18 September 2014 - 03:07

The Control Paradigm, Part 1: The Decks

LightsOutAce visits the Control decks of Hearthstone, how each class differentiates from one another and what makes it 'Control'.
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Not much has changed in the past two weeks.

Hunter is still the best (till the Nerf patch on 22nd September), and as such I don’t have a new deck article since it has been written about a thousand times and is getting nerfed soon. Instead, I want to talk about a recent trend that arose to combat the Hunter menace on ladder that will only get stronger after the upcoming balance patch: control decks. There are four control decks finding success in today’s metagame: Warrior, Paladin (specifically the Tauntadin variant), Priest, and Shaman. Each of these decks has its merits, and I’ll walk through the strengths and weaknesses of each in part 1 and how each plays against the popular metagame and each other in part 2.

How Control Decks Work

Ragnaros the Firelord

Control decks aim to win in the late game with numerous huge threats. To this end, they include a multitude of early removal and taunts minions to reach the stage of the game where their strategy become unstoppable.

The idea is to construct your deck in such a way that you have inevitability. That is, the concept that if the game goes very long (to fatigue even) you will win. The more you can stretch out the game, the more value you’ll gain from your expensive cards and the further ahead you will become. Classic inevitable win conditions are Ragnaros the Firelord, Alexstrasza, and the Grandmother of them all, Ysera. Ysera is so important in control mirrors that she has her own section in part two.

Inevitability applies to gameplay as well. When choosing between two lines of play, one which is risky but brings the potential for a victory soon and one which is safe and prolongs the game, err towards the safe play. A basic example would be when you are down to 14 health turn 8 against a Druid with a clear board while you both have a decent number of cards in hand. An aggressive deck might deploy their biggest threat and hope the opponent doesn’t have Force of Nature/Savage Roar, because if they do victory is impossible. The control deck is better off playing something smaller and healing or taunting, because if the game goes longer they will win. In a similar vein, a control deck doesn’t have to overextend into sweepers because it is fine with plinking for a few damage a turn and letting the opponent develop their gameplan. The control gameplan is ultimately superior.

The way to reach the lategame and take advantage of your inevitability varies by deck. For Warrior and Priest, and Paladin, it’s copious lifegain; for Shaman it’s infinite value minions from your hero power. Any of these decks is happy if a turn cycle for both players is hero power and pass, as it brings the inevitable late game closer to fruition.

Mountain Giant

An aside on Handlock and Ramp Druid: These are not true control decks. The previously mentioned decks are reactive for a large portion of the game and then eventually kill with Ragnaros, Alexstrasza, or something similar. Handlock and Ramp Druid, while they do include some expensive threats, have a much more proactive gameplan (turn 4 Mountain Giant or Wild Growth->Innervate-> Ancient of War both end the game in pretty short order). In the matchup vs a control deck, these two will have to assume the role of the aggressor because the true control deck has inevitability.

A control Warrior deck, for example, wants to remove all of the opponent’s threats and fight for board control until some nebulous future point where it will exhaust the opponent’s resources and take over. A Druid or a Handlock wants to attack the opponent’s face with a huge taunt minion on turn 5 or 6. The strategic moment (the turning point in a game where you go from losing to winning) for a control deck is when the early rush is weathered and you begin your turn advantaged on the board at a safe life total. The strategic moment for Druid or Handlock is when you play a big minion on turn 3-5 and force your opponent to start reacting to YOU. It is both earlier and scripted; the classic descriptor of a midrange deck.

Deck Analysis

Note: the decklists in this section my current lists; they are certainly going to change come September 22nd. That said, any given deck should be within 4-6 cards of what is presented here. You can also find many other excellent players’ preferred lists on this very website!

