Out of every deck that has been screwed in the past, none have been hit quite as hard as Handlock. The slow Warlock deck was long a fan favorite that got unceremoniously nerfed out of nowhere for what many (including myself) deem for no reason. The go big deck was one of the most fun to play in the history of Hearthstone. Not only did it come with a a ton of difficult choices for you, but it made your opponent really think about their plays. Every turn is a decision with this deck, and every decision has set consequences. You get rewarded highly for playing well, but you also get punished hard for playing wrong. A skill tester if there ever was one, and you know how much I love that.
This week we take a dive back into the past and try to resurrect Handlock from the depths of nerdom by looking at a modern version that abhimannu1992 took to legend. This list has all of the shades of the old deck, but, as with so many lists I cover, it does a fantastic job of adapting to the modern world. It does this with a blend of big threats and strong healing. Handlock is a deck that can almost always win any long game, but its getting there that’s hard. To combat that, this deck simply threw in all the healing it could, paired it with some serious removal and gigantic minions, and said “let’s do this”. A very cool idea, and one that works very well against the big players you’ll see on ladder.
This is without a doubt one of the most important cards in the deck. In order to make a list like this work without some of the old staples (*cough* Molten Giant *cough*) you need to craft it in the same way you once did. That means you have to be able to fight back against aggro decks. Doomsayer is the best option for this because the 0/7 on turn two (and sometimes turn three) just murders Zoo and Shaman. Not only does it act as a removal spell, but it disrupts their curve and enables you to tap without worrying about pressure. You want to run this out over tapping against any deck that cares about the early game, be it Shaman or Hunter or Mage. The longer the game goes, the weaker this card gets and it is important to remember that.
As always, a big part of using this card is as a tempo play. Anytime you play Doomsayer beyond the opening turns of the game, it is going to serve as a way to clear the board. However, it doesn’t just give you the board, it gives you a clean board that you can just slam any big minion down that you want. This by far the best way to use the 0/7, and it will set the table for incredible swings. As a result, do not be afraid to run this out to take away your opponent’s turn or tie up some of their mana. Seven health is not always easy to deal with, and its going to cost some burn or removal to answer. I find one of the best uses for sayer is dropping it down on turn seven to stop your opponent from curving out into a turn eight Ragnaros the Firelord.
As with last week, we once again turn to Faceless Shambler. While this list does not have all of the fancy big taunts that Druid does, it does have a ton of big minions that are ripe for the copying. This card is not easy to use, but it is going to almost always be game winning in the right situations. Unlike most decks that team up with Faceless Shambler, this is a list where you almost always want to try to get the most value that you can. Having a huge taunt is absolutely critical to Handlock for both dominating the board and staying alive when you are low on health. That means you always want to set this up to hit a gigantic threat like Mountain Giant or Twilight Drake. Once you add a big taunter with that type of body in addition to the other minion you have the game is usually over. This is so important it can often be right to hold off playing a huge threat one turn to drop it with Shambler the next.
Another play that can come in handy is to copy a Doomsayer when you really need a board clear. This protects the 0/7 behind another seven health wall and that usually lets it go off. As mentioned above, getting Doomsayer to trigger during the later stages of the game can be absolutely essential to enacting your own gameplan. In those situations where you just have to set up a future play or buy a turn, protecting the two drop is all that matters. Don’t always get caught up on what this card could buff later in the game, sometimes you just need to make use of the situation at hand.
I bring up Shadowflame because it is one of the hardest cards to use in the entire deck. While big minions, spot removal, and Hellfire are all going to do a good job at clearing up the board throughout the game, this is the AOE that puts decks away. Not only does it allow you to wipe minions, but it gives you a way to kill minions without taking any damage. It is also the only way you can clear a board full of large threats. Always look to use your other AOE first before pulling the trigger on this one, especially on your opponent’s smaller threats. Beyond that, the number one use for this card is saving it in conjunction with Sylvanas Windrunner. This is a classic combo that is extremely important in the current meta as a way to answer things like C’thun and N’zoth, the Corruptor. When you first get into a game you want to think about what your main use for this card is going to be, and then you want to work hard to make it come true.
