Mage guide: Aggro Mages in modern meta
The first part of our Mage guide series looks at the short-tempered aggro Mages, including the builds invented by Managrind's DuckWingFace and Curse's Alchemixt.
For a long time, Mage has been considered as one of the worst classes in Hearthstone. Following the series of nerfs that targeted Jaina’s frost spells and her fiery Pyroblast finisher, even the dedicated Mage players dropped the idea of figuring out new ways to play the class. Both Mage archetypes – the aggro and frost control versions – were edged out by other, more consistent builds. Tournament statistics proved time and time again that together with Paladin and Priest, Mage just can’t be counted on winning important games.
Yet there is a resurgence happening in Mage land in the current days. Previously only seen in budget tournaments and on the lower ranks of the ladder, Jaina has been gaining more popularity. Players like Managrind’s DuckWingFace were seen using Mage to climb up to legend while Curse’s Alchemixt brought the class to both Tavern Takeover 2 and Deck Wars S1 finals.
In two parts, we’ll take a look at the modern Mage builds. The current one will look at the fiery aspect of aggro Jaina while the next one will examine the contemporary frost builds, featuring exclusive insight from Team Wildcard’s Chacruna.
That said, let’s get started.
The aggro Mages recently made a comeback in response to a slowed-down Miracle-dominated meta. The burst potential of the class suddenly became viable in race match-ups and more and more players found out that often they can out-DPS Rogue’s Gadgetzan builds or even the face Hunters or punish the Warlocks for their greedy Life Taps.
The modern aggro Mages take after the old builds from back in the beta. They feature a low-mana curve for early pressure, combined with explosive burst potential through Fireballs and Frostbolt/Ice Lance combos to finish opponents’ health or control the board so that the minions can do the job. The 23-card core of the build, displayed on the right, ends on 5 mana, which is to further showcase how everything about this deck is to end the game quickly.
The aggro Mages need a rush-y start to effectively reach the point from which they can one-shot the enemy. They want to dictate the hit points tempo from the very first turn and for this reason they employ a number of cheap drops which are the small rocks that set off the DPS avalanche.
Mana Wyrm is a must-have card in every Mage deck being a crucial minion for the early-game tempo. Gaining 1 attack each time a friendly spell is cast is extremely powerful and will almost always trigger a response from the opponent.
In the cases where the opposing player doesn’t have a direct removal, Mana Wyrm will almost singlehandedly win the game if it can be supported by a barrage of spells. Wyrm/Frostbolt, Wyrm/Mirror Image and Wyrm/Arcane Missiles are cheap combos that give the Mage a huge momentum, and momentum is all the Mage needs.
Arcane Missiles is a removal card whose RNG element is supposed to be its drawback but it really isn’t just because its cheap mana cost makes it a great Wyrm-buffing spell; if it doesn’t kill a minion it’ll at least leave it within Fireblast range most of the time; and it can become free to cast through Sorcerer's Apprentice, which helps your tempo a lot. This is a fantastic card against Zoo and Face Hunters as it helps greatly with board control, as well as against slow, low-minion decks in which case it’s a direct 3 damage to the face. That’s 3 hit points closer to lethal than 1 mana ago. Worth it.
Mirror Image is a horrible card by itself but an astounding one when cast at the right time. It basically has three purposes:
- In the early game it protects high-value targets like Mana Wyrm, Knife Juggler or Sorcerer’s Apprentice from minion and weapon attacks, giving you more time to extract more value of said cards or making the opponent waste a direct removal on them
- It’s a cheap effect trigger for, you guessed right, Mana Wyrm and Knife Juggler.
- In the late game, it protects the Mage until it can collect all the necessary OTK pieces (see below). This often saves lives against Miracle Rogues, especially if their board sweepers have already been used
For the aforementioned reasons, Mirror Image is a very situational card and must be kept in hand only if the other cards you’ve drawn can directly benefit from it. If you have a spell-heavy hand, throw it away. If you got your Mana Wyrms or Knife Jugglers keep it.
