In the Arena Matchup series, we take a broad overview of the most powerful and most popular cards and combos each class runs in the Arena, and we discuss how and to what degree we should play around these cards. More importantly, we analyze the weaknesses of each class and outline a plan of attack to best bring down each opponent.
The Druid class, represented by Malfurion Stormrage, is a well-rounded Arena class with strong minions and flexible removals. The balanced nature of this class presents a formidable foe that can typically drag games out and ultimately win through sheer value.
We will discuss how we can stop nature’s rise against us by fully exploiting the structural vulnerabilities of the Arena Druid.
ADWCTA’s 10-Point Checklist
- Do not play into the 4-1-1 Swipe on turn 4, or the 4-2-1 Swipe on turns 6+.
- Trade away all 1 (and eventually all 2) health minions as soon as possible
- Prepare for taunt breakpoints the turn before his turn 5 and every turn after his turn 7.
- As tempo, use tempo cards early to get on the board and set up multiple mid-ranged minions.
- As control, play high health minions in safe situations and save hard removals for truly large threats.
- Against Wild Growth ramp as Player 2, push hard for face damage unless playing as control.
- To the extent possible, keep high attack minions above 5 health; make him pay life to use Shapeshift.
- Force awkward hero power pings, and know the key turns he does not want to ping.
- Expect mass buffs from Savage Roar and Power of the Wild on wide boards (2+ minions at start of his turn).
- Kill Malfurion.
For general Arena gameplay strategies, and explanations of the terms used (like “tempo”), check out my On Mastery of Arena series here.
Swipe: A Natural Mistake
Let’s start things off with the most powerful Druid class card: Swipe. Malfurion’s Swipe deals 4 damage to a single target, and one damage to the rest of our board, and he can follow this up with a use of the hero power to deal a total of 4-2-1-1 (etc) damage. This type of damage split is almost impossible to avoid in the early game without seriously setting back our tempo. Further, unlike Flamestrike, Malfurion does not give us a 7 turn head start to make appropriate trades and set up our board to be removal-proof. Swipe can happen as soon as turn 4, when we typically do not have many options.
The Swipe Rules, which should get layered onto your gameplay as the game progresses:
Swipe Rule #1. Starting Turn 2. Trade off all minions that have one health, immediately, and all minions that have 2 health after turn 5 (not only is hero power available, this is also when the Kobold-Swipe combo becomes available). This is not rocket science. Besides Swipe, the Druid also has a hero power that pings, and Starfall, so this should be part of the natural course of our gameplan in any case.
Swipe Rule #2. Starting Turn 4. Do not drop minions into the Swipe. If we have a 2-health minion on the board, we will not drop a 4-health minion on turn 6. If we have just made a favorable trade and have a 1 health minion left over, we will drop multiple 2/3 health minion or a 5+ health minion instead of one at 4 health. Limit the value of Swipe. Remember, Starfire costs a *lot* of mana, so Malfurion cannot use his hero power on the same turn until turn 8, and even then, it will set back his tempo significantly. As with Flamestrike, it is completely okay to let a Swipe get two cards, or one and a half card (a mid-sized minion and a small minion), so don’t sweat this one too much. But, to the extent we have other options, we should play them instead.
Swipe Rule #3. Starting Turn 7. The definitive way to play around Swipe, and all Druid removals is to continuously drop multiple mid-ranged or larger minions. The most powerful move we can make against Malfurion is to drop a 4/4 and a 3/3 or bigger on turn 7 or later, or to drop a 6+ health minion. There is no non-combo way Malfurion can take care of multiple mid-range minions or high health minions. And, luckily for us, most of our deck is probably made of mid-ranged minions, so we’ll have plenty to toss around. The key is to think ahead so that we actually have that two-card 4-3 mana drop for turn 7, and a 4-4 mana drop for turn 8, (or 6+ health minions).
Not satisfied with Swipe Rule #3? Well, you probably shouldn’t be. Swipe Rule #3 is actually incomplete without accounting for the other two huge threats Malfurion brings: Druid of the Claw and Ironbark Protector. These large defensive taunts force all minions we have on the board to trade with it, and can set up trading situations as favorable as if Malfurion had used a removal, with the added bonus of having the exact perfect split of damage amongst our minions. The existence and popularity of these cards dramatically shape how we can apply Swipe Rule #3.
