The Control Paradigm, Part 2: The Matchups
Hello, and welcome back for Part two of my treatise on control decks. (View Part 1 here) The majority of this article will focus on the control mirror, as it is the most intricate and has the most nuances based on specific build.
For each matchup, I’ll illustrate key points the decks have in common and different and indicate which deck(s) are advantaged and disadvantaged. And we'll take a special look at Ysera- the ultimate trump card of Control decks.
The Control Mirror
Advantaged: Shaman, Priest with Mind Control, anyone with Ysera
The control mirror will often come down to fatigue, and you have to know that turn one. Don’t draw extra cards when you’re ahead and have the answers to the threats your opponent can produce; being even 2 cards further into fatigue is 11 damage after 4 turns of both players burning at the beginning of their turn. You can measure advantage on board, in cards available to each player between hand and board, and in cards in deck.
For example, if you have a minion and 5 cards in hand and your opponent has 2 minions and 6 cards in hand you would generally be losing, but in the control mirror you both have so many answers that you could be considered to be winning if you have 15 cards left in your deck and they have 11. The player with more cards left has inevitability if they can maintain parity for the rest of the game.
The way to approach the matchup is to deploy your threats from weakest to strongest. You want to bait and keep track of your opponent’s removal and save valuable minions for when they only have 1 or 0 ways left to deal with it. Conversely, you want to save your removal if at all possible and not use it on middling threats like Loatheb or Sludge Belcher. Attack with your minions to kill your opponent’s minions if the trades are equal or good! The important cards to save for each class are:
Warrior: Execute + enabler, Shield Block + Shield Slam
Paladin: Equality + Wild Pyromancer/Unstable Ghoul
Priest: Shadow Word: Death
Sylvanas Windrunner can completely swing a losing board position, so try to only have one prime theft target out at a time so you can trade it away if your opponent plays her. If you are the Sylvanus player, the best time to deploy her is when your opponent has two or more minions worth stealing.
Shaman has a slight advantage over the other control decks due to having cheaper removal that allows it to get ahead in the early game and start snowballing with totems (Be careful of sweepers!). The problem is that if the game goes super long as Shaman your threats are outclassed and you don’t have enough removal to kill every relevant threat. Two Lightning Bolts for a Ragnaros that already killed something is not a good trade.
Priest has the highest chance of ending the game early due to overwhelming board presence from cheap minions, but even for them tempo wins are rare.
One card is so important in the control-on-control matchup that she warrants her own section.
Ysera is the end-all be-all of threats. Ragnaros is awesome, and will often deal 8 damage and take out 2-3 of your opponent’s cards. Alexstrasza boasts impressive stats and can deal 15 damage the turn she comes into play. Grommash Hellscream crashes in for 10-12 points of charge damage and then demands an answer. Tirion Fordring is a many-for-1 that protects your other minions and life total, then deals 15 damage after death. None of them hold a candle to Ysera; only she can take an opponent from 45 to 0 by herself.
When you have Ysera in your deck, you have inevitability and can play an entirely different game. Instead of playing for value and trying to win in fatigue you can craft your entire game plan around getting Ysera to stick on the board. The general pattern of control-on-control will give you time to draw her and clear the way with bait like Ragnaros/Cairne/Tirion or whatever else you play that normally is the biggest threat. If you REALLY want to win the control mirror, you can play Priest and add a Mind Control to your deck with the express purpose of using it on Ysera, which is almost always game over.
Why is she so strong?
First off, she’s very resistant to damage-based and targeted removal. Of commonly played cards, only a massive Shield Slam, Execute (with Help), Equality (with help), or Hex can take her out. Siphon Soul and Hunter's Mark can, too, but those are different matchups.
Secondly, she not only gives you card advantage, she gives you INSANE cards. Even is pretty busted, and 2 of them can end the game in short order.
Finally, she provides EVEN MORE threats regardless of whether or not she dies. is difficult to remove and trades well (look at Sludge Belcher), and can kill people very quickly.
So when do you play Ysera?
Often you don’t want to play her until fatigue to make sure your opponent has no more removal. Faceless Manipulator is rough, but most people don’t play it anymore and waiting until fatigue almost ensures your opponent doesn’t have one. Here’s when it’s relatively safe to deploy Ysera to ensure victory against each matchup:
Warrior: When they have used both Executes and either both Shield Slams or have 4 or less armor (so Shield Block+Armor Up! + Shield Slam doesn’t kill her)
Paladin: When they have used both Equality and MAYBE Aldor Peacekeepers if you know they play Stampeding Kodos.
Priest: When they have used Sylvanus or both Shadow Word: Deaths.
Shaman: When the have used both Hexes and preferably both Earth Shocks. The Earth Shocks are easy to bait with Sludge Belcher because most people don’t run Ysera so the Shaman is eager to get value from them.
