Post-Naxxramas Modern Handlock
Hello everyone this is Vincent Sarius, and today I want to talk a bit about Handlock in the context of the modern metagame. With the release of Naxxramas, we have seen a significant shift in the power dynamics between classes. In general, the game has become far more focused on early advantages and board positions, with decks that can exploit this dynamic to its fullest surging ahead.
Handlock is by no means such a deck and it has suffered for it. While the deck was not THE best during the Miracle era, it was a fairly solid tier 1 deck with its share of good and bad match-ups. Naxxramas has not done much to really increase the power of the deck, but it has offered some significantly diverse options to Handlocks free slots.
The greater focus on early-game openers however has limited the options you have as a Handlock. A Tap-Tap opening can be very severely punished by a variety of decks. In particular, AoE resistant Zoo hands as well as of course, Mad Hunter. The base build of the deck takes into account that these are probably the two most difficult match-ups and as such seeks to mitigate their odds without compromising its core gameplan. The other premier deck, Control Warrior can be fine-tuned into an extremely favorable match-up but I believe even without tech'ing for it, Control Warrior is still overall easy assuming equal luck.
This is largely because of how passive most Warrior builds are now. The usual way you would lose prior to Naxxramas was either to very aggressive opens, or to very removal heavy hands from the Warrior vs. very slow hands from the Handlock. As with all of my guides, the deck was concocted and tested on the Legend ladder around ranks 200-1000.
Two Soulfires are instant includes in every Warlock deck. While discarding a crucial card can severely limit your options, the ability to deal with almost any 3-drop and below minion for no mana is far too huge to pass up. A general tip with using Soulfire is to consider the quality of your hand prior to tossing it out, if your hand is very good and you have no other play/excess mana, I would tap first and then Soulfire. In cases where you have a lot of dead cards, I would Soulfire first.
While the combo centric meta has come and gone, the Leeroy package is still very good in Handlock. Being able to close out games swiftly is very important for a deck that often straddles the line between life and death. While the combo is the slowest, requiring ten total mana, the cards on their own are not entirely dead draws. There are games where Leeroy is a Fireball, Power Overwhelming+Shadowflameis used to clear, and Faceless is used to steal an important minion or copy your own Giant.
I've seen some lists opt to actually cut Watcher for Nerubian Egg. Reasoning that they serve somewhat similar goals. Personally, I value the 6-mana Flamestrikethat Ancient Watcher+Shadowflame enables very highly, especially since the mana cost can be broken up between different turns. O
ne of the cards I've cut from pre-Naxx lists is the x2 Ironbeak Owl, this makes Watcher an entirely defensive card. Losing access to the coin-Watcher-t2 Owl for a fast Chillwind Yetihurts in some match-ups, but the card is still very useful as a relatively large wall behind which to position your Drakes and Giants (as well as your face).
Pretty standard 2-drop for decks running a hefty lategame and low-ish lifegain. The stats are respectable, and the effect is very important when you are tapping heavily.
This is probably the most arguable card in the list and the one that I've found improves your odds against aggressive decks the most. 3 mana, gain 8 health and bait removal is pretty huge. The resilience to silence (via having a self-harm Deathrattle) means usually your opponent will either waste tempo getting thru it the hard way, or they will use hard removal.
Having hard removal baited out is something that Handlock hasn't really had before, generally you would be forced to play your Giant/Drake into unknown hands. As for Deathlords drawback, it can be pretty severe and I'm often very reluctant playing it vs. Control decks, but my logic is that it is unlikely my opponent gets something bigger than an 8/8 Giant.
Looking at say a Hunter list, the absolute worst case scenario is a Savannah Highmane, but with only 2 Highmanes in the deck and a bounty of low-impact creatures, the probability is in your favor. It can even be somewhat of a boon if it hits a Houndmaster, removing 4 stats from its value. Nonetheless, this is still one the flexible card slots.
