Hearthstone is a game that I love because of its wide variety of viable options. Even at top level tournament play, several dozen deck types can usually find success in the right situations. Just below this level, competent and cohesive decks are even more abundant. On the other hand, this open-endedness can be challenging to newer players who don’t have a favorite deck to work toward yet. There are also plenty of times when all players, new and seasoned alike, find that something is missing from their decks. For these reasons and more, I’ve compiled a list of the most versatile and essential neutral minions available.
Let’s start at the bottom of the mana curve and move upward. Argent Squire, Harvest Golem, and even Millhouse Manastorm may have preceded it, but Zombie Chow was the first truly competent cheap neutral minion for board control decks to defeat straight Aggro. With stats befitting an average two mana minion, Zombie Chow establishes a strong early presence. Since it is so often played on turn one, the downside is rarely a real issue: it can’t heal the opponent to above thirty health.
Another strength of Chow is its ability to adapt decks to the current meta. When Aggro is a greater issue, Mid-Range and Control decks often throw in a copy or two. Even Aggro decks themselves will often include it to take a control-oriented approach against faster Aggro. This is reminiscent of the “Zoo” strategy, most common in Warlock decks but also long preceding Hearthstone as a strategy in Magic: the Gathering, where numerous small minions are utilized to establish board control and win in the mid-game, rather than bursting the opponent down. Chow can even be used in Priest decks for the reasons above, as well as to abuse its effect in combination with Auchenai Soulpriest.
Returning to the Curse of Naxxramas adventure (yes, this trend will continue), we have Haunted Creeper. Creeper seems unassuming because of its diminutive 1/2 stat line for a two mana minion, but in practice, it never…goes…away. Wasting three attacks to take care of a Haunted Creeper and its Spectral Spiders early in the game is a devastating loss of tempo. This means that the player who used Haunted Creeper calls the shots. No, it’s not immediate pressure, but it sets up combos for future turns with Abusive Sergeant, Knife Juggler, Houndmaster, and so on. Plus, looking at the card mathematically, three total attack and four total health is impressive for only two mana.
Creeper has found its way into decks looking for “sticky” minions at the low end of the curve. Druid decks favor Creeper and its tokens as a potential target for Savage Roar. Hunter decks are grateful for the Beast synergy and its ability to out-value other Aggro decks, and Zoo decks like to keep it for its synergy with buffing effects, like Dire Wolf Alpha and Defender of Argus. All kinds of decks can reliably play Creeper, especially classes that often lack a good alternative turn two play. In short, Creeper became the gold-standard auto-inclusion, prompting many to forget about other annoying two drops, like Amani Berserker and Faerie Dragon.
While Mad Scientist is technically a neutral minion, it doesn’t fit into every class. Still, the card has revolutionized Hunter and Mage decks since its release. It’s hard to overestimate the sheer value of a free two or three mana Secret from the deck and a 2/2 body for only two mana. The Hunter and Mage Secrets always had potential, but the tempo loss of playing them early in the game meant players usually skipped over them. Mad Scientist changed this, immediately increasing the value of the class’ best Secrets and taking at least four card slots in any Mage or Hunter deck worth its salt.
Mad Scientist certainly had its start in Aggro decks, when playing Undertaker turn one often sealed the game, but it also sees play elsewhere. Freeze Mage decks love the ability to ensure early life protection via Ice Barrier and Ice Block, and value-heavy Mages use it to set up card advantage swings with Duplicate and Effigy. Mid-Range Hunter controls the early game largely with the combined board control of Freezing Trap and Eaglehorn Bow, making the turn six Highmane consistently safer. While Scientist has less value in Paladin decks, there are top players testing speedy variants with Avenge and Noble Sacrifice, even choosing to forgo the meta-dominating Mysterious Challenger.
