Hearthstone competitive ladder woes come in a number of flavors. Some hit a plateau around rank five, where there are no additional stars awarded for win streaks, players use almost exclusively top tier decks, and they just need to tough it out. If their win rate is above fifty percent, having peaks and valleys won’t stop them from reaching Legend eventually. Others need to reconsider their deck completely. Maybe it’s not right for the meta, or maybe it’s just too weak or experimental to compete. Between these two, there is a middle ground, where a deck is the right choice, but something more subtle is off about it. Often, these decks are strong, overall, but they need some tuning. They could have been perfect for previous months, when everybody played all Grim Patron Warrior, all the time. However, when Reno Jackson Warlock, Secret Paladin, and Aggro Shaman are around, the game will turn out very differently. This is why, for particular meta games, players will make slight changes to their decks (often called “tech” cards) so they can better compete against dominant strategies. In this article, I will outline some of the tried-and-true types of tech cards, as well as when to use them.
Countering a Specific Card Type
Many cards in Hearthstone are rather nuanced, so it isn’t immediately obvious when they should be used or their likely impact. As an example, Reno Jackson and Elise Starseeker were both underrated prior to their release in the League of Explorers adventure, and they have since promoted mildly to staggeringly successful new strategies. However, the following set of cards, unlike these, is rather obvious. The Hearthstone developers anticipated that certain card types had the potential to be too oppressive, so they created plain-faced checks to them.
For weapon-heavy metas, Harrison Jones and Echoing Ooze are effective counters. These provide a nice way to get back into the game against decks like Warrior (Fiery War Axe, Death’s Bite, and occasionally Gorehowl or Arcanite Reaper), Handlock variants (Lord Jaraxxus’ weapon), Hunter (Eaglehorn Bow and Glaivezooka), Aggro Shaman (Doomhammer and Stormforged Axe), Paladin (the Light’s Justice spawned by Muster for Battle, Truesilver Champion, and Coghammer), and Rogue (for their Hero Power and the occasional Assassin’s Blade.) These cards are only “dead” against Mage, Priest, and Druid decks, but even then, neither minion on its own is too terrible. While weapon classes are abundant, the choice of including either of these cards comes down to predicted value when the Battlecry effects do trigger, compared to their potential weakness if not. The choice of one card or the other primarily comes down to the deck’s mana curve and level of aggression.
Secrets, a sort of spell that is hidden from the opponent and triggers automatically on their turn under certain conditions, is another frustrating card type. The release of more Secret support in expansions, such as Mad Scientist and Mysterious Challenger, add to this. For this reason, Kezan Mystic, a four mana 4/3 minion was released. While its stat line is a bit underwhelming (similar in this way to Harrison Jones), it has a potentially powerful Battlecry effect, allowing the user to steal one random Secret from the opponent. This allows massive swing turns against decks like Freeze Mage or Mid-Range Hunter, and it is at least somewhat efficient against other Mage, Hunter, and Paladin decks. Hunter decks in specific also have access to Flare, which reveals all Stealth minions, destroys all of the enemy’s Secrets, and draws a card for two mana. The strength of Flare is in its extreme nature. It can destroy up to five Secrets and seal out the game early against a Freeze Mage. On the other hand, if it only draws a card, two mana is rather expensive, and it is anti-tempo, in that it never directly takes care of the opponent’s minions.
Rounding out the list of specific counters is Silence. The most commonly used of these is Ironbeak Owl. This sees play in Hunter decks for its Beast synergy, in Aggro decks to push through annoying Taunt minions, and in Control decks, as a jack-of-all trades answer that can easily fit into a turn’s mana, as it only costs two. While it sees less play, Spellbreaker is also a worthy option, if one is looking for Silence on a slightly heftier minion body. No deck will be substantially worse for playing Silence effects; every competitive deck has minions worth silencing. The choice of inclusion comes down to impact – with limited deck space, will a Silence effect benefit a deck more than the alternatives?
