Arena Matchups: Killing Gul’dan
In the Arena Matchup series, we take a broad overview of the most powerful and most popular cards and combos each class runs in the Arena, and we discuss how and to what degree we should play around these cards. More importantly, we analyze the weaknesses of each class and outline a plan of attack to best bring down each opponent.
The Warlock class, represented by Gul’dan, has perhaps the most diverse set of playstyles in the entire Arena. With the addition of the powerful board control Imp Gang Boss and the slower pace of the post-TGT Arena meta, the Warlock has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, finally given the breathing space necessary to properly leverage its early game tempo and late game card advantage.
We will discuss how we can keep our soul safe from these demons by fully exploiting the structural vulnerabilities of the Arena Warlock.
ADWCTA’s 10-Point Checklist
- Against an early board, drop sticky minions over more powerful ones.
- Against a Blood Imp start, do not be afraid to over-extend.
- Prioritize face damage over traditional card advantage.
- Do not remove the Voidcaller on your turn, unless Gul’dan’s hand is empty.
- Keep your minions above 4 health in the early game if possible.
- Do not leave multiple minions at 1 health the turn before Gul’dan’s turn 6.
- Do not drop minions into Hellfire if the other side of the board is empty.
- Do not remove the Imp Gang Boss unless it is threatening your minion, or you can clear.
- Hold back some reach cards in close games; Gul’dan will often put himself into lethal range.
- Kill Gul’dan.
For general Arena gameplay strategies, and explanations of the terms used (like “tempo”), check out my On Mastery of Arena series here.
Welcome to the Zoo
Flame Imp. The Warlock takes control of the board from turn 1 like no other class. While it usually takes everyone else to turns 2 and 3 before they start to properly set up their board, Gul’dan will often send out a Flame Imp to greet us on turn 1. Assuming both players curve out, Gul’dan will generally have the board. Even if Gul’dan misses a 2-drop, a use of the hero power will put him in the same position as any other class that curves out, with the bonus of an additional card.
The counters to this early board control strategy are (i) high health, low attack or otherwise sticky minions, and (ii) any form of removal that provides positive tempo swings (whether because they are cheap, or because they remove multiple enemies). The removal part is obvious, as removal is the easiest way to stop the immediate aggression; however, this should only be our first choice when we can do two actions in one turn to match Gul’dan’s pace. If we are only capable of playing one card this turn, it is often better to play a high health or sticky minion to set up for the board flip in the coming turns. Playing a sticky minion will allow us to remove two minions off the board in the next two turns. This is like having a weapon! Very good for both tempo and value. Further, given the choice between playing a Harvest Golem and a Dark Iron Dwarf, or an Oasis Snapjaw and a Chillwind Yeti, many players pick the later. That was a mistake. Because an aggressive strategy will always provide us with plenty of small targets to trade with, we will never need the 4/5 attack from a 4/5 mana minion. Instead, the additional health or stickiness, even from inefficient mana usage will be more useful, often allowing for more trades. This strategy also saves our more valuable minions and removal for later in the game, when the 2 damage from Harvest Golem or Oasis Snapjaw become less irrelevant. The worst choice in this situation is to play a minion with 4 health. Two of the Warlock’s common removal spells deal 4 damage exactly, and one of them costs only one mana (Soulfire). A 4 health minion is just asking to be set back even further on the board, to the point where a board clear becomes absolutely necessary to have in hand. We should take care to avoid that if possible. On the other hand, Gul’dan’s only common/rare large removal cannot be cast until after turn 6, and is a rare card (Siphon Soul).
Blood Imp. The other minion the Warlock may greet us with is the Blood Imp. While it makes no immediate impact on the board, Blood Imp will create unfavorable board situations for us for many turns. This means that even if we end up holding the board, we will be faced each turn with yet another difficult to remove board set up by Gul’dan’s Blood Imp.
