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Supertype Discussion - Tempo-Based Combo

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wonderPreaux    1408



Combo decks use specific build-around cards or a critical mass of spells to try and set up a singular turn that wins the game or effectively wins the game by affecting an unbreakable or irrecoverable board state to trump the opponent. Filling up a combo deck with defensive cards is the intuitive way to approach combos, since it allows you the time to cycle cards and build up your mana bar and the downside of losing out on tempo the whole game is mitigated when you can one-shot the opponent with whatever your combo is.


When you manage to get a mana advantage on the opponent, though, you can wrest the tempo away from the opponent and pull into the lead. This lowers the bar for whatever your combo is because you can put pieces onto the board ahead of time or damage the opponent with minions to make your combo requirements easier. When you have a way of staying ahead of the opponent’s tempo, it exacerbates the linear and non-interactive way that combo decks can operate because it gives the opponent a harder time of building a board and killing you, which is usually the only way a “fair” opponent should be able to interact with you as a combo player.



Mean Streets of Gadgetzan has added some neat new tools to combo decks, but it doesn’t really break new ground. Counterfeit Coin is no Innervate, but it does increase Rogue’s access to Coin for better VanCleef and Auctioneer synergy. Kun the Forgotten King is another such card that overlaps with existing combo potential, giving Druid another way to abuse a full mana bar by sliding out a 7/7 at a minimum or creating a massive swing with Aviana. While Druid and Rogue combo already exist and would be roughly as playable without these cards, it’s important to evaluate new releases given the environment of Standard rotation.




Tempo-based combo is usually found on the right side of the spectrum, not necessarily a full control deck, but rarely ever on the aggro side. This is mostly due to the need for a full mana bar or a mana inflection that allows the aggressive deployment of some key minion. Given that combo decks aim to do a whole game’s worth of winning in one turn, a lot of their maneuvering is devoted to trying to get access to as much mana as possible, meaning there’s some strategic advantage to try and keep the game going to the mid-game phase at the least.


While all decks require you to change your play patterns depending on whether you are the relative aggressor or control, the change will be somewhat exaggerated when using a combo deck. The most general way to explain it is that, when compared to the combo deck, an aggro deck would prompt the combo player to break apart their combo to manage the pace of the game whereas a control deck would prompt the combo player to aim for a full on one-turn-kill. This is because aggro decks don’t tend to have effective removal or healing, so using powerful synergies piecemeal to stave off aggression and make repeated minor pushes will steadily exhaust and overpower the aggro opponent provided the combo player can remain alive. Against control decks, however, their defense and removal tools would easily remove the combo threats unless they’re leveraged to their utmost, requiring the combo player to fully combo off and go over the top of the control deck’s reactive tools. Generally, you want to build your deck so that you have enough tools to have a fighting chance against both aggro and control, though you can skew towards one end of the spectrum as needed.


Some matchups are more nuanced, however, and often these exceptions to the paradigm described above don’t bode well for the combo player. For example, some control decks have an ability to become implacable to one-turn-kills through Secrets or Armor. As a result, the combo player typically has to take risks playing fast and loose with their threats because they can’t rely on having any sort of inevitability in the matchup. This is another reason why a tempo-based combo is worth considering, if you just passively cycle all game and apply no pressure, you’re betting on the combo being an inevitable victory and effectively conceding any matches where either your ability to reach the combo or the inevitability therein is compromised.


Another case where the combo player may have a difficult time is against midrange opponents. Since a midrange deck combines some of the offensive tools of a more aggro deck with some of the defensive tools afforded to a control deck, it can be difficult to find a winning line against a midrange deck with a potent draw. This is because early aggression can force you to use combo tools early on for survival and control, which then leaves you too exhausted of resources to finish off the opponent as they start dropping higher-end cards. Historically, many combo decks have bad midrange matchups and decks like Midrange Druid and Midrange Hunter presented huge problems for combo decks. Again, this underscores the importance of tempo concepts in combo decks, keeping an opponent’s development contained throughout the game presents the opportunity to shortcut combo requirements and reduces the strain placed on resources that would ideally be used to draw out and execute the combo further down the line.


