Beating the meta on a budget: The post-Naxx aggro Shaman
Table of contents
One can safely say that post-Naxxramas ladder meta is a not a very fun place. With the addition of the Haunted Creeper and Nerubian Egg, Zoo decks were given the firepower they needed to take over online play (again), now that it has become increasingly difficult for control decks to clear the enemy board and stabilize the game. Additionally, Miracle Rogues were not hurt (at least not until now, as Loatheb is already in e veryone's collection) and they continued to be a common sight, now running their new friends the Anub'ar Weblords.
Consequently, decks made to survive the meta aim to do one, two or all of the following things:
- Establish a big board to match bad guy's big board
- Be able to apply pressure from the start to counter the few remaining slower decks
- Pack lots of removal to counter early aggression
- Be as versatile as possible to perform well against different styles - this is ladder, after all, people play crazy stuff
So, in pursuit of one, two or all of those things, one particular build comes to aid the ladder climbing - the aggressive (token) Shaman.
Aggro/token Shamans have never really been a popular thing. Although cards like Bloodlust suggest that an aggressive playstyle is suitable for the class, traditional Shaman players fell back to more mid-range/control archetypes, especially in tournament play.
For a long time, I myself also preferred to play Shaman as a control class rather than a beatdown one until one particular deck caught my attention after GosuCup #17. In it, the tournament champion Managrind's Faramir had brought an aggressive version of the Shaman, featuring early pressure cards, lots of burn and Violet Teacher and Knife Juggler for extra synergy. An updated build, he later told me, even featured a single Bloodlust as the brutal finisher that takes you by surprise.
if the build was good a month ago, it became better with Curse of Naxxramas cards. Haunted Creeper added a pinch of early game presence while Loatheb came in to fill the 5-mana slot and give players another good 5-mana minion besides Azure Drake they can use.
To put it shortly, there are three things that make the token Shaman great:
- It packs a lot of cheap burn - both targeted and AoE - so withstanding pressure from Zoo and Hunter decks is easy
- It established board presece very quickly and very early, featuring a total of 11 1-3 mana minion cards (including Feral Spirit) so it can establish trades in the early turns against faster decks or apply pressure against faster decks
- Point one and point two synergize extremely well with Violet Teacher and Knife Juggler, which gives the deck even more damage and even more board presence
Now, let's break the machine down and see what goes where.
One of Shaman’s strongest points is his repertoire of cheap and at the same time effective burns spells. The class in unparalleled in this regard – there are six 1-mana removal cards in this deck, which are all single-target and very useful when facing aggressive decks. Four of those six cards can also target the player directly, so they come in handy when the last pieces of on-board lethal damage are missing.
Lightning Bolt and Rockbiter Weapon are very similar in what they do, namely deal 3 damage for 1 mana. Lightning Bolt’s advantage is its Overload component which feeds your Unbound Elementals and can be powered up by Azure Drakes and Wrath of Air totems. Rockbiter Weapon, on the other hand, doesn’t eat your mana crystals which is always good when you need all your mana next turn.
Earth Shock is the last of the 1-mana removals and is arguably the best burn in Shaman’s arsenal. The fact that the spell silences before it damages is key in the current meta as it not only one-shots Handlock’s Twilight Drakes and dwarfs Miracle’s enormous Van Cleefs but it also counters Argent Squires, Nerubian Eggs and Haunted Creepers, all cards you will often see in minion-based decks post Naxxramas.
One particular card that is often omitted when talking about removal is Flametongue Totem because, well, it's not a removal card technically speaking. Just like with Zoo, however, Flametongue Toteam will help you trade up the curve (killing a 2-mana creature with a 1-mana creature, for example) and is also something that turns our otherwise passive totems into killers. Replenishable killers!
In standard Shaman decks, the early turns are usually either uneventful or centered around throwing removals. They will often totem-pass on T2 with Feral Spirit on T3 and then continue with board clear while their mid-game strength kicks in and they establish board domination.
