Hearthstone: The Legend of the Game’s Greatest Deck

How one deck of cards became the stuff of Hearthstone legend.

Take a look at the list of cards removed from Hearthstone during the game’s developmental stages, and you’ll find an eclectic mix of concepts that didn’t quite make the cut. Among the funny (a card that deals damage when your enemy hovers over it), the clever (a card that gains value for each consecutive loss you’ve suffered),and the re-purposed (Jadefire Satyr, which received a change in art design and classification), the most interesting cards you’ll find here are those that are simply overpowered.

For example: Mental Collapse ensured that players never dared to keep a handful of cards against Priest players under the threat of instantly losing the game. Then you have Mana Spring Totem, which could cause a theoretically infinite amount of damage if an in-game combo was exploited. My personal favorite, however, would have to be Death Wish, which allowed Warrior players to convert their armor into attack points. Given that the modern Warrior can gain over 30 points of armor through natural play and each hero only starts with 30 health…well, you can probably see why that one was a bad idea.

Of all these absurdly powerful cards, though, there is one that is generally agreed to be the most broken of them all. It doesn’t deal massive damage, it doesn’t enable exploitative maneuvers, and it doesn’t even punish players who choose a certain playstyle. It’s called Adrenaline Rush and, for one mana, it allowed Rogue players to draw a card. Two cards if they managed to play another card before it.

To those that do not know Hearthstone that well, this card must not seem like a big deal. After all, drawing cards is just a natural part of this game, isn’t it? But anybody who has played Hearthstone since its release knows that this card’s power level is far greater than its text would suggest. They know that in the hands of the Rogue class, this is a card capable of such pure destruction that they’d rather not have Hearthstone at all than live in a world with Adrenaline Rush in it.

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They know this because they’ve witnessed a miracle.

The term “miracle” as it relates to collectible card games can trace its origins—like just about everything in this genre—to Magic: The Gathering. In 1997, renowned Magic: The Gathering deck builder Alan Comer began to play with a deck dubbed “Turbo-Xerox.” Unlike other decks in the game at the time, its strategy revolved around manipulating the abilities of key cards in order to allow the user to get away with using as few land cards as possible. Land in Magic: The Gathering represents the game’s resources, and carrying less of them in your deck theoretically leaves room for more minions and spells.

I say theoretically because, as it turns out, the Turbo-Xerox deck wasn’t quite viable. Comer didn’t give up on his quest to exploit this concept however, and eventually unveiled a deck he had dubbed “Miracle Grow.”

This deck’s name comes from its focus on growing the power level of smaller minions by continuously playing low-cost spells that are capable of buffing their strength. Its centerpiece was a card called Quirion Dryad, which could achieve insane power levels if enough spells were played beforehand. Though gimmicky in nature, and still very much a work in progress, this deck helped Comer achieve a top eight finish at the 1997 World Championship. Soon thereafter, other pro players began to fine-tune the concept and pilot the Miracle Grow deck to top-10 finishes of their own.

Given that many early Hearthstone decks were based on concepts pioneered in Magic: The Gathering, it should come as no surprise that the popular Miracle Grow build made its way into Blizzard’s game. Though we do not know the exact creator of this deck within Hearthstone, the first recorded appearance of it on the popular Hearthstone deck building website Hearthpwn is this entry by user bludfire1 made on August 25th, 2013, shortly after the game’s closed beta launch. This user credits deck builder Apollo in his entry, though there is some debate on whether he was the innovator.

Regardless of the creator, this decklist clearly showcases that a very viable version of the Miracle Grow deck was carried over to Hearthstone’s Rogue class very early on. Much like its Magic counterpart, this Miracle deck took advantage of the Rogue’s cheap spells and card draw capabilities to buff a select few minions to absurd levels of strength. Though the fabled Adrenaline Rush had been removed by this point in the game’s beta stage, Rogue players found more than enough card draw courtesy of the cards Novice Engineer and Gadgetzan Auctioneer. The former drew a card each time it was played, which Rogue players took further advantage of via a card called Shadowstep that allowed them to play it multiple times at a cost reduction. As for the Auctioneer, it drew a card every time a spell in this spell heavy deck was played. More on that later.

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The biggest departure in this early Miracle Rogue deck from the Magic version was in its finishers. Whereas the early Miracle build in Magic featured a primary finisher, Hearthstone’s Miracle Rogue had three. Mana Addict received an attack buff every time a spell was played, while Questing Adventurer and the Rogue-exclusive Edwin VanCleef were buffed in attack and health whenever a card of any type was used. The latter was very similar in design to Quirion Dryad, but even more potent thanks to the stealth ability it posessed at the time. This ability meant that VanCleef could not be attacked or targeted by the enemy until he had performed an attack first.

Combined, these cards helped to create one of the most devastating decks in early Hearthstone. With the exception of a particularly aggressive start by the opponent, or a fortunate defensive play at the perfect time, the only real way that this deck could lose was if it ran out of resources before a finisher could be played. Given that the deck was designed around ensuring the availability of resources (which in-turn directly benefited its various finishers), those who piloted it rarely found reason to fret over its few vulnerabilities. The sheer outrage over this deck’s power as conveyed by this discussion on the Hearthpwn forums does a fairly admirable job of conveying how potent the Miracle Rogue was.