Class Considerations


This is a somewhat complex Supertype to try and delineate valid classes for. The presence of cards like Barnes and Emperor Thaurissan in the generic Standard card pool means that, to a certain extent, you can make a valid case for any class with some amount of damage spells and card draw as being a combo class. However, the very best classes, the ones that are best suited to be combo decks, have extra tools available to them that other classes don’t.


First, a combo class has components that are a design choice on the deck-builder’s part that makes the combo the primary game plan. This is, again, a somewhat blurred line to draw, but it is the difference between a combo deck and a midrange or control deck that happens to have a literal combination of cards that can be used to affect a large amount of burst damage. A somewhat heavy-handed way to look at it is, “would the cards in the combo deck have plausible uses outside the combo?”, a lot of actual combo decks tend to fail that question for at least a few of their cards, whereas decks employing a “combo finisher” tend to try and pick cards that have some backup or secondary use (as an aside, there are or were also combo finishers that involve terrible cards, but, again, blurred line).


Secondly, a combo class has a way of minimizing or directing the opponent’s interactive plays. Conceptually, this is like an inverted tempo play: you aren’t advancing your own gamestate, but you are retarding and restricting the way your opponent can advance their gamestate. This is usually the tempo component that disqualifies classes from being true combo decks, not all classes have a degenerate component that invalidates opposing plays, most just have a lot of removal and a combo that, itself, is non-interactive. This is supplemented and/or substituted by more traditional mana-advantage effects that allow for massive plays in comparison to what the opponent is capable of. This is a form on non-interactive play because affecting a larger scale of play than the opponent either ends the game or reduces the opponent’s cards and plays to low or no impact on the gamestate. In summary, all the classes you’ll see below have some sort of effect that will be uninteractive at a minimum and may also involve a mana advantage.


Druid is the combo class that relies the most on tempo through mana advantage and having a larger scale of play than the opponent. “Ramp” effects are a unique feature of Druid, trading a material advantage of cards in hand for a temporary window where all the Druid’s plays can be larger than the opponent’s plays. This means that the Druid can take far more assertive paths to completing a combo, Azure Drake is far more threatening than the Loot Hoarder or Acolyte of Pain, for instance, especially when ramp lets you play the former at the time other classes would be playing the latter options. In addition to gearing the entire mana curve up with ramp effects, Druid can also use Innervate to push ahead of the opponent and/or make up for slower draw or ramp plays. It is worth noting that especially aggressive decks can build a board from turn 1 and give ramp a run for its money, though.


Whether the ramp is needed to survive aggro or threaten control, it is an important facet of Druid combo. It also has especially high utility in combo decks, given how cards like Wild Growth and Nourish can be used to draw towards the combo and Innervate can be used to help execute the combo as opposed to launching out an early tempo play or facilitating a board clear. The newly released Lunar Visions is something of an inversion, where it helps you make plays later by discounting cards but being clunky in its own initial cost. The card is certainly combo material, especially given the Druid’s tendency to be more minion-based, but it’s a risky gambit compared to the more cut-and-dry cards like Nourish.


When the Druid really gets its ramp going, the way it actually wins the game is almost a formality. Usually, the reason to play combo instead of just ramping and then playing huge minions is that the combo lets you beat up on control decks that might otherwise equalize or subvert your tempo with economical removal. One combo method is spell-based burst to punish control while the spells serve a secondary role as removal against aggro. An alternative to that is to use Jade Golem spells to support building multiple chains of threats to overwhelm control decks, while allowing a curving minion presence against aggro. Lastly, token and buff effects can be used to build large boards at key inflection points to overwhelm opponents.