Knife Juggler is an essential card for aggressive decks as it has no real drawback. It’s especially powerful in this deck because there are a total of four 1-mana drops (six if you run Leper Gnomes) and three 2-mana minions, which results in a large number of potential triggers. The Mage class additionally benefits from the fact that it doesn’t care where the juggle actually lands: if it wounds a minion, it can easily be finished off by hero power and if it hits the face that’s one damage closer to lethal. Knife Juggle also makes Mirror Image especially powerful because the spell will establish board presence, protect the juggler and deal two damage all for 1 mana.
Sorcerer's Apprentice is another flexible, must-have card in Mage decks which doesn’t lose its potency as the game goes by (same cannot be said for Knife Juggler, for example, who shines in the early game but not so much later on when you run out of cheap drops). In the early rounds, it’s a powerful tempo tool, giving you the option to squeeze out extra spells when you normally couldn’t, just like Innervate does for Druids. The Apprentice will smooth out your curve and soon enough you’ll learn just how powerful free Arcane Missiles, 1-mana Frostbolts and 3-mana Fireballs can be.
In the late game, Sorcerer’s Apprentice is an important component to the finishing barrage of spells. A powerful T6 for the aggro Mages includes a 3-mana Fireball, 1-mana Frostbolt and two free Ice Lances for a total of 17 damage, a burst which would be impossible without the Apprentice.
Where there are spells, there is also a [card]Bloodmage Thalnos[/card], simple as that. The card works in a very similar way to Sorcerer’s Apprentice: it gives extra power to your spells and is a card that fuels the OTK burst. The card draw is an extra bonus which you’ll always want. Although budget versions tend to replace this with Kobold Geomancer and can still work, it’s not nearly as powerful and I strongly suggest crafting Thalnos as soon as possible – it’s a card you’ll use in plethora of other decks anyway.
Arcane Intellect is an important bridge between your early and mid-game. Since you’ll want to mulligan away your cost-heavy spells and search for low-mana drops to open aggressively, you’ll find yourself running out of fuel soon. Something Arcane Intellect easily fixes.
The card is simply great and no matter what you draw you’ll always benefit from it. If it cycles into more cheap drops, they can easily be translated into another super aggressive turn. Ideally, however, you want to get those Water Elementals and Azure Drakes and the other mid-game drops.
Water Elemental is heavily considered as the best Mage card or at least one that is on par with Fireball. The 3/6 body is very difficult to remove 1-for-1 (except by Fireballs), not to mention it incapacitates weapon-wielding classes as it freezes anything that it attacks.
While most of the classes wouldn’t care much about the latter, this is absolute hell for Miracle Rogues and control Warriors. Disabling an Assassin’s Blade or a Poison-enchanted dagger means you’re winning the DPS war against Valeera. Warriors, on the other hand, will find themselves in deep trouble if they don’t have Execute in hand since this is their only cost-efficient way to remove a T4 Water Elemental (due to the early pressure from Mana Wyrms and Leper Gnomes, most Warriors won’t have enough Armor to Shield Slam the Elemental away).
Azure Drake. See Bloodmage Thalnos and don’t try to play this deck without two copies of this. Seriously, it won’t work: the Drake is arguably the best 5-drop in the game and is even more powerful in a Mage deck as it gives spell power, a solid 4/4 body and digs your deck for more burn spells/finishers.
Again: Don’t play Mage without Drakes.
Finishing the opponent just on the back of minion drops is a hard task. That's why modern aggro Mages employ a spell burst component which is unloaded in the late game and aims to deal the final points of damage if the right pieces are in hand. Hence, knowing how much damage you can dish out with the cards you have available is an important part of playing the deck correctly.
There are a few necessary components which enable the burst combo. One is having at least one Frostbolt in order to turn the Ice Lances into 4-damage spells (alternatively, you can cast a 0-damage Ice Lance and follow up with a second, but that’s obviously not optimal). Another is playing Bloodmage Thalnos the same turn or having Azure Drake from the turn before to add 1 extra damage to every spell. The final is having a Sorcerer’s Apprentice in play, which will allow you to cast more spells in a single turn.
