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We’ve all seen powerful decks in Hearthstone, be it Mech Mage, Ramp Druid, or Midrange Paladin. These hearthstone deck are often very strong for a time, but usualy people figure out counters relatively quickly and the decks become largely obsolete. However, there are a few Tier One decks that are so powerful that they keep resurfacing in various ways, surviving meta shifts, card pool expansion and even massive nerfs. Today we’ll looking at such decks, analyzing their strengths, their evolution, and why they keep coming up with massive success whilst other deck archetypes such as MurLock and Tempo Rogue fade into the ashes of hearthstone history.
Freeze Mage: Overview
The first deck that we will be looking at is the infamous Freeze Mage. This deck has been around since closed beta and is viable even today even after four of its core cards were nerfed and cards that help defeat it being added to the card pool. Before we look at specific decklists, let’s look at the core game plan:
- Cycle through the deck.
- Stall for time (and mana).
- Throw burn spells at the face for lethal.
This game plan is effective for multiple reasons:
- This deck doesn’t rely on board presence at any point in the game, meaning that a variety of popular cards are useless against Freeze Mage (i.e. Hunter Secrets, AoE spells, Taunt Minions).
- Only one class (Warrior) can proactively counter a Freeze Mage’s win condition, all other classes are forced to either be the aggressor or respond reactively to a Freeze Mage’s burst.
- Freeze Mage’s Combo setup is simply drawing and playing its cards, this makes the combo very difficult to prevent (shy of Counterspell, Loathebor Trade Prince Gallywix) due to a lack of cards that can do so.
Now earlier I mentioned that four core cards had been nerfed, well here they are for reference:
- Frost Nova: Formerly two mana.
- Cone of Cold: Formerly three mana.
- Blizzard: Formerly five mana.
- Pyroblast: Formerly eight mana.
The end result of these nerfs is the fact that Freeze Mage’s ability to respond to aggressive decks with freeze spells, as well as its ability to burst with massive burn spells was significantly slowed. Decks facing Freeze Mage were given another turn to snowball and attempt to burn Freeze Mage out of the game. In fact, Freeze Mage was virtually non-existent after the nerfs, and wasn’t revived for months until a player by the name of Otter successfully piloted a Freeze Mage to #12 Legend (EU) and RDU sweeped Amaz 3-0 with Freeze Mage at Dreamhack.
With the release of Goblins vs. Gnomes, Freeze Mage’s popularity took a hit with the release of Antique Healbot
Recently however, Freeze Mage has received a bit of a boost in the form of Emperor Thaurissan
Freeze Mage: Decklists
To start things off, let’s look at a pre-nerf Freeze Mage list:
First thing to notice is that this deck is running almost no non-burn removal. With the exception of the Doomsayer
Next we’ll be looking at a list that Otter piloted to #12 Legend:
After the nerfs hit, Freeze Mage entered hibernation until Otter revived it by using it to great effect in high legend. Now you’ll notice quite a few cards have gone by the wayside in this iteration, due in part to the nerfs and meta shifts. Here are the differences:
- -2 Arcane Missiles: Freeze Mage slowed down quite a bit to the increased mana cost of many of its cards, so lower impact cards started to get dropped in order to make room for cards that would better sustain the deck until it could combo.
- -1 Nat Pagle: After its nerf, your opponent would get a chance to remove it before you could draw a card, and if they ignored it for one turn you would only possibly draw one card off of it (as opposed to two), which is a huge difference. Consequently, it got cut as it almost never pays off anymore.
- -2 Loot Hoarder: Even today people debate whether to run Loot Hoarders or Novice Engineers, but either way at the end of the day cantrips are just deck filler and don’t actually contribute much to the deck. As such, only one pair of two-mana cantrips is employed in modern Freeze Mage decklists. Loot Hoarder is better in the early game as it can trade better and slow your opponent down a little, Novice Engineer is better in the mid to late game where the difference between drawing a card this turn or next turn is the difference between a win and a loss.
- -2 Cone of Cold: After the nerfs, this card has always been considered the worst of the freeze cards. The fact that it can only freeze three minions in addition to it’s high price makes it terrible against aggressive decks, leading many to scrap it entirely.