The nature of Aggro decks is inherently risky. Your objective is basically to throw all that you can, as early as you can, at the opponent and hope they can’t find an answer. There’s a reason Aggro decks are typically the scorn of much of the player base: sometimes they just draw perfectly, and there’s not much the opponent can do. What non-Aggro players can do, however, is adapt to Aggro-heavy metagames, take advantage of their overextending, and play cards that either directly answer them or nullify their strategy.
The first option is to meet Aggro toe-to-toe on the battlefield and wipe out their minions. While some decks these days rely on spells to deal direct damage to the opposing hero, such as Aggro Shaman and the new Aggro Mage that abuses burn spells in combination with Ice Block, they still struggle when all of their minion attacks are prevented. Cards like Zombie Chow and Argent Squire are neutral options that trade effectively against small minions. Mind Control Tech and the Rogue-specific Dark Iron Skulker punish overextension. Stampeding Kodo is a valuable check to weak minions on a decent body, and it can efficiently wipe out cards like Leokk, Deathlord, and Spirit Wolves.
One potential weakness of all Aggro decks is that they eventually “run out of steam” if they can’t end the game quickly enough. One strategy takes advantage of this by healing out of the range of death or forcing the Aggro player to waste their valuable attacks on destroying Taunt minions. Antique Healbot is a nice way to outpace “burst” turns, like Rockbiter Weapon plus Doomhammer from a Shaman, but for decks that can’t afford using five whole mana, Earthen Ring Farseer is sometimes enough. As far as viable neutral Taunt minions, the field is much wider. Sludge Belcher is particularly difficult to remove cleanly because it spawns another Taunt minion with its Deathrattle, and Deathlord’s stat distribution is perfect anti-Aggro. Along with that, its negative effect will often give the opponent a very weak minion in these matchups, mitigating the downside. Sen’jin Shieldmasta and Arcane Nullifier X-21 should also be considered.
Other strategies are also possible, but they’re more difficult to categorize. Board clear spells are always recommended, but they’re effective to varying degrees, depending on the class. As far as minions go, Doomsayer can make a good turn two, as it often will either wipe out one to three minions or “heal” for at least seven, if the opponent has enough damage to kill it off. For certain Mid-Range decks that can afford it, Fel Reaver might be viable, as Aggro decks often forgo Big Game Hunter or other minion control. For pseudo-life gain, Warrior decks might see fit to run more copies of Shield Block, Armorsmith, and Bash, but again, these cards are not available to every class.
Anti-Control or Mid-Range
There was once a time in Hearthstone when mana curves were stricter. There were not enough extremely valuable cards to venture too far outside one’s deck type (Control decks playing cheap minions or Aggro decks playing expensive minions.) While there were always some exceptions to this, new cards now allow Aggro and Midrange decks to extend their mana curves upward. Several of these are Dr. Boom and Kel’Thuzad. The former simply represents enormous damage potential and pressure for a seven mana minion. The latter is a bit more nuanced, allowing the more aggressive player to trade many minions into one or several large threats and regain their board presence afterward. In addition, Ragnaros the Firelord can finish off the opponent with a little luck or when their board is empty, and it can also pick off large threats, while putting the Control player on a clock to take care of it.
If competing with Control decks for the board isn’t the way to go, more aggressive decks do have options to answer their threats directly. Big Game Hunter is the most prominent, single-handedly wiping out huge minions and still coming down as a 4/2 minion for three mana. Depending on the particular meta, decks will often run as many as two of these because of how efficient it is. If playing a solid minion body that also allows a big damage push is the objective, The Black Knight might be a good option. The card is notorious for taking out Tirion Fordring and Ancient of War, two huge counters to aggressive strategies that also slip under Big Game Hunter’s radar. While it is class-specific and more often found in slower decks, Lightbomb has to be mentioned as the most efficient and devastating board wipe against heavier decks.
