I Dream, and the Ladder Trembles – Playing Dragon Priest to the Top of Legend

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To many people in the Magic community, I am known as “The Dragonmaster.” It is a nickname that I earned after my first Pro Tour Top 8, in which I played a deck that was very similar to one of the most popular decks in the field. The big difference was that I cut cards that were viewed by many others as sacrosanct and instead played Rith, the Awakener, a dragon, that helped make my deck much more powerful in many a number of matchups, most notably the mirror.

It seems that we have come full circle.

This season in Hearthstone, I have played Priest almost exclusively. I tweaked my deck as I climbed through the ranks until I eventually hit Legend. But making Legend was nothing new for me – I’ve done it every season since I started playing constructed. I had my eyes set on a bigger prize – Legend #1.

Now – spoiler alert – I haven’t quite made it there yet. The highest I have gotten so far is #3, but I have been consistently in the top few spots for the past week. And this is how I got there.

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Once I made Legend this season, I found that the deck I used to get there wasn’t as effective as it had been during the climb. While I was ranking up, I was facing a barrage of Hunter decks and Warlock Zoo decks and the like, against which the configuration of my deck was great. In the higher ranks, though, I found myself running into more control decks, like Warrior and Paladin and other Priests. Unless I could overwhelm those opponents quickly with Undertaker, I found that I tended to lose the late game. My deck was full of cheap, relatively low impact cards like Haunted Creeper that were great at stabilizing against aggressive decks, but very poor in control matchups.

Inspired by Zetalot’s version of Undertaker priest, I decided to try out Injured Blademaster, since it offered both a more relevant threat later in the game and also helped enable combos with Circle of Healing and Northshire Cleric. The single most important thing in most of the control matchups is card advantage, and having more tools to set up powerful turns with Circle seemed like a good direction, even if Blademaster doesn’t support Undertaker itself.

The other card I decided to try again was Thoughtsteal. Most people seem to feel like Thoughtsteal is a card that is absolutely integral to Priest decks, but I have long been skeptical of that perspective. It is true that Thoughtsteal generates card advantage by giving you two cards from your opponent’s deck, and it is true that Thoughtsteal helps win long games that go to fatigue by giving you more resources to work with. The problem is that exactly what those resources are is random. If you’re able to Thoughtsteal your opponent’s Ragnaros and Grommash or Tiron and Lay on Hands, then yeah, the card is great. But if you take a Shield Slam and an Unstable Ghoul or an Equality and a Holy Light, then it’s pretty terrible.

Now, I understand that randomness is part of card games inherently, but that doesn’t mean that I want to opt in to playing with a card that increases my variance like that. I have been repeatedly unimpressed by Thoughtsteal. It’s the sort of card that people are going to have vastly different opinions on just based upon their own experiences. If you remember Thoughtsteal taking your opponent’s Shadow Word Death when you were dead to Ragnaros otherwise, then it’s going to seem great. But the reality is that the average case is going to be worse than that, and the floor can be truly awful, like the double Deadly Poison I’ve stolen from a Rogue before.

Instead, I looked for cards that fulfill the same criteria as Thoughtsteal, but do so more reliably. If not Thoughtsteal, what cards can we play that help give us card advantage and the tools to win games that go long?

Here’s what I have been playing.

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I decided to try one copy each of Ysera and Mind Control. These two cards are obviously very powerful – after all, they cost nine and ten mana, respectively, so they had better be doing something incredible. But they’re worth the steep mana cost.

mindcontrolartLong games between control decks are typically defined by one of two things – unanswered Legendary minions and raw resource count.  Mind Control works on both of these axis by not only answering one of your opponent’s most powerful cards, but also putting you up in the resource war, because now they have to deal with their own minion.

laughingsisterYsera plays the resource war very well. Every turn Ysera remains in play, you generate an additional card – and not from your deck, so you don’t have to worry about dying to fatigue. While the cards Ysera generates are also random like Thoughtsteal, they are all very powerful. Sure, you can get all Laughing Sisters every turn, but even that is far better than many of the cards you’d be able to steal from an opponent’s deck.