- -1 Leeroy Jenkins: This card was always just a third (and weaker) Fireballin Freeze Mage, since it’s vulnerable to Taunt minions and does not benefit from Spell Damage buffs. It was cut for better cards.
- -1 Pyroblast: After having its mana cost raised a whopping two points, running two of this card was likely to cause terrible hand clog as at that point in the game nothing else could be done on the turn Pyroblast was cast (Emperor Thaurissanwas non-existent at the time), meaning that it was significantly harder to cast it safely.
- +2 Mirror Image: This card works wonderfully as a cheap stalling tool, working as a pseudo-freeze that can be played in advance (for example on an empty board), leaving your later turns open to draw instead of freezing. Also cheap enough to cast after utilizing Alexstrasza, which was very helpful against classes like Druid that have a hard time responding to a turn ten Alexstrasza + Mirror Image play (it is significantly harder to trade minions into Alexstrasza to kill it off if the first two attacks are going to be wasted).
- +2 Acolyte of Pain: This card adds draw to make up for the dropped cantrips, but it provides a unique touch. Your opponent is forced to either attack it to prevent you from drawing three cards off of it, or they can let it be and let you garner some insane card advantage. One way to look at Acolyte of Pain is: Five mana, draw two cards, gain x life (where x equals the attack of the minion used to kill it).
- +2 Ice Barrier: A slower deck is simply going to take more damage during the game, so sixteen additional points of life that can be played even when you’re at full health (since it grants armor) is extremely useful for buying the extra time you need to burn out your opponent.
- +2 Azure Drake: A decent sized minion that cycles and has Spell Damage +1, what’s not to like? It’s a medium-sized threat, so your opponent will have to expend resources to remove it, which they most likely will as thanks to its Spell Damage buff its attack is equivalent to four + x (where x equals the number of damage spells you cast in a given turn whilst it is in play).
- +1 Flamestrike: With less viable freezes available and the fact that Doomsayers can be silenced, sometimes you need a tried and true way to clear your opponent’s board. Enter Flamestrike, also known as the card that you always wonder how many of your opponent drafted when you queue up against a Mage in Arena. There’s nothing quite like deep freezing and then flash roasting your opponent’s board on turns six and seven respectively.
Since then, Freeze Mage has has its ups (Flare
Speaking of today, here’s the decklist Camzee used in Legend in April:
Due to some card pool additions, Freeze Mage was up for some changes. Here they are:
- -2 Mirror Image: As the focus of the deck has shifted more from not dying to actually killing your opponent (no thanks to Antique Healbot), the small amount of stalling Mirror Image provides doesn’t provide enough value to be worth a slot in the deck.
- -1 Novice Engineer: Whilst still a good cycle card, other additions to the deck due to meta-calls and additions to the card pool required that a card get cut and as this isn’t strictly speaking the best cycle card in the deck, Novice Engineer drew the short stick.
- -2 Azure Drake: This card is too slow for the deck in recent times, essentially playing the role of a five mana Bloodmage Thalnos, and is especially vulnerable to being picked off by Piloted Shredder. Not to mention playing big minions that might just die to your own Doomsayercombo isn’t especially efficient.
- +1 Explosive Sheep: An effective anti-aggro tech, this card when combined with Mage’s hero power makes for a pseudo-Consecration. This card works nicely in combination with other sweepers (such as a Doomsayer combo) to clear minions summoned by Deathrattles. For example, if on turn ten a hunter drops a Savannah Highmaneand a Piloted Shredder, you can respond with a Frost Nove + Doomsayer + Explosive Sheep. If they lack and answer, the Doomsayer will kill all minions, Savannah Highmane and Shredder summoning their minions first (since they were played first), and then the Sheep’s explosion will kill those minions (assuming the Shredder drops a minion with two or less HP).
- +2 Mad Scientist: This card is just amazing in Freeze Mage. It’s a great deck thinner, effectively letting four secret cards take up six deck slots, they have two HP so they don’t die to random pings, and they can also trade decently well. Not to mention if your opponent silences one, they have one less answer to your Doomsayers.
