Getting Started with Aggro Shaman
With a new set of nerfs upon us, a large portion of the aggro decks were affected in some fashion. That is, all but one; Aggro Shaman has remained untouched while its fiercest competitors (Pirate Warrior and Aggro Druid) have taken a serious hit. As a result, I predicted it to rise as the new top-tier Aggro strategy and chose to make my climb to Rank 5 with the deck for this season. The Fiery War Axe nerf makes it much harder for Warriors to answer a turn 1 Tunnel Trogg, giving the deck a greater chance at snowballing into a win. Similarly, the Innervate nerf removes some of the most explosive openers that Aggro Druid could pull off, particularly the ones involving multiple tokens and a board buff (Vicious Fledgling is less of a concern since we have access to Lightning Bolt), meaning the early game is a much more fair fight when against Aggro Druid.
Today, we take a quick look at Aggro Shaman, mainly focusing on the list popularized by Albert “MekNugetZz’s” Bazinet after his 1st place finish on the first and only Hearthstone Wild Open back in early June of this year. While popularized by MekNugetZz, this list had been around for quite a while and was popular on ladder during the months following the Spirit Claws nerf on February of this year, and continues to be the most popular version of the deck to this day.
Aggro Shaman is not only one of the long-standing pillars of the format, dating back to its inception in April 2016, but also one of the cheapest in the format, clocking in at 6820 dust. That is just 140 dust more than your typical Pirate Warrior list, and utilizes a lot of the same core Neutrals as most other aggro decks, not to mention the full Jade package that is used by most other Shaman lists as well. Here you can look at the entire list, and in the next section I will break it down and talk about each section Individually.
- Lightning Bolt: One of my all-time favourite cards. It’s hard to beat 3 damage for 1-mana, as proven by the nerf to Rockbiter Weapon back in February of this year. But alas, we still have the Bolt, which works better in the deck anyway thanks to Tunnel Trogg, as well as to being able to ignore Taunts.
- Patches the Pirate, Bloodsail Corsair, Southsea Deckhand: Your back-up plan for when you don’t draw Tunnel Trogg. The Pirate package is core to a large majority of the aggro decks in the format, providing early board presence like nothing we had ever seen before or since. In addition to pulling our dear captain out of the deck consistently, Bloodsail Corsair serves as cheap tech against Pirate Warrior and other weapon-heavy decks, and Southsea Deckhand gets to immediately get in for damage when we have a weapon equipped. Both Patches and Southsea also have fantastic synergy with Flametongue Totem, providing serious early game pressure and adding another layer of depth to your early turns by making minion positioning matter.
- Sir Finley Mrrgglton: One of the most unique Legendaries in the history of the game, Sir Finley allows us to break down the barriers of class identity and get access to a variety of different Hero Powers. I’ve written an entire article on the intricacies of using Sir Finley, but suffice to say that the card is a game-changer and allows us to stay in the game for much longer than any aggro deck has the right to.
- Tunnel Trogg: Here he is, the poster child of this deck; it all begins and ends with the Trogg. One of the most powerful, if not the most powerful 1-drop minion every printed, making Mana Wyrm look weak in comparison. This card allows us to harness the power of Overload, traditionally a straight-up downside, and turn it into pure gas. With a good draw, an unanswered Trogg can deal upwards of 10 damage on its own by turn 4, which needless to say is ridiculous for a 1-drop. This is the card you always want to see in your opening hand, and even later in the game it can still be relevant when played in combination with other Overload cards to buff its Attack and turn it into an immediate threat. Troggs rule indeed.
- Jade Claws: Your back-up plan for when you don’t draw Totem Golem, but also so much more. It is a fast answer to your opponent’s early game, generating massive tempo by summoning a minion while removing two of your opponent’s, all for one card. It buffs Tunnel Trogg on-curve, it’s a cheap enabler for Southsea Deckhand, and if all that wasn’t enough, it builds upon itself thanks to the Jade mechanic, getting better in multiples and scaling and the game goes on. The card definitely earns its spot in the deck, and carries on the legacy of a previous set of Claws.
- Devolve: It took me a long while to accept this card, but eventually I came to realize that this card is some serious power-creep on the classic Hex. For 1 less mana… I mean, 2 less mana, you get to transform your opponent’s entire board, removing any synergies or buffs they may have spent resources on, as well as shrinking their board down in order to generate better trades for you. Sure, sometimes RNGesus is not on your side, but on average this card will generate a positive outcome for you.
- Crackle: One of the most hated cards in the history of the game, this card alone made the community re-evaluate the meaning of healthy RNG. There’s two ways of think of this card under normal game conditions; either you always assume the worst possible outcome when you use it (always deals 3 damage), or you take an average and treat it as if it always behaves according to the average outcome (deals 4.5 damage). Personally I use a combination of both methods, meaning that I will always use my Crackle assuming it will deal 4 damage. During more dire circumstances, like when you’re top-decking and need the last points of damage, you need to recognize the doors this card opens for you. There will be games you have no business winning, but as long as you can high-roll that 25%, you have a chance to take it.