Consider the central point of Swipe Rule #3: Play minions with as even stat distribution as possible so as to not get Swiped, and so if one minion is removed by the Druid’s high-costing removals, we’ll still have at least one remaining sizable minion on the board. It’s a nice thought, but we should not blindly use up all of our best assets (mid-ranged minions) against Malfurion.
Therefore, it’s probably better to think of it as “Swipe Guideline” #3 rather than a hard rule. Whereas it is rarely the right move to play into a Flamestrike before we get a read, it is often just as important to know when to not play around the Swipe as it is to know how to play around it. We should only treat Swipe Rule #3 as a hard rule if we have a hard removal in hand to take care of the Malfurion’s large taunts. If we do not have a hard removal in hand, read on for the more sophisticated drops system which also accounts for Druid minions.
Druid of the Claw. It is the turn before Druid’s turn 5 on an empty board. We have 5 mana and no hard removals in hand.
Option #1. We play a Bloodfen Raptor (3/2) and a Ironfur Grizzly (3/3). We’re following the Swipe Rules! He has only 5 mana, and so this board is safe from a Swipe. Druid of the Claw is played. We lose both minions. This is not the ideal situation since we lose two cards, and we’ve lost one of our key 3-drops that could be used later to fully establish our board! Although this is the best way to play around his removals, it unfortunately also plays directly into Malfurion’s taunts in the worst way. Not good.
Option #2. We play a Spiteful Smith (4/6). We’re following the Swipe Rules! He has absolutely no way to remove this. Druid of the Claw is played. We can buff this minion the next turn, or add a small removal to finish off the Druid of the Claw. In any case, our minion, even if it does not trade up with the Druid of the Claw, will still remain on the board. This is acceptable. If possible, drop your high-health minions on curve until turn 8.
Option #3. We play an Ogre Magi (4/4) and a Murloc Raider (2/1). We’re flying directly in the face of the Swipe Rules! This should be really bad. But, it’s actually not all that bad. 2/1s are never going to last against any ping class in any case, and the Druid would be playing a top card and paying 5 mana (the 5th mana is likely to remain unused) to deal 5 damage (not a great ratio). Further, if Malfurion also has a Druid of the Claw in hand, it won’t be as great on his turn 6, and will once again cause inefficient use of mana. By playing into the Swipe, we lose a card (which we probably would lose anyway), but gain tempo over 2 turns. That’s a win in my book. Is this better than Option #2? Of course not, that play is both Swipe-proof and Druid of the Claw-proof, but it sure beats Option #1. The moral of the story is that we should not be so focused on playing around the Swipe (which he may or may not have) that we stop playing around the Druid of the Claw and lose more valuable cards.
Ironbark Protector. Against Malfurion, definitely save a hard removal for Ironbark Protector. It is very very likely going to be in the deck, and it will at least 2 for 1 us, if not 3 for 1 us if we don’t have an answer ready. When hard removals are out of the question, even holding back a small removal will help with this matchup, letting us put those left-over 3-drops to work. In the following example, it is any turn after turn 8 on an empty board. We have no hard removals in hand.
Option #1. We play a Boulderfist Ogre (6/7) and a Sen’jin Shieldmasta (3/5). This is very bad. A Boulderfist Ogre is one of the few minions that is large enough that Malfurion has no way to remove. Yes, we can set up a typical 2 for 1 trade into the Ironbark Protector, but we’re losing more than just any 2 cards, we’re losing one of the most important cards in our deck, and the Sen’jin is not bad either. Unlike in the Druid of the Claw scenario, nothing survives an Ironbark Protector, so putting out your biggest guy is no longer a good plan after turn 8. By extension, this means putting out those guys as early as possible before turn 8 is highly advised.
Option #2. We play two Chillwind Yetis (4/5) and one Bloodfen Raptor (3/2). This is slightly better. Although Chillwind Yeti is valuable, it is still removable by Starfire or Swipe + hero power. Trading two in and having a Raptor on the board left is not an awful result. With an Ironbark Protector, we will almost always have to spend two cards to remove it. Of course, if we are Mage, this play looks much better due to our hero power.
Option #3. We play one River Crocolisk (2/3), one Scarlet Crusader (3/1), one Loot Hoarder (2/1), and one Ironfur Grizzly (3/3). This is an ideal situation. We are using very vulnerable cards and/or cards designed to attack into things (divine shield and deathrattle). Even a Swipe or Starfall here would leave us with at least one minion on the board, and take only 2 cards. Past turn 8, our best move is to drop our least valuable minions in a wide spread and be ready to trade them in.
