Extensive Legend Handlock and Deck Building Guide
Hi, my name is Mats and I’ve reached Legend this season playing Handlock (also called Warlock Giants) almost exclusively. Not only is Handlock a strong contender in the current meta, but Handlock decks have a fun and unique play style, and have a lot of room for personal preference in card choices.
In this guide, I want to explain the general strategy behind Handlock, and therefore the type of cards needed for a good Handlock deck. Instead of prescribing a single list, I’ll name the cards which are seen in modern Handlock decks, discussing their strengths, weaknesses, and general popularity.
Lastly, we’ll look at several Handlock lists used in the recent Dreamhack Summer tournament, and try to see how a Handlock deck could look like, and how it’s construction might affect play style and match ups. I hope to provide a good understanding of how to think about the cards you might choose to run in your own Handlock deck, and which decks might be a good starting point.
This is Part I of this Extensive Series. Part II will be Match Analysis.
General Strategy of Handlock
Handlock is a deck that aims to exploit warlock greatest strength: Their hero power! Lifetap lets you draw a card at the expense of 2 mana and 2 health, and is considered by many to be the strongest hero power in the game. The reason for this is that the ability to draw is highly valuable, and almost every deck in hearthstone includes some draw card or mechanic. As an aggro or tempo player, you’re looking to draw into further damage dealing minions or spells to kill your opponent. As a control player, you want to draw into specific answers for particular board states, and gain card advantage.
While Zoo decks exploit the hero power as a way to fuel constant aggression, Handlock takes the more controlling approach and uses the hero power to draw cards as often as it can. There is a second strength to Lifetap, namely its synergy with Mountain Giantand Twilight Drake, which when combined with a large hand size represent the scariest 4 drop minions in the game. Another crucial card is Molten Giant, which can be played for extremely low mana cost later in the game. This exploits the health cost of Lifetap, as you are bound to be losing life over the course of the game, even if your opponent doesn’t damage you. So if we build a control deck around Lifetap, we know that we have a readily available source of card draw, as well as powerful threats we can deploy due to our lower life and our large hand size.
So now we know the focus of the deck is to Lifetap often, and exploit it with powerful giant plays. But what other cards should we put in the deck? Looking at the above plan, we can think of potential weakness, and then work out what sort of answers we need. The obvious one is that not only are we being passive until turn 4, but we are also burning our own life total in the process! So we need to find a way to protect ourselves from large boards and attacks on our life total. So we need removal cards, board clears, taunts and especially taunt givers for our giants, and some healing effects (these are especially important against burn decks like hunter which have ways to hit your life total without killing your taunts).
Another issue might arise if our opponent has enough removal to handle our giant threats, leaving us unable to push for the win. To handle these sort of match ups, we might consider adding a few endgame minions or a burst combo to finish the opponent off. We should note that we have a greater freedom to add in situational cards due to our abundance in card draw. However, we also want our cards to be powerful for their mana cost, so that we can make up for the fact that we dumped our early turns into tapping. Having only dead cards in our hand is also something we’d like to avoid, so we’d like our cards to be aggressively priced if possible, or have multiple uses.
Now that we know what type of cards we are looking for, lets examine actual cards used in modern handlock lists and discuss their merits. This is of course my opinion, so if there are cards you feel I haven’t put on the list or misevaluated, I encourage you to try them out!
Mountain Giant, Molten Giantand Twilight Drakerepresent our core threats, and are central to our strategy. Two of each are run in all Handlock lists I know of. Of these, the drake is the only one you could consider cutting, given that it is extremely vulnerable to silence effects like Earth Shock. If there is a lot of Shaman going around, you might consider running only one of the drakes, but this generally weakens your other match ups too much. Having two strong four drops is the best way to win against miracle rouge and druid, so the second drake is mandatory in the current meta.