Depending on the combination of cards, you'll be able to dish out between 11 and 24 damage for anything between 3 and 10 mana in one turn (combos with more cards obviously deal more damage) and for different mana costs. This gives the aggro Mages incredible flexibility, as they can finish the opponent from basically any health score. Thus, in most match-ups Mages only need to deal about 10-15 damage with minions before they can evaporate their opponents but they also have the tools to finish the slow control decks which have many ways to limit their damage intake.
3 card combos
Frostbolt + 2x Ice Lance = 4 MANA, 11 DAMAGE (or why we don't need Pyroblast)
Bloodmage Thalnos + Fireball + Frostbolt = 8 MANA, 11 DAMAGE
Sorcerer's Apprentice + 2x Fireball = 8 MANA, 12 DAMAGE
Frostbolt + Ice Lance + Fireball = 7 MANA, 13 DAMAGE
Bloodmage Thalnos + 2x Fireball = 10 MANA, 14 DAMAGE
4 card combos
Sorcerer's Apprentice + Frostbolt + 2x Ice Lance = 3 MANA, 11 DAMAGE
Bloodmage Thalnos + Frostbolt + 2x Ice Lance = 6 MANA, 14 DAMAGE
Sorecerer's Apprentice + 2x Fireball + Frostbolt = 9 MANA, 15 DAMAGE
Bloodmage Thalnos + Frostbolt + Ice Lance + Fireball = 9 MANA, 16 DAMAGE
5+ card combos
Sorcerer's Apprentice + Fireball + Frostbolt + 2x Ice Lance = 6 MANA, 17 DAMAGE
Bloodmage Thalnos + Frostbolt + 2x Ice Lance + Fireball = 10 MANA, 21 DAMAGE
Sorcerer's Apprentice + 2x Fireball + 2x Frostbolt + 2x Ice Lance = 10 MANA, 24 DAMAGE
Sorcerer's Apprentice + Thalnos + 2x Frostbolt + 2x Ice Lance + Fireball = 9 MANA, 25 DAMAGE
2x Sorcerer's Apprentice + Thalnos + 2x Fireballs + 2x Frostbolt + 2x Ice Lance = 10 MANA, 32 DAMAGE (realistically, having these exact 9 cards will never happen, but it's fun to see just how much damage you can deal for 10 mana)
Now that we’ve established what’s the core of every aggro Mage, it’s time to look at some complete builds, examine what makes them unique and understand why do they choose these exact seven cards to add up to 30.
DuckWingFace’s Mage is all about adding more mid-game power to the build by establishing a strong board presence from turns 4-5 and on.
The two most noteworthy additions are Violet Teacher and Defender of Argus. Violet Teacher is a card directly benefits from casting spells, which fits very well in the whole idea of the deck, being very similar to cards like Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Mana Wyrm in the sense that maximum value is extracted from spell and minion alike.
Token Druid players will already know exactly how to use Violet Teacher, i.e. not on T4 without any follow-up as it is almost a free kill for the opponent. As a result, Violet Teachers will most often come out on T5 or T6 when they can be combined with a removal spell or Mirror Image to quickly populate the board and grab the advantage. If you have managed to keep a Knife Juggler alive until that point (unlikely, but not impossible), sit back and watch how all your cards work together like a deadly machine, sprinkling damage everywhere.
Defender of Argus is a card that works well in every mid-range deck as giving two +1/+1 bonuses is invaluable. He turns your impotent Mirror Images into 1/3 punchers or converts the weak 1/1 Violet Teacher tokens to 2/2 minions, which is a big threat to any opponent. The taunting effect can be used to protect precious cards like Knife Juggler or make the enemy to attack into a 4/7 Water Elemental, which is never fun.
On 3 mana, we have a single copy of Acolyte of Pain, which is a card often seen in Mage decks because it can be triggered by the hero ability. Most of the times it will be played in the mid-game though when it can be immediately pinged, guaranteeing at least 1 card draw, but it can also come down on T3 if Arcane Intellect is not drawn as it will fill up your mana curve.
