While the pool of viable decks in Hearthstone is a deep one, with every large meta shift (usually sparked by a new expansion or nerf, but sometimes as a result of tournament performances or innovative competitive ladder decks), a new handful of them ends up on top. These are the decks that are seen almost exclusively on the road from rank five through Legend, and while there are still some tech choices and variations for play style, they are usually streamlined to the point that about 80% of their card choices are identical. Playing these decks and playing against them takes a high amount of skill because they are powerful, but just about everyone will be fully versed in how to combat them. If you play a top tier deck, you have a great tool at your disposal, but you’re also public enemy number one.
Heading into and following the New Year, the decks on top are all heavily influenced by recent expansions, namely The Grand Tournament and League of Explorers, or a response to the strategies contained within. They run the gambit from Aggro to Control, from Tempo to Combo, but all of them boast high win rates. Even if you don’t plan to pilot one of these decks yourself, you would be wise to learn the ins and outs because they’ve overrun tournaments and the competitive ladder, alike.
Sometimes, you can tell the good Hearthstone decks from the bad by the number of jokes they spawn. Dr. Six, “Christmas Tree Paladin,” and the multitude of Twitch chat memes relating to the deck’s powerful plays on every turn would have one guess that Secret Paladin is a good deck, and this guess would be correct. Since the release of The Grand Tournament, Secret Paladin has been the most successful newcomer, and with good reason. Mysterious Challenger, the deck’s centerpiece, allows one to play as many as five secrets for free from the deck, as well as a 6/6 minion, all for six mana. Dropping Challenger on turn six leaves the opponent scrambling to clean up the immediately more complex board, often putting them about a turn behind. Beyond that, once Challenger is played, the deck is cleared of many of its low drops, increasing the value of one’s draws for the remainder of the game.
Secret Paladin decks have varied over time. Initially, they made full use of the aggressive potential of cards like Leper Gnome, aiming to lock down the game with Challenger. They favored more cheap minions in combination with Divine Favor, to refill the hand against slower deck types. While this build is still viable, the meta has shifted to a more Mid-Range strategy, where playing powerfully on curve is more significant than mounting huge early aggression. The current top Secret Paladin decks usually play Dr. Boom, Tirion Fordring, and even occasionally Ragnaros the Firelord. Mysterious Challenger has been repurposed into a tempo play to distract the opponent and lock down the game on turns seven and eight.
Of course, the deck is more than its Secrets and its late-game bombs. Secretkeeper, Knife Juggler, Haunted Creeper, and Shielded Minibot, along with the Secrets, mean that the deck almost never has to play off-curve on turns one and two. After this, Muster for Battle provides a threatening board, occasionally combines with Knife Juggler for a huge swing, and picks off weakened threats with the Light’s Justice. Coghammer alternatively makes already sticky minions stickier, making the opponent burn at least two attacks to get through the newly buffed minion. Turn four continues the frightening mana curve, with Truesilver Champion clearing off mid-range threats like Piloted Shredder and Azure Drake, Blessing of Kings turning an early minion into an immediate threat, Piloted Shredder doing its usual job of being the best neutral four mana minion, and Keeper of Uldaman (a new League of Explorers release) either buffing a Silver Hand Recruit or neutralizing an enemy beater. Sludge Belcher rounds out the deck and stalls into the Mysterious Challenger turn.
The true strength of the Secret Paladin deck lies in its incredible tempo, playing cards that cannot be ignored on almost every turn. It is strange to think that even a year ago, Paladin was seen as the weakest class by far, only occasionally seeing tournament play as a heal-heavy Control deck that relied on combos with Equality. It makes sense when one realizes that, outside of Truesilver Champion and Tirion Fordring, its most powerful cards either arrived after the Curse of Naxxramas adventure or were newly revitalized by these expansions. With its powerful plays on curve and new Secret synergy, it is difficult to see Secret Paladin falling by the wayside any time soon.
Secret Paladin, especially newer builds, may show a trend of Aggro decks curving higher, but Aggro Shaman has done anything but. Similar to the Mech Shaman decks that gained popularity for the ramp abilities of Mechwarper, combined with the aggressive combination of Powermace and Whirling Zap-o-matic, Aggro Shaman seeks to pressure the opponent’s life total as early as possible. However, while Mech Shaman relied on minion combat for its damage, Aggro Shaman primarily utilizes spell and weapon damage. The deck takes advantage of three additions from the League of Explorers set, Tunnel Trogg, Sir Finley Mrgglton, and Ancestral Knowledge, to round out and support its low curve.
