[Deck Guide] Highlander Zoo Mage
Hi gang, my name is Barlok (on Hearthstone, that is). I’ve been a longtime lurker in this subreddit, but this is my first post in it. I’ve been playing Hearthstone since April of 2015, but only started taking it fairly seriously last year (a.k.a. Year of the Raven, <3 Odd Rogue), and more seriously, including two trips to legend, this year: pre-nerf Tempo/Lackey Rogue in April (like everyone else, I know), and Mech Hunter in May (like everyone else, again). After these two trips to Legend, I decided to go back to basics and play a lot of Arena and Zoolock. Doing so finally caught me up on a lot of the fundamentals of the game I feel that I was lacking. I’m still far from a top player, but it taught me some good lessons in the game.
Disclaimer: This is not a tier 1 deck. It’s not going to take you to Legend with a 75% win-rate. It’s just a fun off-meta deck that has some very unique combos and mechanics. But I do think it’s plenty competitive once you get the hang of it.
For some time now I’ve wanted to make a solid and unique homebrew deck. With the recent Zoo excursions (mentioned above if you skipped), and all the new Highlander support in SoU, most of my experiments have centered on “Zoolander” decks. I had a really solid Zoolander Paladin list going, but then Trump’s Highlander list, and several others (at least two listed here recently) came along, so I moved on to another class: Mage.
With the nerf to LPG, I felt there was some opportunity to explore a fundamentally different take on Highlander Mage, and to utilize what is, in my opinion, the best and most fun of the class singleton legendaries: Reno.
My hypothesis was basically this: what if we build a deck that can use Reno as the Tempo tool he is very capable of being, instead of just a Control tool?
The biggest weakness of traditional zoo and swarm decks is comeback mechanics once they lose the board. Highlander decks now have some options besides Magic Carpet to do so (Zephrys, Consecration in most of the Pally ones), but this deck has 3. Carpet, Zephrys, and the most flexible comeback card I can think of: Reno himself.
This deck is definitely not optimized, and I’m constantly tinkering with it. Over-experimentation has absolutely cost me some on my climb. Very few of the cards are truly core (discussed in more detail below), but I believe the general idea of the deck has a place in this meta, though
It’s a fun, unique, and interactive deck.
It has some interesting combos that no other deck is capable of doing.
Even to favored matchups against Aggro and Tempo decks, while still having a moderate chance against the popular Quest and Control decks.
Opponents often mis-mulligan and or make important misplays because they have no idea what to play around or expect with it.
This exact iteration of the deck sometimes runs out of cards or gets clunky because we don’t have the consistent draw mechanic of Warlock.
Quest Shaman and Control Warrior, while not impossible matchups, are pretty unfavored. If you’re running into a lot of those, I’d put this list on the shelf, or try out some of the alternate packages to be discussed below.
Zephyrus is still pretty finicky. I’ve had a lot of losses where even getting mana down as close as possible to my expected outs, he did not offer them. This may improve with future patches still, though.
Why this deck instead of actual Zoolock?
I think this is an important question and people will ask it immediately. We are giving up a HUGELY consistent draw mechanic, lots of lackey shenanigans, and 2 of the best one drops in the game.
In exchange, we are gaining a hero power that is occasionally useful for tempo, which we are catering some of deck to, higher upside draw (discussed further in card choices). and Reno: an incredibly flexible tempo too to push for lethal or flip/clear a board.
Absolute Core and Reason to Play the Deck:
Reno The Relicologist: The way I look at it, he’s a 5-mana body with a 1-mana battlecry of either clear board, make a huge tempo swing, or clear a path for your own big board to go face. He’s an incredible card and the reason I attempted this deck.
Zephrys The Great: Everyone knows almost everything about him now. While he definitely doesn’t always give the “perfect” card, as advertised, he does it often enough that combined with Reno, we’re open to giving up a ton of consistency to abuse these battlecries.
Core Unless You Really Don’t Have the Dust:
Archmage Arugal: This guy is the sneaky MVP of this deck. There are some crazy combos he can pull off, notably: Arugal + Book of Spectres draws 6 cards almost all the time (only 1 other spell in deck), Arugal on a big Stargazer Luna turn nets you plenty of value, and Arugal + Sandbinder snags you 2 Zephrys, provided you haven’t already drawn him. The biggest question I have with him is when to tempo/coin him out early. I have done this with weak starting hands knowing that i.e. against Quest Shaman they’d have to go Slurper into the Rush or Damage minion. It seems like my opponents find those 1 or 2 out answers a lot, so I may be using him too aggressively in the early game. Against decks that have a lot of answers for him (Murlocs, Rogue, Warrior) it’s better to try and gain value with him.
