Here on Weekly Legends, I often discuss the strategy of bringing new ideas to old archetypes. That is, taking a class or a decklist that people are familiar with and putting a new twist on it. Getting better at Hearthstone is not just about learning the technicalities of the game (though that is a huge part) it is also about making the right decks work at the right time. Remember, surprise will always go further in a card game than any other aspect.
The meta is so thought out, analyzed, broken down and scrutinized from every single angle, that every top player knows every card or possible card their opponent could have. You will often find on most of my videos, not only do I run down every possible scenario when thinking of a play, but I usually can call my opponents next turn one step ahead of them. That’s very important. However, I have lost (and won) a huge number of games by playing surprising cards or by having surprising cards played against me. Now, this does not mean that you should go throw Gruul or Mekgineer Thermaplugg into your decks just because they’re unexpected, but it does mean that you should always be thinking of ways to catch your opponent off guard. This week’s deck, a midrange Mage list by Steef, does exactly that in very interesting way.
This deck is a midrange list through and though. While it lacks a lot of the early game that tempo has (Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Flamecannon) but comes back with a very solid core of Piloted Shredder, Water Elemental and some hefty legends.
Unlike Tempo Mage, your main mode is to not crush your opponent early and them finish them off with burn and, unlike control, you do not want the game to go to fatigue. Rather, you just want to keep board control with some very hard-to-remove minions, and use those tools backed up with a couple solid beaters to get you through the game. Frostbolt and Fireball are usually used for removal, but holding them in your hand (especially with a certain archmage) is a very reasonable way to win. This deck is a combination of surprising cards and powerful minions that constantly keep your opponent guessing throughout the game.
It is not only powerful and unique (which is why it made my column) but it is also a perfect example of how to use surprise to your advantage when crafting a legend caliber deck.
We begin our dive into the unknown with a rather odd card. Unstable Ghoul is not a card that is commonly seen outside of Patron Warrior, and is almost never run in Mage decks. However, the two drop plays a very solid role here. Not only does it allow you to trigger Acolyte of Pain (which is quite relevant) but it also can ruin an aggro decks day. Zoo is a deck that still exists (though it is not as popular as it once was) and Aggro Paladin is extremely popular across the ladder. Both of these decks do very poorly against the ghoul. Not only is the taunt on turn two very relevant, but they also have to find a good way to deal with it before they can flood the board.
The best way to think of the ghoul is as more of a tech card than anything else. The original list ran two, but I personally think that there is no reason to have both. Drawing them at the same time can really clog up your hand and are pretty poor draws on any turn past five. As they are more of a tech card than anything else, I put in the Acidic Swamp Ooze over the second ghoul as a way to deal with the plethora of weapons running around. Water Elemental does a great job of keeping your opponent’s weapons on lock down, but the ooze works as an extra precaution. However, the ghoul does serve a very important purpose, and should not be underestimated. Against aggro, you usually want to get it on the board when there are many minions on the field. This will either ensure it gets extra value, or will force them to burn an Ironbeak Owl, which will pave the way for your Sludge Belchers and the like later on in the game. When playing control, you typically want to only play it when you can hide an Acolyte of Pain behind it. If you are seeing a lot of aggro, it is better to run two ghoul, but I like the split for the current meta.
The namesake of the deck, Counterspell serves a very interesting role in this list. This card brings us back to the element of surprise, because people simply will not play around the second copy of this card. Ever. Due to the way Mage has been played over the past year and a half, a secret will make people immediately think two things, Ice Block/Barrier or Mirror Entity. If you start with a strong curve, they will immediately assume that it is entity, while if you start slower (or with an Acolyte of Pain) they will assume it is one of the life savers. This is very important when piloting this deck, because you need to get into your opponent’s head. Most decks will burn a key turn playing around Mirror Entity, dropping one of their most useless minions onto the field. This can be a great way to get board presence, as it will ensure that your opponent’s turn is wasted doing something sub-optimal, which will allow you to really hit the gas the following turn. It is also to remember that Counterspell is very powerful on its own. You have a lot of minions that do very well in combat, and if you can protect them behind a Counterspell they can be almost impossible to remove.