Tunnel Trogg is the deck’s main event, coming down on turn one and immediately demanding attention. With an abundance of Overload cards, including Lightning Bolt, Ancestral Knowledge, Crackle, Totem Golem, Feral Spirit, Lava Burst, and Doomhammer, it is almost always as good as a Zombie Chow with no downside. Besides, if Trogg can take the opponent down to fifteen or twenty health in combination with Abusive Sergeants, Leper Gnomes, Knife Jugglers, and Totem Golems, the deck’s minions have done their job. Between Lightning Bolt, Crackle, Lava Shock, Lava Burst, and Argent Horserider, the deck has no shortage of burst potential. Most frightening of all is Doomhammer, which threatens four damage on every turn it’s active and combines with Rockbiter Weapon to go even further.
The element of Aggro Shaman that makes it so dominating is its unpredictability. While many decks have fairly clear burst potential, Shaman could always have lethal damage, somehow. Following a Doomhammer turn, double Rockbiter Weapon alone is sixteen damage, and other damage beyond this is likely. There are a few ways to avoid this fate, such as strategic timing of Taunt minions, healing effects, and strictly maintaining board control before Doomhammer is played, but there is sometimes simply nothing you can do. On top of this, Lava Shock allows a normally Overloaded turn to be used unhampered. Where Hunter once reigned, it seems that the stars have aligned to solidify Shaman as the premier Aggro class.
With Darnassus Aspirant as the only major recent addition to Mid-Range Druid, the deck type hasn’t changed much. However, it lives on due to a number of strengths. It boasts consistency, with a dose of card draw from Wrath, Ancient of Lore, and occasionally Wild Growth. The even curve of the deck also means that it is neither likely to draw all late game cards in the opening hand nor many weak minions later on. The Choose One mechanic included in Wrath, Keeper of the Grove, Druid of the Claw, Ancient of Lore, and Ancient of War provide responses to a variety of situations. The deck also boasts power plays on early turns, using Innervate, Wild Growth, and Darnassus Aspirant. Most of all, however, the deck supports the age-old combination of Force of Nature and Savage Roar to burst the opponent down from half of their health total.
Mid-Range Druid has always been flexible, and the current iteration of the deck is no different. The bottom of the curve will include ramp effects, but the number of Darnassus Aspirant is up to the deck builder. Keeper of the Grove, Piloted Shredder, and Druid of the Claw all see play in the mid-game, but Shade of Naxxramas, Azure Drake, Sludge Belcher, Savage Combatant, and Loatheb are also reasonable, again in varying amounts. At the higher end, Ancient of Lore and Dr. Boom are most common, but cards like Ancient of War, Ragnaros the Firelord, Cenarius, and Kel’Thuzad are also defensible. Along with its flexibility in-game, Mid-Range Druid boasts a powerful enough skeleton to be teched against almost any metagame.
This is not to say that Mid-Range Druid is all about using old cards in new ways. Along with other classes, there has been heavy experimentation with Finley Mrgglton, swapping the lackluster Druid hero power for something appropriate to the matchup. This can allow the player to choose a more defensive hero power against Aggro decks and a more offensive one against Control decks. Living Roots, an auto-include in Aggro Druid, is seeing some play in Mid-Range, especially in Aggro-heavy metagames. While it has some anti-synergy with Sir Finley, Savage Combatant is also a reasonable inclusion and is absolutely devastating when played on turn one or two with Innervate and coin. Overall, Mid-Range Druid’s flexibility, adaptability, and power from the combo lend it great staying power.
Reno Jackson Handlock (“Renolock”)
Renolock is the newest version of the infamous “Handlock” deck. Handlock was known for abusing the Warlock’s hero power to fill the hand with cards, buffing Twilight Drake and Mountain Giant. At the same time, this would lower the player’s life total, allowing early play of Molten Giant. The Handlock deck would then drop some combination of healing cards, Sunfury Protector, and Defender of Argus to prevent the opponent from sealing out the game. Initially considered something of a gimmick, Reno Jackson ushers Handlock into 2016, allowing a full heal after Molten Giant is played. While sacrifices have to be made to allow Reno’s effect to go off consistently, the widening card pool makes “Highlander”-style decks with one of each card more viable. Currently, the threat of a full heal against Aggro decks is seen as more important than a more Giant-heavy strategy to combat Control decks.