Warrior

2x Execute

Armorsmith

2x Shield Slam

2x Whirlwind

2x Armorsmith

2x Cruel Taskmaster

2x Fiery War Axe

1x Unstable Ghoul

2x Acolyte of Pain

2x Shield Block

1x Big Game Hunter

Shield Slam

2x Death’s Bite

1x Brawl

1x Faceless Manipulator

1x Loatheb

2x Sludge Belcher

1x Cairne Bloodhoof

1x The Black Knight

1x Grommash Hellscream

1x Ragnaros the Firelord

1x Ysera

The classic control deck. Warrior is was most people think of when you mention the archetype, and that’s because it hits every salient point perfectly. Your hero power gains life (even beyond the paltry 30 limit for the other classes), you have 12+ cards that cost 2 or less for surviving the early game, and you have a gallery of legends to clean up the late game.

Brawl

Strengths:  Warrior can gain more life than can ever be taken, even by fatigue, and slam more legendaries than the opponent has removal. The biggest advantage over other control decks is the ability to go over 30 life, which makes it safe to take an entire turn playing a 9 mana dragon. The huge life buffer also allows you to spend life to kill minions using weapons and stay out of the danger zone. The deck is also very adaptable and has space to add tech cards for whatever matchups are currently popular. Good tech choices depending on the meta include Big Game Hunter, The Black Knight, Harrison Jones, Gorehowl, and Cleave.

Weaknesses: All of Warrior’s mass removal, with the exception of Brawl, does only 1 damage. All of your single target removal is extremely efficient and powerful, but you only have four of those and a few weapons. A strong midrange lineup of 5+ health minions (think Sludge Belcher, Cairne Bloodhoof, Chillwind Yeti, Ancient of War) is extremely difficult to overcome with this list. If you are running into a lot of decks like that, add a Gorehowl. You can also be overrun by strong Zoo boards featuring all 2+ health minions if you don’t get a lucky Brawl or 2 Whirlwind effects, but Cleave can fix that problem right quick.

Paladin

1x Humility

Equality

2x Equality

1x Holy Light

2x Unstable Ghoul

2x Wild Pyromancer

1x Acolyte of Pain

2x Aldor Peackeeper

2x Harvest Golem

2x Consecration

2x Sen’jin Shieldmasta

1x Spellbreaker

Tirion Fordring

2x Truesilver Champion

1x Loatheb

2x Sludge Belcher

1x Stampeding Kodo

2x Sunwalker

1x Guardian of Kings

1x Kel’Thuzad

1x Lay on Hands

1x Tirion Fordring

Paladin trades some of the individual power of warrior removal spells for the best board clear in the game, Wild Pyromancer + Equality. You also get the most powerful control finisher, Tirion Fordring. No other control deck plays the ridiculous combo of Kel'Thuzad + taunt minions, either, and that board is unbeatable without a removal spell for the lord of Naxxramus.

Consecration

Strengths: The aforementioned Equality can kill any number of minions of any size, and there is some redundancy for Wild Pyromancer in Unstable Ghoul. Truesilver Champion fights with Death's Bite for the title of best weapon in the game, and Consecration is an excellent one-sided sweeper at a relatively cheap cost. Lay on Hands is a pretty absurd refill late game, giving you three new cards and the time to use them. You have a lot of life gain and taunt minions to stave of death until your finishers can take over the game. And make no mistake, Lay on Hands IS a finisher.

Weaknesses: Paladin lacks good early-game options, and without Consecration or Pyromancer/Equality on turn 4 it’s hard to stabilize against aggro or Zoo. There also aren’t many true threats against other control decks, so you often lose in fatigue to decks that save removal for your 8-dops. There also isn’t much mid-game card draw since you don’t have as many ways as Warrior to reliably draw multiple cards off of Acolyte of Pain.

