General Principles and History
Although itself a Control deck, Priest has historically struggled against other Control strategies. While other decks have proactive, minion-based, class-specific threats to put the opponent in a difficult position, such as Tirion Fordring and Lord Jaraxxus, Priest does not have as well-defined of a win condition. Prophet Velen is only situationally viable in burst-based Combo lists, and Vol’jin is a combination of a mid-range minion and creature removal, not a win condition. The exception is Confessor Palestress, released in the Grand Tournament, but it is only sometimes played, due to its lack of speed and reliance on luck. Rather, Priest’s designation as Control comes from its removal cards combined with its healing abilities. Another weakness is its lack of effective burst damage (again, barring Velen Combo decks.) These factors led to the deck type’s struggles against Control Warrior and Handlock decks, in particular.
However, with Lightbomb and Entomb, that changed. The former gives the deck a chance against a Control Warrior with two or more large threats on the board or a Handlock with Taunted Giants and Infernals summoned by Lord Jaraxxus. Entomb means that the Priest can utilize even more removal options and simply steal the opponent’s minion-based threats. Flash Heal and Justicar Trueheart are also a great help. Not only are they valuable in fatigue wars, like Entomb, but they can also be used for burst damage with Auchenai Soulpriest. While it is not the most reliable, sometimes combining Flash Heals, Hero Powers, and Zombie Chows with Auchenai Soulpriest is the Priest’s best shot to beating a Warlock post-Jaraxxus.
The game plan against Control decks is all about patience. Unlike against Aggro, the Control Priest rarely struggles to survive in the early or mid-game. Often, the first real threats don’t come into play until turns four, five, or six, with cards like Twilight Drake, Sludge Belcher, or Shieldmaiden. Against these cards, it is no disaster to leave them alone for a turn or two, accumulating further options and baiting the opponent into overextending. The Control Priest should count on going to fatigue against Control Warrior and other Control Priest decks, with a chance of doing so against Handlock. Because of this, every card should be used to its maximum potential. Circle of Healing should be paired with Auchenai Soulpriest, since drawing is usually counter-productive in these matchups. It can be difficult to get good value from Holy Nova, but the two copies often pair well together to take out medium-sized minions or get a few extra points of healing in the fatigue stage. Wild Pyromancer and Northshire Cleric are less valuable in these matchups, so I often play them alone to bait removal.
Anti-Warlock: Fear Jaraxxus
Most of all, in Control matchups, it is important to anticipate the opponent’s largest threats. The first objective is to determine the matchup being played. Against a Warlock, it is important to determine whether the deck is a Zoo variant, a Reno Jackson deck, a Malygos Combo deck, or Demon Handlock. Zoo is easy enough to sniff out: no other Warlock plays low drops like Flame Imp, Voidwalker, Knife Juggler, or Nerubian Egg. Reno Jackson Warlocks tend to play few, if any, duplicates (some favor multiple Voidcaller or Molten Giant), and some of their card choices are unique, such as Demonwrath, Mind Control Tech, and Acidic Swamp Ooze. Malygos decks play Soulfire and two copies of Darkbomb, but these are rarely seen until they can be used for lethal damage. However, they also double up on Dark Peddler and play Dragon synergy cards (Blackwing Corruptor and Twilight Guardian), which are the major tells. Finally, Demon Handlock runs a similar list to Reno Jackson decks but is most easily spotted by its usage of Ancient Watcher, Mountain Giant, or duplicates.