A Slow and Painful Death
At this point, you may be wondering how we can ever defeat the Arena Druid if he has drawn into his class cards. In addition to the 2-for-1 cards of Swipe, Druid of the Claw, and Ironbark Protector, Malfurion also has Starfire, Starfall, and Nourish to give him card advantage at every turn. Further, as one of the hero power ping classes, Malfurion can clean up any good trades we make, for additional card advantage. In fact, the Druid arguably has more cards that provide card advantage than any other class in the game.
The Tempo Game. Well. . . as it turns out, there is a hefty cost to all of this value. Remember all the “play around removals X, Y, Z, Q, R!” tips I typically give for the other classes? There will be none of that here for Malfurion because Swipe aside, playing around Druid removals is absolutely unnecessary (and impossible)! While he has a variety of ways to remove our board, Malfurion has no means to increase tempo through removal. Every single Druid removal costs more in mana than its counterparts in other classes. For single targets: To deal 2 damage, Claw requires 1 mana (unlike Backstab’s 0). To deal 3 damage, Wrath requires 2 mana (unlike Rockbiter’s 1). To deal 4 damage, Swipe and Bite require 4 mana (unlike Soulfire’s 0). To deal 5 damage, Starfall and Starfire require 5 and 6 mana respectively (unlike Fireball’s 6 damage for 4 mana). Needless to say, Malfurion also has no 2+ durability weapons to increase 2-turn tempo, and his single real mass removal in Starfall costs more mana than the same effect in Consecration. And of course, Malfurion has no usable hard removals either (or any removal that deals more than 5 damage), which usually cause strong swings in tempo.
Malfurion’s class removals provide plenty of flexibility, but they are also some of the least tempo-efficient spells in the game.
While these slightly higher mana costs may not seem gamechanging, they absolutely shift our approach to this matchup. Unlike other matchups, we can know with precision exactly how much Malfurion can change the board the next turn, and it will never be for more tempo effect than the mana crystals he has plus his current board. Malfurion simply lacks the tools to flip the board on his opponent. This allows us (with our own much stronger tempo value cards) to plot out the course of the next several turns with good accuracy. If we have the board, it does not matter what minions we are dropping, we will do no worse than break even in tempo. If we do not have the board, we will eventually catch up as long as we continue to play minions that would trade favorably if it survives a turn; or in any case, at the first instance we use one of our own much more tempo-efficient removals. As long as we follow the Swipe Rules, the tempo math in this matchup can only be in our favor. As long as we prepare for taunt breakpoints efficiently, we can preserve our key large and mid-range minions that will end up securing the board for us for good.
The Control Game. As an alternative, a control deck with large/hard removals, some card draw, and high-health minions like Boulderfist Ogres and Archmages can successfully push Malfurion on the control side with little risk of failure. The Druid’s main sources of card advantage is in large minions and card draw (into large minions or removal). To the extent that we can counter the large minions with large/hard removal and have minions with high enough health that Malfurion’s removals are ineffective (forcing him to 2-for-1 himself), we are guaranteed to have a better classic card advantage control game than Malfurion.
Malfurion’s utter lack of a control-oriented hard removal severely limits what he can do in a control vs control matchup (even Uther has Equality, and Guldan has Siphon Soul).
That’s right. While it may seem that Malfurion wants to stall the game as long as possible, he is actually helpless against any real control deck. Hexes and Polymorphs (not to mention Mind Control) make short work of Ironbarks, and Starfires and Swipes don’t do much against true fatties. Further, there’s only so much face damage Malfurion can handle from his hero power before that option is off the table. So, if we have a late game control deck, we should not be afraid to let Malfurion drag out the game to his own demise. This is ironically the easiest control vs control matchup of all classes.
Picking a Side. Unlike other classes, which have class cards to support bursts of both extreme aggro and extreme control, the Arena Druid will ultimately always be forced toward the middle by its structural constraints. While it is hard to predict our role against other classes, Malfurion holds no surprises. We can begin to execute our own gameplan from the opening mulligan. In a sense, the Druid is simply a test of how well we know our deck. Every deck, no matter how mid-ranged, should look to lean hard one way or the other against this matchup.
