Paladins have come a long way since 2014. Until December of that year, most considered it the worst class. Equality and Consecration were good, yes, but they provided an environment for much more powerful cards than what existed at that time. The deck rarely showed up on ladder, and when it made occasional tournament appearances, it was as a greedy Control deck, making use of heal effects like Guardian of Kings and Lay on Hands to outlast the opponent. With Goblins vs. Gnomes, this all changed. For one thing, the addition of Antique Healbot eliminated Paladin’s one niche, allowing other Control decks to heal just as much. However, the set also gave Paladin decks several gifts. Most importantly, these were Shielded Minibot, Muster for Battle, Quartermaster, and Coghammer. The result was a more aggressive Paladin that could play ball with other decks on turns two and three. Minibot, Muster, and Coghammer all present immediate and huge potential for board impact. Along with these, Quartermaster made the hero power significantly more dangerous, punishing the opponent for ignoring Silver Hand Recruits. Quartermaster could even be combined with Muster for Battle on turn eight for a huge swing, not unlike what is seen in modern Mid-Range Patron Warrior.
Still, Goblins vs. Gnomes wasn’t all that Paladins had going for them. It’s true, Blackrock Mountain was relatively quiet, introducing Dragon Consort, opening up the possibility of Dragon Paladin decks with higher mana curves, and Solemn Vigil, providing additional card draw that can be employed in Aggro and Combo builds. However, the real magic came with The Grand Tournament. Eadric the Pure seemed to be support for older Control styles of the deck, neutralizing the opponent’s board without having to deal with Deathrattle effects. Seal of Champions, like Argent Horserider, is a way for Aggro versions to summon extra damage and durability out of thin air. Warhorse Trainer, Murloc Knight, and Justicar Trueheart, taken together, further increase the impact of the class’ Hero Power. However, Mysterious Challenger is the real star of the set. As a 6/6 for six mana, the card already has reasonable stats, but its ability to play as many as five different Secrets from the user’s deck gives the class unparalleled swing potential. Along with the new Competitive Spirit and some of Paladin’s older Secrets, Mysterious Challenger has taken the meta game by storm, sitting at or near the top for nearly five months. With The League of Explorers, Blizzard has shown no signs of slowing down, giving the class a new Mid-Range reactive tool in Keeper of Uldaman and an entirely new deck type with Anyfin Can Happen.
Paladin has shown its strength in both its versatility and its cohesiveness as a class over the last fourteen months. New Paladin decks are cropping up all the time, but there is typically one on top that best combines the disparate strengths of the class. After five months as the king of the meta game, it would take a nerf to Mysterious Challenger or a new powerful deck to depose Paladin from its rank. With powerful plays on curve, a good combination of value and tempo, top-of-the-line reactive options, a flexible Hero Power, and a number of variants and versatility, few other classes can compete for the title of the best.
Powerful Plays on Curve
As said earlier, Paladin had the bones to rise to the top eventually. With Equality and Consecration (or Wild Pyromancer) wrecking large opposing boards, Truesilver Champion winning the mid-game, and Tirion Fordring sealing things out, it only had to wait for new acquisitions. Since the days of Naxxramas, the Basic Set, and the Classic Set, it has acquired several new options to fill in the gaps. Secretkeeper in Secret Paladin decks and Zombie Chow in Mid-Range versions accomplish the same thing, playing a strong minion on turn one. They have their pros and cons; while Secretkeeper is more situational, it also has more potential to grow out of control and put direct life pressure on the opponent, whereas Zombie Chow is intended to trade well against minions. Turn two has a number of options, such as Wild Pyromancer and Haunted Creeper, but Knife Juggler and Shielded Minibot are the most impactful. Shielded Minibot, like Zombie Chow, trades well against other cheap minions, but it typically does the job even better, without the negative effect. Knife Juggler, like Secretkeeper, can have a huge impact if it is given the chance to survive several turns.