Against all matchups you don’t want to throw her onto a board where your opponent has 8+ power of minions they can run into her immediately. Of course, all of this depends on you not being under extreme pressure. If you are in danger of dying and have no better options you need to just play her and hope they don’t have it or you draw .
Advantaged: Priest, slightly Warrior and Paladin
To beat Hunter you must present a threatening board with only a few minions, which Priest excels at from the get-go with powerful minions for their cost like Northshire Cleric, Zombie Chow, and Dark Cultist. Add in the plethora of board wipes and you have a recipe for a counter deck. Warrior and paladin have taunts and solid board wipes, but their early minions aren’t as good as Priest’s.
Hunter is still threat #1 for another week, so Shaman is iffy to play. Your greatest strength, advantage through totems, is completely negated and becomes a liability due to Buzzard/Unleash. Shaman also suffers in the matchup from lack of life gain. Hunter can always clock you with their hero power, dragging you towards inexorable death if you can’t gain life. The other control decks pack plenty of ways to stay afloat and not die to Leeroy Jenkins or Kill Command in the late game.
Be sure to save a premium removal spell and a sweeper for Savannah Highmane, as he is the biggest threat to control once the initial rush is quelled.
Advantaged: Priest, Warrior slightly
Priest is good against Zoo for the same reason it’s good against Hunter: Early board control backed by copious sweepers. You won’t win the battle for board control like against Hunter, but you will be able to delay it long enough to assemble some AOE and then put the nail in the coffin with Cabal Shadow Priest. You feel pretty dirty when you steal a Harvest Golem or a taunted Nerubian Egg.
The rest of the classes go pretty even against Zoo; it’s a coin-flip matchup against a coin-flip deck. Try to establish early minions and set up the best AOE you can for turn 3-5, and save a removal spell for Doomguard. Alternatively, playing a taunt minion every turn is good, too, and can buy you time draw AOE.
Also keep in mind that deathrattles trigger in the order the cards were playing, so a 1 durability Death's Bite attacking a turn 2 Haunted Creeper will also sweep away the spectral spiders.
Advantaged: Shaman, very slightly Paladin
You can’t mulligan properly for Handlock due to the overwhelming presence of Zoo, which sucks, but you have a few turns to find what you need so it’s okay. Shaman can play the tempo game here with Hex for giants and Earth Shock for Twilight Drakes, but the other classes don’t have enough early pressure and need to grind it out. Getting enough armor to Shield Slam a giant or killing 2 giants/drakes with Equality is the strategic moment here. You often need to remove every large threat in the Handlock’s deck since you’ll be forced into a reactive role by huge minions relatively early, but fortunately there’s rarely more than 5 of them (4 giants plus a possible Ragnaros, Alexstrasza, or Lord Jaraxxus).
A lot of Priest lists lately are trimming a Shadow Word: Death, but I wouldn’t recommend it now and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it a week from now when Handlocks are sure to make a huge resurgence. If there are a lot of them around giving you trouble, put The Black Knight and Big Game Hunter into your deck to turn the tables.
This is how I’m categorizing the new-age aggressive token-ish Druid with and Spectral Knight with Double Force of Nature/Savage Roarcombo. Warrior can kill a lot of cheap midrange minions with weapons and Whirlwinds, and also gains enough life to stay out of FoN/Savage Roar range. Death's Bite helps especially, as it can kill a 5 health minion with the second swing (Ancient of Lore) and create a huge tempo swing. There’s not much to say about this matchup; kill everything you can every turn and develop your board when you can.
Advantaged: Shaman, Warrior with Gorehowl
This is how I’m categorizing decks with Wild Growth and (usually) Ancient of War. These decks are much slower than the other Druid decks, but have much beefier minions. Ancient of War has 10 friggin’ health! Shaman has traditionally been favored in the matchup pre-Naxx, and this is essentially a pre-Naxx deck, so the old adage should apply. Gorehowl will kill 3 or 4 minions from Druid and is a major turning point in the matchup, so add one if you’re Warrior and facing a lot of Druid as it can single-handedly swing a game.
Paladins have an alright time in this matchup because Equality doesn't care how big your minion is, but there's still the potential to be overrun and out-valued by the oversized Druid minions.
Priest has a difficult time because the Druid minions are too big to die to small AOE like Pyromancer and Holy Nova and too numerous to kill with Shadow Word: Deaths.
Control decks are fun, interesting, and only getting more powerful with the upcoming nerfs to Hunter and (non-Druid) burst combo. Any of the four decks discussed can propel you through the ladder into the ranks of the elite; it will just take a little practice and a lot of patience. In the current meta I favor Warrior, though Priest is also a solid choice. Once the nerfs come through, Shaman looks to be the best-positioned choice due to its strength in the mirror and versus Handlock, which is sure to be popular.
Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions in the comments, and all comments are appreciated. Thanks for reading!
Until next time,