Overview: Hero Power, Board Clears, Draw Engine, and Weaknesses
Although Hearthstone allows a variety of viable strategies within each of the nine classes, the Hero Power is often a key contributor to a deck’s strategy and consistency. Shaman decks often rely on the Wrath of Air Totem to boost the impact of Lightning Storm, but they also can protect more valuable minions and their life total with the Stoneclaw Totem, keep their minions alive after trading with the Healing Totem, and get value with the Searing Totem. Warriors often favor Control-oriented strategies with weapons and late-game minions because their Hero Power allows them to survive, and Warlocks either flood the board and use Life Tap to refill their hand or accumulate and abuse a huge hand in slower builds. The release of Sir Finley Mrgglton in The League of Explorers even allows decks like Aggro Shaman to change their Hero Power. With Priest, the Hero Power is no less important. Lesser Heal allows reliable board control by trading and healing minions back up. It promotes slower strategies, resembling Warrior, where the Control Priest intentionally stretches the game out to fatigue. It has important combos with cards like Northshire Cleric and Holy Champion. In short, Lesser Heal has the same function as spells in certain other decks: minion support.
The space this opens, along with the ability take things slowly, allows Priest decks to fit in at least several of many board clear cards. The most famous and historic among these is the Auchenai Soulpriest plus Circle of Healing combo, allowing a four damage clear for four mana and two cards, also leaving a 3/1 Soulpriest in play. Long before Priest decks had anything rivaling today’s support, Auchenai and Circle kept the class alive. Along with this, there is Holy Nova, unique among board clear spells in that it also revitalizes the board of the user. For several beefier minions, Lightbomb is a single card option. Wild Pyromancer, often activated by Power Word: Shield, has always been a mainstay anti-Aggro clear, and Excavated Evil is another option still, for when Holy Nova doesn’t hit quite hard enough.
Like Control Warrior, which has efficient board clear through Brawl but accumulates additional value through weapons, Priest decks also have a secondary method of gaining value. For them, Northshire Cleric is the primary draw engine. It stonewalls traditionally unbeatable early game minions like Shielded Minibot by chipping away, healing up, and allowing a card draw. Its one attack is sufficient against Divine Shields, Abusive Sergeant, Leper Gnome, Silver Hand Recruits, and Spectral Spiders. On later turns, Cleric can be played alongside Holy Nova or Circle of Healing to recover the health of the board and draw numerous cards. Northshire Cleric makes the opponent’s plays awkward, draws into Priest’s plethora of reactive options, and overall synergizes perfectly with the Hero Power.
Priest has always been one of the underdogs of slower strategies, never quite reaching the heights of Control Warrior, Handlock, or Freeze Mage. However, recent releases, the ability of Priests to respond to a variety of strategies with tech cards, and its current match ups against the meta game give the Control Priest its best chances so far. Entomb, Museum Curator, and Justicar Trueheart lend it better options against Control decks, putting its Fatigue ability on par with current Control and Fatigue Warrior lists. Its board wipes give it a good shot against decks that have to commit to the board. It has a number of card suites to answer most strategies effectively.
However, the deck plays like no other, and when played like more conventional strategies, it falls short. It doesn’t play the strongest minions on curve, it doesn’t threaten the opponent with numerous minions, and it can only rarely eke out a surprise lethal combo. Control Priest is best played conservatively, with the number of cards in each deck, the amount of reactionary minion removal, and the number of threats the opponent has remaining in mind. With this in mind, there are only a few strategies that a Control Priest still has trouble overcoming. In the following sections, I’ll cover one of its favored match up types, Aggro, as well as specific strategies to combat the variety of Aggro decks.
General Anti-Aggro Principles and Strategies
Priest has always been favored against most Aggro strategies. Its Hero Power mitigates their damage potential, the commonality of Northshire Cleric and Zombie Chow makes contesting their turns one and two a reliable scenario, and its handful of mid-mana board clears can brick-wall their plays. However, there are still things to look out for. The Control Priest can struggle against “sticky” minions like Haunted Creeper, Nerubian Egg, Imp Gang Boss, and the like. Against minions like this, Holy Nova may leave behind a board just as dangerous as before. While the Hero Power helps to maintain the life total, Control Priests don’t always play burst heal options. Whereas another deck may be safe after an Antique Healbot or a Lay on Hands, Priests can fairly reliably be burst down from medium life totals. Also, if the Priest doesn’t draw enough cheap minions to contest the board, no amount of board clear cards will be enough to stop Aggro players with more conservative play styles.
In Aggro match-ups, Zombie Chow and Deathlord are the best answers. The former trades well, often taking out two minions for the price of one, and can be played immediately. The life gain is a non-issue, as a Control Priest will never race an Aggro deck. Deathlord often requires the opponent to waste two to four resources, and the minion played through its effect is weaker on average than in Mid-Range or Control match-ups. Even a Silence effect to push through its Taunt is rarely the end of the world, since this simply makes Deathlord a 2/8 for three mana, well worth the cost.