Of all the Warlock decks, Priest has the easiest time against Zoo, but we’ve already considered that in the previous article, detailing Aggro match ups. After this, the Control Priest has two main threats: being outdone in card advantage by Lord Jaraxxus, and being burst down by Spells or Charge minions. The first order of business is to scout out Malygos Warlock, or Malylock. This is the only popular non-Aggro variant that forgoes Lord Jaraxxus. Instead, the deck aims to accumulate Malygos, Soulfire, and two Darkbomb, play Emperor Thaurissan, and play all four for twenty-five damage. The deck includes some other potential direct damage with two copies of Hellfire and two Blackwing Corruptor, but the big Malygos play is the maximum reliable single turn of damage. Against this deck, staying out of potential lethal range while answering threats, one by one, is the best plan of action. It is very risky for Control Priests to overcommit to the board, except in minion-heavy builds that play cards like Sylvanas Windrunner, Ysera, and Confessor Paletress or Midrange versions that use cards like Deathlord, Injured Blademaster, and Velen’s Chosen. It’s not a good idea to throw away damage that will be necessary in the late game. Against Malylock, the idea is to stay high enough to survive the OTK turn and bait the opponent into wasting direct damage on minions. You should be prepared with an Entomb for Malygos. Other considerations are spare direct damage from Blackwing Corruptor, Hellfire, and cards from Dark Peddler, meaning up to ten damage on a single turn after the Malygos combo.
Outside of this, the Priest is forced to deal with Lord Jaraxxus, making Handlock and Renolock variants one of a Control Priest’s most difficult matchups. Lord Jaraxxus sets the user’s health to fifteen, out-healing any unlikely scenario where the Priest would exert early pressure. This is followed by Infernals every turn, along with further healing like Antique Healbot, Earthen Ring Farseer, and Siphon Soul. Lord Jaraxxus isn’t a death sentence for other classes that are able to ignore the board and win with burst, but this isn’t usually possible for the Priest. However, if a Handlock variant or Renolock is spotted early enough, the Control Priest can sometimes accumulate burst damage to be played post-Jaraxxus. This involves combining Auchenai Soulpriest with Zombie Chow, Circle of Healing (to destroy Zombie Chow), a buffed hero power through Justicar Trueheart, Flash Heal, and Light of the Naaru. With all of these pieces combined, up to twenty-six damage is possible without the coin or Emperor Thaurissan (Auchenai Soulpriest, two Zombie Chow, Circle of Healing, two Flash Heal, and two Light of the Naaru.) Of course, the maximum damage is hardly likely, but even ten or twelve is sometimes enough if the opponent plays recklessly or doesn’t see burst damage coming.
The hardest counter to Priest may be Reno Jackson Handlock that also plays the Leeroy Jenkins/Arcane Golem, Power Overwhelming, and Faceless Manipulator combo, doing up to twenty damage after an Emperor Thaurissan tick and even more with lucky picks from Dark Peddler or with Abusive Sergeant. This variant is often indistinguishable from standard Reno Handlock, and it is frankly unreasonable to play around both Jaraxxus and the Faceless Combo. Jaraxxus is difficult enough to beat, so unless there is an easy opportunity to maintain a high life total, it is best to accumulate burst damage.
Anti-Warrior: Tank Up! Pass…
Control Warrior offers Control Priests a far better opportunity for success. The matchup used to be heavily in the Warrior’s favor, often going to fatigue, with Justicar’s buffed hero power (Tank Up!) allowing the Warrior to win the fatigue battle. However, Entomb changed things, allowing Priests to steal the largest threats, such as Grommash Hellscream and Ysera, for later use. This also enlarges the deck, putting the Priest player behind in fatigue. The more difficult Priest match up, combined with difficult match ups against Secret Paladin and Druid decks, pushed Control Warrior out of the highest ranks. However, players began to adapt, experimenting with Mid-Range cards like Fierce Monkey and Blackwing Corruptor and with more spell-heavy and reactive fatigue decks, pushing the deck back into the higher echelons. The challenge for the Control Priest is identifying the variant and responding accordingly. Since Priest only has a limited number of answers, blowing Lightbombs, Shadow Word: Deaths, and Entombs too early can be a death sentence.