Without Knife Juggler, it’s safe to say that Zoo would have never reached the same heights. Its power is best conveyed as an “engine”. Already cost effective at two mana for a 3/2, once he is in play, every friendly minion means extra damage. Near the beginning of the game, this damage can be devastating, weakening early mid-range threats to allow better trades and flat-out removing smaller ones. In the worst case scenario that its knives hit the enemy’s hero, it still means additional pressure, valuable in the sorts of aggressive decks that typically favor Knife Juggler.
Although its efficiency in principle is already powerful, Knife Juggler becomes a true powerhouse in combination with other specific cards, namely Unleash the Hounds and Muster for Battle. Both of these plays allow huge swing turns for a Hunter or Paladin on turn five, setting up perfectly for a Savannah Highmane or Mysterious Challenger. Its synergy with the Paladin and Shaman hero powers themselves is also notable, making it a better topdeck than many other cheap minions in the later stages of the game.
There was a time when Chillwind Yeti, possibly the best neutral minion in the Basic set of cards, was the poor man’s only hope. Its stat distribution allowed it to cleanly kill an Azure Drake, to survive a hit from Argent Commander, or to tank a swing from Truesilver Champion. These days slowly became history as decks became more fine-tuned for synergy, and a pile of stats, even a good pile of stats, no longer cut it. However, the final nail in the coffin came with the release of Goblins vs. Gnomes and Piloted Shredder. While Shredder doesn’t come equipped with Chillwind Yeti’s health total, often allowing it to be taken out by weapons or weaker minions, the resilience from its Deathrattle makes up for this, and more. Its four attack also still allows it to compete with other minions of its cost.
Many complain about Piloted Shredder, both for its randomness (spawning Captain’s Parrot, Millhouse Manastorm, or anything in between) and for its ubiquity. Piloted Shredder is often devastating when played on turn four against an empty board, so Aggro decks like to play it to round out the curve, along with Loatheb. However, its ability to frequently kill off two minions also makes it a valuable asset to Mid-Range and lighter Control decks. Simply stated, there is no more consistently powerful play on turn four than dropping Piloted Shredder and forcing the opponent to respond.
Defender of Argus
An old school choice, Defender of Argus finds its way onto this list because of its two-pronged effect. Simply put, Aggro decks favor its stat buff, whereas Control decks favor the Taunt effect. In the former, Defender of Argus functions in many ways similar to Dire Wolf Alpha. It takes two weaklings, often minions like Nerubian Egg or Haunted Creeper that the opponent has been reluctant to clean up, and allows them to take on slightly stronger ones. It’s best paired with said “sticky” minions, especially if they can survive battle, force the opponent to take care of them because of their Taunt, and still leave something behind with their Deathrattle effects.
However, Argus is also critical to Handlock decks. These play for hand advantage, spending most of the game using the hero power to accumulate options, then dropping Mountain Giant and Molten Giant for close to free. These cards in combination with Defender of Argus often set up an unbreakable wall of eighteen health. In this deck, Argus is in good company with Sunfury Protector, and while Argus is more expensive, the added consistency of two more Taunt-givers is critical. Defender of Argus also finds a home in other decks, such as Mid-Range Shaman. This deck’s best attribute is its efficient trades, and Argus helps to set these up, along with buffing the abundant Totems.
Powerful in aggressive and defensive decks alike, Loatheb fit the role of premier five drop in situations when Azure Drake had begun to fall short. While often overlooked, Loatheb’s versatility stems in part from its stat line, which is only slightly below par for a five cost card with no effect. Its effect is also useful, albeit to varying amounts, against basically every class or deck out there. Spells are so common that playing Loatheb indiscriminately still most likely puts the opponent at a disadvantage. However, the true power of the card comes when it is played with intention.
Loatheb basically “shuts off” spells for the next turn, or at least forces the opponent to do little else but play one. Through prediction, this effect can be heavily abused. Each class has its own centralizing spells that are best played on a certain turn. Rogues love to use Sprint with Preparation on turn four. Mages love to play Flamestrike on turn seven. Loatheb brick walls these strategies, delaying the opponent an entire turn and giving its user valuable time. Furthermore, plenty of decks use spells as finishers, such as Aggro Shaman with Doomhammer plus Rockbiter Weapon and Druid with Force of Nature plus Savage Roar. Loatheb prevents this potential lethal damage and allows its player to find their own finishing blow or heal out of range of death.