Earthen Ring Farseer
Another standard card. It can be used to deal with burst ranges, it can prolong your minions life, and it can be used as just a regular 3-drop to gain back some of your tapped health while putting something on the board.
As Deathlord, this card is better in your opening draws when you are on the draw since you can still curve into a Mountain Giant after playing something on 3. Don't be scared to use the healing on your minions instead of your face, unless you are in range of being bursted out, it's better to have an 8/8 Giant than an 8/5 Giant and 3 more health.
Defender of Argus
I've cut this card to a one-of. Even in old lists near the end of the pre-Naxx times, I had cut one Argus for a Sen'jin Shieldmastasince Argus is a bit more situational.
While Sunfury is relatively easy to slide in, Argus costing 4 mana means he's often played very late in the game since the card on its own is low impact. It's pretty rare that you would want two of them in your hand at any point.
Although AoE has become worse post-Naxx, Hellfire is still integral in some match-ups. Being able to sweep a board without having a pre-placed Watcher is important to say the least, especially with the sort of openings some aggro decks can pull-off. I still opt to only run one copy since I find it a bit hard to find another situation in the game after the first Hellfire where a second Hellfire is better than a Shadowflame.
As a small side tip, if you are on 4 mana vs. a flooded board and you have the choice between Hellfiring or playing a Giant/Drake, you should almost always play the Hellfire. I feel this is a common enough mistake that it is worth pointing out.
This is what enables Handlock to do 20 damage of an empty board. It's a huge enough combo that we spend 3 card slots on it. Generally you don't want to see Leeroy in the top 15 cards of your deck since it's very difficult to ascertain whether you want to use him as removal or if you need to hold on to him for the burst combo.
I think there is some argument for cutting Leeroy-Power-Faceless in favor of more stand-alone cards, but with how much of your deck you get to see as a Handlock, dead draws are less problematic than they are in most other decks.
I would argue that Shadowflame is the best sweeper in the game. While you are forced to 2-for-X yourself when using it, having access to anywhere from 4 to 8 damage sweepers for just 4 mana is absolutely huge. As with Hellfire, AoE has become worse, but Shadowflame still remains important. In particular vs. Control or Midrange decks where Hellfire won't do as much damage to their board as it would vs. an Aggro deck.
One of the big dudes that form the backbone of the decks strategy. It's good in basically every match-up except Shaman, in some like Control Warrior or Hunter it's actually better than the Mountain Giant. For different reason, of course.
Generally you want to play this as a 4/9 or more, but in aggressive match-ups it's better to have a turn 3 play and a 4/7 Drake than it is to just have a 4/9 Drake. Against Control Warrior, the card is more resistant to Shield
Slam since it has higher health than the Giant.
This card used to be run as an x2, but I feel nowadays with the slower temp of some games there are cards that are less situational. Faceless is still a strong card and in some situations, the best card, but it's become relegated to mostly serving as the third combo piece for the burst finisher.
Loatheb is pretty amazing. While Handlock has never particularly struggled with the Miracle Rogue match-up where Loatheb shines, he does enable some very quick finishes to games. When curved into off of a Giant in particular.
If you play a Mountain Giant on turn 4 and your opponent does not have the answer in his hand or off his next draw step, Loatheb means the game is essentially over. Since no decks that I know of run BGH in the current meta, Loatheb guarantees another 2 swings from the Giant as well as his own, for a total of 21 damage.
Even if your opponent deals with your board after his battlecry, you are so far ahead on life by that point that the game is usually over in short order. Loatheb is an excellent card when you are ahead on board, with Handlock you can become ahead on board with a single card.
I'm not sold on this card. The main reason I have it included is it produces this rapid stabilization to the board. If your opponent is ahead on board by turn 3 and then deals with your 4-drop, Sludge Belcher helps to slow down his tempo enough for you to get back into the game.
While it's not powerful on its own, the turn it buys does enable plays like Watcher-Shadowflame which are often enough to swing the tide.