- +1 Emperor Thaurissan: Now Mage gets to get its hands on some mana cost reduction goodness! This card massively increases the amount of damage you can push in a single turn. If you can play Emperor Thaurissan with Alexstrasza, two Frostbolts and two: The addition of Emperor Thaurissan means that the number of spells that one can cast on the same turn Antonidas is greatly increased, making gaining three Fireballs in a single turn relatively common. This makes the deck more consistent as it both means that one can actually have enough damage to beat decks with a lot of healing (such as HandLock and Warrior) and that you can still win even if you don’t draw Alexstrasza.
This deck packs a bigger punch than Otter’s deck and can more reliably survive the early to mid game, thanks to some new (and powerful!) additions to the card pool.
Freeze Mage: Conclusion
Freeze Mage has been a viable contender as a top-tier deck for month after month, in no small part due to the sheer fact that it can completely ignore so many cards that an opponent is likely to be playing.
Whilst it’s not the most popular ladder deck due to the relative slowness of the deck and the fact that there are a few auto-lose matchups, it still is a very strong deck overall, especially in a tournament setting where the diversity of the decks is somewhat less varied.
Why hasn’t Freeze Mage died?
Freeze Mage’s game-plan will always be viable as long as players have thirty health and tend to use minions to kill their opponents. Freeze Mage preys upon core hearthstone mechanics, and as long as its toolkit isn’t outclassed by the cards its opponent’s run (remember that only a few cards are super effective vs. Freeze Mage) it will always have a place as its strategy is simple and inherently strong.
Midrange Hunter: Overview
Once upon a time, Hunters simply dominated the hearthstone ladder, taking out all decks that weren’t built to oppose them. Actually, that happened several times, but I’m getting ahead of myself. At one point, Beast synergy was considered so good that cards like River Crocolisk
Original lists relied on the strengths of a Beast into Houndmaster
- Flare: Formerly one mana.
- Unleash the Hounds: Formerly two mana.
- Eaglehorn Bow: Formerly gained one durability off of revealed enemy secrets in addition to friendly secrets.
- Starving Buzzard: Formerly two mana (with a 2/1 body).
These nerfs razed Hunter’s draw engine, making the originally four mana Buzzard + Unleash combo an unplayable eight mana. Hunters could not even run two Flares as cantrips all willy-nilly since it is now a significant tempo loss if it doesn’t do anything aside from drawing card. Hunters were forced to find ways to stretch their meager card supply, which meant ditching all low-impact/card inefficient tech cards, leading to the scarcity of if not complete disappearance of cards such as Bestial Wrath
Midrange Hunter: Decklists
Let’s start by taking a look at Lifecoach’s Hunter from back in the day:
If you think Mech Tribal synergy is insane now, the Beast tribal synergies that Hunter could abuse were figuratively game-breaking. In addition to powerful (yet balanced) cards like Timber Wolf
Many decks in hearthstone like to swarm minions, meaning that rarely will one have two or less minions in play (unless facing a Tempo deck). This led to Unleash the Hounds usually spawning three or more Hounds, which led to several major complications. Here is a semi-typical turn seven with this deck: Opponent has four minions in play. The Hunter plays Starving Buzzard into Unleash the Hounds. Four Hounds spawn, and four cards are drawn. Thanks to that massive draw, the Hunter now has Timber Wolf and Scavenging Hyena in hand. Both are played, drawing and additional two cards, one of which is a Hunter's Mark
What does the above scenario boil down to? On turn seven, the Hunter drew six cards (alone worth eleven mana if extrapolated from Arcane Intellect
Note: There is a HUGE time gap between the aforementioned Hunter list and the next one, but I feel that it’s best to list the most popular “Midrange Hunter” list between these two chronologically in a separate section as the deck wasn’t called Midrange Hunter at the time.
Let’s look at a modern list, one that ErA ran up to #1 Legend:
Time for a comparison between these decks!