Before the Curse of Naxxramas adventure, Azure Drake was the perfect mid-range minion and the only worthy, versatile five drop. Although its stats are underwhelming, its ability to refill the hand meant it was a great play on turn five and any time afterward, especially when top decking. Its spell damage was almost as critical, strengthening burst for decks like Miracle Rogue and a variety of Mage decks. Since the release of Loatheb (and Death’s Bite), Drake has been a bit more scarce, but it still has a home in a variety of deck types.
Along with Bloodmage Thalnos, Azure Drake may be one of the best enablers of combo decks. Not only does it help them draw into necessary combo pieces, but it also gives them some slight damage reach. Azure Drake can fit into more aggressive decks to refill the hand after a big push, as well as Mid-Range and Control decks to grind out more tempo-oriented variants. It’s a mainstay in Mid-Range Shaman, since it increases the reliability of Lightning Storm, without having to bank on rolling a Wrath of Air Totem. Simply put, the “packaging” of a solid minion body, card draw, spell damage, and a medium mana cost cannot be found anywhere else, carving out a nice niche for Drake.
Like Yeti before it, Sludge Belcher makes life difficult for Azure Drake and many other minions. Five attack is an amount rarely reached by minions below Belcher’s mana cost. It’s an awkward amount that can’t be taken out by Flamestrike, the first swing of a Death’s Bite, a Truesilver Champion, and other common removal cards. In addition to this, like Azure Drake, its packaging makes it shine. After Belcher is taken care of, the opponent has to waste another attack on its Slime, making Belcher the best “sticky” minion for its cost. On paper, it’s just a Sen’jin Shieldmasta and a Goldshire Footman, but it’s so much more in practice.
Beyond this, seven points of health on a Taunt minion shouldn’t be underestimated, especially when most of it is attached to a usable three attack. Sludge Belcher is the bane of aggressive decks everywhere, and its commonality has prompted these decks to run Ironbeak Owl as a counter. Turn five is the perfect time to shut down the final push from these decks and provides a consistent means to do so, in partnership with Antique Healbot. If nothing else, Belcher provides a hardy Taunt minion for its mana cost, something we lacked beforehand.
Although Sylvanas saw a nerf early in Hearthstone’s history from five to six mana, a 5/5 for six mana that also steals a random opposing minion is extremely powerful. The trouble with some heftier creatures without immediate impact through a Battlecry effect (or something equivalent like Ragnaros, the Firelord) is that they can just be ignored by more aggressive decks. However, Sylvanas will usually force the opponent to trade into it, in order to deny it high value in the future. Even if the opponent is able to avoid a steal by trading in their board, they’ve simplified the board state, an advantageous position for the Mid-Range or Control decks that would favor Sylvanas.
This minion thrives under a number of situations. Heavier decks without many powerful six mana plays, especially ones that can’t reliably get high value from Emperor Thaurissan. Decks with healing effects can use Sylvanas aggressively to swing the board, then heal out of lethal range. Certain classes also have efficient proactive ways to kill off their own Sylvanas, such as Warlock with Power Overwhelming and Shadowflame, Priest with Lightbomb, Shadow Word: Death, and Auchenai Soulpriest, and Warrior with Brawl. The psychological effects of Sylvanas shouldn’t be understated, and the card often causes a nervous opponent to misplay. Along with Dr. Boom, Sylvanas might be the most versatile Legendary minion to craft for newer players.
Hearthstone, like many other card games, has an additional resource system in addition to card interactions and the overall rules of the game, which is mana. Mana keeps anything TOO ridiculous from occurring by limiting how much a player can do in one turn. Most of the time. One of the largest exceptions arrived in the Blackrock Mountain adventure through Emperor Thaurissan. While Thaurissan, like Sylvanas, boasts a somewhat underwhelming 5/5 stat line for six mana, its effect can spin games out of control. At the end of the turn it is played, Thaurissan reduces each card in its player’s hand by one mana, and it continues to do so again for each turn the opponent lets it survive.