Odds are, once your opponent checks your secret for Mirror Entity, they will be able to play around the first Counterspell. That’s fine. The real surprise factor comes with the second because people just don’t see it coming. I have hit Shadowflame, Flamestrike, Kill Command, Unleash the Hounds and Lay on Hands with the second Counterspell. The surprise factor is so high that you don’t even need to really set it up (although you should try to when you can). Your opponent will most likely run head first into it, which allows you to shut down a key turn. Hitting the right spell at the right time will win you the game, and saving one of your scarier minions is also extremely valuable. Understanding how your opponent will see your secrets is super important to piloting this deck, and you want to set them up in a way where, even if your opponent attempts to play around Counterspell, it will still give you some inherent value.
Beyond Counterspell, this deck only runs two other secrets, and they both serve their purpose. Once again going back to the theme of the deck, secrets only work if your opponent is left guessing. Once the initial checks are done, your opponent will start to blindly try and assume what you have above your hero portrait. This in itself is very strong, and, just like making them check for Mirror Entity can lead to really bad turns for your opponent. Beyond that, each of these secrets are in this deck to fight different matchups. One for aggro, one for control. Ice Barrier is a great way to stay alive, and can be a very strong anti-aggro card if you can get it up during the later turns of the game. This gives you some much needed healing that you can get off of Mad Scientist in addition to drawing it. On the other hand, Duplicate is very powerful against Midrange or Control decks due to sheer card advantage. Almost all of your minions are very strong, and getting two more is never a bad thing. Just be wary about how you set this up, as you typically want to get the most value out of it when you can; even if that means killing off your left over sludge or the like.
Just with minion combat and the element of surprise, spell conservation is one of the most essential elements to learn in Hearthstone. That is to say, you need to know what is a “prime threat” and what is just another minion. This is extremely important with premium removal spells such as Hex, Shield Slam, Execute and, of course, Polymorph. As a Mage, you have access to a good amount of removal. As a midrange Mage running a lot of tough, hard to kill minions, you have access to all kinds of ways to clear the board. However, you only have access to one Polymorph. This means that you should only use the card in dire situations (as when you are going to die) or on targets that have to be dealt with immediately. No, that does not mean Sludge Belcher or Druid of the Claw. Rather, it means Savannah Highmane, Dr. Boom or Sylvanas Windrunner.
I have discussed Hex at length in the past, and the rules for the frog stay the same for the sheep. Using this card wrong can lose you games. That may seem like an overexaggeration, but it is very true. You don’t want to burn your only Polymorph on an Emperor Thaurissan only to lose to a Sylvanas Windrunner, Tirion Fordring or Ragnaros the Firelord four turns later. Every deck in the game has a “must kill” card or minion, and that is the primary reason why Polymorph is in the deck. A good rule when using Polymorph beyond knowing what those must kill targets are (Tirion in Paladin, Sylvanas in Tempo Mage, Ancient of War in Druid) is to only kill things that have a death rattle you need to get rid or, or when you can’t deal with a minion in any other way. Due to your strong minions, Big Game Hunter and myriad of spells, you will almost always be able to clear out minions without burning Polymorph. This card is always a last resort, and if you can use a Fireball or minions to get rid of Dr. Boom, Loatheb or that pesky Ysera, you should do so. Save this for the end.
The original iteration of this list ran Toshley. This makes a lot of sense, as it is a solid midrange card that procs Archmage Antonidas though spare parts and can give you board control. However, I do not have Toshley, which is why I replaced him with Sylvanas Windrunner. Even so, that does not mean you need to cut the wizard. Yes, without Toshley, Antonidas is a little worse, but he is still a great finisher against control, and can take over a game when backed up with Counterspell. Instead of looking at him from a combo or OTK perspective, you should simply view Archmage Antonidas is another strong legend that helps round out your curve, and gives you access to another finisher. Beyond that, it also comes with countless upside and wins the game immediately if it is not take care of right away.
When playing Archmage Antonidas, you want to get at least one Fireball out of him (and you almost always will). By doing so, you will not just get an extra burn spell for board control or lethal, but you also are going to force your opponent to burn a spell, use their turn or trade their board to deal with him. As stated, if you can also get him down onto a clear board with Counterspell backing him up, the game can also end on the spot. That kind of power is enough reason to include him. If you want to use Toshley instead of Sylvanas Windrunner, that’s fine, and the choice is completely up to you. Toshley makes him a lot stronger, and can give you a little bit of extra push if needed, but the wizard is so strong on its own, and gives you a random “oops, I win” factor, that you simply have to include him either way.
Five of my most seen matchups on ladder. As always.
