In my previous seasons playing Hearthstone, I chose a particular class that I played pretty much exclusively to Legend. In October, I didn’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time building and tweaking a new deck. I spent several weeks early in the month in Hawaii practicing for and playing in the Magic Pro Tour, and then on vacation with my fiance. When I came back from the islands, I spent about a week catching up on everything I had missed, and then played in the Magic Grand Prix in Los Angeles, leaving me with just one week to make my climb to Legend once again.
I started where I had left off – with Undertaker Priest.
While I had a great deal of success with this version of Priest back when I originally played it, I found myself struggling in the new metagame. The deck was built with Hunter in mind, and I posted really impressive numbers against Rexxar and friends before the Buzzard nerf, but Hunter decks generally looked quite a bit different back then. At that point, most Hunter decks were very much midrange or even almost combo oriented versions, generally built around the Buzzard/Unleash combo. They typically didn’t have all that many early minions to fight for control of the board, and even the combo often wasn’t good enough to catch up to a good draw with Undertaker, Zombie Chow, Dark Cultist, and the like.
Modern Hunter decks are very different. They’ve pretty much universally adopted Undertaker themselves, which means they’re quite capable of fighting for board presence very early on. In fact, they’re actually *better* at using Undertaker in the earliest turns of the game than Priest because they play more one cost deathrattle minions. Webspinner and Leper Gnome give Hunters the ability to more consistently pump their Undertakers, which leads to them frequently getting ahead. Undertaker Priest isn’t particularly good at playing from behind, since so much of its strength comes from using early minions to control the board, and that’s much harder to do when your opponent is the one with the big Undertaker.
With so many of my opponents looking to bury me with Undertakers, I decided to take a somewhat different approach:
This deck has a very different gameplan. Instead of trying to use low cost minions to control the board and stay alive, this deck relies on cheap spells for its early interaction. I certainly can’t take any real credit for this particular deck, since I copied it almost directly from other Control Priest lists I found online. The biggest difference between my list and the others I’ve seen is the choice to play two copies of Holy Smite, which is a direct nod to the popularity of aggressive decks in general and Undertaker in particular.
Holy Smite may seem to be a relatively low impact card, but in a deck like this one, you have so many individually powerful cards and ways to generate card advantage that frequently all you are looking for is the time to play them. Many people have asked me why I play Holy Smite over a card like Shadow Word: Pain, since it can kill even pumped Undertakers, along with Leokk, Earthen Ring Farseer, or the front half of Sludge Belcher. Shadow Word: Pain is clearly more powerful, but it also costs two mana instead of one, and that’s a big deal.
The difference between one and two mana is the biggest mana jump in the game – besides the jump from zero to one, that is. A spell that costs one mana not only can be played on the first turn rather rather than only the second, but also fits far more easily into any combination of multiple cards you might play in a single turn. This is valuable in and of itself, since any time you can play multiple cards that impact the board in a meaningful way in a single turn, you’re generally gaining an advantage on your opponent.
The Coin makes the value of one cost cards even higher than they otherwise might be. Imagine, for instance, that my Warlock Zoo opponent has a board of two Flame Imps, a Knife Juggler, and a Nerubian Egg going into my fourth turn when I’ve played second. If I have Auchenai Soulpriest plus Circle of Healing, I can wipe the board clear, except I’m going to end up leaving a 4/4 Nerubian from the Egg’s deathrattle effect. If I have Shadow Word: Pain in my hand, there’s nothing I can do with it. But with Holy Smite, I can use my Coin, deal two damage to the Egg, and *then* follow up with Auchenai/Circle to clear the board. With the importance of tempo and initiative in aggressive match-ups in Hearthstone, that difference can be absolutely huge.
And that’s to say nothing of the card’s interaction with Wild Pyromancer, which is a control priest mainstay. Holy Smite can not only allow you to use Pyromancer to kill larger creatures, but also provides a cheap spell to trigger its ability to clear out boards of one health minions. This is especially valuable against things like Haunted Creeper or Snake Trap, both of which are very popular in many aggressive decks these days.
Holy Smite is certainly weak against other control decks, but with so many tools to gain card advantage, you’re generally still in excellent shape against control opponents unless you draw all of your low-impact cards together early in the game without access to any of your tools like Thoughtsteal or Cabal Shadow Priest.