This build is different. The mana curve is skewed towards 1-3 mana minions and it’s built in such a way that there’s a minion to play every single turn: Argent Squire on T1, Creeper or Juggler on T2, Feral Spirit or Unbound Elemental on T3, Totem and a 2-mana drop on T4, and so on. Overall, the deck plays a lot like a Zoo where you take board control with incremental steps, but your army is supported by burn instead of buffing minions.
As with all minion-based decks (and, well, all good decks in general), it’s important to play on-curve as much as possible. The good thing about this deck is that it’s very easy to do. Minions are cheap and so are the spells so most of the time you will be playing a minion supported by a removal to utilize the mana fully and get the biggest possible tempo.
One thing that can screw you over is the Overload mechanic. All of Lightning Bolt, Feral Spirit and Lightning Storm will eat one or two of your mana crystals next turn which is something you must keep in mind. Overload cards are a great tempo tool because of their cost but if you end up skipping your next turn, you’re ending just where you started, maybe even behind. To avoid that, always look at your available cards and plan ahead: don’t overload on T5 if you have Fire Elemental in hand. Don’t coin out a Feral Spirit on T2, unless you have a 1-mana spell or minion which you can play next turn. With practice, you will learn which card helps you establish better board presence, which will in turn dictate how you will play the overload cards. Remember: in most match-ups, you will be the aggressor. Don’t end up on your back.
The three cards listed above are also key to your early game and transition into the mid-game. Flametongue Totem and Feral Spirit are great ways to trade with the enemy board up the curve. In additional, all of the cards are likely to draw out opponent's removals as they are a great threat when left unchecked. Don't be surprised if you see your Unbound Elemental Soulfire'd on the spot - good players will realize just how much he can swing tempo and will go through great lengths to dispose of him. In the example of the Soulfire - you just traded two-for-one without doing anything more than playing the guy. Good job!
Violet Teacher has long been the core piece of Token Druids as it enables game-swinging Power of the Wild combos for the ultimate board presence. However, the problem with Token Druids many times is that it's somewhat difficult to trigger Violet Teacher's effect, especially when lacking cheaps spells like Innervate or Wrath.
In Shaman's case, that's not a problem. With six 1-mana spells in the arsenal, this build is very accommodating towards Violet Teacher. Once it is out, you can begin doing what this deck was made to do: kill bad guys while spawning good guys as a result.
+ / /
The other combo piece in the deck is Knife Juggler, who synergizes with minions rather than spells. Good thing that there are a lot of cheap ones in this build, isn't it?
And, of course, the dream:
The basic mulligan philosophy of the token Shaman is easy and follows a simple algorithm. The only thing you have to know is are you the beatdown or are you the control - the answer to this question will determine whether you're digging for removal or for early drops.
Against most decks, you will be the beat-down. Even when you're facing things like Token Druids which seem more aggressive than the other archetypes for the class, you will want to be on the offensive. You want to start dropping stuff as early as the first turn.
Against Zoo, aggro Paladin, aggro Rogue and face Hunters you are the control. You'll want Earth Shocks and Lightning Bolts and Rockbiter Weapons more than anything else. Against Zoo in particular, you'll also want to find at least one Lightning Storm for when their board gets out of control (and it will).
Having this in mind, a general mulliganing guide for token Shaman should look like this:
- Toss out everything which doesn't deal damage and costs more than 3 mana. You want to rule the early turns and dictate what's happening.
- Dig for your removals (against fast decks) or your 1 and 2 drops (against slower decks)
- Keep Hex against Handlock, Druids and control Warriors
- Keep Lightning Storm against Zoo and Shamans
- Mana Tide Totem is usually not good for a starting hand, even against slow decks
Druid: Druids can be incredibly hard to deal with because of how much tempo the Innervates tend to create. Druids' minions are usually outside Rockbiter/Lightning Bolt range and there's not an easy way to deal with them.
Generally speaking, the easiest Druid archetype is the slow ramp build, because Hexes and Earthshocks counter their taunts and open your path to victory. Mid-range Druids are quite the opposite - they are consistent all throughout the game and you'll find it difficult to establisht he board presence you need.