Currently, the most popular build of Control Warrior is the list that carried Fibonacci (a known Control Warrior expert on the ladder) to rank one legend in North America in the final season of 2015. This deck forgoes some of the heavier minions common to the strategy, like Baron Geddon, Dr. Boom, Alexstrasza, and Ysera. Instead, it loads up with extra early game from the likes of two Revenge, two Armorsmith, two Bash, two Shield Block, some light healing from Tournament Medic, and, to the surprise of some, Deathwing. Like the Deathlord fatigue decks that were popular late in 2015, the deck’s clear objective is damage mitigation. It counts on seeing fatigue, and the inclusion of extra reactive board clears and Tournament Medic aims to bring the deck to a win in this phase. However, card draw from Slam, Acolyte of Pain, and Shield Block make this extremely unlikely against an intelligent Control Priest player. Entomb should be saved for Sylvanas Windrunner and Grommash Hellscream, and the Priest should hold a Lightbomb or Shadow Word: Death for Deathwing, but in general, removal can be used more liberally against this variant. Finding a way to efficiently remove Sludge Belcher, Justicar Trueheart, and Shieldmaiden is usually a problem against Control Warrior, but with fewer late game cards, it’s fine to use Auchenai Soulpriest and Circle of Healing or even Shadow Word: Death on these cards. Tournament Medic shouldn’t be an issue, as it can be stolen with Cabal Shadow Priest. Like other Warrior decks, the clearest danger comes in fatigue, but this is the game state Control Priests are most prepared for.
Mid-Range Control Warrior lists present a different issue. Weak minions provide light enough pressure to be ignored by the Control Priests and strong ones are easily wiped out by Shadow Word: Death, Lightbomb, and Entomb. However, several mid-range minions demand a response, but there are fewer answers to them. Mid-Range Warrior lists tend to focus on Dragons, with cards like Twilight Guardian, Azure Drake, Blackwing Corruptor, and Alexstrasza’s Champion, or they are modified versions of typical Control Warrior that include Fierce Monkey. In general, Auchenai Soulpriest and Circle of Healing are far more important in these matchups. Many of the Mid-Range minions played by these decks have four health or less, and the ones that don’t can be removed with Circle of Healing and a Hero Power. Each Auchenai plus Circle combo should be held until it can take out at least two minions. It is also often necessary to use a Lightbomb on a board of Mid-Range minions, but one should preferably be saved for Onyxia. Dragon variants tend to drop most of the armor package, leaving out Armorsmith, Shield Block, Shield Slam, Shieldmaiden, and Justicar Trueheart. Instead, they play more chip damage with double Slam, double Bash, and double Cruel Taskmaster, along with the Mid-Range package and one or more “win condition” Dragons, like Onyxia, Ysera, Nefarian, Deathwing, and Chromaggus. Against Monkey Warrior, the game plan is similar to standard Control Warrior in the next section, but Auchenai Soulpriest and Circle of Healing tend to be more important. This variant also occasionally runs Spellbreaker, another prime target for Auchenai and Circle.
Standard Control Warrior, like Fibonacci’s reactive version, is in Priest’s favor these days, but for different reasons. While Fibonacci’s Warrior fails to outlast Control Priest and win in fatigue, standard Control Warrior fails to threaten the Control Priest with its minions. Ysera was once a nearly hard counter, demanding either Mind Control (which was only run occasionally) or Sylvanas combined with Shadow Word: Death, which is rather inefficient. These days, Entomb is a one-card counter, one that also is a viable response to an un-Enraged Grommash Hellscream. Dr. Boom, Baron Geddon, and Alexstrasza are easily answered by Lightbomb and Shadow Word: Death, as usual, and even Vol’jin can use the high health total of some late-game minions against the opponent. The main difficulty comes in two forms: answering mid-game minions and piecing together answers for the larger ones. With two Entomb against a Warrior that plays Shield Block, Acolyte of Pain, and Slam, the Control Priest should always have a larger deck than the Control Warrior. In certain situations, it is legitimate to draw with Power Word: Shield and even Northshire Cleric, especially in decks that play Deathlord. This can increase the consistency with which a Priest draws their all-important Lightbombs, Entombs, and Shadow Word: Deaths. Along with the respective deck totals, a Control Priest should also watch out for potential burst damage. From the hand, twelve is fairly common, with Grommash Hellscream and Cruel Taskmaster. If a single durability Death’s Bite is in play, this can be as high as fourteen or sixteen damage. It is less common than in the past, but Alexstrasza still sees some play, as well. While the burst potential of Control Warrior is lower than some other decks, players should still keep it in mind, since it can mean the difference between winning and losing a twenty minute game.