Stargazer Luna: Most of this section is strong minion-based draw that we have, and that’s one of the reasons I thought a Zoo style deck could work in the class. Because this is a deck with a really low curve, we often get really big Luna-based swing turns. Again, it takes a little bit of practice to know when to play her out early and when to be greedy, but there will be times you just have to take the leap early because of an iffy early-game hand.
Book of Specters: One of only two spells in the current version of this deck. 2 mana, draw 3 extremely-close-to-all-of-the-time is very powerful and necessary in this gameplan. The synergy with Arugal is an added bonus.
Sea Giant: We often have wide boards. Shamans, Paladins, Rogues, and even Priests often have wide boards. An early Sea Giant in the right matchup is often an alternate win-con if we aren’t likely to keep the board.
Sandbinder: It’s nice to have a second chance at getting to our (second-)most important card, and in the admittedly rare cases we’re able to pull off an Arugal-Binder combo, it’s one of the more fun interactions this list is capable of.
Fireball: The only other spell in this list. Cheaper Leeroy. Finisher most of the time, but sometimes you have to use it for removal (Warlock’s Carpet or Vulture, a buffed or healed-up Priest minion, some of the Mogu-Mutate shenanigans).
A Gaggle of One Drops (9 currently):
Abusive Sergeant, Argent Squire, Beaming Sidekick, Crystallizer, Hungry Crab, Jar Dealer, Mecharoo, Murmy, Young Priestess: Most of these are self explanatory. They are either sticky or help fight for the board. Typical zoo minions. Young Priestess is a random card that I somehow never packed, I was surprised I hadn’t used her in prior Zoo builds. Hungry Crab is a semi-tech, because there are plenty of Murloc-based decks in the meta. It’s also often fine to cannibalize our own Murmy or Hogsteed Token. Lastly, I’m currently running Fishflinger in this list as a replaces-itself aggressive minion, so in some rare cases we can use that and destroy the Murloc we generated for own opponent. These all have solid synergy with Luna, Arugal, Buff, Carpet, and even Pyromaniac in a pinch. Anywhere from 7-10ish one-drops is fine, according to your preference. Daring Fire Eater has been in and out of the lineup here a few times.
Zoo-ey Three Drops (listed ahead of the 2’s because they’re more important to the deck):
History Buff, Magic Carpet, Sn1p-Sn4p: Buff and Carpet have great synergy with our low curve, and gaggle of one drops, respectively. Sn1p-Sn4p just helps fill our curve fairly often, and is a nice sticky minion.
Zoo-ey Two Drops:
Crazed Alchemist, Dire Wolf Alpha, Knife Juggler, Hench-Clan Hogsteed: Again, anyone who’s played Zoo before knows the utility of most of these guys. There’s not too many Highlander mages anymore, so we’re either using Alchemist against Combo Priests, or just to facilitate good board trades. When there’s no better targets you can also buff the Berserkers with him (i.e. swap your damaged 5-2 Amani into a 2-5 that can later be a 5-4). This section is where we’re already in fairly-replaceable territory, but for me personally I’m just used to knowing how these guys work in, and with, a low-curve deck, so they work for me. Hogsteed doesn’t really fit into any section of card choices, so he’s shoe-horned into here. He has some Murloc synergy and is a useful board control tool/ping (especially against Priest).
Amani Berserker, Temple Berserker: Useful aggressive minions for the idea of this deck. They give our hero power some flexibility in the early game. Rabid Worgen has been experimented with here as well.
Replaces Itself (and (ironically?) from here on the cards are very replaceable):
Fishflinger, Vulpera Scoundrel: As mentioned above, with a low curve and inconsistent draw, cards that replace themselves are useful. The idea for Fishflinger came about after he generated 2 Finleys in the span of 4 games for me when my Murloc Paladin opponent played him. He’s an aggressive minion that replaces itself for no real tempo loss the majority of the time. And he has upside from there because we can target the opponent’s Murloc with our Crab sometimes, he can generate useful synergy with himself, Murmy, and/or Hogsteed’s buddy sometimes, sometimes we get an Amalgam we can magnetize Sn1ppy onto, and 1/16 of the time (I think… could be wrong) he can generate a Finley that we can use. I would obviously not play him out against a Murloc deck unless you have to, and if you’re facing a bunch of them in your local meta, definitely cut it. Scoundrel is definitely somewhere between 28th-30th card in the deck. Small tempo loss for a lottery ticket, basically. Mages have plenty of useful spells, but they have so many of them that it’s a crapshoot.