Midrange Hunter is a very interesting matchup that is the definition of a 50/50 battle. The reason for this is that, as it is Midrange versus Midrange, you both are trying to do the exact same thing in very similar ways. Where you have Frostbolt, they have Quickshot, where you have Fireball, they have Kill Command. Their middle game weapons of choice are Savannah Highmane and Houndmaster, and they also use Dr. Boom as a primary finisher. Board control is extremely important in this matchup, and whoever manages to land a solid minion first can usually take over by pushing for damage and putting the other player on their heels. In that same vein, priority is also key. That means, you want to get a large minion down onto an empty board first. Just as you will have a lot of trouble dealing with a lone Dr. Boom or Savannah Highmane, they are going to have trouble responding to a lone Water Elemental, Archmage Antonidas or Sludge Belcher. As always, pressure their life total as much as you can, and make them make the trades.
When playing against Midrange Hunter there are three things you want to be aware of. The first of these is Unleash the Hounds, especially when paired with Knife Juggler. As most of your minions are very sturdy, you usually won’t care about them using the hounds to clear the board. Instead, you always want to be cognizant of how much damage the pesky dogs can cause. In the same vein, you also have to constantly be aware of you life total. I often call Midrange Hunter “Face in Disguise” and that is because they will finish you off with a flurry of Quick Shots and Kill Commands just like their quicker counterpart. Always try to stay alive in any way that you can, and get use out of Ice Barrier. One last note is to be very wary of Freezing Trap, which can simply ruin your day by costing you tempo as well as a minion.
My own reservations about Tempo Mage aside, this is a matchup that usually goes very quickly in one way or the other. This is often because, if Tempo Mage starts unfettered, it is almost impossible to come back. However, there is another side to that coin. If you can stop their early onslaught, your strong middle game will almost always take over as well. As with most Tempo Mage matchups, this will be decided in the first few turns. Someone is going to come out of top very quickly, and, barring a very timely Flamestrike, they will most likely run away with the game. As with the damage from Midrange Hunter, you always, always need to be aware of their Frostbolts and Fireballs. Count their spells and know what they have used. There is no reason to randomly lose a game because you made a risky play and then slipping right into their burn range. It’s simply not worth it. Your life total is a major resource here, and you want to go into the later stages of the game where they will eventually run out of steam. Sacrifice whatever resources you need to grab board at all costs, and, once you have it, do everything you can to make sure you never let it go.
It has finally gotten to the point in the meta where I find that Handlock is the norm and Zoo is the minority. I am not sure why this happened, but either way you have to be ready for a nerve-wracking battle here. Why? Because, when playing Handlock, you have to walk a very thin line (as seen in the video). While you may start very strong with things like Mad Scientist or Mana Wyrm, you usually will not have access to the necessary burn to finish them off immediately. Rather, you want to go long, and when you do, you need to keep their life total in check. You want it low enough where you can set up for a finishing burst (or push them to low enough life where you can kill them the following turn) without making their life total so low that they can just spam the board with Molten Giants. Yes, sometimes they will just Antique Healbot to run out of range, but you can fix that by having board control when the mech comes down.
Keeping them where you want them is very hard task because you constantly have to be thinking about future turns. This is a matchup where I try to save burn as much as I can, and the only exception where I will actually use Polymorph over a Fireball for removal since the Fireball represents damage and Polymorph does not. When playing against Handlock, fifteen is the really “key” life total you have to watch for. This is generally because if the games go long, which they usually will since you need to keep their life total high, they will eventually become Lord Jaraxxus. Often, you can burn one Fireball on a minion (as Archmage Antonidas can get you one back) but you typically want to try to get the old two Fireball/one Frostbolt finishing punch. More often this not this won’t happen, but if you’re careful and slowly run down their spells through good minions and Counterspells, you should be able to eventually set up the one turn burst.
