Hello, HearthstonePlayers, it’s been a while!
I haven’t written anything for a long time, and that’s because I haven’t found a deck that captures my imagination that I think is well positioned. Until now.
Control Mage (originally Grinder Mage, popularized by Strifecro) has an excellent matchup against all of the aggressive decks plaguing the ladder, and has the ability to outlast and overpower the few control decks that do still exist. There are many different versions, and my own has taken inspiration from Strifecro’s original list, Sir Funchalot, and Ego_Sum.
There are a lot of flex spots in the list, but I would consider the following cards essential and un-cuttable:
2 Frostbolt – the best early removal spell in the game; no justification needed.
2 Mad Scientist – absurd card; never card disadvantage and helps set-up Duplicate/Effigy before turn 5 without wasting a turn playing the secret. In this deck, you need to be a bit more careful with your scientists than in most Mage decks. You don’t want to Duplicate low-value targets like Jeweled Scarab in the late game, so you shouldn’t play Mad Scientist if you have one of those out because your opponent could kill the Scientist, getting a Duplicate out of your deck, and then kill the weak minion and give you two copies of it. Scientist should be played alone or on a board with only high-quality minions.
2 Duplicate – the heart of the archetype. Duplicate allows you to out-value every opponent by giving you more of the best cards in the matchup – Antique Healbots and Sludge Belchers against aggro; value machines like Ethereal Conjurer, Archmage Antonidas, or Ragnaros the Firelord against control; and Water Elemental against weapon classes or midrange.
2 Polymorph – When you play long games you need to be able to answer anything; Polymorph does that and negates deathrattles, to boot!
2 Antique Healbot, 2 Sludge Belcher – maxing out on the best defensive cards is good in a defensive deck, especially when you can play them 4-6 times a game due to Duplicate.
2 Flamestrike – utilizing all of the Belchers and heals gives you time to play this ridiculous, but expensive board wipe.
There are a few more situations you need to dedicate slots in your to in your deck, but there are a few options for each one:
Zombie Chow or Doomsayer or Explosive Sheep or Deathlord or Mind Control Tech – a lot of decks require you to start fighting for board early. If you can’t contest early plays, by the time you start dropping Sludge Belchers it will be too late and the taunts will be nothing more than a brief roadblock. To that end, I recommend playing 4-5 of the above cards in some combination. Doomsayer is my favorite because it is a removal spell that grabs back tempo if your opponent can’t kill it, getting you lots of great opportunities to gain the initiative with a Water elemental or Sludge Belcher on an empty board. It is also a good play late game in combination with Blizzard or Sludge Belcher to protect it if your opponent has more than 7 power worth of minions. I wouldn’t play multiples of MCT or Deathlord, as they are both very niche and suboptimal in certain matchups.
Water Elemental or Animated Armor – you want a 4-drop most games, and both of these have utility later (freezing big minions/weapons or being a spell taunt and taunt at the same time, respectively) and are great to Duplicate in certain matchups. I personally prefer Water Elemental because it is better against Paladin, Warrior, Zoo, and Renolock . Animated Armor is better against Face Shaman and Mage. Really, I don’t think this is a choice and that Water Elemental is a staple, but Animated Armor has picked up popularity and I feel I should mention it for the sake of completeness.
Ice Block or Ice Barrier – it’s nice to have a defensive secret to prevent you from dying to burst like Force of Nature + Savage Roar. I prefer Ice Block since it ALWAYS saves you that turn, so if you have board control you can plan around combos by holding some burst healing in your hand.
Brann Bronzebeard or Alexstrasza – the aforementioned burst healing, either in combination with Healbot in Brann’s case or all by herself in Alexstrasza’s case. I like Brann because he also synergizes nicely with Ethereal Conjurer if you opt to go that route.
Ethereal Conjurer or Elise Starseeker – sometimes control decks can outlast you with their superior healing ability using their hero power. When this happens, you need to pressure them with one of these cards. I like Conjurer for the Brann synergy and because he’s more flexible (you can pick up removal, defensive stuff like Ice Barrier or Frost Nova, or value stuff like Duplicate as needed).
Archmage Antonidas or Ragnaros the Firelord – certain aggressive decks like Hunter or Face Shaman can pressure you enough early that your healing runs out. When this happens, they have inevitability and you need to finish them quickly. Both of these legendaries close games very quickly and help you turn the corner when you need to. They also are great to duplicate against control. You could play both, but the extra finishers aren’t necessary (especially if you play Ethereal Conjurer or Elise) and I’d rather have more anti-aggro tools. Ragnaros requires less set-up, but Antonidas is more powerful if you can play him with Duplicate or Effigy on the same turn.
I’m going to go through all of the other cards I would consider playing in Control Mage, starting with the ones I think are best.
Big Game Hunter – every deck has targets for BGH these days, and this deck gives them time to draw their big guns. I like to pack big guns of my own.
Arcane Intellect – more cards is always good, and you are unlikely to lose in fatigue since Duplicate gives you so many more cards than your control opponents. If you keep playing cards and forcing your opponent to trade for them you should be able to run them out of stuff and have the last threat before fatigue damage becomes an issue. I think one Arcane Intellect is the sweet spot, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting a second.
