Guide: Warlock, King of the Ladder
Who’s the king of the ladder right now? If you've played ranked constructed at all recently, it’s not hard to tell that Warlock is king right now. While Warlock doesn't necessarily have the best singular deck, the class allows you to play several varied and powerful archetypes. Whether you want to play ‘em or beat ‘em, learning these decks is critical to playing on the ladder due to their popularity. So this week we’re delving into the dark arts to learn the ins and outs of Warlock.
The two things that make a class unique are their class specific cards and their Hero Power. And boy does Warlock have one doozy of a Hero Power.
Life Tap is arguably the best Hero Power in the game. Drawing cards is one of the best things you can be doing in any card game. More cards means more options, and a higher chance of having a specific out to a particularly difficult board state. While Warlock has many powerful class specific cards, we believe Life Tap is the reason Warlock is currently king. The Hero Power is excellent in both aggressive and control strategies, allowing an aggressive player to restock their hand after a large burst and a control player to find the specific piece of removal they need to rid themselves of a pesky minion.
While 2 mana and 2 damage may seem like a lot to pay for one card, it’s actually a bargain. Drawing a card is something every deck very actively wants to do and is often hard to find without paying a premium. Often paying the 2 life to draw a card will allow you to find a card that lets you save 2 life later and progress the game state in your favor. Not all Hero Powers do something you’re always excited about.
Having on demand access to a universally powerful effect gives Warlock an edge and opens up deckbuilding possibilities. For example, while the Warrior’s Hero Power has excellent synergy with some Warrior cards, gaining two armor generally isn’t going to meaningfully progress the game state favorably for the Warrior. To state it differently, Armor Up is often something a Warrior does if they have nothing better to do while a Warlock often actively tries to use Life Tap during their turn if possible.
The crazy thing is that Life Tap is only going to get better. As the game matures, new cards are released, and decks become more efficient, Life Tap is going to be drawing cheaper and more powerful cards.
Before the nerfs to Blood Imp, Flame Imp, Shattered Sun Cleric, Argent Commander, Defender of Argus, and Dark Iron Dwarf(geez that’s a lot of nerfs), Warlock Aggro was indisputably one of the strongest decks in the game. While all those nerfs weren’t necessarily directed specifically at Warlock, it’s clear that they were intended at least in part to tone down the power level of Warlock Aggro. It worked for a month or two. Now we’re having déjà vu and Warlock Aggro has once again reared its ugly head.
The deck went viral after Reynad, a popular streamer, played it to reasonable success. The deck picked up more steam when [DKMR]Alchemixt used another variant to make Legend rank in under 10 hours at the end of Test Season 3. So what changed all of a sudden? Even if many of the nerfed cards are still powerful, you’d think six nerfs would keep a deck down. The loss of Blood Imp in particular was viewed as a death knell for the original deck.
We believe the key to the deck’s recent resurgence was the adoption of Dire Wolf Alpha. This pup had only seen fringe play in the past due to his unimpressive stats, but is now considered a staple of the archetype. He rivals Knife Jugglerfor damage output in the 2 slot, often deploying 2 “Charge” damage and 2 regular attack power for a measly 2 mana. It’s interesting to see the quick rise in popularity of Dire Wolf Alpha. It just goes to show you that even this far into the life of Hearthstone’s initial card pool, there’s still room for innovation.
Another interesting development in Reynad’s build in particular is the inclusion of Shieldbearer. In many ways, Shieldbearer operates similar to Blood Imp in the pre-nerf deck. While Shieldbearer does not protect your minions from board clears, he does give you a tempo advantage. He allows you to select more favorable trades or deal additional damage while he protects your other minions.
When playing any variation of Warlock Aggro, the first key to success is to have a strong opening. So let’s look at some mulligan decisions!
This is a fairly good hand. Abusive Sergeantis not a particularly good turn 1 play and we frequently mulligan him. However, this hand has other solid 1 drops and we can maximize our mana on the first two turn by playing out the three 1 drops. We would play Flame Imp first since he allows you to attack for the most damage on turn 2.
With the Sergeant buff, he can also remove a turn 2 Armorsmithwhile the Voidwalkercannot. He dies to a turn 2 Slam, but that is only a minor drawback as the Slam will inevitably remove one of your minions or draw your opponent a card. Generally, we would mulligan Tinkmaster Overspark. However, he is one of your best answers to Warrior Control’s finishers. We would avoid using him to try to “buff” one of your own minions as he will be invaluable late game against Ysera, or .