Pyromaniac, Loot Hoarder: As much draw as we can add without sacrificing too much tempo. Pyro is often just a Spider Tank but it’s nice to have draw upside with it. Sometimes you need to ping your own minion to search for outs. I prefer the 2 attack of Loot Hoarder to Novice Engineer, and there’s few enough Rogues and Mages that he’s rarely immediately pinged.
Board-based Draw/Card Generation Minions:
Witch’s Cauldron, Cult Master, Barista Lynchen: These have all been experimented with in this deck, sometimes 2 at a time. They kind of feel a little win-more though. They’re great when you draw them mid-game with board presence, but they too often showed up too late for me, and when they do that, they can clog up a big Luna draw. When Barista was in, I had a few more battle-cry minions. I think they are totally fine if you prefer any of them though.
Belligerent Gnome, Infested Goblin, Bone Wraith, Defender of Argus: These have been cycled in at some point as well. Gnome has an awesome statline if your pocket meta has a lot of aggro/tempo decks. Goblin’s taunt tokens have some Carpet/History Buff synergy and were okay extra stalls in a low-on-ping meta. Bone Wraith is a solid mid-game stall. Argus is the card that’s been in and out of the list the most.
Zephrys/Reno Abuse Package:
Youthful Brewmaster, Baleful Banker, Barista: I think you could hypothetically have 8 Zephs in a game (possibly more?), but I’m too lazy to do the math. I had 3 several times, and 4 once while running this package. Banker sometimes can make your Sandbinder worthwhile again even if you draw Zeph first, but Brewmaster probably edges it out. Reno often survives til next turn and there’s been a few games where double Reno was somewhat needed for a win. These are fun techs, but it starts to become a distraction from your gameplan. So they’re currently cut.
If your local meta is a lot of Quest Shaman and/or Control Warrior, I think a modest Mech package can make some sense. I have an alternate list but it’s even less optimized than this one. You’d likely want to cut some fringe cards, one-drops, and probably Carpet, to add a few out of Framebot, Gatekeeper, Menace, Wargear and/or Zilliax. (An even bigger package might be possible as well. If the current list makes it to legend, I will playtest this package more.)
Other Miscellaneous Ideas:
Leeroy is fine but he’s obviously a poor early draw and he often clogged up Luna turns. Cards like Siamat and Octosari are probably feasible, but would be more suited to a midrange style that cuts the Carpet/1-drops package and has some additional draw besides primarily Luna. A few more spells could be okay, despite anti-synergy with BoS. Frostbolt has been in here a few times. I’ve considered a ping package of Arcane Missiles and Cinderstorm (possibly with Vargoth as well), but haven’t had time to test it. Mountain Giant/Conjurer’s may be an acceptable package, but it’s too inconsistent in Highlander and Giant can be super dead if not drawn early.
Paladin: I believe we’re favored across the line. Control the board against Murloc. Even if they hit an early and good Prismatic, we are usually ahead on board, and have our three solid comeback mechanics: Zeph, Reno, and Carpet. Control the board against Quest as well. Kill all the mechs, especially, so they can’t magnetize. Try to save Zeph for a mid-to-late game Silence swing if possible. Reno can also provide something similar. Holy Wrath is toughest, but as long as you don’t overcommit (and/or play your stickier minions) into the Consecrate/Pyro/Shrink Ray turns, you have a decent shot.
Hunter: Highlander also feels favored, but they’ve done better against me lately, and part of my early success is probably mis-mulliganing by them. Pay close attention to their mulligan. They aren’t likely to keep Rat or Explosive Trap. They ARE likely to play Pressure Plate early (since we’re Mage and all), but we almost never care about that one. Test for it before committing a Sea Giant or exact swarm lethal though. Just test and/or play around the rest as you normally would. When you can, ignore their minions to not activate Snake Trap. Even Fireball on the 4/4 taunt from AC is ok (provided you have a read there’s no Plate or have a wide/small board). Tutor your mana down to 2 with multiple secrets out for Zeph to offer Flare. That can often be a huge swing. Quest Hunter is tougher; watch how wide you go. Try not to activate Snake Trap if you can.