To counter this mid-ranged strategy, we need to drop as many small minions as we can and attack to the face. Gul’dan’s only common board clears (Hellfire and Dread Infernal) will also remove his own Blood Imp, and his other board clear, Shadowflame, a rare, costs two cards, four mana, and will certainly be mulliganed away, so we are less concerned that he has that card early. Further, the more minions Gul’dan drops on the board, the less control he has over which minion gets the +1 health from the Blood Imp, the less the +1 health matters in the first place, and the more he over-extends his board. Because Life is Cards for Gul’dan (see next section), Gul’dan’s card advantage gained from making good trades is irrelevant when considering the damage we are able to get on him. The downside of playing a Blood Imp is that it is worthless if Gul’dan starts dropping multiple small minions, and yet Gul’dan’s valuable life remains easily overrun if he simply drops one big minion each turn to our two small minions. It is a fairly easy task to put Gul’dan in a tough spot. By going wide and to the face, we force Gul’dan to have multiple taunts. It is a very particular deck that can achieve this.
Life is Cards and Cards is Life
We alluded to this in the previous section, the best way to beat Gul’dan is to take the most direct route from point A to point B: Take your minions, and aim them straight for Gul’dan’s ugly face.
Just about the only advantage the Warlock has in the Arena game over other classes is the hero power Life Tap, which allows Gul’dan to draw as many cards as he has life to spare. This hero power flips upside down all of our typical considerations about card advantage, because Gul’dan’s cards = Gul’dan’s life. So long as Gul’dan has life, he will always have the card advantage in the late game. Therefore, whenever we would have typically made a value play on the board to gain card advantage, we should make a face-damage play instead. The only valid reason to remove Gul’dan’s minions instead of dealing face-damage is tempo and survivability.
For example, imagine a board where you have a 5/5 Stranglethorn Tiger on your board, and your opponent has a 4/5 Chillwind Yeti and a 3/2 Youthful Brewmaster, with an Abusive Sargent in hand (let’s say, he used a Youthful Brewmaster the turn prior to return it to his hand, so we know for a fact that he has it). This seems like a prime opportunity to remove one of Gul’dan’s minions and get a 2-for-1 the next turn. It would be completely stupid to attack the face here. . . if we were facing any other opponent. However, if we are playing for the late game and card advantage, an attack to the face here is strangely the choice that provides the most card advantage. 5 damage to the face will save us 2.5 cards in the future, and the Youthful Brewmaster will trade into our minion, meaning that we will actually get 3.5 cards by attacking face as opposed to 2.0 cards by removing an opponent’s minion.
In a control/attrition deck playstyle, all efforts will typically be focused on limiting your opponent’s board and clearing anything that your opponent plays. However, when facing Gul’dan, face damage is much more important than clearing the board, because face damage translates to card advantage. The most efficient way to play a control/attrition game against Gul’dan is to clear only so much of the board as necessary to survive. Nine times out of ten, the Warlock player knows the value of his life and the dangers of overextending (which, due to the killeverythingontheboard nature of Gul’dan’s mass removals, we don’t have to worry about) that he will voluntarily trade into your minions, in true Zoo-like fashion. Gul’dan’s power is his health and not his minions on the board or cards in hand, so do not be fooled into repeatedly clearing his board. Most strategies will only sneak in damage if they are looking to finish the game with reach in the near future, but against Gul’dan, control/attrition decks seeking to win on card advantage should prioritize face damage, at all stages of the game, even higher than tempo decks.
Naturally, with a regular mid-ranged deck, we probably won’t actually attack face in the extreme example above. The tempo on the board we give up by allowing Gul’dan to save his 4/5 minion on the next turn is ridiculously huge, and will probably end up costing us far more opportunities to deal face damage in the future. But, that’s a tempo concern and not a card advantage concern. While tempo is still important in facing a Warlock, decisions being made for card advantage value should go to the face instead.