- Maelstrom Portal: Cheap AoE like none other in the whole game, with a free minion to boot! This card lets you to swing the board back in your favour against other board flood decks like Pirate Warrior, Aggro Druid, and even Midrange Paladin. It can set up better trades against the enemy board, but you always have that 25% chance to roll a Wrath of Air Totem and turn it into a full clear.
- Flametongue Totem: Another all-time favourite of mine. While at first glance it may seem weak, make no mistake; this is easily in the top 4 most powerful cards in the deck. Turning weak tokens and Totems into instant threats, this card takes board control to a whole new level. And if you already have the board, sweet! Here’s 4 damage for 2 mana that can turn into even more if left unchecked. This card alone adds a whole new level of depth to the deck, making positioning matter a lot, particularly in the early turns in combination with Pirates, pulling Patches the Pirate from your deck for a surprise 3 damage.
- Totem Golem: This card is best friends with Tunnel Trogg; a dynamic duo that terrorized the Standard ladder for months. It gives Shielded Minibot a run for his money as the best 2-drop minion ever printed. Not much more to say about this absolute monster of a card aside from don’t coin it out unless you have a really good back-up plan.
- Feral Spirit: Another one of my all-time favourites, this is a relatively weak card, but with so much synergy that it’s hard not to include it. Two bodies at the cost of 1-card is already enough to catch someone’s attention, and the upside of Taunt defending the rest of your board against other board-centric decks is not to be underestimated. It buffs Tunnel Trogg, in addition to working beautifully on-curve with Flametongue Totem. It’s biggest downside is that it has Overload (2), making your curve kind off awkward after you’ve played it. If there ever is a 3-drop minion with Overload (1) that is a good on its own, this card is most likely getting replaced. But until that fateful day, the Wolves stay with the rest of the pack.
- Lava Burst: Originally just a weaker Fireball, most likely was intended as just another removal spell, and yet already it was an attractive option for more aggressive Shaman decks way back when. And then came Tunnel Trogg, and now this card is capable of a ridiculous amount of burst damage from hand. Perfect example of a card that is instantly better given just a wee-bit of synergy.
- Jade Lightning: The second piece of the dreaded Jade package, this card builds off of one of the best cards in the deck (Jade Claws) in order to become a very powerful card on it’s own right. By just summoning a 2/2 minion, this card is already worth the mana you are paying. Anything more and the card gets ahead of the curve. More burst damage is always appreciated in this deck, and burst damage attached to a sizeable body is even better.
- Flamewreathed Faceless: The memelord himself has graced us with his presence. A ridiculously undercosted beater that demands an immediate answer, else you face a metric ton of damage. And don’t forget about that Tunnel Trogg synergy! This card alone gives you a significant amount of staying power against midrange and control decks that none of your competitors possess. Even against faster opponents, this card allows you to win the damage race as long as you can keep the board even (easy to do with all the damage removal you have).
- Hammer of Twilight: Makes a nice impressions of Arcanite Reaper, and provides a body upon death for constant pressure and insurance against weapon hate. Turns out 4-Attack is a pretty sweet number when a large portion of the ladder is composed of Priests.
- Aya Blackpaw: And last but not least, the final piece of the infamous Jade package. The head honcho herself, Aya is easily one of the most annoying minions to deal with in the entire game. If you had a bad draw and your Jade count is low or non-existent, Aya helps you get started by making two Jades for the price of a single card. If you had a good draw, Aya brings in the beats by making multiple large bodies that your opponent’s will struggle to deal with. This card alone makes midrange and controlling matchups considerably easier.
Strategy and Gameplay
The goal of the deck is relatively simple; gain board control early using minions and cheap weapons, push face damage as much as possible while retaining board, the finish of your opponent with powerful burn from hand. Simple enough, but the deck contains several additional levels of strategic depth, including minion positioning, realizing which burn spells are best for which situations, and most importantly the Overload mechanic, one of my all-time favourite mechanics in the game. Managing your mana and planning your turns around Overload is one of the most crucial skills you must learn in order to play this deck effectively, and it can mean the difference between an early win and an early loss.
While a downside at first glance, Overload is one of your most powerful tools, providing insane discounts on your cards for maximum tempo, as well as extra damage through Tunnel Trogg buffs. The mechanic allows you to borrow mana from future turns, allowing for more powerful turns now at the cost of limited mana on the next. With Wild giving you access to a plethora of cards from all of Hearthstone’s 3-year history, the format has reached a point where a deck can be built with a critical mass of Overload cards. And a you’ll soon realize when you play this deck, when all your cards have Overload, none of your cards have Overload.