Finally, we have Flamestrike and Archmage Antonidas as the only expensive cards in the deck. Flamestrike is a natural board clear against Zoo, Token and Shaman decks that have gone out of control, so running one copy of it is always useful. Antonidas is a more situational card and is only there to re-fuel your hand in the late game if it so happens that you run out of damage.
Curse’s Alchemixt uses a slight variation of DuckWing’s Mage as shown in Tavern Takeover and Deck Wars S1 Finals tournaments. Alchemixt chooses to keep Acolyte of Pain, Flamestrike and Antonidas for the exact same reasons (more card draw, board clear and re-fuel tool) but drops Defender of Argus and Violet Teacher, preferring to use cards less reliant on synergy with other cards.
First, we have a couple of Leper Gnomes which add to the early game aggression, being an effective way to chip down opponent’s hit points. Most of the time, the Gnome will deal a total of 4 damage for just 1 mana but in some situations, it can even take down a minion with it, force a removal or deal even more face damage, all of which are good deals for the Mage.
On the 4 mana slot we have a single copy of Polymorph, an essential card to fight a slow, control-oriented meta.
Although slightly worse than Shaman’s Hex, Polymorph is Mage’s most cost-efficient way to deal with big threats. It’ll neutralize hard to kill threats like Cairne Bloodhoof, Fire Elementals, inflated Edwin VanCleefs, Druid’s Ancients and 4/6 Druids of the Claw, Warrior’s dreaded succession of legendary finishers (or at least the first one), Handlocks’ giants and Zoo’s Doomguards, meaning you’ll never regret running one copy of it as it is useful against most of the meta-defining decks. It is rarely advised to run two copies, though, as it is a dead card against face Hunters and aggressive decks in general and drawing one instead of a much needed Frostbolt or Mirror Image will spell your doom.
Finally, we have Pyroblast, the card whose nerfing made Mages almost disappear from the metagame.
It’s still debatable whether or not it’s worth having a single copy of Pyroblast in hand. Being pushed to 10 mana makes it very cost inefficient as many of the modern decks run combos which are cheaper and deal more damage. Even if the latter need several cards before they can be triggered, this is often not a problem as they are preceded by plenty of card draw mechanics, essentially negating their multi-piece nature.
To some extent, Pyroblast is also in conflict with the entire concept of the modern aggro Mage. If pre-nerf Pyroblast was the piece that killed everyone on T8, its current mana cost makes you wait until T10 to do that and aggro Mages will usually want to finish the game before that. The farther their finisher is, the more comeback opportunities there are for their opponents. Not to mention it’s also a “boring” card in the sense that your T10 starts and ends with it, giving you zero flexibility.
All that said, I’m personally not a fan of the card because of its rigidness. I’d rather have it replaced by a card that is usable on more than one turn in the game, even by something like Ragnaros or early drops like Faerie Dragon. Still, I can see its appeal – it’s a big ball of fire that kills stuff.
Druids: This match-up heavily depends on which Mage deck meets which Druid deck. Alchemixt’s Mage is better against Ramp and Watchers as Polymorph can neutralize their big taunts, while DuckWing’s is better against Tokens as they can match their board presence through Violet Teacher and Defender of Argus. Druid is still favored, though, as a 4/6 Druid of the Claw is tough to deal with if you don’t have Fireball and Keeper of the Grove is a card that can ping away your early pressure. Almost all Druid decks run Force of Nature/Savage Roar combos, meaning the moment you drop to 14 you’re in as much danger as they are.
Hunters: Most of the Hunters you’ll face nowadays are full face ones. Which in turn means that 90% of the time this will be a race match-up.
Fortunately, you have the tools to win this without breaking much sweat. Arcane Missiles and Fireblast are great for clearing the 1-health minions. Mirror Image in turn can help protect your life total as long as you don’t lose them to Explosive Trap (which is the one card you must be extra careful about). A Water Elemental that’s not dealt with can render their bow useless and same is true for Frostbolt and Ice Lance, both of which are great ways to block that extra 3 damage and put the Hunter behind in the damage race.