Though it does not have anywhere near the same popularity that it once did, Faceless Manipulator is a very strong one-of tool in this list that has a ton of applications. The primary use for this card is to copy your opponent’s Ragnaros the Firelord in order to give you a shot at a 50/50 kill and instant control of the game. It also can be used on a wide range of interesting big threats against control and on your own taunts when facing down an aggro deck. There is no “right” card to copy with this. Your preferred target is going to change every single match, and that adaptation is what makes the five drop so strong. Never hold back a value manipulator just because there is a better scenario. You may want to hold out for Savannah Highmane, but sometimes you just need the turns that Infested Wolf will buy you.
As noted in the video, this card can also be used aggressively to get some emergency power onto the board (or to threaten damage). Many people will not see (or even look for) this line of play because of how ingrained the idea of “only copy reactively” is in their mind. Generally you will try and wait to use this when you have nothing else to do, but that is not set in stone. There are going to be plenty of times where you need to break that mold and just get some board presence. For example, copying a Flamewreathed Faceless to force your Shaman opponent’s hand or copying your own Refreshment Vendor against Druid to put up a solid board.
You face Jaraxxus! This deck is not easy to pilot (have I said that enough yet?), and Lord Jaraxxus is a big reason why. The demon legendary has one of the strongest abilities in the game, and you will likely win any matchup when you get him onto an empty board. However, he is also very fragile. Fifteen health is more than it once was, but it still is not a lot. My golden rule for Jaxx is to play him when you have an opening against control decks, and to save him as a heal against faster or midrange archetypes. The game is not always going to follow those rules, but such guidelines will help you understand when you need to get him onto the board and when it is better to hold back.
Another big part of deciding when to play the nine drop is knowing that you have the right tools to keep him alive. Many decks will press hard for damage once you cap your health, and you need to know that before undergoing the transformation. Always study your hand before playing Jaraxxus and take stock of the board, your opponent’s available damage, and the ways you have to protect your own face. Being able to play the eredar lord and then follow it up with a clutch taunt or heal is generally the best way to go, but if your opponent is out of burn or they are playing a slow control deck then just playing him when you have the mana can be fine. In fact, as noted by the video, against control you want to get to him as soon as possible.
The five decks I see most when playing the ladder.
This deck is good against Midrange Shaman. I don’t know how else to say that. As you can see in the video, this just matches up extremely well against Thrall. Not only do you have access to both giant taunts and AOE, but you also have ample healing and a finisher that they cannot keep up with. Shamans are built to handle boards of small minions, but your massive-health threats simply go up above their AOE. This means they are going to use a ton of resources trying to control your board, which overloads their curve and runs them out of cards at a quick rate. The biggest thing in this matchup is just watching out for burst. Shaman has very little at their disposal, but it does exist. Always keep Spirit Claws in mind if you have no taunts and watch out for both Bloodlust and Lightning Bolts.
You are going to win this game by wrecking your opponent’s board, but you need to be cognizant of how you do that. Sometimes you want to use Shadowflame instead of Hellfire to avoid damage, sometimes you need to Siphon Soul a threat to gain some life, and sometimes it is better to forget removal and just put up a taunt wall. These decisions are important and they will shape the course of the game. Shaman loves to flood the board, and they can usually do it a few times before they go down. Make sure you have an answer for each push. Also understand that they are usually going to Hex your first threat. This means you want to play your lower priority big threat first to test their hand.
With its recent success in Tavern Brawl, Tempo Mage has exploded across the ladder, and that can be a bit of a problem. The way you win most games is by doing what you can to survive (and tap) through the early turns, and then using your big taunts to lock things up during the middle to late game. That plan is very strong against most decks, but it falters against double Fireball/Frostbolt to the dome. Tempo Mage only needs to play a few minions through the game to amass enough damage to kill you, and given enough time they don’t even need that. As a result, this is a match where you want to work hard to set up your healing and limit your lifetaps.
A general rule is to only dig deep when looking for a card that you must find, and make good use out of both Refreshment Vendor and Earthen Ring Farseer. Their healing may seem minimal at first glance, but they do a great job of nullifying a Frostbolt or Forgotten Torch. Past that, the other important part of the healing process is getting your opponent focused on the board. To do this, you want to hit them hard any time you get the opportunity to do so. For example, while you may want to trade your turn four Mountain Giant, hitting them in the dome for eight will likely bait out a Fireball of the like. You can then check that off the list of possible damage for the end game. As healing is so key, Lord Jaraxxus is also a great way to buy time after you’ve been put low.
