Weekly Legends: Control Priest

What is dead may never die. Well, that’s not necessarily true. In fact, sometimes things that are dead stay way, way dead. However, in other cases those things persist despite what everyone else thinks. Of course, I am talking about Control Priest. When Whispers dropped, it took just about every good Control Priest card with […]

Introduction

What is dead may never die. Well, that’s not necessarily true. In fact, sometimes things that are dead stay way, way dead. However, in other cases those things persist despite what everyone else thinks. Of course, I am talking about Control Priest. When Whispers dropped, it took just about every good Control Priest card with it. No longer did they access to Lightbomb or early tempo plays like Deathlord or Velen’s Chosen. As a result, the class has largely disappeared from ladder, and when it does pop up it is usually dragon or C’thun variants. Today’s list (coming from a player known as SexyNerd17) directly challenges that notion and shows us that Control Priest (at least one version) is still alive and kicking. While it may be easy to see the familiar cards in this and just assume it is the same it has always been, that would be ignoring the subtle differences that make it tick.

Innovation is a very important part of Hearthstone. In fact, it is the reason behind this entire series. Just because something doesn’t work or doesn’t click in the way you thought it would does not mean its unplayable. You just need to make tweaks and find cards that are good at battling the ladder. This deck is a perfect example of that, running a ton of value cards that are solely in here to deal with one specific matchup. This is important because understanding how to make a deck that everyone considers bad or subpar work is a very good exercise that will help you brew your own lists. Just know that when building decks you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are many classes (such as Priest) that have very strong cores and very powerful interactions. If you want to adapt a deck to the meta, you typically want to stick with those interactions and then see what other cards fit them. Not everything has to be out of left field, as long as it all works together.

Key Cards

Shadow Word: Pain

One of the things that I love about this list is how it’s full of interesting tech choices. This is the classic Priest shell mixed with a bunch of silver bullets to kill the various werewolves lurking around on ladder. Shadow Word: Pain is one of the strongest bullets you have, and I don’t think it would be wise to run Control Priest these days without it. While you have a lot of removal options, it never hurts to have one more. So many decks these days (looking at you Shaman) depend on getting some three or less attack minion down onto the board during the first turns of the game in order to snowball out of control. Having a way to take down that first stage of the snowball can really cripple your opponent’s plan and buy you some much needed time. This deck’s number one priority is staying alive, which you primarily do by killing things. Shadow Word: Pain is not a card that can hit everything, but it breaks apart a lot of important cards that decks rely on. Many decks rely on their one and two drops to push through a lot of damage as the game progresses. If you can shut that off you can often get yourself enough time to get to the later game without having to worry about constantly healing yourself.

Acolyte of Pain

Acolyte of Pain may seem strange in the classic Priest shell, but this card does two things your deck wants to do and it does them really well. One, it immediately puts down a must-kill threat against most decks. While this card is not scary in the sense of damage, the fact that it threatens to draw multiple cards will usually make your opponent (especially aggro) work to remove it as cleanly as possible. While subtle, that slows down the game while also advancing your hand and digging you through the deck. Control Priest operates a bit differently than other control decks in that it does not need to be removing something every turn. Rather, there are many games where your goal is to merely stall your opponent for a few turns to give yourself time to dig into answers. This card is one of the best road blocks for that. Not only does it literally draw you further along, but forcing your opponent to pause for a turn can be very important, especially when facing down aggro.

Of course, the second thing the pain-loving cultist does is draw cards. Lots and lots of cards. This is very important because without cards Control Priest cannot function. A friend of mine once noted that “the only way a Priest loses is by not drawing enough cards”. Though the title belongs to Rogue, Priest really is the combo class. Not on the whole OTK scale, but it has so many interactions that need two or three cards to work properly (the most famous being Auchenai/Circle). We are in a meta where the cards needed to find those tools have gotten much worse and less reliable. As a result, you cannot simply draw cards from the top of your deck and expect to win games. You need to be much proactive by going to actually find the cards rather than waiting for them to come to you.

Injured Blademaster

Circle of Healing? Resurrect? You know this deck had to include Injued Blademaster. It has been a very long time since the 4/7 for three has made its way into Control Priest, but its time has come once again. While blademaster does have an incredibly powerful body if you manage to get a good heal on it, there was a time where it just wasn’t good enough. Like a few other cards in this list, it could just not match up to the sheer power of the old deathrattle world. However, those days are over (thank God) and a 4/7 body is just as strong as it was during the early days of the game. In fact, this card is so good you typically want to set it up immediately. Circle of Healing has a ton of uses and combos in this deck, but using it to get a 4/7 on turn three is one of the best ways you can play it. Maybe that is not exciting (and it is inherent card disadvantage) but the world has changed to a point where a 4/7 body can hold the board down for many turns.

As I have discussed in previous articles, four health is quickly becoming a very important benchmark. Totem Golem sets it well enough on its own, but Twilight Elder and the presence of stronger four drops means that doing three damage isn’t going to always cut it. Because of this, Injured Blademaster‘s attack is almost as important as his seven health. Being able to crash into every single early game minion and live is really what sets this card apart from other early options. Without having to worry about deathrattle slowly whittling away at the seven health you can freely kill everything that comes down. Like Acolyte of Pain, this is another tool that helps you stall and wait until you have a chance to bring down some of your bigger threats. And, if your opponent doesn’t have board presence, you can just swing for four a turn.

Holy Champion

I could spend two articles discussing the different cards in this list. Honestly, there are so many interesting choices here, and Holy Champion may be one of the coolest. While not strictly a tech card, she is a good example of how the meta has changed with the introduction of Whispers. Once upon a time, in a world of Piloted Shredder, Loatheb and Sludge Belcher, this card (like so many others) was just simply outclassed during the middle turns of the game. However, we now live in a world where the middle game is largely up for grabs and an on-curve 3/5 is more than fine. However, Holy Champion is not just a 3/5 for five. It is a 3/5 for five that can grow in the same way Frothing Berkerser can.

It is important to understand just how powerful Holy Champion is. Anyone who ever played Light of the Naaru knows just how strong a Lightwarden can be. This card is exactly the same as the one drop, but it has a bigger body, making it much, much more terrifying. This is important for two reasons. One, it is very easy to have lethal with this card. Priest has a ton of healing options, and if this ever lives a turn you want to always check the number of ways you can buff it before attacking. This means going out of your way to get heals on anything you can. The second reason this is important is because Holy Champion is always going to be growing damage. As such, it is going to eat premium removal early on in the game, giving your later minions some room to breathe. This deck does not run a high-density of threats, but you do have some cards you want to stick around. As such, getting those Executes to come out on turn four will often put you in a good position.

Nexus-Champion Saraad

Now we’re talking. It’s not every day you get to break out the champion of the arena, and he works in this deck as a finisher or value train. One thing to note is that this deck does not run the classic Priest finishers like Ysera, Ragnaros the Firelord or Confessor Paletross. Rather, it has a much lower top-end, which allows it to operate in a very distinct way. One of those top-end midrange cards is Nexus-Champion Saraad, a very interesting inclusion that gives this deck a lot of extra flexibility in exchange for larger finishers. Like all of your other cards, rather than being a game-ending monster, Saraad is just a value card in a sea of value cards. You do want to set it up in a way where it can draw multiple spells, but sometimes just getting one spell and eating a removal card is fine. You are not a deck that wants to keep something alive forever, you just want to string out threats and use them to both pressure your opponent and stay alive.

While some of you may have hesitations about running the five drop (and it can be replaced with one of the classic finishers if you want), this card works in the way this deck counters the current meta. Instead of playing a more conventional role, this list feels a bit like a midrange shell with some very powerful control cards built around it. Nexus-Champion Saraad falls into that plan by being a high-value minion that forces your opponent to either react to it or fall way behind. Every turn the five drop is alive the worse it is for your opponent. They know that, and they will do whatever they can to remove it. Some decks can do this easily, and others will have more trouble. Always recognize which you are up against and try to bait out removal before hand if you can afford to.

Matchups

The five decks I have seen the most so far.