However, to truly appreciate what a force of nature this inventive deck could be, it must be viewed in action. Fortunately, we still have access to a video uploaded by the YouTube group Force Gaming during the game’s closed beta days that showcases this build at its most devastating:

If you enjoyed the action in that video, be sure to bookmark it, because that version of the Miracle Rogue deck is long dead. Though nerfs to Novice Engineer and Edwin VanCleef during the game’s early beta stages certainly hurt Miracle Rogue’s power, the bigger contributor to its fall was the simple passage of time. New decks began to rise in popularity, and the once mighty Miracle Rogue began to fade into memory as Hearthstone began its transition into open beta in January 2014.

While many of the deck’s biggest dissenters were certainly happy to see it go, there were some who were not quite as eager to see such a potentially devastating concept fall by the wayside. In fact, the Miracle Rogue was about to be brought into the modern age courtesy of two very unusual saviors: a 22 year-old Ukrainian Hearthstone fan and an internet meme that became part of Warcraft lore.

When the World of Warcraft guild PalsForLife uploaded a video to the WoW fansite Warcraft Movies in 2005, it’s safe to say they had no idea that the idiot paladin by the name of Leeroy Jenkins, who managed to ruin their raid by launching headfirst into battle, was about to turn their upload into a viral video sensation. Certainly, they could have had no way of knowing that Blizzard would one day turn the headstrong Paladin player into a Legendary-class Hearthstone card.

Few cards in Hearthstone manage to satisfy the lore of their characters as soundly as Leeroy Jenkins does. In Hearthstone, Leeroy Jenkins is a high-attack, low-health minion that possess a charge ability, which allows it to attack on the turn that it is played. However, he also summons two dragon whelps in the process that are capable of destroying him the next turn. As such, he was primarily treated as a finisher in highly aggressive decks during Hearthstone’s early days. Need an extra six damage to finish off your opponent? Call in Leeroy.

Due to the fact that early Miracle Rogues possessed more than enough finishers, and that Jenkins didn’t really mesh with their philosophy of polluting the battleground with minions that grow, Leeroy was never really considered a candidate for the Miracle Rogue deck or the Rogue class in general for that matter. For as capable as Rogue’s were in doling out damage, they were not associated with deck types that aimed to simply beat you down over a single turn (commonly referred to as “one turn kill” or “OTK” decks).

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Yet, in early 2014, a player by the name of Kolento began to generate buzz within the Hearthstone community by running a Rogue deck that starred Leeroy Jenkins. Hearing players describe their experience with this deck in the days following its first appearance was a lot like listening to someone describe an alien abduction. “There I was beating down this Rogue who was doing nothing but drawing cards. Next thing I know there’s a flash of light, someone yelled ‘Leeeerroy!’ and I lost. I know it sounds crazy, but I swear that’s how it happened!”

The deck worked like this: through turns one through four, you are looking for cards that will help you to survive your opponent’s onslaught. Whether they remove enemy minions or heal your hero, your only mission in life is to stay alive. By the time you reach turn five, you are looking for the old Rogue staple Gadgetzan Auctioneer and as many spells as you can hold. Once that Auctioneer is on the board, it’s time to start casting spells and drawing cards. If you can draw something that allows you to keep the auctioneer safe, or draws even more cards, so much the better. Whatever you do, though, do everything you can to run through your deck as quickly as possible.

Should you be lucky enough to stay alive through later rounds with this deck, and have Leeroy Jenkins and the spells Shadowstep and Coldblood in your hand, then it’s time to have some fun. You start by playing Leeroy Jenkins for four mana and attack the opponent directly. Then, you use Shadowstep to recall him to your hand at a reduced cost of two mana. You play him again, but this time use Coldblood to give him an extra four attack. Repeat this process with another Shadowstep and Coldblood and—if everything has gone according to plan—you will have done 26 points of damage to your opponent, even if your board is completely empty. Check it out in action:

To put that into perspective, Druids used to have access to a combo of two cards that could do 14 damage at nine mana that was considered to be broken for years. Hell, Blizzard once nerfed an eight mana card that could do 10 damage for being too powerful. What’s truly frightening is that the above scenario was just one way the Miracle Rogue could finish you with its cards. Theoretically, it could pour out even more damage through other available combos.

Though this version of Rogue didn’t grow its minions like the traditional Miracle deck did, it nonetheless retained the name because of its ability to win a game out of nowhere with these single turns of tremendous damage. Witnessing a Rogue go from having few to no minions on the board to completely destroying you in a single round felt like witnessing a miracle to those poor initial victims of this shockingly clever set of cards.

Nobody had ever seen a deck quite like this version of Miracle Rogue. It could beat you down like an aggressive deck, but it spent the majority of the game completely ignoring the opposing hero. It was able to stall games like a control deck, but was actually reliant upon dealing great damage as opposed to outlasting the other player. The closest comparison would be the famous “Freeze Mage” deck, which was built on similar concepts of removal and late-round finishes, but that deck has cards specifically designed to help it survive, whereas Miracle Rogue is largely vulnerable to defeat for much of the game.