Shaman is easy, but this feels like a joke. Honestly, I am not sure how you lose to Control Warrior. I have only lost to Garrosh once, and it was to a one- in-six Rag hit when I had eight kinds of lethal on the board. This is the game where you simply just run out threat after threat and force your opponent to come up with answers. As shown in the video, your whole goal here is to just get to Lord Jaraxxus as soon as you can. Warrior is never going to be able to keep up with the endless stream of 6/6’s and the weapon also does a good job of negating armor. Just make sure you have some healing and some taunts when you go to 15. Warrior does not have a ton of ways to do damage, but Grommash Hellscream is still a card and it will still hurt you if you aren’t careful.
The other big part of this game is playing around Brawl. You have a lot of big minions and strong threats, and Warrior is going to have a very hard time killing them one-by-one. However, if you give them a chance to kill two or three by overextending too far into AOE they can come back. Read your opponent’s possible kill spells and see how they react to a single large threat. If they have no answer don’t add more to the board. The only exception to this is when you have Jaraxxus and you just keep pumping out Infernal after Infernal. Also make use of Sylvanas Windrunner. Your opponent has no good answer to the card, which means she can be backbreaking. She is almost always going to be used in conjunction with Shadowflame (see video) but running her out against something like a Ragnaros the Firelord can be good when you do not have removal at your disposal.
As the ever-shifting sands of the ladder continue to shift and swirl, Hunter’s stock has absolutely plummeted. The brawl probably has something to do with this (though I took Aggro Secret to 9-3), but that could not better news for you. Though this game is winnable, Hunter is the one class that doesn’t care about taunts and, like Tempo Mage, can just kill you behind a large wall. That means this game is going to come down to healing and only healing. Once you reach turns eight or nine you should have enough power on the board to end this, but it is very hard to get that far. Try to do everything you can to set up big taunts and never attack into traps unless you can afford the consequences. Letting your opponent build a big Eaglehorn Bow or Freezing Trap a taunt is an absolute disaster. The same goes for proccing Cat Trick when you have no AOE. Do not mindlessly tap and always measure your opponent’s potential damage against the healing you have in your hand and deck.
Note: As with Mage, this is a matchup where you want to pressure your opponent and try to get them to worry about your board.
Similar to Hunter, Druid is another class that has significantly dropped off in the past week. While it is not gone, it is not in a great spot. Either way, this is a game that is incredibly in your favor. Most modern versions of Druid care about spells, which means they use the first couple of turns to ramp up, remove minions and control the board. That’s a solid gameplan against many popular meta decks, but it does nothing against one that just wants to tap as much as possible. Once you slam a giant threat down on turn four your opponent (barring an early Innervate) will be scrambling to keep up. You can then springboard off of that and push as hard as possible. Druids have cut Mulch as of late, which means they are going to have to burn a ton of resources to deal with just one threat. Finding windows to get priority is key because it grinds Druid out of cards and forces them to spend turns drawing instead of interacting with the board.
This is a game where you want to be the aggressor. Hit them with all of your threats and only stop to respond when they play something that had to die like Emperor Thaurissan. Druid is a deck that controls games with fast mana and threats, but they are not going to be able to. Especially because they no longer run Mulch. Understand that Druid is going to put you on a clock. Every version these days runs the Arcane Giant/Malygos version, and while you don’t care about the giants, Malygos will be lethal almost every single time. That means you need to apply quick pressure and start going face hard during the middle part of the game. This is so important that prioritizing damage over removal is usually the way to take this down.
Mulliganing with this deck can be very tricky because you want to keep some slower cards that you normally would pass up. Two and three drops are important, but you also have to keep your four drops. Acidic Swamp Ooze, Doomsayer, Twilight Drake and Mountain Giant are your must keeps. These all help you hold down the first turns and enact your plan during the middle turns.
When it comes to targeted mulligans, you want Mortal Coil is good against aggro, and you should always keep Earthen Ring Farseer and Refreshment Vendor should be kept against fast decks. Soulfire is very strong against a fast deck when you don’t have a handsize-dependent card in your hand. Hellfire is very good against any flood deck and you want to keep Spellbreaker when you have a strong curve against Shaman to answer mid-game totems.
Handlock is just so awesome. I know that has been said a million times by a million different people, but its been said because its true. This is one of the ultimate “skill tester” decks and it really takes some thinking to play. That is never a bad thing, and I hope MSG brings up more decks like it. I always love raising the skill cap, and this does that and more. Until next time, MSGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG.