Let’s talk Paladin!! With the release of TGT, Paladin in particular has received a significant boost in the form of Mysterious Challenger!
In basic terms it’s a 6 mana 6/6. The only cards that match these stats are Dread Infernal, Temple Enforcer and Drakonid Crusher. To find a relevant comparison, you would have to look into the 6/5 stat line where you find Savannah Highmane and Fire elemental. Now, this extra 1 toughness doesn’t sound a lot, but when played on curve the stats alone make it a headache to play around. Any five drops that can trade with it are along the lines of Loatheb but that still doesn’t solve the problem and leaves a 6/1 body behind.
That being said it’s the Battlecry that really sets this challenger apart from the aforementioned five drops. It reads; Put one of each Secret from your deck into the battlefield. A pretty innocuous effect, until you see it in practice!
Picture the scene; Rexxar has been “Hunting you down” from turn one. Leper Gnomes, Knife Jugglers and Huffers. It seems unrelenting. That is until you reach turn 6 and play Mysterious Challenger!
Suddenly the tide turns in your favour as challenger weaves a web of complex battle strategies that puts an end to all of the face charging and forces the opponent to (Unwillingly) trade! The selection of Paladin secrets is limited, and they have long been considered sub-par. But when five or even sometimes six are played in the same turn, the effects of the secrets have some insane synergy;
Each secret with the exception of Eye For An Eye links with one another. Any attack triggers Noble Sacrifice, which summons a 2/1 Defender to block the attack. Once that attack goes through that triggers Avenge, which gives one of your established minions +3/+2, usually the Mysterious Challenger (Which now stands at 9/8). Then to finish the combo off, Redemption resummons the 2/1 Defender leaving you with another 2 secrets, a 9/8 body and a 2/1 Defender, which both get +1/+1 at the start of the turn through Competitive Spirit.
I’m sure if you’ve come here, it’s not to have the play explained; it’s for me to explain how to beat it! All in good time! To understand how to beat a combo, you need to know how it resolves.
The immediate answer is of course Flare! A two mana Hunter spell that knocks Uther's “Christmas tree” of secrets over, ruining the presents below, and more valuably for the player the massive investment in the turn six play. Alongside this, a more accessible card that everybody can play is Kezan Mystic, but that only offers players a 1 in 5 chance of breaking down the chain of events that spiral out of control.
The most valuable tool you can take into this battle is the ability to test traps, and how to break down the board should the chain of events mentioned above play out in the paladin’s favour. Much like any player would test a Mage’s secrets through playing less valuable minions to test for Mirror Entity and attack face to test for Ice Barrier and then play around the rest of the available options to lessen the impact of the secrets, it’s somewhat possible to do this in the Paladin matchup.
Step one would be to Trigger the Noble Sacrifice. This should be done with an expendable minion. The Noble Sacrifice will be there, and there is nothing that can be done to nullify this outside of sending something expendable in. Something along the lines of Mad Scientist or a Shielded Minibot. These are both good choices for this first step.
From here the paladin player will have a board that looks something like this;
Then from here, there are a few possible avenues to explore, such as a viable target to suck up the effect of Repentance. Unfortunately here, my opponent elected to lose four health through allowing his Loatheb trigger the trap. The premium minion of choice to test for Repentance is something that directly deals with the challenger. A minion that fulfils that role perfectly is Big Game Hunter. Taking care of the Mysterious Challenger with the beast in his sights, and providing an appealing target for the 3/2 Defender to trade into. Aldor Peacekeeper and (to an extent) Ironbeak Owl are also both fine choices to begin the comeback with. Alternatively, you may have to trade well to regain control after this massive tempo swing. If trading isn’t a viable option, there’s the option to race, but the Mysterious challenger puts an effective two turn clock on the game.
As always, prevention is better than a cure. So after queuing into Paladin it’s important to ascertain which variant of paladin you’re facing. The three most played variants at this point in the meta are Aggro Paladin, Midrange Paladin and Secret Paladin. Once you have worked out what you’re up against, it’s possible to set up lines of play to counteract the inevitable turn 6 Challenger. The universal line of play would be to flood the board and set up shop, with the ability to mitigate the secrets through efficient trades. This line of play alone should put you in good stead when it comes to turn six, and the play may even bring you to a point in the game where forcing a race may be more advantageous than trading into the Paladin players resources.
There is always a chance that the Paladin Pilot will have a second Challenger waiting in the wings, and that isn’t something you can actively plan for given the resources put in to solve the first wave. The name of the game after that first wave is pressure. Press hard from the position you have put yourself in, which by turn seven could easily mean Dr. Boom which in itself solves the second wave.
From a broad perspective the deck can be beaten with knowledge, but there are also some outs that all classes commonly play, and can utilize to their advantage.
Most lists in the current meta have viable outs to the Challenger play. Let’s break a few these down further and explore the options available through some of the top-tier builds climbing the ladder at the moment;
Dragon Priest is at a premium against the Secret Paladin list, Early game value through extremely aggressive and stat buffed minions makes the board yours by turn six. Through the use of cards like Twilight Whelp, Wyrmrest Agent and Blackwing Technician you are put in a position where the initial flurry of secrets can be dealt with efficiently, while the hero power can fix whatever damage those secrets have done. Once the first wave has been overcome, the board can be set up to withstand any other potential Challenger plays through use of Twilight Guardian and, to a degree, Chillmaw. All of the above points amalgamate with the ability to flip the switch and create a race in-game and put a clock on the game on any given turn.
As with all degenerate strategies in the game, Face hunter doesn’t necessarily have to account for the plays an opponent makes outside of taunts. This puts Face Hunter in a relatively strong position against Secret Paladin. With TGT in play additions have been made to the Face Hunter lists of old, and the deck now utilises Argent Horserider which provides players with an option (Should they need it) to swing into the Noble Sacrifice should they need to trigger it to allow other face-oriented damage to hit home. The name of the game in this matchup is pressure. Should it be applied properly, the paladin player will have to trade for you, mitigating the need to trade after the Challenger is played.
The old favourite is still relevant after all of this time, as the meta has shaped itself into a Handlock-friendly place. Handlock has a good matchup against Secret Paladin through the relatively passive early game and the ability to exert colossal pressure from as soon as turn 4. The only real worry for a Handlock player is the resolution of Repentance, but cerebral testing of available traps with admissible threats can combat that. Cards such as Ancient Watcher and Antique Healbot are both ideal tests for this secret triggering on an 8/8 Giant can be devastating. Alongside this, a test for repentance before playing Lord Jaraxxus is imperative, as Jaraxxus is played as a minion first, leaving you with a 1 health hero and little other choice than to spam “MISTAKE” before conceding and heading off to dust all copies of Repentance you own in a fit of rage.
With all of these factors being taken into consideration, there are several tools at player’s disposal to combat the scourge that is plaguing the ladder at the moment. I feel that after the deck becomes prevalent in people’s minds and players know how to counter-act that turn six swing, the deck will not be as solid. It’s just something players will have to grin and bare until the next fad is discovered, but until then I hope I have given you the tools to counter the play and force many “Justice Demands Retribution” emotes in the coming weeks!