Outside of these, counters are match-up dependent. Shadow Word Pain is effective against Shielded Minibot, Imp Gang Boss, and other battle-resistant minions. Shadow Madness can two-for-one, but for four mana, it is best used when the stolen minion provides extra value through a Deathrattle or similar effect (such as Imp Gang Boss.) Against certain boards, Wild Pyromancer is particularly valuable when combined with cheap spells like Power Word: Shield, Coin, Flash Heal, Light of the Naaru, Holy Smite, and occasionally even Circle of Healing (Pyro’s effect triggers afterward, so all minions are healed if possible, then all minions take one damage.) Flash Heal and Naaru are useful in their own right to heal out of range of death and, in the case of Naaru, simultaneously contest the board.
Against Aggro, the key word is “stabilize”. Rarely will the Control Priest be ahead on board, hand, and life in the early turns, but the deck’s strength is in its recovery mechanisms. The Priest should keep a close eye on the turn count, common threatening plays on the following turn, and the number of cards in the opponent’s hand, all with respect to the life total. For instance, on turn five, a Zoolock has the potential to play Doomguard for five damage. On turn eight, a Zoolock has the potential to play Doomguard, then tap into Power Overwhelming or Abusive Sergeant for seven to nine damage. On turn six, a Shaman can play Doomhammer and Rockbiter Weapon for ten damage. Since the Control Priest will almost always be forced to recover, they should “play to their outs” and settle on a method of recovery ahead of time. A board wipe with Auchenai and Circle is effective against Zoo (especially on turn six, since the Priest can use the hero power offensively on a Nerubian Egg or Haunted Creeper), but it is sometimes less so against Shaman, which has fewer minions. For the latter, healing effects, Taunt cards, and weapon destruction are also important for avoiding death by Doomhammer.
Against Aggro, the mulligan is crucial. If there are multiple popular deck types for a certain match-up, it pays to assume that you will be facing the Aggro version, since anti-Control cards can be accumulated over the course of several turns, if necessary. When performing the mulligan, Shaman, Hunter, Mage, Warlock, and Paladin should all be assumed to be Aggro.
Specific Match Ups
Hunter and Shaman are best countered by heal and Taunt effects, so I like to keep Flash Heal, Light of the Naaru, and Sludge Belcher (if I also have other anti-Aggro cards), in addition to the standard Zombie Chow and Deathlord. I always keep Circle of Healing and Auchenai Soulpriest if I open with both, since a turn four recovery is ideal. Because Shaman has a number of three health minions (Tunnel Trogg, Spirit Wolves, Totem Golem, Sir Finley Mrgglton, and Flame Juggler), Holy Nova is usually not enough, especially when it can’t be used until they’re already preparing to play Doomhammer anyway. If you’re teching Excavated Evil, this would be a match up where it shines. It may not be standard, but I keep Harrison Jones if I also draw other anti-early game. Shutting down Doomhammer usually means game over for an Aggro Shaman.
Playing against Mage comes down to quickly determining the variant. Right now, there is Tempo Mage, which uses spell-based removal to keep the opponent off the board, Aggro Mage, which is like a faster, more aggressive version of Freeze Mage, and Mech Mage, which cheats out Mechs a turn early and spams the board. Freeze Mage is also present, but it’s more of a Combo deck. It can be ruled out by Ice Barrier, Doomsayer, or pinging the face on turn two. Generally, its style of play is slow and reserved. Tempo Mage is the only one of the three Aggro variants to commonly play Flamecannon, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or Unstable Portal. Aggro Mage is easily spotted when a Leper Gnome or Mad Bomber is played. Mech Mage should be the easiest of the three to recognize, as it plays Mechs and often drops Cogmaster on turn one. Since Tempo Mage aims to bully its opponent on the board, it struggles against reactive decks like Control Priest. Search for a high-impact board clear (Auchenai and Circle, Excavated Evil, Lightbomb) as soon as possible, and don’t let Flamewaker get out of control. Taking care of it with Shadow Word: Pain or Cabal Shadow Priest can seal the game.
Aggro Mage can be tough because of its burst potential, but it usually forgoes Alexstrasza and Emperor Thaurissan. It should be relatively easy to keep its minions off the board, and doing this is critical, as the deck has up to eighteen damage of burst potential (two Roaring Torch and either Thalnos plus Frostbolt or Fireball.) Mech Mage is a simplified Tempo Mage match-up, with fewer sticky minions but more with four health. Finding Soulpriest plus Circle of Healing is a priority. Against any of these decks, be prepared for a surprise Antonidas, Ragnaros, or Dr. Boom, and save a Shadow Word: Death for these. Compared to some other match-ups, aggressive Mage decks are fairly straightforward.