Effigy – A third secret for Mad Scientist to find is nice sometimes, and there are matchups where you value board presence from Effigy more than value from Duplicate. A slam-dunk inclusion in my opinion, maybe even two copies.
Blizzard – another sweeper is great, and it’s cheaper than Flamestrike and teams up with it to kill 6 health minions without taking any damage. All-around solid card if you have a place for it.
Frost Nova – it’s not exactly a sweeper, but it combos nicely with Doomsayer and buys you time until you can Flamestrike. I’m less into this card than I used to be, but it is still very good and a frequent pick from Ethereal Conjurer.
Emperor Thaurissan – I see a lot of Control Mage decklists include Thaurissan, and to be honest I don’t know why. Yes, it often discounts a large hand, but you aren’t building towards any game-ending combos and the body doesn’t defend or fight for the board particularly well. I would stay away.
Jeweled Scarab – card draw that doesn’t come from the deck is valuable, both to avoid fatigue and to catch the opponent off-guard. Scarab also works well with Brann and is a great turn-2 play to supplement your Mad Scientists (or Doomsayers if your opponent played minion first).
Acidic Swamp Ooze – there are tons of 5-drops in the deck already, so Harrison Jones doesn’t really have a place here. If you want weapon removal, I would turn to the trusty Ooze. That said, I don’t think it is necessary on today’s ladder since Face Shaman and Warrior have died down in popularity and you have Polymorph to handle Tirion Fordring without giving them an Ashbringer.
Majordomo Executus – just kidding. Although there is a fun double Ice Barrier, double Ice Block, Alexstrasza version of control Mage, it is sadly not very good.
Bringing It All Together
My preferred decklist is above on the right, but as I spent the whole last section enumerating, there are many ways to build the deck based on personal preference. Many combinations of options are viable, as the true strength of the deck is the Healbot/Sludge Belcher/Duplicate core with supporting removal spells. A few variations that I have found success with are:
Cutting the Blizzard and Explosive Sheep for Frost Novas to get better board clears with Doomsayer. This is particularly effective when silence effects are not popular.
Playing Zombie Chows instead of Mind Control Tech and Jeweled Scarab for more aggressive early game board control at the expense of late-game power. Secret Paladin is too good going long for me to play this package anymore. I like having more staying power.
A second Arcane Intellect and Alexstrasza are both very good cards when the metagame is slower, but that is not the case right now and I’d rather have defensive cards like Explosive Sheep and Mind Control Tech.
The Ethereal Conjurers can be cut, in which case Brann is likely not worth having either. If you go this route, I like having Elise Starseeker in the deck as a way to win attrition matchups where your plan previously was to Duplicate Ethereal Conjurers. Removing Brann also takes away the ability to gain a large burst of life after your Ice Block is popped (with Brann + Healbot), so Alexstrasza should be in the deck to give that burst healing.
I’m going to use my personal list when describing mulligans, but you can apply them to any list by replacing any deviations with the analogues from the “options” section above. Flex slots are mostly tech cards, so if you put those in your deck you know what they are there for and when to keep them.
Mulligans are fairly simple with Control Mage. You always keep Mad Scientist, Frostbolt, Doomsayer, Jeweled Scarab if you have none of the previous three, Zombie Chow if it is in your deck and you are not playing against Warrior, and then keep Water Elemental or Sludge Belcher of you have your first 3 turns taken care of already. Any deviations or additional keeps will be explained in the matchup section below.
Cards to keep: Standard and Explosive Sheep
This matchup all comes down to Mysterious Challenger. If you can maintain a minion on board to trigger the secrets he brings and sweep the board with Polymorph back-up you should win. That sounds like a tall order, but Secret Paladin is the best deck for a reason.
Since you need to keep the early minions down, Water Elemental is excellent here. It trades for at least 2 cards, often more, and can also shut off any weapon usage. Duplicate is best on the Elemental or Sludge Belcher. Paladin doesn’t have any burn spells, so Belcher gains just as much life as Antique Healbot while having better stats.
Key cards to have are Water Elemental or Sludge Belcher so you can start fighting back on the board, Flamestrike or Blizzard to clear up the mid-game rush and establish board control, and Polymorph or Frostbolt and BGH to kill the Paladin’s finishers of Dr. Boom and Tirion Fordring.
Cards to keep: Standard and Polymorph if you have your first few turns taken care of
Druid is all about playing around the Force of Nature + Savage Roar combo. Keep in mind that Water Elemental freezing Malfurion cuts the combo from 14 damage down to 12 (or double combo from 22 damage down to 18). If you have your Ice Block down you can relax a little bit if you have Brann Bronzebeard + Antique Healbot in your hand, as that will let you get back out of combo range immediately.
Your removal and defensive minions are usually enough to stop the Druid’s early pressure, and if things get a little out of control Flamestrike can help you clean up. Sludge Belcher is the best Duplicate target, as it trades with Ancient of Lore if you have 2 spare mana to use your hero power and soaks up 2 attacks from Force of Nature + Savage Roar.