Knife Juggler is the perfect segue into Muster for Battle, combining with Knife Juggler to clear off the enemy’s weakened minions. Even on its own, Muster for Battle is powerful and flexible, summoning several small bodies whose attacks can be used to make favorable trades. While it is too low impact to play outright, Light’s Justice is also significant, basically allowing each minion on following turns to “trade up” against more powerful ones. Turn four is very flexible. Piloted Shredder is one of the most powerful plays on an empty board on turn four, and it is no different for Paladins. Blessing of Kings and Truesilver Champion provide mechanisms to either extend the impact of minions already present or trade against mid-range minions, each allowing a board swing in its own way. The final turns are less flexible but no less powerful, with Sludge Belcher on five, Mysterious Challenger on six, Dr. Boom on seven, and Tirion Fordring on eight.
Of course, Paladins will not always play on curve, but their multiple options at many key flashpoints in the early game – and the lead which they acquire when things do go their way – contribute to the deck’s overall power level. There is a reason that many refer to each powerful standalone card in the Secret Paladin deck as a “doctor.” The trend began with Dr. Boom, a versatile and proactive card that demands attention from the opponent. Secretkeeper, Shielded Minibot, Knife Juggler, Muster for Battle, Piloted Shredder, Sludge Belcher, Mysterious Challenger, and Tirion Fordring also meet this criteria. Does this make the deck “braindead,” as many would claim? Well, it’s tough to say. It’s true that much of Secret Paladin (emphasis here, since the same does not apply to other Paladin decks) gameplay revolves around playing on curve, but as with any deck, the skill is in the margins. While an intermediate player may follow the plan, unwilling to adapt to changing circumstances in the game, a more advanced Secret Paladin player will know when to play off-curve, when to use a reactive option instead of a proactive one, and yes, when it is best to trade.
Value and Tempo
I alluded to this concept in the previous section with the distinction of proactive and reactive cards. It may seem overly academic, but the speed and manner with which a card does what it’s supposed to is critical. Put simply, a card’s value is what impact is has over its life span, and a card’s tempo is what immediate effect it has, measured by its immediate and direct impact, as well as the attention it draws from the opponent. An easy example of good tempo would be SI:7 Agent, since it can kill a weak minion as soon as it is played. Another example would be Piloted Shredder, since the opponent has to find a way to stop taking four damage on every turn until they lose. The first is a reactive tempo card that also presents good value (since a 3/3 and two damage is easily worth three mana), and the second is a proactive value card that also represents good tempo. Some cards, like Sap and Arcane Intellect, illustrate the extremes of each principle. The former is good tempo because of its potential board impact for three mana, but since a card and two mana are spent, and the opponent still has the same number of cards (nothing was destroyed), it doesn’t directly provide good value. Arcane Intellect is a one-for-two, drawing two cards for the price of the Arcane Intellect itself, but since it costs three mana and doesn’t impact the board, it represents value without tempo. While these cards have their place, some of the best can accomplish both.
Let’s consider some examples in the Paladin’s toolkit. Muster for Battle summons three 1/1s, already roughly equivalent to three mana, and plays a Light’s Justice for three mana total. Basically, the card is under costed for its effect, making it good value. However, let’s consider the impact of this effect in more detail. The 1/1s are versatile on their own, allowing good trades or some early life pressure. However, Paladin also has several ways to increase the value of its own Silver Hand Recruits, with cards like Blessing of Kings, Equality, Keeper of Uldaman, and Seal of Champions. This is what is known as “pseudo-Taunt.” Although the Silver Hand Recruits don’t explicitly prevent the opponent from attacking other targets, their potential for future trouble still encourages the opponent to do so. After enough time, one begins to realize that most minions in proactive decks have “pseudo-Taunt” because it is important to directly respond to the plays of the aggressor. The Light’s Justice provides simultaneous reactive tempo, clearing out small or weakened enemy minions. It can even be used to deal additional damage to the face, but this depends on how likely it is to play other weapons on future turns.