The Taunt Givers
Taunt givers have excellent synergy with your giants and Ancient Watcher, as they will create 8+ health taunts to protect your life total. The only taunt givers available to warlock are Sunfury Protectorand Defender of Argus. The Sunfuries are a must, since their low cost allows them to be squeezed into your generally mana intensive turns.
Defender of Argus is similarly excellent, and he also gives your minions +1/+1 as a bonus. However, the defender’s relatively high mana costs sometimes makes him hard to get into play, so you might consider running only 1. If the above taunting options aren’t enough, It can be worth running independent taunting minions to provide additional protection.
Single Target Removal Spells
Now that we have set up our core threats and taunt givers, we need to find cards that help us deal with our opponent's board and threats. For single target removal, warlock is fortunate enough to have two powerful cards.
The first is Soulfire, which is not only a 4 damage removal for no mana, but also doubles as an excellent finisher. While Soulfire is an amazing tempo play, it has the downside of a random discard. You need to learn to manage this by considering how likely you are to throw away something valuable, and whether you will still be able to play your mountain giant or drakes with the reduced hand size. Often it ends up being best to Soulfire your opponents threat immediately, rather than keeping your cards and fighting a stronger board than you needed to. Random discard aside, Soulfire fits the bill of reliable, versatile removal and is one of the best cards warlock has to their disposal, so I can only recommend running two of them.
The second key removal card is Mortal Coil, which is surprisingly often needed to either finish off a larger minion or ping off an annoying 1 health Leper Gnome, Young Priestessor . Not only that, but Mortal Coil replaces itself on kill, meaning that we keep our turn 4 play on track and can cycle towards the cards we need. Given that the coil fits the requirement of shoring up our early game, it is run twice in Handlock.
The next removal card, Shadow Bolt, is far more controversial. Its mana cost somewhat restricts its usage as a removal spell, and it is considered unnecessary by many players, given the strength of Soulfire and the warlock’s board clears. That being said, it can be very nice to remove a threat like unbound elemental on turn three without pitching a card, and Shadowbolt is generally usable throughout the game. Running zero to one of this card is should be acceptable, since you generally want to make room for higher impact cards.
Siphon Soulis a nice hard removal card, and even has the benefit of gaining you 3 extra health. While the card is certainly good in Handlock, its price is restricting, so it’s reasonable to run only 1 copy. The card is better in control match ups, where you are more likely to have the time required to play both copies, and need to contend with larger threats.
Warlock has two powerful and reasonably priced board clear spells (Twisting Netherisn’t one of them!). Hellfirenukes you, your opponent and the board for 3 damage. It’s great against board control aggro styles like zoo, and can act as a kill spell if your opponent is low on health. The damage can also make your molten giants cheaper. However, Hellfire does deal damage to your own minions, and can get you killed. Shadowflamedoesn’t hurt your own minions, except for the one who gets sacrificed, and has higher potential damage than hellfire. However, it is a little more situational than hellfire, in that you need a high damage minion in play already, or need some extra mana to slam one down. If you plan to run more than one Shadowflame, you definitely should consider adding cards like ancient watcher and power overwhelming to combo with it. It’s greater damage potential makes it stronger in control match ups.
Modern hand lock decks general run three out of four board clears, with four being run only to deal with shaman. Two Shadowflame and one Hellfire is the modern preference of players running the Leeroy Jenkinsburst combo, as it has strong synergy with Power Overwhelmingand Leeroy if need be. However, you can certainly make an argument for two Hellfire and one Shadowflame, and it will come down to personal preference more often than not.
The Burst Combo
Running one of each of Leeroy Jenkins, Power Overwhelmingand Faceless Manipulatorgives quite a few extra burst options, most notably Leeroy + Power Overwhelming + Faceless for 20 damage at 10 mana. This combo is so strong that it is almost universally run, and can be a great help in closing out games. However, Leeroy and Power Overwhelming often end up as dead cards in your hand, so it is possible to cut them for more consistent options. The Combo is strongest in the Handlock mirror, which often comes down to who can burst the opponent down faster.