- -1 Hunter's Mark: With Hunter’s card draw burnt to the ground, two-for-one’ing yourself is a bad idea, though sometimes tempo gain is worth it. For this reason, only one Hunter’s Mark is employed as opposed to two.
- -1 Flare: With the mana cost increase, running a card that effectively is two mana draw a card is just too slow and inefficient to be considered for this deck.
- -2 Tracking: Whilst this card is great, people got pressed for card slots and this didn’t end making the cut, plus discarding your secrets whilst you have a Mad Scientist in play/hand is just a crumby feeling.
- -2 Stonetusk Boar: Without Starving Buzzard synergy and the inclusion of only one Hunter’s Mark, this card is simply too low impact to make the list.
- -2 Timber Wolf: This list runs a lot fewer beasts than the previous one, making this another low impact one-drop that doesn’t warrant an entire card slot in this deck.
- -1 Explosive Trap: This was actually just cut to make room for another Freezing Trap, entirely meta call.
- -2 Scavenging Hyena: Without a ton of beasts, this card doesn’t generate value consistently enough to be ran over other more consistent two-drops (that are good as naked turn two plays).
- -1 King Mukla: The drawback of this card is usually considered too much of drawback to be run in many decks, and again without Starving Buzzard cheap beasts aren’t in high demand.
- -1 Leeroy Jenkins: This card isn’t as efficient after the mana cost nerf, and the has slowed down a bit so a burst finisher isn’t as important (plus the popularity of Sludge Belchercertainly hasn’t done Leeroy any favors).
- +2 Webspinner: A one mana beast is still nice as far as your mana curve is concerned, and a cheap Kill Command trigger is great too. Webspinner is that one mana beast of choice as it’s a pseudo-cantrip as well, providing a lot of value for a one-drop.
- +1 Freezing Trap: A meta call, as sometimes bouncing a minion is preferable to killing them (for example Haunted Creeper).
- +2 Quick Shot: Cheap burn/removal that can be a free cantrip, what’s not to like?
- +1 Eaglehorn Bow: Mad Scientists make drawing secrets more common, making running two bows sustainable.
- +2 Haunted Creeper: A cheap beast that is a great standalone turn two play that trades very well and is generally inefficient to remove.
- +2 Knife Juggler: This minion synergizes very well with Haunted Creeper and Unleash the Hounds, allowing for a good amount of removal in addition to the fact that it trades well.
- +1 Kezan Mystic: Using this instead of Flare is just about as bad as Flare when no secrets are affected, but significantly better if there is a secret as you steal it instead of merely destroying it. This makes it a better tech card, plus it’s a card that still puts a minion in play, unlike Flare which is even more of a tempo loss as it’s two mana and a card that doesn’t influence the board state if it doesn’t destroy any secrets.
- +1 Loatheb: A 5/5 for five mana is a solid body, and the ability to stall efficient board clears for one turn can let you squeeze in enough damage to seal a game you otherwise would’ve lost.
- +1 Dr. Boom: Nicknamed “Dr. Balanced”, this card gives you a big threat plus removal/burn in one card at a very good price. This heavy hitter will quickly end games if left unanswered, and many decks just can’t deal with Dr. Boom and two Savannah Highmanes.
This deck is a bit slower than older lists due to not having a ton of draw and other broken combos, but as proven by being piloted to Rank #1 Legend, it is still quite strong.
Midrange Hunter: Conclusion
A strong and popular ladder archetype, Midrange Hunter decks are usually cheaper than similarly effective decks from other classes. Combined with its simple effectiveness against many popular deck archetypes and the pure value of many of its cards (queue Animal Companion
Why hasn’t Midrange Hunter died?
- Savannah Highmaneis OP.
- Mad Scientistis OP.