While not the most efficient removal in the game, I feel Siphon Soul is good enough that it warranst 2-slots in the deck. Since your minions can do so much damage to your opponent, it's very nice to not have to waste their health and damage output on your opponents own higher-end minions. Removal is always good.
Since so many decks have included high-end legendaries as their finishers in Naxx, I feel Sylvanas is in a very good position. Her stats are respectable and her Deathrattle can either produce very important swing turns, or force your opponent into suboptimal plays.
While I feel Cairne Bloodhoofis another respectable alternative, he has less of an impact on the board. Cairne is a better 'slow' play, but Handlock should not be played slow. You want to maximize your accelerated minions, and plays like Sylvanas into Shadowflame allow that.
Ragnaros the Firelord
Different Legendaries have occupied this slot in the past. First it was Lord Jaraxxus, than it was Alexstrasza. However, I feel nowadays both are inferior to Ragnaros. The main reason for this is the greater board emphasis.
Neither Jaraxxus nor Alexstrasza really interact with the board the turn they are played. Ragnaros on the other hand is essentially another Giant your opponent has to deal with, but one that has a removal spell bundled in. He's mostly included for the slower match-ups where it is possible your earlier threats were dealt with and you need the added longevity to draw into the burst combo.
Mountain Giant& Molten Giant
These four are the basis of the deck. Accelerated huge minions that if not dealt with end a game in 2-3 turns. Molten is your preferred anti-Aggro minion, Mountain is better in slower match-ups. They're the reason you play Handlock.
I've decided to add in 10 cards you can opt to sub in to tailor the deck more in favor of a specific match-up and my reasoning behind doing so.
x2 Nerubian Egg
I like this card against Control Warrior as I mentioned earlier. The reason is against Control Warrior, you can't rely on your turn 4 play sticking. It's very likely that the Warrior will have either Shield Slamor Execute. While there's nothing you can really do against Execute, you can mitigate the effect of Shield Slam.
The Egg can be popped with a Power Overwhelming, Argus buff, or Hellfire with its goal being to keep the Warrior's armor total low. You want to make the Shield Slams dead before your Giants come down to the board. You may also opt to taunt it up and drop the Twilight Drake/Giant behind it, forcing your opponent to pop it for you.
x2 Ironbeak Owl
Again, a card vs. Control Warrior or decks like Crusher Shaman/Deathrattle Shaman. This enables the traditional anti-Warrior opening in conjunction with Ancient Watcher.
While I personally prefer the Egg, this card does have some added utility in being able to shut down Cairne and Sylvanas, or even an Acolyte of Pain. Against the other two, it's very nice to have at least one source of silence since breaking through an Ancestral Spiritbuffed Earth Elementalis just not going to happen.
x1 Big Game Hunter
Pretty much exclusively for the mirror. While it's useful vs. other Control decks, I feel you should focus more on winning the game before all of their threats come down and less on answering their threats. In a Control vs. Handlock match-up, the Control deck has inevitability.
x1 Bloodmage Thalnos
A lot of minions now have 4 health. Thalnos makes your Hellfire more live and also enables some amount of interaction in conjunction with Mortal Coils. Interaction which importantly does not use cards, so you can rely on still having a turn 4 Giant while sniping a 2-drop with a 2 damage Mortal Coil.
x2 Mortal Coil
The reasoning behind cutting this card from the maindeck is it's not very useful. A lot of minions now have either 2 health or more. Usually the only 1 health minion you see is Webspinner, and using up a card slot just to deal with a Webspinner is a bit silly.
Boarding in Thalnos+Coils instead of the lategame cards you have does make a difference though. Since some decks have opted into more aggressive builds as of late with Leper Gnomes fueling Undertaker, this may be worth considering back in the maindeck.
x1 Harrison Jones
I like to board this in against slower Hunter variants as well as Warrior, Paladin, and even Rogue. Though against Rogue this is slightly more questionable as many of them have dropped the Assassin's Bladein favor of even slower cards.