Miracle Rogue: Miracle Rogue is all the rage right now and as such is the deck to beat in the current meta. Fortunately for you, the deck has tangible weaknesses which can be easily punished.
Miracle struggles against aggressive decks which can kill it before it can draw all its OTK pieces and the Mage aggro is one such deck. The constant churning of minions will draw out Rogue’s removals or, if you’re lucky, trigger a dagger attack for more damage. In addition, Water Elemental, Ice Lance and Frostbolt are great ways to control Rogue’s weapon attacks, allowing you to lock down poisoned daggers or the dreaded Assassin's Blade.
It’s important to know at any point of time how much damage you can deal and how much damage you can receive. Once Gadgetzan Auctioneer is out, it triggers a clock which you’ll need to beat in two turns maximum (or Flamestrike it) or you’re dead. For this, you’ll either need all your burst pieces or Mirror Images to hinder Rogue’s ability to one-shot you.
Shaman: In the age before all the Mage nerfs, Shamans found it very hard to win against Jaina’s burn, mostly because of their lack of heal. Nowadays, things are different. Shamans have easy ways to populate the board and match you minion for minion and removal for removal and things can get out of hand quickly. Feral Spirit shuts down lots of your early game aggression and so do cards like Rockbiter Weapon and Lightning Bolt. They will Hex your Water Elementals and Antonidas and Lightning Storm you if you overcommit to the board. At the same time, they’ll spam minions without much concern as they know the exact moment the only board sweeper in the deck can hit them. This is extremely difficult match-up and if you don’t run them down early it’s almost unwinnable if they take board control.
Zoo: You’ll be put in the control position in the Zoo match-up as these Warlocks run a smooth curve of cost-efficient minions. Your removal arsenal will be put to the test and you’ll need a nice combination of spells and minions to withstand the onslaught.
The one thing that works for you is Zoo’s constant Life Taps, which will drop their health to a point where you can burst them down. Like in the Miracle match-up, you need to be familiar with the breaking points of you and your opponent. It’s a difficult match-up that takes a lot of planning, calculating and playing on the edge and many times you’ll have to make the important decision of not trading minions, going for the face instead, chipping away at your opponent until he’s in lethal range.
Handlock: Handlocks are widely considered the most consistent control deck in the current meta but they’re actually an easy match-up for the Mage. They Life Tap a lot and have a slow start, which only helps your goal. Your spell combos can easily bring them down from 14-15 hit points, meaning you don’t have to give them free Molten Giants. Populate the board as quickly as possible and whack away.
This is not to say that the match-up is unwinnable for Handlock. An early Mountain Giant followed up by a taunt is a game-turning move if you don’t have a Polymorph or a Fireball (two cards you should always keep if you know you’re facing a control Warlock). If you don’t, you might need to waste one of your Frostbolt/Ice Lance combos and go through with brute force, but have in mind this will greatly diminish your finishing potential.
Control Warrior: It’s not easy to admit but this is as close to unwinnable as it gets. I’ve played the match-up on both sides and in ~20 games Mage has taken two or three.
Why is Garrosh so hard to beat? First of all, contrary to what their name might suggest, aggro Mages don’t run a lot of minions in the early game, not as many as Zoo anyway. Which in turn means that Warriors don’t have to worry about their biggest weakness – board clear. Most of the time, Mages will play one minion at a time, falling right in the hands of Warriors’ outstanding single target removal. Unless you run the Violet Teacher build, manage to populate the board and avoid a Brawl, there is now way you can develop a board presence that the Warrior can’t deal with.
On top of that, Armor Up and Shield Block are easy ways for Warriors to get outside lethal range. Once they’re sitting safely on a high life total, they’ll start dropping their big legendaries and you’ll be checkmated as you’re not fully equipped to deal with all of them.
There are only two ways you win this match-up: you get a T4 Water Elemental, it doesn’t get insta-Executed and you perma-lock Warrior’s weapons; or you draw godly and the Warrior starts with Alexstrasza, Grommash and Ragnaros.
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