Hunter simply has access to some super-powerful and value packed cards, especially the two listed above. Savannah Highmane embodies the brute strength of Hunter, being an extremely difficult minion to remove outside of Hex
Deathrattle Hunter: Overview
For a time after the release of the Curse of Naxxramas, the sheer power of a little card called Undertaker
With the coin, it was possible to attack with a 3/4 on turn two, and it would continue to snowball from there. Whilst Undertaker was in its original state, virtually every Hunter ran a “HunterTaker” list, focusing on loading the deck with deathrattles to get the most value possible out of Undertaker. These decks varied in speed (some ran Sludge Belcher
Hunter was considered the best class to run an Undertaker-centric deck as due the fact that it has an one drop with a Deathrattle (Webspinner
Deathrattle Hunter: Decklist
Using Undertaker as it’s power play, Deathrattle Hunter would play the Aggro game, trying to keep buffing up Undertaker once drawn and played. This is why a non-aggressive card like Sludge Belcher
Deathrattle Hunter: Conclusion
After the Undertaker nerf hit, Deathrattle Hunter was absorbed back into the Midrange Hunter archetype. The core of the deck was very strong, but without the ability to rely on the brute strength of a 4/5 Undertaker the deck underwent some optimizations, no longer running every possible Deathrattle minion for the sake of having more Deathrattles to fuel Undertaker.
Why hasn’t Deathrattle Hunter died?
After the Undertaker nerf, the deck morphed into today’s modern Midrange Hunter lists. So whilst the deck itself and its primary synergy is no longer top-tier, many of the things that made Deathrattle Hunter strong make up the backbone of today’s lists. As it turns out, most of the Deathrattle cards Huntertakers ran are just good in Hunter decks even without the presence of Undertaker
Miracle Rogue: Overview
Long long ago, on a server far far away, Headcrack
Rogue was one of the most heavily nerfed classes in the game during early beta. From nerfing the hero power (it at one point it would buff your weapon’s attack if your hero power weapon was equipped) to nerfing a myriad of cards, Rogue has managed to endure having its back broken multiple times. Notable nerfs (to both the class and neutrals often used by the class) include:
- Backstab: Formerly could deal damage to both damaged and undamaged minions.
- Conceal: Formerly zero mana, gave a minion Stealth permanently.
- Headcrack: Formerly two mana.
- Mana Addict: Formerly gained three attack per spell cast.
- Edwin VanCleef: Formerly a 2/2 with Stealth.
- Leeroy Jenkins: Formerly four mana.
- Gadgetzan Auctioneer: Formerly five mana.
The general gameplan of a Miracle Rogue is as follows:
- Control the board in the early game.
- Draw a ton of cards.
- Set up lethal and burst down the opponent.
Different decks put the draw engine of Miracle Rogue to work with different win conditions. Some decks would seek to directly exploit the ludicrous spending of cards the deck would do. Others simply used it to draw into a high-damage combo, and yet others simply wanted to pile burn on their opponent’s face. Whichever win condition a Miracle Rogue chose to include, it could consistently get to it and unleash the pain.
Miracle Rogue: Decklists
Let’s start off with a Questing Adventurer
The goal with this deck was to cycle though your deck and lay down and Gadgetzan Auctioneer with Questing Adventurers and/or Mana Addicts. Then on the next turn, cycle through your deck with a plethora of spells dealing damage to the face and triggering your minions, then swinging in with massive attack minions. Dropping a huge Edwin was also a fun thing to do if you drew it. If they didn’t get big enough to kill in one turn, you could just Conceal
Whilst slamming huge Questing Adventurers into your opponent’s face is all fine and dandy, it takes a few turns to set up and can be vulnerable to big sweepers like Shadowflame
This variant decides to rely on the Spell Damage buff of Malygos
As strong as the above two decks were, they were not the strongest Miracle decks out there. That title goes to the Leeroy Jenkins
Before I compare this list with the Malygos one, I feel that it’s best to first compare its win condition with the Malygos Miracle deck. First of all, since Malygos costs nine mana, this deck can not start it’s burst until turn nine at the earliest. Additionally, to get a decent amount of burst in a single turn, one would need four cards. For example, one could play on turn ten Malygos
- -2 Sinister Strike: This card is pretty low impact without Spell Damage buffs, so this card was cut for cards that do more.
- -1 Blade Flurry: Since there are only two cards in the deck that can buff the hero power weapon (both copies of Deadly Poison) and no other weapons, running two copies of this card is just inconsistent (Spell Damage +1 wasn’t enough to save it either).