The mana advantage Druid works to attain is exploited through minion engines that allow the Druid to extract extra value from its combo pieces and support cards. Cards like Fandral Staghelm, Gadgetzan Auctioneer, Violet Teacher are used to produce large plays by adding extra value to cards like Jade Idol, Moonfire, and Power of the Wild. In the case of minion combos, the degenerate aspect comes in the form of deploying minions at a speed or size inflection point that the opposing deck won’t be able to respond to effectively. Druid’s cheap spells combined with spell-power effects are used for simply one-shotting opponents, though the ability to kill off an opponent from full life with little to no board makes it far harder to interact with than anything involving minions.


As an aside, the newly released Kun, the Forgotten King has created interest in the combo potential of Aviana. While Aviana could always create explosive plays with Innervate, Kun is flexible as a tempo or defensive play on its own and is thus no large imposition on the Druid to play if it aimed for a minion-based combo deck already. Aviana’s discounting effects make just about any minion threatening, so the combo payout can be anything from building an impossibly large board of minions like Ancient of War, massive minion interactions with Brann Bronzebeard or C’Thun, or Malygos combos that don’t require Thaurissan. Aviana is an interesting highlight that exemplifies Druid’s flexible combo potential.


Overall, Druid offers many opportunities to combo players, given that its primary class advantage, playing bigger than the opponent, is its degenerate component. The flexibility of being able to just do “more” than the opponent gives Druid a wide range of combo possibilities; tempo plays with tokens, lines of Jade Golems to outlast opponents, or spell-power bursts, which means you can likely find an effective combo build for the metagame. However, missing the ramp cards in the opening of the game can be a quick loss, which means this combo deck has a much higher dependency on the initial mulligan, whereas other combo decks can draw out of initially poor openers more easily.


As her primary class mechanic would imply, Rogue is a class that is well-suited to combo plays. Rogue has the unique distinction of generating or playing copies of the “Coin”, in addition to having a variety of cheap spells with tempo-related effects. While Coins can ramp out minions just as well as they can spells, Rogue’s minions aren’t necessarily as imposing as a class like Druid’s, the Rogue’s spells are what’re really leveraged to solve problems, press damage, and ultimately combo out against opponents. In that same vein, Rogue also has Preparation, which is an enormous pseudo-ramp for Rogue spells. With these resources at hand, Rogue combo plays tend to focus on hitting a critical mass of spells while the Rogue minions serve to lower the bar for putting together the overall combo kill.


In addition to being able to cheat the typical mana curve with Coins and Preparation, Rogue also has two degenerate weapons in the form of Edwin VanCleef and Conceal. Edwin VanCleef gives Rogue an unparalleled ability to combo off incredibly early and attempt to end games with a massive VanCleef combined with Rogue’s cheap spells. Other classes would be hard-pressed to find a way to produce a minion as large as VanCleef with the board advantage provided by the Backstabs or “Prepared” Eviscerates or Saps that tend to build up the VanCleef play. Edwin gives Rogue a unique way to steal wins against Aggro and Combo decks that have little recourse against a massive minion knocking a third of their health away by the third or fourth turn. Against Control, where removal is more likely to show up, smaller VanCleef plays can be mixed in with typical board control or tempo plays, adding a threat element of a moderately large VanCleef while preventing a single removal from crippling the Rogue.


Conceal is the other degenerate card at Rogue’s disposal, a spell that allows the seldom-applied Stealth condition to cover the Rogue’s whole minion presence. While area-of-effect cards like Flamestrike or Twisting Nether are still a concern, the ability to prevent opposing trades or single-target removals from interfering presents a fantastic opportunity to press damage or otherwise threaten the opponent. In the traditional “Miracle” combo variant, which relies on minion damage augmented by tempo spells and burst damage, this can be a key card for guaranteeing the Rogue’s minions stay around to press a critical turn of damage.