We believe mulliganing him is fine as well. Warrior Control typically does not run any Taunts and finding a way to close out the game quickly is often a better answer to the big finishers. Note that we assuming my opponent is playing Warrior Control as that is by far the most popular Warrior deck on the ladder right now. That popularity is largely due to its reasonable match-up against Warlock Aggro. Their removal and minions are efficient at removing the majority of your minions. Along with setting up a strong start, using cards like Abusive Sergeant and Soulfire to quickly dispatch Armorsmiths, Berserkers, and Acolytes of Pain is important to winning the Warrior match-up.
Knife Juggler is one of the stronger cards in the deck and should rarely be mulliganed. While Argent Commanderis also powerful, you need to start strong and Commander comes down too late to keep in your opening hand. We always mulligan Argent Commander. Soulfireis an interesting card when it comes to mulligan decisions. We usually mulligan Soulfire, but we believe there are many situations where it is right to keep. In this particular hand, you need a 1 drop. It’s unlikely that mulliganing only the Argent Commander will result in drawing a 1 drop, so we feel it is necessary to replace the Soulfire as well. If you already have a strong curve (for example, if the Commander in this hand was a 1 drop) or feel the Soulfire will be particularly potent in a match-up, it is right to keep it. As another example, if Tinkmaster Overspark in our first hand was a Soulfire, I would keep the Soulfire.
Understanding 'Board Control'
Warlock Aggro has often been referred to as a “board control” deck. We find that moniker to be somewhat misleading as it is far from a control deck, but it is useful in understanding the philosophy of the deck. Your primary goal should be to “control” the board by making favorable trades with your minions. Your minions are all of above average efficiency and synergize well together. Cards like Dire Wolf Alpha, Shattered Sun Cleric, and Abusive Sergeant will allow you to trade up (ie – trade a lower costed minion for a higher costed one) fairly easily and consistently. This creates a large accumulated tempo advantage over several turns. When combined with the card advantage your Hero Power provides, you are one of the most efficient decks in the game.
The deck tends to falter if you cannot sustain a tempo advantage. This happens most frequently if you do not have a strong start or if you have to frequently trade multiple minions for one of your opponent’s. Cards such as Soulfire or Argent Commander are good at regaining this tempo as they are instant solutions to reasonably sized minions that could be giving your smaller minions a hard time. Using Soulfire correctly can often be tricky. There are some situations where it is correct to Soulfire something as innocuous as a 2/1 if it can trade effectively with your minions and it is clear your opponent does not have another suitable means for dealing with your board position. While it is preferable to use other means to deal with the 2/1, don’t be scared to use the Soulfire if it’s necessary.
As with any deck of this ilk, it is crucial to know when to attack your opponent and when to attack their minions. While your primary goal is board control, there will be times when it is more favorable to deal damage to your opponent. Generally this is when your opponent is in a position where they need to trade for your minions and you cannot perform a more favorable trade on your own turn. As a simple example, say you play a turn 1 Flame Imp on the draw. Your opponent plays a turn 2 Loot Hoarder before passing back to you. Voidwalkerand Mortal Coil are excellent ways to protect your Flame Imp; however, let’s assume you do not have those in your hand.
Your opponent will be heavily incentivized to trade their Loot Hoarder with your Flame Imp on their following turn, so you would attack your opponent instead of trading for the Loot Hoarder. While this example is very simple and fairly obvious, it is illustrative of the decision making process you should make each turn when determining whether you will trade or attack the opponent. It is also important not to underestimate the potency of your opponent’s minions if you anticipate them playing Defender of Argus. A 2/2 is much easier to handle now than a 3/3 Taunt will be on the following turn. It is especially important to clear your opponent’s minions if you think it is likely that they are playing Defender of Argus.
The much maligned Warlock Murloc deck plays very similarly to the already discussed standard Warlock Aggro decks. The key difference between the two decks is that the Murloc variant plays substantially more like a combo deck. While each minion in the Warlock Aggro deck is reasonably powerful on its lonesome, certain Murloc cards are subpar on their own but substantially more powerful with other Murlocs. The best example of this is Grimscale Oracle. Alone he is merely a 1/1, but with other Murlocs he enables some of your earliest kills. Some lists choose to forego Grimscale Oracle, however, due to how weak he is on his own.