Similar to how the Jade mechanic works better the more Jade cards you can jam in one deck, Overload cards make up for the deficits of one another, allowing you to play a relatively normal game as long as you stay ahead on board. Playing a Totem Golem on turn 2 isn’t as punishing when you can follow it up with Jade Claws the next turn, and Feral Spirit the turn after, for example. However, the first three turns of the game are still the most important for this deck, as this is when Overload is at its most punishing. Planning your plays according to your matchup, your draws, as well as your Overloaded mana crystals over future turns is extremely important; foresight is key.
For example, one of the most common misplays I see and have certainly done is coining out Totem Golem or Jade Claws on turn 1. Usually seen as a high-risk, high-reward type play by most, this is typically a misplay since a lot of players tend to do it with no follow-up or back-up plan for their next turn if the Totem Golem gets answered, leaving them even further behind than before (since they were already going second). Even when you do have follow-up, most of your 1-drops are fairly low impact, and most of the time not even a Pirate + Patches the Pirate follow-up is enough to keep you in the game.
Personally, I would only ever coin Totem Golem against an aggressive deck if I specifically had Lightning Bolt in hand, since it is not only a fast answer (unlike a minion which can’t attack the turn it’s played), but 3 damage is enough to eliminate most early game threats, leaving the board relatively even. Though your opponent will still have the initiative, this minimizes the risk versus the reward of having a 3/4 that can attack on turn 2. Against a controlling deck, where they are more likely to have answers over threats, following up with Pirate + Patches the Pirate is enough to keep up the pressure. I would never coin out Jade Claws against any deck unless I am forced to answer a must-answer threat.
Ahead of the Competition
So how does Aggro Shaman match with similar decks? Some of the unique feature of this deck compared to other aggro decks in the format are as follows:
- AoE Spells: Rarely does an aggro deck have the luxury of running area of effect spells, but Aggro Shaman can count itself as one of the lucky few. Having access to Maelstrom Portal, one off if not the best board clear ever printed, the deck gains an edge against other board flood decks that try to fight for early board control. Against control decks, where such a card would naturally be at its weakest, you can still play the Portal as a relatively cheap body to continue pressuring the opponent, which is better than a completely dead card. In addition, Devolve is one of the most powerful tools in the game, providing a cheap pseudo-Silence effect that can remove Taunts, as well as any on-board synergies and buffs your opponent’s deck may rely on (particularly good against Druid, Paladin, and most recently Rogue).
- Burst Damage: Aggro Shaman prides itself in the amount of burn it can shoot from hand in one turn, thanks to the cumulative discounts gained through the Overload mechanic. Turns out being Overloaded for 3+ next turn doesn’t matter if your opponent is dead on this turn. Unlike Aggro Druid, your burst functions regardless of board presence, allowing you to still win games after a big clear from your opponent. And unlike Pirate Warrior, your burst damage comes for the most part in the form of spells, meaning that you can completely ignore Taunts and aim straight for the face to finish off the game.
- Late Game Beef: Most aggro decks tend to run out of steam on turn 5 or 6, at which point they typically begin top-decking for the last few points of damage. Aggro Shaman, on the other hand, can play a longer game thanks to the big, beefy minions it manages to fit into the deck. Starting with our memelord himself, the Flamewreathed Faceless, who needless to say is a 4 mana 7/7 and can put on the pressure in a heartbeat. The deck also contains a full Jade package including Aya Blackpaw, giving you additional staying power against midrange and control decks that competing decks can only dream off.
The mulligan strategy for this deck is very straight forward. While there are certainly cards that can swing matchups considerably in your favour, most of the time keeping them in your hand only hinders your first few turns, which are the most crucial moments for this deck. As such, it is best to use a mulligan strategy that maximizes consistent early game turns, such that hopefully we are fast enough to where those swingy tech cards aren’t necessary. What follows are rules of thumb rather than a detailed guide against all possible matchups; following them is nice when you’re getting started, but as you learn the matchups you’ll also learn what works and what doesn’t for you. So in general:
Against other Aggro decks: Keep Maelstrom Portal if you have two good early game cards.
Against Aggro Druid and Midrange Paladin: Keep Devolve (cause it’s that good).
- Hammer of Twilight is a fine source of damage that leaves behind a 4-Attack body, but it’s not as spectacular as its rarity would suggest at first glance and is in my opinion the most replaceable card in the list
- Aya Blackpaw is in the deck to improve your slower matchups, particularly against Midrange decks. However, Midrange decks have historically struggled to thrive in the Wild format, the one exception being Midrange Paladin. It’s a card that in the current meta can be cut with little to no drawbacks if you feel the need to be faster.
