The balance changes of last week have created a fresh and exciting new metagame, and one deck stood to gain the most from having its worst matchup removed from the ladder. This has played out in practice, and I, for one, welcome our new Handlock overlords.
The Giant Effect
Handlock’s presence has caused a profound effect on the metagame. Most decks are running Big Game Hunter and The Black Knight, and decks designed to win the Handlock matchup run rampant as well. In addition, the oppressive strength of Hunter is gone, removing the need for so many anti-Hunter decks.
I’m going to take a look at the decks that are popular today, and examine how each fares against public enemy #1 and whether each has benefitted or suffered as result of the nerfing of Hunter and unlocking of Handlock. For a closer look at matchups, I recommend my last Handlock article. It’s was written before the last three wings of Naxxramas, but not much has changed in the matchups. The main additions from Naxx are sticky early-game minions, which Handlock doesn’t really care about. All the small-ball deathrattle minions in the world aren’t going to get through a taunted Molten Giant!
Deathrattle Priest does not do very well against Handlock. Even with two copies of Shadow Word: Death, there just isn’t enough removal to fight through Handlock’s enormous taunt walls, and the deck has no way to effectively deal with Twilight Drake.
This more aggressive Priest variant has suffered the most from the nerfs (well, except for Hunter itself [good riddance]). This deck was designed to have a favorable matchup against Hunter, and with the metagame slowing down, it has a lot of low-impact late draws like Undertaker and Zombie Chow that hurt it. The fact that it often cuts a Shadow Word: Death and has a poor matchup against Handlock regardless doesn’t help either. So Deathrattle Priest is a deck that beats aggro and loses to slow midrange and control without an excellent draw. It has been almost completely replaced by…
The defensive Priest deck, on the other hand, has gained a lot from the nerfs. Control Priest dominates in the late game, and I’ve even faced several players with DOUBLE Mind Control in the past week. Running two of the 10 mana momentum –swinging spell makes you massively favored against other control deck like Warrior and Paladin. I would only use 1 Mind Control personally, but if you’re really greedy and play 2 it sometimes pays off.
The only thing it really loses to is Handlock (for the same reasons Deathrattle Priest loses to Handlock), making Priest the counter to the counter. Priest also sports a great matchup against Shaman, which is gaining momentum as a deck with a favorable Handlock matchup and a decent chance against anything.
Shaman does well against Handlock if it gets the removal to line up against Handlock’s threats and can snowball to put a game out of reach against anyone. Finishing with burst is also paramount, as there isn’t enough removal to kill free Molten Giants in addition to all of the other Handlock threats.
Bloodlust is gaining more traction as a way to end the game before the opponent can stabilize with big swingy cards like Brawl and Mind Control, and I’ve been liking it. I would not run the Sea Giant variant right now, as it suffers splash damage from all of the BGH’s running around. Overall, Shaman is an excellent choice on the ladder as a control and Handlock slayer that only feels bad against Priest.
Aggro Mage has arisen as a Handlock “counter,” but I can’t say I quite agree. If the Mage gets a strong Undertaker/Mana Wyrm start and draws both Fireballs yeah it’ll win, but if not it feels like a slow Zoo that doesn’t get to draw extra cards. Basically, it trades the consistency of Zoo for the reach of Fireball and Frostbolt, which improves the Handlock matchup slightly, but Zoo is abysmal against Handlock so it’s not a comparison you want to be making. As Handlock you can’t be afraid to Siphon Soul your own minions if your opponent doesn’t present a target and you’re lower than 14 life.
Aggro Mage does well against decks with weak early game and has a hard time against decks with lifegain like Paladin and Warrior. I personally don’t’ like it as the games seem largely out of your control, like a glorified Zoo deck.
THIS is a Mage deck I can get behind. It has a strong tempo gameplan with reach and a good plan through the mid- and late-game with Sylvanas Windrunner, Cairne Bloodhoof, and Duplicate. This is a tough matchup for Handlock, and sometimes there isn’t the luxury of playing around Mirror Entity and Handlock just loses, similar to against Aggro Mage.
Secret Mage also sports a good control matchup, as Duplicating Cairne or Sylvanas is very hard to beat, and there is just enough removal to clear the way for your smaller minions. My (admittedly limited) experience with the deck was not bad, but I don’t see the reason to play it over Shaman.
This deck theoretically beats Handlock, but no one plays it because you lose games because you used Consecration as a 4-for-1 to get ahead on board on turn 6 so you die 20 turns later in fatigue when you can’t kill the last card in their deck through a Sludge Belcher Slime token. It’s an exercise in masochism.