It doesn't particularly shine against anyone except Hunter and Paladin if the game happens to draw into Ashbringer being relevant. Against Warrior it doesn't produce enough of a swing in my opinion, destroying a Death's Biteis simply not that huge. Destroying an Eaglehorn Bowhowever is very relevant.
x1 Shadow Bolt
I've been experimenting with running Shadowbolt over Mortal Coil or Bloodmage Thalnos, and it seems pretty promising. The removal is relevant for most of the game and the early interaction it offers is pretty important when dealing with aggressive match-ups.
I'd say it's up to you whether to run the Bloodmage+Coils or Shadowbolt, I wouldn't run all four as that dedicates a bit too many card slots.
Rating: Good or Very Bad
There are two camps of Zoo decks now and while they aren't different enough to be considered separate decks, they are very different in their builds. Against the Zoo decks that opt to run aggressive 1-drops like Undertaker and Leper Gnome, you are in for a rough ride.
These decks can output some insane amount of damage very quickly and if you end up on an awkward life-total where you are low enough to be killed the next turn but not low enough to set up a wall with Molten Giants, you will die. The Zoo decks that do not however run Undertaker, are slower than they used to be.
As with the Hunter variants below, slower decks tend to have worse odds against pseudo-Ramp decks like our own. You still need Moltens and Sweepers, but it's unlikely that you will simply die by turn 4. Deathlord is very solid in this match-up since with Zoos abundance of 1-drops, he tends to hit blanks after having 3 minions thrown at him.
I feel that even without boarding in cards, this match-up is pretty favorable. Warrior generally lacks the aggressive openings it used to be able to pull off so the only way you will lose is the Warrior having very removal heavy hands. Their really aren't a lot of intricate interactions going on without boarding in cards.
You want to play a Twilight Drake on turn 4 to check for removal, and then follow-up with a tap-Mountain Giant. Once a Giant has stuck to the board, Loatheb them out. Since Control Warrior is such a slow deck, your burst finish is at its most relevant.
One thing to note is that Deathlord is essentially a dead card in this match-up, it can backfire catastrophically, which is why in a tournament setting, I advocate boarding it out if the format allows sideboarding.
Rating: Very Bad
This is a pretty similar match-up to the old Face Hunter but with arguably slower hands. Excluding Undertakershenanigans, the main thing to worry about is the Trap spam and Hunter's Mark.
If it can at all be avoided, you want to hide your Giants behind either a Sludge Belcher or a taunted Ancient Watcher to exclude blow outs with Hunter's Mark. It's a rough match-up and not one that you are likely to win.
Deathlord shines here as does Molten Giant, while Mountain Giant should be mulliganed off for one of the more relevant, faster cards. It's very rare that you can spend two turns tapping and then developing your board without outright dying.
These decks are less popular now since they lose to the Mad Hunter but I still occasionally run into them. The deck is very similar to Sunshine, and Sunshine wasn't entirely favored against Handlock back before the UTH nerf. The deck is slower than its Aggro cousin and this slower pace leads to such a large swing in your win-rates.
While Midrange Hunter has a lot of internal synergy and is chock-full of value, it can't really keep up with Giant spam. The main things to keep in mind are the turn 4 Houndmasterand turn 6 Savannah Highmane. Siphon Soulcomes online just in time for Highmane, and the Houndmaster can be neutered by removing the Haunted Creeper/Webspinner on the board. Though, even if the Houndmaster does find a target, it's not a very big deal.
Twilight Drakeis an absolute beating for the Priest. Since very few lists run Silence or Ironbeak Owl and the Drake is immune to the Priest removal options, they have to go through it the hard way. Even if the Priest is ahead on board, they often have to either sacrifice their board position or go for the throat and walk into Shadowflames.
Soulfire is also very good in this match-up as it can prevent any sort of snowball from really getting started by sniping off the Dark Cultistthe turn it's played. While this does weaken your Drake, it's worth losing the 2 health most of the time.
