Hunting Hunters to the Top of Legend

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Much like each other month since I started playing Hearthstone constructed, for November I spent most of my climb playing a single class on my way to Legend. This time, though, I decided to do things a bit more efficiently. After playing a few too many thirty minute games with Control Priest last month, I figured it was about time for me to play a more aggressive deck. To the apparent dismay and disgust of everyone who tuned in to watch my stream, I decided to play Hunter.

People frequently complain about the popularity of decks like Hunter and Warlock Zoo on the ladder, but the structure of the whole thing almost guarantees that those will be the most common decks. First of all, both decks are light on Legendary cards, making them inexpensive to build and thus available to a higher percentage of the population. Secondly, increasing in ranks is as much about volume of games as it is about win rate. Even if Hunter or Zoo is marginally worse than a deck like, say, Control Priest, it’s generally going to be correct to play an aggressive deck that can win or lose games quickly rather than one that often goes to fatigue. Once you make it into Legend and you’re shooting for the top ranks, the equation changes, but until then you’re generally better off playing a faster deck.

And Hunter isn’t just fast – it is also pretty clearly one of the most powerful decks right now. It’s sort of funny looking back at commentary from around the time of the Starving Buzzard nerf when many players were calling the class dead in the water in the wake of the change. It turns out that Undertaker is pretty good, though, and Hunter is the class best suited to take advantage of it. Webspinner gives Hunters an additional high quality one cost deathrattle minion to enable powerful Undertaker openings, and the class’s hero power takes the best advantage of the early damage and pressure that those openings create. The stickiness of Savannah Highmane and the burst potential of Kill Command don’t hurt, either.

Here’s what I played:

HunterTaker

I certainly don’t take any credit for the design of the Hunter deck I used for my climb. It was copied pretty much directly from other players and streamers. Prior to this month, I had barely played the class at all – regular readers might remember that I had to level up to ten as a Hunter in order to get Kill Command the morning of my first tournament. Despite my inexperience, I was able to post some very solid results, getting to the threshold of Legend in around one hundred games.

HunterStats

My stats aren’t as accurate now that I play on my iPad more often. There are a lot of games from my morning Cardiostone sessions missing, but the trend is similar

At the top ranks, I found myself running into other Hunter decks more often than not, and got somewhat frustrated by how much the games seemed to revolve around which player had the better Undertaker draw. It was certainly possible to break serve and win when your opponent had Undertaker and you didn’t, but it wasn’t easy, and tended to involve getting lucky with Knife Juggler and Snake Trap or Unleash the Hounds.

Ultimately, I wasn’t having very much fun playing a bunch of Hunter mirror matches, so I decided to switch things up. Since it seemed like at least every other deck I ran into was Hunter, I wanted to play a deck designed specifically to beat them. It was time to hunt the Hunter!

It didn’t take me long to find my weapon of choice, and after a few lopsided games against public enemy number one, I found myself once again in Legend. Once there, my success continued, particularly against Hunter. After a particularly good string of games, I found myself within a hair’s breadth of the top spot.

Legend2

Unfortunately, much like my last high Legend run, I faltered before I claimed the crown. I ran into a string of Miracle Rogue, Control Paladin, and Freeze Mage opponents against whom my anti-aggro deck just couldn’t compete, and I tumbled from the top spots back to the middle of the Legend pack.

But still, the deck continued to do what I built it to do:

Hunter100

 

Here’s what I played:

AntiAggroPriest

The key to beating Hunter is containing their pressure. While the loss of Starving Buzzard clearly didn’t mean the end for the class, it did make Hunter decks much more reliant on closing out the game quickly, since they don’t have great tools for playing a long game. While the Hunter hero power is great at dealing the last few points of damage to finish the opponent off, it has no impact on the board.

A player’s life total only matters once it hits zero (barring cards like Molten Giant).  Put another way, every point of mana a Hunter spends on their hero power is wasted in any game they don’t win.  If you’re able to preserve your life total by containing the Hunter deck’s early minions, you can usually pull ahead as the game progresses since you have a hero power that can materially impact the board while they do not.

Of course, it’s crucially important that you can actually keep yourself alive while this is going on. That’s why Priest is the best foil for Hunter. You have a hero power that can keep up with Steady Shot while also interacting with the board and keeping your minions alive. If you can contain Hunter’s early aggression, you can judiciously use your hero power to preserve both your board and yourself, and eventually grind them out.

To that end, this version of Priest is heavily biased toward cheap interaction. The real standout cards are the two copies of Zombie Chow and the two copies of Holy Smite. These give you quite a few ways to deal with an early Undertaker before it gets out of hand, as well as whatever other early creatures your opponent might try to throw at you. If the board does go south, Smite combos particularly well with Wild Pyromancer to help mop things up, and there’s always the Auchenai Soulrpriest plus Circle of Healing combo, which serves a dual purpose as a finisher with Zombie Chow.

Of course, this anti-aggression suite does not come without a price. Compared to my old Priest lists, this version sacrifices two late game trump cards – Mind Control and Ysera. This significantly weakens the deck against other control strategies, since you don’t have nearly as powerful an end game to play for, and you can easily run out of gas when you’re drawing cheap interaction later on.

I’m sure I’m going to get flak again for playing with Thoughtsteal, especially since here I’m using it instead of Ysera and Mind Control. While I definitely prefer the big cards in a a less polarized metagame, I think Thoughtsteal is a happy medium when you want tools that are good against control and still reasonable against aggressive decks. In particular, the fact that Thoughtsteal is a spell that can trigger Wild Pyromancer comes up quite a bit. Even if the cards you steal don’t turn out to be very effective, just having a spell to cast to help clear the board can be lifesaving, especially since Ysera or Mind Control would just be rotting in your hand.

Along with Hunter, this deck has a strong matchup against Warlock Zoo, for much the same reasons. Against both decks, you want to mulligan aggressively for your cheap removal and minions – basically, the less the cards in your hand cost, the better. Against Zoo I’ll hold on to Auchenai/Circle, as well, since you can afford to take early damage to build up to a board clear. Against Hunter, though, you need your defenses to come online as quickly as possible, since your life total is a very important resource you need to preserve against their hero power.

The deck’s worst matchup, by far, is Miracle Rogue. You don’t have strong early pressure, and you don’t have the tools to win a long game against the card draw from Gadgetzan. I’m sure you could gain some percentage by playing with Loetheb, but my inclination is that it isn’t worth it. Loetheb is at is best in decks that can apply pressure and use the battle cry effect to cut off the opponent’s options on a key turn. It’s much weaker when you’re just trying to win a grindy game.

I’ve actually had a surprising amount of success against Handlock. The Zombie Chow/Auchenei combo along with Holy Fire and Smite actually give you a decent amount of reach, and playing two Shadow Word: Deaths can buy you time to find that window to steal a game more often than I would have thought going in. My record against Warlock overall is very good, and I find myself facing probably half Zoo and half Handlock now that I’m in Legend.

So if you’re sick of running into Rexxar every game and playing the Undertaker lottery, I highly recommend giving this deck a spin. It’s time to hunt the Hunters.

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