Anti-Control Priest: The Light Shall Burn You!
Of course, the mirror match. Because the rest of this guide is about effectively piloting a Control Priest deck, playing against it should become rather intuitive, so I’ll be brief. However, there is still relevant Priest vs. Priest specific information to consider! First of all, if you see a Twilight Whelp, Wyrmrest Agent, or Blackwing Corruptor, stop! You’re facing Dragon Priest, which is better explained in the next article’s review of Mid-Range decks. Second of all, this match up will go to fatigue. Currently, few Priests are playing tempo-oriented Mid-Range decks or high curving late-game decks. Entomb has led to an environment where the Control Priest relies on the opponent to supply the large minions, and seeing cards like Holy Champion and Sylvanas is possible but rare. Most of the time, this is a low pressure and high value war, where each player develops their own stockpile of options.
It should go without saying that reactive spells are less useful than average. There’s very little to react to at all. It’s permissible to use Shadow Word: Death on a Justicar Trueheart, for instance. Lightbomb has little guaranteed value, but it is an important tool in fatigue. Since some players use only a single Lightbomb, I’ll play it as late as possible, hoping the opponent decides I don’t have another. Minions, any minions at all, are crucial. I found myself including Big Game Hunter, which is unconventional due to redundancy with Shadow Word: Death, over a second Death because of the fact it has a body. Once both Auchenai and Holy Nova are gone, the opponent may have no way to take care of it. Thus, conserve your minions, and hesitate to play more than one at any time. Generally, Holy Nova and Wild Pyromancer are the most difficult cards to use. Nova can be just enough to turn the tide in fatigue, and Wild Pyromancer can chip away for three per turn once this stage arrives, but if more efficient uses for these cards crop up, by all means, use them.
Like playing against Control Warrior, drawing with Northshire Cleric or Power Word: Shield is rarely advisable, unless the opponent is already several cards deeper into the deck. Holding these at the end of the game may seem like a shame, but a smart opposing Control Priest will have the same dead cards left over. Museum Curator is tricky. It may be tempting to choose beefy minions, like Sylvanas Windrunner or Cairne Bloodhoof, since there will certainly be time to play them, but this is a poor move in anticipation of Entomb. Instead, I prefer to take mid-range minions that evade Cabal Shadow Priest. Again, when the decks run out, every minion counts. Speaking of Entomb, knowing what to Entomb, and when, can make or break a Control Priest mirror match. Personally, I prefer to take Auchenai Soulpriest, Sludge Belcher, and Deathlord, although Deathlord can also be taken by Cabal Shadow Priest. These cards are all troublesome in fatigue, with Auchenai Soulpriest dealing five to seven damage per turn, although its player should beware that it shuts off defensive use of the hero power. Sludge Belcher and Deathlord are simply tough to push through, and the latter depletes the opponent’s deck. Light of the Naaru and Flash Heal may also stick around until the very late game. While Flash Heal should be held for surprise lethal evasion, Light of the Naaru ought to be played earlier rather than later, due to the growth potential of the Lightwarden.
Defense of Control Match Ups and Coming up Next…
Many dislike Control match ups, since players taking turns using the Hero Power and passing is visually unexciting, but knowledge of this type of gameplay adds a new level of tension to the endeavor. Control match ups often consist of players with complete mastery of their own decks and nearly perfect knowledge of the opponent’s, holding onto their reactive options and doing everything possible to encourage recklessness. There is no other Hearthstone archetype match up where poker principles, like bluffing, are more important. Usually, the more patient and calculating player will win. Next time, we’ll move onto Mid-Range decks, which pose unique challenges for Control Priest decks. Is the Auchenai and Circle of Healing combo enough to wrench these match ups into the Priest’s favor, or does the age-old four attack blind-spot (between Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Word: Death) come back to bite us? Come back next time, and see for yourself. Until then, may the light bring you victory!