Control and Mid-Range are often different only as a matter of degree, but heavier Mid-Range lists still demand their own answers. One is Piloted Sky Golem, which “trades up” (destroys stronger minions) effectively against hefty minions with its six attack. The four mana minion it drops can often take out a second card, as well. Bomb Lobber is another neutral card that hits the middle of the mana curve particularly hard, as many minions between three and five mana have four health or less. Finally, Gorehowl is perfect for a Warrior deck that wants to out-value Mid-Range. It’s not unusual for it to swing against three to five minions before losing its effectiveness.
The Element of Surprise
Just watch any notable streamer, and you’ll notice times when they begin to run on auto-pilot, while interacting with their chat room or are otherwise occupied. They’ll get caught off guard when someone makes an unconventional choice or takes a line of play that is suboptimal. However, one must be ready for anything, since a plethora of cards in Hearthstone are far better than they “should” be, if they take the opponent by surprise.
There are exceptions, but the best examples are definitely Secrets. Many players have a “flow-chart” that they employ to answer Secrets. For instance, they’ll play their weak minion first to reduce the value of Mirror Entity, or they’ll attack before summoning more minions to play around Explosive Trap. However, some Secrets don’t see very much play, so they’ll often be unexpected when they do show up. Often, this is because certain variants of decks favor some Secrets over others (so someone might be surprised to run into Freezing Trap against a Face Hunter.) Other times, it is impossible to play around every potential Secret optimally, so players will assume that the more popular card was played.
For much of 2015, a common strategy for Hunter decks was to bridge the gap between the two major variants with a deck called “Hybrid Hunter”. Still popular today, Hybrid Hunter opens with Leper Gnomes and Abusive Sergeants (a hallmark of Face Hunter) but eventually plays heftier minions like Savannah Highmane, Loatheb, and Piloted Shredder. This deck can manage to get away with many creative Secret choices. The strong opening may make the opponent forget to play around Freezing Trap (more common in Mid-Range), and larger minions may make the opponent forget to play around Explosive Trap (more common in Face Hunter.) Even a copy of Misdirection can be devastating, as it’s not consistently found in any variant.
Mage Secrets also have great potential to catch the opponent off-guard. Generally, Tempo Mage and Mech Mage play Mirror Entity, Aggro Mage plays Ice Block, Freeze Mage plays Ice Block and Ice Barrier, and a variety of “greedy” Mage decks play Duplicate and Effigy. Because distinguishing the variants is often fairly simple, neglecting to play around unconventional choices is common. The power of Mage Secrets, relative to Hunter and Paladin, makes playing many of them a decent choice, no matter the variant. Almost any list can viably play Mirror Entity, Counterspell, or Duplicate. As the newest addition, Effigy catches many players off-guard, and it can be devastating in combination with Duplicate. Even Vaporize, deemed slightly too weak for play in any popular variant, can surprise a hasty opponent.
However, Secrets are not the only way to take the opponent by surprise. Hearthstone offers many damage “burst” options, as well as devastating board clears. For the former, Leeroy Jenkins can fit into the top of many Aggro decks’ curves for a finishing blow of six damage. Warrior decks don’t always play Grommash Hellscream, so someone might not expect a surprise ten or even fourteen damage (in combination with Death’s Bite.) There are also unconventional Druid decks that play a single copy of the Force of Nature and Savage Roar combo, again for fourteen damage. As far as board clears, Deathwing is a consistent favorite among Twitch chat, so streamers are often criticized for not playing around it. Mage decks with lower curves can still effectively play a copy of Flamestrike, and while it’s become more common in Reno Jackson Handlock, a well-timed Twisting Nether can be devastating.