Aggro Shaman

Still holding onto their throne, Aggro Shaman is a very strong deck that every person going to the ladder needs to be ready for. As you have probably noted, this deck is made to take down Thrall. That does not mean this is an easy match (you never want to get too comfortable because they do have a lot of burst that can just steal games), but you should be able to win more often than you don’t. While this list operates quite differently than most Control Priests of the past, it still can heal. A lot. This entire game is going to be spent slowly wearing your opponent down and running them out cards turn by turn. You need to be careful here and try to find a balance of not using your removal on low-priority targets while also killing things before they just do too much damage. Pulling the trigger later rather than sooner in this matchup is usually wrong because of just how much you need to keep your health up into the middle turns of the game. Pace this one by killing things as you go unless you are playing towards AOE.

You will notice this deck does not run Harrison Jones, which leaves you vulnerable to Doomhammer. However, that is not as big of a deal as it once was. It is not a good thing to get hit for four a turn, but your hero power can offset some of that damage. In addition, Shaman has become much more minion based, which means you are not going to be facing down as much burn as you once did. Shaman’s turn to minions really works out in your favor because of just how strong all of your removal is. As long as you can take down an early Flamewreathed Faceless or Thing from Below you should be fine because your middle game can really hurt Shaman and set them back. Always pull the trigger on Injured Blademaster here as it is a nightmare for Shaman to deal with.

Zoo

Another reason to play this list is Zoo. Priest has always had a very favored matchup against the aggressive Warlock, but the win rate got a lot more sketchy when they had access to tons of deathrattle like Nerubian Egg and Haunted Creeper. While they still have a lot of strong minions, almost all of them die when you kill them. That is an enormous advantage that gives you the ability to truly keep Zoo’s board constantly in check. As a result, you can pace the game quite well by clearing and then putting down your own big threats once the board is yours. Auchenai/Circle is your best tool here and you want to hard mulligan for it. However, you should always try to clear with Wild Pyromancer first if you can. With deathrattle gone, the two drop is incredibly strong against all of Zoo’s minions. So much so that I will routinely hold onto spells to combine with it on turns four or five in the same way you combine spells with Flamewaker in Tempo Mage.

One of the premier reasons to run this version of Priest is the double Shadow Word: Death and double Entomb. While four heavy removal spells can be clunky at times, you want to see them in every single match. Big Game Hunter has rapidly fallen our of favor due to its new mana cost, which means that every deck runs some type of large minion. In Zoo’s case, they pack double Doomguard and two Sea Giants. As you can clear small minions so reliably, those are the ways they are going to beat you. As a result, always keep them in mind and have at least one big removal spell ready moving into the later turns of the game.

It is also important to note that you should always take the opportunity to heal towards the end of the game as Leeroy Jenkins is a popular tech choice for Zoo.

Tempo Mage

Tempo Mage is a deck that sputtered during the first days of the new set, and has now exploded. The list is extremely strong, super fun to play, and has a ton of small interactions that can just take over the game. While they have a lot of new cards at their disposal, it is important to realize they play the same game they have always played. They are a deck that wants to pressure early, and then use that pressure to control the board before finishing the game in a flurry of Frostbolts and Fireballs. This is a very tricky matchup because of how well they can deal with your early and midgame threats while keeping up the hits on your face. To win, you need to constrict their gameplan as much as possible. Removal is the way you are going to do that because if you can stick a minion on an empty board or force them to have a dead turn it will put you in control of the game. It is also key to count the burn they’ve used and always try to heal when you can. Beyond the usual burn suite, they run both Archmage Antonidas and Ragnaros the Firelord, giving them even more reach than ever before.

N’zoth Rogue

This (and almost all N’zoth decks in general) is going to be your hardest matchup. Not only does Rogue have access to a lot of strong midrange cards, but their old god will just end the game if you don’t have the correct answers. It is matchups like these where this deck shines over other Priest builds. While you would normally just concede to a string of powerful midgame minions coming down turn after turn, you actually have plays that challenge Rogues and keep them honest. Injured Bladesmaster in particular is extremely strong because it will either bait out an early Sap or just destroy any type of board presence they attempt to put together. The reason this game is so hard is because of how strong it is going long. You are a deck that naturally wants to take your opponent deep into the game, but the longer this goes the closer Rogue gets to putting together their finishing turn. To avoid this, pressure them as much as you can and look for different ways you can end the game early with Auchenai Soulpriest or Holy Champion.