If you are incredibly patient and incredibly skilled, Control Paladin is awesome and doesn’t lose to a whole lot. Getting to that point, however, often feels like an exercise in futility. If you’re not playing it already, you should probably stay away.
The Warrior versus Handlock matchup has a lot of idiosyncrasies, but even if you play perfectly from the Warrior side you aren’t favored. There are simply too many large threats to answer them all, so the Warrior has to take an aggressive stance in the midgame with cards like Cairne and Loatheb. Armoring Up instead of playing Armorsmith or Acolyte of Pain on the first 3 turns is a smart play, as it allows you to have enough armor to Shield Slam the first Mountain Giant.
Warrior isn’t in a great place against the metagame as a whole anymore, either. Priest with Mind Control, Handlock, Shaman, and Secret Mage are all slightly favored against the control juggernaut. Warrior has always had a 45-55% matchup against everything, so it’s not too much different from normal, but the pendulum is swung just enough in the wrong direction that I wouldn’t play it right now.
Miracle was obviously weakened by the nerf to its main combo card, but the deck persists, either as a slower version with Malygos or a Shadowstep-less traditional build with double Cold Blood and double Conceal. Neither version can deal with the constant barrage of Eviscerate-proof minions and taunts. There are only 2 Saps and fewer opportunities than before for 15+ damage turns, so Miracle is even weaker to Handlock.
Miracle is also weaker against every other deck. It retains its favorable matchups against Druid and Shaman (ponderous midrange decks), but it’s weaker across the board.
Good old Druid. It basically never changes, and the current version is much the same as it was 2 months ago, with slight improvements in the 3 and 5 slot courtesy of Shade of Naxxramas and Spectral Knight. These upgrades don’t make a lick of difference against Handlock, which remains an awful matchup for Druid. The lack of hard removal for 8/8 taunts makes it hard to close the game, and Shadowflame can quash any attempt to go wide. If Handlock plays around the Force of Nature/Savage Roar combo by taunting or staying above 14 each turn it is very hard to steal games as Druid.
Druid is another deck that has game against everything, with no truly terrible matchups (besides Handlock) and no great matchups.
Hunter is not dead, but with the removal of its broken card-draw mechanic it has to put on a lot more pressure to close the game. Aggressive minions backed by burn and Steady Shot is a winning recipe against Handlock, and there’s not much taunted Giants can do against double Kill Command. As Hunter, save Hunters-Mark for large taunters and Tracking for the Kill Commands to try to kill Handlock the turn after they are able to drop Molten Giants.Ironbeak Owl
If players adjust too much to slower midrange and control decks, an aggressive deck like Hunter or Mage is primed to punish them.
So this brings us to the subject of today’s article, and my pick for the best deck on ladder (even with all of the hate arrayed against it). Handlock is so consistent, so powerful, and so resilient that if played correctly you can win any matchup.
My current version drops the Leeroy Jenkins/Power Overwhelming burst ability for more reactive options. Double Ironbeak Owl is awesome against the many deathrattle minions, and Sylvanas puts control in a bad position. The rise of Handlock is countered with Big Game Hunter and The Black Knight, and double Siphon Soul helps there, too. Faceless Manipulator is still great as another Mountain Giant turn 5 if they didn’t answer the first one or a second Molten Giant to taunt up late game. Because there are so many Black Knights running around, I would advise against taunting up Giants except against Zoo or when you have no other choice. Against midrange and control decks you should taunt your other minions to protect your Giants.
I don’t run Alexstrasza or Lord Jaraxxus because I don’t think they are necessary. Spending a whole turn to cast one means you are vulnerable being killed by your opponent’s board (even from 15 life), and if they don’t have a board tapping and playing another card will put you plenty far ahead. There are some games that only Jaraxxus can win, and I could see playing him for that reason, but in general I haven’t felt the need and would prefer cheaper threats like Sylvanas and Loatheb. If I was going to run an expensive finisher I would go for the more proactive Ragnaros the Firelord, as your opponent likely won’t have any more removal for an 8/8 by the time you deploy him.
Handlock is the most powerful deck we have right now, and as such is an excellent choice on the ladder. Shaman is also very well positioned against the popular decks, and you won’t be disappointed running it. Priest is a bit of a gamble, but if you’re playing more Handlock counters than Handlock you’ll be able to breeze through most of your games.
Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions in the comments, and all comments are appreciated. Thanks for reading!
Until next time,