Cobalt Secret Mage
Earlier this week, I was reading about the concept of “Dad Legend”. Basically, “Dad Legend” is rank 5, because dads rarely have the time to grind enough games to hit real legend. Well, luckily, my newborn daughter is extremely well-behaved so far, and my wife was kind enough to capture the photo above of my own take on “Dad Legend”.
Anyways, as much as I love showing off my little girl, you guys are probably more interested in the deck I hit Legend with, this month.
Well, Nerfstone is live and the cream is starting to rise to the top. As everyone expected, Razakus Priest is still a top dog. As precisely no one expected, Prince Kelseth Aggro Rogue is right up there with it. Jade Druid has fallen from its perch, but still maintains a spot in tier 1, while Evolve Shaman and Demon Warlock have also established themselves as viable contenders.
Despite having all of these Knights of the Frozen Throne powered contenders to play, I can sometimes be a creature of habit. As such, I found my way back to an old favourite, and made my third Legend run this year with my favourite archetype: Secret Mage (after Standard in April and Wild in May).
Yup, Secret Mage got completely snubbed by Blizzard in KOTFT, with zero playable class cards for the archetype. Luckily, Blizzard was nice enough to make it up to us with a set of nerfs that could not be better suited to making Secret Mage a contender, again. Mana Wyrm’s worst enemy, Fiery War Axe, is gone, along with most of the Pirate Warriors on ladder. The top dog is Razakus Priest, a deck that Secret Mage feasts upon. Meanwhile, a previously even-matchup against Jade Druid has been strongly shifted in Secret Mage’s favour.
Time to show them the power of secrecy!
The list that I ran this month originated from Eloise’s top 40 list, which utilized the new tech of Bittertide Hydra to provide the list with some mid-game beef. While I started my testing with the Hydras in my list, I eventually abandoned them in favour of a KOTFT card that took a little while to earn the respect that it deserved: Cobalt Scalebane.
Bittertide Hydra was a very strong innovation for Secret Mage. Previously, builds of Secret Mage either had difficulty with running out of gas, or had to rely on slow late game win conditions, like Archmage Antonidas and Pyroblast, to avoid this issue. Together with the addition of all-around KOTFT all-star, Bonemare, Bittertide Hydra gave the deck the ability to maintain its push a little longer, and overwhelm opponents with mid-game beef.
Unfortunately, for all the metagame shifts that benefited Secret Mage, some of those shifts were less friendly to Bittertide Hydra. For instance, while Secret Mage typically curb-stomps controlish-Warlock lists, it only took one 12 point Defile to the face to make me realize that Bittertide Hydra could be a bit of a liability at times. This is in addition to other powerful demons like Despicable Dreadlord and Abyssal Enforcer that can deal a lot of damage through a Hydra.
In addition to the issue with the Warlock matchup, Bittertide Hydra exacerbated Secret Mage’s other weakness against board-flooding aggro decks. A Bittertide Hydra on the opponent’s side of the table can sometimes be as good as a Bloodlust for an Evolve Shaman list, while a Tempo Rogue list will often be more than happy to toss a couple of 1-drop Pirates into Bittertide to hit you for large chunks of damage.
Enter: Cobalt Scalebane!
While Scalebane isn’t quite as big as the Hydra, it hits just as hard, as long as it has a friend to buff. A Scalebane is worth 8 damage on its first attack, and potentially grows from there. The card’s snowball potential is even more powerful when used in a deck that can protect its minions with Counterspell and Spellbender. By sharing its size with a friend, Scalebane also provides value even if it is removed immediately. As an added bonus, Scalebane even has the Dragon subtype which renders it immune to Dragonfire Potion.
While Bittertide probably maintains an overall higher power level, the ability to get a similarly powered weapon with no drawback makes the swap easily worthwhile, in my humble opinion.
All my testing with the deck was done between rank 5 and Legend, and the deck maintained a strong 63% winrate, with matchups being as follows:
The cards that you always want in your opening hand are Mana Wyrm, Arcanologist and Kirin Tor Mage. Everything else is either matchup dependent or based on the context of the rest of your hand. The Secrets are usually only keeps if you have a Kirin Tor in hand, although you will still send those back if you also have Arcanologist. Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a keep in most matchups, but I will usually send it back against aggro decks, especially Rogue, where it dies easily to a Backstab. Frostbolt is usually a mulligan if you are trying to be on the offensive (eg. vs Priest), while it is usually a keep if you are going to need to fight for the board (eg. vs Shaman).
Let’s start with the best reason to play the deck. Razakus Priest (9-3) is the top dog right now, and almost the only thing that I saw at rank 1. It is really difficult for Razakus to deal with your tempo. They rely heavily on tapping out for a big AOE effect to catch up on board. If you hit their Dragonfire Potion with Counterspell, then the game is probably over. Cobalt Scalebane also excels here, due to its immunity to Dragonfire Potion. Overall, Secret Mage just puts too much pressure onto the Priest. If/when they do manage to deal with your board, it is very difficult for the Priest to recover their health fast enough to stop you from burning them out.