At the most basic level, this lets every class play a pseudo-Wild Growth, playing an eight mana minion on turn seven, a nine mana minion on turn eight, and so on. The ability to coin out Thaurissan on turn five and play Dr. Boom immediately afterward is a scary one. Decks that rely on filling their hands with a number of expensive threats and reactive answers, such as Reno Handlock, Control Warrior, and Control Priest are grateful for this ability, getting as many as ten mana reductions per turn. The Emperor may be most frightening, however, when abused in combo decks, such as Freeze Mage and Mid-Range Druid. In the former, burst damage potential is extended by reducing some combination of Fireball, Frostbolt, Ice Lance, Forgotten Torch, Roaring Torch, Blood Mage Thalnos, and Archmage Antonidas. There was a time when the maximum reliable damage potential from the deck was twenty, with double Frostbolt, double Ice Lance, and Fireball, but a few ticks from Thaurissan make totals like this far more reliable. In the latter, Force of Nature and Savage Roar can be reduced, allowing an earlier combo or a stronger one with an additional Savage Roar. Thaurissan even can come down after a Druid of the Claw in Taunt mode or from an Innervate, increasing its potential for further reductions.
Dr. Boom is famous for slipping under the radar of many top Hearthstone professionals, becoming a sleeper hit when everyone was still obsessed with Troggzor the Earthinator. Of course, most now understand how it was clearly one of the strongest new arrivals from Goblins vs. Gnomes. Its stat line vs. mana cost speak for themselves, as the body of Dr. Boom itself is already as powerful as its closest competitor for seven mana, War Golem. The Boom Bots may seem inconsequential, but they are difficult to clean up efficiently, either forcing the opponent to waste attacks or use a removal spell, both of which still result in a dangerous position for any weak minions the opponent has in play. Basically, Dr. Boom fits the bill of both a strong singular threat and several weak annoying ones, packed into one package.
After calls for nerfs from much of the community, Hearthstone developers famously (or infamously) defended Dr. Boom for its supposed diversity, as it was being included in Aggro decks. Basically, the power and the damage potential of the card was so great that it singularly led Aggro decks to trend upward towards Mid-Range. Dr. Boom is still a great play on curve for other strategies, leading many to deride Secret Paladin decks for the commonality of “Dr. Six” (Dr. being the community’s new nickname for game-making huge minions, in this case referring to Mysterious Challenger), into “Dr. Seven” (Dr. Boom), into “Dr. Eight” (Tirion Fordring.) Dr. Boom functions well in Druid decks for its Savage Roar synergy, in Handlock for its synergy with Defender of Argus and Power Overwhelming, in Control Warrior simply for its sheer power, and in almost any other deck, outside the most aggressive of Aggro decks and certain combo strategies. Its reputation is well-earned.
Earning These Cards
Calling these cards some of the most versatile in the game suggests that every player should try to obtain most of them, so where do they come from? These cards are scattered throughout a variety of sets, with four available in Classic packs, five found in the Curse of Naxxramas adventure, two buried in Goblins vs. Gnomes packs, and only Thaurissan showing up in the Blackrock Mountain adventure. With nearly half showing up in Naxxramas, this suggests that purchasing this adventure, either with saved gold or real money, is a priority for any player. Thaurissan, along with some other good cards found in the first wing of Blackrock, can be had for seven dollars or seven hundred gold.
For the rest, the crafting system is your best friend. Over a year ago, I recall suggesting that some friends make Azure Drake their first crafted card, as it was well-worth the one hundred dust, and I’d probably do the same today. The best thing about these cards is the sheer number of decks they have the potential to boost. Accumulating the cards on this list is a valuable first step in increasing the power level of almost any deck, as well as allowing the exploration of a variety of strategies. Their impact can’t be overstated.