- Lava Burst is the least efficient of your burns spells at a net cost of 5 mana for 5 damage. Therefore, it is logically the best choice to cut down if you want to add more tech. Keep in mind that it is also the burn spell with the most Tunnel Trogg synergy, so by removing it you are sacrificing more damage on average than it may seem at first glance.
- Devolve is already at its core a tech card, albeit a really good one. It shines against Aggro Druid and Midrange Paladin, as two of the decks whose strategy relies the most on on-board synergies and buffs. Before the nerfs, it was also a fantastic answer to Spreading Plague, but after the nerfs the meta has shifted and is now comprised of a large Priest majority, leading a good number of Jade Druids to cut the card in lieu of good old Primordial Drake. Most recently, its become a strong card against Aggro Rogue as a cheap answer to an all-in Edwin VanCleef play. However, against every other class it is pretty much a dead draw, so depending on what you are facing this is certainly one of the cards to cut.
- And finally, as good as it is, Maelstrom Portal remains as your weakest card against control matchups like Priest, where it is rarely more than a 1-Cost minion for 2 mana. Removing it does weaken your aggressive matchups considerably though, so it is certainly the absolute last card from this list that I would cut if I ever need to it change up a bit.
Tech Options and Variations
- Azure Drake: In the current Priest-heavy meta, Azure Drake is one of the strongest minions you can tech in for ladder play, being nigh immortal against Priests until they get Shadowreaper Anduin online. A 4-Attack Dragon minion checks all the boxes as a Priest’s worst nightmare, ignoring Shadow Word: Pain, Shadow Word: Death, and Dragonfire Potion, leaving Pint-Size Potion + Shadow Word: Horror combo as their only answer. Add card draw and Spell Damage on top, and you have very a solid threat that provides great value in longer games.
- Argent Horserider: This card excels at wrestling board control early in the game from other aggressive decks, as well as providing additional reach against slower strategies. Horserider works fantastically in combination with Flametongue Totem, providing another 4-Attack threat that is tough for Priests to deal with.
- Spirit Claws + Tainted Zealot and/or Bloodmage Thalnos: Even months after being nerfed, Spirit Claws is making a comeback and haunting players once more. This variation has recently been popularized by Awedragon, who finished the August season at Rank 1 Legend. Divine Shield makes the Zealot hard to remove through combat, making it more likely to stick around as a Spell Damage source, meaning more potential damage from Spirit Claws. Thalnos fills a similar role to Zealot, being easier to remove but providing additional draw to dig for your burn spells. When teching both Zealot and Claws you can expect on average 5-7 damage from the Claws; not bad for a single card.
- Rockbiter Weapon + Doomhammer: Another ghost from the past, this has recently been brought back to popularity by Poach, but has been a variation of the deck for months. The combination of Windfury with Rockbiter Weapon was a staple of the class going back to the days of closed beta, and was such a powerful interaction that the card was nerfed. And what better source of Windfury than Doomhammer, one of the most unique and powerful weapons in the game. Naturally, a weapon is much harder to remove than a minion, meaning that Doomhammer is likely to be around for multiple turns, providing an incredible amount of face damage for one card. I’m personally not a fan of this variation since it seem very slow and the combo gets stonewalled by Taunts, but you may find success with it just as many other have.
- Whirling Zap-o-matic + Powermace: Now we are seriously going old-school. This version is not very common right now, and as such it can certainly catch player off-guard. Most people tend to keep one removal spell to get rid off an early Tunnel Trogg. This version takes advantage of this and punishes players with two must-answer threats back to back. If your Mech lives, the opponent is eating a minimum of 6 damage, setting you up for a blisteringly fast start. Add in Flametongue Totem, or the previously discussed Rockbiter Weapon, and your opponent could easily be at 10 Health by turn 4. Zap-o-matic also serves as a powerful 2-drop with no Overload, which does wonders for the curve of this deck, finally allowing you cast [Flamwreathed Faceless] consistently on-curve. You can add in a Powermace or two for further support, but I don’t find it necessary at all. This variation is perfect for the current meta, since Razakus Priest are unlikely to have multiple cheap answers for things, being singleton decks.
While MekNugetZz’s list is still functional 4 months down the road, it is always best to analyze your local meta and tech appropriately. Here’s an example of what a teched Aggro Shaman list may look like. Taken from HSReplay.net, this variation boasts a 65.5% win rate; just 0.5% less than MekNugetZz’s.
And with that I thank you all for reading this short introduction to Aggro Shaman. Feel free to leave any comments or suggestions as to what you liked, what could be improved, and what you’d like to see next; these guides are based mostly on my own laddering experience and as such may take a while to get out as I become familiar with the decks. There’s a few lists that I already have in mind for the next guide, but if there’s enough demand for a particular deck I’d be glad to abide by the fans. Until then, stay tuned and see you next time!