Ysera is also extremely hard for most opponents to remove. With twelve health, she’s hardly vulnerable to being attacked except where a Hunter’s Mark is involved, and she’s certainly not easily Shield Slammed. Her four power puts her out of range of any Shadow Words, and even means that Sylvanas can’t just crash into her to force a potential trade. She’s one of the most resilient minions out here, so you can usually count on her lasting for a couple turns if you play her on a stable board.

So if you’re comparing them to Thoughtsteal, think about it this way. If you cast Thoughtsteal, and you got a Ysera and a useless card from one and a Mind Control and a useless card from another, you’d be thrilled, wouldn’t you? That’s about the best you could reasonably hope for. Instead of hoping to get lucky with my Thoughtsteals, I’m just playing the cards I’d wish I could take from my opponent in my own deck so I can just draw them instead.

There’s also the argument of Ysera and Mind Control being very expensive against aggressive decks, and that’s true. But Thoughtsteal is pretty terrible against most aggressive decks as well. If you’re casting Thoughtsteal, it’s usually in desperation because you don’t have anything else you can play, in which case you’re probably going to lose anyway, or because the game s already sufficiently stable that you can afford to spend three mana without impacting the board, in which case you’re probably in a good position to win already. And most of the time you’ll end up getting something that is unlikely to make a big difference in the game, like a Timber Wolf or Starving Buzzard or Leper Gnome or Flame Imp. Instead, when I get to the late game, I’m guaranteed to have powerful cards like Ysera and Mind Control that can put my opponent away rather than hoping I get lucky and get a Savannah Highmane or Defender of Argus with my Thoughtsteal.

And even if Thoughtsteal are better against aggressive decks, I think it’s still right to play Mind Control and Ysera instead. You’re going to have cards in your deck that are weak in certain matchups – that’s just a fact. I’d vastly prefer having a few cards that are bad in some matchups but incredible in others than hedge my bets and play cards that are middling in both.

I have seen some arguments that Ysera and Mind Control don’t belong in the same deck as Undertaker, because the former are control cards and the latter is a tempo card. Allow me to quote the movie Rounders

“I have what is known as the wheel…with enough kick to win me the high and the low”

In Magic, I would never dream of having something like Isamaru, Hound of Konda in the same deck as Emrakul, but Hearthstone works differently. The fact that creatures can attack other creatures means that early drops are often the best way of defending you from your opponent’s creatures, and we’ve seen this play out since the Naxx release with many control decks adopting Zombie Chow. They are exactly what let you actually get to the late game to play your expensive bombs like Mind Control and Ysera.

There’s also the fact that Hearthstone has a very liberal mulligan system. If you draw one of your expensive cards in your opening hand, you can always just throw it back. The same is not true of Magic, in which you pay the price of a card every time you go fishing for a new hand, and you can’t keep anything from one hand to the next.

The best defense is a good offense. In this deck, Undertaker can keep you alive by pressuring your opponent’s board with a steadily growing minion, or it can simply bury your opponent with legitimate aggression. In almost every matchup, that’s what you’re looking to mulligan for. The one major exception is against Warrior control. They have so many ways to contain your early board presence that you’re better off digging for your resilient creatures and card advantage tools like Northshire Cleric.

While I still don’t have experience with every deck in Hearthstone, I feel pretty confident in saying that this deck is among the best of them. I feel like I have an edge in virtually every matchup, save for Miracle Rogue and Handlock, and even those are very much winnable based on how your draws line up, and both can also be easily improved by changing a few cards in the deck. Cards like Loetheb and Shadow Word: Death can go a long way.

yseraawakensSo if you’re looking for a deck that will allow you to dominate Hunters and Warriors alike, I recommend checking this one out. For you, it’ll be a dream. For your opponents, it will be a nightmare.

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