and fun deck that has multiple paths to victory, but they all involve some type of healing to make the game go as long as possible. This is a very, very tough matchup. They have many different types of AOE, removal options and healing at their disposal, which means you really cannot push through those final points most of the time. The best way to win this game is to just be as persistent as possible and make a board that is resistant to AOE (deathrattle) but can also push through large amounts of damage just in case they drop Reno Jackson. That is very hard to do, but you need to be aggressive here as complacency will almost always lead to a loss. In many ways this deck is like Handlock, except instead of giants they just heal when they get low. Hit them and keep on hitting them to put them on the back foot as early as you can.
One of the oldest and most reliable decks in the game, Midrange Druid is just as strong as it ever was. However, it is also one of your best matchups. Druid is not a deck that deals well with swarms as their only real AOE comes in the form of Swipe. As such, you have complete freedom here to fill up the board as much as you want. With most games you want to be careful about putting things down, here you always want to be placing threats. This will keep Druid on the back foot early and allow you to push through during the middle turns when they start playing big minions. The most important rule here is to play as many minions as you can and force Druid to constantly deal with them. The other is to watch out for the Force/Roar combo. Charging trees is the best way for them to win games. Be aggressive early on, but start getting conservative once the game begins to move into the later turns. You never want to die to Savage Roar because you were too lazy to clear out a Piloted Shredder or the like.
This is another match where trading up is essential. Druid can win with the combo, but they will beat you with big minions. Druid of the Claw, Sludge Belcher, Dr. Boom and even Ancient of Lore all threaten your board and will eat multiple minions. You want to save your buffs for these situations since leaving anything alive is not an option due to the combo. Clear when you can unless you are setting up a two turn lethal (or getting lethal). Being aggressive is always fine, but never push yourself too far. While it may not be fun, sometimes you have to trade away your board and then try to refill based on what’s in your hand.
Though this Zoo deck is a little different from the classic builds, the mulliganing is exactly the same as it has always been. You need to keep to the curve, no matter what you are going up against. One-two-three is always going to be your best opening, and life tapping, while very strong, is never something you want to do early. Within the curve, always prioritize any sticky minions over anything else. For instance, while Knife Juggler is very strong, it is not as good of a two drop as either Nerubian Egg or Haunted Creeper. Hearthstone is in a state where board control is more important than any other card, and you want to begin the game with the stickiest things possible.
The only thing that really impacts the way you mulligan is the coin. This gives you a little more leeway and enables you to keep four drops (which you normally do not want to d0). Imp-losion is not a good early keep, but it is much stronger when it comes down on turn three. Defender of Argus also follows those same rules. The biggest rule of these mulligans is to stick to early keeps, but if you have the coin you can go higher. However, even when you take higher curve cards, do not give up your curve. You only want them if you have a strong start.
Note: Never keep Ironbeak Owl unless you are facing Mad Scientist decks like Hunter and Mage.
While this is definitely not a popular opinion in the world of Hearthstone, I love me some Warlock. Zoo is a very cool deck, and is much deeper and more complex than all of the other popular aggro decks on the ladder. Add in all of the new and interesting cards, and you really have yourself a winner here. The year is coming to a close, but you should never stop grinding and never stop innovating. Always look for a new or interesting deck, even if that means going back into the days of old. Have a great New Year and, until next time, may you always lifetap into lethal.