This vulnerability is what made Miracle Rogue so difficult to play. It was capable of drawing all the cards you ever needed and access a win-condition through optimal circumstances, but optimal circumstances are not something that occur that often in Hearthstone. More often than not, players were having to decide if they were going to sacrifice one of their valuable damage spells in order to survive or perhaps if they should leave a valuable minion vulnerable in order to challenge the enemy. The vast majority of games with this deck required serious problem solving abilities and—more than any other deck—revealed Hearthstone to be the puzzle game that it so often truly is.

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Despite how difficult it was to play Miracle Rogue well, it wasn’t long before fans started to balk at the very presence of the deck. The argument against it was that the deck’s style of play left players little ability to really counter what it was trying to do, and that the Miracle Rogue was essentially playing against themselves rather than the opponent. Put simply, there were many who felt that the deck was simply no fun to play against.

After Miracle Rogue made a winning appearance in nearly every major Hearthstone competition in early 2014, Blizzard decided that it was time to intervene. On July 29, 2014, players were able to access The Plague Quarter of Hearthstone’s first expansion, The Curse of Naxxramas, and gain access to the Legendary card Loatheb. Designed to increase the cost of all enemy spells played the next turn by five mana, many thought Loatheb would directly counter the Miracle Rogue’s ability to produce big turns of card draw and damage. While it did so for a time, ultimately it proved to be insufficient. Ironically, Miracle Rogues began to use the so called “Miracle Killer” in their own decks with great success. It soon became clear that Loatheb wasn’t enough to derail the dominant Miracle Rogue.

So on September 22, 2014, Blizzard decided to nerf Leeroy Jenkins by increasing his mana cost by one. This seemingly simple change made the card just expensive enough to prevent the major combos that made Miracle Rogue—and a few other decks—so potent. This change stalled much of the enthusiasm that players had for the Miracle Rogue, and what little remained was completely killed on December 12, 2014 when Blizzard also increased the cost of Gadgetzan Auctioneer by one. This deterrent to the Rogue’s primary source of substantial card draw was the final blow to the few Miracle variants that remained.

Since the day players had access to Hearthstone, one version or another of Miracle Rogue had dominated the game’s meta and instilled pure fear in those who opposed it. Its complex design and terrifying potential had led to some of the most intense games of Hearthstone ever witnessed. Yet, as Hearthstone moved into 2015, the one thing that nearly every pro player agreed on was that the Miracle Rogue was finally dead.

Though it is far from the only one of its kind, the Meta Snapshot at tempostorm.com is a fairly trusted source in the Hearthstone community when it comes to finding which Hearthstone decks are currently the most dominant. Even if a player happens to disagree with their particular analysis, the list is still a fair representative of what is being played most at the moment.

So imagine the look of shock on the face of veteran Hearthstone players when the first Meta Snapshot since the launch of Hearthstone’s latest expansion, Whispers of the Old Gods, featured a familiar name in the top tier:

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How was this possible? After everything that had been done to kill the Miracle Rogue over a year ago, how was this deck still listed among the game’s very best?

The technical answer involves changes that came to the game’s format brought on by the newest expansion. Under the new standard mode in Hearthstone, cards that had given Miracle nightmares like Sludge Belcher, Loatheb, Dr. Boom, and Piloted Shredder were removed from the game. In their place came cards like Xaril, Poisoned Mind, whose card generating abilities gave new life to Miracle Rogue classics such as Gadgetzan Auctioneer and Edwin VanCleef. This new Miracle Rogue combines the minion growth abilities of the original build with the burst potential of the later model to form a deck that is as capable as ever.

That’s the technical answer. If you want the deeper truth, then you must look back to Adrenaline Rus, a card that was banned for its ability to draw cards. Through Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone’s beta, and its newest format, the one thing that has never changed is the power of drawing cards.

Any competitively built CCG deck has the cards needed to beat any other deck. The catch has always been being able to find and play those cards at the right time. This element of chance is what makes these games so compelling. The feeling of gambling with every card draw and attempting to play your best even when your hand isn’t everything that it could be is what has kept fans glued to this genre for years. Most importantly, it is what ensured that the playing field between all participants was as level as possible. Everyone was governed by the luck of the draw.

But from the moment that Alan Comer and his Turbo-Xerox deck attempted to game the system by reducing the number of land cards Magic required players to typically have, these Miracle decks have always been about defying the limitations of resources that the very foundation of CCGs are made of. More than any single card or combination of plays, the defining characteristic of a Miracle deck has been its rebellion against the idea of how these games should be played.

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Miracles are not magical occurrences doled out in equal measure to appropriate circumstances. If they seem extraordinary, it’s because they involve the efforts of extraordinary individuals willing to go above and beyond what is expected in order to produce something incredible. That, combined with a little bit of luck, can produce these moments in time that seem impossible. Call these moments miracles if you’d like, but I’ve always preferred to think of their appearance in Hearthstone as a by-product of the game’s all-time greatest deck.

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.