More than any other class, Rogue has an incredible affinity for Gadgetzan Auctioneer. The focus on cheap spells and Coins means that Rogue can use the Auctioneer as a first-rate draw engine. The extra card draw also makes up for the relatively small effect of the Rogue’s tempo spells, since they would now also be providing an extra card of value. Generally, most combo Rogues focus on using the Wicked Knife, removal spells, and the Rogue’s retinue of utility minions like Small-Time Buccaneer, Tomb Pillager, or Azure Drake to stay afloat and try to move towards a large turn of using Gadgetzan Auctioneer to cycle through the deck while taking board control. In this way, Rogue is the purest example of a tempo-based combo deck, actively contesting the opponent to set a turn of initiative that is used as the basis for the combo attempt.


There are two ways for the Rogue’s combo attempt to play out: a broad minion-pressure approach, and a spell-burst using Malygos. The latter option is strategically more simplistic, as it just involves assembling a large hand of spells to play alongside Malygos, facilitated by Emperor Thaurissan and/or whatever Coins and Preparations weren’t used alongside Gadgetzan Auctioneer. While this approach does have the benefit of letting you combo fully without relying on having any minion pressure, it does have the downside of usually requiring two stabilized turns, one each for Auctioneer and Thaurissan, which can be difficult for the Rogue to manage. The other option for Rogue is to use their tempo spells to assert a minion presence and lean on the opponent until they’re brought in range of spells like Cold Blood and Eviscerate which put together a game-winning turn of attacks. This option is far more flexible and open-ended, as this strategy can exploit early Buccaneer damage, fold into an Edwin VanCleef or Questing Adventurer all-in, and forgo slow, telegraphing plays like Emperor Thaurissan. The downside is that, aside from cards like Conceal, this strategy is very open to opposing interaction, an opponent that can parry the Rogue’s initial minions and stabilize the board can seal the Rogue out of the game, as there isn’t enough burst in these sorts of Rogue lists to do a full 30-to-0 turn without minions to contribute damage.


As mentioned above, Rogue is the most tempo-oriented of combo classes. With the right draw, a Rogue can keep the opponent off the board and throw a huge chain of spells and draw into motion before the opponent can get back on their feet. However, the amount of finesse needed to maintain tempo and the low margin for error involved means that the Rogue can fall apart when things don’t go according to plan. A lack of early tempo tools can leave Rogue very vulnerable to Aggro decks that can exploit the Rogue’s lack of Taunt or heal. On the other end of the spectrum, a control deck can capitalize on a lack of early board presence and keep the Rogue off the board to shorten the Rogue’s reach and pressure them before the Rogue can fully assemble any sort of combo.


Mage is something of an odd case when it comes to tempo-based combo, because it seems like the class that would play with the least board presence, and also has no way of moving ahead of the opponent in terms of mana. However, Mage has an incredible ability to retard the opponent’s tempo with freeze effects and removal, so it can achieve its tempo advantage by holding the opponent back instead of moving itself forward. While holding back the opponent, the Mage combo kill is usually a grip of spells aimed squarely at the opponent’s face. The versatility of using these spells as removals means that the Mage can opt for a more minion-heavy build that uses repeated damage to contest aggressive or midrange decks, or a more defensive build that works to build resource advantages through area-of-effect and ends games with one-shot-kills against control and combo decks.


The Mage’s unique freeze abilities works as contra-tempo for the opponent, conferring an indirect mana advantage with the same cost of hand-size associated with more direct mana advantages like a Wild Growth or Preparation. The idea being that damage is the overarching win condition in Hearthstone and the usual way to inflict it is through minions; freezing halts that process and give the opponent a turn of near-zero tempo as they are no longer advancing their gamestate, anything else you do on the turn you freeze the opponent is thus a tempo gain given that the opponent is likely just going to build their irrelevant board up bigger and then pass back to you. This is why you generally want to hold back freeze effects as much as you can in order to have more mana around for that turn; a Frost Nova on turn 3 confers no mana advantage, but a Frost Nova that disables the opponent on turn 10 effectively bought you 7 mana, for instance.