Speaking of Thoughtsteal, I’ve had quite a few people comment on its inclusion in my deck and claim that I’d said that I didn’t think the card was any good. But that was never my argument. My contention was always that Thoughtsteal was viewed as essentially sacrosanct in Priest lists and I didn’t think it necessarily belonged in all of them, and also that I felt other options like Ysera and Mind Control are better. I still believe those things. My inclusion of Thoughtsteal in this deck is a concession to the fact that this version of Priest is playing a much more heavily control oriented game than my other builds, and as a result it wants more tools to win long games than those versions. I still believe that Ysera and Mind Control are better tools for a deck playing for a long game, but Thoughtsteal offers additional advantage that this deck wants.
In any case, I played this list (plus or minus a few cards here and there) for my initial climb. I actually didn’t lose a single game between Rank 11 (which is where I started with it, after giving up on Undertaker Priest) and halfway through Rank 5. But once I got there, I started to struggle somewhat. I found myself running into more decks against which this build feels pretty hopeless, like Handlock and Miracle Rogue. This deck’s controlling nature and generally passive approach left it unable to really fight against either deck effectively, so I found myself looking to mix things up when I was running into bad matchups.
I decided to try my hand at Shaman once again. I’d heard rumblings of more burst oriented Shaman decks experiencing success, and I was immediately intrigued. As I discussed in my recent post about the Shaman decks I’d experimented with, I’ve felt like Shaman’s biggest weakness recently has been its inability to contend with the Hunter hero power. Control oriented Shaman decks may be able to establish board control, even relatively quickly, but struggle to close out the game before dying to Steady Shot and Kill Command.
So I went with my favorite answer to “How do you deal with (INSERT CARD OR SITUATION HERE)?”, which seems to apply to Hearthstone as well as it does to Magic.
“Kill your opponent.”
Here’s the list I played:
Again, I don’t claim any credit for the deck’s design. I borrowed this directly from Numberguy’s list from the Battle of the Best because it fit what I was looking for. I really liked the idea of a Shaman deck with a lot of direct damage and creature burst potential to close out games. That kind of proactive stance is much more effective against decks like Miracle and Handlock, with the latter being particularly susceptible to the combination of Earth Shock, Hex, and a lot of damaging spells.
I really liked this deck a lot after playing with it for a while. I’m a big fan of decks that have the ability to pivot and shift from a defensive to offensive position when appropriate, and this deck is extremely good at that. Lightning Bolt and Lava Burst are great tools for finishing off a damaged opponent that can also double as removal in a pinch, and even Doomhammer can serve as a finisher or a way to attack enemy creatures and trade life points for card and board advantage.
Most of my previous versions of Shaman had generally relied on Al’Akir as a burst finisher, with generally one copy of the Windlord and one Doomhammer, but the more I played with it, the more I liked the second copy of Doomhammer. It’s clearly not as powerful as the class Legendary, but it costs much less, which is a big deal when you’re playing against a deck like Handlock or Miracle where you can easily get buried by the advantages generated by Gadgetzan Auctioneer or Jaraxxus if the game stretches on too long. Doomhammer is certainly much riskier given the rise in popularity of cards like Acidic Swamp Ooze and Harrison Jones, but I found that by playing carefully and only opening myself up to weapon removal when I was ending the game or had my opponent under enough pressure that they couldn’t afford to spend a turn getting rid of my Doomhammer, I could mitigate the number of times it got killed. I actually even won a game in which my Warrior opponent managed to Harrison my six durability Doomhammer once, so it certainly isn’t a death sentence, even if it is difficult to overcome.
I was much more successful playing burst Shaman than I was Priest at the higher ranks, though I kept trying to swap back to Priest as often as I could in order to get more wins there since I’ve already earned my Golden Shaman portrait. I have yet to find a matchup that I feel like I really don’t want to play against, though I’m sure they’re out there. Both Hunter and Priest – each traditionally difficult matchups for Shaman – felt much more winnable with this version than most others largely due to the incredible burst potential the deck has and the threat of ending the game out of nowhere.
Playing this deck, it’s very important to pay close attention to your ability to outright kill your opponent. Unlike with Control Priest, where you’re playing to try to draw out the game as long as possible and win with card advantage and high value plays, with Burst Shaman you need to look for windows to end the game, because you are almost certainly not the deck with inevitability in any given matchup. You do have some amount of card draw with Azure Drake and Gnomish Inventor, but they’re more about generating velocity to dig through your deck so you can keep presenting threats than they are about generating a material advantage in a long game. Just be sure to keep in mind your central goal at all times:
“Kill your opponent.”
I’m not sure what I’m going to explore for my next Legend push, but I’m certainly going to be paying close attention to the decks that crop up in the BlizzCon World Championships this week. I’ll be there myself to watch the action live, and I’m looking forward to seeing some exciting matches! If you’re at BlizzCon and see me (and my fancy BMKGaming.com press badge), be sure to say hello!