A couple of cautions. One way to lose the matchup is to have them drop Doomsayer into a Mirror Entity. Try to avoid getting blown out by this. It doesn’t happen often, because their deck is full of one-ofs, so having your one Entity line up with their one Doomsayer is pretty rare, but it is worth playing around in a lot of situations, because it is one of the few ways that you lose the matchup.
Second caution, try not to get blown out in the mid-late game by Shadowreaper Anduin. You can’t Counterspell it, and you often have multiple 5+ power minions due to Bonemare and Cobalt Scalebane. Try to avoid overextending into that, if it is not necessary to do so. It also makes it more likely that you will want to Bonemare a minion which is already large, like a Kabal Crystal Runner, as opposed to a smaller minion like Kirin Tor Mage, which would otherwise be immune to Anduin.
Now that we have talked about the biggest reason to play the deck, here is the biggest reason not to. Kelseth Tempo Rogue is a tough matchup. The matchup certainly is not unwinnable, but it has all the things that Secret Mage hates to see: cheap spells and cheap minions. With cheap spells and cheap minions it is relatively easy for them to play around Mirror Entity and Counterspell, minimizing your value. The deck’s most expensive spell costs 1 (Cold Blood), so you rarely get much value out of Counterspell, even if you can cheat it out with Kirin Tor Mage. Sorcerer’s Apprentice is also lame in the early game because it dies with a loss of tempo so easily to Backstab or Patches + weapon.
Ok, I have to rant a bit here. What the hell is Team 5 doing with its design of Secrets?! They made some really great cards to incentivize you to play Secrets, like Arcanologist and Medivh’s Valet, and then designed zero good Secrets to play with them. Seriously, we are still exclusively playing the Secrets from the core set. If you are a defensive deck, you play Ice Block and Ice Barrier. If you are an aggro deck, you play Counterspell, Mirror Entity and maybe Spellbender. With the exception of Duplicate, in Wild, every Mage Secret since the core set has been differing levels of awful.
Perhaps even worse, you play around every Mage secret the same way. The reason why the Kelseth Rogue matchup is so hard is because they can easily play around your secrets by playing cheap spells and minions, so you get minimal value. That is how you always played around Mirror Entity, and is still the way you would play around Frozen Clone, if anyone had the desire to play it. Similarly, it is how you play around Counterspell, and is still the way you play around Mana Bind, if anyone bothered playing it.
Potion of Polymorph is probably the closest to a new playable Secret that they have made in ages, but represents a huge missed opportunity. What Mage needs is a way to combat powerful battlecry minions. You can protect your minions from spells, but there is no way to protect them from Vilespine Slayer. If Potion of Polymorph actually stopped battlecries instead of just polymorphing the minion, then it would serve an important function. If you designed a Potion of Polymorph variant which only triggered on battlecry minions, and cancelled their effect, it would be a great new tool.
How about designing a new Secret which triggers when your opponent plays a minion that costs 2 or less, and summons you a 5/5 demon or something. This would give a Rogue player something to think about before just fearlessly dropping a Swashburglar into your Secret to test for Mirror Entity. How about designing a similar type of Secret which punishes opponents for playing cheap spells to test for Counterspell. For the entirely of Hearthstone’s existence, the biggest issue with Counterspell has been the ability to trigger it with The Coin. Are they ever planning to make a reason to be cautious before playing a Coin fearlessly into a Secret?
Secrets are one of the only tools in Hearthstone that allows you to interact with a large variety of opposing threats. Secrets take skill to play effectively, and skill to play around effectively. It is a type of card they should be pushing, in order to strengthen the skill component of the game. Designing every Secret to have a more-or-less redundant function, and to be played around in an identical manner, is a giant missed opportunity.
Ok, so back to the analysis of the Rogue matchup. In terms of mullligan’ing, the cards you want most in the matchup are Mana Wyrm and Arcanologist. Mulligan hard for them, because those are the best ways to fight for the early board. If your opponent doesn’t get Kelseth, then you are actually pretty good at fighting them in the late game, with Bonemare and Firelands Portal being very strong value plays.
Evolve Shaman is one of the new post-nerf contenders, and a pretty even matchup for Secret Mage. Once again, early board control is key. Mana Wyrm and Arcanologist are great, and Kirin Tor is also very strong here. Try to keep the board clear as long as you can, to avoid trading Mana Wyrm for a Searing Totem when Flametongue Totem comes down. Shaman is generally very strong when it has the board and pretty weak if it doesn’t. If you can hold the board for a few turns, then you can start smorc’ing and finish the game with burn. I highly recommend playing Counterspell right before your opponent’s turn 6, so that you can shut down the potential Dopplegangster/Evolve combo, which is one of their best ways to retake a lost board.
My Warlock matchups were against the Demon Control variety. Once again, they have trouble dealing with your tempo and Secrets. They have a lot of big demons to hit with Mirror Entity, and a lot of big spells to hit with Counterspell. Be careful of their AOE effects, like Abyssal Enforcer and Despicable Dreadlord, as they can hurt your board. That having been said, Warlock also deals a lot of damage to itself, between cards like Abyssal Enforecer, as well as their Life Tap hero power. Since they have relatively few ways to gain that life back, they are very susceptible to being burned out.