Mysterious Challenger is also a valuable and tempo-heavy minion. As a 6/6 for six, if it does nothing else, it’s already achieved mana parity. Each Secret it manages to pull from the deck is additional value. Less obviously, playing Mysterious Challenger also dramatically increases the value of following draws. Unless they come in combination with Secretkeeper, drawing Secrets as a Secret Paladin is a shame. Once the majority of them are removed from the deck by its effect, the rest of the deck is instantly better. The body and Secrets put the opponent in a difficult situation. Six attack is too much to ignore, and it’s sure to be followed closely by Dr. Boom. However, removing it is difficult. The combination of Noble Sacrifice, Avenge, and Redemption only serves to strengthen the board further, especially if Competitive Spirit lands. Post-Mysterious Challenger, the opponent must have a spare minion to attack with and trigger the Secret, to be followed by another of at least eight damage (after the Avenge lands on Mysterious Challenger.) Outside of this, answers are more niche, like Big Game Hunter and Lightbomb. The Challenger itself needs an answer, but attempting to remove it is often ineffective or results in an even worse position. Clearly, cleanly removing Mysterious Challenger and the majority of its Secrets in one turn is very difficult. Overall, it presents the best combination of value and tempo available to the class.
So far, I’ve primarily considered Secret Paladin. However, this is not the only competitive Paladin deck. Mid-Range and Murloc are also viable variants, and both make heavy use of the Paladin’s reactive options. Equality, Consecration, Truesilver Champion, Aldor Peacekeeper, Keeper of Uldaman, Lay on Hands, Quartermaster, and Coghammer mean that it is often nearly impossible to play around every strong Paladin turn. A deck sitting back and operating defensively will be met with Quartermaster and Keeper of Uldaman played on Silver Hand Recruits, not to mention a flurry of Recruits post-Justicar Trueheart. An aggressive deck will be met with board wipes, healing effects, and Taunts from the likes of Sludge Belcher and Coghammer. Basically, the reactive side of the Paladin kit allows it to play the long game, while maintaining the flexibility to play more proactively. It is diverse enough to accommodate not just any deck build but any situation that should arise within a game.
Lay on Hands, in particular, may be the best draw card available to Control strategies. Not only does it thin the deck, but it also heals for eight, usually enough to escape lethal for a turn against Aggro decks. Its mana cost, while leaving something to be desired, at least allows another card to be squeezed into the turn, like a Bluegill Warrior, Equality, or at least a Hero Power. Combined with Aldor Peacekeeper, Keeper of Uldaman, and Humility, Lay on Hands goes further than otherwise, stretching the game out for several more necessary turns. Doomsayer also functions well with these cards, clearing out boards of less than seven total combined damage. In addition, it synergizes with Solemn Vigil, a key combo for Murloc Paladin decks. Although they have already come up, Equality and Consecration should not be underestimated. The combo is rivaled by only several other board clear effects, namely Twisting Nether, Shadowflame, and Brawl, but it has unique advantages over all of these. The combo punishes opponents who try to overextend against a Mid-Range or Murloc Paladin and opponents who try to race faster variants. It is not always played, but the ability to tech a single copy into Aggro versions of the deck should always have the opponent on edge.
As the counterpoint to Paladin’s plethora of reactive cards, the Hero Power, Reinforce, is a way to proactively churn out more minions. The ability is rather unassuming, summoning only a 1/1 for two mana. Applying the logic of Shaman players, who are usually unhappy to see the Stoneclaw Totem, it seems relatively useless. However, the flexibility of the minions, the ability to pressure an opponent who is running out of cards, and the synergy with other Paladin cards make it a good fit. Although balanced on a similar power level to other Hero Powers like Druid and Mage, Reinforce has certain advantages. For one thing, there is potential for each Silver Hand Recruit to do more than just one damage, meaning the potential damage output is higher than in other decks. Silver Hand Recruits also have all of the advantages of any other minion and are good targets for stat buffs. Trump, a popular and educational Hearthstone streamer, advises frequent use of the Hero Power, calling it “the value button.” Along with the flexibility offered by spawning extra minions, the Hero Power’s damage potential can be especially impactful in the late game, especially if it has been buffed by Justicar Trueheart to The Silver Hand, summoning two 1/1s for the same mana cost.