The Faceless Manipulator is a powerful card on its own, and running two is very reasonable. Typically you’ll want to be copying your own giants (even better if they’re taunted) or using your opponents legendaries against them. Running two gives you the option to copy a strong threat without sacrificing your combo, but may be worse if your opponents are consistently playing around them. They’re also not very helpful on an empty board.
There are several late game legendaries that fit our strategy, but the modern tendency is to rely on earlier cards to swing the game. Still, having one of Alexstrasza, Lord Jaraxxusor even Ragnaros the Firelordcan be effective.
Alextrasza’s main use is to pull your health up to 15, which can save your life against opponents who have overcommitted to set you up for a kill on the next turn. However, a lot of damage in the current meta game comes in heavy bursts, so this usage is somewhat limited (at least 15 is greater than 14 for those druids!). If you have taunts set up, then Alextrasza will probably seal the deal. She also can pull the opponents health down for a surprise kill with two giants in play, or help bring down high durability classes like priest and warrior. Alextrasza is also an 8/8, so she represents a large threat in her own right. Unfortunately, her large mana cost is her greatest weakness, but she is at least worth considering.
While Alextrasza isn’t played too much anymore, Lord Jaraxxus has certainly fallen from grace. His life gain effect can be relevant, but, unlike Alexstrasza, he cannot be used offensively, and he can only put a giant on the board the turn after he is played. To add insult to injury, playing Jaraxxus makes Molten Giants less playable, and his weapon really does belong in a museum! That being said, Jaraxxus can gain absurd value in a match up where you are not afraid of being bursted apart and have the time to develop him, but these are not common in the current meta game.
Lifecoach recently used Ragnaros in his Hand-lock on stream, and it does seem to have merit to me. Ragnaros presents a way to pressure your opponent’s life total on an empty board, and doubles as an emergency 50/50 removal for large threats. Ragnaros is certainly very proactive and can be combined with a Faceless Manipulator if he survives the turn. Unfortunately, he has just as much synergy with your opponent’s Faceless Manipulator and is the natural prey of the Big Game Hunter, although these should have been baited by your giants. He does suffer from his high mana cost, but at least you can play a sunfury with him on turn ten.
Utility and tech cards
There are some minion cards included in Hand-lock that serve a more multi-purpose role, or are tech cards against specific match ups. Most notable among these are Ancient Watcher, Ironbeak Owland Earthen Ring Farseer, but other cards are certainly possible.
Two Ancient Watchers are included in almost all lists, since they work very well with Shadowflames, taunt givers and Ironbeak Owls. The Watcher Owl opening can be very strong (almost an innervated Yeti), even though it doesn’t fit the usual game plan. However, Ancient Watchers do lose power if you are running fewer of the cards that work well them.
Ironbeak Owl can silence the aforementioned Ancient Watcher to allow it to attack, can unfreeze giants, and can deal with some pesky minions such as twilight drake or Cairne Bloodhoof. Running at least one Owl is advisable due to it’s versatility.
Earthen Ring Farseer represents much needed life gain, and even his 3/3 body can be useful early. He can also heal up your important minions after trades. Two of these little guys are mandatory.
Bloodmage Thalnosis a utility card that can let your Soulfires and Shadowbolts take out yeti’s on their own and lets your Moral Coils eat up 3/2 minions, among other uses. He also cycles himself, and so represents an alternative to the second Owl.
The Big Game Hunteris a card that is excellent in the Hand-lock mirror, decent against control decks but underwhelming otherwise. He is very much a meta game card, and is great in the right match ups.
If you really hate weapons, you can run the Acidic Swamp Ooze. It’s obviously pretty bad otherwise, but can be swingy against Doomhammer, Gorehowland even Rogue or Hunter weapons.