While standard Warlock Aggro values Dire Wolf Alpha and Knife Juggler over most other minions, there is no card more valuable in Warlock Murlocs than Murloc Warleader. Essentially, the Murloc variant eschews some of the consistency of the standard Warlock Aggro deck for the blowout potential Murloc Warleader provides. It is almost never right to play the Warleader as merely a 3/3. You are essentially a combo deck relying on Murloc Warleader, Murloc Tidecaller, and sometimes Grimscale Oracleto provide single turns of insurmountable damage.h.
Control Strategies: Warlock Giants aka Handlock
Not only does Warlock have one of the strongest aggressive decks, but also one of the strongest control decks. Warlock Giants has been around for a while now bit still sees a fair bit of play on the ladder. Several strong players made Legend runs with Warlock Giants late in Season 3 and early in Season 4.
Warlock Giants revolves around the Warlock Hero Power, Life Tap. Life Tap enables both Mountain Giantand Molten Giantsimultaneously by drawing a card and reducing your life. The Warlock Giants player will often use Life Tap for the first several turns before dropping an early Mountain Giant or a massive turn 4 Twilight Drake. Sunfury Protectorand Defender of Argusthen allow you to give these huge minions Taunt, allowing you to bash their life total until they can find Tinkmaster Overspark, The Black Knight, or trade several cards for your one minion. Even after the first Giant is dealt with, it is often easy enough to play a second Giant, requiring your opponent to expend even more resources or lose to your turn 5 8/8.
Warlock Giants is somewhat weak to aggressive decks, as a particularly explosive hand can overrun you before you can deploy a massive Taunt. However, aggressive decks still must be careful of getting the Warlock Giants player’s life too low or risk enabling a cheap Molten Giant and Taunt buff. An 8/8 can win a game very quickly, which means the Warlock Giants player can go fairly low on life and still pull out a win. Alexstraszaand Lord Jaraxxusallow you to reset your life total to 15 while deploying a huge threat. Setting your opponent’s life to 15 can also be a convenient way to put your opponent in lethal range of two Giants or a Giant and Alexstrasza. Earthen Ring Farseerand Siphon Soulgain life, which allows you to survive against aggressive decks (although Siphon Soul’s primary purpose is to combat other large minions in control decks that could threaten your Giants).
Hellfireis one of the most efficient board clears in the game. While it does deal damage to your hero, it lets you make quick work of your opponent’s minions. Shadowflameserves a similar purpose. Shadowflaming an Ancient Watcher, Leeroy Jenkins, or Giant will nuke most boards. Ancient Watcher with one of the deck’s many Taunt buffs also provides some much needed protection against aggressive decks Hellfire and Shadowflame are two of the most important cards to play around when playing against Warlock Giants.
While Hellfire is most effective at clearing smaller minions, Shadowflame will often be big enough to clear all but the beefiest of minions. When playing an aggressive deck against Warlock Giants, it’s important not to play too many sub 4 health minions leading into your opponent’s turn 4. If you play the board smart, you will sometimes be able to force your opponent to Hellfire in situations where you can take advantage of the extra damage they take in order to get to lethal.
It’s important to note how reliant Warlock Giants is on Sunfury Protector and Defender of Argus. While an 8/8 Giant can end a game quickly, the Warlock player is expending their life rapidly. Saving a Tinkmaster Overspark or Silence minion such as Keeper of the Grove for a Taunted Giant can be crucial to winning the match. It’s also important to note how effective Silence is against Twilight Drake. Earth Shock is particularly effective against the Drake.
Let’s take a look at a few hands to get a better sense for how we should play this deck.