It is difficult to describe Reno Handlock in broad strokes because it has a bit of everything, but the hero power ties the chaotic decklist together by drawing through the deck more quickly. Perhaps the deck can be understood by describing groups of cards. Earthen Ring Farseer, Antique Healbot, Refreshment Vendor, Reno Jackson, and Lord Jaraxxus all provide healing or pseudo-healing effects. Sunfury Protector, Defender of Argus, Sludge Belcher, and Mal’Ganis all provide Taunt or pseudo-Taunt to accomplish a similar goal but are often played before healing effects. Hellfire, Demonwrath, and Shadowflame provide much-needed board control. Voidcaller combines with Mal’Ganis, Doomguard, Imp Gang Boss, Lord Jaraxxus, and Dread Infernal to form a Demon suite. Finally, Dr. Boom, Lord Jaraxxus, Mal’Ganis, Doomguard, and Molten Giant are powerful finishers, each in their own way. The rest of the deck is full of synergy, strong cards on curve, and reactive options to make it a functional toolbox of responses.
The very idea that a Hearthstone deck can play thirty unique cards and remain consistent enough to be a top contender is almost heresy, but Renolock manages it. Piloting the deck is a constant balancing act of knowing just how close one can get to death before applying counter-measures. Since no card is run in multiples (typically, at least – some play two Molten Giant or Voidcaller for consistency reasons), card value is a constant concern – there are no second chances. Nevertheless, Warlock has always been a top class for those players looking to be “greedy” and aim for the “dream” play as often as possible. With a skilled pilot, Renolock can seem almost unbeatable.
If Secret Paladin specializes in proactive plays to force an out from the opponent, Mid-Range Paladin is the sort of deck to supply these outs. While it lacks the Secret suite, combining low cost Secrets, Secretkeeper, and Mysterious Challenger, Mid-Range Paladin has reactive options if things go sour, as well as more tools to press card advantage. For the former, Mid-Range Paladin plays Equality, Consecration, Aldor Peacekeeper, Big Game Hunter, and Ironbeak Owl, along with some other reactive cards already played by Secret Paladin. With these, Mid-Range Paladin can answer singular threats and entire boards alike, stopping large tempo plays in their tracks. When it comes to card advantage, Mid-Range Paladin uses Justicar Trueheart and Quartermaster to push its hero power to another level and Lay on Hands to refill the hand and heal out of lethal damage range.
The argument between Secret and Mid-Range Paladin is often power versus consistency. While newer Secret Paladins have favored cutting out several Secrets and Divine Favors to place a larger emphasis on curving out well, it is still common to draw into several of them before Mysterious Challenger is played, clogging the hand and reducing their value. Mid-Range Paladin forgoes the huge tempo gain of Mysterious Challenger and instead plays only “good cards”, drawing fewer dead hands. On the other hand, the consistency of Secret Paladin decks increases dramatically after Mysterious Challenger is actually played, emptying the deck of the spells that are almost useless when drawn. The relative strength of the decks is a toss-up and meta-dependent.
Beyond these differences, Mid-Range Paladin’s card choices are not too dramatic. They tend to play Loatheb and Antique Healbot, two valuable effects for differing situations that come with a minion body. Keeper of Uldaman is also a valuable new addition for Mid-Range, but it more consistently has friendly targets, given the boosted hero power from Justicar. As the name might suggest, Mid-Range Paladin is similar to Mid-Range Druid in many ways. It plays an abundance of flexible effects, tends to play one or two cards per turn, and attempts to out-value the opponent in the mid-game. While it has lower highs than some other top decks, it is more difficult to counter, as shown by its fairly even match-up spread. If you’re looking for a consistent deck to climb the ladder or perform well in tournaments, Mid-Range Paladin is a good choice.
Ah, Rogue, forever the sleeper top tier deck. Rogue has consistently gotten the short end of the stick with new card releases, partially due to the diversity of Rogue strategies. Raptor Rogue was a hot topic for several weeks, but it slowly became apparent that the new minion wasn’t enough to make playing a slower build full of Deathrattle effects very powerful. Gang-Up (and now Brann Bronzebeard) have turned Rogue into the premiere Mill class, but this strategy is easily countered, and it often suffers from draw inconsistency. Pirate Rogue is almost a competent deck type, but it still lacks a few pieces. Even Miracle Rogue reemerged, with the addition of Tomb Pillager to play Auctioneer a turn early or earn an extra draw, but it will never reach the heights of the old build.