For Zoolock, the aggressive Warlock variant, it is important to anticipate cards from the hand. Power Overwhelming, Dire Wolf Alpha, Abusive Sergeant, Dark Iron Dwarf, Void Terror, Doomguard, Ironbeak Owl and Loatheb can severely alter the board state or affect future turns. These stat boosts are the bread and butter of allowing Zoo decks to trade efficiently. The Control Priest should play the reactive game, saving board clears for at least three or four minions, since the Zoolock will always have more coming after Life Tap. Nerubian Egg can be troublesome. Although there are higher value targets in Imp Gang Boss and Brann Bronzebeard, I never feel too bad about stealing an Egg with Cabal Shadow Priest. It can still be self-pinged with Auchenai Soulpriest or sometimes falls to Wild Pyromancer and enemy Knife Juggler hits. If not stolen, it can be destroyed normally then fall to Auchenai plus Circle or Lightbomb. With just a few caveats, planning around nine damage of burst when the opponent is top decking is enough. If you haven’t seen Loatheb or both Doomguards, be ready for both on turn ten, a play that prevents Lightbomb. Also, some Zoo players use Sea Giant, so be ready with a reactive spell, and try to clear the board of Implosion Imps.
Against Secret Paladin, the plan should always be to play Lightbomb on turn six after clearing the Secrets from Mysterious Challenger. The best case scenario for the Paladin is to follow this turn with Dr. Boom and Tirion Fordring. Don’t be afraid to use another Lightbomb on the former because even a Control Priest is rarely able to sit back and safely take nine damage, followed by the Boom Bot Deathrattle damage on the following turn. Against Tirion, Entomb is the best option, but it’s not always available. Shadow Word: Death followed by Harrison Jones is almost as effective, and Mind Control is great if you can afford the space to run it. The other half of the plan is to maintain board parity with the Paladin before turn six. Ideally, Shielded Minibot’s Divine Shield should be removed, Haunted Creeper’s first body should be killed, and Piloted Shredder should be wiped out. What remains can be wiped out by Lightbomb. Secretkeeper and Keeper of Uldaman also pose issues with their greater health than attack totals. For these, setting up a Velen’s Chosen before Lightbomb will take them out. Alternatively, Wild Pyromancer in combination with a Spell can whittle these minions down and wipe out Silver Hand Recruits Spectral Spiders, and Divine Shields.
I’ll give a quick primer on Paladin’s Secrets. Secret Paladin always plays two copies of Noble Sacrifice and Avenge because of their pairing and versatility. One copy each of Competitive Spirit, Redemption, and Repentance is typically played, but some double up on Competitive Spirit or Redemption, while others completely forgo Repentance. Sacred Trial and Eye for an Eye rarely see play. After Mysterious Challenger is played, if there are five Secrets, three will activate after an attack. Noble Sacrifice redirects the attack to the 2/1 Defender. Then, Avenge activates, buffing an existing minion by three attack and two health. Finally, the Defender re-spawns with Redemption. At the beginning of the opponent’s turn, Competitive Spirit activates (if they have at least one minion in play), buffing all of their minions by one attack and one health. The first minion you play will be reduced to one health by Repentance. The remaining possible Secrets are Sacred Trial and Eye for an Eye. Some players experiment with the former, which destroys a minion played by the opponent if there are already at least three in play. Notably, if you already have at least one minion on the board and play Dr. Boom while the opponent has Sacred Trial, Dr. Boom himself will be destroyed. The Boom Bots are considered to be in play first. Eye for an Eye is rarely seen, but it does damage to the opponent equal to the first damage taken while it is in play.
While not the most common Druid deck, Aggro Druid still sees plenty of play. The deck is based on standard Mid-Range Combo Druid, but it curves significantly lower. It forgoes upper Mid-Range minions like Sylvanas Windrunner, Emperor Thaurissan, and Azure Drake, as well as Ancient of Lore, for cheaper minions to establish early pressure. The deck’s ultimate win condition is Force of Nature and Savage Roar, but it doesn’t need these to win. Managing the Druid’s board by clearing away Knife Juggler and “token” minions from cards like Piloted Shredder and Mounted Raptor should be a priority. Wild Pyromancer is a keeper, since it contests Saplings from Living Roots, Leper Gnome, sometimes Druid of the Saber, and sometimes the minions summoned by Mounted Raptor. I also like to hold a Shadow Word: Death to answer Fel Reaver, which is often cheated out with Innervate. While Control Priest is favored here, sometimes the game comes down to the aggression of the Aggro Druid’s opening hand. However, if the Control Priest keeps the board clear and finds a way to deal with Piloted Shredder and Druid of the Claw, maintaining a high enough life total to evade the combo shouldn’t be a problem.
Playing the Match Up Correctly
Aggro is far from all Control Priests have to face on the ladder and in tournaments, but it is always rather popular. Its ease in carrying decent player to high ranks, through faster games and less active decision making, means that many should be expected. Control Priest is generally favored against these decks, but the match up must still be played correctly. Until a board clear is found, any concept of “value” basically goes out the window. If you have a Pyromancer but no spells, play it anyway for tempo. If you’re dangerously close to dying, use Flash Heal; that’s what it’s there for. Basically, don’t get greedy. If a Control Priest can outlast the tempo barrage of the first few turns against an Aggro deck, it has high prospects for winning.