Although Paladin is largely made up of independently strong cards on curve and anti-meta reactive cards, the Hearthstone design team has also pushed Hero Power synergy for the class. The best example is Quartermaster, the first card to make Reinforce more threatening. This card singlehandedly changed the standard game plan against Paladin. While the deck did play a high amount of healing effects, it had a low amount of potential burst damage or life pressure. Players could ignore the Silver Hand Recruits and hit the face, as long as they didn’t overextend into Equality and Consecration. However, the simple threat of Quartermaster (even though it is only sometimes played) forces the opponent to awkwardly clear out the Recruits, damaging their own minions and wasting potential face damage. While not directly working with the Recruits, Murloc Knight is another way to make the opponent play awkwardly. On turn six, when players are most prepared to deal with larger minions, a 3/4, a 1/1, and a random Murloc are suddenly on the board. Outside of Flamestrike and Auchenai Soulpriest plus Circle of Healing, there are few easy ways to take care of this. The potential to get a “good” Murloc, especially Murloc Warleader, Old Murk-Eye, or another Murloc Knight, makes the card even more fearsome. It is a priority to remove quickly and always a viable tech choice in Mid-Range versions. Strangely, Murloc Knight is typically a bad choice in Murloc Paladin, which I’ll explain in the next section. Finally, Warhorse Trainer is another tech option in Mid-Range decks, functioning as a third Quartermaster. Although its buff is not as considerable, it can be played earlier and is closer to being worth its mana cost when there are no Silver Hand Recruits in play, as a 2/4 for three mana.
For many, Paladin has become synonymous with Secret Paladin, but Hearthstone players tend to have a short memory. Only a month ago, Mid-Range Paladin was competing for the top spot, and Murloc Paladin has recently climbed to nearly tier one. In addition to drastically different playstyles available to the class, there are also a number of flex spots available. Even Secret Paladin, which boasts the most cluttered and standardized list of any version, is flexible with respect to its Secrets (sometimes running Repentance or playing a second Redemption), Divine Favor, the number of Sludge Belchers, and the choice of running Ragnaros the Firelord. While this may not seem like much, all of these cards, with the exception of Belcher, need to be “played around,” and being taken by surprise by any of them can mean the match. While Mid-Range and Murloc Paladin have well-defined cores, they also boast versatility. Mid-Range can fit in an extra Healbot, an extra Quartermaster, Harrison Jones, an extra Coghammer, Haunted Creeper, or Mind Control Tech, to name just a handful. Since its win condition is less directly defined that the other two variants, it can afford to adapt to the meta game. For Murloc Paladin, Humility, Acolyte of Pain, Muster for Battle, Keeper of Uldaman, Sludge Belcher, and Loot Hoarder are all flex spots. Even Big Game Hunter and Deathlord are reasonable options. Murloc Knight would seem to be a no-brainer, but it was dropped early into the deck’s development. Its potential to clog the board with “bad” Murlocs and thus weaken Anyfin Can Happen is too great.
Between Secret and Mid-Range Paladin, each can get away with a lot on the starting turns of the game, since both play Knife Juggler, Shielded Minibot, and Muster for Battle. Blowing resources on these minions too early could be disastrous against Mid-Range Paladin, since it exhausts the player against their longer-term strategy. The anti-Paladin mulligan is difficult. While board clears are critical against Secret and Mid-Range Paladin, which are reliant on board control, they are nearly useless against Murloc Paladin. Now that the Murloc variant is becoming more popular and Mid-Range has declined, it is always difficult to anticipate what Paladin deck is coming. This gives each deck inflated win rates, beyond their matchup potential, since the mulligan is so important. It’s reminiscent of the relationship between Zoolock and Handlock several months ago, when it was always wise to mulligan for Zoo: falling behind on the first few turns was disastrous. In general, it can be difficult to determine what deck a Paladin is playing, and even when it’s clear, each still has the opportunity to take one by surprise.
If you want a deck that is easy to settle into, that can function at high levels of the competitive ladder with minimal prior experience, Paladin may be the best. Its options for strong cards on curve (at least when it comes to Secret Paladin) make the deck a first choice for many pros, looking to make a quick climb back to Legendary at the beginning of the season. However, the class still has its weaknesses. For Secret and Mid-Range, comeback potential is limited, and Murloc Paladin suffers against other Combo decks, especially Freeze Mage. However, as with every class, I recommend giving it a try. At the very least, it’s good experience for playing against the deck on ladder, but it also might offer some surprise appeal. Never be afraid to test yourself by trying something new. As always, get out there and play!