- -1 Ironbeak Owl: Since this deck doesn’t rely on any board control, there are no silence targets that really need to be immediately dealt with that can’t be dealt with later with Sap. Even Sylvanas Windrunnerdoesn’t concern this deck.
- -1 Headcrack: This card is basically a worse Steady Shot (Hunter’s hero power), the only reason it was even run in the first place was to make sure that you didn’t run out of burn to combo with Malygos. Drop Malygos, drop Headcrack, simple as that.
- -1 Earthen Ring Farseer: This card is very good, but not important to the win condition of the deck (it just helped to make sure you didn’t die first). This card was run as a two-of in some lists, but this deck dropped it most likely for another card that would cycle.
- -1 Malygos: This card enabled the combos the prior variant relied on to win. Since the Leeroy variant relies on a different win condition, Malygos’ services were no longer needed.
- +2 Shadowstep: Part of this deck’s win condition, the card was effectively a two-mana Fireball. Talk about value!
- +1 Cold Blood: A cheap damage pump, four damage for one mana makes for great addition to a deck that relies on a charge minion to win.
- +1 Sap: Since taunts actually can stop this lethal combo, a way to deal with them was in order. The reason this was run over say Ironbeak Owl was: Sap works with Preparation, Sap procs Gadgetzan Auctioneerand sometimes you just need to buy little time and silencing a minion is not as good as removing it (albeit temporarily) from the board.
- Leeroy Jenkins: The other part of this deck’s win condition, this guy bore the brunt of much hate during this deck’s prime, as people hated the “Triple Leeroy” combo.
Miracle Rogue: Conclusion
After the Leeroy Jenkins nerf hit, Miracle Rogue started to struggle a bit as people were divided on whether or not to completely ditch the Leeroy Jenkins + Shadowstep
Flurry Rogue: Overview
Now before you ask me why I’m calling this deck “Flurry Rogue” instead of “Oil Rogue”, let me explain. Many people ascribe the success of Flurry Rogue to the addition of Tinker's Sharpsword Oil
Flurry Rogue plays very much like Miracle Rogue did back in its day. It goes for board control in the early game, goes for massive card draw in the mid-game (most Flurry Rogues run two Sprint
In addition to playing much like Miracle Rogue, many of Flurry Rogue’s matchups are similar as well (though most midrange matchups are a bit better due to Flurry Rogue’s superior AoE capabilities), such as being weak to Control Warrior (due to the overheal that Armor provides) and strong against classic ZooLock (due to removal spells keeping the board clear and the burst being aided by Warlock’s hero power). Whilst a lot about the actual decklist changed from Miracle Rogue to Flurry Rogue, the spirit is almost exactly the same, hence the inclusion of both in this article.
Flurry Rogue: Decklist
The gameplan of a Flurry Rogue is very similar to a Miracle Rogue:
- Control the board early on.
- Draw a bunch of cards OR establish your own board.
- Burst your opponent down.
Flurry Rogue uses mostly the same tools that Miracle had access to for board control, using cards like Backstab
Compared to Miracle Rogues of days past, Flurry Rogue doesn’t have access to as mana/card efficient combos, but it makes up for it with the ability to maintain control of the board with
an iron fist
a poisoned dagger. It’s still a Combo Rogue at heart, and still great at what it does best: bringing down the opponent from fifteen to zero (or less) in a single turn.
Flurry Rogue: Conclusion
Whilst not the most popular deck on ladder, Flurry Rogue is a very viable contender at all levels of play. It’s very hard to directly counter its win condition unless you’re a Warrior (let’s be honest, who runs Arcane Nullifier X-21
To Be Continued…
That’s all for this article, but look forward to learning more about the following decks in the next installment:
- Control Warrior
- Combo Druid
Until then, I hope you enjoyed this blast from the past and learned about your most (or maybe least!) favorite decks, how they’ve evolved and survived both nerfs and additions to the card pool.
See you next time!
I want to give a special thanks to Newton (read his articles here) for helping proofread this article. He’s a great writer and it’s the direct result of his help that this article has proper formatting. Check his stuff out!