The last tech card I will mention is Sylvanas Windrunner. She can excel against control styles, and has synergy with Power Overwhelming and Shadowflame. However, her mana price is somewhat high, so she isn’t common.
Hand-lock sometimes struggles with making proactive plays, so it can be worth it to add in additional minions to fill out the curve. Most notable is the Sen'jin Shieldmasta, which is receiving recent attention as an additional taunt minion against miracle rouges and other burst decks, while being a decent choice against aggro as well. Chillwind Yetican also be used as an additional four drop, and you might prefer its extra damage over the taunt of the Sen’jin Shieldmasta. Team Dogehouse’s Gnimsh and Ekop have experimented with Sunwalkeras an extra taunt, though it is rather expensive.
Case studies from Dreamhack Summer
Now that we’ve discussed the cards typically used in Hand-lock decks, we’ll at some example deck lists used by pros in the recent Dreamhack Summer tournament.
First is Realz’s (Ro8) deck list, which runs two of each of the strong removal, utility, taunt giving and giant cards mentioned above. Realz runs a single of each of the combo pieces, not wanting to be stuck with an irrelevant Faceless Manipulator, and chooses two Shadowflames and one Hellfire for better use of the combo pieces. The single Shadowbolt is a decnt all round card that will help the deck’s general ability to deal with medium threats, and the second Siphon Soul indicates that Realz is perhaps slightly more prepared for control match ups.
The Alexstrasza is a little old school, though perhaps Realz simply wants to be prepared for more diverse match ups, or punish his opponent for overcommitting to set up a kill. Overall this list seems to be a consistent, relatively standard version of burst Hand-lock, which is not especially teched towards a set of match ups. If you are new to Hand-lock, you might want to start with a lists similar to this, and then change a couple of cards to fit your play style.
Next is ThijsNL’s (Ro8) deck list, which is similar to Realz’s but features a couple of key differences. Thijs prefers a single Ironbeak Owl and runs a Big Game Hunter, which will likely shore up the control match ups along with the double siphon soul. The double Faceless Manipulator further strengthens the play against control decks, and increases the odds of having a strong turn four and five play against miracle rouge. Thijs also runs one Defender of Argus and two Sen’jin Shieldmastas, so as to have more consistent taunt options against druids running double force combo and miracle rouges. My guess is that Thijs re-built his Hand-lock in such a way in order to improve his chances against the very burst heavy decks used in the tournament.
Lastly, I would like to mention Ek0p’s unique (Ro8) deck list, which gives up the combo for a set of minions including two Sen’jin Shieldmastas, two Sunwalkers and a single Azure Drake! Ekop also runs two Hellfires and a single Shadowflame, and has dropped an Ancient Watcher to be consistent with the lack of Owls, along with other interesting choices. My guess is that Ek0p wants to defend himself against burst combos and aggro decks more than the average Hand-lock, while providing himself with additional proactive plays. I’m exited to try this kind of minion Hand-lock out, though I suspect the lack of the combo will make the mirror match up more difficult. Still this list goes to show that innovation in Hand-lock decks is very much possible, and we probably have a lot to look forward to with an increased card pool in Naxxramas.
I hope the article has provided you with a good understanding of how to build Hand-lock decks, and how changing cards might affect the deck’s play style and strengths. If you’ve never really played Hand-lock before, I would suggest trying it on unranked first, as it requires many technical and sometimes obscure plays to pilot correctly. I suggest you try to find VODs of a streamer playing and explaining the deck (perhaps Reynad or Lifecoach) or tournament games featuring it commentated by strong players (recently Thijs has used it in a couple of ihearthu King of the Hills).
I wish you all the best for trying the deck out, in my opinion it allows for a very diverse set of games that makes the deck very fun and challenging to play. You’d be surprised how often some odd combination of Owl, Hellfire and Leeroy gives you lethal!
Be sure to stay tuned for Part II of this extensive series where we go into detailed of matchups and mulligans against popular archtypes!