Jade Druid has certainly been weakened, and Aggro Druid has disappeared. I was 3-1 against Jade and didn’t see a single Aggro Druid. This is fantastic, since Aggro Druid was a rough matchup pre-nerf, and Jade Druid is a great matchup.
Earlier this year, pre-KOTFT, Jade Druid was a relatively even matchup. They had solid anti-aggro weapons which matched up very well against our Secrets. Primordial Drake was a big road block, as well as AOE which could not be countered. Earthen Scales was also a tough card to play against. You could rarely hit it with a Counterspell, because as a 1-cost spell it was easy for them to test for Counterspell before playing it.
KOTFT brought a lot of new powerful tools which made Jade Druid stronger…but not stronger against Secret Mage. Earthen Scales has gotten the axe in almost every list, which makes it easier to burn druids out. It has been replaced with Spreading Plague, which is now a 6-mana card which is very easily countered. You know what else gets Counterspelled really easily? Ultimate Infestation! Infestation has largely taken the place of Primordial Drake, which is a very beneficial trade for us.
Lastly, we are seeing a lot fewer Innervates, now that the card is just a Counterfeit Coin. Once again, this makes Counterspell all the more relevant. Innervate used to be one of the best ways to proc a Counterspell with little mana investment. The loss of this tool makes it easier for your Counterspells to hit paydirt on big impactful spells like Spreading Plague and Ultimate Infestation.
My Mage matchups were pretty varied, but I won them all. I played against a couple of Quest Mages, a mirror match and a traditional Burn Mage list. Against the Quest Mages and Burn Mages, your plan is mostly to put on pressure and mess them up with Secrets. You have to be very careful with your Mirror Entity, because every list has two Doomsayers. Aside from that, however, your Counterspells and Spellbenders generally hit paydirt. Spellbending a Frostbolt or Fireball is great. Counterspelling a Frost Nova or Ice Block is often just game over. Your ability to pressure their Ice Blocks with burn, and to re-pop blocks with your hero power makes it very difficult for them to delay long enough to set up their endgame.
As for the Secret Mage matchup, it is tough to say too much after one game, but the key in mirror matchups is usually to play the slower role. Play for value, try to avoid getting blown out by Secrets, and hope you draw better than your opponent.
I have been reading articles talking about how Hunter is a bad matchup for Secret Mage. Honestly, I have no idea what they are smoking. While I only had 4 test games against Hunter this time around, Hunter really does pretty much the same thing is has for the past couple of sets, and I have played a lot of Secret Mage this year. In my last article on standard Secret Mage, I had a 7-0 matchup against Hunter, and the matchup has continued to be strong in all the games I played between that article and this one.
The Hunter matchup is very strong because it is a curve-based aggro archetype, not a board-flooding one. So, unlike the Rogue matchup, you don’t usually hit a zero mana spell with a Counterspell, you hit a 3 mana spell like Kill Command or Animal Companion. You don’t usually hit a 1 mana minion with Mirror Entity, you usually hit a Houndmaster or Savannah Highmane. Your opponent has to respect your Secrets because their swing cards are spells and minions, and your Secrets will usually earn you a lot of tempo.
The one new threat that you need to be aware of is Deathstalker Rexxar. The hero power isn’t a big deal because games rarely last too long past turn 6, but the battlecry can allow them to catch up on board, and the 5 armour can mess up your burn math. Be aware of it and try to be careful going into turn 6 to present a larger small board, if possible, as opposed to a wide board. Unleash the Hounds used to be one of the best catch-up mechanics that Hunter had. Unleash has largely been dropped in favour of Rexxar, and while Rexxar is a better threat, it is also a Legend, so the trade-off ends up being relatively fair for Secret Mage.
Anyone sad to see Pirates disappear? Nope, me neither.
The matchup is still not great, but with War Axe now costing 3, your Mana Wyrms and Arcanologists are much more impactful in the early game. Bonemare also provides you with a late game option to stop an opposing weapon from closing a game where you have stabilized. You get forced into a defensive position in the matchup, and your goal is just to get enough tempo to run the Pirate player out of gas before you run out of life.
Other (ie. Paladin)
Kind of surprised that Paladin took it on the chin this hard with the nerfs, but the numbers don’t lie. In 54 games on ladder, I played against only a single Paladin (1-0). It was a controlling variant, and I won. Traditionally, Secret Mage is very strong against controlling Paladin variants, typically winning when an Equality gets countered, or when a Spikeridge Steed gets Spellbended. Tough to say too much more about the current version of the matchup with only a single game played.
Here’s the other great thing about Secret Mage. It is a top tier list without a single Legendary!
The deck features 3 epics and the rest is rare, common or basic. One of the epics is Spellbender, which can pretty easily be traded for Potion of Polymorph, or Ice Block. As for the other two, there isn’t really a good substitute for Primordial Glyph. If you don’t have them, they aren’t all that key to the deck’s strategy, so you could run Babbling Book or Breath of Sindragosa. But Glyph is definitely much stronger than the possible substitutes.
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