Mage has particular minions that can support it’s spell-casting shenanigans as well. Doomsayer is an especially effective pick for Mage, given that it can combine with freeze effects to rob the opponent of any initiative or board development they may have developed throughout the game. Doomsayer’s particular ability to clear the board going into your own turn means that it can be used to dictate the initiative of the game, a good Doomsayer clear can actually switch control of the board over to you. Depending on the matchup and build of the Mage combo, Doomsayer can be used at different points in the game to threaten the opponent. A more aggressive minion to consider is Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a card that actually does boast a proactive mana advantage and a decent-sized body for the cost. Sorcerer’s Apprentice is usually used with cards like Mana Wyrm and Mirror Image to push early damage, though it can also be used to facilitate a game-ending chain of spells against more control-oriented opponents.


The most degenerate or non-interactive tool at the Mage’s disposal is Ice Block. Ice Block basically prevents the opponent from winning the game on a turn of theirs where they normally would. This makes Ice Block the biggest tempo retardant ever because, for one turn, no amount of work on the opponent’s part can actually advance their gamestate from the near victory it was likely already at when your Block was triggered. The fact that Block is always the last thing to trigger, since it only happens when the opponent actually would be about to win, means it buys you the maximum mana advantage every time, which also makes it the best tool for putting together the end-game burn damage that your combo typically consists of. While there are tech cards and edge-cases that circumvent Ice Block, the former are rarely worth playing and the latter can be played around with some practice.


While Mage isn’t a typical “tempo” combo deck, it’s unique approach to managing the game state and powerful Ice Block and freeze effects warrant an inclusion here. If you can learn to passively assemble a combo while, at a glance, being behind the opponent’s development the whole game, you can force through damage in a way that makes the opponent's actions seem irrelevant. The more aggressive variants can also challenge midrange and aggro decks by pushing early damage while relying on Ice Block to win the race. It is worth noting that the current metagame of burst spells and weapons does challenge the utility and effectiveness of freeze spells, though. Also, the dichotomy of hyper-aggressive Pirate decks and highly defensive control decks present in the meta makes it very difficult to build a Mage combo that won’t feel like it’s rolling dice in its matchups.


Sample Decklists


If you’re interested in trying out some of these decks, or want a reference for what the curve or basic list tends to look like, consider looking at these sample lists:










Combo decks are something of a pet archetype for me, I actually started playing Hearthstone to play Freeze Mage after learning of the nerfs that killed off the original Miracle Rogue and to this days there’s basically no combo deck I won’t try at least once. I think there’s a special challenge in trying to manage an opponent as opposed to contesting them, a challenge that’s definitely worth exploring and being aware of. While combo decks can feel somewhat automatic when they draw well, there are a lot of wins that are skill-dependent and creating a gamestate where only your own plays matter means that you have to make all your plays as effective as possible. Even if you hate combo decks, it’s probably still worth your time to understand what makes them tick and what metagames make them really worthwhile.

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».ben.    7438

I have a feeling that Maly-Kun is a good enough deck to be in/around tier 2. I like it much more than jade druid, which I think has the same problems as Maly-Kun in addition to being ridiculously linear.


I think all that's needed is to figure out exactly which removal package to run - mulches, doomsayers, dirty rats, etc. - and what is cut for those things.


FWIW, this is what I've been playing since about christmas time. It's not the best, but neither am I :) I got to like rank 9 with it. Meep.



2 Innervate

2 Moonfire

2 Living Roots

2 Raven Idol

2 Wild Growth

2 Wrath

2 Feral Rage

1 Mulch

1 Fandral Staghelm

2 Swipe

2 Azure Drake

2 Druid of the Claw

2 Nourish

1 Gadgetzan Auctioneer

2 Ancient of War

1 Aviana

1 Malygos

1 Kun the Forgotten King


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