Druid: Quest Druid comes down to who has the coin. If you have it, and they don’t open with Innervate, you are favored. Anytime they can activate the quest on 4, they’re a big favorite. Go as wide as possible while keeping in mind Swipe and Starfall. If they can’t activate the quest til their turn 5, I think (not 100% certain) it’s okay to ignore the 1/4 card-draw guy. On the play, you have to play as aggressively as possible and hope they don’t draw their great turn 5/6 plays. I think it’s more important to kill the draw guy (when able to somewhat efficiently do so) in this instance. Make the quest-activated Starfall as awkward as possible and you may still have a chance.
Mage: I haven’t run into many. We are favored. They don’t usually keep their anti-aggro tools in the mirror. Alchemist an early Doomsayer, and try to play around or Zeph-Flare Flame Ward.
Warlock: About 50-50. Similar to Murloc Paladin, this one is all about Tempo. Do whatever you can to gain and keep the board. Even a Zeph-Backstab on a Flame Imp is ok. Fireball can even be kept for their Carpet or Vulture. If we do lose the board, there’s still some hope to gain it back with Zeph, Reno, and/or Carpet.
Rogue: Not many out there. Even-to-slightly-favored. Go as wide as possible and only made efficient trades. They’ll often do some of our work for us with their dagger. Zeph-Ooze is solid if they get an early Waggle Pick.
Priest: Combo is unfavored but not terrible. Make sure you can deal with their Cleric. Otherwise, like other tempo matchups, just do whatever you can to gain and keep the board. Try to save Zeph for a Mass Dispel if you can, but sometimes you can’t wait that long. If they curve out perfectly or get a big Pyro turn we’re done. I’ve also been lucky enough to face a few Quest Priests. We obliterate them. Play sticky minions into Mass Hysteria, go wide and small against Infiltrator, use a Zeph-related Silence for a big turn or lethal.
Shaman: Against the fairly rare Murloc Shamans out there, play the same way as against Murly-Pally. An early Crab from hand or Zeph is a big bonus, but otherwise our mid-game swing potential makes this matchup favorable as well. Quest Shaman is definitely unfavored, but I think it’s not as bad as it’s been in my personal experience (and lately I’ve finally been beating a decent amount of them). A lot of it comes down to which lackeys they generate. If you have a lot of cheap minions, or Reno in hand, I think it’s actually okay to try and bait out MCT. If neither of those conditions are met, do your best to play around it. Kill their lackeys so they can’t use wasp, but otherwise go face. Our 4 health minions are key, most of their 2 and 3 damage pings, and the 3/4 rush guy, can’t solo kill them.
Warrior: Aggro is about 50-50 as well. Control the board as best you can so they can’t buff or copy their minions when damaged. Their rush minions often flip the board, but a well timed Reno or Carpet turn when they are low on cards can close the game out. We have more refill than the most of them have. Control Warrior is strongly unfavored, as with all aggro decks. Try to bait out removals without overcommiting, and be as greedy as possible with your value cards. Arugal-BoS or Arugal-Sandbinder are the strongest chances we have in the matchup, when it’s feasible.
The mulligan is pretty simple, look for as good of a curve as possible. You definitely want a 1 and 2 drop in your opening hand. Keep a 3 if you have a solid 1 and 2. Always keep Zeph.
Always keep Reno on the coin in a tempo matchup, otherwise toss him.
Mulligan fairly hard for Hungry Crab against Paladin or Shaman (and always throw away Fishflinger in those as well), but also when you have Murmy or Hogsteed. Murmy-coin-Crab is a start a lot of decks can’t handle.
Mulligan fairly hard for Alchemist against Mage, and Alchemist/Abusive/Hogsteed against Priest.
-Against Druid on the play you have to try and highroll. Look for Zeph, History Buff, and sticky one drops.
- Keep Fireball on the coin against Warlock and Priest.
Two cases I’m not 100% sure on:
I think Book of Specters is ok to keep on the coin if you have a 1 and 2 drop. Not 100% certain on this one.
I also think Sandbinder is okay to keep on the coin if you have a 1 and 2. And maybe more often than that.
Despite not playing this to Legend yet, I wanted to stake my claim on my little Homebrew baby and get the word out. I’d love to see some other players give it a whirl and to hear some feedback or see some actual stats on this deck if it gains any traction.
Try this deck out if it sounds fun and/or interesting to you. As long as you don’t go in expecting it to do crazy/Tier 1 things, I think you’ll enjoy it.
I wish all of you all the Copied Zephrys’s and Fishflinger-generated-Finleys you can handle!