Example 3: Before Mulligan
Generally, we mulligan for answers, Mountain Giants, and Twilight Drakes when playing Warlock Giants. Mountain Giant and Twilight Drake are your strongest early threats. Most decks will have a hard time dealing with an 8/8 Giant or 4/8 Drake on turn 4. The answers you mulligan for will be different depending on your opponent. In the above example, we expect the Rogue to play several small to medium sized minions, so Hellfireis an excellent answer. Siphon Soulis less ideal since Rogue usually does not play too many large finishers which we’d be happy to spend 6 mana to remove. We nearly always mulligan Molten Giant. Molten Giant does not come online until late in the game and is really only reasonable to keep if you know your opponent is playing a very aggressive deck and you have a Taunt buff minion in your hand as well. Deciding to mulligan Ancient Watchercan be difficult. We kept the Ancient Watcher above as a 4/5 tends to trade very well against Rogue’s minions if we draw an Ironbeak Owl, Sunfury Protector, or Defender of Argus. We think it is also perfectly reasonable to mulligan the Ancient Watcher in order to maximize your chance of drawing a Mountain Giant. We feel Hellfire is an easy keep for the reasons mentioned above.
Example 3: After Mulligan
This is the hand we ended up with after mulliganing. This hand allows for two lines of play. We can play Ancient Watcherturn 1 and Ironbeak Owlturn 2 for an early 4/5. Alternatively, we can merely use Life Tap for the first few turns and hope to draw a Mountain Giantor Twilight Drake. It’s important to note that while we have removal (Hellfire), it does not play well with playing Ancient Watcher and Ironbeak Owl on the first two turns. Despite that, we believe we would take the Ancient Watcher into Ironbeak Owl line of play unless we draw a Mountain Giant or Twilight Drake on our first turn. We would prefer to work with the resources we have than hope we draw something better. Unless a particularly juicy opportunity presents itself, we would hold on to the Hellfire until the Rogue has dealt with my Ancient Watcher.
Example 4: Before Mulligan
While Alexstraszais a powerful card, there is no reason to keep a 9 drop in our opening hand. Shadowflameis a strong card, and could be particularly strong against a Shaman’s totem collection. However, we felt replacing it provided a better opportunity to draw a Mountain Giant. We think keeping the Shadowflame is reasonable as well since Shamans often produce a substantial board presence, whether through totems or Feral Spirit. We always keep Sunfury Protectorand nearly always keep Defender of Argus due to how crucial they are to surviving the mid to late game. Remember that Twilight Drakeis not an especially potent threat against Shaman since Earth Shockdeals with it so cleanly.
It’s also important to note that since your default game plan is to Life Tap the first couple turns and not to play minions, you can afford to mulligan for generically good cards (ie – Mountain Giant, Twilight Drake, Sunfury Protector, etc.) or cards particularly powerful in a specific match-up. Your game plan is very powerful and doesn’t kick-in until the mid-game, so you have several turns to draw the pieces you need. One of the strengths of Warlock Giants is how consistent it is due to Life Tap.
Example 4: After Mulligan
This is the hand we ended up with. Unfortunately, this is a fairly weak hand. Voidwalkeris a concession to aggressive decks and is subpar against a deck like Shaman Control. Mortal Coilmay be able to pick off a totem at some point, but is also generally weak against non-aggressive decks. We would not play the Voidwalker on turn 1. We will likely lose it to Feral Spirits or an Unbound Elementala couple turns later without it providing any real value. Playing the Voidwalker also makes any Mountain Giants we draw more difficult to cast and shrinks any future Twilight Drakes. If we are to gain any value from the Voidwalker, it will likely be later in the game when we can use it to thwart an Al'Akir the Windlordstrike or other Windfurycombo.
Ruling the Ladder
There’s no doubt that Warlock’s king of the ladder right now. With multiple powerful archetypes, at least one of which is cheap to craft, it may be awhile before Warlock gets dethroned. Remember, the meta is often more about what’s popular than what’s the strongest. It’s possible Druid Midrange is still the strongest deck, but while Warlock is the most popular, it’s what you should be setting your sights on. Whether you’re playing Warlock or playing against it, we hope this guide provided some helpful tips for success on the ladder!
Moving to BlizzPro
Starting next week my articles are moving to Blizzpro. I’ve loved writing for Hearthstone Players and want to thank you all for being awesome along the way! [DKMR] will still be writing for Hearthstone Players, [DKMR]NickSpags will be writing next week's article. Be sure to check out my articles at BlizzPro starting next week!
[DKMR]Varranis streams every Sunday from 10 AM – 4 PM EST at http://www.twitch.tv/varranis. You can find all of DKMR’s streamers on their website with times and the days they stream!
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