Two Ways to Ramp
Innervate. So. . . everything in the previous section on tempo is technically a dirty, dirty lie. Malfurion does have one way of gaining instant tempo: Innervate is the very definition of a tempo card, trading a card for 2 mana straight up. We had purposefully left this card out of the discussion above because its effect is so small when used merely for tempo. Consider Hand of Protection, a tempo card not terribly high on anyone’s desirability list. However, when used with any mid-range minion on the board, Hand of Protection (or Hunter’s Mark, or Execute, or any of the scores of tempo cards in Hearthstone) effectively uses 1 mana to remove 4 or 5 mana’s worth of stuff from the board. That’s 1.5x to 2x the power of Innervate. This means that the Druid’s tempo thesis remains consistent; even Malfurion’s lone tempo card trades away significant tempo in favor of flexibility.
The lower mana gain from losing a card does not mean Innervate is less powerful than other tempo cards. Innervate can do one powerful thing that the other cards cannot: “ramp” out a minion that has a higher mana cost than the current total number of available mana crystals. A Chillwind Yeti on turn 1 (with coin) is a pretty scary sight. Although there is no good way to counter an early ramp if we do not have a mid/hard-removal in hand, there is also typically no need to do so. Innervate uses up a card for the Druid, so while it puts us into a small tempo hole, it does give us the opportunity to play and slowly trade in all of our small minions that are susceptible to Swipe anyway. When the Druid goes big and tall, we should go small and wide. Because Malfurion will slowly lose tempo throughout the match, even an early Innervate into a high-health minion will only delay the inevitable.
Wild Growth. Wild Growth is an interesting card. Played as Player 2 with the coin, it effectively turns Player 2 into Player 1 (-1 card and coin for the benefit of play each turn first) for turn 3 onward. This still gives the real Player 1 a completely free turn 1 and turn 2 to set up. Needless to say, this is a hefty price to pay, and Player 1 will rarely be upset to see it played against him. On the other hand, played as Player 1, Wild Growth concedes the early board for an insane +2 mana advantage for the next 8 turns. This “ramp” effect is the same as Player 2 playing a free Innervate for 8 turns straight. The value of the extra mana crystal on top of being first provides for an advantage that is much more than the pure value of the mana gained (which is the same whether Innervate is used as Player 1 or Player 2).
If Wild Growth is played by Malfurion as Player 1, then we need to immediately enter panic/survival mode. Because of the inconsistency of the card, Wild Growth is typically only drafted in decks with extremely high mana curves, which means we can expect a large amount of incoming value (especially card advantage value). This will not be a mid-range Druid. If we are running a control deck, then we are essentially up 1 free card on Malfurion, since we probably had nothing terribly important to be doing with that mana in any case, making this easy matchup even easier. However, if we are running a typical mid-ranged or aggressive deck, we may be in real trouble. While the Wild Growth itself will wear off in a long game, it is an omen for things to come that our deck will likely not be able to handle for long. We must end the game as soon as possible. The one saving grace with Wild Growth is that it not only removes a card from Malfurion’s hand, but also pushes the need to have each higher drop to be one turn earlier (and as Player 1, Malfurion’s already short one option). These factors combine to make it extremely unlikely that Malfurion can hit all of his drops 4, 5 and 6, even with a mana-heavy deck. We should push with our starting board position extremely aggressively, going for face damage over trading as a general rule, and saving our large removals and silences for taunts.
About the Author
ADWCTA enjoys long runs in the Arena, yelling Lok’tar Ogar! in public places, and thinking deep thoughts about Hearthstone’s game design. He started playing hearthstone in open beta and has been an infinite-level Arena player since launch. He is also a Legend-level Ranked player, but thinks that’s way less awesome than his Arena record.
ADWCTA live streams “the Arena Coop” with friend and fellow infinite-level Arena player Merps, providing in-depth commentary on every pick and play to give the stream a coaching vibe. He thinks watching the Arena Coop is the very best way to improve your game. He may be wrong, but why you take that risk? You can watch all of the Arena Coop’s archived runs on: youtube.com/adwcta, and follow live at: twitch.tv/adwcta.
As of November 12, 2014, the Arena Coop is averaging 9.0 wins per run (78%+ win rate), with 30%+ runs ending in 12-wins; ADWCTA personally averages 8.5 wins per run (75%+ win rate) with his top six classes post-Naxx. In the interest of full transparency, the Arena Coop’s full and current record can be found here, and ADWCTA’s full and current record can be found here.