As we move forward through the dog days of summer, Druid becomes more and more prevalent all across the ladder. This is good news for us, as Druid is one of the easier matchups we can face. Druid is a deck that does not do very well against Counterspell, sticky, high-health minions or efficient removal. Unlike most decks, they are a class that heavily relies on controlling the game through their minions backed up by very few spells. Their general plan is to get fast mana, use it to power out giant creatures, and then end the game with the combo. The good news is, you have a ton of tools that can disrupt this plan. Fireball is amazing in this matchup, clearing out their mid-game minions that they depend on for making trades, and acting as damage they need to be worried about during the later stages. As expected, this is another matchup where getting board is very important in order to make sure the combo never happens. Once Druid gets board they will race towards their finisher. Use your secrets, both Ice Barrier and Counterspell, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
There is not a Druid deck these days that does not run the combo (and most of them run two). You need to stay ahead of fourteen life at all costs, or hide yourself behind an Ice Barrier turn nine moving forward. One very important note in this matchup is that, between Mad Scientist, Acolyte of Pain, Sludge Belcher, Sylvanas Windrunner and Piloted Shredder, you have a ton of silence targets. All of those cards can cause problems for Druid, but they only have two silences in Keeper of the Grove. Be aware of keeper and try to bait out an early silence so your middle game minions can stick around to wreak havoc. If you can start out strong, keep your life total above fourteen and make sure your minions stick around, you will be able to cruise through this one.
Ah, a deck that tugs fondly on my heart strings. Anyone who has ever read my articles or watched my videos knows that it Aggro Paladin is by far my favorite deck of all time. That does not necessarily mean that I enjoy playing against this deck, but I do love seeing it on the ladder. With Midrange or Control Paladin just not having enough tools anymore, most Paladins these days are aggressive, which spells trouble for just about everyone else. Due to only a few taunts and no heals outside of Ice Barrier, this is a very tricky matchup. It is very hard to try and figure out what type of Aggro Paladin you are playing against. Some run Wolfrider/Arcane Golem, some run Equality, and others are weapon heavy. In fact, there are so many iterations, it is just simply not worth trying to play to all of their cards. Here, you just want to play to the cards you know they will have, and then adapt to the others accordingly.
Divine Favor, Muster for Battle, Shielded Minibot, Argent Squire, Truesilver Champion and both blessings are all things you will see in this match. Unstable Ghoul counters muster very well, and things like Piloted Shredder or Sludge Belcher can really slow down their onslaught. The general rule against Paladin is, due to the high amount of buffs they have access to, you always want to clear out anything they play (even something like a Silver Hand Recruit can be a threat if your life total is low). In this game you are absolutely a control deck, just keeping them at bay and making sure they can’t finish you off. Water Elemental is an all-star here to lock down their weapon potential and Acidic Swamp Ooze serves a similar purpose. In that same vein, never be afraid to burn a Frostbolt on their face to make it so they can’t attack. They are a deck that runs very few spells, but never try to draw too much (unless you have a Counterspell up) so as to not play directly into a huge Divine Favor.
Mulliganing with this deck is very interesting because it has one of the highest concentration of “must-keeps” I have seen in some while. Mana Wyrm is your only one drop, and should always be kept as a result. While you never want to keep secrets under any circumstance (minions are just much better to look for at the start of the game) Mad Scientist is a must keep. In addition, Acolyte of Pain, Acidic Swamp Ooze, Unstable Ghoul and Frostbolt are all “must keeps” as well. These cards will allow you to start playing the “midrange” part of your game, and as such they are all great at what they do. Kirin Tor Mage is an almost always keep. With a secret it becomes a must keep, but even without a secret, as it is an aggressively costed three drop and should be kept when you have a couple of things to play before it.
As with so many mulligans, things do get a little trickier when you have the coin. Without the coin, you typically don’t want to keep any secret or anything that costs above three. However, the coin opens up three different options. Water Elemental and Piloted Shredder are fantastic on turn three, and both of them should be kept if you have the coin as well as something to play on turn one or two. Even with the coin, they are not good enough on their, but to play on curve they can win games. The last cards you should consider are Polymorph and Fireball. Both of these cards are must keeps against Druid (always watching for that Innervate) and can be kept as a four drop on curve with the coin. Typically you only want Fireball against slower midrange lists, and while Polymoprh is much harder to justify, it is a great keep against Warlock as well, shutting down key demons from Zoo and four drops from Handlock.
I hope you enjoyed one of my rare forays into Mage. I think the class is in a pretty rough spot (don’t play tempo!) but this is a great example of how to adapt when things aren’t working out for you. Beyond Jaina, the sun has finally set on another July, and we move forward into August. With that, we also move one step closer to the Grand Tournament. I know many people aren’t that excited at this point in time, and trust me there is a lot to not be excited about, but also trust me when I say that great things are coming.
The angels are just one small example of how great things can be for the future, and I for one am excited for a new dawn. That may change once everything is revealed, but I will share more about when I do my set review later this month. Until then, and until next time, may your Fireballs always find lethal.