Northshire Cleric

Priest

2x Circle of Healing

2x Holy Smite

2x Northshire Cleric

2x Power Word: Shield

2x Zombie Chow

2x Wild Pyromancer

2x Dark Cultist

2x Shadow Word: Death

2x Thoughtsteal

Dark Cultist

2x Auchenai Soulpriest

1x Shadow Madness

1x Holy Nova

1x Loatheb

2x Sludge Belcher

2x Cabal Shadow Priest

1x Holy Fire

1x Sylvanas Windrunner

1x Ragnaros the Firelord

Priest is the most aggressive of the control decks. It wants to take board control starting from turn 1, and has some of the best 1-drops and THE best 3-drop to accomplish this purpose. The deck is chock full of 2-for-1’s like Thoughtsteal, Auchenai Soulpriest, and Cabal Shadow Priestto snowball the lead or fight back from a deficit.

Cabal Shadow Priest

Strengths: Dark Cultist is absurd. Thoughtsteal draws you cards without drawing cards from your deck, giving you more tools to fight the control mirror without going to fatigue. Having Wild Pyromancer, Holy Nova and the Auchenai Soulpriest/Circle of Healingcombo gives you tons of board clear if you fall behind to help transition to the mid-game where you’re strongest. Cabal Shadow Priest is insane value against every deck, and is very difficult to play around.

Weaknesses: Four attack minions? It’s hard to punch a hole in Priest’s defenses now that its previously pitiful early game has been shored up with Zombie Chow and Dark Cultist. Without Dark Cultist turns 2-4 are still weak, so you can get behind in tempo if all you have is Thoughtsteal or heal->pass. Minions with 5 health avoid Auchenai/Circle and are somewhat difficult to remove, and big legendaries like Ragnaros or Alexstrasza will 2- or 3-for-1 you if you don’t have Shadow Word: Death. There’s also no way to beat Ysera if the board is close to parity when she comes down.

Feral Spirit

Shaman

2x Earth Shock

2x Lightning Bolt

2x Rockbiter Weapon

1x Bloodmage Thalnos

2x Flametongue Totem

2x Haunted Creeper

2x Feral Spirit

2x Harvest Golem

2x Hex

Doomhammer

2x Lightning Storm

1x Mana Tide Totem

2x Defender of Argus

1x Gnomish Inventor

2x Azure Drake

1x Doomhammer

1x Loatheb

2x Fire Elemental

1x Al’Akir the Windlord

Shaman’s presence in this list may be a point of contention for some, as it is much different than the previous decks, but is still a control deck nonetheless. Your strategy is still to use tons of early removal and several cantripping minions to keep your opponent’s board empty and you hand full in the mid-game so you can win the late-game. Instead of big legendary finishers, Shaman relies on incremental damage and a possible Rockbiter Weapon-boosted Windury attack. Some players run a Bloodlust to convert a winning board position into a win, which forces your opponent to try to contain your snowballing ability. Any time a totem forces a spell from your opponent, you are getting ahead.

I also like the version popularized by Reckful and Noxious that cuts the windfury finishers and Rockbiter Weapons (it’s not as good without windfury) for Zombie Chows and Sea Giants. This alteration trades some late-game burst for more robust threats.

Hex

Strengths: Shaman has the best board-control hero power in the game. Every turn you have extra mana you get a free 2-drop, which really helps in the late game when your spells get +1 damage and you have small taunt and such. Tons of cheap removal ensures you won’t get overrun before you get the chance to enact your game plan, and Hex is arguably the best removal spell in the game.

Weaknesses: Unlike the other control decks discussed in this article, you are vulnerable to sweepers. Don’t commit more minions from your hand if a sweeper would punish you, and instead totem and trade some guys away. It’s also hard to pressure your opponent and end the game sometimes, as there are only 4 or 5 cards in your deck that can do more than 4 damage per turn. The extra time you give your opponent may let them assemble a combo or claw back into the game.

Conclusion

Each deck discussed here has its selling points and shortcomings, but all are viable for ladder climbing with a bit of dedication. It will be a wide-open meta come September 22nd, and I for one know I want to be the one with all of the answers in my deck. Check out part 2 for an analysis of popular matchups!

Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions in the comments, and all comments are appreciated. Thanks for reading!

Until next time,

LightsOutAce

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