There are a handful of other neutral cards that are often deemed “auto-inclusions” in many decks, especially if there is extra deck space or if the meta-game calls for it, but they are still worth noting. These cards are rarely, if ever, a terrible choice, but sometimes they are far better than others. They also have fallen in and out of favor over time. For instance, Argent Commander used to be a decent option in many decks, with its three health at that time (it was nerfed to two), and its effectiveness against the abundance of four-health minions. The other side of the coin was the commonality of Chillwind Yeti and Cairne Bloodhoof as solid and valuable Mid-Range options, but these were mostly discarded as better cards were released and Sludge Belcher made five attack, not four, the gold standard.
Piloted Shredder can be thought of as the new Chillwind Yeti. It fills the same position of the mana curve, and it usually trades equally as well or better, when considering its Deathrattle. Although it can be eliminated by many Spells and two mana minions, the two mana minion it drops usually makes up for this. Its attack still allows it to trade evenly with most other four mana minions (“four drops”), as well. Piloted Shredder finds its way into Mid-Range decks, of course, as well as Aggro that is trying to curve higher and Control that is trying to curve lower. Its efficiency and “stickiness” (difficulty to completely remove), in combination with its Common rarity, have made Piloted Shredder a central part of the meta-game since its release.
Loatheb is now what The Black Knight or Leeroy Jenkins used to be, the top of the curve for many Aggro decks. Its ability to basically “shut off” Spells for the following turn often leaves the opponent with no answer to a huge push on the board and can seal out games. Its effectiveness goes beyond there, however. Loatheb can be played predictively to deny “power turns” for particular decks, like Flamestrike on turn six or seven for a Mage. It is a critical counter to Freeze Mage decks and is often played in combination with Big Game Hunter after the Freeze Mage drops Alexstrasza to stave off the fifteen damage burst turn. Even when not played strategically, its solid stat line for five mana makes it a safe play in all kinds of situations. Whether Aggro, Mid-Range, or Control, Loatheb should almost always be considered.
Sylvanas Windrunner used to be a complete powerhouse, coming down for five mana as a 5/5 minion and stealing a random opposing minion at death. While she has since been toned down to six mana, her power has only been slightly hampered. It is difficult to explain the value of Sylvanas like one would for many other cards. Is she a good tempo play because the opponent needs to find an answer before you get amazing value from her effect? Is she a good value play because she both removes an opponent’s minion and gives you one? The clearest answer is that Sylvanas forces the opponent to play differently. They’re often left to trade a board full of weak minions into her in order to safely drop a large threat. It is just as difficult to quantify the conditions under which she will thrive. One’s best bet is to craft her as soon as possible and test her out, as a major decider of her impact is playstyle and skill level.
Keep This in Mind
Whether you’re teching cards for particular metagames, playstyles, or types of opponents, you shouldn’t overdo it. A Hearthstone deck has only thirty cards, so changing three of them is changing ten percent of the deck. I’m reminded of a devastating loss to a Priest deck early in my Hearthstone career. Because of Priest’s blind-spot to four attack minions (they fall between the reaches of Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Word: Death), I filled my deck with as many four attack minions as I could find. Needless to say, I didn’t face another Priest for ten games, and when I did, I still lost because I had forgone any semblance of synergy. The lesson is this: be realistic and be patient. How common is the strategy you’re trying to overcome? How much of your deck can you safely dedicate to combatting it? Use a game tracker because your selective memory is your downfall.
I suggest starting small. Try a copy of Big Game Hunter, Harrison Jones, or whatever you decide is the solution. Then, ladder up, and play games: play more games than you think is necessary, and only then, if the problem persists, make further changes. Sometimes, you’ll have to alter your deck to fight the meta, but others, the problem may be your deck type as a whole, your understanding of the game, or your concentration. Don’t allow yourself to “tilt”, or overreact to bad losses. Remember that Hearthstone is a game of skill…and chance. Still, don’t let this be a deterrent to trying out any of these listed cards or your own ideas, as flexing your creative muscles will help you grow as a player. Most of all, though, keep your head up, and have fun!