Tokens are a 50/50 match-up and it tall depends who will trigger their combos first and who will get a good AoE clear first. If they do a Violet Teacher/Power of the Wild combo and you can't clear their board, you'll likely be dead to a Savage Roar explosion the next turn.
Hunter: Midrange Hunters are back in the meta now that they've been given Haunted Creepers but that's nothing to worry about because they never have really been a problem for Shamans, unlike the face Hunter builds. Dig for removal and play around Unleash the Hounds and you will win.
Face Hunters continue to be a nuisance, though. UtH might be 3 mana now which slows Hunter's combo a bit, but Shaman still lacks heal which is a problem when Rexxar is trying to kill you by dropping chargers every turn. If you don't draw Feral Spirits, you're likely dead.
Paladin: Thanks to Kolento, the slow Paladin builds are back on the ladder. Usually, this is an easy match-up because the deck is heavily reliant on not getting its Tirion silenced which so convenient for Shaman and his Hexes and Earthshocks.
One thing that can lose you the game is overcommitting and dying to a Consecration or Wild Pyromancer/Equality. Play around that and you're fine.
Priest: Just like against slower Paladins, you rule the match-up unless you overcommit and get cleaned up on the back of Wild Pyromancer shenanigans.
Miracle: Miracle doesn't really have bad match-ups (even Handlock is not a 100% counter to it) but overall you can clean it fairly easy. Apply pressure from the start and be on the offensive as much as possible. The Miracle match-up is a race against time most of all and you have the tools to finish faster than the Rogue player most of the times.
An important card against Miracle is Loatheb. Unlocked by completing the second wing of Naxxramas, Loatheb is available to all Hearthstone players and should be more or less in every deck. A 5/5 for 5 mana, Loatheb increases the mana cost of enemy's spells in the next turn so play it to counter the Gadgetzan draw antics of Miracle. If it can't draw the combo, it can't kill you, simple as that.
Shaman: Most Shamans nowadays run a mid-range build with Nerubian Eggs, Dark Iron Dwarves and Defenders of Argus so you essentially treat the match-up as against Zoo. Keep board control by doing favorable trades and Earth Shock their Eggs and Creepers. Good Lightning Storms win games, try to make them as cost-efficient as possible so don't be trigger-happy with them.
Handlock: Very, very good match-up for Shaman. Earth Shock one-shots Drakes. Hex eliminates Giants. Burst damage eliminates the other Giants. Everything is fine and dandy as long as:
- You don't put the Handlock below 10 if you don't have answers for taunted Giants
- You don't lose your entire army to Hellfires and Shadowflames
Zoo: You can say token Shaman was built to counter Zoo. It packs lots of cheap removals for Zoo's early drops and it can match Zoo's board presence easily with Feral Spirit and Violet Teacher. Lightning Storm further wrecks the Warlock if/when he overcommits.
Still, this match-up is heavily reliant of having the right removal at the right time. An unsilenced Nerubian Egg can ruin your day. If you get a slow start, you'll also die as coming back from behind is hard to do with this deck. Everything that Zoo plays must be answered almost immediately and if it's not than it can spiral out of control.
Warrior: Control Warriors are easy prey for the aggro Shaman (unfortunately, they aren't really popular at the moment). Garrosh needs a very specific set of cards to deal with Shaman's board presence (e.g. having Cleave AND Whirlwind or Whirlwind AND Baron Geddon or Brawl AND another removal) and if they don't get those they straight up die. 80% of the time, you will dance over their bodies.
The more mid-rangey Warriors are somewhat harder to deal with. They are not so late-game heavy and combine cheap removals with good mid-range minions to gain incremental advantage so you have to keep that in mind. Populating the board like there's no tomorrow remains a viable strategy, but make sure to also anwer their threats immediately. Mid-range Warriors tend to run out of steam eventually which is their biggest weakness so if you can't rush them down quickly, just play the removal game and you'll be fine.