So far, we’ve ignored a pretty important part of Gul’dan’s hero power. Life Tap doesn’t just cause Gul’dan to lose 2 health, it also causes him to lose 2 mana. While this may seem like there is a tempo cost to all of this seemingly endless stream of cards, there usually isn’t for the Arena game. This is because Gul’dan does not need to use this mana to get cards until very late in the game, when 2 mana means a lot less in relative tempo swing that it would on earlier turns. 2 mana on turn 10+ (20% of available mana) changes the game less than 1 mana would on turn 4 (25% of mana available) for that turn. Further, using mana earlier allows a player to control the board, which has ripple effects throughout the entire game. In fact, roughly speaking, Although each card does cost 2 mana, the time value of mana means that in evaluating game tempo, Gul’dan’s use of his hero power four or five turns down the line has an insignificant effect on the overall tempo of the game as compared to gaining the tempo earlier. This is why the overload ability of the Shaman is balanced so that mana one turn later is roughly worth 0.67 mana now. Because Gul’dan does not need to use that mana for cards until fairly late in the game (in near top-deck mode), the tempo impact of Life Tap is minimal when it comes to card advantage.
From the Void I Come
Now, let’s talk about the Voidcaller, a very different card introduced in Naxx that requires a very different strategy to deal with. The very simple rule to follow with this guy is: Do not give Gul’dan tempo. Because the minion “called” by the Voidcaller cannot attack the turn it is called (unless it has charge, like Doomguard), we effectively delay its usage by at least two turns if we simply don’t kill the Voidcaller. Two turns is forever in this game! Even overload only borrows mana for one turn. Voidcaller is effectively borrowing that 1-mana less of stats for however many turns it stays alive. It also traps that Dread Infernal, Floating Watcher, or Fearsome Doomguard in our opponent’s hand unless the Voidcaller can kill itself. While typically giving our opponent the chance to choose his attacks is a bad strategy, in this case, the tempo we will lose by leaving it alive for one more turn is almost always less than the tempo we will lose by killing it.
Consider the worst case common scenario, where our opponent plays a Voidcaller with a Fearsome Doomguard in his hand. We have a 3/2 on the board the Voidcaller can eat and a 4/5 the Voidcaller can kill himself on. At the outset (we will designate this as “turn 1”), this is one extra mana of investment for Gul’dan. Because there is a time-value to mana, the worth of each mana degrades by half each turn that Gul’dan can’t get that mana back (see section above).
Option #1. Kill it dead. We have a 4/5 on the board, which is just about the perfect answer to a 3/4! Let’s use it! Well, not so fast. . . After killing the Voidcaller, a 6/8 is now on the board, usable on the next turn. This is effectively the same as if Gul’dan had played the 6/8 on turn 1. This is a net tempo gain of +5.5 (6.5 tempo for the 6/8 body – 1.0 mana spent), or more than two Innervates. This is very bad. Assuming we killed the 3/4 without sacrificing one of our own minions, our board would still have been damaged by 3 attack, resulting in a -1.0 tempo for us, while -3.0 for Gul’dan for losing his minion. This is a net 2.0 tempo loss to Gul’dan, which nets out with the +5.5 tempo from the earlier equation to be a net +3.5 tempo gain for Gul’dan. Still better than an Innervate! And, we’ve wasted at least 4 valuable damage on Gul’dan (two cards)! This is very very bad. Don’t take the bait!
Option #2. Leave it be. On Gul’dan’s next turn, he can choose to trade into the 4/5 in order to kill the Voidcaller. This will gain him (6.5 + 1.0 – 2.0 – 3.0) = +2.5 tempo, which is a 30% reduction in tempo loss for us from Option #1. If Gul’dan instead chooses to eat the 3/2, and then deal 3 damage to something the turn after that, calling out the Fearsome Doomguard on turn 3, this will gain him (6.5 + 2.0 + 1.0 – 4.0 – 3.0) = +2.5 tempo still! It’s like magic, despite removing our 3/2 “for free”, Gul’dan actually has not gained any more tempo than suiciding into the 4/5, and has in fact still lost tempo compared to the situation in Option #1 where we make a favorable 2 for 1 attack into the Voidwalker! If these tempo numbers are confusing, just trust me on the conclusion. Option #2 > Option #1 in tempo. And, obviously, Option #2 > Option #1 in life.