Nevertheless, Oil Rogue is showing its face again. Its practice of cycling through the deck for most of the game, only to drop a surprisingly huge weapon and clear the board with Blade Flurry makes it a good check to a number of popular decks in the meta. While its reliance on weapons makes Aggro Shaman difficult and its goal of using board wipes to gather advantage has it suffering against Freeze Mage, Oil Rogue excels against other popular deck types. Rogue’s hero power is the perfect counter to the Paladin hero power, making Secret Paladin a fairly even matchup and Mid-Range Paladin fairly easy, since Mid-Range’s reactive cards don’t go far against a reactive class like Rogue. The deck also does well against Control Priest, which has grown in popularity with Museum Curator and Entomb in League of Explorers.
The general game plan of the deck is to use card effects to keep the board clear and cycle through the deck in the early game. It often cheats out a Sprint with Preparation to refill the hand and controls the late game with weapon-based board clears and a number of decent-sized minions, like Tomb Pillager, Violet Teacher, Azure Drake, Loatheb, and Sludge Belcher. The deck can seem underpowered in the hands of a novice because, at its root, it is a combo deck. The Oil Rogue player must constantly evaluate how much damage can be spent on opposing minions while still allowing a Blade Flurry to finish the game. Regardless of its difficulty, however, the omnipresence of Rogue decks in tournaments from players like Dog and Hyped suggest that it is a viable deck in any competitive format. While it hasn’t changed much over the last year, you should still always be prepared for a surprise appearance.
What Will Come Next?
There is no telling what exactly is in store for Hearthstone in the first several months of 2016. A nerf to Mysterious Challenger has been on the lips of many, and it would certainly shake up the metagame. The League of Explorers adventure took many by surprise with its large impact, making Control decks relevant again, and a new expansion could go in the same direction, contribute to old archetypes, form new ones, or support some other strategy. However, with all of these unknowns in mind, we can still make reasonable predictions about what is to come with what we do know.
Four of the six top decks listed here are known for their flexibility and reactivity. Mid-Range Druid has its Choose One mechanic and small necessary “core” of cards. Secret Paladin has shown itself capable of functioning as hyper-Aggro or leaning towards Mid-Range, with larger minions that close out games against Control decks. Mid-Range Paladin has a number of reactive spells and minion effects to maintain a safe life total and keep the board non-threatening. Renolock, by the nature of running only of each card, has a number of flex spots to answer to different types of metagames.
The first of the other two is Aggro Shaman, a completely aggressive “Face” deck. Boasting high or even win rates against all of the decks listed here except Renolock, it often simply outpaces Control and faces no competition at the moment from another Aggro deck. Also, no card in Aggro Shaman overwhelmingly demands a nerf. Doomhammer is one option, perhaps the best one, but it has been problematic before, with no answer from Blizzard. Tunnel Trogg is another possibility, but the closest comparison to its snowball effect is Undertaker, which was nerfed because its health also increased. Rogue, on the other hand, is almost always viable because of the current landscape. While powerful, the explosive plays of the deck are well-understood, and the weakening of the top classes, however it occurs, will naturally keep Rogue in check.
For a bold statement, I see Mid-Range decks that can both control the board through battle and react with board clears becoming more prominent. We have seen Control Warrior decks move toward Dragon synergy to take the mid-game, while also threatening huge value potential with Brawl. However, we’ve seen Priest decks get heavier, often running double Entomb, Lightbomb, the Auchenai Soulpriest plus Circle of Healing combo, and Justicar Trueheart. If Aggro becomes more prominent, Oil Rogue could get pushed out, opening the door for these sorts of decks, in turn. Renolock looks especially poised as an Aggro check that can also respond to Control with the likes of Lord Jaraxxus.
Often, the top decks in Hearthstone are dependent on one big game of rock, paper, scissors, with matchup spreads being as relevant as individual power levels. As the metagame settles down, decks tend to trend toward the middle of the mana curve for consistency’s sake, but beyond this, there is really no telling where the metagame will go in coming months. Still, you can be sure that I’ll be watching top players to see it unfold. Happy New Year! Here’s to an eventful 2016, and many more years to come!