A lot of these lists also opt to run Deathlord, which is at its worst against Handlock in my opinion. In addition, the match-up is slow enough that your burst combo is highly relevant.
Probably the reason most people are acquainted with Handlock is it's good performance vs. Miracle during that decks extended reign over the ladder.
Since modern Miracle decks are slower than they used to be, the match-up is even better. Dealing with a Giant is very difficult for a Rogue since their main form of removal is Sap, a card which does not do a whole lot vs. Mountain Giants. The stick a final nail in the coffin, you can shut down their cycle turns with Loatheb. Usually the match is over by turn 7.
Rating:Better than it used to be
This deck was one of the more frustrating to face in the past, but it's not much of a threat nowadays. The main reason is the deck cutting Big Game Hunter, this was the card that enabled the Druid to stay on par with, and beat the Handlock. Having a turn 4 Giant sniped by BGH ended the game. Since this isn't on the field anymore, you can safely drop a turn 4 Giant, hide it behind an Ancient Watcher or Sludge Belcher, and make sweet passionate love to your opponents lifepoints.
Even against Wild Growthstarts, you are generally favored if you can draw 2 major threats. While the first Giant may fall to an early 4-drop+Swipe, the second is always clear so long as you don't walk into The Black Knightby taunting it up.
I love this match-up, in fact it might just about be my favorite. While you have a far stronger midgame and the Control Paladins healing isn't exceptionally relevant, the possibility of being blown out by an Equalityintroduces this intricate mind-game of playing enough to bait out the Equality without being utterly ruined by it.
Ideally you have a Giant stick to the board for a turn and then follow-up with Loatheb, locking your opponent into a serious beatdown and follow-up with a partial burst (Leeroy+Power Overwhelming or even just Power Overwhelming+Hellfire). The burst combo is very relevant given the plethora of removal and pseudo-removal the Paladin has.
However, if they drop Tirion Fordringbefore you can assemble the combo, I advocate Facelessing Tirion. The card is very hard to deal with for both sides.
I'm sure there are some match-ups I'm missing, but these have been the ones I've encountered the most. If you'd like me to cover another one, feel free to leave a comment and I will update this section.
General Mulligan Strategies
The mulligan can be broken down into two distinct camps. Match-ups where Mountain Giant is good, and match-ups where Mountain Giant is bad. In the situations where Mountain Giant is good, everything except other 4-drops should be shipped back. Having your turn 4 threat is integral to the decks functioning. In the match-ups where it's bad, you want to toss back everything that isn't Hellfire, Molten Giant, or Deathlord.
If you have Mortal Coiland Bloodmage Thalnosboarded in, those are obviously also fine to keep.
You can be a bit greedy when on the draw and keep Twilight Drake, since when coined out on turn 3 with a follow-up in the form of Ancient Watcher-Sunfury or Hellfire, it will often slow your opponent down.
Tournament vs. Ladder
Handlock is a deck that I feel confident in saying performs better in a tournament setting. Whether that setting is a Best of 5 with 3 decks, or a Single Deck-Sideboard format. Since the deck has a lot of flexible slots that neither mess with its curve nor impact it's core gameplan, it can be tuned pretty tight for specific match-ups.
On Ladder, the presence of Hunter is what keeps the deck from being tier 1, though I feel the Deathlorddoes do a lot to combat this problematic match-up. If you ever encounter a high density of Control match-ups though, it's my preferred deck of choice.
Times are tough for Handlock. The presence of fast Hunter decks has always lead to the deck declining in play and popularity. Coupled with it receiving overall very little (in comparison) from Naxxramas, and it's not seeing the best of days. However, I find Handlock one of the more interesting decks to play.
The amount of options you can have open to you in the late game, with all of them looking viable but only one being optimal is something I greatly enjoy. And besides, who doesn't love drawing a ton of cards and playing huge 8/8s.
Thank you for reading, I appreciate any feedback you may have. Please leave them in the comments section below! You may also reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @VSarius