Druid also has very little removal, so if you play Archmage Antonidas on a clear board with Duplicate or Effigy backup they will often have to burn a Force of Nature to kill it, which leaves them too short on reach to kill you and you with another removal spell.
Cards to keep: Standard
Tempo Mage actually has very few minions, so if you kill them all immediately their deck doesn’t do much. For example, if your opponent has a in play it is better to kill it with Explosive Sheep + ping than to play a Water Elemental. They have tons of removal, so your Elemental will just die and you’ll get hit for 3. Cut the damage off at its source and kill the minions first! Once they run out of minions you can kill them at your leisure with Sludge Belchers and Antique Healbots (which also prevent you from dying to the burn they have left over since you weren’t playing minions into it).
Cards to keep: Standard and Explosive Sheep
Zoo plays a lot of deathrattle minions, so the effectiveness of your board clears is greatly diminished if you don’t have a minion down to break their Nerubian Eggs and Haunted Creepers before you Flamestrike or Doomsayer. As such, this plays out almost the opposite of Tempo Mage: play your minions first and save removal for their few bigger minions such as Doomguard. Zoo doesn’t have much reach (usually 4-7 points), so you can afford to take some damage to set up your minions that will all 2-for-1 your opponent or better.
Cards to keep: Standard, and if you are not sure if they are Renolock or Zoo keep Explosive Sheep since it is great against Zoo and still kills some things against Renolock
This is mostly a standard kill-everything-then-take –over-with-card-advantage matchup, but with one wrinkle: you cannot beat Lord Jaraxxus. Your deck is not fast enough to kill them before they draw Jaraxxus, so in order to have a chance against Renolock you need to draw as many cards as possible to find Archmage Antonidas. If you have the coin, save it to create 2 Fireballs the turn you play Antonidas if at all possible, as you need to hold 2 Fireballs and a Frostbolt in your hand in the late game so that you can win instantly if they play Jaraxxus. If you do not have to coin, you may need to Duplicate Antonidas and play him again to make a second Fireball. Ethereal Conjurer can help out on this front by discovering burn spells, including Pyroblast!
Cards to keep: Standard and Antique Healbot if you have your first few turns covered
The shaman deck is completely dedicated to getting your life total to 0 as fast as possible, so do everything you can to minimize damage each turn. Taking time off to set up a secret for a better later turn isn’t worth it; play a minion or removal spell every turn if you can. Setting up Sludge Belcher as a roadblock as soon as possible forces them to use burn on it and prevents a lot of damage from Doomhammer, so that’s the ideal turn 5 (even over a removal spell).
There are several other decks people play, but I going to combine them in this section because they are both less popular and there is not much to say about them. These matchups are either simple or similar to matchups described in detail above.
Control Warrior is a pretty easy matchup – your whole deck is set up for card advantage and they can’t kill you before you get the chance to use all of your cards. Try to Duplicate a Water Elemental to dominate the board and deny their weapons early, and then use the second Duplicate on Ethereal Conjurer or Archmage Antonidas, and kill them in fatigue once they have exhausted all of their removal.
Control Priest is similar to control Warrior, except that they have Entomb to mess with your Duplicates. Asa result, the matchup goes from very good to almost unwinnable. Try to Duplicate Ethereal Conjurers and hope they don’t Entomb them. You can win if you Brann + Conjurer or Conjurer into Echo of Medivh to get more Conjurers than they have removal, but it’s not likely.
Anyfin Paladin is built to be unwinnable for control decks, so it is a pretty poor matchup. You don’t need to worry about dying to Loot Hoarders and Doomsayers, but save Flamestrike and Blizzard so that you can Flamestrike away the first Anyfin Can Happen worth of Murlocs and then Blizzard + Flamestrike the second wave if you’re still alive. Ice Block helps, so if you can avoid getting your block popped by the first (stay at full health and/or have a Sludge Belcher up), you can live through the second and win the game.
Hunter is a very good matchup – your deck is built to taunt and heal, and that’s what beats Hunter. Save Polymorph for Savannah Highmane and don’t attack their face into their traps until you can clear a Bear Trap without taking damage. They are basically a less-explosive Face Shaman.
Rogue generally can’t deal enough damage to kill you if you Duplicate a Belcher or an Antique Healbot. If you can get one of those off and keep their board clear you should cruise to an easy win. Water Elemental is also great here.
Patron Warrior is similar to Rogue in that they try to set up a big turn, but after you stop that once or twice they are out of damage in their deck and lose. A wave of Grim Patrons is easily cleared by a Flamestrike, and Water Elemental, Sludge Belcher and Antique Healbot protect your life well enough that you should never be in danger here.
Control Mage is not an easy deck to play, and the games are very long. If you can overcome these barriers, however, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how well the deck performs. It has even-to-great matchups against every popular deck except Renolock, and it dominates most aggressive decks. If your goal is to frustrate the myriad aggro players on ladder, Control Mage is the deck to play.
Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions in the comments, and all comments are appreciated. Thanks for reading!
Until next time,