But, you may well ask, what about card advantage? If Gul’dan kills our 3/2 “for free”, sure we may not lose any tempo after accounting for the time value of mana, but we’ve certainly lost a card. While it may seem that way, remember from the previous section that each 2 life for Gul’dan eventually equals 1 extra card when card advantage begins to actually matter. So, Option #2 is actually also +1 card advantage for us compared to Option #1. Unless we are afraid to that extra 3 damage to the face from the Voidcaller, Option #2 is superior to Option #1 in almost all circumstances in every single way.
The thinking on this may be technical and complicated, the but conclusion is a simple one: The best way to deal with the Voidcaller is to keep it alive. Now, it is possible that our opponent will play a Voidcaller without a Fearsome Doomguard, Dread Inferno, Floating Watcher or similar backup, but that is a rare case. As between Option #1 and Option #2, even calling out a Felguard or Doomguard would only even out the tempo differential (at the cost of life and cards advantage; so still a strictly worse move); tempo gains start to be seen when calling out another Voidcaller or a Succubus or Flame Imp, but the cost in card advantage and life will still tip the balance in favor of Option #2. In any case, with so many large demons added to the game, the odds are tilting ever more toward Option #2.
Although the Voidcaller can cause large tempo swings in the game for Gul’dan, it is incredibly situational and easily abused to our advantage.
Imps, Imps Everywhere
Imp Gang Boss was added in the BRM expansion to the game, and instantly raised the average win rate of Warlocks by a whole game among average players! The reason for this is quite simple. This is an extremely overpowered card. On turn 3, it will typically be hit at least twice, for 10 stats over 3 turns, or the equivalent of 4.5 mana’s worth. . . for 3 mana. And they are all demons, for triggering Demonfire. This is significantly better than the Harvest Golem on 3, or the Defias Ringleader on 2 in terms of raw stats.
Imp Gang Boss puts us in a very difficult position as to whether to leave it on the board or to remove immediately. Generally speaking, it is rarely correct to remove it if you need to hit it twice. However, even one hit one kill loses tempo the next turn unless you can clear the 1/1 demon on the same turn (see reasoning above for Voidcaller). With the Warlock’s face such a tempting target, it is still typically correct to leave the Imp Gang Boss alone unless it is actively threatening one of your minions on the board (e.g., a 3/2 Bloodfen Raptor). The results to clearing is not as tragic as clearing a Voidcaller, but it is still generally not to your favor for tempo or card advantage (aka: face).
Unless you can clear the Imp Gang Boss in one turn or it threatens a minion on your board, leave the demon alone.
About the Author
ADWCTA enjoys long runs in the Arena, yelling Lok’tar Ogar! in public places, and thinking deep thoughts about Hearthstone’s game design. He started playing Hearthstone in open beta and has been a top-level Arena player since launch. He averages 8.0+ wins/run with his top 6 classes. He is also a Legend-level Ranked player, but thinks that’s way less awesome than his Arena record.
ADWCTA produces all of his Hearthstone Arena content with fellow infinite Arena player Merps, and together they developed the most-consulted Arena Tier List for all your Arena needs.
ADWCTA & Merps also live stream the “Lightforge” podcast (available on all podcast platforms) with deep discussions about the Arena meta and gameplay techniques, as well as the “Arena Coop” gameplay series, providing in-depth commentary on every pick and play to give the stream a coaching vibe. ADWCTA thinks listening to the Lightforge and watching the Arena Coop is the very best way to improve your game. He may be wrong, but why you take that risk? Check out both series on YouTube, and follow live on Twitch.