Entomb is the way you win this game. The six mana spell is the best removal card in the game and you absolutely need to save it for high-priority deathrattle cards you don’t want coming back. If you can do this well and save a clear (or a couple clears) for N’zoth, the Corruptor you may be able to come out on top in the long games. Anytime you start to realize the game is going to go late you have to start using everything at your disposal to limit Rogue’s combo potential. While saving removal (double circle) can be a good way to clear out their large board, it is much easier if they just never get the minions to begin with. Your other key tool here is Sylvanas Windrunner. Most deathrattle Rogues do not run Sap, or they run it as a one-of. As a result, playing the 5/5 in a favorable position will often cause them to either lose their board or allow you steal something with high-value. Only try to run her out as a tempo play or when you can get immediate value. You never want her dying on an empty board.

Patron Warrior

As the days move on I see more and more of this deck, and for good reason. Patron Warrior has come back with a vengeance, cementing itself as one of the strongest and most reliable midrange decks in the game. It also may very well be one of your easiest matchups. Not only do you have a lot of strong midgame cards to challenge things like Kor’kron Elite that you normally wouldn’t have an answer to, but you also have the best AOE against the multiplying dwarves in Auchenai/Circle. The new form of Patron relies on a lot of high-quality minions to win games, and while that poses trouble for many decks, it plays right into your hands. They are going to have spend almost all of their time guessing at what answers you might have, and then trying to play around it. You need to always keep Circle of Healing or Auchenai Soulpriest in this matchup, even one without the other. This is because you have to get the combo ready by turn five or six to clear. If you don’t the game an end in a hurry.

The way you lose this game is by letting them pressure you too much during the opening turns and then dying to either Grommash Hellscream or Ragnaros the Firelord (which they run now, so be ready). The biggest takeaway here is to always be careful with your life total during the later turns. Most of the time you are going to be answering threats, but you typically want to do so in a way that you will also allow you to use your hero power or something like Flash Heal. This game, if you have it your way, is almost always going to go to fatigue. You have more removal than they have threats, and you just need to keep clearing until you have the last minion on board or they simply run out of damage. Also note, they only run two Executes as their heavy removal. Once those are gone you can freely play any minion you want.

Mulligan Guide

When playing Control Priest you typically want to look for all your early game cards. Shadow Word: Pain, Northshire Cleric, Wild Pyromancer and Power Word: Shield are the cards you want to look for in every match. Beyond that, Acolyte of Pain should always be kept with a curve and the coin, and Injured Blademaster is a must keep with Resurrect or Circle of Healing. Resurrect should also be kept with Injured Blademaster. We have also reached the part of the game where you want to keep Shadow Word: Death if you have a good opening against Shaman because it is the only clean way you can deal with a Flamewreathed Faceless. It should also be kept against Druid.

The hardest part of this mulligan is deciding when you want to keep half of a combo card. This is very important because sometimes you need a combo so badly (like Auchenai Soulpriest/Circle of Healing against Zoo and Shaman) that you have to keep either half if you see it. However, if you don’t need a certain combo card, then throw back either half to find more of your early game. Auchenai Soulpriest can be kept on her own with the coin and a strong curve, as can Holy Champion. The number one rule here is to find your early drops, so everything that costs five or more should be thrown back.

Conclusion

I’ll admit it, I did not think Priest was going to even have a shot of surviving Standard. There were so many cards that they lost and so many good midrange cards that it just seemed like it was outclassed. However, the more I play with this list the more I realize just how good it is against a lot of the more popular decks. It is not always about making a “good” deck, sometimes it is just about making a deck that does really well against the meta. This list and all of its tech choices are a good example of that, giving you a very cool blend of different styles that make a come together to make a real contender. Until next time, may you heal, heal and heal some more.